Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The slow-motion picture! But does the crew’s first outing deserve its slow and ponderous reputation?

What’s The Movie? Star Trek: The Motion Picture

So here we have the debut cinematic outing for the original crew of the Enterprise as the band get back together for their first venture onto the silver screen (plus a couple of session players, it seems). But does the movie live up to its slow, ponderous reputation?

Pre-Existing Prejudices:
Well, there’s that ponderous reputation for starters. The film is often referred to as The Motionless Picture or The Slow-Motion Picture, and has a standing that suggests “good attempt, didn’t work out” is about as generous as one could be. Putting that aside I know the Riker/Troi relationship from TNG is basically a carbon copy of the Dekker/Ilea one from this movie. I doubt I’ve seen this in… twenty-five years though, so I am going in as open-minded as is possible.

What’s It All About, JG?
The crew of the Enterprise get back together for slow-moving, ponderous space adventures as an alien of unknown origin plods its way laboriously towards Earth while Kirk has a dick-swinging competition with someone a good decade younger than him. Meanwhile, Spock’s become a blank slate of annoyance, McCoy’s grown a beard that any given pirate might be envious of, and the rest of the crew lurk about the bridge in the hopes of getting the odd line or two. Thankfully, it turns out our two principal guest characters – Dekker and Ilea – are eminently disposable and join with Voyager (no, no that one) in order to create some kind of new life. Or something. It all ends in a big flood of sparkly lights and everything’s probably fine.

Any Other Business:

• So, those new Starfleet uniforms are the worst we will ever see. Worse than TNG’s spandex crotch-grabbers. Worse than TOS’s bright, primary-coloured action-figure aesthetic. Worse than whatever those blue things they’re wearing on Discovery are. So, so many shades of the colour beige.

• The first few minutes of this film are great! New look Klingons! Watch the camera swirl around over the neck of a Bird Of Prey! Guttural language! This film is gonna be amazing if it features all of that! Oh…

• That new theme – played at the right speed, not the parpy, speeded-up TNG version which tries to sound exciting rather than stately – is pretty great, despite its over-exposure.

• Nice toupee, William.

• Nice toupee, DeForest.

• Nice wig, Leonard.

• Nice afro, Nichelle.

• Those looooong shots of the Enterprise, as Scotty gives Kirk a guided tour in one of those butt-plug transport pods, are self-indulgent in the extreme, but there’s no doubt the ship looks amazing.

• Transporter accident! Why? Erm… It’s effectively realised – the new transporter effect isn’t quite as good as the old one though it’s still pretty great, and the sound effects go a long way to selling what’s happening. It’s quite shocking, though Shatner’s presumably-meant-to-be-stunned “oh my god” isn’t his greatest work.

• Hey, that’s Voyager’s warp core! Actually, the warp core looks pretty great here, and way better than the Enterprise-D’s series of cheap-ass neon rings.

• Kirk’s quarters are a symphony in 1979 design-work, with sliding smoked-glass doors, big chunky consoles and soft furnishings that look like they’ve been bought from the furniture store up the road from Paramount (see also the Officer’s Lounge which is the same, yet somehow more).

• Dekker is doomed from the second we get to see his puppy-dog enthusiasm in Engineering. Dead, dead, dead. Nobody cracks on like that and survives.

• Ilea’s a fairly bold choice for 1979 – competent, apparently genuinely alien, and bald – which is why she too is doomed within about fifteen minutes of being on screen, replaced by an automaton with a glowing neck jewel (sadly, not a euphemism).

• Wooooorrrrrmmmmmmhhhhhhoooolllleeeeeeee! It’s silly in the extreme, the whole cast are doing their absolute best the-ship-is-shaking acting (which, slowed down as the footage is, makes everyone look like they’re in Airplane!), and yet… it very nearly works, despite the pointless, arbitrary nature of the threat. Nearly.

