Star Trek revisited: The Motion Picture (1979), and a film whose reputation has enhanced over time

Star Trek The Motion Picture
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We start our adventures exploring the Star Trek movies, and our voyages begin with Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a bumpy start to the big screen journey.

Space. The final frontier.

The voyages of the Starship Enterprise are now those of legend but it wasn’t always the case. The Original Series of Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons in 1969, after only a furious letter-writing campaign saw it renewed a year before by NBC. Nobody had any real idea what kind of pop-culture behemoth Gene Roddenberry had created until after the series ended, and the five-year mission to explore strange new worlds was abruptly curtailed.

The truth is, that third and final season of Star Trek was largely poor. It had become a show clinging onto life as numerous creatives, some of varying quality, worked with Roddenberry to produce stories. Yet despite a clear decline from beginning to end, the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk, Commander Spock and their crew lived on. Fan conventions sprouted as syndication saw The Original Series gain an entirely new afterlife in the 1970s. Children of the parents who watched it a decade earlier began to show interest.

Paramount therefore understood that a fandom – perhaps the first true pop-culture fandom – existed around Star Trek, to such a degree that the U.S.S. Enterprise deserved another spin around the block. As I chronicle in my latest book, Lost Federations: The Unmade History of Star Trek, numerous attempts to revive the property were mounted. On the big screen, Philip Kaufman – director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and later The Right Stuff, among others – almost helmed Planet Of The Titans, an ambitious, philosophical attempt to give Star Trek a ‘Kubrickian’, 2001: A Space Odyssey sheen. It foundered, though concepts from it would influence Star Trek TV series 40 years on, such remains its legacy.

The closest attempt came on the small screen with Star Trek: Phase II, a sequel series intended to bring back the entire original cast (sans Leonard Nimoy, who for various reasons distanced himself from Spock and the role), and between 1977–1978, Phase II very nearly became a reality. Scripts were written. Actors were cast. Sets had begun to be built. And once Paramount pulled the plug, as their efforts to build a new network around it as a flagship fell apart, much of Roddenberry’s work with writers such as David Livingston nd Alan Dean Foster for the intended ‘pilot’ of Phase II made their way into the film that did eventually happen.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979 and directed eventually by Robert Wise, a veteran helmsman late of Golden Age Hollywood pictures such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music, took the plot of various treatments known, at various points, as ‘In Thy Image’ and ‘The God Thing’. Borrowing liberally from The Original Series episode ‘The Changeling’, which sees the Enterprise encounter a malevolent, artificially intelligent space probe called Nomad seeking its creator, The Motion Picture instead creates V’Ger, a powerful space entity heading straight for Earth; a 23rd century ‘Galactus’, if you will, which seeks to commune and join with ‘The Creator’.

Star Trek The Motion Picture

Everything about this story speaks to Roddenberry’s overriding obsession when writing Star Trek, which is man’s relationship with Godhood in a world of science, advancement and living, thinking machines. So many Original Series episodes return to Kirk and his crew discovering trickster aliens or sinister creatures passing themselves off as deities, sometimes indeed being machines themselves. For a self-supposed secularist, Roddenberry cannot get away from the exploration of both polytheistic and monotheistic creations in his utopian future. It reaches a near comical zenith years later in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but here everyone works to have a serious, sobering stab at the question of who or what God is.

Roddenberry’s initial intention for the idea was even heavier, as Richard Colla explains in The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorised, Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years:

Really, what Gene had written was that this “thing” was sent forth to lay down the law, to communicate the law of the universe, and that as time went on, the law was meant to be reinterpreted. And at that time two thousand years earlier, the law was interpreted by the carpenter image. As time went on, the law was meant to be reinterpreted and the Christ figure was meant to reappear in different forms. But this machine malfunctioned, and it was like a phonograph record that got caught in a groove and kept grooving back, grooving back, grooving back. It’s important to understand the essence of all this and reinterpret it as time goes on. That was a little heavy for Paramount. It was meant to be strong and moving, and I’m sorry it never got made.

That has often made The Motion Picture, for many, a laborious experience. Given it was born of a series rooted in 1960s colour, Wise’s film is largely a straight on affair, eschewing the, at times camp, of the previous decade and brooding with a sense of latent 1970s emotional distance. The crew have grown up in a sense, moved on, Kirk now promoted to Admiral and a desk job, Spock off on Vulcan searching for total logic (a means of dampening down his human side by reaching the so-called Kolinahr). Hell, even Bones (aka Dr. Leonard McCoy) has a bushy middle-aged man beard, which nicely matched his future disco attire. The point is clear: they have weathered life since their five-year mission and The Motion Picture wants you to know it.

We remain, nonetheless, within the 23rd century promised land that Roddenberry envisaged. Gone are the coloured tunics denoting departments, replaced by all in one uniform pantsuits (which The Next Generation sequel series will later take one step further). We visit the sprawling Starfleet headquarters in an iconic future San Francisco. The Klingons, briefly seen battling V’Ger in vain, get ridges on their foreheads. Even the old girl herself, the Enterprise, gets an complete upgrade, fit for a vessel within a burgeoning new era of VFX technology, post-Star Wars. In a sequence best described as ‘starship porn’, Wise allows his camera to linger on her sleek lines and ample nacelles. As Kirk inspects his baby, so do we.

