Captain's Blog pt. 18: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

 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.)


  1. "unless you want to substitute Uhura/ Chapel for Ilia and any-of-the-other-guys for Decker..."

    It occurs to me, here, that the genders aren't necessarily so important. It could just as easily be Chekov and Sulu who join as one with a hermaphrodite V'Ger. Would've been a hard sell for mainstream America, methinks, but... what isn't? At any rate: it probably works best the way they did it, but it IS interesting to consider.

  2. Lots of food for thought. I'll split this comment up because blogger says it can be, at most, 4096 characters, which seems oddly specific to me. But no matter.

    I saw this thing in the theater when it was released. I was...let's see...13. What I remember of my impressions of it are some of the things you mentioned:

    * There was way too much about Ilia and Decker. I didn't know or care about those characters, so it was hard to warm up to them when so many characters I knew and loved were right there, waiting to update me on what they'd been doing all those years. It reminded of how little kids will get in front of a TV screen and dance and hop and screech for attention while adults are trying to watch something they've been waiting to see. "GET OUT OF MY LIGHT!"

    Your point about it being necessary to devote time to them so not to sacrifice some of those aforementioned beloved characters is salient. Pondering on it, I initially wanted to say it's a flaw of the script and concept to have to shift attention away from the known characters to make it work. Still, I could also see that one could make the case that TOS did the same thing all the time, creating new characters to be sacrificed to serve the story, leaving the main cast intact. So that aspect makes more sense to me as an adult than it did as a 13-year-old kid slogging through a cold Ohio winter to reunite with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

    * I remember feeling deeply saddened that the crew were virtual strangers again at the start of the film. It was unsettling to think that all those years that I'd imagined them adventuring around the galaxy together, that they had, in fact, drifted apart. That notion touches me even today, because it reveals what I felt, and still feel, as a universal truth: everyone in your life will leave you someday, whether by parting ways willingly or no, or dying. I think of all the friends I've had that at one time I would have thought it unimaginable they wouldn't be part of my life at some point, and how profound all those empty spots still are once I shed some light into the darkened corners of my mind. Even back then, I was troubled by this, and to find that even Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, after overcoming countless threats together and understanding each other on deep, intuitive levels, could drift apart until they barely recalled being friends, was a source of spiritual sorrow to me.

    In that respect, TMP was painful enough to me to keep me from rewatching it very often. It's not a flaw; it's a truth that TMP touched on that I did not, and still do not, like to confront.

  3. Part the second:

    * That first viewing was not too slow for me. It seemed just right. I dug, and still dig, the long visual exploration of V'Ger. It was the kind of spectacle I'd craved from TOS, and I was finally getting it. I've always had a fascination for such things. If they produced an entire DVD of just V'Ger visuals and Enterprise beauty shots, with no dialogue or characters, I'd watch it, and it would likely become one of my favorite things to watch to relax. The problem is that pan-and-scan and small screen TVs thoroughly ruin the spectacle for me. That's why I'm waiting to savor watching the DVD now that I have it. I'm waiting to get a larger, widescreen TV to view it properly.

    * I remember wondering why everyone kept giving Kirk shit about taking command. I mean, this is a guy who'd done everything we saw in TOS, from defeating world-killing machines to taking on the Greek gods, and he was not the first choice on everyone's list to deal with this problem? I'd love to see Decker's resume, to ascertain whether I should trust him to handle something as important as preventing the destruction of the entire Earth. My feeling was maybe Decker should shut up and consider watching Kirk and Co. work as a master class. I mean, when Doomsday shows up, I want Superman there, not Guy Gardner looking to make a name. Guy's cool and all, but...we're talking Superman.

    Gotta admit I still feel this way.

    * McCoy's beard freaked me out a little.

    * I wouldn't have been able to articulate it then, but you're so right that TMP is a nice way to close out the franchise. I do recall feeling a sense of closure when it ended.

    I'm sure I'll have better, more insightful comments once I watch TMP again. This post may be the one that most clearly illuminates its subject for me, perhaps because TMP is the movie that most deeply affected me. Wrath of Khan hit me hard, but it hadn't come out of the valley of the shadow of death like TMP had. Plus, it arrived just as the scifi movie boom was ramping up, where Khan was released when the quality of scifi movies was no longer a novelty.

    1. Good stuff, Jeff, thanks. Rewatching it this last time gave me a lot more sympathy for Decker's position. That said, as a kid, I always thought the same thing (and can't help feel the same thing now) i.e. "When Kirk shows up, you give him the chair, and you're happy to be in the room, damn it!"

