Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in December of 1979 and, while financially successful, it was critically panned within an inch of its life. The critical reception was so bad that, for awhile, the newly-resurrected Star Trek franchise seemed unsure of how to go forward. Its 1982 sequel, “The Wrath of Khan”, was a more familiar shoot ’em up space opera, with starship battles and phasers firing. It also had a plot that was a direct sequel to a fairly popular episode of the original series (“Space Seed”; not one of my favorites, but okay…). “Khan” was lower budgeted, faster-paced, more profitable, and was much better received critically. It arguably ‘saved’ the Star Trek brand name.
To many, Star Trek: The Motion Picture felt like an expensive, curious dead-end. Personally I don’t share that view. In fact, I think Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST-TMP) was one of two times that a Star Trek movie had a genuine science fiction story (the other being 1986’s “The Voyage Home”; aka ‘the one with the whales’) and not just a revenge-themed space opera; an all-too common template for the sequels.
ST-TMP was, like the starship Excelsior in the third movie, the ‘great experiment.’
******** SPOILERS AHEAD! ********
The story: Kirk and his reassembled crew (including a resigned but returning Mr. Spock) depart in a sleek, refurbished USS Enterprise to encounter a massive, mysterious, destructive energy-cloud that has already destroyed three Klingon ships as well as a Starfleet listening post. The ‘cloud’ is on a direct course to Earth. As the Enterprise penetrates its outer layers, it discovers that the cloud enshrouds a colossal alien vessel that, in turn, has a wayward NASA space probe, Voyager Six, at its nucleus. The ancient probe has mutated, become self-aware, and now calls itself “V’ger” (thanks to a bit of cosmic schmutz on its own nameplate). V’ger seeks to find and join with its creator, and seems incapable of believing that mere humans (“carbon units”) were its makers. Kirk orders the Enterprise to transmit the proper NASA coded reply to V’ger’s obsolete radio message, and his first officer Decker touches V’ger itself (not in that way…) in an effort to ‘join’ with it and merge into a new blend of organic and artificial life. The new life form apparently exits our dimension and Earth is saved.
Here are my personal pros and cons of the movie:
The PROS of Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- No Star Trek movie since has ever had quite the same sense of cosmic scale as this movie did. Even more so than Star Wars, TMP truly gave me a feeling of being in deep space, especially in a cool, darkened theater. TMP was more of a cinematic experience than a linear, A-to-B movie. I would have a similar sensation when I finally saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” several years later, at a revival theatrical screening.
- The legendary late composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score is, alternately, regal/grandiose and utterly alien. The opening theme to TMP became so identifiable with Star Trek that it was ultimately reused as the theme for Star Trek’s eventual return to the small screen in 1987’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” For the V’ger cloud sequence, the music is like something out of a transcendent dream. The alienness of V’ger is continually reinforced with the unsettling and discordant sounds of a unique instrument known as a blaster beam. The musical score for ST-TMP is my personal favorite of the ST movie soundtracks.
- The redesigned Klingons actually look alien, unlike the swarthy Fu Manchus of the ’60s television series. Mark Lenard, who played the first Romulan captain (“Balance of Terror”) and Spock’s father “Sarek” (in the TV series episode, “Journey to Babel” and in three of the sequel movies) also plays the Klingon commander, and is fairly unrecognizable (below, right).
- Spock’s “Kolinahr” scene on Vulcan. The reddish-hued process photography combined with the outdoor location reinforces the reality of this alien place. I also appreciate that the actors performed the entire scene in the Vulcan language (re-dubbed from English; you can occasionally see the actor’s lips mouthing English words). An afterthought perhaps, but a nice touch.
- We finally get a glimpse of Earth in the 23rd century, and it didn’t disappoint. Seeing the Golden Gate bridge at San Francisco bay from Starfleet HQ was truly epic and fitting (especially the slightly longer view afforded in the 2001 director’s cut).
