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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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