Re-Watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Screenplay by: Harold Livingston
Story by: Alan Dean Foster
Produced by: Gene Roddenberry
Directed by: Robert Wise

Release date: December 7, 1979
Stardate: 7410.2

Mission Summary

A giant space cloud, impervious to conventional weapons but massively destructive, is headed straight for Earth. Naturally the Enterprise, fresh from a renovation, is the only ship in interception range. Admiral Kirk temporarily takes control of the ship from its captain, Captain Decker, and reassembles his old crew–including Spock, who just failed to complete the Kolinahr–to confront the cloud.

Decker’s ex-girlfriend, a Deltan named Ilia, gets commandeered as a possession vessel for V’Ger, the name the cloud seems to go by. Ilia–or what’s left of her–explains that V’Ger is looking for “The Creator” on Earth. Spock decides to do some investigating on his own, putting on a thruster suit to mind-meld with the machine. It comes from a planet full of living machines and left to search for the meaning of its creation and its existence. Kirk bluffs that he knows why the Creator won’t respond, and Ilia takes them to meet V’Ger in person, deep within the cloud, to disclose that information.

A plaque reveals that V’Ger is the old probe Voyager 6, released 300 years ago to collect data and bring it back to Earth. Kirk explains that they–humanity–are the creators. Unfortunately, V’Ger has now amassed so much knowledge that it cannot evolve. It needs a human element to think beyond logic. Decker volunteers to meld with Ilia, and V’Ger, creating a new life form that will continue exploring the many galaxies.


When we began the Star Trek Re-Watch, I hadn’t seen many of the original series episodes since junior high, but I certainly had seen some of them over the years. I also tended to revisit the films with some regularity–all except Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I probably hadn’t seen this movie in more than fifteen years. I hoped that this excuse to revisit it would reveal hidden nuances that I couldn’t have appreciated as a teenager; perhaps I had been missing out on something truly special for all this time, and now I could finally see the film again for the first time, with a fresh perspective.

Well, it did feel like I was watching it again for the first time, because I had forgotten so much of it (the pictureless three-minute overture that opens the film made me think my laserdisc player was broken), but sadly, I determined that I haven’t been missing anything. There are many reasons why I don’t watch this movie often–not necessarily out of lack of interest or time, but because I have been avoiding it intentionally. Though I didn’t recall many of the specific events, just a scattering of images–the wormhole effect, Enterprise in drydock, Spock’s journey into V’ger–my impressions of it were spot on: This film is tedious. There are several nicknames for this movie, such as “Where Nomad Has Gone Before,” but my favorite is “The Motionless Picture.” I can’t say that nothing happens, but nothing of consequence happens, and by that, I mean nothing truly affects the characters we care about. Nothing really changes.

That’s a strange thing to say about a movie that’s ostensibly all about change. Kirk has been out of the loop and trapped behind a desk for a few years now, and he misses his command. He misses Enterprise. When he finally gets her back, he finds that the ship, Starfleet, the universe, has moved on without him. He’s forced his way back in, taken advantage of the situation–as he always does–to his own advantage, but the universe doesn’t need him anymore. Worse still, his friends don’t need him either.

Think about this for a moment. What does Kirk actually do to affect the events of this film and save Earth? Not much. He gets in the way a lot. In some sense, Kirk has been relegated to being an observer, someone who enables other people to do things. Spock tries to work his way around him to make contact with V’ger on his own, and Decker acts behind the scenes to keep him from doing more harm than good. Kirk’s sole contribution to this adventure is to rub some dirt and rust away from V’ger’s hull–something that a race of alien machines never thought to do–to reveal the machine’s true name. Spock figures everything out, and Decker sacrifices himself to save the day, while I assume that Kirk will take all the credit.

Kirk is no hero this time around. He’s just as confident and arrogant as the captain we remember, but he’s uninformed, indecisive, and surprisingly incompetent. Spock has bailed him out on a number of occasions, but this time he pretty much appears from nowhere with a magic formula to fix their warp engines, and away they go! How embarrassing for Scotty, eh?