• And… that’s about it. The remaining film – all approximately twelve hours of it – sees next to nothing happen. Honestly up to the point of Wooooorrrrrmmmmmmhhhhhhoooolllleeeeeeee the movie’s doing pretty well. All the regulars are reintroduced, there’s a threat that seems remarkably visceral (those lightning-crackling effects, matched with a deep discordant synth, are still pretty great) and after that… nothing. The film just dies after about three-quarters of an hour, and we’re left with another hour and a half to go where virtually nothing happens.

• Well, Ilea dies – “that carbon unit no longer functions” – but it’s not what anyone would deign to call dramatic. Stephen Collins – he of the cleft chin – doesn’t have the acting chops to land either the investment in their previous relationship nor his apparent torment at her death, and so the whole thing is a bit of a wash.

• Persis Khambatta is fine as Ilea, but the character gets so little time to make an impression before being replaced by a robot double and consequently has very little to work with. There’s occasional warm flashes of a personality – and she’s a conspicuously better actor than Collins – but before long she’s wandering the Enterprise corridors in a short-short dressing gown and it all gets rather forgotten.

• The “probe” that investigated the bridge and actually takes Ilea is very effective though, and the blistering white light, screeching sound effects, and the way it snaps off while Ilea’s tricorder falls to the deck is very successful. Though it’s hard for me not to mutter “think good thoughts” while it’s all going on.

• This is Leonard Nimoy’s worst appearance as Spock across any part of the franchise. He seems to have decided that Spock purged of emotion equates to “not bothering to act”. Sure, he’s meant to be changed by his experiences on Vulcan, but mostly it just looks like Nimoy just doesn’t want to be there. His desire to not play Spock, then deciding to play Spock, is a recurring theme across the TOS movies.

• He gets two solid moments though, once screaming when attempting to mind-meld with V’Ger, and his moment in sick bay when he slightly chuckes to himself and describes V’Ger as “barren” because it’s nothing more than machine-logic. In those two moments we’re reminded why Nimoy is great in the role. Nowhere else are we.

• It’s very childish of me, but I couldn’t help tittering every time the portal that Spock and then the Enterprise passes through was referred to as an “orifice”. Heh. Tittering.

• The whole movie ends in a flood of explanation – it’s not really even exposition, more like characters turning to the audience and saying, “this is what we were going for” – while Dekker and not-Ilea “ascend” to a “higher plain of being”, all defined in the most nebulous way possible. Then the Enterprise is fine and warps off into a tacky special effect (and it looked tacky back in 1979 as well). The, uh, end? That’s… it?

• Well, and apparently “the human adventure is just beginning”. Is it? Let’s hope next time out it’s a touch more engaging.

In Conclusion:
So, after a decade in syndication, a booming fandom and ever-increasing pressure on Paramount to bring it back, Star Trek triumphantly returns in this, it’s first big-screen outing. After the aborted Phase II, an attempt to bring Star Trek back to the small screen which was stopped after Paramount decided they wanted some of that Star Wars box office, things instead shifted to the silver screen. This was it. What fans had waited a full decade for. A live action, full cast return of their favourite show, this time on the big screen and backed by a big chunky budget that would consign all those jokes about wobbly sets, naff effects and things-on-strings to history. It would be amazing. Jubilant, even. Prove all the haters wrong.

