Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979)

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

After three years on NBC, the original “Star Trek” TV series was cancelled in 1969 due to poor ratings. Whether you can attribute this to the fact that the third season is full of sub-par episodes, or that the show had been moved to the 10 o’clock spot on Friday nights (where all programs are sent to die), this would have signaled the end for any normal TV series. Good thing “Star Trek” isn’t normal. By the early 1970’s, reruns of the show were catching on, and in a very big way. It took a few years, but an idea as to how to capitalize on the newfound popularity of the show was finally settled upon. At first, there were several movie ideas tossed around. When nothing stuck, it was decided that a new TV show might be the way to go.

All the early development was in place, and casting decisions had been made. Not returning for the new series would be Leonard Nimoy as Spock. The lovable half-Vulcan, half-human science officer would instead be replaced by a full-blood Vulcan named Xon (actor David Gautreaux, who plays the Commander of the ill-fated Epsilon 9 space station in “The Motion Picture”). It’s impossible to know what effect this change would have had on the show and the loyal fans of “Star Trek” who would tune in, because “Star Trek: Phase II” was abandoned in 1977 before it ever came into being. The undeniable success of science-fiction on the big screen that year, thanks to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Star Wars,” renewed the interest in making a “Star Trek” movie, with Nimoy once again a part of the cast. Thus, the pilot episode for “Star Trek: Phase II,” to have been entitled “In Thy Image,” was expanded to become “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

An alien vessel of unknown origin and unknown intentions enters our quadrant of the galaxy. The only thing that is known for certain about it is that it will respond to any actions it deems hostile with deadly force, and that it is on a direct heading for Earth. In what is by far the silliest moment of the movie, the Enterprise (still in the final stages of a refit) is referred to as being the only ship in interception range. This line underscores one of two things: either the writers were desperate for a way to beef up the Enterprise’s importance (unnecessary… it’s the ENTERPRISE!) …or, Earth’s confidence in its’ own defense systems is so high in the 23rd century that we have only one starship to guard us at any given time. Clearly, it’s the former.

In the time since the end of the Enterprise crew’s five-year mission (we must assume they had two years worth of other adventures after the TV show’s cancellation), the cast of characters has become scattered. Kirk (William Shatner) is now an Admiral, trading the Captain’s chair for one behind a desk at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has gone into semi-retirement, enough time to grow a Grizzly Adams beard. Spock, meanwhile, returned to his home planet of Vulcan to undergo the Kolinahr discipline, intending to purge himself of all emotions. But Spock, like the rest of the Enterprise crew, is drawn in by the consciousness he senses from the mysterious alien, and leaves Vulcan with a new purpose.

It is “purpose” which is the movie’s main theme. Spock finds his in the exploration of the unknown onboard the Enterprise. The alien, which we come to know as V’Ger, questions its own purpose in life, and believes the answer lies in tracking down its creator. In its own way, V’Ger is searching for God. Commander Decker (Stephen Collins) loses direction when his command of the Enterprise is taken by Kirk, his immediate predecessor who had recommended him for the post, and never ceases in reminding Kirk how upset he is. Further complicating things is the appearance of his old girlfriend, Ilia (Persis Khambatta), who is the Enterprise’s new navigator.

Admiral Kirk’s own journey also involves a reunion with his first love: the Enterprise. Take the scene where he and Scotty (James Doohan) ride the shuttlepod to dock with their starship. Seeing ‘her’ again for the first time in over two years, Kirk gazes upon the Enterprise as if to say, “You may look different, but you’re still my girl.” Admittedly, this is a scene that goes on longer than it probably should, but it does help drive home the point that this is an almost totally new Enterprise from the one seen in the TV show. There are actually several long scenes of the actors staring at things that aren’t really there, and that’s part of what has caused “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to draw a lot of negative criticism over the years. Some, who subscribe to the “odd numbered ‘Trek’ movies suck” theory, would say that the “curse” started here. I can’t say I agree. Besides, most of those same people loved 2009’s “Star Trek,” the J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise. Technically speaking, that one is #11, so that busts the “curse” right there.

The original version of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” always felt a bit unfinished. In particular, the 1983 cut made specifically for ABC (which used to air late evening movies on a fairly regular basis) gives the impression of something haphazardly pieced together. Several scenes were added which director Robert Wise had never intended to be a part of the finished film. A few years before his death, the former two-time Oscar-winning director (for “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”) got the chance to fix some things he didn’t like about “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” The resulting 2000 Director’s Cut is a superior work. It’s not among my most favorite “Star Trek” movie, though if you were to break the series into three groups of four, it would be the leader of the second set. I would also argue that it is the one “Star Trek” movie which is aging the most gracefully. If the musical score sounds familiar, it should. Anyone familiar with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” will recognize the main theme immediately.

Inevitably, there will be a 13th “Star Trek” movie. It’s just a question of when. As much as I have enjoyed all but one of these movies over the years, I grow weary of the same tired plot involving loss, revenge and big space battles. I’d like to see the series return to what defined “Star Trek” in the beginning, the seeking out of new life forms & new civilizations, perhaps encountering a little trouble along the way (because SOME drama is required), but not the kind of trouble that requires phasers and photon torpedoes to blow shit up. While “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” may not look like the TV show, nor carry with it the light-hearted tone that made that show so popular, it remains the closest cinematic representation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s