All of the emotional weight of this film lies with two strangers, Ilia and Decker, two people we don’t really care about with a shared history we don’t know much of. It’s like trying to give back story to a couple of red shirts. Why bother when they won’t be around for long? They’re there to serve a specific purpose and nothing more. Ilia’s loss has no impact on the viewer, and Decker’s final sacrifice fails to move us, wasted on too much exposition and technobabble; and it’s what he wants anyway, and he has nothing to lose, so that isn’t much of a sacrifice. At the end of the stardate, it seems like a meaningless sacrifice, an unnecessary one–a solution born of convenience and the desire to have some flashy special effects. When it’s all over, V’ger is gone with Ilia and Decker, as if it never happened, because none of it ever mattered anyway.

This film is a tragedy of missed opportunities. One of the joys of Star Trek has always been in the camaraderie of the crew, but they’ve practically been turned into strangers to each other and viewers as well. Kirk has more chemistry with Scotty than he does with Bones and Spock; this is one of the biggest missteps of the film: it broke up the team. It ruined their legendary friendship and their comfortable dynamic.

So Kirk’s been working at Starfleet, but we don’t know why. Spock’s choice of seeking kolinahr makes a little more sense, but why did Dr. McCoy retire early? And why did they all lose touch with each other for so long? These guys are BFFs, but they haven’t even spoken to each other since they came home? Maybe they got sick of each other after five years in deep space, especially after going through the animated series, but it all rings false, and I imagine it isn’t what a lot of fans expected to see.

Though I commented earlier that this movie is about change, it might be more accurate to say that it’s a return to the status quo. It’s change in reverse. Our characters who have moved on in search of new destinies learn that they belong here, they never should have left Enterprise and their friends. Kirk regains his command. Decker and Ilia are reunited, sort of. V’ger makes it back home. I’m sorry, but that’s a terrible arc for a story.

I don’t know if there’s a term for a movie where someone puts the old team back together; it happens in a lot of heist movies. The thing that works best in those films is the fact that the characters fall back into their old patterns and bits of their history together is revealed through those interactions. The difference here is that we’ve seen most of those five years of history shared by the Enterprise crew, and little of it is evoked in TMP. And instead of being excited about their reunion, we’re wondering why they ever split up, and why things are so different between them now. Change.

Actually, McCoy has changed: he’s a caricature of himself; he hasn’t grown or changed at all in the intervening years, just as he’s exactly the same as an Admiral walking down a corridor on the Enterprise-D 93 years later. It’s just that his jokes aren’t funny anymore. (And incidentally, his usually comedic insistence that the transporters are dangerous is rather appropriate on this outing, don’t you think?) So much of the dialogue in this film is terrible, forced, and flat.

So there isn’t much going for this film. The new Enterprise is beautiful on the outside, but like the rest of the film, it is dull on the inside, just like the movie. Everything is dark, grey, murky. This is a deeply ugly film, and I’m not just talking about those horrid uniforms. I understand the director and effects were influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it doesn’t feel like Star Trek, much in the way the Enterprise-D in Generations doesn’t feel the same as it did on the small screen.

On the other hand, the plot elements TMP “borrowed” from the series are very Star Trek: An incredibly powerful alien being testing the crew turns out to be just a child. There are some elements of Nomad here, of course, but also “The Doomsday Machine”–and how appropriate is it that Matt Decker’s son succeeds in stopping a planet killer’s attack on Earth? I might have found his character far more interesting if they had engaged with that aspect, linking it back to the old show, rather than leave it all to implication.

As I said, I remembered this movie as tedious. I always think this film is more than three hours long, but it isn’t that long a film; however, it is too long for the amount of plot in it (precious little), and it has far too many drawn out effects shots (far, far too many). During our group viewing, I commented that without Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning musical score, this film would be unbearable. If any modern film deserves to be accompanied by a live orchestra, it’s this one.

