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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Cancelled in 1969 after three seasons on television, Star Trek appeared to lay dormant in the late 1970s, until it was unexpectedly revived in a big screen version as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the film that would transfer the Star Trek brand from the small screen to feature films and precede its 1980s television revival.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture sees the starship Enterprise thrown into action again to combat a new threat against Earth. A massive, mysterious energy cloud is heading towards the planet and devouring everything in its way. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is now on Earth as an Admiral at Star Fleet Headquarters and the Chief of Star Fleet Operations. But with the unprecedented nature of this threat against the planet, he quickly persuades Star Fleet to put him back in command of his old ship, the Enterprise

Kirk takes over from Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), who has to reluctantly cede command, despite his misgivings about Kirk's unfamiliarity with the changes that have been made to the ship. But compensation for Decker comes in the arrival on board ship of Ilia (Persis Khambatta), his former lover. 

Also on board are most of the familiar Enterprise crew, including chief engineer Scotty (James Doohan), helmsmen Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) and communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Also returning from the original series are Majel Barrett as Dr. Chappell, the ship's former nurse who is now a doctor, and Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, who is now in charge of the ship's transporter. 

USS Enterprise crew in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise return after a decade,
 joined by a couple of new faces

Two more of Kirk's old crew appear along the way. Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is technically a reservist, but is called back into service at Kirk's request. The Vulcan Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy) eventually catches up with the ship in a shuttle craft, before taking over as chief science officer. Spock has detected the energy cloud himself while on the planet Vulcan, and has his own ideas about how he might utilise it.

The unprecedented success of Star Wars in 1977 led to a boom in sci-fi films, each one eager to repeat the success of George Lucas's space opera. This vogue for all things outer space was aided by Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released the same year. By the time Star Trek: The Motion Picture appeared in 1979, even James Bond was being sent into space in Moonraker, while a low budget horror concept called "Star Beast" was transformed into a sci-fi blockbuster as Alien, and Walt Disney released their own answer, the space epic The Black Hole. Although if The Black Hole was the answer, then it's not entirely clear what the question was.

According to Leonard Nimoy, he was appearing in Peter Schaffer's play Equus on Broadway, when he attended a matinee screening of Star Wars. Seeing the ecstatic reaction from the packed cinema audience, he judged that he would very soon be hearing from Paramount about reviving Star Trek.

Despite its cancellation a decade before, Star Trek still had a cult following and a cartoon series had appeared in 1973, with most of the original cast voicing their characters, something that had helped to keep the brand alive. In fact, by the late 1970s there were already plans for a new series, "Star Trek: Phase II", which was intended to be one of the show pieces of Paramount's planned new television network.

With the success of Star Wars, though, everyone was scrabbling around for similar concepts and Star Trek, with its outer space adventures, star ships and laser battles, seemed to be exactly the kind of thing that was needed. As a result, the projected television series was turned instead into the first Star Trek feature film. 

Mr Spock on Vulcan
Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on Vulcan

The criticism most often directed at Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is slow, dull and boring. It was variously dubbed "The Motionless Picture", "The No Motion Picture" and, probably most appropriately of all, "The Slow Motion Picture". 

There's a reason why these criticisms are made so often and it's because they are, at least in part, fair ones. While The Motion Picture does have a degree of dignity and grandeur, it's ultimately a slow-moving, humourless, ponderous effort, its self-consciously grand title undermined by the inflated, but dramatically rather thin and empty film that bears it. 

The usual aim for a film version of a popular TV series is to make it bigger and grander than the TV incarnation, while retaining what made the original popular to begin with. Star Trek: The Motion Picture's problem is that, while it's bigger than the series that spawned it, it's also a lot smaller. 

The film is demonstrably bigger in terms of budget, with sets and effects work far grander and more impressive than anything seen in the TV series. But it's also obviously undernourished as a drama, with barely enough character, interest and action to fill its 132 minute running time. In fact, the storyline presented here is the kind of thing that the TV series would have dealt with, not only less solemnly and portentously, but a lot more entertainingly in the more appropriate 50 minutes.

