May 2 2011 4:00pm

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Big Ideas Worthy of a Return

Star Trek The Motion Picture

December 7, 1979 was a momentous day for Trekkers the world over, for it was on this day that the long, “Great Trek Drought” of the 1970s came to an end with the theatrical release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

During the decade which had elapsed since the broadcast of the original Star Trek series’ last episode, fans had been given precious little to satisfy their appetites for new adventures with Captain Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. A Saturday-morning cartoon series from 1973 to 1974 with the original cast giving voice to their animated doppelgangers helped ease the pain a bit, as did a handful of novels, comic books, games, action figures, and other merchandise. Then, in the mid-1970s, Paramount Pictures announced its plans to create a fourth television network, with “Star Trek: Phase II” as one of its flagship programs. The new series would have brought back everyone from the original show with the exception of Leonard Nimoy.

With Star Wars raking in piles of cash during the summer (and fall...and winter...etc.) of 1977, Hollywood studios were scrambling to greenlight anything which might tap into that success. Paramount saw its own stars to be found on the silver screen, and plans for a full-fledged big-budget Star Trek movie were put into motion.

So, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek The Motion PictureIt’s interesting to note the movie’s rather rocky production history. By the time the decision was made to scrap the “Phase II” plans and proceed with a feature film, the in-development series had already incurred some rather sizable expenses. Sets had been built, costumes created, even a shooting model for the “new” Enterprise was under construction. Add in the fees to writers for stories and scripts and the plethora of other up-front costs for developing a new television series, and the tally was beginning to look like real money...or, at least whatever “real money” looks like to Hollywood executives.

All of those expenditures eventually were rolled into the budget for Star Trek: The Motion Picture even as sets were either massively rebuilt or constructed from scratch, new costumes and uniforms were designed, and new filming models and special effects were commissioned. By the time the film gestated from concept to finished product on the screen, it had accumulated a production budget in excess of $45 million—big, big money for 1979. Piling onto all of this was a studio-mandated immovable release date and a filming schedule interrupted with script rewrites on an almost-daily basis. Given such circumstances, one might start to think they had the makings of an utter catastrophe unfolding before their very eyes.

Of course, back then—in the days before internet message boards and genre news websites—none but the most die hard fans and followers of the screen industry possessed any knowledge of the troubles plaguing the film’s production. All they knew was that a big, lavish, expensive Star Trek movie was coming to their local theaters, and when that fateful Friday in December 1979 finally arrived, the response was decidedly mixed.

Many of the complaints are as old as the film itself:

  • It’s too long.
  • It’s too slow.
  • It’s too blah-looking.
  • But, hey! The music rocks.

Director Robert Wise had for many years and with great humility taken most of the heat for the film’s length and pacing, admitting that he would have made it tighter if he’d only had more post-production time. That lack of time resulted in a film containing—among other things—incomplete special effects sequences and a deficient sound mix. Some of this was addressed in a longer cut of the movie created for its television broadcasts (and later released on home video), but these “enhancements” really serve only to highlight and even expand upon the existing flaws.

Star Trek The Motion PictureAs for the movie’s look, it was Wise’s intention to lend an air of sophistication which would place Star Trek: The Motion Picture alongside the aforementioned Star Wars, as well as the film which has always evoked several comparisons, 2001: A Space Odyssey. With that in mind, the bold, vibrant colors of the original series were replaced with a much more restrained palette of blues, grays, and earth tones. The film’s first 45 minutes are among its best, as we’re reintroduced to old friends who’ve been gone far too long. While we’re wondering what’s up with Spock’s shaggy hair and his monk-like shirking of his emotions, we’re smiling as Kirk reunites one by one with the rest of his crew (though we’re briefly sidetracked when an accident with the ship’s malfunctioning transporter results in tragedy). The exterior views of the Enterprise flying through our solar system or into the heart of the mysterious spatial anomaly that is “V’Ger” are wondrous...that is, until you realize you’ve been looking at them for fifteen to twenty minutes without the story advancing even the teeniest bit. Still, do I get my Trekker card revoked if I admit that I believe the mighty starship has never looked better, before or since?

