When Captain Kirk slugged it out with Jesus
A new history of the Star Trek franchise reveals the plot of a rejected early script by series creator Gene Roddenberry that doesn’t shy away from theological questions
A new history of the Star Trek science fiction television and movie franchise reveals plans during the 1970s for a feature film that would have seen Star Trek’s first iconic captain, James T. Kirk, in a fist fight with Jesus — yes, Jesus — on the bridge of the starship USS Enterprise.
The film idea came in the mid-1970s, when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was desperately searching for a follow-up project to the cancelled but popular first series that launched in 1966.
“Star Trek was the show that wouldn’t die. After the original series was canceled in 1969, reruns in syndication attracted phenomenal ratings, an animated version ran for two seasons and the convention scene exploded,” explains the Hollywood Reporter, which published an excerpt from the new history this week.
Roddenberry himself described the period as a difficult one both personally and financially. “I had been through harsh times. My dreams were going downhill, because I could not get work after the original series was canceled. … I was stereotyped as a science-fiction writer, and sometimes it was tough to pay the mortgage.”
And so by 1975 he had set to work on a feature film set in the Star Trek universe.
According to interviews published in the new “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek – The First 25 Years,” by Edward Gross and Mark Altman, the first movie script saw the crew of the Enterprise meeting a trans-dimensional creature claiming to be the Christian God.
William Shatner, the Jewish actor who played Kirk, describes in an excerpt how Roddenberry described the plot to him. “One day a force comes toward Earth — might be God, might be the Devil — breaking everything in its path, except the minds of the starship commanders.”
“The Enterprise went off in search of that thing from outer space that was affecting everything,” explains Richard Colla, who worked with Roddenberry on “The Questor Tapes.”
Colla adds: “By the time they got into the alien’s presence, it manifested itself and said, ‘Do you know me?’ Kirk said, ‘No, I don’t know who you are.’ It said, ‘Strange, how could you not know who I am?’ So it shift-changed and became another image and said, ‘Do you know me?’ Kirk said, ‘No, who are you?’ It said, ‘Strange, how could you not know who I am?’ So it shift-changed and came up in the form of Christ the carpenter, and says, ‘Do you know me?’ and Kirk says, ‘Oh, now I know who you are.'”
The “oral history” makes clear that for Roddenberry, the meeting with an alien claiming to be Jesus was a critique of the Christian view of the historical Jesus and a gentle jab at Christian theology.
“Actually, it wasn’t God they were meeting, but someone who had been born here on Earth before, claiming to be God,” Roddenberry is quoted as saying. “I was going to say that this false thing claiming to be God had screwed up man’s concept of the real infinity and beauty of what God is. Paramount was reluctant to put that up on the screen, and I can understand that position.”
“It probably would have brought Star Trek down, because the Christian Right, even though it wasn’t then what it is now, would have just destroyed it,” said Jon Povill, an associate producer of the feature that Paramount finally made in 1979, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
“In fact, Gene started the script under one Paramount administration and handed it to another … to [Paramount boss] Barry Diller, who was a devout Catholic. There was no way on Earth that that script was going to fly for a devout Catholic,” said Povill. It is unclear why Povill describes the Jewish-born Diller as Catholic.
The script about Jesus may have been rejected, but it didn’t entirely disappear.
“Gene had written a script for the first Star Trek movie. Certain elements showed up in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but most did not,” explained Michael Jan Friedman, an author of Star Trek novels who worked on later versions of the Roddenberry script. “So there was this mysterious script floating around that people talked about as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Friedman was asked to work on novelization for the script, unofficially titled “The God Thing.”
“Naturally I jumped at the chance to translate and expand it,” he recalled. “Gene was — and still is — one of my heroes, for God’s sake, no pun intended. As he had already left the land of the living [he died in 1991], this was a unique opportunity to collaborate with him. But when I read the material, I was dismayed. I hadn’t seen other samples of Gene’s unvarnished writing, but what I saw this time could not possibly have been his best work. It was disjointed — scenes didn’t work together, didn’t build toward anything meaningful. Kirk, Spock and McCoy didn’t seem anything like themselves. There was some mildly erotic, midlife-crisis stuff in there that didn’t serve any real purpose. In the climactic scene, Kirk had a fistfight with an alien who had assumed the image of Jesus Christ.
“So Kirk was slugging it out on the bridge. With Jesus.”