I come to praise Star Trek: The Motion Picture, not to bury it.
Despite no less than Harlan Ellison decrying the film at the time as “The Motionless Picture,” And despite its reputation in some quarters as a lugubrious bore, it’s hard to imagine that Star Trek could have possibly lived long and prospered and gone Into Darkness for another three and a half decades had The Motion Picture not paved the way for what was to come (so, yes, you can blame it for Voyager and Enterprise too).
For those who’ve only seen the film on home video or were too young to experience the movie for the first time in theaters, it’s hard to appreciate the monumental importance this film had on fans upon its release. Back in 1979, TV series simply didn’t make the jump to the big screen so for a series, once left for dead that was kept alive by likeminded individuals coming together in convention ballrooms and pouring over faded 16mm prints of the original episodes, hardly seemed like the architects of the greatest resurrection since Lazarus.Somehow though Paramount got the message and after several false starts which included a low-budget film and subsequently a new TV series, the studio ended up bankrolling what would become at the time the second most expensive film of all-time next to Cleopatra, the epic costume drama that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox in the 1960s. Now admittedly, not all that money showed up on the screen. There was $10 million worth of incomplete visual effects from Robert Abel & Company that were literally thrown away as well as the development costs for the aborted Trek sequel series that was to spearhead the launch of a fourth TV network in the late 1970s.
That said, there was nothing about Star Trek: The Motion Picture that seemed small. A major feature film director at the helm, responsible for some of the most beloved films of all-time in Robert Wise. Elaborate visual effects from the teams behind Star Wars, Close Encounters and 2001., A stirring Jerry Goldsmith score, which to the best of my knowledge, may have been the last film to ever feature an overture after the curtain opened, a staple of motion picture epics in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Beats the hell out of commercials for Fandango, that’s for sure.
But for me, it’s also about nostalgia. I had been counting the days, literally, till the films opening and rushed to the theater immediately after elementary school with a few of my best friends. In a true story that was literally immortalized in my film Free Enterprise, I was not allowed to go into the theater, despite the fact that the film was rated G. Apparently the Georgetown Movie Theater in Brooklyn was having problems with noisy kids and wouldn’t let any children in under 17 after 4 p.m. As if. I quickly recruited my mother, forcing her to take us to see the film, something she’s never forgiven me for to this day.
Now, in the cold light of day, it’s easy to see why people don’t love Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it’s a virtual remake of the episode “The Changeling” with the NOMAD probe that confuses Kirk as its creator, and has a glacial pace that today’s movie viewers are not accustomed to, especially watching it on television, and in the aftermath of The Wrath of Khan. But the fact is, in many ways, ST: TMP is a magnificent film. Spock faces his own humanity, Kirk has to come to terms with losing his ship and doing anything to reclaim his first best destiny and McCoy is just a hoot throughout. The redesign of all the ships, not just the Enterprise, have never been topped and the visual effects are quite simply awe-inpsiring (take that, CGI). Although greenlit in the aftermath of Star Wars, ST: TMP owes far more of a thematic debt to 2001, and its sense of awe of the cosmos than Star Wars. And maybe that’s the key analogy. If you look at this year’s enjoyable romp of a Trek movie, it’s a fast-paced, popcorn movie which bears the imprimatur of Star Wars far more than the Star Trek TV series, which makes sense, of course, if you’re trying to engage a new and younger audience for the franchise.
ST: TMP on the other hand, the last film in which TOS creator Gene Roddenberry was allowed to be actively involved, has other things on its mind; combining its brand of pop humanism with the awe, majesty and danger of the unknown. But for the kid sitting in the theater in 1979, none of that mattered. Much like 1978s Superman, which is completely entrancing until after the helicopter rescue and then sort of falls off a cliff, ST: TMP is a rapturous tribute to Trekdom through Mr. Spock’s arrival… and then sort of falls of a cliff too. It’s easy to lose sight of what it was like the in the wake of the subsequent films and TV series, but seeing Starfleet Academy and Earth for the first time in the 23rd century was a giddy experience. The magnificent opening in which three Klingon ships are consumed by V’ger to the strains of Goldsmith’s brilliant Klingon Battle Theme stuck with you for weeks and, of course, the long, slow, lingering orgasmic glee on Kirk’s face as he, and the audience, admired the Enterprise in drydock for what seemed like forever.