On the other hand, also notable for their absence from the Enterprise’s inaugural theatrical outing was much of the action, warmth and humor which had endeared Star Trek to its fans. While we were delighted to see our favorite characters together again, it’s not until very late in the film that Kirk and the gang begin to exhibit signs of the close relationships and banter that we all knew so well and loved so much from the original series.

The story and the messages it contains really are in the finest Star Trek tradition, which should come as no surprise since the plot is essentially a reworking and upsizing of elements from various original series episodes (“The Changeling” is the obvious inspiration, but elements of “Metamorphosis,” “The Immunity Syndrome” and others are evident, as well.). Unfortunately, the film’s execution hampers the conveying of the story’s central themes about our need to grow and evolve beyond whatever boundaries surround us and perhaps even imprison us.

Ultimately, Wise was afforded the opportunity to revisit the film, during which he restored several scenes which go a long way to enhancing the story from a character standpoint. He also made numerous judicial edits to existing scenes in order to improve the pacing. The completion of certain critical special effects scenes brings a new air of mystery and menace to the V’Ger entity. Even the sound mix was given a good scrubbing, resulting in a background ambience that was hopelessly muddled the first time around and which allows Jerry Goldsmith’s marvelous musical score to blast forth with passion and verve. Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition was released on DVD (and VHS!) in 2001 and—at least in the eyes of this fan—is the definitive version of the film.

Despite its flaws, the film contains big ideas worthy of the Star Trek moniker, and it’s the exploration of these questions which—in some respects, at least—actually works to elevate Star Trek: The Motion Picture above the ten sequels which would follow it.

Dayton Ward is a freelance writer living in Kansas City.

This article is part of Star Trek Movie Marathon: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Noneo Yourbusiness
1. Longtimefan
I remember seeing this in the theater when I was 11. I was so excited to see the Star Trek movie after spending almost every preceding Saturday watching re-runs of the show and sometimes the cartoon.

My dad was excited, my mom was excited, my sister was interested, and I was looking forward to what I as a kid wanted from a big budget space story... creatures.

Star Trek may be about who people are and what they can become but to an 11 year old boy Star Trek was about white gorillas with cockatoo yellow spikes and lizard men and strange and unusual planets filled with new and unusual zoology and botany (mostly zoology but I would accept really interesting botany in a pinch)

Guess what the first Star Trek movie had? Space.

A whole lot of very beautiful but still vast and twinkly space.

and a lot of adults talking and not talking and then talking some more.

So I remember being a very disappointed kid. My dad still thought it was a great movie and still does. I have learned to like it as time has passed and I understand more about what adults talking means to a movie but it will always be in the mid range of my top 10 Star Trek movies.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, thinks it is the quintessential Star Trek movie and cannot stand The Voyage Home.
It is a miracle we have been together for 10 years. :)
Chris Willrich
2. Chris Willrich
I'm in complete sympathy with Longtimefan about weird planets and lizard men. Even so, ST: TMP, for all its problems, feels more like a science fiction story than any of the other Trek films. The Voyage Home, and the Next Gen films First Contact and Insurrection, also play with some big ideas, but they're still mainly adventure stories. (And nothing wrong with that. Bring on Khan!) But I think ST: TMP should get credit for trying to stand in the company of 2001, not just Star Wars.
Chris Willrich
3. Cool Bev
Say what you will, the seemingly 20-minute long special effects cruise to the heart of V'ger got my sensawunder pumping. It didn't stop the plot because there pretty much was none.
Chris Willrich
4. That Neil Guy
I'm with you 100% on the Enterprise. This is the definitive presentation of that starship. Absolutely gorgeous design, so well shot. This is my favorite Enterprise of all.
john mullen
5. johntheirishmongol
As a huge ST:TOS fan, I was happy to see the film. I don't regret it, it is not anywhere near the worst of the films but it definately suffers from comparison with a few of the later movies. One thing I thought was theres a million different stories out there, so why did they basically recycle a story from the original series? V'ger is basically the same story as Nomad, so been there done that.

Funny thing, for the next movie they did a direct sequel to an episode and it is still the best of the ST films.

