On this day, 8th September 1966, the first episode of Star Trek (1966 to 1969) first aired, that being “The Man Trap” (Daniels, 1966). Since then, Star Trek has become a massive cultural phenomenon that still endures to this day, spawning numerous continuations, spin-offs, and ancillary media to become, perhaps, the most influential science-fiction franchise of all time. Accordingly, the 8th of September has been deemed “Star Trek Day” and is thus the perfect excuse to dedicate some more time to, and celebrate, this massive sci-fi franchise.
Released: 7 December 1979
Director: Robert Wise
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $44 million
Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, and Persis Khambatta
Some time has passed since the conclusion of Star Trek; James T. Kirk (Shatner) has been promoted to admiral and the U.S.S. Enterprise is now under the command of Captain Willard Decker (Collins). When a mysterious and destructive alien cloud known as V’Ger approaches Earth, Kirk reassumes command of the ship, reuniting with his crew in the process, in a desperate attempt to discover V’Ger’s origins and intentions.
I’ve mentioned previously that a big question facing many Star Trek fans is the choice between the Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 to 1994) and, thus, between Kirk and his successor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). As the Original Series never seemed to be on television when I was a kid, I mainly watched The Next Generation and its subsequent spin-offs so the majority of my exposure to the original crew came through the feature-films. Although Star Trek performed well during its original run, it gained significantly more popularity during re-runs; however, production of a feature-length continuation was met with considerable difficulties and took so long to get off the ground that creator Gene Roddenberry even started shopping around a follow-up series, Star Trek: Phase II.
The success of sci-fi epics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977) and Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) convinced executives that they could benefit from a big-budget, feature-length Star Trek film, which was largely adapted from an unproduced script for Phase II. Necessitating the construction of extremely expensive sets, the film’s script underwent numerous rewrites and changes, often with the input and under the scrutiny of the returning cast members. Although the film grossed nearly $140 million, Paramount were disappointed that it didn’t perform as well as they had expected and the film was met with mixed to negative reviews. Even now, the film is largely considered a disappointment and one of the worst in the franchise but, if nothing else, its negative backlash led to a dramatic course correction in how subsequent films were written and produced.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture opens promisingly enough by introducing us to the all-new, far more alien and threatening designs for the Klingons that would go on to define the alien race in all subsequent Star Trek media. An aggressive, war-like race, their first thought upon encountering the V’Ger cloud is to open fire, which promptly results in the destruction of their crafts. While this is a decent enough way to introduce V’Ger and sell the entity as a threat, it’s not much of an engaging or entertaining sequence and this is largely to order of the day for the film.
With V’Ger inexorably approaching Earth (and with the Enterprise, of course, the only ship capable of meeting it in time), Kirk manages to convince his superiors to give him back command of the ship in order to investigate the entity. Kirk, now and admiral, appears to have reassumed command of the Enterprise primarily to fuel his ego and to have a command once more as much as because of his experience with the strange and unknown. This, of course, brings him into conflict with the Enterprise’s current captain, Decker, who resents Kirk taking control away from him and believes (rightfully so) that Kirk’s previous experience with the Enterprise is no longer valid due to the ship’s recent refit; this turns out to be the case as Kirk gets a little lost touring the ship and is unfamiliar with its systems and capabilities since they’ve changed so much.
You might notice that Mister Spock (Nimoy) is not among the crew members for nearly an hour; indeed, Spock has left Starfleet and is labouring on Vulcan at the beginning of the film and only joins the crew after sensing V’Ger’s consciousness. Having worked to suppress his emotions in the ritual of Kolinahr, Spock’s character at first seems to have taken quite a dramatic step back as he is initially cold towards his crew mates, almost seeming like a stranger amongst them, but he eventually reacclimatises to the crew. As pragmatic and logical as ever, Spock becomes so fascinated by V’Ger’s unique form of consciousness and composition that he takes it upon himself to attempt to make direct contact with the entity and is overwhelmed by the influx of information in the process. Indeed, V’Ger’s cold, logical composition is a direct parallel to Spock’s often unemotional nature but, after mind-melding with the entity, it is revealed that the difference is that Spock’s capacity for emotion separates him from the entity, which is confused and incapable of understanding emotion or appreciating beauty.
While Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Kelley), Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan), Lieutenant Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Lieutenant Commander Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) all return in their familiar roles, there’s not a whole lot for most of them to do. Scotty gets a fair amount of time to shine in the early going as he introduces Kirk to the refitted ship and struggles to fix up the damaged engines and, while Bones only agrees to come along out of loyalty to his former captain, he plays a relatively influential role in pointing out Kirk’s disingenuous reasons for commandeering the Enterprise and commenting (in his trademark abrasive nature) on his rivalry with Decker. Unfortunately, there are far few moments for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to interact, robbing the film of their amusing and love/hate relationship and making The Motion Picture a decidedly stale experience.
Instead, the Enterprise is manned by a larger unfamiliar crew, the most prominent of which is Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Ilia (Khambatta), a Deltan who acts as the ship’s navigator and has a previous relationship with Decker. Unfortunately, any chance of this relationship being rekindled, or of exploring Ilia’s personality, are quickly dashed when V’Ger abducts her, apparently kills her, and has a robotic duplicate assume her form and act as its emissary. Though now a robotic lifeform, the probe contains Ilia’s memories and experiences, which it is briefly able to reignite through Decker’s influence.
