Star Trek: The Motion Picture Wonders If the Human Adventure Is at Heart a Solitary One

Here’s why I think there’s yet hope for humanity: Paramount+ just debuted the 4K remaster of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—The Director’s Edition (1979), and it was greeted with joy, excitement and acclaim. And that’s great, that’s deserved. Admittedly, it hasn’t always been so—the film’s torturous genesis is well-known and, speaking personally, it took years for me to come around to its strengths. (In my case, the problem may in part have been that my first exposure to the film came at an afternoon screening where a class trip of grade schoolers thought every appearance of the quasi-foetal EVA suits was absolutely high-larious). While the film still has its flaws, the Director’s Edition—initially released in 2001 and overseen by director Robert Wise himself—overcame most of the serious shortcomings, to the point that ST:TMP has been able to take its place as one of the franchise’s best cinematic efforts.

So it was with no shortage of eagerness that I was on my couch bright-and-early the morning of April 5th, ready to watch Admiral James T. Kirk get the band back together for what was at the time their newest adventure. And I wasn’t disappointed.

But as I watched, I realized that a pertinent quote was buzzing about in the back of my head:

“We are all connected, and we can overcome any challenge, so long as we do it together.”

Those of you who have in-depth knowledge of Trek—which I assume is everybody reading this—realize that those words are not from The Motion Picture. They’re actually spoken by Michael Burnham during the season four closer of Star Trek: Discovery. And while they stand as testament to Keith R.A. DeCandido’s contention that those grousing about Discovery’s betrayal of Trek ideals haven’t been watching the show closely enough, what’s interesting to me is how the sentiment behind that quote was also invoked some four decades earlier, and how ST:TMP followed its own, rather convoluted path to arrive at that conclusion.

(And it’s here that I’m going to take the probably unnecessary step of warning you that, going forward, there will be copious spoilers both for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and its Original Series progenitor, “The Changeling.”)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned out to be many things: A franchise being rebooted in the wake of Star Wars’ success; a long-awaited reunion for fans still smarting after the Original Series’ premature cancellation; and, most pertinently, a recalibration of the show’s concept, away from “Wagon Train to the Stars” space adventure and toward the more ruminative storytelling that would eventually spawn Star Trek: The Next Generation. There’s no Kirk-Fu, no phaser battles—the only armaments deployed are a handful of photon torpedoes, and the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that, when the Klingons unleash them against the formidable intruder that the audience would soon come to know as V’ger, they are far from the best solution to a problem. And a fair chunk of the film’s action, such as it is, is confined to the bridge of the Enterprise, as characters debate solutions to whatever dilemma is confronting them at the moment.

This in support of a set-up that actually wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in Sixties’ Trek: An immense, destructive entity has intruded into Federation space, making a beeline toward the Sol system and Earth. Only the newly refitted Enterprise is within intercept range, and Admiral James Kirk (William Shatner), now grounded after fulfilling his five year mission, uses the emergency to wrest control of the vessel away from its new captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). So at base, ST:TMP has a whiff of the Original Series’ classic episode “The Doomsday Machine,” morphing into “The Changeling” as Kirk and crew discover that V’ger is actually a wayward Voyager probe which, having stumbled upon a planet of living machines, has received a refit to rival the Enterprise’s own, and as a result has begun to question the reason for its own existence.

And it’s in the wrinkle that a machine has gained a capacity to wonder about its purpose (with all due respect to Butter Robot) that one can see how ST:TMP has begun to chart a course away from the more action-oriented series that was its birthplace. Looking back at “The Changeling,” Nomad was, in comparison to V’ger, pretty much a booby. It mechanically conflated, with deadly results, its own mission to seek out life with that of an alien probe dispatched to sterilize soil samples; it also confused Kirk with its creator, with that relationship going no deeper than a stern father dealing with an obstreperous child (Kirk even drops a “My son the doctor” joke at the end of the episode). Nomad’s mission boils down to randomly bumbling about the universe and exterminating any life form that doesn’t meet its definition of perfection. V’ger’s quest—upon having “learned all that is learnable”—is more poignant: To seek out its creator, in the hopes of finally having a reason why it was set upon this task.

Tellingly, whenever V’ger becomes the focus in The Motion Picture, composer Jerry Goldsmith lays in a leitmotif on the soundtrack that is at once imposing, yet with a distinct strand of melancholy running through. In and of itself, the theme tells a story: Within the vastness of V’ger, there’s a void, an ache that all the knowledge in creation cannot resolve. It turns out the mammoth living machine is not alone in that regard: Paralleling the machine’s spiritual odyssey is that of key members of the Enterprise crew. And how each character embarks upon their voyage of discovery, and how they get to where they end up, says a lot about how one can attain some form of resolution to the need for meaning.

For James Kirk (William Shatner), five years of his life had been defined through his command of the U.S.S. Enterprise. As was repeatedly underlined in the Original Series, the ship was his life, something Shatner inimitably captured in the man’s sheer pleasure to be exploring the universe. If anyone was deserving of promotion, it was Kirk, but it’s not hard to infer that losing command of his ship—note the possessive there—and losing the opportunity to seek out new lives and new civilizations, has deprived the man of a key motive force in his life. Captain Kirk’s personal mission was in many ways one and the same with the Federation’s. Absent that, he’s at a loss to define his own purpose.

