Craggus’ Trek Trek – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

I guess I would consider myself a lapsed Trekkie (I was never that bothered about the difference between Trekkie and Trekker), losing my faith somewhere between the last couple of seasons of “Star Trek: Voyager” and the launch of “Enterprise”. I loved, and still love, the original series and I was really into “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when it was on, although I think it’s aged worse than the other shows. I really enjoyed “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, especially once it got into its long-form storytelling stride, but “Voyager” was always a bit meh, and I gave up on “Enterprise” before it finished its first season. Saying that, I’ll occasionally stop and watch them if I’m flicking channels and find them on but the movies…ah, the movies are something special, so I’m embarking on Craggus’ Trek Trek.

Over the course of the next six weeks, I’ll be taking a look at each of the twelve Star Trek feature films. It’s probably going to get a little [a lot] geeky, there’ll be some pedantry and nit-picking but also some defending of the indefensible and ranting at the intolerable. So without further ado, let’s get underway. Ahead: warp factor one!

We start our voyage with 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, commonly and slightly unfairly known as ‘The Motionless Picture’. It’s only slightly unfair, because however you look at it, pace is not its dominant attribute.

When a vast alien energy cloud of unprecedented size and power blows straight through Klingon space on a direct heading for Earth, the newly refitted USS Enterprise is the only starship in intercept range. What awaits them is V’ger, a vast living machine seeking to meet its creator.

Promoted to feature status after the success of 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars”, “Star Trek” had been on course to return to TV screens in a planned ‘Phase II’ series and watching it today, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is, without a doubt, the most Rodenberry-esque of the Trek feature films. Although the commercial success of Lucas’ space fantasy juggernaut was the driving force behind Paramount’s decision to launch a big-screen “Star Trek” franchise, Rodenberry was keen to distance it from the more fanciful saga and took it far closer in tone to that first ill-fated pilot episode “The Cage”, restoring his original vision.

While superficially similar to the original series episode “The Changeling”, what “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” lacks in pace, it makes up for in scale and spectacle. Its flaws notwithstanding, it is a textbook example of what needs to be done to transition a TV series to the big screen. Everything is bigger, better and more spectacular than on TV. Visually, the film is a sumptuous feast for the eyes: the Enterprise looks fantastic with its new facelift, the special effects, thanks to a decade’s worth of technological development, are strange new worlds away from the TV series, even the Klingons get new ships and the now famous Cornish pasty facelift and the music…oh, man – the music! Jerry Goldsmith delivers an almost ludicrously glorious score for The Motion Picture, soaring themes and musical motifs which lift and propel the picture through the many patches where the script and story sag.

Under the watchful guidance of Producer Gene Rodenberry, celebrated veteran director Robert Wise brought an epic feel to the whole film and certainly didn’t hold back in any sense story-wise. The version I watched was the original cut, which lists V’ger’s cloud at almost 82AUs in diameter which is nearly twice the size of our Solar System (Wise did correct this in the generally superior 2001 Director’s Cut, reducing it to a more reasonable 2 AU).

Not every update works as well as the ship redesigns. The uniforms are a complete mess and look awkward and uncomfortable. With the exception of Kirk’s super sharp grey and white Admiralty uniform, the rest is a sea of bland 1970’s beiges and greys, with no seeming rhyme or reason as to who wears what kind of uniform at what point. Likewise, the script – reputedly being rewritten and tweaked on an almost daily basis whilst shooting – is repetitive and littered with redundant scenes. A great drinking game (if you’ve got nothing to do for the rest of the day) is to take a shot every time somebody announces that they think there may be an object at the centre of the cloud. Seriously, this happens at least four or five times in the first half-hour alone, and each time the crew react as if it is an astonishing revelation. Although this film gives us our first real glimpses of Starfleet Headquarters and 23rd Century Earth it also asks us to simply accept the fact that Starfleet is so complacent about its own security that the planet, and indeed the surrounding regions of space, are so devoid of any Starfleet presence that only the Enterprise, still undergoing a major structural renovation project, is able to intercept V’ger. Really? What if the Klingons had attacked? Or the Romulans? With the apparent ludicrously lackadaisical deployment patterns, the Tribbles could probably have mounted a successful invasion of Earth prior to V’ger’s arrival.

