Saturday, July 30, 2011

STAR TREK THROUGH FRESH EYES, PART FIVE

For me, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a major event.  It’s what really sparked my ongoing interest in Star Trek. After my older sister took me to see it during its original theatrical run in late 1979 or early 1980, I started reading all of the Star Trek novels and comic books that I could get my hands on, and began watching the original TV series on a more regular basis.




For my eight-year-old daughter Maddie, I imagine that The Motion Picture was just another installment of the series overall. After all, we weren’t seeing it on the big screen, we were watching it on TV, just as we’d watched everything that came before it. It simply couldn’t have the impact on her that it had on me. But that was okay. Plus, it was something of a turning point for her, because The Motion Picture wasn’t quite what she was used to—after watching all three seasons of the original series (see here, here, and here) and the animated series, Maddie had become very comfortable with the Star Trek universe and the characters inhabiting it. But The Motion Picture featured different uniforms, different theme music, different-looking Klingons, far more elaborate special effects, a totally spruced up U.S.S. Enterprise, and a noticeably older crew. It was fun watching Maddie take in all of the changes, and amusing to see how readily she accepted them—well, most of them.

Just before hitting the “play” button and starting up the DVD, I recreated a little bit of my personal history when I told Maddie the exact same thing my sister told me as we sat down in the theater to watch the movie all those years ago: “It’s a little slow-moving. You might get bored in spots. There may be stuff you don’t understand. But try to patient. Give it a chance, and I’ll answer any questions you may have.” Maddie nodded, just as I did way back when, and we dived in…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture


An enormous energy cloud with great destructive power is headed to Earth, wiping out everything in its path (including three Klingon battle cruisers and a Federation space station). The only Federation starship within interception range is the U.S.S. Enterprise, which is being extensively refitted and is not fully ready for duty. James T. Kirk, now an admiral, uses the crisis to convince Starfleet Command to give him back the Enterprise and let him confront the mysterious threat. But Kirk soon finds that he’s not familiar enough with this new Enterprise and that he’s competing with his own Executive Officer, Will Decker—the man who was supposed to be the ship’s new captain until Kirk snatched it back from him. Along the way, Spock rejoins the crew, after failing to purge himself fully of his human side after several years of intensive effort on Vulcan. Having sensed a powerful consciousness at the heart of the cloud, one possessing totally emotionless, purely logical thought patterns, Spock believes that this entity, whatever it is, can help him finally achieve his goal. The Enterprise enters the cloud, with Kirk and his crew determined to make contact with the mysterious intelligence behind it to and stop it from threatening Earth.


I’ll say right off the bat that I like Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I like it a lot. But even I’ll admit that it’s slow-moving. And I fully acknowledge—and have mentioned in previous installments here—that it’s extremely derivative of past Star Trek adventures, particularly “The Changeling” from the original series and “One Of Our Planets is Missing” and “Beyond the Farthest Star” from the animated series.


Further, it does seem like producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise were influenced heavily by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. So I totally get why the film’s detractors say that the characters are stiff, that they lack the warmth, the humanity, and the charm that they had in the original television series. Upon first glance, that certainly does seem to be the case.


And it must also be acknowledged that the two major new characters introduced in the film, both of whom end up being crucial to the plot and the final resolution, are woefully underdeveloped and fail to make any real impression. The audience forms no emotional attachment to either of them and, therefore, can’t really feel anything for them when they meet their ultimate fates.






Decker, played by Stephen Collins, is bland, mild-mannered, colorless. The only really interesting thing about him—the fact that he’s the son of Commodore Matt Decker, from the terrific original-series episode “The Doomsday Machine” (in which he was portrayed quite memorably by William Windom)—isn’t even acknowledged in the film. 

As for the bald Lieutenant Ilia of the planet Delta IV, played by the late Persis Khambatta, well, we barely get to know her—and there’s virtually no development of her character—before she gets zapped by the mysterious entity V’ger and replaced by an identical, emotionless mechanism. And as many have argued, Ms. Khambatta’s performance was pretty mechanical before her character got turned into a mechanism.

Decker and Ilia’s romantic history and the present-day tension between them (which would be grafted onto the characters Will Riker and Deanna Troi years later in Star Trek: The Next Generation) just aren’t very interesting. Not enough is done with the set-up. And that’s a problem throughout the movie—not enough is done with the potentially intriguing elements that are set up.

