CULT CORNER: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Is it still a motionless picture? We revisit the original Star Trek movie.

Who made it?: Robert Wise (Director), Harold Livingston (Writer), Gene Roddenberry (Producer), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig.

Tagline: “The human adventure is just beginning.”

IMDb rating: 6.3/10.

It should be stated upfront, rather emphatically, that I’m not a Trekkie.

Despite knowing that the correct term is Trekker – “Trekkie” is classed as a derogatory term in some circles – and reading my fair share about the franchise’s history, I wouldn’t call myself a card-carrying member of Starfleet by any stretch. The lack of a current television show doesn’t bother me too much, and J.J. Abrams’ reboot was key in making me fully appreciate a brand name that, until the 2009 relaunch, was becoming more than a little stale. Since childhood, I’ve always loved the idea of Star Trek but was routinely betrayed by the trappings of network television. Pick an episode from any of the shows and you’re almost guaranteed a talky affair that is occasionally enlivened by then-cutting edge effects work. It’s real science fiction, in a way. It is powered by ideas and societal concerns as it should be, but even the respected Star Trek: The Next Generation moves too slowly for me. To cut a long story short, Gene Roddenberry’s creation is something I admire for doing a lot for a genre that has real intellectual merit, but aside from the films, my interest is limited to the entries with a substantial budget. Luckily, the movie franchise has enabled me to finally recognise what fanboys have been talking about for the last forty years. Star Trek is, in actuality, a wonderfully fertile universe that can be something magical in the right hands, as well as being passionately optimistic about what the human race can achieve.

In the twenty-third century, the old U.S.S. Enterprise has undergone a revamp and her old Captain, James T. Kirk (William Shatner), is now an Admiral. He is coaxed out of his daily routine as the Chief of Starfleet Operations when cosmic cloud V’Ger approaches Earth, consuming everything in its path. Citing his previous five-year mission of charting unknown space, Kirk takes over command from Captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins), and sets out to confront V’Ger in an uncompleted vessel with trusty science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and surly medic “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Can the Enterprise save the day?

1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a thoroughly pretentious affair, but it did bring the adventures of the Enterprise firmly into the mainstream. Before then, it looked like Kirk, Spock and Bones would never step foot on the Bridge again. Star Trek had ended its three season run in 1969, and no-one but the die hard fans were clamouring for more. The NBC show was never a ratings sensation but it did cultivate a legion of followers in syndication, slowly gaining critical praise which elevated it to the rank of influential cult classic. I can’t watch “The Original Series” as it is retroactively known without bursting into fits of laughter, but it’s easy to see why it was so radical back then. The cultural transitions of the period were on the screen, and Roddenberry was certainly willing to push buttons. These days, it can be like watching an intergalactic acid trip; a show that had everything from cuddly Tribbles to a dwarf riding on Kirk’s back (seriously). If it wasn’t for the sci-fi craze jump-started by Star Wars (1977), it might have become nothing more than a hazy memory. Paramount just had to capitalise on their space-bound property and the much-awaited feature was completed with a then-staggering budget of $46 million. Trekkers must have soiled their pants.

From the outset, The Motion Picture looks like a tantalising proposition. Roddenberry had a high degree of creative control with greatly increased funds, and the director was Robert Wise, a reliable veteran who had made everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to The Sound of Music (1965). Not to mention a returning cast of characters played by actors already familiar with one another. How bad could it be? But somewhere along the way, Roddenberry and Wise lost sight of The Original Series’ joviality and decided to make something much more dour. The Motion Picture wanted to be closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than Star Wars, and while aping Stanley Kubrick is noble, it resulted in a self-important film that could have been much more exciting with some judicial editing and a sharper focus. Critics at the time cruelly dubbed it “The Motionless Picture,” and it is perhaps remembered now for the effects shots which go on forever. No, really… digesting in the Sarlac Pit would take less time. A sequence where Kirk travels into the Enterprise’s docking bay feels like a twenty-minute slog, and the glacial pacing is the film’s biggest misstep. Essentially, the first Star Trek feature is a bore, but it’s also far from being a bad flick.

For the first time, Star Trek looked like a work of spectacle, and you have to give Wise some credit for that. Glory shots of the Enterprise look fantastic for the era and the production design is still first-rate, although it is oddly bleached of the show’s colour (even the uniforms are drab). When I think of The Motion Picture, I think of grey… endless corridors of grey, like an 80s Red Dwarf. Photography and technical credits are above and beyond what the series could muster, though, and the orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith is a thing of beauty. Indeed, his signature theme would later be re-recorded for The Next Generation. This music cue IS Star Trek.