- The redesigned Enterprise is sleek, elegant and graceful; a true thing of beauty. That ‘look of love’ that Admiral Kirk gives her as he and Scotty orbit in a travel pod makes perfect sense to me. The new Enterprise miniature is one of the most complex, beautiful miniatures ever created for motion control photography. And the six minute-long, stately travel pod/docking sequence (elevated by Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring score) would NEVER be made today with our current, short-attention span culture. I’m just glad I grew up in a time when such scenes were still possible…
- The new engine room. Hi-tech, shiny digs with exotic, swirling, lighting effects suggesting a powerful mix of matter and antimatter. Forced perspective also gives the illusion of a massive size; augmented by using shorter actors and children in spacesuits closer to the rear set wall. It sure beats the repurposed Budweiser plant used for the 2009 movie.
- The transporter malfunction scene. This was some pretty intense s#!t when I was a youngster; the eerie sound FX, the darkened transporter room chamber, and the distorted moans and shrieks as the two transportees are torn apart molecule-by-molecule were genuine nightmare fuel. Especially for a then-G-rated movie (!).
- Kirk addresses the entire crew on the recreation deck. For the first (and last) time in ST history, there was budget enough for a few hundred extras; many of whom were volunteer longtime fans, such as uber fan Bjo Trimble, or writers like “Trouble With Tribbles” scriptwriter/author David Gerrold. I once had a talk with Chris Doohan (son of “Scotty” James Doohan) at a convention, and he was in that scene as well (he was all of 19 when they filmed it). He told me it was a lot of fun to see his dad’s show becoming a major movie.The scale of the scene really suggested a large crew aboard a spacious, futuristic starship. It’s flourishes like this (being able to afford so many extras) that really gives TMP a scale and an epic quality missing from many of the subsequent Star Trek movies.
- The cameos of Janice Rand (played by ST veteran Grace Lee Whitney) and “Doctor” Christine Chapel, formerly Nurse Chapel (played by ST vet and creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry). Nice to see that bit of continuity with the old series, and their cameos mean even more now that both actresses have passed away. Rand would return in STIII and VI, and Chapel would return in IV (Majel Roddenberry returned as Lwaxanna Troi in The Next Generation as well).
- McCoy is beamed aboard with a thick, mountain-man beard and his grumpiness firmly intact! He is one of the few characters in the film who feels exactly like his TV-era self. He’s wry, ill-tempered, and still gets all of the best lines. ^ The late DeForest Kelley was a marvel, and the movie really picks up when he comes aboard.
- The launch of the USS Enterprise; much like the earlier travel pod sequence, the launch itself is not rushed either. It’s grand, majestic, and has all the pomp and circumstance of a cruise ship launch. And it doesn’t hurt that (once again) Jerry Goldsmith’s music for this sequence is simply incredible. Seriously, I’ve played this particular track (“Leaving Drydock”) in my car stereo far more times than I’m comfortable admitting…
- The refit Enterprise’s warp drive effect is gorgeous! Still works today…
- The wormhole sequence. We finally see what happens when a system as complex and potentially dangerous as a warp drive engine goes a wee bit caca. The meticulous light streaking effects (all hand-rotoscoped) and the distorted, slowed voices of the actors add to the unnaturalness of it. The tunneling ‘wormhole’ itself was created by using refracted & split laser beams. Beautiful optical FX work. These days, it’d all be done in a computer, but in 1979 it was lovingly created with opticals and motion control. While not critical to the story per se, the wormhole sequence is a terrific exercise in the limits of late ’70s cutting edge opticals.
- Spock’s arrival on the Enterprise. Spock actually has the best character arc in the film; he arrives onboard the Enterprise more Vulcan than ever. Having failed to ‘purge’ all of his remaining emotions during the Kolinahr on Vulcan, he doubles down on his own suppression of his human half. But over the course of the movie, and after his mind-meld with V’ger’s transceiver/sensor, he seems to reawaken the warmer version of himself that we saw in the TV series (and he retains that quality in the subsequent movies as well). His unexpected laughter in sickbay, and his tears shed on the bridge (as seen in the director’s cut) are evidence of his own peace with his latent emotions. The late Leonard Nimoy was a gifted performer and a genuinely nice man, and meeting him at 2009 Comic Con in San Diego (above ^) was a real thrill.
