Disappointed and thrilled: Memories from 1979’s premiere ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

April 29, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 29, 2017

The original Star Trek series debuted on Sept. 8, 1966, some five years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. On July 20, 1969, about six weeks after NBC aired the show’s final episode, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. It would be more than 10 years before any further live-action Trek appeared, in the form of 1979’s beautiful but ponderous Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The show did have some new on-screen life over this fallow decade. Twenty-two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series featuring the original cast were broadcast over a 13-month period spanning September 1973 through September 1974.

But the franchise mainly flourished in other forms during the interregnum: Through print and reruns. A variety of comic books generally chronicled new adventures that hadn’t been produced for television, while a passel of prose books mixed adaptations of TV episodes with original stories. Reruns — aired in New York City and beyond by WPIX for years and years beginning shortly after Star Trek was canceled by NBC — presented the show more or less as it had been originally produced. (The “less” part came from two things — wear and tear on the film prints, which WPIX replaced with tapes in the 1980s, and editing to accommodate more commercials and other promotions.)

Information in 1979 wasn’t as easy to obtain as it is now, when lifetimes’ worth of video, audio and other content can be accessed nearly anywhere with a lap- or palmtop device. Still, newspapers, television and magazines — I particularly remember drooling over issues of Starlog — did an ample job of spreading the word about upcoming movies. And believe you me, I was very excited for the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979.

It would turn out to be a moviegoing experience like no other. I went with my family (although maybe not my Sibling?) and perhaps one or two other neighborhood kids to see the movie opening night at RKO Theater in a quiet bedroom community about an hour outside of Manhattan.

And when I say “opening night,” I really mean opening night. The theater, the first multiplex I ever remember attending, opened its doors to the public for the first time on Dec. 7, the night that The Motion Picture debuted. Only one of the screens was working, and I remember hearing construction sounds — hammering and whatnot — during some quiet passages of the film.

As I wrote the other day, the first half of so of TMP is brilliantly paced. We see the vast, mysterious and immensely powerful V’ger effortlessly wipe out a Klingon attack wing; we are told that it’s headed for Earth; we learn that there is one starship in range to intercept V’ger, the newly refitted and yet-to-be-debugged Enterprise; we learn that Kirk (William Shatner) is usurping his replacement as commander and reassembling his old command crew. (Most of the other officers — Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, Chapel and Rand — were already on board.)

I was all in on Star Trek: The Motion Picture until around the time our heroes encounter V’ger, which is when the movie metaphorically drops out of warp speed and loses all power. In particular, the opening sequence, as a Klingon played by Mark Lenard faces down the intruder, is masterfully staged; it looks beautiful and holds up dramatically to this day. Watching it, I felt like I was actually in space and the events on screen were actually happening.

I was a very happy boy as the first hour or so of the movie played out. Emerging from the theater, however, I experienced a mixture of excitement and disappointment. There were parts of The Motion Picture that were really great, but there were also parts that were far too sophisticated for me, and other aspects of the film were simply muddled.

I have a very blurred memory from that night of walking with my companions either to or from the theater amid a crowd of people. (That may have the biggest crowd that RKO ever saw — parking and traffic were horrendous.) It was a mild night for early December, and I was buoyant.

A long time has passed since that evening, but rarely have I ever been as excited as I was going into the theater to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was a flawed and even stupid movie, in some ways, but it was a thrill for a dumb little kid like me.

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