“Out there. Thataway.”
Admiral James T. Kirk replying to a request for a course heading
With the new Star Trek film coming out in a couple of months (Star Trek Into Darkness), it’s time to take a look back at the many Star Trek films that preceded it. Let’s start off with the one that launched Star Trek’s cinematic voyage, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
This film isn’t regarded as a top tier Star Trek film and for good reason. It’s slow moving, yet seems rushed and for good reason. Director Robert Wise recounted how far behind schedule they were that the effects work was only completed just before the film made its debut, translation: Wise didn’t have time to properly edit the film. On the other hand, it does have undeniable merits.
Out of all eleven Star Trek films (twelve counting Star Trek Into Darkness), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the most majestic and oddly the most Trek like. Meaning that this film captures the core concept of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic view of humanity’s future. That is largely because Roddenberry produced the film and it’s the only one where he was directly involved. After its perceived failure, Roddenberry was relegated to a “consultant” role in the other Star Trek films until his death. In this film, we get a few glimpses of Earth and see that it’s a bright, pastoral paradise where people either wear New Agey type of clothing or bland Starfleet uniforms. The conflicts in the film are largely internal believe it or not. Sure, there’s the threat of this V’Ger entity that wants to annihilate life on Earth, but the problems that capture viewers’ attention are those with Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Anyone expecting a mustache-twirling villain will have to look elsewhere.
In between the original Star Trek show and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Kirk was promoted to a desk-bound position as an admiral and he’s bored. He’s in charge of refitting his old ship the Enterprise, which was supposed to be commanded by Decker, but Kirk uses the V’Ger threat as a excuse to take command of the Enterprise, which naturally angers Decker. Now with Spock, he’s retired from Starfleet and off in his home planet Vulcan undergoing this ritual to purge all emotions from within him, but he finds himself unable to go through with the process. He feels a calling, which so happens to coincide with the coming of V’Ger.
The film opens with V’Ger, seen as an immense multi-colored energy cloud in space that dematerializes three Klingon battle cruisers. It should be pointed out that this film is responsible for introducing the modern take of Klingons, now adorned with thick armor and sporting their distinctive sagittal crests on their foreheads. While the film properly shows how badass the Klingons were with their guttural speech, armor and a tribal music soundtrack, they are quickly taken out by V’Ger. It effectively illustrates the entity’s power and deadliness. And of course, it’s heading towards Earth.
Equally convenient to the plot is how the Enterprise, although not finished with its refitting, is the only starship that can intercept V’Ger. How many ships does Starfleet have? But hey, what’s a Star Trek film without the Enterprise and its crew being the only thing standing between life and death?
Despite’s Chief Engineer Scott’s (James Doohan) usual protests that the ship isn’t ready, Kirk orders that the Enterprise be launched to confront V’Ger. Afterwards, the engineer entreats Kirk to an exhaustive external inspection of the Enterprise while in drydock. It’s at this point, that the film first rears its indulgent tone.
For several minutes, Kirk and Scott fly around silently in their little shuttlepod around the Enterprise while accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score. This gave moviegoers a thorough look at the spanking new Enterprise; never mind that Kirk rushed things to deal with the oncoming V’Ger threat, he still needed time to give his ship the onceover. Some may say this sequence went on too long, but to me it actually worked. You have to understand the timeframe of when this film came out. Star Trek had been off the air for ten years, fans didn’t have any new Trek material to obsess over. Aside from an animated show, the ’70s represented a dry spell for Trek fans. Seeing a new Star Trek was a genuine treat, plus add the aura of a reunited original cast and an updated Enterprise that looked very beautiful and majestic. So in that sense, giving a little too much screen time to looking at a starship can be allowed. Later, when the Enterprise crew first encounter V’Ger this self-indulgence proved to be a serious detriment.
After the tour, Kirk assembles his crew–he even forcibly brings his old friend Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) out of retirement to join him. Then the Enterprise is launched, helped by superb special effects and Goldsmith’s music. We see some romantic conflict involving Decker and the ship’s navigator Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambata), a beautiful but bald alien who allegedly gives off intense sexual pheromones. The Enterprise has a run in with a wormhole that threatens to tear the ship apart. This was probably the first time a wormhole was shown onscreen and the weird strobe effects and warbling sounds made when people spoke were eerily intense. It was also the only time we got to see the Enterprise fire a weapon (at an asteroid inside the wormhole). By this time, it was clear that despite studio heads’ wishes, this wasn’t going to be slam-bam action fest like Star Wars. But it was still entertaining. Spock eventually joins Kirk’s merry troupe because for some reason he’s drawn to V’Ger and wants to satisfy his curiosity.
It’s when they encounter V’Ger that the film comes to a halt.
You could tell by these sequences that Robert Wise didn’t have time to cut out the fat. The entire thing started off well, V’Ger lobs a giant energy ball at the Enterprise that would’ve disintegrated it. There’s blinding effects but the ship’s shields work and V’Ger suddenly stops its attack, but not before a probe disintegrates Ilia. Then it’s time to hit the fast forward button. The Enterprise goes through the outer layers of V’Ger’s cloud that conceals large geometric shapes; it’s very pretty and colorful but it just goes on forever. The closest analogy to describe this sequence is the monotonous lightshow at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very colorful, but it’s so long that unless the viewer is on drugs it becomes boring. Topnotch special effects and haunting, moody music weren’t enough to save these scenes in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Things pick up a bit later on after the crew meet a V’Ger-created duplicate of Ilia so that the entity could interact with our heroes and we learn that V’Ger is looking for its creator on Earth. The film gets a little philosophical as the meaning of existence and emotions are explored. Spock empathizes with the entity and questions the wisdom of dispensing with emotions. It was a bold gamble on the part of Roddenberry, but it adhered to the Star Trek formula of exploring the human condition. It may not gratify crowds used to kewl explosions and fast action (they have J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek for that), but it’s no less satisfying, as was the film’s resolution. Typically, there would be a big fight scene with powerful explosions and mayhem. With this film, although its ending had stunning effects, things conclude peacefully and gives viewers something to ponder about; what is our purpose? Can we become more than what we are?
This is why Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in spite of its tepid pace and overindulgence, is a worthwhile film. Gene Roddenberry and Robert Wise could’ve easily delivered a crowd pleaser but they went more intellectual. It didn’t work often but they should be lauded for trying. There is also the novelty of seeing the original cast reunited–the performances were fine, Shatner was as usual bombastic but more restrained than in other jaunts. Goldsmith’s epic soundtrack set the high mark for Trek film scores that still hasn’t been topped, and of course, the special effects were outstanding, they even hold up today. It didn’t please studio heads at Paramount Pictures who wanted their version of Star Wars but in the end this film did launch a successful franchise, and is well regarded by many for what it attempted.
Check out the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture with tweaked effects (we get to see what V’Ger’s ship looks like), sharpened picture quality, a tighter edit, and a focus on Spock’s plight.