Just from reading the synopsis above, you can see a lot of potential for drama, interpersonal conflicts, and a gripping, exciting showdown with a vastly powerful entity with an unknown agenda. But Star Trek: The Motion Picture shies away from any of that. It suggests all of the above, it flirts with exploring these things, but in nearly every instance, it backs off. The inherent conflict between Kirk and Decker, which should have been a central element of the movie, is never fully developed and eventually, it just disappears and they start getting along just fine. Dr. McCoy suggests early in the film that Kirk is obsessed with being in command of the Enterprise, and that he may be putting his own needs ahead of the mission’s. But this notion is never really explored—in fact, it’s never brought up again. We don’t get to see Kirk doing any real soul searching, questioning his own behavior, realizing the truth of McCoy’s words, and overcoming his obsession. It’s a missed opportunity for some real characterization.

However—I would argue that William Shatner’s performance as Kirk is actually quite nuanced. It’s a more mature, more complex, more controlled portrayal of the character, with a lot of layers—and a lot of humanity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene where Kirk gazes upon the newly refitted Enterprise for the first time—the look on his face is the look of a man reunited with his long-lost, greatest love. Later, we see Kirk try desperately to reconnect on some emotional level with the newly returned Spock, and the deep hurt he feels when Spock responds with cold indifference. It’s not Shatner’s best performance as Kirk (that’s still to come), but it’s a compelling one that reveals new facets with each repeated viewing.



And there’s a very good reason why Leonard Nimoy’s performance as Spock throughout most of the film is so stiff, so robotic, so remote—it’s a story point. He’s just spent several years trying to purge himself of his human half, of all traces of emotion. He doesn’t rejoin the Enterprise crew to help them in their mission, or to renew old friendships—he’s there to make contact with the vast intelligence he sensed, V’ger, in the hope that it can help him in his quest. And when Spock mind-melds with this entity, he realizes that despite all of its knowledge and intelligence, despite the pure logic of its thought patterns, V’ger is empty, cold, without hope or meaning. It’s at this moment that Spock realizes that logic and knowledge just aren’t enough to be a complete being. He embraces his human half, he acknowledges his emotions—to the point where he even sheds a tear for V’ger because he’s now found his place in the universe while V’ger remains barren and lost.




In that sense, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the most important Spock story ever told, because it shows the culmination of his lifelong character arc. While the film was largely ignored by all subsequent Star Trek productions, Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock going forward was very much influenced by what the character experienced in it. 


And there are a lot of other elements of that I really love:


The new Enterprise—it’s absolutely gorgeous, and my all-time favorite version of the ship. I’ve never been one to like sudden, drastic change, but this is one that I embraced wholeheartedly right from the start.




The music—Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the best thing he ever did. Powerful, resonant, stirring, and triumphant. And as a nice tip of the hat to the original TV series, Alexander Courage’s classic theme music shows up several times in a slower, moodier arrangement.


DeForest Kelley is wonderful. He gets all the best lines and gives us a McCoy who’s only gotten more grumpy, more sarcastic, and more anti-authority as he’s grown older. He’s a lot of fun whenever he’s on the screen. It’s not a particularly big part, but he provides some necessary heart, soul, and down-to-earthiness.




The “new” Klingons look great, as do their upgraded battle cruisers. In fact, the opening sequence, in which the Klingon ships confront the energy cloud, is one of the best parts of the film.




I even like the new Starfleet uniforms—though I know I'm in the minority there.

Finally, it’s great to see the cast still looking youthful and vital. Not that they ever looked bad in the later films, but they’re still playing the characters as relatively young in The Motion Picture, and for the most part, they manage to pull it off.


Important note—there are actually three versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been released (and of course, I’ve seen ‘em all): the original 1979 theatrical version (recently released on Blu-ray), the 1983 Special Longer Version originally aired on ABC (available for years on VHS), and the 2001 Director’s Edition, released exclusively on DVD. The Director’s Edition was overseen by Robert Wise himself and produced to bring the film more in line with his original vision for it. (Long story short—because he was working under a very tight deadline and was wrapping up post-production until the very last minute, Wise never had the opportunity to fine-tune the film, to do a test-screening to determine what worked and what didn’t. He’d always felt like what got released was a rough cut. The Director’s Edition enabled him to finish the film the way he’d always intended.)

In my opinion, the Director’s Edition is the best version of the film. It’s paced better than either of its predecessors, it’s got great character moments missing from the 1979 edition, the editing is tighter and brings out new dimensions in the characters and their relationships (particularly Decker and Ilia, who need all the help they can get) and it’s got some all-new special effects that improve and clarify the storytelling significantly. Naturally, Maddie and I watched the Director’s Edition. Which brings me to…




MADDIE: “I liked it. Sometimes I thought it was a little slow-moving, and I didn’t understand some parts of it.


“I couldn’t believe that Spock would give up his studies on Vulcan to go back to the Enterprise. But then Spock was being very cold and unfriendly to everybody, and I didn’t like that. I knew something was the matter with him when everyone greeted him on the Enterprise and he just walked away. But I liked how Spock finally realized that being totally logical and without feelings was not the right thing for him.