Trying to make it more like 2001 was a mistake. 2001 was not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. What they should have been doing was a great 2 hr ST story, with friendship, and humor and a girl for Kirk.

BTW, is there any reason by this film that any of the characters couldn't have had another relationship? In most military organizations, and make no mistake this is a military story, it is a good thing for your career to have a spouse. By the time this film came out, it would have made great sense for any or all of them to have families.

Just some thoughts...
j p
6. sps49
The ship was okay (I intensely dislike the flat-sided nacelles and their struts), but the sequence I really liked was the three Klingon ships encountering V'ger.

I agre with johntheirishmongol (and many others) who wonder why $45M couldn't get an original story.
Chris Willrich
7. Friend To Fwiffo
At some point I learned how to enjoy this movie, and now it is my favorite Star Trek film. It's a sort of ambient movie, like Fantasia is. Brian Eno said, "Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." That's what this movie is like. Maybe that sounds like some snarky criticism, and I do think it's funny when the camera pans around the Enterprise for 20 minutes and then goes effect-shot-reaction-shot-effect-shot-reaction-shot for an hour--but I really do love it, and its ambient quality is why.

It's also one of the most non-violent Star Trek movies, along with The Voyage Home. I'm not against violence in film, but I do think it's a rare and rather admirable thing to tell a story that isn't about fighting and killing. And unlike Longtimefan, I always preferred an episode in SPACE and not on a planet, so I like it for that as well.

I do think it was a big mistake to squander the well-established, well-beloved character relationships by having Spock be so detached for most of the movie. Everyone wants to see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy banter, and they hardly do. I think the things that make it work as a movie (for me anyway) sort of prevent it from working as Star Trek. And it's amazingly sexist even for 1979. But still, I really like it, earth tones and all.
Dayton Ward
8. daytonward
I agree that one of the film's biggest mistakes was in not taking greater advantage of the relationships between the characters. I didn't pick up on that when I was sitting in the theater at the age of 12; I had to figure it out later.

@Cool Bev: I'm very fond of the initial Enterprise flyby while she's in drydock, and then when she leaves dock and heads out of the solar system. Those and the opening scene with the Klingon ships are among my favorites. Aside from the effects and the model work, Jerry Goldsmith's music in these scenes is Superb. Only the "flying through V'Ger" scenes are the ones which seem to really drag for me, but the updated director's edition fixes much of this.
Eugenie Delaney
9. EmpressMaude
I agree that the Enterprise was magnificent (esp. the Spacedock scenes), and this dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie (dammit!) thrills to the glimpses of Vulcan, but my biggest gripe was always "hey, isn't this a full blown version of that episode where Uhura gets mindwiped?" (The Changeling).

I also always resented the, I dunno, smarminess of Roddenberry's notion of equality and progress - particularly McCoy's rant about, for the lack of a better word "uppity" Christine Chapel becoming a full fledged doctor and fighting with him. First of all, there is nothing inherently demeaning about being a nurse as opposed to a doctor... it's not as if every female nurse secretly longs for the day when she can throw off her shackles of subservience and attack patriarchy and become... a DOCTOR! There are other little snarks here and there, but mostly, that's the most extreme example. It's really a very 70's looking at the feminist movement from the receiving end, and not in a good way.

Ugh, I hated, Hated, HATED Lt. Ilia. The whole, sexually intoxicating alien female that makes all boys swoon and go light-headed... such a sexist, condescending notion. I mean, you'd think that since Deltans are admitted to Starfleet, they'd train the men to not get all woozy in the presence of Deltan women because, otherwise, placing them among command structures in starships is a really bad idea. Oh, that's right SHE was forced to take an Oath of Celibacy, because the boys simply cannot be trusted around her so SHE is the one who must wear a veritable Chastity Belt. Ugh, I could go on... and ultimately, she is killed almost immediately and replaced by a thing. So, anyway.

On the other hand, Stephen Collins was a fine looking man.

On yet a third hand, I am not the only one who hears echoes of
Ilia and Decker in the Troi and Riker relationship, right?

Also, I always liked the serene earth-toned uniforms (very soothing and neutral), even if the trousers of the new Starfleet uniforms were a tad more revealing in the junkage-area than I suspect was intended.