The root of the film's problem is that the script, eventually credited to Harold Livingston, from a story by Alan Dean Foster, was derived from a story intended as the pilot for the TV series "Star Trek: Phase II". It was expanded when Paramount decided it wanted a Star Trek film instead. Which is probably the main reason why there's not enough substance to the characters or the story to carry a two hours plus feature film. In fact, the film does not really have a story. What it has is a concept, one that needs to be fleshed out to fill 50 minutes. Instead, it's simply been stretched out to fill 132 minutes. 

William Shatner and James Doohan in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Kirk (William Shatner) and Scotty (James Doohan)

The film reportedly went through numerous attempts at finding a storyline and a screenplay, and it seems hard to believe that this one is the best that anyone could do. No one involved appears to have been happy with the script anyway, as there were incessant re-writes as filming went along, with the actors sometimes left waiting for new scripts to be delivered to them on set. 

Although it's a bonus that the original TV cast have been rounded up, including Majel Barrett and Grace Lee Whitney, very few of the regular actors are given anything much to do in the film. In fact, even George Takei as Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and Walter Koenig as Chekov appear to be there just to be there.

Harold Livingston's script doesn't really capture the characters or their interplay from the series and the film is noticeably lacking in human drama, the relations between the characters being as cold and distant as the film itself. 

Kirk is given some minor conflict with the new Captain of the Enterprise, Captain Decker, when he is given command of the ship because of his superior experience. There's also some friction with Spock early in the film, but that's mainly because Spock has been mischaracterised in this film as simply rude and unfeeling to his comrades, rather than carefully controlling and concealing of his emotions.

Kirk also does too much in the film for a ship's Captain, and certainly for an Admiral, even following Spock out into space in his own astronaut's suit when he investigates the energy cloud. This kind of thing is to the detriment of the other crew members, most of whom may as well not be present. 

DeForest Kelley as bearded medallion man Dr. McCoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Well, helloo, ladies! Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) sporting
 the medallion man look

Both Spock and McCoy join the ship once the mission is underway. DeForest Kelley's Dr. McCoy arrives sporting an ill-advised, bearded medallion man look, something that makes him look like the leader of some weird California disco cult. Perhaps McCoy's look is a deliberate nod to the original series time period, with the good doctor seemingly left stranded in the sixties counter-culture. He even complains to Kirk that "They drafted me!" - a phrase with obvious Vietnam War connotations.

Leonard Nimoy had been the most difficult actor to get onside, partly because of his love-hate relationship with the Spock character, but mainly because of his legal dispute with Paramount over the use of his image as Spock in advertising endorsements. This dispute had to be settled before he would sign up for the film. 

The only significant new characters are Captain Decker, played by Stephen Collins, and the alien woman Ilia. She is played by the Indian model and actress Persis Khambatta, who had to have her head shaved for the role, which certainly gives her character a distinctive appearance. Their roles in the film do make them feel very much like "guest stars" in an episodic TV show, which is no doubt a result of the story's origin as a television script. Mark Lenard, who is most familiar as Spock's father in the TV series and later films, also appears, albeit in a different role as the captain of a Klingon ship. 

Ilia is later taken over by the computer intelligence, but she's a little odd to begin with anyway. There's a particularly strange moment when she introduces herself to Kirk by immediately saying "My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain". Kirk's reputation has obviously preceded him. It feels as if screenwriter Harold Livingston intended this line as a joke and a nod to Kirk's romantic successes in the TV series. But, presumably, the director didn't get it, which is why the line is so off in the film and no one seems to know quite what to do with it.

Persis Khambatta as Ilia in Star Trek
Persis Khambatta as Ilia 

The film's producer was the series creator Gene Roddenberry and it was directed by Robert Wise. Unusually, the two men share a title card in the opening credits, which seems to hint at some wrangling over billing. 

Robert Wise was a very successful Hollywood director with a variety of films behind him. In many ways he was one of the ultimate directors of the Michael Curtiz school of versatility, able to turn his hand to any subject. 

Wise's previous films had ranged from 'B' movie horrors The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) and war films The Desert Rats (1953) and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) to haunted house thriller The Haunting (1963), disaster movie The Hindenburg (1975) and two Best Picture Oscar winning musicals, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). More significantly, as far as Star Trek was concerned, he had some decent sci-fi credentials too, his most notable entry in the genre being the seminal 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still

Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn't capture the style or tone of the TV series that spawned it, but maybe that was deliberate. Robert Wise was apparently unfamiliar with the series anyway, something that does come across in the film. The concept of a rogue probe that is searching for its creator is at least recognisably a Star Trek concept, with shades of some of the TV episodes, particularly "The Changeling" with its deadly NOMAD probe. 