Commander Decker’s dilemma is in some ways a mirror image of Kirk’s. Bequeathed the honor of captaining the legendary Enterprise as his first command, Decker has not yet begun what should be a defining chapter of his life’s journey. Kirk’s abrupt commandeering of the vessel robs him of that opportunity. As a good Starfleet officer, he does not shirk his responsibilities as second-in-command, but he cannot hide the pain that comes from having this defining moment ripped away from him, a loss only compounded when the person he had once cared deeply about, the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), is absorbed by V’ger and transformed into an emotionless probe.

As for Spock (Leonard Nimoy), in the context of the film, it remains ambiguous why he has relinquished his commission in order to seek the pure logic of Kolinahr. The half-Vulcan, half-human science officer was never as deeply attached to the Federation as was his friend Kirk, and the wariness from his Starfleet colleagues stemming from that reticence, combined with his marginalization within a Vulcan society that looks askance at his human side, may have led to his decision to fully engage with the logic of his home planet. It’s when V’ger reaches out to him from the depths of space that he begins to doubt the path he has chosen, and to sense that the answers he seeks are not to be found through the processes of sheer reason.

It’s harder to discern Ilia’s quest in all of this—mostly because we don’t get much opportunity to know her before V’ger snatches her away. But note her declaration of celibacy upon assuming her station. Coming from a culture where sexuality is intrinsic to socialization, she has relinquished a vital part of her personality—possibly at great emotional cost—in order to serve in Starfleet. Her reunion with Decker only compounds that loss.

As for Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), well, he’s never more actualized than when he’s pissed off at something…so, alone among the main characters, he’s actually in a pretty good place.

The common strand between all these quests is that there’s no common strand to them—each character defines their concept of fulfillment on their own terms and, at least initially, attempts to fill that void on their own terms as well. (Even good-to-go McCoy’s mountain-man beard suggests that, in the years following his service, he’s spent considerable time in more-or-less solitude.) But the results of going it alone to find one’s meaning are, at best, equivocal, and at times downright damaging. Kirk is back in space, but haunted by the knowledge that his renewed purpose has denied another of the opportunity. Decker has risen to a position of power, but only by relinquishing a life with someone he loved, and who loved him. Spock succeeds in asserting his Vulcan heritage, but the victory is Pyrrhic, the definition itself lacking something vital.

And then comes V’ger, a living machine with the sum total of universal knowledge in its possession. It has the answers to everything, except the one, ultimate question: In Kirk’s words, “Is there nothing more?”

As Kirk and crew prepare for their final encounter with V’ger, Spock says, “Each of us at some time in our lives turns to someone—a father, a brother, a god—and asks, ‘Why am I here? What was I meant to be?’ V’ger hopes to touch its creator, to find its answers.” And although Spock specifically cites a deity, he’s not actually saying that a mystical, universal other will be the source of resolution. In referencing familial bonds, he acknowledges that it will be something closer, something more intimate. In the end, it’s not the vastness of the universe—which V’ger already contains—that answers the machine’s ultimate question, but contact with Decker, the man in whom the assimilated Ilia had already found her meaning, and who in turn was once defined through her reciprocal love.

For Decker, the illusory fulfillment of becoming a starship captain is superseded by the true fulfillment of joining with the one he has always loved. For Kirk, it’s the discovery that his meaning is not just a ship and a mission, but those who accompany him on his journey. For Spock, the answers do not lie in total, Vulcan logic, but in human connection. Again, the resolution to each person’s quest is unique, but with one, core truth: We cannot define meaning on our own, but only through what we mean to others.

Some people believe in an afterlife, others that some unseen force may give us another spin on the wheel once we cast off our present incarnations. In absence of concrete proof that there’s more to life than what we get during our present shot on this big, blue rock, we must find our meanings in what we do right now, right here, and how that will bring meaning to others. Admittedly, that can be as scary a proposition as confronting the realization that we’ve yet to understand our life’s mission. Like plunging into the depths of an inconceivably vast, sentient spaceship, the voyage to making something worthwhile of our lives can be daunting, with success not assured. We can only hope that we emerge wiser and better at journey’s end, and that the goal, once achieved, makes a better world for ourselves, and for those we touch.

* * *

Over the years, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has taken its own, rather profound journey, going from generally reviled reboot to a film largely hailed as one of the franchise’s best cinematic offerings. I have slowly come around to embracing it as one of the deepest and most affecting of the Trek films. But maybe you don’t feel that way. Maybe you feel that another feature, or even an episode from one of the franchise’s myriad series, has had a more profound effect on how you regard humanity’s journey. (Or maybe you just never got over Voyager’s scary clown episode.) Whatever your feelings, I wanna hear them: The comments section below is open for your thoughts. Just remember to respect the philosophy of IDIO—Infinite Diversity through Infinite Opinions—and be friendly and respectful. Let’s take this journey together!

Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!

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