I was surprised by a few things, such as the fact that V’ger was heading to Earth (kind of an important plot point, which is echoed a little in Star Trek IV), and how much of a jerk Kirk is. And Starfleet, for that matter–it’s incredibly unprofessional and cruel to strip Decker of his command, without even telling him personally until his replacement has arrived and been welcomed by the crew. I mean, Decker was the last person to find out! And was it necessary to bump him down in rank? Spock maintains his rank as Captain in the next film when Kirk takes over. And I was furious to realize that in essence, the movie is a shaggy dog story, where the punchline is that V’ger was Voyager all along. In a weak Twilight Zone-esque twist, we discover that we’re the Creator! Ha ha ha! Bleh.

The only way I can enjoy this film, and I use that word generously, is on its own terms, as a historical artifact. It’s essentially the first reboot of the Star Trek franchise, an attempt to reinvent and revitalize a failed television show on the big screen. It’s a remnant of a failed attempt to create a new live-action Star Trek television series, refitted and cobbled together into something new(ish). It’s a seed for Star Trek: The Next Generation. (How did I miss the obvious link? Will Decker/Will Riker. Duh!) It brought old fans back, and it was probably meant to be friendly to new fans as well, which is why the crew is kind of starting over again, though I don’t know how successful it was in that.

Obviously, for all its flaws, TMP led to a long series of films and television shows, but you could–and probably should–skip it entirely and go to The Wrath of Khan. You won’t have missed anything remotely important in plot continuity or character development. That’s really the problem–this film is utterly forgettable.

The Human adventure is just beginning, indeed.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2

Torie Atkinson: The Motion Picture is actually one of the last Star Trek movies I ever saw, after all the good ones, and I didn’t remember much aside from some really long exterior shots, a bald chick, and a load of space vagina-like nebulas, openings, and tunnels. Turns out my memory is actually pretty good! Even after a second viewing I can’t add much to that description. For a film that fans had waited a decade for, TMP manages to underwhelm in just about every way.

Visually, some truly awesome special effects (and make no mistake, these still look excellent thirty years later) are entirely negated by a bland color palette and they-must’ve-had-their-eyes-gouged-out costumes. Even the Ghostbusters gave their jumpsuits some color and accent. (And don’t even get me started on McCoy, who apparently beamed over straight from a disco.) If Cthulhu had been on the bridge devouring the cast and crew, that Enterprise still would’ve been the most boring area I’ve ever had to stare at for two hours. Off-white and blank, it looks as if it was designed by a panel of Nurse Ratchets to be as unstimulating as possible. I thought I would get used to it but it never stopped bothering me. Where the original series is colorful, bright, and exciting, this future looks like a government issue, if-you-paint-the-walls-you’ll-lose-your-security-deposit pre-fab. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the outrageously silly 70s aesthetic, but it just feels sterilized and cold and I hate it more every time I see it.

It’s not just the atmosphere that’s stilted. There is, of course, the pacing: it’s certainly earned its monikers as “The Slow-Motion Picture” and “The Motionless Picture.”  I thought I would be more interested with this viewing, more able to appreciate the little Star Trek touches I had missed the first time around. Yeah, no. The whole movie is essentially an establishing shot, as it takes nearly an hour just to get to warp drive. (Spock doesn’t rejoin the crew for fifty minutes.) I was honestly shocked at how little happens. Granted, the ship looks phenomenal and there are some truly excellent details (bobsandiego pointed out a face looking through a porthole as Kirk’s shuttle docks; I had never noticed that!), but it’s not incredible enough to hold anyone’s interest for so goddamn long. I kept thinking that if they had cut the fluff it would’ve been a fine episode–but it already was a fine episode. They recycled “The Changeling” and ballooned it to two hours with lengthy pans and reaction shots of the cast looking wide-eyed. Who thought this was a good idea?