But in both narrative and visual terms, Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry appear to have been much more heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, released just over a decade before in 1968. Like that film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a mostly humourless, existential space epic, with a focus on technical hardware and questions of creation and evolution - in this case through the melding of human and machine. But any comparison to 2001 is not to the Star Trek film's advantage, it not being quite on the same level as Kubrick's film visually and nowhere near it conceptually. And in attempting to ape 2001, the film loses much of what made Star Trek a success.

The U.S.S. Enterprise in space dock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The U.S.S. Enterprise in space dock

Some scenes appear to have been directly inspired by the earlier film, including one where a space-suited Spock enters the mysterious energy cloud, a scene very reminiscent of the "Star Gate" sequence in 2001. As with that film, some of these scenes feel decidedly trippy, and the film might well be best appreciated by those who have already indulged. There are also long stretches of the Enterprise travelling slowly through the energy cloud. The special effects are good here and the film induces the appropriate sense of wonder and grandeur, but there's simply too much of it.

When the Enterprise penetrates the vast cloud and finds the intelligence within, a computer calling itself "V'ger" (pronounced "Veeger"), they discover that it is in fact ...

(spoiler)

A 300 year old NASA probe, Voyager 6, sent out beyond the Solar System to acquire knowledge and information. 

This was at least a topical story idea, as the real NASA probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 had both been launched only two years before in 1977 to conduct studies of Jupiter and Saturn. Both made their closest approach to the former in 1979, the year Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released. 

In a didactic expository scene, the characters fill in the blanks of Voyager 6's odyssey themselves, surmising that it disappeared into a black hole where it was found by a machine civilisation. They upgraded it and sent it back on its journey through the galaxy to continue its mission to collect data. Now it is returning home to Earth to report back to its creator. 

What V'ger lacks, though, is the human dimension, to take it beyond mere machine logic. Having taken over the body of Ilia, when V'ger discovers that its creator is man, it decides that it wants to, er, join with one. As she's the spitting image of his former lover, Decker agrees and man and woman (and therefore man and machine) are somehow united. This ending would probably be slightly disturbing, if it wasn't so soppy. In another of the film's 2001 echoes, the characters suggest that this union of man and machine may represent the next stage of evolutionary development. 

Ilia, Spock, Kirk and Decker with V'ger
Ilia, Spock, Kirk and Decker with V'ger

Star Trek: The Motion Picture does seem a little like the Voyager 6 probe itself. It's almost as if Star Trek had been discovered by a machine civilization and sent back to Earth, made bigger and shinier, but without its heart or soul.

Given the film's enthralment to hardware and general lack of human interest or emotion, it's only appropriate that the only real affectionate relationships in it are those between men and their technology. That is, between Decker and the mechanical replica of his lover Ilia and between Kirk and his starship the Enterprise

When a woman who appears to be a romantic prospect does appear, it's not long before she is replaced by a machine copy. Perhaps there's some unconscious message here, that the union between male and female would be a lot easier if women just weren't so emotional. Decker doesn't seem to find the robotic version of Ilia any less appealing than the real one. And with her skimpy new outfit and imploring look, the new Ilia arguably is sexier than the chaste original.

The film's extraordinary budget of around $44 million (compared to around $10 million for Star Wars two years before) does mean that it offers plenty of spectacle, even if the film is severely under-developed in the more critical areas of plot and character. 

In fact, the audience is given plenty of time to ponder and be impressed by the expensive special effects as they are showcased in the film at some length. The most egregious example is a five minute scene where Kirk and Scotty travel in a shuttle craft towards the Enterprise as it lies in space dock. They do this very very slowly, so that the audience can see and appreciate the big new expensive Enterprise model from every angle. This scene is not only slow and over extended, but self important and self-aggrandizing. But it does encapsulate the film's general substitution of spectacle and expensive special effects for story or character development. 

Two Klingon ships in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Klingon ships in the film's opening scene

The three Klingon ships seen at the beginning of the film are similarly shown from multiple angles, some of them admittedly quite arresting; all the better to allow the audience to appreciate the model work. These include a 180 degree rotation around the head of one ship as it appears to pass beneath the audience, its long neck then extending into the distance as it recedes.

