The year is 1979. I am 7 years old and sitting in my living room in the far corner by the large brown chair when my grandfather comes over. He has a newspaper with him and offers to take me to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was a fan; not of Star Trek, but of his grandson. He knew I was a fan and loved anything with monsters – “mamones”, as he called them. Off we went to explore the final frontier. About half-way through it, I was done! It was a slow affair for a 7 year old. We got up, made it to the back of the theater and… something in my 7 year old brain realized: good or bad, my grandfather and I were spending time together and that made it worth staying. Just to be there with him, we sat back down for the second half.
Flash forward to today where I sit re-watching a movie I haven’t seen in a very long time and you know what? It’s actually pretty good! Oh, it’s no kids movie! In fact, it’s basically a two hour retelling of the classic Trek episode The Changeling, where V’Ger, in place of Nomad, goes looking for The Creator. It’s even structured like a two-part episode: the entire first 50 minutes is building to the first contact which occurs right around the 55 minute mark. The next half is actually making contact and finding out what it’s all about!
The issue the movie suffers from is a heavy influence by the 1969 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a lot of lovely music, really slow panning shots and plenty of people floating around outside in space suits. In fact, as Kirk and Scotty peruse the outside of the Enterprise, we waste about 10 minutes just going over the ship… inch by inch. We do the same thing later, going into V’Ger, layer by fractal layer. To harm the production further, grumpy Kirk, drafted McCoy and especially ice cold Spock all come off like they are annoyed to be there. (Kirk, after being welcomed aboard, tells an ensign: “I think I can find my way, ensign!”)
But it’s not all bad. Vulcan looks awesome and the malfunctioning transporter is a spine chilling sequence enhanced by a morbid scream. (“They’re forming!”) Seeing Janice Rand again was nice and Nurse Chapel is still sporting her brunette hair from the final televised episode. It also has a fantastic opening with that great Klingon music, plus we get our first view of the ridge-headed look of the Klingons that will become the future of their species! On the other hand, I question what the Federation was watching when viewing the death of the Klingons – do they have space cameras? Even when Kirk asks for the “exterior view” – how does he get that? When Kirk arrives to take over, Decker is in engineering but doesn’t know why Kirk is there because… he forgot his comms device in his quarters? No one thought to call him and tell him? And when Kirk wants to speak to Decker about countermanding an order, why does Bones want to come along? (He’s really a yoyo, bouncing back and forth between sickbay and the bridge…) Funniest of all though is the arrival of the incredibly beautiful Ilia who, upon meeting Kirk says this: “My oath of celibacy is on record!” (I guess Jim’s proclivities are on record too!) Actually one other funny bit concerning Ilia is when they are trying to teach the machine version of her who she was, they put a headband on her. Chapel says “I remember Lt. Ilia once mentioned that she wore that.” The entire adventure takes place over maybe two days and Ilia joined the crew for this mission… when did Chapel hear her say that?
The second half of the movie makes up for a lot. Spock mind melds with V’Ger giving clarity to his own pursuit of logic with the realization that logic is not an end goal; it’s a cold, barren thing with little beauty. It gives Spock the realization that he is with people who care about him and cements that friendship again. And this is where the movie goes back to the series’ roots with asking the big philosophical questions. “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” Unfortunately, there is a big mistake that jars me, as a computer technician. V’Ger is so named because the plaque on the original probe has been burned and the letters can’t be read. This tell me that if I want to rename my computer, I just need to slap a sticker on it, and boom, it’s renamed. Why would V’Ger get its name from a plaque and not from the programming in the databanks? (Thank goodness it wasn’t Space X. If the “pac” was covered, Kirk would have taken the Enterprise on his own…)
Now Turnabout Intruder did try to stop the womanizing that was so pronounced during the classic series, but it’s not completely absent. When Lt. Ilia is returned as a machine, she appears naked, though we only see her from shoulders up. Moments later, the door opens and she is standing in a robe to cover just to the upper limits of her thighs and she is wearing high heels. (Don’t get me wrong, this actress was stunningly pretty, and she appears bald throughout the movie which just speaks volumes about her beauty but … was it necessary to have her come back in short bathrobe and stiletto heels? If this is the result of something V’Ger learned, there may be a lot of great things in our cosmos we need to discover!)
“As much as you wanted the Enterprise, I want this,” says Decker. And dude, who could blame you? He’s going to create a new life form with Ilia. Fair play. Decker merges with the V’Ger probe which magics away the entire structure saving the day and giving Kirk and crew a new destination: out there, thataway. It’s a bit of a lackluster ending but as the final words appear on screen, we are reminded of the sense of adventure that Trek became famous for. For my money it was the weakest of the classic series movies, but it has a place in the series and in my heart. The human adventure is just beginning. So is our adventure into the Star Trek Movies! ML
The view from across the pond:
I knew nothing about this film before I watched it, but somehow its negative reputation with fans had entered my consciousness over the years. In particular, the nickname “The Motionless Picture” had stuck in my mind from somewhere or other, perhaps one of the sci-fi magazines I used to read in the 90s, so I came to this one with low expectations.