Despite existing in the wake of Star Wars’ revival of the serial science-fiction adventure, The Motion Picture nevertheless holds to the principles established in The Original Series, foregrounding the story and screenplay with a deeper sense of moral and spiritual ideals, rather than Kirk and Spock automatically becoming action heroes. William Shatner is encouraged to dial down Kirk’s exuberances, stripped back as the Admiral who returns to command the ship he loved, at the expense of its new Captain, William Decker (played by Stephen Collins) – who would form the template for Roddenberry’s more successful Will Riker character in The Next Generation. Kirk is driven by an impulse to be back in the chair, back with his crew. “We need him. I need him. Badly,” he tells his old friend Spock as the threat becomes apparent.

Star Trek The Motion Picture

Kirk is not framed well through much of The Motion Picture, certainly the first half. Greater command and influence seems to have hardened him. McCoy is one of the few people who calls him on the fact he uses V’Ger’s presence as an excuse to unseat Decker from a chair he wishes he’d never given up. “It’s an obsession. An obsession that can blind you to far more immediate and critical responsibilities.” This becomes a recurring theme through the movies and TV shows, the question of what a Captain becomes once they no longer have their ship. Kirk even tells The Next Generation’s Jean-Luc Picard in 1994’s Generations to never let Starfleet promote him. The Motion Picture establishes the close, personal relationship a Captain has to his ship.

To some degree, Nimoy’s Spock here isn’t the one people most fondly recall. The bonhomie of later films with Kirk and Bones, or indeed in the earlier series, is gone. Spock here has largely purged the humanity from himself in the intervening years, reconnecting with his Vulcan heritage. Mirroring perhaps V’Ger’s search for itself, convinced it will understand and evolve by finding its ‘creator’, Spock’s return to the Enterprise, and particularly his mind-meld with V’Ger helps him reconnect with his own humanity. “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?” The Vulcans realise Spock can not achieve true equilibrium with them alone. It comes from him embracing the same humanity V’Ger ultimately needs to achieve what it came to Earth for.

This is one of the reasons I have so much time now for The Motion Picture, in a landscape where every story needs to be about universe-threatening stakes, particularly in Star Trek. V’Ger is certainly presented as a doomsday machine of sorts, threatening the Federation, but you cannot class it as a ‘villain’. It is, essentially, a child looking for meaning from a parent it has never known. Spock discovers that in the film’s standout sequence, the so-called ‘Spock Walk’ through the V’Ger entity, filled with centuries of knowledge, alien vistas, strange digital constructions, and at the very heart the image of a child. Wise is very clearly seeking a philosophical centre, but what The Motion Picture can’t match Kubrick’s 2001 for in majesty, scope and seminal filmmaking, it makes up for in heart.

Perhaps it should be known as ‘The Emotion Picture’. Despite appearances, and the film’s reputation, it is all about connection. Decker is a hugely emotional, impassioned figure, as is Ilia (played by Persis Khambatta, originally cast in the aborted Phase II project), a Deltan helm officer who was once his lover (again, an idea borrowed for Riker and Deanna Troi in The Next Generation). Ilia’s species are overtly sexual, exuding pheromones attractive to men, and The Motion Picture intentionally transforms her – the most overtly emotional character, theoretically, in the crew – as the avatar of V’Ger, at the cost of her own life. She helps Kirk make the leap that V’Ger itself needs a “human quality. Our capacity to leap beyond logic”. It is this Spock recognises. It is this that Decker ultimately lays his own life down for, partly to evolve alongside what’s left of Ilia. “As you wanted the Enterprise, I want this.” For a film considered cold and distant, The Motion Picture is more about desire than people recognise.

Paramount ended up spending far more on the film than they planned, even as Wise raced through production. David Gerrold, who wrote episodes of The Original Series, commented:

The fans had come off this two-year high with Star Wars, and the audience wanted more Star Wars, but there wasn’t any more. So, they went to see Star Trek and they were hungering for more, so Star Trek benefitted from the Star Wars phenomenon. They went and they saw it over and over again, but it was embarrassing to watch the fans because they were all apologists for this picture: “Well, it’s not that bad. It’s a different kind of Star Trek.” Instead of really just acknowledging that it was a bad movie, they tried to explain that it was wonderful, and you were an idiot for not understanding it. It was wonderful to watch them fuck their minds over to explain away a bad movie. The truth was that there was this movie that they wanted to love, and they were so disappointed, but they wouldn’t dare say that they were disappointed.

The reputation of the film has been, over the last few years, in a state of transition. A recent 4K re-release presented the picture in a stunning new way, as indeed did a new album of Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible music for this (to my mind, the greatest film score of all time, and I really mean that). The more one ages, the more The Motion Picture begins to mean. Perhaps we need to slow down ourselves to enjoy the steadier merits of a film that launched half a dozen bigger and better ships, but holds an important place in the history of Star Trek. It showed the franchise could exist on the big as well as the small screen. That the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise had the grandeur fit for a bigger canvas.

The human adventure was just beginning…

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