Oh, and don't even get me started on the ending.

edit - a doozy of a typo :)
Marcus W
10. toryx
I used to watch the first 25-30 minutes of the movie just for the Enterprise. She was one beautiful lass and I never got tired of those shots.

McCoy coming aboard with a beard looking more crotchety than ever was also a big highlight for me.
Chris Willrich
11. Edgewalker
Hate this movie. Worst in the series. The characters are out of sync and the camera spends what feels like hours making love to the Enterprise.
Chris Willrich
12. a-j
Saw it when it came out and dozed off in the middle (as did James Doohan I believe) but have since come round to rather liking this film. What I find interesting is the way it subverts the three main characters. Kirk is tetchy, panicky and close to incompetant for a lot of the film; Spock cannot be trusted and the Enterprise isn't working properly. Only McCoy is as he was. Only in the last act do they come together as the original team again. Not my favourite of the films, but not my least liked either.
Christopher Turkel
13. Applekey
actually works to elevate Star Trek: The Motion Picture above the ten sequels which would follow it.

No it doesn't. It's a dull, plodding movie that is an insult to Trek fans everywhere and should be buried and forgotten.
Kurt Lorey
14. Shimrod
I'm with sps49. The opening sequence with Mark Lenard speaking in Klingon and Klingons acting (and looking) like Klingons was awesome.

Still, I had to go home disappointed because most of the rest of the movie was very underwhelming (to me).

Oh. And those uniforms! Bleah.
Chris Willrich
15. Mike Poteet
Nothing could get your Trekker card revoked, Dayton! But you and several commenters are speaking as though the emotional distance among the characters (mostly the Big Three) is a flaw in the film, when, in fact, it is largely the point. I was not convinced of this truth, either, until I listened to the supplementary audio commentary that Paramount released via a few years back. The presenters make a passionate and persuasive case that the dominant theme -- in the plot, in the visuals -- is the importance of making connections. As we journey with the crew deeper into V'Ger, we also journey with them closer to each other. It's a definite character arc, reinforced in overt and subtle ways both through the film (the commentary points to the fused wire on the Voyager base as the "summing up" visual symbol of this theme -- the Creator must deliver the message -- i.e., connect -- in person). So it's no wonder that it's "not until late in the film" that we start to see the old warmth and familiarity among the crew. That was the plan.

Whether that was a wise move (ha! no pun intended) is another matter, but it was definitely deliberate; and, viewing the film several decades later, it's easy to see it as one of its greatest strengths. We are watching the difficult, awkward, but vitally important process of human beings learning to connect with each other, for their own good and for the greater good. *That's* why " the human adventure is just beginning" (surely the greatest tag line ever conceived for a Trek movie).

I have always wished Nimoy's final line had been allowed to stand in his ad-libbed version: "If Dr. McCoy is to remain aboard, then my presence here is essential." :-)
Junsok Yang
16. yanjuna
I've always thought that TMP was a very ambitious film which failed at almost every front. It was meant as:
1) A "human" response to 2001 ("The Human Adventure is Just Beginning")
2) Story of Kirk who had been led astray, booted to a desk job, but now is trying to reclaim his destiny (theme to be repeated in II and IV)
3) Story of how Spock comes to term with his dual nature (Spock has been comfortably himself in all the movies since)
4) Decker, trying to deal with all his loss, then discover what he *really* wants
5) Story of the lost V'Ger child - logic is not enough; emotions and intiution are crucial for survival and life worth living.
6) SFX extravaganza.
Any one of which would have been tough to do - and sadly, TMP failed at every front. (Did you really think Wise and Roddenberry could equal Kubrick?) Trek has never been as ambitious since. So, should we acknowledge the noble intent, or the failure that it is?
(The movie did have a magnificent sense of scale. Start from Kirk - move to Enterprise - then go into V'Ger - at each scale, the previous step is dwarfed; and the Enterprise (refit) - was beautiful - keeping the ship we knew in the TV show, but making it sleeker, more powerful and sexier. Enterprise (refit) still looks better than all other Trek ships, or other movie / TV space ships for that matter).

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