After an eighteen-month refit process, the Starship Enterprise is ready to explore the galaxy once again. But when a huge, invincible cloud approaches Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk must assume command of his old ship in order to stop it. Crewmembers old and new face new challenges, and must work together to triumph over the unknown. (summary from here)
The road to Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a bumpy one. Books, plural, have been written on the subject. The salient points:
- Paramount first approached Roddenberry in the mid-70s to put together a movie. He wrote a treatment for a script entitled The God Thing, where Kirk and the gang would go to meet God and then discover he was a malfunctioning computer. Paramount passed.
- Paramount planned to launch a television network, with Star Trek Phase II its flagship program. Scripts were prepared, sets were built, actors cast. (Most notably, David Gautreaux as Xon, a new fully-Vulcan science officer.)
- Paramount nixed the TV network idea, but the bigscreen success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind renewed the feature film idea. Harlan Ellison pitched an idea for it. It was rejected. (The same idea was (unofficially) rejected again more recently.) Roddenberry reworked one of Alan Dean Foster's scripts for the Phase II series, "In Thy Image." It was rejected. Harold Livingston came in to do a rewrite; Roddenberry rejected it. Bitter feuding ensued. The studio imposed a firm release date, and the final result was a script that had almost daily rewrites, contributed to by multiple parties, not the least of which were Shatner and Nimoy. The final story and screenwriting credit went to Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston.
- Exit Xon; enter original cast. Nimoy was holding out until his lawsuit with Paramount over use of his likeness/ merchandising-money was settled. Robert Wise was hired to direct.
The characters of Wil Decker (Stephen Collins) and Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were retained from the Phase 2 concept:
as well as most of the sets, ship models, and storyboarding.
- Susan Sackett, Roddenberry's assistant, supplied Starlog with roughly two-and-a-half years of invented reports on the ongoing production. (Later, she would co-author a book on the making of the movie that was also deemed largely fictional by some, notably Harold Livingston.) She later said of this: "It was a creative challenge inventing news bulletins for an unchanging situation."
- After several million dollars had already been spent on them, the original company hired to do the special fx failed to produce any, necessitating the late-innings involvement of Douglas Trumbull and company.
As a result of all the above, the budget ballooned to 45 million, about the equivalent of 100 million in our inflation-mad economy of today. Unheard of for 1979, enough for two Apollo moon missions. (Seriously - that is crazy.) It ended up earning enough to be more-than-profitable, but the ballooning budget was (unfairly) pinned on Roddenberry. (I say unfairly, as most of the production costs resulted from decisions the studio forced on him over his objections. It also had to eat the cost of the fx never produced and for the substantial development of Phase II.) As a result, he was relegated to "consulting producer" for Trek's other big-screen iterations, something we'll revisit when we get to Wrath of Khan.
Harold Livingston's career also took a big hit; his only post-Trek work was this so-80s-it-was-dated-seconds-after-airing series with Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson:
So we have the curious case of a film achieving wild box office success, with the three people most responsible for it (including Robert Wise, who endured nearly two decades of criticism for a cut he did not approve and who was given far less time in post-production, thanks to the crunch of the studio-imposed release date, than he needed) shut out of the accolades. The bigwigs involved (Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Jeff Katzenberg, among others) came out way ahead and suffered little of the slings and arrows; such is Hollywood.
That's the behind-the-scenes info. How is the movie itself, you ask? Opinions vary. Harlan Ellison dubbed The Motion Picture "the Motionless Picture." Other unflattering nicknames dogged it: "Spockalypse Now," one I like very much, actually, and "Where Nomad Has Gone Before," referring to its plot being a reworking of TOS episode "The Changeling." (Elements of "Metamorphosis" and "The Immunity Syndrome," as well, as Dayton Ward mentions in his review of the movie.) The most common complaints were a) "it's too slow," b) "the cast displays none of the warmth and camaraderie we associate with these characters," and c) "way too many shots of the V'Ger Cloud."
I'll deal with those objections in turn.
a) "It's too slow." Is it slow? Yeah, sure. I can't argue that. Do I mind it? Not really. Most of the pacing problems come from pt. c, so I'll get to that in turn. I think the first forty-five minutes could probably be condensed into ten or fifteen, but I also rather enjoy the story taking its time. This is less Trek's first big screen movie and more of the series finale it should have had. Looked at that way, well... it may even raise the volume on the pacing problem, picturing it as a two-parter finale, but conceptually, it works.
One thing that definitely could be cut altogether is the wormhole sequence; it adds nothing to the story or danger that we don't learn elsewhere.
Ditto for the transporter malfunctions, though the time the fx people spent reinventing the wheel with the transporter does result in some nice looking shots:
And we get one or two redundant illustrations of the threat the alien entity poses; after the Klingon opening and the unfortunate destruction of the Epsilon 9 station, we perhaps don't need the additional explanations and faux-threats that we get.
(Although that crowd scene is worthwhile for including hundreds of real-life Trekkies and Trekkers like Bjo Trimble, a nice nod to the passionate fans who kept Trek alive in its years in the wilderness.)
One last example: Spock delivers the most drawn-out nerve pinch, ever, about halfway through the movie:
This takes only a few moments of screentime, but it's emblematic of the approach. You can almost hear Gene saying "Why spend two seconds on something when we can spend ten seconds on it?" amidst a swirl of marijuana smoke. (Something quite prevalent on the set; it was the seventies, after all.)
Actually, that "stoniness" applies to the film's plot more than the pacing. It's definitely not a traditional action-adventure. Sure, the alien entity threatens Earth, but this isn't really a film about a threat to Earth. It's a tone poem about self-actualization. And I love it for that. Say whatever you want about it, but this is a pretty daring move to make, even for the 70s. To mix the streams: it's not midi-chlorians; it's the Force itself.
