Throwback Thursday: Star Trek: The Motion Picture Boldly Makes a Television Series Into a Film

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

There’s one franchise I’ve steered clear of in these columns. One that has over 50 years of material ranging from television, films, cartoons, novels, and comics. You name the media, Star Trek has been a part of it for over half a century. What do you focus on? In examining films that I would consider space operas, I’ve decided to talk about the film that gave a decided rebirth to the franchise. After a short, and some would consider failed, initial three-year run, the TV series benefited from repeated exposure in syndication. As a kid in the late 70’s I can attest to the fact that I would be able to come home from school and watch multiple episodes of Star Trek (and Batman). It was a glorious time to be a kid. But unbeknownst to me, and knownst to people who paid attention to these sorts of things, the show was doing well in syndication. Gene Roddenberry had convinced the suits at Paramount that Star Trek was viable. Over the ’70s it waffled between being brought back as a TV series or film. It was finally decided that Star Trek Phase II would be a new television series to start filming in 1978. With only a slight wrinkle. Close Encounters of the Third Kind had done amazingly at the box office and proved that science fiction (besides Star Wars) could be viable on the big screen. Actors that had been cast for the new series were given their walking papers, the core cast of the original series were rehired, and sets were modified to bring the voyages of the starship Enterprise to the big screen. A little indulgent in naming, sure, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture was now a thing.

Theatrical poster with the tagline: The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning.

Original theatrical poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Yes, I had this on my wall as a kid.

Robert Wise was hired to helm the picture. If you don’t immediately recognize his name, he won Oscars for West Side Story and Sound of Music, brought The Day the Earth Stood Still to life, and caused a bit of paranoia with the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. No slouch for finding a solid-through line for plot, and a good eye for framing scenes, which was desperately needed. The screenplay was not done when filming started and was constantly being revised daily (sometimes even hourly). Wise was the perfect person to bring in and see this film through to the premiere, which he did, with the final special effects and cut being completed just barely before opening night.

Reviews of the film were mixed, and this was the start of the mantra that odd-numbered films were bad and even-numbered films were good in the original Star Trek films. I highly disagree. The barebones plot was a tweak of what the pilot episode of Phase II was going to be. A gigantic sentient machine has put Earth in danger, and only the crew of the Enterprise can stop it. A couple holdovers from the original script were the new commanding officer Commander Decker and a new navigator in Lieutenant Ilia. That might be why these two characters are given almost as much screen time as the rest of the returning cast. Stephen Collins (Decker) and Persis Khambatta (Ilia) are enjoyable to watch as their relationship is given a history and actual plot advancement (something that would be a little lacking in subsequent films taht would almost solely focus on the original crew). In fact, their relationship is a little similar to the Riker/Troi relationship that would be used to success in The Next Generation. The Motion Picture not only gives Decker good moments with Ilia, but it also allows him to be the human foil with an aging Kirk (Shatner), who wants just one more time in the saddle (something that would be further utilized over the course of the films). Decker never seems there to just be there. His arguments and ideas are sound, and he helps Kirk find what he’s lost.

Decker (Stephen Collins) confronts Ilia (Persis Khambatta) in a corridor.

Decker (Stephen Collins) confronts Ilia (Persis Khambatta) in a corridor.

One of the great things about this film is that the main troika of Kirk/Spock/Bones are all adrift. They’re not quite sure where they belong at the start of the film. It amazes me that by the ending of the film they are all set back on their proper course (especially considering there wasn’t a solid ending when the film started shooting). Kirk has found his purpose, Spock has found his balance with humanity, and Bones has learned to relax. Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, and Uhura are there, but let’s face it, it’s always been about the troika. Chekov does get electrocuted, which gives Kirk the chance to emote “Medic,” so that’s a fun moment that always brings a smile to my face (not as good as his special way of pronouncing “Sabotage” but still enjoyable). Another moment that tickles me is a scene where Bones comes on to the bridge, has no lines, and then eventually just leaves. It’s a silly moment that could definitely be a part of a drinking game if you so desired. But enough of the quirks. There’s other things that really work.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Kirk (William Shatner), and Bones (DeForest Kelley) discuss Ilia (Persis Khambatta), while Chapel (Majel Barrett) looks on.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Kirk (William Shatner), and Bones (DeForest Kelley) discuss Ilia (Persis Khambatta), while Chapel (Majel Barrett) looks on.

Critics slammed the film because they thought it was boring. I disagree. It’s gorgeous. It’s not Star Wars action, it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey visuals. The special effects really try to capture the grandness of what is alien to us. There are a few reasons that we spend over five minutes at the start of the film showing the Enterprise. For one, it established the Enterprise as her own character. The ship is as important to the story as the actors. Plus it gives us a chance to relish in the Jerry Goldsmith score, which is suitably epic. The music cues are an important part of the film and deserve to be played on appropriate audio systems. But I digress, I’m not a “vehicle guy” when I watch films, but the Enterprise is important, and that’s a driving force behind most of the films and TV series. Enterprise means something. Sure, subsequent films just destroyed the Enterprise because they needed to make some explosion budget, but here we are shown that the ship matters. And it matters through Star Trek III (another column for another time when I’m talking about underrated Treks). We are meant to be in awe of this ship, and when it comes up against V’Ger we are shown just how small we are in the cosmic vastness. And there are some amazing physical effects with matte paintings to show the Enterprise moving across the screen in this enormous alien. I’m still amazed to this day how the special effects, which were all done in a physical space, stack up with modern-day special effects done with CGI. There’s a wonder and awe present in this film that modern-day blockbusters don’t—and can’t—capture.

A shot of the starship Enterprise in drydock.

It’s almost vehicle porn, the camera looks that longingly at the Enterprise.

There are no big space battles. I’m fine with that. The themes that the film wants to focus on are more interesting than lasers and photon torpedoes. Star Trek: The Motion Picture deals with finding balance in your life, exploring the unknown, and examining the human condition. While Kubrick’s 2001 played to a predominantly arthouse crowd, TMP tries to balance that, while also indulging in the commercial aspects of popular cinema. It’s a fine line and it walks that line well. I will recommend Star Trek: The Motion Picture and stand by my beliefs that it is a solid film. It wasn’t a hit, but it did well enough to usher in another 40 years for the franchise. Not bad for a rushed production that didn’t know what it wanted to be. It found it.

The Enterprise being dwarfed by V'ger.

The Enterprise being dwarfed by V’Ger.

 

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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