      I agree, too: the use of Decker and Ilia isn't all that different from how TOS used guest-stars, and I think they're used to good effect here. I've read some criticism of Khambatta's acting, but I think she does a fine job. No one's winning any awards here (unless it's for "Best Thighs." Good God. And my apologies to everyone everywhere who expects me to above such things. Whew, though.)

      I like your idea of a V'Ger cloud disc, maybe with a strange Vangelis/ Tangerine Dream esque score. I'd watch it. (And I'd dial up a little of what Roddenberry was smoking for the experience, to be sure.)

      As I mentioned in my "Blink of an Eye" post, I think this "Remember me" business (to your point of people parting ways, or life parting us all, ultimately, by hook or by crook) is if not the heart of Trek, then among the array of ventricles that keep it plugged to all else. And while this film doesn't comment on it as much as the next few, yeah, I hear you on that score.

    2. "I remember wondering why everyone kept giving Kirk shit about taking command."

      That's my main objection to Zack Handlen's review, actually. The perspective makes little sense to me. I stopped reading the AVC Trek reviews, actually, as there were too many moments like this. To each his own, of course, but yeah, come on. Don't be ridiculous, dude.

  4. This has been my favorite Star Trek movie for decades, and it doesn't seem as if that's in danger of changing any time soon.

    So, so many thoughts about this one...I'll try to limit myself:

    * If you have never read the behind-the-scenes book "Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series," it is near-compulsory for any hardcore Trek fan. It is heartbreaking that that version of the show never happened, although maybe it's for the best that it didn't, given how things turned out with the movies, which led to TNG, and so forth. Still, reading about what nearly happened is utterly fascinating, and explains a lot about "The Motion Picture" itself. And about "The Next Generation," for that matter. For example, did you know that Decker and Ilia were originally meant to share on the show (and do share in the movie, to some degree) essentially the same dynamic that Riker and Troi ended up sharing during the first season of TNG?

    * It boggles the mind that the movie was (and is) considered to be a box-office failure. In fact, if you take inflation into account (which this page will do for you: http://boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=startrek.htm), it was not topped until the 2009 J.J. Abrams movie came out.

    * I can't entirely agree that the wormhole sequence should have been cut...but I mostly agree. Its story purpose is to demonstrate the fact that Kirk is not entirely fit to be captaining this particular iteration of the Enterprise. Which, granted, we do get via other scenes. Still, this scene is a nice dramatization of that bit of Kirk's arc. The problem, I think, is that the effects -- both visual and sound -- are a bit wonky. Add the slow-motion, and you have a scene that has probably annoyed many people over the years. Not me, though; I love all the fake bouncing around, and the shimmery lights, and the record-on-the-wrong-speed vocals. (Pho ... ton ... tor ... pe ... does ... a ...WAY!) But that's just me, and speaking objectively, yeah, it probably could be cut without losing anything of substance.

    * Boy, that IS a slow nerve-pinch.

    * On my laundry-list of things that WILL happen when and if Paramount ever puts me in charge of developing a new Trek tv series: more about Ilia's planet and people and culture. Ilia remains the hottest bald chick I have ever seen; amazingly, Persis Khambatta was even hotter with a full head of hair. All I'll say about her thighs is that if I were Will Decker, I'd have made exploring them further a TOP priority.

    1. All right, you got me with that pho...ton... torpedoes bit... you're right, the film would be missing something for me if that was gone. I will say, my inner editor might consider that one a "hard cut to make," and it'd probably go the way of "deleted scenes for the DVD" nowadays. But yeah, it's weird how much that's stayed in memory over the years - and fondly - so perhaps these guys know something I don't. (Well, no perhaps about it.)

      You can definitely see traces of Ilia and Decker with Troi/ Riker, especially at the end of "Encounter at Farpoint." I've got my screencaps and commentary ready to go for that... just got to catch up with myself!

      I will check that book out, definitely - might even be a late addition to this series... hmmm.

    2. And absolutely on the Deltans. They're hardly ever mentioned again. In the Orion girls episode of "Enterprise," (Bound) Travis mentions how distracting they were on one particular voyage - which is certainly understandable - but that's all I can think of.

      I meant to mention that "My Oath of celibacy is on record, Captain," line that Ilia says to Kirk; that always makes me chuckle. Good thing to let Kirk know upfront.

    3. * As for the "warmth and camaraderie" of the characters" being missing, I would have to just flat-out disagree with that assessment. Except in the sense -- as you point out -- that the differences are a key part of the themes of the film. I love Gerrold's analysis of the Spock's character arc, and I think it's well worth pointing out that V'Ger serves as a symbol for both Kirk and Spock. All three of them are just quivering bundles of neediness in this movie: Kirk needs command like a tweaker needs his meth; Spock needs his humanity in the same way, although he has done his best to bury that need as far underground as it will go; and V'Ger needs...well, that's complicated.

