Carl takes a retrospective look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the movie approaches its 40th anniversary
Science fiction has been in our cinematic lives since the late 1800s. One of the first films made was a short film about man travelling to the moon. Its visuals of a rocket ship landing directly into the eye of the man in the moon was a revelation. Mankind was always looking to the stars, wondering what was out there, were we alone or was there intelligent life out there. Celebrated fiction writers like H.G Wells wrote fantastical stories of alien life and mankind’s attempts to meet them, either by his own design or by a forced meeting with alien invaders. Films started to appear, at first silent pictures but finding their way to our hearts with the advent of talking films. Classics like Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ or ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ firmed up the genre until Hollywood went full hog in the 1950s. Classics like ‘This Island Earth’, ‘Invaders From Mars’, ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ filled the cinemas around the globe.
Many others were made that couldn’t quite enter into the classic territory (I’m Looking at you Santa Claus VS The Martians and Plan 9 From Outer Space) but many of them are still viewed to this day as being films we can sit and watch on a wet Saturday afternoon on T.V, with a hot cup of coffee and some snacks. Most were rifts on the theme of communism and the villains almost always bore more than a passing resemblance to the Russians. T.V got in on the act with series like ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the best and most loved and revered science fiction programme hit U.S screens. Star Trek: The Original Series only ran for three seasons but burned itself into our minds. A simple tale of humans travelling amongst the stars, looking for new life forms and new civilisations went on to become a cultural phenomena, with its tales of the ship’s crew mixed in with social commentary of what was happening in the world and confronting issues like racism, interracial relationships and the Hippie movement alongside episodes dealing with Nazi Germany and oppression. Creator Gene Roddenberry who also produced the series didn’t shy away from any controversial subject matter, choosing to incorporate them into the series and its storylines. Sadly, the series was cancelled after three years. It was all over for the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise.
Or was it?
With the advent of syndication, Star Trek was brought to the rest of the world who embraced it with glee. It became a family time tradition to sit in front of the T.V every week when a new episode debuted. Far from fading into television history, Star Trek became a worldwide phenomenon. An animated show was commissioned that featured almost all of the original cast in a voice only capacity. The themes were still present in this cartoon show. Suddenly there were Star Trek Conventions being held worldwide, the cast was in demand to make guest appearances and the show had found a new lease of life. Paramount Studios were so amazed by the reaction that they started considering bringing the series back somehow. A Star Trek T.V movie was discussed as well as the new show entitled ‘Star Trek: Phase II‘. However, the series of writers couldn’t come up with a suitable script for the T.V movie and couldn’t satisfy Paramount. With that in mind, Paramount pulled the plug in 1977 and concentrated solely on the “Phase II” show. But then Star Wars happened, followed by Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Two science fiction films, dismissed as middling fare before they even opened, hit the box office like a whirling dervish. Millions of dollars flowed into box office tills around the world, proving that a good Sci-Fi movie would draw in the crowds. Paramount suddenly became very interested. They had the perfect science fiction story right there in the archives. Phase II was cancelled and instead, studio executives went headlong into getting a Star Trek full-length feature film made.
Paramount then had the problem of getting a script together that they would be happy with. Roddenberry had in fact created a screenplay back in 1975 called ‘The God Thing‘. In his version, a grounded Admiral James T. Kirk had to reassemble his old crew on a newly refitted Enterprise to battle a godlike entity that spanned many miles across in diameter. Many of Roddenberry’s ideas were used in the screenplay for The Motion Picture. In fact, most of what he had written made it into the final film either intact or modified. Celebrated writer and author Alan Dean Foster delivered a story that Paramount and Roddenberry liked and scriptwriter Harold Livingston set about creating a shooting draft incorporating Foster’s story and Roddenberry’s ideas from 1975. The actors were all in place without a completed screenplay with the exception of Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy was furious with unpaid royalties due to him from the original series and had no intention of returning to the role of Spock. with this in mind, Roddenberry created a new character named Xon to fill the void. The character was written as being a young Vulcan. Roddenberry realised that Xon would be too young to take the position of First Officer so set about creating the characters of William Decker and Ilia. Spock was completely left out of the screenplay. Director Robert Wise thankfully had the foresight to listen to his son and daughter in law who claimed ‘It wouldn’t be Star Trek without Leonard Nimoy’. He sent Jeffrey Katzenberg to New York City to meet up with Nimoy in hopes he could be persuaded to return. Katzenberg had with him a cheque made out to the actor to make up his lost royalties and begging him to return as the Vulcan character loved around the world. Nimoy was satisfied that the impasse had been resolved and agreed and the actor attended the 1978 press conference with the rest of the returning cast. Nimoy, however, was unsatisfied with the script and his meeting with Katzenberg led to an agreement that the final script had to meet Nimoy’s approval.