- The Enterprise’s journey through the cloud layers of V’ger. The FX work by Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra is jaw-droppingly beautiful and mesmerizing. Yes, the sequence is perhaps a bit overlong (much like the earlier drydock and launch sequences), but it’s that lulling, hypnotic pace that allows the gorgeous, meticulously-crafted FX imagery to really work into your brain. These days, such a sequence would be onscreen for only a few seconds, or shredded to ribbons with quick-cut editing. Oh, how I miss the days when audiences actually had attention spans and didn’t have to look at their phones every few seconds during a two-hour movie…
- The new Deltan crew member, Lt. Ilia, as played by the late Persis Khambatta (who sadly passed away in 1998, due to a heart ailment). When I was younger I never gave her performance its due, but as an adult, I realize just what a carefully modulated performance it really was; for example, she never blinks when her character is reincarnated as the robotic, V’ger controlled “Ilia-probe.” And her electronically manipulated voice also becomes more ‘lifelike’ the longer she is among the Enterprise crew. Khambatta’s exotic Mumbai accent also adds to the character as well. Nice to encounter ‘aliens’ who don’t all sound like they live in the Hollywood hills. There are also subtle moments of flickering emotion on her face as the probe’s latent memories of Ilia’s past life resurface. It’s a more intriguing performance each time I see it.
- Spock’s thruster-suited space walk inside the depth’s of the V’ger spacecraft. Basically it’s Nimoy in a spacesuit in front of a blue screen, describing the imaginary vistas his character encounters. But…when the FX are added in, along with Goldsmith’s music? It’s like a sequence right out of the last half hour of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, with a bit of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” thrown in. A dazzling set piece that ‘wakes up’ the lagging third act of the movie.
- The peaceful, non-violent resolution to the film’s central dilemma. Such a deliberately nonviolent ending is pretty remarkable and even a bit unimaginable today, especially for a ‘blockbuster’ franchise movie. Could you imagine a superhero film where they didn’t throw a single punch? Or an action movie where no one was shot? That’s essentially the breadth of the feat pulled off by this movie. A post-Star Wars space opera without space battles or fire fights. Not a single phaser is fired in the film (!). And the only photon torpedoes fired by the Enterprise are to stop a wayward asteroid that is locked on a collision course with the ship.
- The ‘villain’ of the film is merely a misguided, sentient space probe, Voyager 6, that wishes to join with its creator.
The Enterprise’s first officer, Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins), sacrifices himself to merge with V’ger. But he does so not just to save the ship, but also for his own self-discovery. His last words, “I want this. As much as you (Kirk) wanted the Enterprise? I want THIS.” He then merges into a brilliant light display with V’ger and the Ilia-probe, as they disappear into another dimension. A fusion of man and machine into something both other and beyond. A new life form. It’s a non-hero heroic ending (or new beginning) for the character… and done without a single punch thrown, or weapon used. Decker faces the unknown with both eagerness and acceptance. It’s Trek’s core philosophy embodied. Somehow, I can’t imagine a superhero movie where the hero and villain hug it out and start a family together at the end…
- TMP is also the last ST film that truly feels like genuine science fiction and not ‘heroes-and-bad guys’ space opera. The idea of a nascent super-intelligence that can’t comprehend touch or human emotion, seeking answers from its ‘god’ (its human creators) is really heady stuff. And in 1979 this was a G-rated movie, mind you (!). The plot sounds like a sophisticated Japanese anime, or an Andrei Tarkovsky film. The only other ST movie that ever came close to such a pure science fiction concept was “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (yes, the one with the whales…).
- The 2001 Director’s Cut DVD is a slight improvement on the less-refined version from 1979. Personally supervised by director Robert Wise himself, before he passed away, it fixes a few of the minor flaws of the film but doesn’t change the essential tone or flavor. I own both versions, but I don’t think I could pick a favorite of the two. The theatrical cut (flaws and all) is the one I grew up with, and the director’s cut is a bit more finessed. Love ’em both.