There’s also a great deal of fun to be had watching these characters get back together after a prolonged absence. No-one will ever call Shatner a fine performer, but his enlarged ego and hubris has always been a perfect fit for Kirk, signified best in the scene where he reclaims command of the Enterprise with all the bedside manner of Lord Sugar. When the Shat actually cares about the project at hand, he can be a more than passable dramatic actor. The Motion Picture is undoubtedly one of his better turns as the iconic rogue, if only because we get to see him playing an older, wearier Captain. Screenwriter Harold Livingston doesn’t shy away from making him fallibly human, either. The show thrived on the complicated friendship between Kirk and Spock, and the film continues that thread to appreciative effect. Ironically, Nimoy was always the heart and soul of early Trek despite playing a cold, green-blooded Vulcan, and he walks away with the acting plaudits once again. His stubborn logicality is a winning counterpoint to Shatner’s lack of modesty. When Kirk and Spock are verbally sparring, the film really fires.

In fact, most of the old faces take pride in their roles. Bones was always appreciated as comedic relief, and his dry wit and whining is delivered perfectly by Kelley, who has an absolute blast revisiting his crotchety doctor. His introduction, when beamed aboard, is a mini-classic if only because he looks like he’s been spending time with the hippies in San Fran (“Why is any object we don’t understand always called a ‘thing’?”). Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Sulu (George Takei) also show up to do their bits as well as can be expected. They press all of the twinkly buttons and say all of the usual jargon with efficiency, representing Roddenberry’s idealistic vision of a future unencumbered by racial boundaries.

The Motion Picture is hampered, however, by a narrative that just isn’t exciting enough for a feature (it would have barely passed muster on the series). There is no antagonist in the traditional sense, and an alien cloud wafting towards Earth doesn’t make for the most interesting of villains. Much of the action here is the crew staring into the view-screen on the Bridge, and that just isn’t compelling enough to justify the film’s 132-minute run-time. After all the goodwill generated by the cast, Wise’s movie gradually devolves into scenes of gobbledygook exposition and wildly self-indulgent spaceship porn. Never has the Enterprise been so slow to survey that Final Frontier.

Over thirty years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is still a sterile experience that requires a great deal of patience to get through, but those writing it off would do well to highlight the elements that actually soar. Wise brought legitimacy and grandeur to a title many regarded as junk. It also proved that the love for Trek was genuine, grossing $139 million in the US alone. Its bloated story and budget also led to the leaner, meaner and much superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). That alone ensured the franchise would live long and prosperously.

Best Scene

The last scene brings the film universe back in line with that of the TV series to spine-tingling effect. Spoilers, I guess.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The movie started out life as a new TV series dubbed Star Trek Phase II.
  • The TV series was to have three new regular characters. Paramount was concerned that William Shatner might ask for too much money to continue playing Kirk if the run of the series was extended beyond the initial order of 13 episodes; the character of Decker was created so that if Kirk had to be written out, Decker could become the series’ new lead role. Decker was played in the movie by Stephen Collins.
  • When Kirk addresses the crew prior to launching, much of the crew were extras who were noted Trekkers, including Bjo Trimble, co-organizer of the letter-writing campaign that kept the original Star Trek alive for a third season.
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s Academy Award-nominated score featured a special musical instrument called the “Blaster Beam,” an instrument fifteen feet long, incorporating artillery shell casings and motorised magnets. It was used as part of any scene featuring V’ger. The instrument was invented by former child star turned New Age musician Craig Hundley who, in his youth, had portrayed Captain Kirk’s nephew, Peter Kirk, in Star Trek  episode “Operation – Annihilate!,” and Tommy Starnes in “And the Children Shall Lead.”
  • The voice of actress Majel Barrett, who plays Dr. Christine Chapel (as well as other roles including Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and was Gene Roddenberry’s wife, was used for Starfleet computers such as that of the Enterprise throughout the franchise, from the original Star Trek series through to the 2009 re-imagining.
  • This film marked the first appearance of the ridged-forehead Klingons. In the original, Roddenberry wanted the Klingons to look alien, but budget constraints prevented this from being done beyond giving the actors dark mark-up and fake eyebrows. The change in the Klingons’ appearance was partially addressed in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” establishing the existence of smooth-forehead Klingons.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. castingcouch says:

    I’ve been a fan of TMP for decades. Wonderful characters, beautiful visual effects, another great Jerry Goldsmith score, and an intriguing story. I don’t find it boring at all. It’s a terrific science fiction movie, not just for Star Trek. The Director’s Cut adds some new visual effects which match perfectly.

    • Dave James says:

      To each their own. I’d take Khan and Undiscovered Country over this any day, but like I said, there’s plenty to like too.

      • castingcouch says:

        The Wrath of Khan is definitely the best Star Trek movie ever made, hands down; it’s my personal favorite. I never really liked The Undiscovered Country much. The script is a little too corny in a number of places (especially the “Scooby Doo” ending), and that exploding Bird of Prey is just a shoddy piece of FX work.

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