      * You can probably even extend the metaphor of "V'Ger = need = Crewmember's Name Here" to McCoy, who -- what with his awesome beard and his medallion and his style of dress -- is obviously going through some sort of severe neediness himself. The movie doesn't dwell on it (nor does it do much more than hint at the fact that what McCoy really needs is to hang out with his old pals again), but it's there, if you want it to be. But by the end of the movie, all three of them seem 100% like the characters from the series. As for the other crewmembers, they get short shrift; but that's true in most episodes of the series, too, so even that seems consistent to this Trekkie.

      * Like Jeff, I would be more than happy to watch an entire DVD that consisted of nothing but effects shots of V'Ger. I guess I theoretically understand why some people would be bored by all of that stuff; but I think that if you buy into the concept of what V'Ger is, you probably find these scenes entrancing. Nowadays, seeing some of those reactions shots of, for example, Sulu's awe-struck face, I'm put in mind of Steven Spielberg's penchant for showing faces expressing wonder of some sort. He never quite engaged in the orgy of it that is to be found in this movie; but for my money, Robert Wise here did as good a job as Spielberg was ever able to do (with maybe a small handful of exceptions).

      * The score by Jerry Goldsmith is not merely the finest Trek score, it's one of the best scores ever written for ANY film. Damn near flawless, in fact. One of my favorite sequences in the film is one the most-commonly cited as being bad: the flyby of the Enterprise when Kirk first arrives. Slow? Sure. Ponderous? You bet. But the effects are so good, and Goldsmith's score so yearningly romantic, that the sequence could probably have gone on for twice its length and I'd be okay with it.

      * Speaking of the score, it was recently pointed out to me that in one of the exploring V'Ger scenes, there is a sequence in the score that features plucked strings, played in a low register; this little bit seems to be an homage to -- or a lift from (depending on how you look at it) -- Bernard Herrmann's score to "Vertigo." Homage or theft, it really doesn't matter; the thematic similarity works either way, as that Hitchcock/Herrmann masterpiece is all about dangerously obsessive compulsion, and -- to a less dangerous and (slightly) less kinky degree -- so is "The Motion Picture."

    4. That is fantastic about the "Vertigo" motif.

      The too slow/ too many shots/ characters cold criticisms indeed do not bear close examination. (And the Spielberg - and Abrams by extension - comparison is really apt, here) The V'Ger/ Ilia/ Decker cosmic love sandwich-cloud/ dimensional clusterbang serves as the sticky genesis of... all right, I'll just give this one up. But what I'm saying is: it works. It's an intelligent arc for all involved and makes a great deal of sense.

    5. I was curious as to whether V'Ger's origins had been explored to any degree in any of the numerous Trek novels or comics. My research turned up a page at Memory Beta:


      Looks like there are a few mild attempts, most of them involving the incredibly obvious and unimaginative gambit of linking V'Ger with the Borg. However, one of them is a novel called "Ex Machina" that apparently serves as a sequel and links the movie with the episode "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky." Not in terms of V'Ger's origins, but in terms of the philosophical impact the existence of V'Ger has on the people who survived that episode.

      The book seems to be generally well-regarded, and just vaulted to the top of my to-buy list.

  5. It just struck me that the Enterprise has as much of a character arc as V'Ger. V'Ger takes the Enterprise to be its peer, infected with what it sees as a virus, and both constructs end up finding their "souls" by integrating biological lifeforms. The Enterprise only began to function correctly when its biological component learned to work with each other and themselves. So, basically, this movie assumes, or at least implies, a singularity, the melding of man and machine and the transcendence that will result, is the destiny of humankind.

    Thinking of it like that saddens me even more than I already was that the Enterprise gets short shrift in the later movies, from being badly damaged throughout much of Wrath of Khan, to being destroyed in Search for Spock, to not even being much of a memory in Voyage Home. There is a bit of a redemption, I guess, because the big reveal of the new Enterprise at the end of Voyage Home is, to me, akin to them bringing back Spock as a clone and giving the clone Spock's personality and memories - in this case, of course, the crew is all that for the Enterprise.

  6. I saw this the night it premiered in my little part of Appalachia. I left the theater caring very little about what the plot was. I was still so emotionally wrapped up in seeing those characters again. From the age of six I was a hard core fan of the show. Any plot would have sufficed for me!

    Now, revisiting the film from time to time, I heartily agree that it is paced poorly in parts. Still love it.