The CONS of Star Trek: The Motion Picture:
- The story was a bit of a rehash of earlier episodes (“The Changeling” and “The Doomsday Machine”, with a dash of “Immunity Syndrome” thrown in). V’ger is essentially the “The Changeling”‘s Nomad probe with higher production value and a lesser vocabulary…
Veering too close to source material is an understandable mistake, especially considering that this was one of the first TV series to EVER be adapted into a movie; a trend that continues unabated to this day (with far less satisfying results at times…).
- The movie was competing for Star Wars’ dollars, but it’s much more “2001” in tone and feel. Perhaps TMP was the wrong kind of movie for the wrong time (?). A shame, because I actually appreciate the differences between TMP and Star Wars. TMP boldly did its own thing, despite the marketing pressures. I love both, but in very different ways. TMP is the chess game, Star Wars is the SuperBowl. One is an intellectual challenge, the other is the rousing crowd pleaser. Both have their merits.
- The pacing. It’s either a blessing or a curse, depending on how much you enjoy the subject matter and how much time you have. Personally I enjoy it very much, but I can also sympathize with those who want to just ‘get on’ with the story.
- The acting styles vary quite a bit. From the more subtle performances of Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Persis Khambatta (“Ilia-probe”) to the stilted line-readings of the comm officer aboard the Epsilon 9 space station (“Sir, it-is-on-a-precise-heading-for-Earth.”). The all-over-the-place acting styles of TMP kind of reminds me of the Star Wars prequels. Robert Wise is a fine and talented director (see: “Andromeda Strain” for an example), but some of the acting in TMP is a bit dodgy, to say the least.
- Walter Koenig’s ear-bleedingly awful Mr. Chekov. Forgive me Chekov fans, but that Russian accent is wery wery bad. Walter Koenig’s Chekov sounds like a ’60s Cold War-era parody of a Russian accent, and not at all like the real Russians I’ve talked to in my lifetime. It’s so unnatural that it makes the character sound positively cartoonish. You’d think (hope?) that with the leap to the big screen, the actor might’ve been encouraged to try a slightly more subtle and realistic Russian accent for his character…
- The redesigned uniforms. Take a look at this photo… a good, long look. They look like drab, color-drained Dr. Dentons. At least the ’60s versions had some color…
- In a maddening trend that would continue in some of the ST movie sequels, regular cast members Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Sulu (George Takei) are given next to nothing of real consequence to do… a real shame. As they proved in the sequels, they were more than up for the challenge. It was great to see Hikaru Sulu finally became captain of the starship Excelsior in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”
- And the single greatest issue with ST-TMP (for me) is that this family of characters whom we came to know and love so much in the original series are, like their uniforms, drained of color. They act as if they’re in a spy caper film; exchanging tense glances, or raised eyebrows now and then, but their warmth and humanity are largely suppressed in favor of ‘the mission’ (and arguably the FX). One of the shining exceptions to this rule is the late DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy. But even most of his moments are reduced to exchanging a few colorful words with Kirk & Spock, and then heading back to sickbay. The actors recite their dialogue well enough, but aren’t allowed to do much else. This rich cadre of characters, who are much better served in the sequels, are almost entirely subverted in favor of plot mechanics. This is my single, biggest issue with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
So those are my pros and cons of this underrated, though admittedly imperfect movie.
To those who only see it now, on the smaller screen, you may not understand exactly why this movie is so spacial for my generation. For those of who lived in the late ’70s, TMP also represented a dream realized; to see a beloved, long-cancelled TV series brought back to lavish, lush life in 70mm widescreen (!). This was not so common as it is today, where nearly EVERY old TV show is made into a movie… even “Baywatch” for chrissakes. TV shows and movies were worlds apart in 1979.
TMP, with its rich production values and FX work, was like going to see a high-end planetarium show, with your favorite TV show’s characters acting as guides. And for a chubby, 12 year old science fiction nerd in 1979? That was enough.