As for the rest of the returning cast, DeForest Kelley, Walther Koenig and George Takei were not happy that their characters were reduced to mainly bit parts and lobbied for greater characterization. However, their pleas were ignored with Takei stating that the script rewrites during production ‘Usually favoured Bill’ (Shatner). Nichelle Nichols complained about the new costumes stating that they were drab and the unisex look ‘Wasn’t Uhura’. Koenig complained of the lack of camaraderie stating ‘This may be Star Trek, but it isn’t the old Star Trek’. However, James Doohan came up with an incredible masterstroke. Doohan actually created the Klingon Vocabulary heard in the film. This led to linguist Marc Okrand later developing the entire Klingon language based on the words conjured up by Doohan.
Stephen Collins had no idea what Star Trek even was and had no idea what the franchise entailed. Luckily for him, his dressing room was next door to Deforest Kelley’s and the older actor took Collins under his wing throughout production, acting as a kind of father figure to him. Though not referenced during the events of the film, Collins’ character as Will Decker was, in fact, the son of Commodore Matt Decker played in the television show by revered actor William Wisdom on the classic episode ‘The Doomsday Machine’. The character began the legacy of having either several characters from the original series make a return later on in the franchise or to have a connection to events from the show. Other returning actresses included Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Janice Rand and Majel Barrett, Gene Roddenberry’s real-life spouse as Doctor Christine Chapel. In addition, actor David Gauxtreaux who had been cast as Xon in the aborted second TV series made an appearance as Branch, the commanding officer of the doomed Epsilon 9 space communications station and Mark Lenard, who had portrayed the character of Sarek, Spock’s father in the show and would reprise the role in future films cameoed as the Klingon commander of the battlecruiser Amar in the opening sequence.
During the course of the production, the script underwent many changes. The cast was even told to not even bother memorising the last third of the screenplay as it would inevitably change. The pages were different on a day to day basis, causing much frustration amongst the other actors as Shatner and Nimoy all had their input into the daily script meetings, excluding the remainder of the cast. Most of the changes had to do with the relationships between Kirk and Spock, Decker and Ilia and the Enterprise and V’ger. In September 1978, a final version of the third act was finally approved and filming began. However, of the original 150 pages, only 20 were retained in the final films shooting script. The film’s budget was originally $15 million but after all the behind the scenes problems, including demolishing the sets for the aborted Phase II and rebuilding them to accommodate the films new cinematic ratio, failed visual effects sequences and other difficulties, the budget ballooned to $46 million. The original special effects contractors couldn’t complete their appointed tasks in time and so celebrated effects supervisor Douglas Trumball had to be given carte blanche to meet the films release date of December of 1979. The film was finished barely only days before its premiere. Robert Wise took the only just completed film to the Washington D.C opening but his feeling was that the film he carried in his hands was only, in reality, a workprint version, in essence, a rough cut copy of the film he originally wanted to make and to release.
The film was released to mixed reviews across the board. Top of the complaints about the film was the distinct lack of action and the reliance on visual effects to sell the story. The film’s score, composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith was applauded and welcomed even though several critics and fans complained about the distinct lack of the shows original theme. The theme is heard a couple of times throughout the film but Goldsmith decided to go his own way. He produced a compelling and rewarding score, little realising that his theme would be used 8 years later for the Star Trek: The Next Generation television show and that he would be contracted to use his score and themes again in the films Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. The films final box office tally of $139 million was way short of Star Wars like numbers and below studio expectations. It did, however, convince Paramount that there was a market for Star Trek movies and proposed a lower budget sequel. When Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan rolled around, Gene Roddenberry had been forced out of creative control of his own creation. But considering that the sequel is regarded to this day as the darkest and best of all the Star Trek films made, it appears that Paramount made the right decision.
In 2001, Robert Wise revisited his creation. He oversaw a directors cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At last, he was afforded the chance to bring his vision of the film to the world. Released on DVD, the directors cut of the film didn’t get George Lucas Star Wars trilogy like changes but Wise did make the film better. He remastered the audio, updated the special effects to CGI and tightened the film up, adding scenes and cutting down some others. The DVD release saw Wise’s definitive version of the film. Where the film still feels like a reunion film, it’s not as heavy as the original cinematic version or the extended television version. The updated version isn’t as dialogue heavy, removing un-needed exposition and technical babble, now the film feels more human and like Star Trek. It is, in essence just an extended episode of the original film but a fun and enjoyable one nonetheless. And it’s always great to see the original crew on screen.