“Dr. McCoy didn’t change one bit! In the original series, he was so funny, and I was glad they didn’t change him.

“I didn’t like Kirk’s new hairdo. It was all up and curly and puffy. I liked his hair on the TV show better. Other than that, I didn’t think Kirk had changed at all.

“I thought Kirk was right to take the Enterprise back from Decker because Kirk had more experience—but he didn’t know the new Enterprise the way that Decker did, so it was good to keep Decker on the ship.

“I didn’t get to really know who Ilia was and I would have liked to know more about her. The same with Decker. But I liked how Kirk and everybody tried to make the Ilia robot remember the real Ilia and how she felt about Decker. And I liked that Decker joined with V’ger—Voyager 6—because it meant that he could be with Ilia again.

“I liked the new music and I enjoyed when they played the music from the TV show whenever Captain Kirk was reading the captain’s log.

“I didn’t really like the new uniforms. I thought it was weird that the ladies had to wear pants—what if they had short hair? Someone could confuse them for men! I liked the uniforms on the TV show better. They had different colors and you could tell which department each person worked in by the color of their shirts.

“I liked the new Enterprise. It was more powerful. But I wish we could have seen the old Enterprise alongside the new one so we could see all the changes. When Kirk was going over to the new Enterprise, it would have been cool to see the old ship in his mind, and then see the new one.

“I liked the new bridge because it was more technical and there were so many new machines there and all the people who work on the bridge now had their own little desks.

“I liked when the Enterprise would go into warp speed, but I thought that the way it looked was kind of stolen from Star Wars.

“I thought this was a good start for the movies, but I hope the second one is faster and has more action, maybe more with the Klingons.”

COMING SOON: Take a wild guess!


© All content copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2011.

7 comments:

  1. Nice piece! I mention Star Trek: The Motion Picture in this comic I wrote:
    http://www.sobuttons.com/SoOrderly.html

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  2. Finally... Finally after all of this time, the next movie in the queue is probably either my favorite film all-time, or at the least, in my top 3!!

    I liked Star Trek I - and knowing how fantastic Star Trek II - IV trilogy is, it allows me to like it just the way it is - and to look past some of the long, overdone scenes and Shatner's new hairdo.

    Whenever I watch the LONG scene with Scotty and Kirk approaching the new Enterprise, the music, emotions, and special FX always give me goosebumps... The Enterprise is truly an awesome site.

    Uncle D

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  3. I was actively into Trek from the time when I was four — my mom was big on it when it first ran on NBC, and I remember watching "The Cloud Minders" in its original network airing — and throughout my childhood was a serious booster, drawing the ships and characters (my mom still has an accurate Enterprise that I drew when I was eight) and attending the infamous over-crowded Star Trek con in Manhattan in 1975, so when it was announced there would be a feature film, you can bet your sweet ass I was eager to see it. In fact, I was the first person to buy a ticket to see it on its opening day.

    That said, I am NOT a fan of this overlong boring endurance test of a film. Sure, it's pretty to look at and DeForest Kelly was as excellent as ever, but I found that the attempts at making a movie that would appeal to cineastes as well as the fans worked to rob it of its soul. Shatner was okay — and Maddie is right about his disco hair — and Nimoy's total emotionlessness was a part of the plot's point, but other than Bones there was not one character I really gave a damn about throughout the narrative. That, more than anything else, was the hardest blow to me as a Trek enthusiast, since those of us whole love Trek mostly got into it for its characters. When the time the film was over on that bleak opening day in 1979, the populace of my hometown (Westport, CT) were lucky not to awaken the next day to see the headline "Outraged Nigger Goes on Violent Murder Spree After Seeing STAR TREK: THE MOTIONLESS PICTURE. Spook is Shot Dead, No One Cares." The uniforms alone were enough to send me into a state of apoplexy, looking as they did like some bland fusion of then-contemporary Indian male fashion and a pair of children's "footie" pajamas.