Nope. The Motion Picture is baffling in many ways, but one of the most baffling things about it is just how determined it seems to be to not to give the audience what the audience might reasonably be expected to want out of a Star Trek film. And I don’t just mean fans, though them (us) too, but just anyone going to see this movie. One of the centres of the original series, one of the reasons it still speaks to audiences today, was the core cast of characters – Kirk, Spock and McCoy, a triumvirate for the ages, each deeply invested in each other, balancing out the flaws and strengthening the strengths through their friendships even when (especially in the third season) the stories might falter. They were easy characters to care about, drawn broadly but with nuance, able to find traction above and beyond the limits of fandom to become cultural touchstones, and brought vividly to life by Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley in career-best performances. So… why does The Motion Picture give us no chance to enjoy them? Far from the charming, relaxed confidence that radiated out of the 60’s version, the Kirk of The Motion Picture is mostly a petulant asshole, shoving Dekker out of the way for his own selfish ends and apparently giving next to no fucks about doing so while engaging in petty one-upmanship. Spock’s a dreary blank slate with Nimoy demonstrating next to no shading in the character – he could have been replaced in many scenes with a cardboard cut-out and cue-cards for all the performance he delivers. McCoy’s pretty much intact, but he’s got little to work with (of the three, Kelley is by far and away the best here, though he’s helped considerably by being the only one actually allowed to enjoy his own character). Where’s the sparking banter between McCoy and Spock? Where’s the unspoken but deep friendship between Spock and Kirk? Where’s the warmth and understanding between Kirk and McCoy? We love these characters! Why not given us the chance to appreciate them? It’s one of many decisions that does damage to The Motion Picture. Play around with Director’s Cuts and fan edits all you want, none of that is going to fix the fact that the characters we actually care about aren’t the characters we are actually presented with. It’s absolutely the right decision to show that things have moved on from the original series, nobody’s going to deny that, but this is a movie and there just isn’t time to take the characters from where they start here (Kirk asshole, Spock blank, McCoy out of the picture) to something closer to what we recognise. Character journeys only really work if they have a journey but they don’t here even though the film seems to think they do (one of many Roddenberry miscalculations). Kirk’s still an asshole who survives here by luck and the handy willingness of his XO to basically suicide, Spock’s not moved an inch despite apparently mind-melding with the biggest intelligence ever (his little chuckle in sick back after this event is pretty much Nimoy’s lone moment of effective acting), and McCoy’s still McCoy (because he’s not really given anything to do). All the minor characters turn up and do their party pieces – Scotty’s gruff but affectionate, Sulu gets to fly, Uhura does some communications stuff and Chekov is… certainly on screen a little – but the heart of the show is conspicuously missing.

You could never call Star Trek: The Motion Picture confusing. It’s got that going for it. Big probe heads for Earth, the Enterprise is sent to stop it, turns out V’Ger is in fact Voyager 6, and the crew neutralise the threat at the cost of two of their own. We’ve seen this story before – “The Changeling”, naturally – but Star Trek has never had to be original to succeed so the fact the plot is a bit of a re-tread isn’t an automatic demerit. The problem here is, essentially, that the plot we have is indeed about enough to fill out a TV episode, but unfortunately the movie is over two hours long and the difference is made up with absolutely interminable padding. There’s a good reason for this – the original script was made for the Phase II TV series then re-tooled to become The Motion Picture. I’m not going to spend any time talking about Phase II, though it’s an interesting what-might-have-been, but its crushingly obvious how little effort has been made to add to the material. What we have hasn’t been expanded so much as watered down. We could have spent more time on the Dekker/Ilea relationship so when we lose Ilea and Dekker later choses to sacrifice himself for the chance to be reunited with her, we have some reason to be invested in what happens to them. Instead we have endless, endless shots of the interior of V’ger that just go on forever and (except for the first time we see them) contribute nothing more to our understanding of the situation. They’re just run-time. Padding is one thing but this is ridiculous. V’ger itself is relatively intriguing in the early going but again the repetitive working-our-way-through-the-cloud sequences drain a lot of the interest – sure it gives a sense of scale but it’s very much a technical success rather than actually, you know, interesting. It’s all very well asking when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory, but in this case it would be nice to know that there even was a firework factory to get to.