The film begins with a shot of a cloud-like entity floating in space. Three Klingon Battlecruisers approach it, studying it both visually and via their tactical battle screens. As is the Klingon way, they forgo any attempt to communicate with the intruder and fire their torpedos at it. The intruder absorbs the weapons and retaliates against its aggressors. Firing energy blasts at the Klingons, it completely destroys all three ships, continuing its onward journey. A federation monitoring station, Epsilon 9 has witnessed the attack and start tracking the intruder. They determine that the cloud is heading directly for Earth. Meanwhile, on Vulcan, Spock is undergoing the ritual of Kohlinahr. But there is a consciousness speaking to him from space, preventing him from achieving the final purge of all his human emotion and gaining pure logic. On Earth, Admiral James T Kirk is tasked with intercepting the intruder as the newly refitted U.S.S Enterprise is the only Starship in interception range.
Although not completely finished and in need of a shakedown, the Enterprise sets off to intercept the cloud. Kirk has replaced the new captain of the ship, Will Decker, temporarily reducing him in rank to a commander. Decker’ former lover, the Deltan female Ilia has also joined the crew, much to Decker’s shock and surprise. Along the way, the engines imbalance when attempting to go to warp speed, creating a wormhole. After Decker belays an order from Kirk, Kirk hauls him to his cabin, demanding an explanation. It soon becomes apparent that Decker, who has overseen every aspect of the Enterprise’s refitting, knows more about the ship than Kirk now does. McCoy tells Kirk the real problem. Kirk is jealous, Decker has command of his ship and Kirk has used the emergency to regain control of the Enterprise. It’s an obsession for him. Kirk believes the Enterprise is his and his only. Checkov contacts Kirk to inform him a shuttle has pulled alongside the Enterprise and is requesting permission to dock. Kirk gives his ascent and sends Checkov to deal with it. The shuttle contains Spock, having left Vulcan to aid the Enterprise in her time of need. Spock also has an ulterior motive. The intruder they are ordered to confront is the consciousness calling to him from space. Aiding Scotty in getting the ship’s engines into balance, the Enterprise warps towards heading off the intruder while Spock reveals to Kirk and McCoy the true reason for returning to the crew.
The Enterprise makes contact with the intruder. The intruder attacks the ship and drains the shields. Spock, however, has found out the entity has been trying to initiate contact with them. Reprogramming the ship’s computers to transmit a friendship message to the intruder at its rate of speed and frequency, the intruder breaks off its attack and allows the ship to enter into its gaseous folds so the Enterprise can investigate further. Using an energy probe, the intruder appears on the bridge of the ship, scanning Starfleet’s records and Earth defences. Spock is injured attempting to stop the probe gaining the knowledge. The probe then attacks and ‘kills’ Ilia, much to the distress of Decker. However, Ilia returns to the ship as an alien probe, programmed by ‘V’Ger’ to investigate the Enterprise and its crew in an attempt to find and contact his ‘creator’. Decker is tasked with showing the robotic female all about humans, about their feelings and attempts to bring Ilia’s repressed memories from inside the android’s brain.
Spock attempts to discover more about the alien they are currently inside by making an unauthorised spacewalk. Discovering the truth, that the Enterprise is inside a living machine, he attempts to mind meld with it. However, the power of the meld is more than he can handle and he is seriously injured. Kirk goes outside to bring his friend back inside the ship and to get him medical attention. The intruder reaches Earth and transmits a signal, directed down to what used to be the NASA site in Houston. Receiving no reply, it sends various devices into orbit above the planet, rendering all planetary defences inoperable. The Ilia probe informs the crew of the Enterprise that Earth will be destroyed, as the creator has not answered, that humans are nothing but carbon-based people and are not true lifeforms. Kirk tells the probe he knows why the creator hasn’t responded but will only disclose the information to ‘V’ger’ himself. A tractor beam brings the Enterprise to a crater-like orifice. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Decker and Ilia leave the ship to confront V’ger. They discover an old Earth probe is V’ger, which in reality is the Voyager 6 probe that fell into a black hole centuries before. Its mission was to gather information about the universe and any life forms it encountered and to transmit its findings back to the technicians at NASA, to its ‘Creator’. No one on Earth can understand the signal Voyager is sending to them, its message is that its ready to transmit its data. Voyager encountered an alien machine race who built it a vessel to return to earth and complete its programming. Kirk tells Voyager that man is his creator and will prove it to him, ordering the Enterprise to transmit the codes that will trigger Voyager to start transmitting its data.