While some of the effects work is excellent, overall it isn't up to the standard of Star Wars or 2001. That is despite drawing on the expertise of effects maestros Douglas Trumbull (of 2001) and John Dykstra (Star Wars). 

Problems with the costly special effects were the main reason why the film's budget was massively inflated from the original estimate of $15 million to around three times that amount. Robert Abel's company was contracted to provide the effects but, according to Douglas Trumball, little useable material had been produced and Paramount were getting close to their release date. Trumball's company Future General was under contract to Paramount and so he was very reluctantly drawn in to oversee the effects work. With only a few months remaining, the film still struggled to meet its release date and there were accompanying stories of wet prints being rushed to the cinemas waiting to show them.

The film's sets designed by Harold Michelson are obviously more detailed and expensive than anything seen in the series, although they do have a tendency towards corporate blandness. The least successful part of the film's visuals are the new Star Fleet uniforms. The familiar coloured jerseys of the original series were replaced for this film by all-new uniforms created by costume designer Bob Fletcher. These are not a success and their shapeless design and wishy-washy colours make the crew all look as if they are wearing their pyjamas. They also display very prominent belt buckles attached to barely visible belts. This makes it look as if the humans of the future have done away with belts but kept the buckles. The new costumes were no more comfortable to wear than they are to look at, so this film was their only outing. There would be a new uniform design from the next film onwards. 

Star Fleet uniforms in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The new Star Fleet uniforms. Any colour you want, as long as it's dull

The Klingons appear at the beginning of the film, it seems, mainly because they were a well known element of Star Trek and the series most familiar villains. The plot doesn't really require them, but they do add some welcome variety. The Klingons seen in The Motion Picture are significantly re-designed from those of the series, given more elaborate facial make-up with ridged foreheads. This look would be developed a little more and carried over to the subsequent films and TV series. 

The Klingons are now given subtitled dialogue for the first time, something that would be continued in later films. Just to add to this film's general air of solemnity and lack of fun, the opening scene of the subtitled Klingons is followed by another subtitled scene, this time of Vulcans. This does mean that you can use the film to pick up some elementary Klingon and Vulcan, with such useful Klingon phrases as "Tactical", "Evasive action" and "Stand by. Torpedo". 

The film's single most successful element is the excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith. This includes a warlike theme for the Klingons seen early in the film, awesome and menacing music for the V'ger cloud and a new main title theme. This is a strident march, quite different from the more spacey theme music of the TV series. 

The title theme was well regarded enough to be re-used as the title music for the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series when Star Trek returned to television in 1987. Jerry Goldsmith would also score Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989 and several of the Next Generation films, as well as providing the theme music for the '90s TV series Star Trek: Voyager

Mark Lenard as a Klingon Captain
Mark Lenard as the Klingon Captain

A so-called "Director's Edition" of the film was prepared by Robert Wise for DVD release in 2001. Numerous relatively minor changes were made and the running time increased to 136 minutes. It seems that Robert Wise may not have learned all that much from his experience on the film, as he must be the only person who saw it and thought that it needed to be a bit longer. 

While Walter Koenig didn't get that much to do in the film, he did at least get a book out of it. His tale of the making of the film was published the following year as Chekov's Enterprise: A Personal Journal of the Making of Star Trek - The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not especially enthusiastically received when it was released in 1979. With only a few exceptions, including a positive review in trade paper Variety, the critics found it dull and over-stretched. Jerry Goldsmith's score was better thought of and was nominated for an Academy Award, as were the film's visual effects and art direction.

Although few people were that enthusiastic about it, including some of the actors and crew who made it, Star Trek: The Motion Picture did fair business, making around $139 million worldwide at the box office. But the hugely inflated budget meant that it wasn't the money spinner that was hoped for.

