Trekking With Tim, Day One: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Editor Tim Ryan begins his journey through the Star Trek film franchise.

by | April 23, 2009 | Comments



Day One: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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.

[rtimage]MapID=1019861&MapTypeID=2&photo=8&legacy=1[/rtimage]

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.

[rtimage]MapID=1019861&MapTypeID=2&photo=9&legacy=1[/rtimage]

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.

[rtimage]MapID=1019861&MapTypeID=2&photo=3&legacy=1[/rtimage]

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).

[rtimage]MapID=1019861&MapTypeID=2&photo=6&legacy=1[/rtimage]

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.”

Stardates:

Tag Cloud

romantic comedy mission: impossible Black Mirror 2017 sag awards new york scene in color fast and furious christmas movies BBC America independent french Writers Guild of America television DC streaming service crime Fall TV USA Network dc OWN Podcast Trailer 007 Captain marvel rotten all-time Stephen King AMC golden globes animated Martial Arts japan new zealand Legendary Disney Pet Sematary dragons Apple TV+ best Ghostbusters Arrowverse spain National Geographic Disney+ Disney Plus book adaptation TV Nickelodeon Discovery Channel Vudu GLAAD king arthur MCU TruTV Teen Women's History Month hidden camera thriller reboot BAFTA screenings hist Masterpiece Crackle police drama Cosplay HBO E3 venice The Purge satire Best and Worst SDCC nbcuniversal Rock docuseries 2019 mutant Comic-Con@Home 2021 period drama kong YouTube CBS Biopics Heroines Turner Classic Movies TIFF Trivia Song of Ice and Fire breaking bad Disney streaming service jurassic park Nominations WarnerMedia doctor who Funimation Mary Poppins Returns Rocketman richard e. Grant cops australia adventure dark finale TCA 2017 Tumblr video on demand book TV Land X-Men Sundance TV zero dark thirty joker Quiz sports DC Comics black First Look First Reviews teaser TV One jamie lee curtis foreign obituary Sci-Fi Kids & Family LGBT The Walt Disney Company political drama Ovation Sneak Peek TV renewals Television Academy game show crime drama ViacomCBS strong female leads ABC Signature cancelled TV series marvel cinematic universe Winter TV Walt Disney Pictures psycho Pride Month worst movies Epix The Arrangement CMT TCM scorecard composers Election dceu basketball Disney Channel Lifetime Christmas movies science fiction spy thriller History universal monsters indie Sony Pictures Infographic GoT Apple TV Plus batman toy story high school Lucasfilm Grammys Starz The Academy crossover telelvision directors ESPN ghosts international screen actors guild Hear Us Out 20th Century Fox cars TNT El Rey Drama 90s Apple Fantasy adenture anime stand-up comedy YouTube Premium godzilla documentaries cults pirates of the caribbean Exclusive Video Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt scary movies miniseries hispanic The Witch Spike Cartoon Network VH1 video Disney Plus Nat Geo historical drama Wes Anderson rom-coms VOD know your critic superhero binge RT History archives festivals Amazon Studios ABC RT21 Adult Swim Star Trek Amazon stoner FXX prank streaming movies FOX versus Film Festival Marvel Studios Baby Yoda PlayStation travel Elton John Amazon Prime Video children's TV 93rd Oscars Mary Tyler Moore king kong social media criterion Thanksgiving Columbia Pictures Toys docudrama award winner Fox News Sundance Now Polls and Games Mudbound Summer Mindy Kaling YouTube Red Television Critics Association Red Carpet diversity comiccon 99% Pop Countdown Shudder Reality Alien hollywood PBS blockbuster Shondaland Classic Film toronto ratings Mystery justice league Logo New York Comic Con Oscars based on movie FX on Hulu boxing 21st Century Fox natural history Photos Rocky Box Office DGA Ellie Kemper casting BET Awards nfl fresh ITV Western Film zombie franchise mockumentary YA harry potter Comic Book festival Broadway Avengers 2020 politics dramedy biography cinemax Paramount Network WGN Superheroes cancelled Awards concert werewolf Pacific Islander American Society of Cinematographers rotten movies we love Black History Month TV movies Rom-Com Creative Arts Emmys heist movie comic Travel Channel Marvel Television reviews suspense singing competition BBC Musicals NBA Musical worst superman Tarantino E! DirecTV cooking Holidays A&E ID unscripted Country critics Winners aliens Hallmark theme song deadpool movie OneApp die hard Action Reality Competition IFC Tomatazos DC Universe Awards Tour wonder woman Watching Series james bond Valentine's Day SXSW SundanceTV Paramount Plus 24 frames Star Wars Trophy Talk Extras Music space aapi 4/20 quibi olympics zombies Esquire monster movies kids Certified Fresh Comedy Dark Horse Comics GIFs HBO Max TBS USA Marvel twilight child's play blaxploitation Image Comics FX asian-american Super Bowl Christmas slashers lord of the rings halloween tv APB spanish what to watch sitcom Spring TV 72 Emmy Awards CNN TCA anthology Crunchyroll A24 Pirates Pixar canceled spanish language transformers Animation halloween 2015 Universal emmy awards comedies Brie Larson Netflix Christmas movies stop motion Interview Horror true crime Comedy Central Warner Bros. documentary renewed TV shows japanese Tokyo Olympics PaleyFest Video Games Britbox disaster BET latino Cannes revenge Tubi Holiday saw discovery Amazon Prime Character Guide women Anna Paquin adaptation sequels Food Network MSNBC 2018 Peacock Fox Searchlight medical drama CBS All Access Premiere Dates spider-man golden globe awards Freeform football Syfy Marathons NYCC vampires San Diego Comic-Con italian HBO Go canceled TV shows technology Bravo chucky game of thrones Paramount Sundance NBC 1990s Year in Review laika LGBTQ witnail BBC One parents tv talk boxoffice romance cartoon Schedule The Walking Dead Emmy Nominations comic books Showtime serial killer Lionsgate Mary poppins 2021 71st Emmy Awards Endgame facebook Set visit cancelled television streaming TCA Winter 2020 popular talk show Family Comics on TV Hallmark Christmas movies robots 2016 elevated horror classics Lifetime cancelled TV shows psychological thriller war spinoff films Superheroe nature south america Pop TV comics IFC Films President Turner a nightmare on elm street crime thriller Academy Awards Spectrum Originals 45 trailers target Emmys movies TLC Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Netflix blockbusters Chernobyl cats Acorn TV kaiju TCA Awards news ABC Family 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards live action supernatural MTV Calendar Hulu VICE series remakes razzies free movies dogs rt archives See It Skip It legend new star wars movies name the review Opinion Binge Guide sequel indiana jones green book The CW CW Seed