For weeks without TOS-R episodes to review, TrekMovie.com will instead review a Trek film to see where it went right and where it went wrong, and what Trek XI can learn from it.
The year: 1979. Ten years had passed since NBC cancelled “Star Trek” and in that time it had become a hit in syndicated reruns. A growing fan base began holding conventions and were continually teased with the posibility of a return of their heroes from the 23rd century. After a short lived animated series in the early 70s, Paramount Paramount greenlit a low-budget “Trek” film entitled “Planet of the Titans.” About two weeks before “Star Wars” exploded onto American movie screens in May 1977, Paramount pulled the plug and then a few months later committed to bringing back “Star Trek” as a TV show. “Star Trek II” (which would have included all the original stars except for Leonard Nimoy) would be the cornerstone of a new ‘Paramount Network’. No sooner did Paramount move on that project then they did a complete about-face, killing the new network, canceling “Phase II,” and transforming its two-hour pilot script “In Thy Image” into a big-budget motion picture. The script was heavily rewritten, Nimoy came back to the fold, and legendary Oscar-winning director Robert Wise took the helm. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A film with BIG promise
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” has a big, promising opening. Or, rather, its opening promises us something big. The film starts with an overture, something seen in only a handful of movies since the death of the big Hollywood musicals and Cinerama epics. This alone signals that we’re in store for a BIG. FUCKING. EPIC. The pacing of the film’s opening sequence quickly disabuses you of the expectation that "The Motion Picture” will be “Star Wars” starring William Shatner as Luke Skywalker. The deliberate camera movements and the intricately detailed models of the Klingon ship and the Epsilon IX station make it abundantly clear that this movie is channeling Stanley Kubrick, not George Lucas.
While the film as a whole comes across as very stilted, things get off on the right foot with lots of excellent character conflict. Spock is cold and distant, having just finished studying how to purge his emotions. Kirk is restless and obsessive, itching to get out from behind his desk. A new character, Decker, is justifiably edgy toward Kirk, having had his command taken away by the same self-centered egoist who recommended him. The character conflicts are actually more interesting than the plot itself. For the opening third of the film, the characters drive the story along pretty well. Once they reach their destination and allow the plot to kick in, everything grinds to a screeching halt. Toward the end, things pickup again, and the characters are back to their old selves, but by now most of the film’s momentum is irretrievably lost. Even the great mystery of V’Ger doesn’t pan out; our heroes travel to the heart of the ship, only to find that this huge vessel threatening the Earth is really just a lost space probe called Nomad that’s searching for its inventor, Jackson Roy Kirk. Or something like that.
A failure to meet its promises
The big problem with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” isn’t that it promises and then fails to deliver the moon. No, the big problem is that it didn’t even deliver on the very modest promises of its creators.
While there will be plenty of special effects, they’re related to the characters — they’re part of the dramatic integrity, not an end in themselves. They won’t take over the picture.
– Gene Roddenberry, New York Times: January 1979
After losing 8½ minutes of my life traveling through V’Ger without adding any understanding to the mystery, I really wanted some of what the Great Bird was smoking
I wanted to develop characters more strongly and establish chemistry between them. I thought it needed more emotion and feeling to make the story more believable. ‘Close Encounters’ had an interesting beginning, but fell apart in the middle.
– Robert Wise (on his tweaks to the TMP scrpt), NYT: Jan 1979
Yeah, well, guess what, Bobbo… so did your film.
Playing it safe
For a movie that wants to be epic, “The Motion Picture” betrays its TV roots by playing safe with the characters. Decker and Ilia are our easily disposable guest stars; if they hadn’t changed the costumes you could imagine both sporting red shirts. Both Kirk or Spock would have been a more suitable candidate to merge with V’Ger, but they were needed for potential sequels. Spock still did have a rewarding character arc, but Kirk’s was too easily resolved; with Decker now evolved into a higher state of being, there’s no question over who gets the center seat. This risk aversion is a problem that has continually marred “Trek” over the years, and hindsight makes it disappointing that Roddenberry didn’t have the guts to make a truly radical change, instead of just giving us lovely scenery.