The exotic and mysterious special effects (supervised by both Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra) are amazing on screen but in the original cut of the film, it’s almost impossible to get a sense of what V’ger’s spacecraft actually looks like. In the effort to make everything awe-inspiring and mysterious, the film sacrifices visual clarity and, again, its only in the 2001 Director’s Cut that a new sequence actually gives us a decent look at V’ger the vessel. The epic scope also comes at the expense of the human elements, which had always been a strength of the original Star Trek. Possibly due to Wise’s unfamiliarity with the cast and Rodenberry trying to force them back into the archetypes he had originally envisioned, the characterisation is a bit off and with the exception of Kirk and Spock, there’s very little for the extended returning cast to do, with the remaining action given over to the two guest stars.

Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley deliver decent, if unremarkable, performances but the script gives them very little to actually work with, being mostly filled with exposition and technobabble. Stephen Collins is likewise solid as Commander Decker but the character feels superfluous and tacked on to provide some sporadic conflict within the script until he’s needed to spare any of the regular characters from making the required sacrifice during the finale. Persis Khambatta does impress, however, as the exotic and enigmatic Deltan Ilia, and even more so once she is absorbed and returned to the Enterprise as V’ger’s emissary and probe. While it’s fun to see Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig and George Takei back on screen as Uhura, Chekov and Sulu, they’re pretty much just fun cameo nods to the original series, with only James Doohan’s Scotty getting anything remotely relevant to do. FUN FACT: In early drafts of the script, Chekov was going to be killed off by his exploding console instead of just getting his arm burned. For all his surliness about Star Trek since, I suspect Koenig is secretly grateful that didn’t come to pass.

There’s a lot in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” that serves as a direct blueprint for “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, which Rodenberry would turn his energy after being effectively frozen out of the feature films. Elements borrowed directly from Phase II, such as Decker and Ilia would become Riker and Troi, however the Ilia probe has a very similar arc to that of Data and the very idea of a more experienced, veteran captain supported by a younger, dashing first officer would become a mainstay of TNG.

A bold and extravagant production, (one of the most expensive ever at the time), “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is equal parts triumph and folly. As a “Star Trek” film, it’s intelligent, thought-provoking and spectacular to look at, but it’s let down by a clunky, talkative script which fails to capture the magical chemistry which made the original TV series so great.




  1. Mark Higgins May 17, 2014

    Good review, but I’d mark the film higher, probably a strong 8/10.

    The score is, as you say, outstanding and I believe is still the most expensive original film score recorded to date and boy does it show. Lalaland records have produced a remastered cd box set which is well worth ordering direct if movie music is your thing.

    We rewatched it a couple of nights ago and the cinematography still blows me away. Given the problems they had lighting the new Enterprise model for it to turn out as well as it did is a stunning achievement, most notably in the leaving space dock sequence with the Sun peeking out from behind Earth. Still gives me goosebumps!

    I do wonder how Phase II would have turned out. I suspect it may have knifed the franchise so as a life long disciple of Roddenberry I’m glad they plumped for the big screen adventure.

    It would have been nice for the Ilea/Decker story to have been revisited by the franchise somewhere down the line, but if that ever does happen I would want a writer with real chops to be given the task – not Bob Orci!

    Here’s for a return to the prime timeline in a new TV series run by Seth Mcfarlane.

    To mix-and-match serials – “Help us Obi Wan Mcfarlane you’re our only hope”

  2. Rodney Twelftree July 11, 2016

    There’s a word that described this film simply: stately. I admire Robert Wise’s direction here, but compared to other late-70’s blockbusters like Star Wars and Superman, TMP just doesn’t quite have the energy or impetus it needs to really succeed. I think they started to get it right in the sequels, but the first feature film with the original cast feels like a test of endurance than an experience.

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