The second coming of Star Trek, ten years after its cancellation, was a licensing goldmine for Paramount. Star Wars had already primed the public pump for science fiction, and Superman had proven that throwing a large budget and an existing, recognizable brand at that audience was a surefire recipe for success. Having already quietly cancelled a proposed second swipe at Trek on TV – a project so far along that sets had been constructed and scripts for half a season’s worth of episodes had been written – Paramount decided to take those sets, and the movie-length pilot script, and go large with it. The result was Star Trek: The Motion Picture… but who should the new Star Trek adventure be marketed to?
The early ’70s had seen a minor marketing blitz built around Star Trek as a Saturday morning cartoon. Despite the three seasons of live-action episodes attempting to bring intelligent, adult SF to TV audiences that thought of science fiction in terms of cheesy flying saucers and Trek’s dreaded prime-time rival, Lost In Space, the cartoon seemed to cement the very message that Gene Roddenberry had been avoiding for years: Star Trek was sci-fi, and sci-fi was for kids. That the majority of the merchandise had followed the cartoon rather than the live-action series just reinforced that. With that perception firmly in place, many of the licensees who signed on to deliver merchandise from The Motion Picture were signing on with a younger audience in mind than the crowd at which the startlingly mature (and yet G-rated) movie was aimed.
One of the few items that was poised to please both long-time Trekkies and newly-indoctrinated young fans (like the author of this article) was South Bend’s reconfigurable Enterprise toy. Made of plastic, and featuring sounds and lights that could be triggered by a knob near the impulse engines (which also hid the 9-volt battery), this large model of the Enterprise featured what appeared to be an abundance of shuttle bays where none appeared on screen, but these are the really fun thing about this version of the ship.
The entire ship could be dismantled and reassembled in wildly different configurations. Looking back from a geek perspective, this was huge news, since this was the first movie – so far as we knew, minor variants in the Franz Joseph “Star Trek Technical Manual” aside, every Federation ship was set up more or less like the Enterprise. This version of the ship opened up the possibilities, and even allowed one to create ships that anticipated some of the ship designs created later by FASA for its Star Trek Role Playing Game…
…thanks to the slots and locking parts that would hold everything together rather sturdily.
This also meant it was possible to come up with some wildly impractical and unwieldly configurations too (which also anticipated some of FASA’s designs, coincidentally).
The struts (or pylons, as they later became known in techie Trek fandom) could be placed in any configuration…
…including some that no Starfleet engineer in his right mind would ever build.
A note about the photos you see here: the specimen of the South Bend Enterprise seen here is my own, from 1979; it was only recently unearthed in a box that had moved with me from house to apartment to house since I first moved out of my parents’ basement (figuratively) and got a life (literally). Until I opened that long-suffering cardboard box, this Enterprise hadn’t seen the light of day since the 1980s, at which point it and the other Star Wars and Star Trek toys with it were boxed up, probably by my mother. It didn’t have the luxury of coming from a smoke-free home (much like its owner) and is on the verge of falling apart (let’s not even go there).
Frankly, I never expected to see it again. I intend to get it cleaned up inside and out, put it back together in a more permanent fashion, and restore it to its former glory. The South Bend Enterprise was a unique toy – it’s a shame that nothing like this has come along since then (a TNG version of something like this would’ve been awesome).