It was soon obvious how this film earned its nickname, with endless slow shots of spaceships. I didn’t mind the long, slow shot so much when it was the first view of the Enterprise, the first time it has really been made the most of on screen as an object of beauty and wonderment… or at least I didn’t mind until the long slow shot of the shuttle craft turning around, and the long slow reaction shot from Kirk as he sees the new ship for the first time. When the Enterprise finally gets to fly, the order “take us out” is obeyed… slowly. No wonder the captain feels the need to do a log so soon, after all that waiting around. Then, as if the film weren’t slow enough, they all start talking in slow motion when they go through a worm hole, after first bouncing around in their seats while the supporting artists do a jaunty little shuffle. When the Enterprise is swallowed up by Vger, like Jonah inside the whale, once again I started off by thinking the slow pan over a special effects shot was probably justified, as it’s so impressive. Six minutes later, I had changed my mind.
It’s films like this that make me reluctant to ever describe myself as a sci-fi fan, despite watching a lot of it. I look for relatable human drama in sci-fi or food for thought, and it’s a great genre for those things. But it’s also a genre that sometimes thinks that pretty shots of spaceships constitutes a story. Let’s face it, this film takes a story that could have been tackled perfectly well in a 45 minute episode, and stretches it out laboriously to two and a quarter hours. It’s nothing more than a computer-gone-mad story, which has been done a hundred times before, and the endless effects shots do little to hide that fact. It does have one very strong twist, which I thought was clever and interesting, and actually one of the most plausible iterations of the computer-gone-mad trope I’ve seen, with the proviso that a super intelligence would probably be smart enough to clean a bit of dirt covering up some letters in a word. But the idea of somebody looking for the meaning of existence and trying to find answers from a creator is something most of us can probably understand and relate to in some way.
One thing I did find interesting about this film is the extent to which it is the birth of Star Trek as I know it. To recap, for those who haven’t followed along with our Trek journey from the start, my first introduction into the world of Star Trek was with The Next Generation, followed by Deep Space 9 and Voyager. At long last I have finally been exploring the original series now, but it has been unrecognisable from the 90s Star Trek that I love. Here we have for the first time several things that make this feel like that iteration of Trek. Superficially, we have the music, which I had no idea predates TNG, and we have Cornish-pasty-headed Klingons for the first time, mercifully bringing an end to the era of Klingons as villains portrayed as simply actors in blackface makeup. We also have for the first time the Enterprise being fetishised as an object of beauty, and the crew getting to walk on the surface of the Enterprise, something I would have never guessed happened so early in the film series. Beyond the superficial, we have Trek as an ensemble cast effort for the first time ever. One thing that really surprised me about the original series is how it’s a three-hander, with Scotty eventually making up a fourth principal character, and that’s about it. For the vast majority of the episodes Sulu, Chekov and Uhura had virtually nothing to do, if anything. This feels much closer to the ensemble casts of the 90s, with even Janice Rand back and with a more important job than wandering around with a clipboard. And of course as soon as Spock arrives, the ever hopeful Nurse Chapel isn’t far behind. We also have a new major addition to the crew, Decker, although his function seems to be to disagree with Kirk and generally make him look bad, and other than that I’m not going to bother to discuss his storyline because he’s dull as ditch water.
As for the big three leading cast members from the original run, something very odd indeed happens with two of them. Kirk’s reintroduction is as an admiral who is keen to get command of the Enterprise again, but is shown to be out of touch with things in many ways. It should have been a story about instinct and experience triumphing over youth and learning, but that never quite comes across, and instead Kirk is an oddly watered down version of the hero we used to know. As for Spock, he’s just a grump who is mean to his friends most of the time. Again, I think there’s an attempt to do something interesting here, particularly with his revelation that the bond of friendship is the missing element that Vger is incapable of understanding, but it’s all strangely rushed and vague considering the astonishing amount of padding in the film elsewhere. McCoy is really the only one who is close to his original characterisation, but he has nothing to do here other than be his usual irritating self, hanging around on the bridge for no apparent reason. He spends all his time going back and forth to the bridge to bring us the occasional reaction shot, for no obvious purpose other than to be nosy and avoid doing his actual job in sickbay. So yeah, he’s the McCoy we all know and love. And when I say love, I really mean “can’t stand”. At least his big beard and even bigger 70s medallion gave me a laugh.
What this film does give us is a sense of wonder and the general feeling that space is a dangerous place to be, both things that were generally lacking in most episodes of the original series. It tried my patience, but I can’t say that I disliked it. This was the birth of my Star Trek, and for the first time it seems like we’re starting to explore the amazing potential of this series. It might be motionless, but it’s a picture that’s full of promise and beauty. RP