***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy, decide to look at the Star Trek franchise for the first time with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***
TITLE: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
STARRING: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta
DIRECTOR: Robert Wise
WRITERS: Alan Dean Foster (Story), Harold Livingston (Screenplay)
STUDIOS: Paramount Pictures, Century Associates
RUN-TIME: 132 min
RELEASED: December 7, 1979
By Rob Siebert
I came into Star Trek: The Motion Picture ready to be bored. This is, after all, the film infamously called the “Slow Motion Picture.”
But boring isn’t what I got out of it. There are slow portions, obviously. But I wasn’t bored at any point. To yours truly, the story of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of a charmingly odd sci-fi flick that missed out on some of its potential.
Eighteen months after the end of the five-year mission, Kirk has been promoted to admiral. But when a mysterious and destructive energy cloud is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth, Kirk takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious entity aboard a refitted Enterprise. But while there are many familiar faces aboard, this is not the Enterprise Kirk remembers, and he hasn’t been a starship captain in quite some time. Meanwhile, Spock feels a telepathic connection with the entity that will serve to guide the Enterprise on its mission.
Watching the film for the first time in 2020 means there’s a giant elephant in the room whenever Stephen Collins is on screen as Decker. Not because of 7th Heaven, but because of what we’d later learn about him. Years ago, I made the mistake of listening to the recording that came out of him talking about what he’d done. I now desperately wish I hadn’t.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture reportedly had a very rushed production schedule. So much so that director Robert Wise once said he felt the final film was only a rough cut of the one he wanted to make. I can only assumed this rush to the finish line is the reason much of the movie seems to be not very well thought out.
For instance, the main thing I took away from the movie was just how wrong Kirk is. When he decides to investigate what we later learn is the V’Ger entity, he uses his authority as an admiral to forcefully replace Decker as captain of the Enterprise. The two then proceed to clash over how to advance the mission, with Decker ultimately being vindicated. We see that, despite his noble intentions, Kirk is out of practice when it comes to captaining a starship.
This tension between Kirk and Decker is there by design, and is the most interesting part of the movie. The problem I have with it is that it only gets a half-hearted resolution about midway through the film. We don’t really get to savor the meat of the issue. It eventually becomes a moot point. But beforehand, why not throw in some kind of sequence where Kirk admits to Decker that he was wrong and restores his rank, only to have Decker turn him down? That way, we get a satisfactory conclusion to the arc, and Kirk doesn’t look like such a jerk…
If you’d asked me to guess before hand who would get the film’s best entrance, my guess wouldn’t have been Bones. But low and behold, there he is. Beamed in with his space disco suit and medallion, griping about how he’s been drafted back into service. Moments later, he’s part of get of the best character moments in the film when Kirk, in a moment of vulnerability, tells Bones he needs him. In that moment Bones’ demeanor changes, and albeit still somewhat begrudgingly, he once again becomes the Enterprise‘s resident doctor.
The character who undergoes the biggest, and yet surprisingly understated, transformation is Spock. At the start of the movie, he’s on Vulcan taking part in a ceremony signifying the purging of all emotion. When he returns to the Enterprise, he’s as cold and stoic as ever. But after journeying into space and mind-melding with the V’Ger entity, he’s a changed man. In an exchange with Kirk in sick bay, Spock says…
“…with all its pure logic, V’Ger is barren. Cold. No mystery. No Beauty. Should’ve known. … [Spock takes Kirk’s hand.] This simple feeling is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension. No meaning. No hope. Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions. ‘Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?'”
In asking those questions, the V’Ger entity thereby prompts Spock to ask himself those very same questions. Thus, to an extent, his character arc is complete. He realizes the value of emotion and feeling as opposed to pure logic. I like this. I just wish it had been given a little more emphasis outside of that one scene. After all, Spock’s relationship with his own feelings is one of the tentpole subjects the original series revolved around.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was developed from what was to have been an episode of a new series, Star Trek: Phase II. Complete with new characters Decker and Ilia. If you look at the plot without the elements needed to put Kirk, Spock, and the gang back together, it does indeed look like something they’d have done on the original series. The Enterprise comes into contact with a mysterious entity in space, it possesses Ilia, hijinks ensue and things are back to business as usual at the end.
But while the movie does feel reminiscent of the show in that sense, something on this scale that’s meant for both Star Trek fans and general audiences would likely have benefited from a conventional villain. Obviously, The Wrath of Khan would go on to justify that sentiment. That’s not to say Kirk needed a bad guy to punch. But a big sentient energy cloud isn’t necessarily who I’d have picked to match up against the Enterprise crew in their cinematic debut.
What’s more, the interior of the Enterprise doesn’t look or feel as fun as it did on the TV show. All the bright colors, campy as they were, are missed. The “refitted” Enterprise looks more like a refurbished dentist’s office.
Imagine my surprise at hearing what I thought was the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme. Star Trek: The Motion Picture marked the first time that classic score by Jerry Goldsmith was heard. Apparently, Goldsmith was Gene Roddenberry’s first choice as composer for the original Star Trek pilot. How fitting that he came back to create what to this day is the franchise’s most recognizable theme.
There’s a famous klunker of a line in this movie that I’d hoped wasn’t as bad as legend tells. Sadly, it’s everything I’d heard it was. During Ilia’s introduction, out of the clear blue sky, she says, “My oath of celibacy is on record, captain.” The movie seems to try and justify this line by having Sulu and Chekov gawk at her when she walks on to the bridge. But it clearly wasn’t enough. Over 40 years later, it still comes off creepy and weird.
But for my money, an even bigger klunker comes from Kirk about midway through the film. His line is, “Stop competing with me, Decker.” But for whatever reason it comes out, “Stop…….com…petingwithmeDecker.”
In some circles, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is considered the worst of the six films based on the original series. Perhaps the worst in the franchise overall. Certainly the film is deeply flawed, and perhaps even ill-conceived. But even as someone fairly new to Star Trek, I still found it enjoyable. It’s not worthy of being the franchise’s big-screen debut. But it has its merits. Mostly in the smaller, quieter moments between the characters we know and love from the show.
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