According to legend, the memory wall is the great lost sequence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and was cut only because it was impossible to complete the necessary effects in time for the movie’s December release.
The truth is that, although it was incredibly expensive, the sequence was abandoned because it failed on many levels. Director Robert Wise rejected it during post-production and replaced it with Spock’s spacewalk.
The original idea for the sequence was that Spock would leave the Enterprise without Kirk’s permission in an attempt to explore V’Ger and learn more about it.
In the completed film, he travels through a series of corridors before mind melding with a memory sphere that is part of a digital version of Ilia. He then collapses and is rescued by Kirk.
In the earlier version, Kirk pursues Spock when he leaves the ship and follows him into a curved corridor. Before he can catch up with the Vulcan, he is trapped by a group of crystals, which rapidly cover him and pin him to the wall.
On the bridge, the crew watch and a horrified Sulu advises Kirk to use his phaser. Kirk has the same idea but cannot reach his weapon. He calls to Spock for help, desperately describing his predicament until only stasis is transmitted.
Spock, who at first appears not to have heard, suddenly heads toward his captain, draws his phaser and evaporates the probes that threatened to short-circuit Kirk’s life support unit. Spock explains that he was out there seeking answers, which leads Kirk to ask: “Answers to what, Spock? Our dilemma… or your personal one?” The two men continue to explore V’Ger together, stopping to examine a sensor bee.
Proceeding into the “memory wall” with Spock, Kirk watches as the Vulcan grasps a small, floating sensor device similar to the one implanted within the Ilia probe’s throat. The two watch in fascination as the device flows back to its programmed path when released.
Within the crystal-like wall, Spock discovers mechanisms that store information, including the dematerialized Klingons and Ilia. Announcing the necessity to mind meld with the crystals and learn the truth about V’Ger, Spock removes one of his gloves and, touching the crystals, begins the meld. As in the final version, a quick series of abstract patterns follow Spock’s scream and this would have led directly into the sickbay scene.
Problems with the sequence emerged as soon as filming began. The memory wall set — essentially a long, curved corridor — was built by Robert Abel and Associates. As soon as Production Designer Harold Michelson saw it, he knew that it was going to cause problems. In many ways the set was impressive; the inner wall was translucent and patters of light were back-projected on to it, suggesting that complex information was stored by V’Ger.
However, there was a culture clash between the Abel studios and the production team. Abel’s people had created detailed storyboards for the sequence, which they had thought would be followed closely. The trench and memory wall sets were scheduled to have been enlarged using matte paintings, animation effects and superimposed miniatures. Plans called for crystal-like formations extending far off into the distance and the trench was designed to be shot from a distance so the image could be inserted into the center of the final film, with a false-perspective miniature and optical paintings extending it in much the same way as the sequence in which Kirk and his people leave the Enterprise saucer section and walk to V’Ger.
The production team was used to working in a very different way and expected to be able to modify the sequence as they filmed it. The way the set had been constructed, none of the walls could be removed, so the actors could only be shot from a restricted range of angles. The Abel staff felt that the answer could have been to shoot more footage of the actors against a blue screen like models and then composite them into the scene. Production felt this approach was impractical. Instead, the actors had to be flown through the set on wires, but the rig needed to do that proved incredibly unwieldy.
In addition, because of the practicalities of visual effects at the time, the crystallization scene and the sensor bee had to be filmed on set rather than be added later. William Shatner had no stand-in for this and had to endure being encased within the first spacesuit design (which was extremely hot because it was essentially a camouflaged diver’s wetsuit) for long periods while effects technicians affixed dozens of small, pyramid-shaped structures, covered with front projection fabric to make them glow under the proper lighting. Each pyramid was attached to a wire and during the take all the wires were pulled simultaneously so the structures “flew” away from Kirk. When printed backwards, it would appear as though all the pyramids were affixing themselves to the captain.
A plaster arm was also constructed and on a small set in Robert Abel’s effects installation closeups were shot of Kirk’s arm being covered by the structures.
Had it been used, the first “space walk” would have appeared to have a lot in common with scenes in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, in which performers also “floated” on wires while clad in wet suits and in which Requel Welch was also encased within large numbers of floating “antibodies” (filmed in the same manner as Kirk’s experience).
Several members of the production team were not convinced by the results this produced. In the end, everyone from the production team and Abel studios felt that the shooting was a disaster. When Doug Trumbull was brought on to the project, Director Robert Wise gave him the go-ahead to abandon what had been done and film a new version of the sequence, which restricted Kirk’s involvement and concentrated on Spock.
Text adapted from Allan Asherman, “The Unseen Star Trek (Part II — Star Trek: The Motion Picture),” Star Blazers Magazine. Thanks to Mitch Gore for sharing the Harold Michelson blueprint.