This dovetails well into the next common objection, so let's continue.
b) "The cast displays none of the warmth and camaraderie we associate with these characters." While true, I'll argue that it's entirely appropriate. In his review of the film for the AV Club, Zack Handlen wrote:
"There's nothing wrong with Kirk wanting to be on the Enterprise; the universe doesn't seem quite right with him behind a desk. But TMP paints James T. as an aggressive ass from the very start. He's supplanting someone else (someone who may actually be better equipped for the job), and he's bizarrely pissy about it too, like he lost his sense of humor between now and the end of the third season. We're supposed to like Kirk, not vaguely tolerate him."
This reminded me of a remark on a recent Mission Log podcast that wasn't about this film but certainly applies to it: any time Kirk encounters a society where everyone can be happy and self-actualized, he has to block it, as being in command is his self-actualization.
A bit of an unflattering take on our Captain, but the bulk of TOS episodes certainly bear it out, repeatedly. If being in command is Kirk's self-actualization, then Decker is the obstacle to it. He's unhappy/ "cold" until that obstacle is removed. He's not at his best, nor the familiar Kirk we know and love, because of this. And while I don't have a problem tolerating/ liking Kirk in TMP or TOS, he's undoubtedly not quite himself. This is essential to understanding Kirk's "arc" in TMP. It's almost a rom-com of boy-loses-ship, etc. (Maybe that explains all those endless shots of the Enterprise!)
Which raises an interesting question: is this Kirk's movie or Spock's movie? If it's Kirk's, then some of the criticism is better-founded, as a story about a guy who's not himself unless he's in command and keeps chipping away at the stone until it breaks isn't an exceptionally compelling peg on which to hang such a long and expensive production. But let's say it's Spock's, as David Gerrold argues in The World of Star Trek, and this is worth quoting at length:
"Spock's essential problem is the recognition of his own humanity, the undeniable existence of his own feelings. (This is the) one thing he needs to resolve for his life to be complete. This is the subplot that gives meaning to everything else in the film.
"Spock is essentially an unhappy character. Happiness (is his) rare exception, not the rule. (Spock) was desperately trying to make himself into a machine and being continually reminded by his own feelings.
"V'Ger is actually a living machine that grew so complex it developed consciousness. (...) Spock enters the heart of V'Ger and mind melds, demonstrating his willingness to die to uncover the truth of his own emotional state. The truth is far more important to him than survival because in discovering the truth, the old Spock dies and a new one is born.
"Recovering in sick bay, Spock reports that V'Ger is asking the questions: Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more? He has been asking these same questions himself. It is a profound irony to him, and we see him laugh at the jokeness of it all. (...) In his own machinelike pursuit of logic he had turned himself into a living machine. What else can you do when you get the joke but laugh?
"The moment is profound. It is the acknowledgement of emotion. The action is both human and Vulcan. What Spock says is logical, what he expresses is joyous. This is the most important moment in Mr. Spock's life, (the moment he) accepts the existence of his emotions (and finally integrates) both his halves into one mature being."
Gerrold goes on to say that this is key to understanding the ending, as well. Spock's task on Vulcan is completed; he is back on board the Enterprise. "The human adventure is just beginning; for Mr. Spock, that is certainly true." (And it is for this reason/ quote I chuckled everytime I read or hear this film referred to as "Spockalypse Now.") I agree with this take on it, and I have to say, viewing it this way nullifies much of the criticism as its importance becomes suddenly self-evident. Spock is Trek, in so many ways, particularly in 1979.
It's not just Kirk and Spock's self-actualization, though, but also at least three other people's, all of whom integrate into one.
Viewed through this lens, these next two shots are especially perfect:
So, if the characters don't seem like themselves, for my money, not only is there a perfectly understandable reason (and it's not the Earth in crisis, something I hear too often) but said reason is also the entire reason for being of the film.
As for the other characters, well, objection(s) sustained.
Maybe the film focuses too much on Ilia and Decker instead of McCoy and the rest of the cast. But, it is their story arc that serves the self-actualization theme, and it is through them that Kirk and Spock achieve their own. So, unless you want to substitute Uhura/ Chapel for Ilia and any-of-the-other-guys for Decker, thus losing both characters forever in the giant space-orgasm that creates a new dimension, you've got to roll with that punch, I'm afraid.
Finally, c) "way too many shots of the V'Ger Cloud." This is true. Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry agreed; it was the studio that insisted each and every effect shot was spliced into the film. (The thinking being, we paid all this money for them and by God, we're going to see every last one of them.) It leads to a rather endless one-two punch of special effect / reaction shot:
But, the effects are outstanding, even decades later, and as the only Trek film with this kind of look/ pace, I'm pretty forgiving of it.
So, in the final evaluation: as the Original Series finale we never got, as the film that resolves Spock's human/Vulcan schism once and for all (setting up two of my favorite Spock moments to come: 1) when he tells his father, post-resurrection and post-again-saving-the-planet-Earth, in Star Trek IV, "Tell my mother: I feel fine" and 2) when he mind-melds with Picard at the end of "Unification") and as not just a slice but a whole gooey pie of stoney seventies self-actualization, The Motion Picture is pretty damn epic. If it's not everyone's favorite Trek, that's understandable, but without a doubt, it is Trek, through and through.
If TOS is your undergrad degree, TMP is your master's. (With thanks to Bryant Burnette for that spot-on assessment.)
If TOS is your undergrad degree, TMP is your master's. (With thanks to Bryant Burnette for that spot-on assessment.)