And that’s really the problem. The first part of the film is comparatively decent, if not fast-moving, but it does actually manage to set up a few interesting ideas, we see those three Klingon ships – by light-years the best anything in Star Trek has ever looked up till this point – brushed aside without pause in some genuinely tense early scenes, and a fairly effective set-up whereby Earth is threatened but nobody has the slightest clue by what (hang on to this idea, it’ll be back in three movies’ time). The character work is rough but it gets us there, and little glimpses of things like a listening post or Starfleet HQ in San Francisco (the first time we ever see it, in fact) give us windows into parts of the Star Trek universe that, from a 1979 perspective, we simply haven’t seen before. There’s texture and detail to the set-up, it’s not gratuitous, and those early scenes give a good sense of place – if Earth is to be threatened it’s nice to see what might be lost rather than simply being told about it. Sure, it’s vastly improbable that the newly refitted Enterprise is the only ship around but OK it gets Our Heroes involved. And it all crashes to a stop in a flood of special effects that seem positively defensive in their deployment. See? See how good we can look? See it again? And again? Eh? Eh? Amazing, right? It’s all just incredibly gratuitous. The long drive round the Enterprise in space dock is forgivable – this is a moment of valediction from a show that’s come back from the grave, and it’s earned a few moments of triumph, showing off what it can be (and that Enterprise is the best-looking ship Star Trek will ever give us, genuinely stunning). But as for the rest? Well… the problem with constructing your movie around spectacle and wonder is that there has to be some purpose to the spectacle and some sense of wonder to capitalise on it. In this, we see the worst impulses of Roddenberry come to the surface, because once the Enterprise gets to the probe the whole thing just becomes an exercise in pompous self-importance – we gave birth to a god and a new form of life! – and it’s pretentious in the extreme. The film is obviously attempting to ape 2001: A Space Odyssey in these sequences – an odd choice and ten years distant at this point, though the more recent Close Encounters is an obvious antecedent as well. But neither Roddenberry nor Alan Dean Foster (the credited “story by” writer on this) have anything like the ability to pull that off. That’s because Roddenberry is a hack, and not even an especially gifted one. Being called a hack isn’t necessarily pejorative – lots of hack writers are successful, and many hack writers (Terry Nation is another prime example) can come up with great ideas without necessarily being great writers in and of themselves. Indeed “hack” generally used to mean someone who could just bang something out rather than something which was automatically bad. Roddenberry’s big problem is that he can’t identify this failing in himself and seems to think he’s somehow the equal of Kubrick and Spielberg. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not and nor is the movie’s director Robert Wise. He can set up a few decent shots but there’s simply no excuse for the terrible pacing of the back two-thirds of the movie, and between Wise and Roddenberry there’s plenty of blame to go round. It’s just endless special effects / character looking awestruck / special effects / character looking awestruck again and again and again. It’s boring. Although The Motion Picture did decent box office, and made enough to get a sequel green-lit, the movie was a critical failure and resulted in Roddenberry getting more or less kicked upstairs for the remaining TOS movies. Good.

I don’t want to claim that The Motion Picture is irredeemably bad, in the end. It’s not. What we have probably isn’t salvageable in any meaningful sense, but at the same time while this might be a failure, it is (if not an interesting one, per se) an instructive one. Almost all the remaining TOS movies will learn from the mistakes of this one and build forward from it. The Wrath Of Khan will bother to include some action so there’s a bit of excitement, The Search For Spock will invest in character work, The Voyage Home will invest in comedy and entertainment and so on. Never again – not even in the preposterous The Final Frontier – will we be presented with such uninteresting material, so if The Motion Picture can be said to have any worthwhile value it’s mostly to serve as a bad example for others to avoid. Like I said, it’s not a complete bust and the early goings are solid before the film becomes over-invested in its own sense of grandiose self-importance. What’s maybe most telling is that the biggest impact The Motion Picture has going forward is in production – sets, effects shots, props and more will be endlessly recycled in the following decade and beyond. And there’s good cause – the production work here is absolutely stellar, by far and away the best thing about the film. What a pity they forgot to weld a decent story or interesting characters to all that hard work.