When not boring its audience to tears with models and effects, the handful of scenes involving actual actors are pointless and irritating. Kirk is a pendulum personality, swinging back and forth from competent commander to shameless dickhead. His face-offs with Decker contributed absolutely nothing to my enjoyment of the film, as Kirk again and again makes the wrong decision (going straight to warp, nearly destroying them all when they enter the wormhole) and yet learns nothing from these (one would assume to be) humbling experiences. In the end, Decker knows more about the ship but Kirk’s still right. It’s his instincts about how to approach the probe that save everyone. Decker doesn’t even get to be science officer long enough to prove himself because when Spock, the movie’s MVP, shows up he takes over any and all functions that Decker could’ve been given. Kirk is right, Decker is wrong, Spock is useful, end of story. Any tension there, any conflict at all, is entirely moot by the end as otherwise important lessons about humility and respect dissolve into meaningless bravado. Sure McCoy perfects the you’re-being-an-asshole look and there’s a half-hearted line or two about letting go of obsessions, but that thread gets dropped about midway and I never felt Kirk was properly punished for his behavior. I think this is a failure of the script and not necessarily the story. The elements are there, but the script didn’t really understand the characters beyond a one or two sentence caricature and the dialogue lacked the nuance necessary to bring out the best of the performers.

The pacing issues and weak dialogue also enable the supremely compelling idea of V’Ger to get bogged down by too much melodrama. Something terrifying and unknowable threatens all life, and instead the writers shoehorn in some crap about Spock being emotional (can someone explain how this probe is reaching out to his “human blood,” when obviously he’s picking it up with Vulcan radar? Give him the damn necklace, lady!). In another fit of dreadful scriptwriting, Ilia’s and Decker’s backstory is provided in a single stilted exchange in the corridor. I kept waiting for more information, but… no, that’s it, some soap opera-style blather about never saying goodbye. (I believe I groaned aloud; those on Skype can verify.) Nobody else makes more than an appearance for fanservice, except maybe McCoy playing daddy to a whiny, tantrum-throwing Kirk. All those subplots, which don’t even bother to feature the main characters we know and love, wind up being a long-winded distraction from the truly interesting mystery of what this “thing” (to quote McCoy) is and where it comes from.

Ultimately, what really kills this movie for me is the complete lack of basic coherence. The setup is classic–an incomprehensible, unimaginably destructive space cloud headed for Earth. What does it want? Can we even provide it? The Klingons couldn’t stop it, can we? But the answer to the mystery is idiotic. This machine does a complete scan of the Enterprise, assimilates the personality of Ilia, and yet still has no idea that starships require human operation? I don’t buy it, and I especially don’t buy that in that memory bank somewhere V’Ger didn’t find his own biography. The whole movie leads up to a reveal that just, on its face, is absurd. The only thing dealt with more sloppily is the (again, melodramatic) ending, in which V’Ger is injected with Decker’s life force, thus solving the problem forever? I still can’t figure out what that’s supposed to do–inspire V’Ger to humanitarian work across the galaxy? Make it go away back to its machine planet where it will never again fit in because it’s been contaminated by puny humans?

Though it ends with our heroes saving the world, it’s a strangely melancholy movie, and at least on that front it strikes the right note. We see the limitations of technology when the transporters fail, killing two people. We see that our greatest threat can be something we ourselves made and infused with what we thought was a noble good: the pursuit of knowledge. And in the end, we see a talented, smart man sacrifice himself in the line of duty. The idea that we need a human element in our approaches to things–the way we pursue knowledge (V’Ger), our interactions in human relationships (Kirk learning to chill about Decker), and our judgments of ourselves and our philosophies (Spock)–is a beautiful one deeply enriched by the Star Trek conceit, and simply not done justice by this particular effort.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3

Background Information

Star Trek became a phenomenon that few had anticipated. It found new life in syndication, and its fanbase swelled throughout the 70s, evidenced by the countless conventions, zines, novels, and merchandise. Though Roddenberry had suggested a film at the 1968 Worldcon, it wasn’t until 1975 that Paramount seemed seriously interested in the possibility of a film. The studio fielded scripts from many science fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and John D.F. Black, but none seemed to work. Treatments, scripts, and directors came and went with the seasons, and by 1977 the momentum for a film was lost.