    (To be continued because my comment is too long)

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  4. CONTINUED

    Among the many things that made me want to climb a bell tower with a .30-06 and start taking potshots at innocent pedestrians were:

    -Goldsmith's sickeningly overstated score. Yeah, I know everybody and their dog loves the theme tune (which was incredibly lazily re-purposed for Next generation), but it always struck me as a collision of happy-go-lucky and a fifth-grader's attempt at writing a pompously over-bombastic theme for the epic battles he staged in his bathtubs with his toy boats (with his dick serving as a lighthouse). As for it being Goldsmith's best work, not by a longshot, pal. His Trek score might as well have been Goldsmith himself sitting in front of a mic stating things like "Would-be rousing theme tune!" or "Moment of wistful emotion!," it was so on the nose. In essence, it seemed to me like he was trying his damnedest to gild a turd, and, sadly, I think he knew that's what he was doing (or maybe George Takei blowing some guy in deep space, but that would have been cool, especially when George knowingly turned to the camera with a huge smile on his face and said "Oh, MY!" directly to the audience). Alien was an infinitely better and more subtle work that showed what he could really due when not stuck scoring what ended up amounting to cinematic candyfloss. I would also like to cite Planet of the Apes (innovative and startling in its sheer originality; listen to the album sometime and be blown away), Our man Flint, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (which is truly lovely), Papillon, Logan's Run, The Secret of NIMH and even Rambo: First Blood Part II as all being superior to the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Just because it's associated with Trek absolutely does not necessarily make something great. (See Star Trek: Nemesis)
    -The sparkly rainbow effect used to denote shifting into warp. The only things missing were some prancing unicorns and Rainbow Brite. People in the theater actually exclaimed "Lame!" and "Way to rip off Star Wars, you assholes!" when that effect was first seen.
    -Decker and Ilia, complete and utter non-characters.
    -The seventeen-hour-long flyover of V'Ger. My friend Kenny fell asleep TWICE during that sequence.
    -The groan-inducing reveal of what V'Ger turned out to be.



    But, in retrospect, it was not a total loss. Included among the diamonds found it the turd that was this film are:

    -The awesome new Enterprise, which did look just as great as you and Maddie both noted. It took me a little while to get used to it, kind of like when my Aunt Connie got her nose job; a case of something very familiar getting tweaked enough to make it "cooler" or more modern. I still prefer the original, though, both because it was an important element in my childhood flights of imagination and also because the newer version makes the original look retro and borderline-minimalist in its design, an aspect that I find far more appealing than the majority of the way over-detailed ships that have been in fashion since the original Star Wars and the first Alien. (Those films had great designs, but since then many of the ships that appeared in their wake seemed to feature pointlessly over-ornate surface detailing in favor of genuine design quality.)
    -The "new look" turtle-shell-headed Klingons and their attendant updated cruiser, which is one of my all-time favorite spaceship designs.
    -Kelly turned loose onscreen as McCoy.
    -The too-brief look at the surface of Vulcan. (And what do the natives of that planet call it in their own language anyway? It always struck me as odd that there would just happen to be a planet that shared the Romanized name of a Greek deity.)

    And now you have me intrigued to set aside my hatred of this film and check out the director's cut...

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  5. And when I say I was the first person to buy a ticket to see it, I obviously meant to specify "in my hometown."

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  6. Also, there appears to be a cut-and-paste glitch that happened due to having to divide this feedback into two sections. The bit stating "(or maybe George Takei blowing some guy in deep space, but that would have been cool, especially when George knowingly turned to the camera with a huge smile on his face and said "Oh, MY!" directly to the audience)" was meant to follow the point about the rainbow warp effect.

    Oy, the Internet and its vicissitutdes...

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  7. Bunche,

    The Director's Cut probably isn't going to turn a movie that you hate into one that you love. Obviously, it's the same story, same performances, same dialogue, same music, etc. There's only so much that could be changed, after all.

    That said, the film is now somewhat better paced than it was originally, it moves along a bit more briskly and smoothly, and I should note that Kirk's character is actually altered somewhat by the new edits. Originally, Kirk was kind of a dick throughout the movie, snapping at Uhura at one point and being really dismissive and short-tempered toward McCoy--the guy he drafted back into service because he "needed" him so much. In the Director's Cut, a lot of that has been removed and Kirk comes off as more likable--or at least as much less of a dick.

    The one thing Robert Wise refused to change or edit down was the scene where Scotty takes Kirk over to the refitted Enterprise in the travel pod. Wise's assistants on the Director's Cut advised him to shorten that scene, since that's the one that most people seem to complain about (other than the V'Ger flyover sequence, which HAS been shortened). But Wise steadfastly refused, arguing that the scene came out exactly the way he wanted. Wise wanted to take the time to introduce the new Enterprise slowly, teasingly, with a dramatic buildup, so that we'd be seeing it the same way Kirk was.

    Also, Wise felt that the travel pod sequence was thematically married to the later sequence when the Enterprise confronted V'Ger--Wise wanted to establish the size difference between the tiny travel pod and the huge Enterprise, and then later on establish the same between the Enterprise and V'Ger. I have no complaints about that, since the travel pod scene is one of my very favorites and I think it's great as is--a perfect marriage of visuals and music.

    I don't think the Director's Cut is really going to change your overall opinion of the movie, but you might come away from it thinking it's at least a polished turd. I'd be curious to get your opinion on it.

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