RT Editor’s log, Stardate 1321.7: These are my voyages on the Starship Enterprise. My 11-day mission: to explore the strange world of the Star Trek film franchise, to seek out a new understanding of the venerable sci-fi series, to boldly go where I have never gone before.
First, a little about me, and why I think I’m particularly suited to this project: I am a Star Trek agnostic. I’ve seen a couple episodes from the original series (or ST:TOS, for those fluent in Trekkie), and I watched a lot of the cartoon on Nickelodeon when my family first got cable. I also remember seeing (and enjoying) The Undiscovered Country during a cold December visit with cousins (Michigan was as snowy as the planet Rura Penthe that night). I have a basic understanding of the main characters’ personality traits and responsibilities (Scotty is the engineer, Sulu pilots the ship, etc.), and I’ve been intrigued by discussions of the political subtext of the original and its many spinoffs. Anyway, I can’t deny that Star Trek continues to exert a powerful hold on the collective pop culture consciousness, as evidenced by the buzz surrounding J.J. Abrams’ forthcoming reboot. Thus, I have immersed myself in Trek lore, and I will attempt to evaluate the series’ 11 films with a mix of Spock-like logic and Bones-esque vigor.
Before delving into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a bit of background is in order. When it first debuted on NBC in 1966, Star Trek developed a hardcore following but was hardly a ratings winner. (Only a massive letter-writing campaign by devoted fans won the series a third season.) The show was canceled in 1969, but developed a broader cult following in syndication. After years of false starts, script revisions, and even a NASA space shuttle named after the Enterprise, Roddenberry began work on a new series, Star Trek: Phase II. However, Paramount Television Service, which had been developing the show and was to air the series, was dissolved, and the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind convinced the studio to reconceive the pilot episode of Phase II into a feature. The result was Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Why bring up so much back story? Well, essentially, because it explains what’s wrong at the core of ST:TMP. The movie feels more like a continuation of the TV series, not a standalone entity. It’s not that the studio was stingy; indeed, up to that point, ST:TMP had one of the largest budgets in movie history. And there are certainly some improvements over the look and feel of the series; the sets are extravagantly rendered (in particular, the Enterprise looks great), and Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring score was compelling enough to be recycled for later films (as well as acting as the title theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation).
The bigger issue is the script, or lack thereof. Spliced together from treatments written for Phase II, there’s a piecemeal feel to the story (in fact, several of the principal cast members grumbled that the film was underwritten, and shortchanged the characterization). And for me, an admitted neophyte, there wasn’t enough pull; this feels like an insider’s movie.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture tells the story of the Enterprise‘s encounter with a powerful energy cloud that has destroyed everything in its path — including a Klingon warship. And it’s headed toward Earth! As ST:TMP opens, the crew of the Enterprise has scattered; Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is on his home planet of Vulcan, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is in retirement, and James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to Admiral with a desk job in San Francisco, with series newcomer Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) in command of the ship. Kirk assumes control of the ship to the consternation of Decker, and coaxes his old crew to get back together for the mission. (One of my colleagues finds it hilarious and ironic that Decker went on to play the dad on 7th Heaven, an irony that’s lost on me because I’ve never seen that show. As you can probably guess by now, I don’t watch a lot of television.)
There’s a nice, slow-burning scene in which Scotty (James Doohan) transports Kirk to the Enterprise; the ship is given a more loving introduction than any of the characters, but it’s not hard to imagine O.G. Trekkies in a state of happy delirium. And therein lies one of the major problems of ST:TMP: it spends almost no time on the individual members of the crew. When we first see Kirk, he’s walking through Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco, when he’s informed the Enterprise is due to launch, and darts off. This is how they’re introducing the main character? If you want to get the non-acolytes involved, it’s a good idea to have some sort of expository scenes to establish who these people (or Vulcans) are.
Anyway, the Enterprise runs into the energy cloud and gets pummeled, but that’s not even the worst part. An alien probe has infected Ilia (Persis Khambatta), the ship’s navigator, killing her and replacing her with a robot (kinda like what goes down in Metropolis). From Ilia (looking good for a bald, stuttering robot), the crew discovers that at the center of the cloud is V’Ger, who wants to join with its “creator.” Spock decides to mind-meld with V’Ger, and in one of the movie’s most visually arresting scenes, makes a dangerous spacewalk to learn more about the being. It has somehow gained sentience, and wants to report back to its creator, but feels bereft of purpose (it seems that even mechanical life forms struggle with depression).
It turns out the probe has evolved from the Voyager 6 from the 20th Century, and its creator is humanity. Since V’Ger wants to meet its creator in person, Decker volunteers to join with the robot probe to save the universe. Decker’s fate seems similar to that of Poochie on The Simpsons; you kind of figure he’s not going to be around by the end (to be fair, the character isn’t given enough room to create an individual personality; mostly he seems cranky that Kirk took over his ship).
I’m going to come right out and say it: I didn’t find Star Trek: The Motion Picture all that involving. The movie is intentionally cerebral (the filmmakers wanted to distinguish the movie from the more visceral pleasures of Star Wars), which is not a problem per se (I’ve enjoyed plenty of non-laser-infested sci-fi flicks, from both versions of Solaris to 2001, a film to which ST:TMP is heavily indebted). But it’s often confusing, it lacks human drama, and, compared with such contemporary visions as Alien — also released in 1979 — it looks a bit drab.
I don’t think Star Trek: the Motion Picture is without merit. It’s just that, as a non-Trekkie, I didn’t feel it utilized the cinematic medium as fully as it could have, nor did it fully draw me into the universe of Trek lore. Nevertheless, I’m hardly daunted in my mission. Next up: KHHHHAAAAAANNNNNN! (Sorry, I don’t know what got a hold of me. I meant Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.) As they say at the end of ST:TMP, “The human adventure is just beginning.”