What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
A good 25%. Like I said, there’s simply no excuse for the terrible pacing in the back section of the film, and there’s absolutely no sense of tension. In principal we’re supposed to believe that all life on Earth is threatened but the threat remains entirely abstract and there’s little danger of Our Heroes being troubled by anything either. By the time we get to the big confrontation in front of V’Ger it’s painfully obvious Dekker isn’t making it back to the ship, and in the end to escape our three remaining heroes just leg it back to the Enterprise. Running away is not a dramatic climax to more than two hours of adventuring (though the characters emerging on to the saucer section and walking across it is an excellent visual and good work from Wise, once again showing where the movie’s emphasis lies).

How Shatner-y Is Shatner?
Not that much, actually. The Motion Picture captures Shatner at an odd point in his career. The success of TJ Hooker still lay in his future and Shatner’s career wasn’t exactly filled with a series of high-profile successes throughout the 70’s – a scattering of B-movies, a few much mocked / now beloved albums, one-shot guest appearances on shows like Columbo, and little else of note. Here, he plays Kirk pretty much as the script asks him to – a bit of an asshole, occasionally charming, but mostly simply there. There’s a couple of Shatneresque moments that stand out, like his “oh my god” after the transporter accident, and a whole slew of “Spock!”’s in that unique delivery of his. But there’s a few moments when the relaxed, easy, almost boyish charm of the 60’s Kirk pokes through, and when they occur it’s easy to recall just why both Shatner and Kirk made such a striking impression on the original show. Sadly, they’re few and far between, and while Shatner hasn’t yet resorted to essentially doing an impression of himself, he also hasn’t learned how to scale up his performance to accommodate appearing on the big screen. He’s not bad – and certainly better than Nimoy this time out – but this is a pretty low-profile performance all round. You know – as far as Shatner can be low profile.

How Achingly 1979 Is This Movie?
Dear Lord, is it ever 1979. The fashion, the sets, the big chunky Enterprise controls… it couldn’t be more 1979 if “My Sharona” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” were on the soundtrack. Everything, absolutely everything, screams 1979. Even the weird belt buckle / fannypack things the uniforms have couldn’t really have come from any other point in time. Ilea feels like an attempt to do something “women’s lib”-esque, though the 70’s version of women’s lib really belongs to an earlier part of the decade when we only had The Animated Series to keep the Star Trek flame alive. Even Spock’s nylon hair extensions and sideburns seem very time-locked. That’s Ok – the datedness of the movie is a rare instance of charm in a movie that desperately needs more of it.

Fanwankometer Reading, Captain:
Beyond the simple existence of a Star Trek movie itself, not especially high. We have Janice Rand and Nurse (now Doctor) Chapel putting in a couple of appearances which are both fan service and a nice nod to very junior crew members still being included. We get to see Vulcan for only the second time, and it looks generally great – actually alien in a way that “Amok Time” could never quite convince us it was (actually this will be the best Vulcan ever looks as far as TOS goes). You could be ungenerous and say the whole script is a fanwanky reference to “The Changeling”, given that they’re nearly the same story, but let’s not start our first movie so negatively.

MVP:Jerry Goldsmith. The cast are – as discussed – mostly fine with the odd demerit. Roddenberry’s script is, at best, passable and often very much less. The set designs aren’t bad for 1979, and Starfleet seems relatively convincing despite those uniforms. But nobody quite puts in the effort like Jerry Goldsmith. Quite apart from writing what everyone now thinks of as The Next Generation theme tune, we also get the Klingon theme (you know the one) as three Birds Of Prey are wiped out in the opening minutes of the film. But apart from the familiar themes (and despite mysteriously declining to use the Alexander Courage TV signature tune, it is referenced a couple of times on the soundtrack) he also puts in maximum efforts to make the endless effects shots seem like they have a real sense of wonder about them. He can’t quite pull it off – because they’re not nearly as wonderful as everyone seems to think they are – but that’s not in any way his fault and the swelling strings and thoughtful orchestration as increasingly small and silly models of the Enterprise drift through some Christmas fairy lights are worthy of real praise.

Movie Rankings:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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