That’s not to say all the problems with “The Motion Picture” were big; many were smaller problems that take you out of the film for one reason or another. The uniforms look like pastel polyester pajamas. I don’t care what Jesco von Puttkamer said about what we’ll be wearing in the future, they look stupid. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline’s decision to use a split-diopter lens in various shots on the bridge makes some scenes look disorienting. And while I like Hal Michelson’s set designs in general, his decision to have all the lighting in the corridors emanate from down near the floor makes the ship interiors look gloomy and dark. The film also got a lot of little things right. TMP established a new and frightening look for the venerable Klingons that became the basis for many a beloved character for the next two decades. And although the shots of it lingered a bit long, the newly ‘refit’ Enterprise was truly an awe inspiring site. And of course the Goldsmith score also became a new standard for Trek, even used as the theme for the Next Generation.
A hit…and a miss
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was one of the big hits of the 1979 holiday season, yet despite its success, the future of any “Trek”projects remained uncertain. While it made a lot of money, its box office take ($82 million) didn’t reach the heights of “Star Wars” ($307 million) or" Superman” ($138 million). The film had been very expensive ($30 million), a matter that was only compounded when Paramount decided to tack on the cost of the abortive “Planet of the Titans” and “Star Trek II” projects, bringing the costs up to $45 million. Roddenberry’s behind-the-scenes battles with screenwriter Harold Livingston didn’t help the production, either; Livingston quit and came back four times, and the script was being rewritten on an almost daily basis. Despite its deliberate pacing, the film itself was a rush job, as Paramount made the foolish decision to lock it into a specific release date early on. This required many special effects sequences to be left incomplete, and left the film without a proper sound mix, with the result that it seems eerily quiet at times. In 2001 fans did finally get rewarded with a ‘Directors Edition’ of the film, where Wise was allowed to ‘finish’ his epic with new edits and new CGI special effects.
While the fans were happy to see Trek up on the screen again, the film also left them with mixed reactions. Was this really the "Star Trek” of their earlier years? It didn’t necessarily leave viewers exhilarated and eager for more the way “Star Wars” did. Critics were also mixed; they certainly recognized the film’s technical accomplishments, but also quickly saw the flaws. In his review, New York Times critic Vincent Canby called the dialogue “banal” and Roddenberry’s vision of the future “tacky”, and judged that the film owed more of its success to special effects artists Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra, and production designer Michelson, than it did to Roddenberry, Wise, or Livingston.
In the end TMP was successful at bringing Trek back from the dead, but that’s about all it did. To this day, the film remains the most ambitious of the franchise, at least in its attempt to give some scope to the fictional universe. Yet for all that ambition, it never seems to reach as high in what really matters: the story and characters. Ironically, it would be the second, less ambitious film – one that didn’t directly involve Roddenberry –that finally delivered on those essentials.
all agree…the upgraded Ent is a thing of beauty
Lessons for Trek XI
Looking forward to J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek XI,” the main lesson of “The Motion Picture” is to keep the characters and story central to the film at all times, and to not allow the special effects and sets overwhelm it. A vision of the future is pointless if you don’t have a compelling story to tell, and well-motivated characters to do things in it. If you’re going to introduce a story arc (e.g., Kirk competing with Decker for the center seat), then actually resolve it rather than giving yourself an easy out. Don’t be afraid to put the main characters in jeopardy, either. Obviously Kirk and Spock have to survive so they can return in “Star Trek XII,” but Abrams shouldn’t be afraid to make the audience worry a little (like he did with Ethan Hunt in the last act of “Mission: Impossible III”). Put our heroes in some real peril, not the two-bit cheesy-ass non-peril they found themselves in here. And for the love of Jesus, don’t let Paramount screw you over with the accounting.
Special thanks to Dennis Bailey who provided background information from a fan’s perspective. Other background information was taken from the book “Phase II: The Lost Series” by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. The Roddenberry and Wise quotes came from a January 21, 1979 New York Times article entitled “At Last, All Systems Are ‘Go’ for ‘Star Trek,’” by M.L. Stein. Imagery courtesy of TrekCore.com
J.L. Garner dabbles in film criticism from time to time, and is co-moderator of the Trek Movies forum at TrekBBS.