Paramount scrapped the movie idea and decided to launch a new television network with Trek as the flagship program, leading to the development of Star Trek: Phase IIPhase II would have been a new primetime series with some new characters and a new five-year mission. But between the time they greenlighted the series and the time it went into production, everything changed in the science fiction movie business. With the success of science fiction blockbusters like Close Encounters and Star Wars, Paramount changed its mind and thought a movie would be a smarter choice. More script treatments and directors came and went, but in the end Phase II‘s pilot, “In Thy Name”  written by David Gerrold, became the principle basis for the plot of TMP. The characters of William Decker and Ilia were reused.

Paramount wanted someone big to direct this and they got their wish with Robert Wise. An Oscar-winning legend for directing The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music (among others), the studio felt he would bring an epic scale to the movie. NASA, MIT, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and even Isaac Asimov all consulted on the film to lend it scientific accuracy.  Each of the old castmembers were round up, and some, like Nimoy, were paid off for lost (or “lost”) royalties to entice them back to the franchise. Kelley, Shatner, and Nimoy all expressed dissatisfaction with the script and rewrites became an hourly event.

Shooting fell behind schedule almost immediately but the real delays came in post-production. Robert Abel Associates had been hired for special effects work, but a year into production there was still no usable footage.  The company was fired and Douglas Trumbull, who had originally been offered the work but turned it down, took over effects. The budget ballooned and with the time frame for effects only nine months instead of two years, the movie remained unfinished until the eleventh hour.

There was no time for a screen test and Wise took a fresh print to the world premiere at the K-B MacArthur Theater in Washington, D.C., which was followed by a black tie reception at the National Air and Space Museum. The film broke records on its opening weekend and went on to gross $139 million worldwide.

Best Line: MCCOY: Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?

Other Favorite Quotes: SPOCK: It knows only that it needs, Commander. But, like so many of us… it does not know what.

Trivia: There’s some rumor that at the time this was the most expensive film ever made (it cost $46 million dollars). That’s not exactly true: Cleopatra, in 1963, cost $44 million pre-inflation adjustment. Superman: The Movie actually cost $54 million, but the producers didn’t disclose its budget until many years later. In any case, the $46 million also included costs for the Phase II project that never got off the ground.

Orson Welles narrated many of the film’s trailers.

The film was nominated for three technical Oscars: Best Art Direction, Best Music (Original Score), and best Visual Effects.

The script confirms that Will Decker is the son of Matthew Decker from “The Doomsday Machine,” but this wasn’t clarified onscreen. Like father, like son.

The musical score incorporated effects from an instrument called the “Blaster Beam,” which was invented by Craig Hundley, who played Peter Kirk (“Operation–Annihilate!”) and Tommy Starnes (“And the Children Shall Lead”) in the original series.

Gene Roddenberry loved Goldsmith’s score so much, he reused it for the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Director Robert Wise rejected Goldsmith’s original theme, in favor of one with a theme/motif.

This film marks the first appearance of the Klingon forehead ridges, which were not explained until the Enterprise episodes “Aflliction” and “Divergence.”

Uhura’s comm earpieces are the only props from the original series, which were used because they forgot to make new ones.

The Klingon and Vulcan languages used in this film were invented by James Doohan.

To distinguish TMP from Star Wars, Roddenberry decided there would be no space battles, and intentionally pushed for a more sophisticated and complex plot.

The “buckle” on the Starfleet pajamas is actually a medical scanner linked to Sick Bay.

A previous version of the script killed Chekov during V’ger’s scan of the ship.

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Next post: Re-Watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.