Despite ultimately spawning a successful film series, meaning that Star Trek would run simultaneously on film and TV screens for the next twenty years or more, at the time it was assumed to be a one-off. Hence the definitive, singular title, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The receipts were decent enough, though, for Paramount to discern that a Star Trek sequel might be a worthwhile proposition - if it could be made for a lot less money. To be successful, such a sequel would also need more action and a stronger antagonist for Kirk to come up against; all issues that would be fixed in the second Star Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-fi
Country: USA
Director: Robert Wise

Cast  William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu), Majel Barrett (Dr. Chapel), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Persis Khambatta (Ilia), Stephen Collins (Decker), Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand), Mark Lenard (Klingon Captain), Billy Van Zandt (Alien boy), Roger Aaron Brown (Epsilon technician), Gary Faga (Airlock technician), David Gautreaux (Commander Branch), John D. Gowans (Assistant to Rand), Howard Itzkowitz (Cargo deck Ensign), Jon Rashad Kamal (Lt. Commander Sonak), Marcy Lafferty (Chief DiFalco), Michele Ameen Billy (Lieutenant), Jeri McBride (Technician), Terrence O'Connor (Chief Ross), Michael Rougas (Lt. Cleary), Susan J. Sullivan (Woman), Ralph Brannen, Ralph Byers, Paula Crist, Iva Lane, Franklyn Seales and Momo Yashima (Crew members), Jimmie Booth, Joel Kramer, Bill McTosh, Dave Moordigian, Tom Morga, Tony Rocco, Joel Schultz and Craig Thomas (Klingon crewmen), Edna Glover, Norman Stuart and Paul Weber (Vulcan Masters), Joshua Gallegos (Security officer), Leslie C. Howard (Yeoman), Sayra Hummel and Junero Jennings (Technical assistants)

Screenplay Harold Livingston, story Alan Dean Foster, based on Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry  Producer Gene Roddenberry  Cinematography Richard H. Kline  Production designer Harold Michelson Art directors Joe Jennings, Leon Harris, John Vallone  Editor Todd Ramsay  Music Jerry Goldsmith  Costume designer Bob Fletcher  Special photographic effects director Douglas Trumbull  Special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra  Special photographic effects producer Richard Yuricich  Special animation effects Robert Swarthe 

Running time 132 mins / 136 mins  ("Director's Edition")  Colour Metrocolor  Widescreen Panavision 

Production company Paramount Pictures / Century Associates  Distributor Paramount Pictures

Comments

  1. I couldn't agree more with your review. This movie is just so boring. Really, the bland uniforms sum it up.
    All in all I always thought that Star Trek worked much better overall on the small screen than as full-length movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Generally it's much more successful on television, the films being very uneven. But there are a couple of good Star Trek films - Star Trek II more than makes up for this one.

      Delete
    2. Yes, Star Trek II is quite good, mainly because of a deliciously hammy performance by Khaaaaaaannnn.

      Delete
    3. I should probably warn you, there's likely to be more Star Trek in the future ...

      Delete
  2. I respectfully disagree. I love the film (the Director's Cut, 136 min., which is longer than the theatrical version and shorter than the Special Edition). You can tell that this is the only one produced by Gene Roddenberry (he deliberately downplays the militaristic aspects of Starfleet -- Wrath of Khan does the opposite). Anyhow, I think it is a "fascinating" movie that aims to resolve Spock's inner struggles (shocking that he was not supposed to be in the movie because STMP is all about Spock). It's at the very least about "something," which is more than I can say about J.J. Abrams's movies, which are about nothing but fan service.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If the story is meant to be about resolving Spock's inner struggles then I don't think it's very successful in doing that. The downplaying of the militarism is interesting and it's certainly a contrast with Star Trek II. Maybe it's a reaction to Vietnam, or maybe it's Roddenberry coming to believe his own publicity as a great visionary.

      This film is at least visually distinctive. The later ones, especially the Next Generation ones, tend to be a bit bland and forgettable. I'm not convinced the Abrams films really are Star Trek. Its not a surprise that he quickly moved on to Star Wars.

      Delete
    2. Sorry for the delayed response, I didn't realize you had replied to my comments. Anyhow, I do think that the film successfully ends Spock's identity crisis. V'ger makes him value his human side, effectively putting an end to the Vulcan's signature issue. Without STMP, I don't think you could have had the content Spock of STII (he is so calm, so serene). In STIV, Spock faces the same problem after he is reborn, and he has to relearn the lesson he had learned in STMP (STIV's ending mirrors STMP). One of the many reasons STV doesn't work is because it negates Spock's growth (the scene where Spock witnesses his birth makes absolutely no sense). Just my two cents.

      Delete

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