However, Voyager wants to join with its creator, to become one with him. It burns through its antenna leads before the final decode sequence can be transmitted. It wants to bring the creator to him to enter the final sequence in person, to touch its creator. Decker sacrifices himself, knowing that he really wants to be with Ilia, no matter what form she is now in. He knows Kirk really wants the Enterprise. Repairing the antenna leads and entering the final sequence manually, he and Voyager become one together. Ilia joins with them, creating a new lifeform. The new lifeform destroys the alien cloud, releasing the Enterprise and her crew to its freedom. Kirk informs Starfleet that Decker and Ilia are ‘missing’ and orders the ship to go to warp speed. The Enterprise and Kirk are together again, as they were always destined to be.
The story, in reality, boils down at the end of the day as something every one of us asks at one time or another. We ask who we really are and where do we come from. Voyager evens asks the question ‘is this all I am? is there nothing more?’. We all ask ourselves the same question at one time during our lives. Is this the best we can be? Can we be better than we are? And if so, how? Its a human question that during the events of the film is asked by a machine, something that wants to be better than it is. It wants to be more than the sum of its parts, it wants to live, to learn and to experience. We can empathise with the machine. We go through life experiencing various things, some of which we desire, some of which surprise us, some of which threaten to destroy us and some that bring us to tears and to our knees. But these experiences make us who we are, how we live our lives and determine our destiny. These experiences define us.
The film, even though it does indeed feel like an extended episode of the series at times and is ultimately not exactly what we thought we would be getting in a Star Trek movie is a delight at times. The banter between Kirk and McCoy is wonderful. When they reunite on the transporter deck, McCoy is aggressive towards his old friend. He never expected or wanted to return to Starfleet ever. He has been in simple terms, drafted back to service, much to his annoyance. When he discovers Kirk was behind it, he even accuses his old friend. But Kirk needs him. He is one part of the larger machine that Kirk needs to be as efficient and as good as he is. He keeps Kirk grounded. When they shake hands in the transporter room, McCoy slaps his friend on the shoulder and slips straight back into the banter we came to love. It’s affectionate and we can’t help but laugh at McCoy’s return and switch back to his miserable old self. He complains as he leaves the transporter room. He’s home. And we are so glad to see him.
Spock’s return is more complicated, however. He isn’t the Spock we remember from the TV show at first, he is so distant to his former shipmates and Captain that we find ourselves in turmoil. We want our favourite Vulcan back, not this empty shell of a man who has little regard for anyone or anything. His inner turmoil mirrors V’ger’s. In this case, Spock has been building up to attaining something his whole life only to have it pulled from his grasp at the last moment. We feel for him. During the course of the story and film, he slowly reverts back to the character we came to love. By the film’s climax, Spock is back to us, redeemed.
The effects, though they certainly do on occasion overwhelm the film are fantastic. When we first see the newly refitted Enterprise, we can’t help but marvel at how good she looks. Although the scene is overlong, we breathe with anticipation as every detail of her is revealed. And then we get the front on shot that sends shivers of excitement down our spines. She’s beautiful. Again, its like greeting an old friend, someone we haven’t seen for a long time. The cast may be human but the Enterprise is a character all by herself. Without her, this isn’t Star Trek. Without her, the film would feel empty. Accompanied by Goldsmith’s haunting music, it’s a fantastic scene. My favourite parts of the whole film are when she goes to warp speed, streaking out across the galaxy. And the beauty shots of her can’t help but bring us joy. The directors cut brings her beauty out to the fore. The newly inserted CGI shots make the film shine brighter than ever before.
Alongside the enhanced audio, the film is now much better than it was before. Ok, so it will never be the best of the films (Star Trek II and First Contact hold that honour) but it was a good start to the series. If it wasn’t for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the franchise may not have been around at all anymore. It opened the way for Kirk and his crew to return to the fold again, to entertain us and astound us again. We happily greet our old friends and feel almost like we have a seat aboard the Enterprise with them. In that respect, after 40 years, it still feels good to have got them all back. With that in mind, the film will always be a triumph.
Until next time.
“Mr Sulu, ahead Warp One”
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Entertainment/Books and Literature Correspondent for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!