I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I was a kid, but I was in no way a “Trekkie” (That was actually my youngest brother). It’s only been in recent years that I’ve grown to better appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s venerable franchise, specifically The Original Series and it’s spin-off, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Seeing J.J. Abrams’s fantastic Star Trek (the eleventh in the film series) this past May got me really interested in taking a look back at the previous ten movies. Not only will this be fun work for me, but I hope to give newer fans (especially those who have only seen the new picture and decided then they like Star Trek) a guide to what they may have missed out on.
Star Trek- The Motion Picture (1979)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koening, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta
6 out of 10 stars.
To say that NBC had no idea what they were sitting on when they cancelled Paramount Pictures’ science-fiction series, Star Trek, in 1969 would be an understatement, and as the 1970’s worn on, the popularity of the show created by Gene Roddenberry grew to an unexpected fever pitch thanks to reruns on syndication. Plans for new television adventures of Capt. Kirk, Dr. McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship, Enterprise (sans Spock), were underway when the one-two punch of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind struck in the summer of 1977. All of a sudden, sci-fi was really hot and Paramount decided to shoot for the moon and bring Star Trek to the big screen. However, Star Trek’s transition from television sets to movie houses in 1979 was a clunky one at best, as Star Trek: The Motion Picture proves to be overblown, over-hyped, and only mildly entertaining, devoid of what made the original series fast-paced, cheeky, and overall fun. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is like The Phantom Menace of the 1970’s.
On paper, it sounds very much like an extended episode of the show. In the 23rd Century, a massive cloud harboring some kind of alien craft veers towards Earth, destroying everything in its path. The newly re-designed U.S.S. Enterprise, its crew, and new captain Willard Decker (played by Stephen Collins) are assigned to launch into space to intercept the imposing threat, but not before Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) practically bullies his way back into command of his old ship. All of the show’s main players have returned, as Shatner is reunited with Deforest Kelley (as Dr. McCoy), James Doohan (as Scotty), Walter Koening (as Checkov), Nichelle Nichols (as Uhura), George Takei (as Sulu), and, after some negotiations, Leonard Nimoy (as Mr. Spock). The Enterprise is here in all its glory, while Collins and Indian actress Persis Khambatta provide new blood to the cast. In reality, though, the film itself bears little resemblance to the show it’s based on, and the blame goes solely to director Robert Wise.
The film was originally written by Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston as a pilot for a new show called Star Trek: Phase II, but when the decision was made to bring the series to cinemas, Paramount also decided to stick with the story the duo came up with. However, Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) seemed to think just bringing Star Trek to the big screen wasn‘t enough for him, as if he was embarrassed to be making a movie based on a cheesy TV show. Instead of relying on the iconic characters and sense of adventure of the series to pilot the movie, Wise uses the show to haughtily attempt another 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Motion Picture lumbers along with an exhausting pace; there’s so much time spent getting the crew together that it’s almost an hour before the Enterprise meets up with its quarry. Even as Kirk and company approach the mysterious vessel, the audience is subjected to a never-ending succession of over-long, expansive exterior shots of the alien spacecraft that, strewn together, feels like an acid trip that quickly wears out its welcome. There’s nothing wrong with the story itself, and it’s conclusion is still rather satisfying. But Robert Wise plagues the movie with too many unnecessary set-ups, undisciplined editing, and just plain showing off, he almost guarantees viewers’ loss of interest long before the end. Wise’s pretentious effort to ape Kubrick proved even more for naught when you take the budget into account. Over the course of production the budget rose to $46 million. That’s a lot of money in 1979, but when you watch the film you’re left scratching your head wondering where all that cash went! When compared to other sci-fi films of the day, the special effects of Star Trek: The Motion Picture look rather cheap. Even cheaper is the costume design; the Starfleet uniforms look like pajamas!
What keeps the picture from being an unmitigated disaster is the cast. While there is some obvious uneasiness in the performance of the original members, who all seem not too sure of this transition from TV to film, they eventually grow into the roles that made them famous. After awhile the old crew have their feet firmly planted, resulting in their classic alter-egos finally managing to grab some attention away from the visuals. Seeing Shatner, Nimoy, and the other original cast members do so with an extraordinary amount of grace under such conditions is what makes the epic worth sticking around for. Kudos have to be given to Stephen Collins and the late Persis Khambatta as well, as they both handle being newcomers to this franchise with an equal amount of poise. Another highlight is Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score, which is not only enjoyable on it’s own, but its main theme would later become more closely associated with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Big Trekkies, no doubt, will plow through this maiden cinematic voyage of the starship Enterprise, but I would not recommend it for the uninitiated, because it completely misses the mark of what makes Star Trek so popular. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is really a vehicle for its director’s own ambitions, resulting in a pointless entry that adds nothing to the lore. My advice for new fans is to simply skip ahead to Star Trek II. There have been attempts to fix Star Trek: The Motion Picture: a Special Longer version, released to VHS in 1983, and a Lucas-esque 2001 Director’s Cut, but no matter which version you board, this ship runs aground.