What seems interminable today on home video for was at the time the encapsulation of everything we felt about Star Trek, and the amazement we had at seeing it back on the big screen. Andy Probert and Mike Minor’s redesign of the ship has never come close to being equaled, and in case of supreme irony, ST: TMP actually has the same ending as a James Bond movie. WTF? The same time, Moonraker was released, in which Roger Moore’s 007 goes into space and has destroy Earth-imperiling globes that are going to annihilate all life on the planet, much like V’ger’s. Who woulda thunk it? And if Trek was too heady for you at the time, you could ease on down the road to a nearby theater where The Black Hole was unspooling and watch Disney’s attempt to do Star Wars via 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by sending Maximillian Schell to hell through a black hole. Or at least that’s what it appeared to be. I was too upset over the death of Slim Pickens’ Old Bob to care at that point. And, yes, I’m kidding… sorta.
A few years back, a group of intrepid filmmakers worked with the late Robert Wise to try and salvage the film by doing a definitive director’s cut. It’s a wonderful version of the film and adeptly realized with some superb new visual effects, regrettably rendered in standard def necessitating a revamp if it’s ever going to get ported to Blu-ray, a fervent hope of ST: TMP boosters. However, they weren’t able to physically go in and re-edit much of the film which is ultimately ST: TMP failing. Much like Godfather III, years later, Paramount had to make a release date, in this case, the ill-advised December 7, 1979 opening. As a result, the film was literally edited with black slugs where the special effects would go, Jerry Goldsmith was literally sleeping on a cot on the music scoring stage and there was no time to test screen the film, let alone fine tune it. As a result, the pacing is completely off. Scenes which should have remained in the film were excised (some ham-handedly restored in the ABC TV airing a few years later) and, most notably, the endless flybys of V’ger remained in as the final visuals were dropped into the negative, the earlier reels were being printed for its massive, wide release. This is not the way to make a movie.
Now I wouldn’t go as far as saying Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a flawed masterpiece, it’s not. But it is the one film in the entire series, other than the most recent Trek reboots, that has a real cinematic scope to and doesn’t feel like TV writ large. Even Khan, arguably the best of the series, was produced on a TV budget and, at times, looks that way, through no fault of director Nick Meyer. Fortunately, it’s crisp writing and clever plotting makes up for its deficiencies, of which there are many. And with its awesome cosmic vistas, cargo bays, massive engineering section (thankfully, not filmed at or near a brewery), galaxy-spanning action, walking down the primary hull to the center of V’ger, the sumptuous Spock spacewalk, and expansive rec dec sequence, ST: TMP has an enormity of scale that befits its rather pretentious title, The Motion Picture.
At the time, many of the film’s performances were savaged by critics, but Shatner, Nimoy and, particularly DeKelley all deliver nuanced versions of their familiar iconic TV characters. Shatner’s Kirk is pissed off and pissy over where his career has landed him, Nimoy’s Spock is seeking answers which he actually finds in the film and DeKelley’s McCoy provides the unbridled id that has made this character the ever-reliable glue of the entire series.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture may not be Star Trek’s crowning moment, but without it, and its indisputable financial, if not critical success, it’s hard to argue that the future of Trek would have played out very differently without it. For that, fans and detractors, of the film can all be grateful. It wasn’t until 2009’s Star Trek relaunch that Paramount ever risked the kind of serious coin they did on Star Trek: The Motion Picture on the Trek franchise, but more importantly, it paved the way for the many TV to movie transitions that were to come. So for Charlie’s Angels, McHale’s Navy and The Flintstones among so many others, you can blame ST: TMP for that too.