The antagonistic force of the film, V’Ger, is the original “cosmic cloud”; a mysterious, incredibly powerful, and seemingly malevolent force that contains a form of consciousness far beyond anything previously encountered. Capable of launching devastating energy attacks, it overcomes its difficulties in communicating with its Ilia double and appears to be a sort of vast ship whose design and concept are more than a little reminiscent of the Borg. V’Ger’s goal is based upon a misinterpretation of the programming of Voyager 6 by an alien race of living machines to assimilate information and then return to Earth and “The Creator”, meaning that the entity is far from malicious and is, instead, a titanic machine that has gained sentience and is simply trying to understand its purpose and is little more than a demanding child. However, when V’Ger’s attempts at communicating with its creator go unanswered, it comes to believe that “carbon lifeforms” have infested the Earth and threatens to eradicate the infestation to fulfil its mission to return to its creator.
I think one of the things that always bugged me about this movie is that so much has changed between the Original Series and the Motion Picture. All of the familiar uniforms for gone, replaced with a dull, uninteresting outfits that are mostly grey and uninspired and, while you might think it’s good that the Enterprise has undergone a dramatic refit as it makes for bigger and far more elaborate sets (and, indeed, these are impressive), the film wastes so much time in introducing us to the ship. The model effects are top-notch, don’t get me wrong, and it really helps sell the awe, ambiance, and iconography of the Enterprise but my God! I still feel like I’m watching it even now, it went on for that long!
This is, of course, symptomatic of the era that the Motion Picture was made; sci-fi films, especially those set in space, loved their long, lingering shots and to build a sense of atmosphere and grandeur and I can respect that but it constantly grinds the film to a halt and gets in the way since the film seems more interested in showing off its impressive (if, obviously, dated) special effects and model shots than it does with actually moving the plot along. Pacing is a real problem in the film, especially in the first hour or so; it plays very much like an extended episode of the series, with the crew encountering numerous random obstacles in their otherwise straightforward journey and the film constantly featuring Kirk recording his thoughts in the Captain’s Log.
Because of the refit, the Enterprise is in chaos as the crew try to get the ship ready for launch, immediately selling the idea that this isn’t the same Enterprise we knew from the Original Series and necessitating a quick tour of the film’s impressive sets. The downside to this, though, is that the transporters are dangerously malfunctioning, and the ship’s capabilities are limited, which mainly exists simply to fuel the animosity between Kirk and Decker since Kirk’s decisions almost get the crew killed when they randomly come across a wormhole.
The special effects are impressive and ambitious for the time, admittedly; as I said, there’s some lovely model shots at work and the Star Trek concept clearly benefits from having a much larger budget. Sadly, the film opts to have a rather underwhelming antagonist at face value; V’Ger is literally just an ethereal cloud of blue lights but, once the Enterprise penetrates its energy field, it is revealed to be a complex biomechanical entity, of sorts, that is extraordinary to look at and clearly took a lot of time to construct but its more abstract nature makes V’Ger more like a force of nature. This is best seen during Spock’s absolute head-trip of a journey into V’Ger’s vast core, where he witnesses all of the knowledge and experience V’Ger has accumulated over the years.
This all culminates in a journey to V’Ger’s core, a frankly extraordinary set that is as grand and complex as it is bland; despite this, it’s a suitably cold, alien environment, with the remains of Voyager 6 sat at its core, that dwarfs the cast. In the end, Kirk and the others figure out that V’Ger requires a now-archaic signal in order to complete its mission but, having learned all that there is to learn (a somewhat contradictory assertion since V’Ger has somehow learned nothing of emotion or carbon lifeforms), it requires tactile human contact in order to “evolve” and, thus, Decker sacrifices himself to facilitate this. Yes, in the end, Star Trek: The Motion Picture basically becomes a rip-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kurbrick, 1968) and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are left to muse on the ramifications of this new, undisclosed lifeform.
God, what a bore-fest! I feel like I lost two hours of my life and fell into some kind of coma watching this film. There’s a reason that I haven’t seen it in about ten years; it’s just so boring, cold, and clinical…so drab and uninteresting. I can fully understand and appreciate that the seventies were a different time and that seventies sci-fi, especially, was very much about establishing an atmosphere and revelling in the vest intergalactic ambiance of outer space but Star Trek: The Motion Picture pretty much embodies all the worst aspects of Star Trek. Needlessly mired in philosophy and scientific curiosity it sacrifices not just action but characterisation in service of its plot and it’s truly a shame as there are glimmers of the rapport between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that were so entertaining in the show and subsequent movies and the plot is actually rather fascinating. The idea of a living machine attempting to reconnect with its creator and evolve into a higher form is intriguing and the revelation that it was all because of an old Earth space probe and the suggestion of some vast race of sentient machines all has a lot of potential but it’s so poorly executed. For Star Trek’s big feature-film debut, The Motion Picture just played things way too safe and sucked all the fun and adventure out of Star Trek and no amount of impressive and ambitious sets, models, and special effects can save this one.
Are you a fan of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? If so…why? What is it, exactly, about the film that you enjoy? If you’re not a fan, what was it that turned you off about the film? What did you think to Kirk’s portrayal as an egotistical, self-serving asshole? Did you like the new designs for the Enterprise’s interiors and the new characters the film introduced? What did you think to V’Ger; do you think it should have been officially recognised as being involved in the Borg’s origin or do you think it’s best left as one of those incredible space phenomena? Which Star Trek captain, crew, show, or movie is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Star Trek Day today? No matter what you think, feel free to leave a comment down below.