The flawed but beautiful ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ successfully launched a pioneering TV show onto the silver screen

April 25, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 25, 2017

A strong case can be made that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the most ambitious movie in the Trek franchise, as well as the one that holds truest to the science fiction tropes of peaceful exploration that were famously embodied by Gene Roddenberry’s original television series. And an equally strong case can be made that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is among the least watchable of all the Trek films, both on the franchise’s own terms as well as those of cinema in general.

(Reader beware: Mild spoilers ensure.)

Before I dive into either argument, a plot summary: An presmense and incredibly powerful energy field of unknown origin is flying toward Earth after having erased three Klingon battle cruisers without breaking sweat. Strangely, although Starfleet is headquartered on Earth, the organization has only one ship capable of intercepting this vast cloud, which we eventually learn calls itself V’ger. That vessel, naturally, is one U.S.S. Enterprise. She is fresh off a two and a half year long refit without having undergone a shakedown cruise, she’s assigned to an untested captain, and her crew is young and largely untried.

Enter one Admiral James Tiberius Kirk (the one and only William Shatner), who has (it is strongly implied) spent the interim period serving as chief of Starfleet operations. He persuades his boss (the unseen Admiral Nogura) to restore Enterprise to his command, usurping the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Capt. Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). As the crew struggles to prepare the starship for its upcoming encounter, and as Kirk comes to grips with the challenges of the situation, the starship finds itself facing a powerful entity that regards humanity as an infestation. Life on Earth could be exterminated unless Kirk and his top officers — Decker, a cranky Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and an incredibly remote Spock (Leonard Nimoy) — find a way to work together and satisfy V’ger’s desire to unite with God.

The ambition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is amply evident on screen. The redesigned starship introduced here is, for my money, the best-looking version of Enterprise; although its interior would be tweaked in seemingly every film, the exterior design served Kirk and his crew admirably through the better part of six movies. The feature’s opening sequence, in which V’ger blows away a Klingon attack flight captained by Mark Lenard as the crew of an astonished Federation communications outpost looks on disbelievingly, is light-years ahead of even the best special effects sequence from the original TV series. Enterprise’s journey through V’ger’s energy field now seems dated, but it was pretty astonishing at the time. The shots of V’ger’s ship, and Spock’s incursion through V’ger’s memories, are still impressive. The terrific sequence in which Enterprise pulls out of drydock was recut and reused in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Moreover, composer Jerry Goldsmith devised a lavish score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While this isn’t my favorite Trek score — that would be James Horner’s lovely and urgent themes for Star Trek II — there’s no disputing that Goldsmith’s work here literally set the tone for the franchise’s music over the next two decades. Goldsmith’s TMP work was repurposed as the main title for the seven-season-long run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he was contracted to write the scores for Star Trek V and the three Next Generation features. (Sadly, none of those remotely approached the excellence of this work.)

Goldsmith’s muscular, martial Klingon theme is forever associated with that race of alien warriors; its influence is readily recognizable in Horner’s Klingon cues for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Goldsmith delivers not one but two majestic tunes for the sequences in which Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) first shows Kirk and the audience the overhauled Enterprise as well as for Enterprise’s departure from Earth. V’ger also gets a pair of lovely themes, and the Enterprise’s new navigator, Ilia (Persis Khambatta), gets a memorable, tender melody.

And what of The Motion Picture’s story beats? The starship’s initial approach to V’ger is fraught with tension. Kirk and his entire crew have seen it effortlessly dismantle state-of-the-art Klingon and Federation technology, and the captain knows that his weapons can’t harm the intruder. But along with Spock, McCoy and Decker, Kirk finds a way to investigate cautiously and peacefully — although not without V’ger snatching away Ilia, who years ago had been Decker’s lover.

But if the movie’s middle section embraces Star Trek’s spirit of exploration, as opposed to the mindless militancy found in standard space opera, this passage also suffers from a major flaw: To wit, it’s deathly dull.

The Motion Picture’s first half is studded with a series of stakes-raising crises that occur roughly every 10 minutes — the Klingon battle, Kirk informing Decker that he is taking over, Enterprise’s deadly transporter malfunction, V’ger’s encounter with the Epsilon IX communications relay, Enterprise’s perilous first trip at warp speed and so on. But once the ship intercepts V’ger, the movie’s…pace… slows…





All but the most patient of viewers will begin to fidget as The Motion Picture devolves into an endless series of conversations. Kirk talks to his crew; Decker talks to Ilia, whom V’ger has returned as an emotionless probe; Kirk talks to Ilia. Nothing seems to happen — even as V’ger threatens to scour humanity from the face of the Earth. To be precise, the real problem isn’t so much that things stop happening as that director Robert Wise and screenwriter Harold Livingston fail to imbue the proceedings with any urgency.

It’s a shame, too, because of the aforementioned ambition and gentleness of the script. Livingston, a television writer, gives the lead actors and Collins some excellent moments as the crew gels. (It should be said that Collins has an appealing presence as Decker; it should also be said that any enjoyment of his performance is undercut by knowing that the actor later admitted to having molested a number of underage girls.)

Unfortunately, the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was legendarily messy, as documented here. The film had huge cost overruns, in part because Livingston and Roddenberry, the series’s original creator, regularly pounded out often contradictory script revisions even after shooting had begun. It doesn’t help that Wise and his producers seemed determined to use every single second of the (extravagantly expensive) special effects footage produced for the movie, even when it kills the pacing. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that TMP’s special photographic effects director, Douglas Trumbull, worked on visual effects for the masterful but glacially paced 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

But if Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an expensive misfire, it is also a beautiful and distinctive one. Its flaws are, in many cases, inseparable from its charms. This isn’t the most enjoyable Star Trek movie, but it is an entirely unique Star Trek movie.

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