Saturday, July 4, 2009

Star Trek The Motion Picture: It's Not That Bad!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is considered by many people, including self-proclaimed Trekkies, as a slow, boring film, certainly one of the least entertaining films in the ST series. It premiered to much hoopla back in 1979. The original cast had been reunited, the sets and ship had a sleek new look, and the special effects were far beyond anything seen on the TV show. However, many viewers had trouble connecting to the story, which included some elements from previous Trek shows, such as The Changeling, and was a slow, visually interesting but action - deprived tale. Fans who had become used to the Star Wars style of science fiction (which is to say, space opera) found this film to be devoid of excitement.

I have to admit, when I first saw the film, back in 1979, the pace nearly killed me. Particularly painful was the seemingly interminable sequence where Scotty takes Kirk for a tour of the refitted Enterprise. Upon my second viewing, I used that time to get up, go to the restroom, get in line at the concession stand, and get a box of Milk Duds - and when I came back, they were still putzing around in that shuttlepod, looking at the new ship!

In general, although I consider myself to be a huge Trek fan, I've avoided watching ST:TMP over the years. But then, the Director's Edition came out on DVD, and I had to get it. There were a number of improvements made - the scenes on Vulcan with Spock are vastly superior to the original film. The effects throughout the film were updated and improved, and it's nicer to look at than ever before.

But upon watching the dvd recently, although all these changes were nice, and I certainly enjoyed them, I came to feel that the film itself, the story behind it, was actually not so bad. The main characters of Kirk and Spock go through some significant changes (particularly Spock). When we see Kirk in this film, he's not the heroic captain we knew from before. Instead, he's a middle aged man desperate to get back his glory days; he uses the Vger threat to force his way back into command of the Enterprise, and to hell with whoever gets in his way. It's not a flattering image but it's so unexpected that it makes Kirk a little more interesting than before.

Spock really goes through some changes in this film. It actually sets the course of the character for all later appearances, from the movies that would follow (including the new Star Trek film) and even his appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Spock begins the film trying to purge himself of all emotions, to be completely Vulcan. Yet at the end, he comes to realize the falseness of this premise he has carried around for years: that he has to choose to be human or vulcan. He realizes that he is both, and from that moment on, he finds a peace that is always evident. He is able to retain his logical, orderly way of thinking, and yet is able to express compassion and friendship without reservation. Nimoy does a fantastic job with Spock.

The story itself probably harkens back to the whole philosophy of Trek more than any of the later films, which were much more action-oriented (probably in response to this film). The Enterprise crew deals with Vger in a calm, intelligent way (not so the Klingons!) and nary a shirt is ripped. The threat of Vger is palpable but everything seems very low-key. In some ways, this film and its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, mirror the situation that occurred with the first two pilots for Trek. Pilot number one, The Cage, was considered too cerebral, too talky. Then pilot number two, Where No Man Has Gone Before was made, this time with Shatner in the lead. The second pilot had action aplenty, and yes, Kirk's shirt was torn off. The network loved it. People also loved Wrath of Khan, and all the films that followed were in that same style.

ST:TMP was a science fiction film closer in style to the classic SF films of the past, such as Day the Earth Stood Still, which was also directed by Robert Wise. It wanted you to think about what was going on, not merely to witness it. However, whatever message it was trying to send (the human adventure is just beginning?), got lost due to the pace, and most audiences were simply bored. But perhaps because I am older now, I was able to sit down and genuinely enjoy this film. There's a certain joy seeing the old crew return, and knowing that this movie was responsible for all the iterations of Trek to come. I even found myself taking a liking to the uniforms, something I know many fans hated. But hey -they had short-sleeved shirts! I mean, these uniforms actually look comfortable, unlike the later maroon jacket ones (how heavy were those things anyway?). The redesign of the Enterprise was beautiful, especially the engine room. That design was incorporated in a variety of ways into the later Treks, and I sure wish they'd used something like it in the newest film, rather than that brewery!

It's not the best film in the Trek series, but it's certainly not the worst. Give it another chance. You might be surprised (but do get the Director's Edition - even the tour of the Enterprise seems better!).



Chris PV said...


I've been a lurker over on the AA forums for a long while, and read through a lot of you and Doug's blog over at 2 guys etc, but didn't know you were a Trekkie! I have to ask, what did you think of the new film? I personally thought it felt a lot like they had slapped the names of characters I loved on to characters I didn't know. Made me a bit tetchy, I don't mind saying.

I find myself thinking it was a good movie, but not a very good Star Trek movie.

As for TMP, I've never had a problem with the plot or the performances, it just feels to me that they were trying to out Star Wars Star Wars in a way.

"Yeah, you may have a bunch of long, beautifully realized spaceships, but we've got more! And they're BIGGER!"

Basically, if you remove 75% of the bits around the Enterprise and the shots of the Enterprise flying around V'Ger, I think you've got a darn good film right there.

Karen said...

Hi Chris, welcome and thanks for checking out the new blog!

I guess Star Trek never really came up over at the AA boards, but yes, I am a huge fan, mostly of TOS, although I did watch Next Gen and DS9.

I had a lot of concerns over the new movie before I saw it. Bit I wound up enjoying it. I thought some of the characters were done fairly well, such as Spock. I also felt that the new creative personnel showed respect for the original series and movies. It definitely isn't MY Trek, but I can accept it as a form of Trek.

Unfortunately, I think films (as opposed to episodic TV) require a lot of action and bombast so many of the nuances of Trek are lost. I think the Star Wars school of thought on SF films is still in full effect, decades later.

Chris PV said...

Gotta say, the blog's looking good! I'd be more active over at AA, but I'm really more of a general comics fan, and I'm just starting to work through some Avengers stuff (Iron Man at the moment, thanks to the DVD-ROM, then Cap and the Avengers proper).

I've seen TOS, and love it. I waver back and forth about whether or not I like it better than TNG, but they're both a good distance beyond the other shows. DS9 and I got along really well, but Voyager was a lot of dreck more often than not, and Enterprise only got good in the last season right before they canned it.

To me, the new film felt like they had added a lot of the trappings, but none of the substance. They added the Kobyashi Maru scenario, but it didn't feel like Kirk was the one in it to me. I get that he's young and he doesn't have a father, but he just seemed so thick to me that I could not picture him ever becoming a legendary captain. Scotty was just a punchline (which annoyed me because when I heard Simon Pegg got the role my sense of optimism shot through the roof).

But there was a lot of good, mostly from Spock, Sulu, McCoy, and Chekov. Uhura was okay, but didn't really leave much of an impression on me. Plus the new design of the Enterprise, inside and out, was quite good.

I think the movie annoys me because, even after all this time, I really don't have an opinion about it.

I've always been annoyed at the effect that Star Wars had on cinema in general and Sci-Fi in particular. I love those films to death, but they're really not true science fiction. It's King Arthur with spaceships instead of swords. The argument about Trek vs. Wars always amused me, because to my mind Star Wars has much more in common with Lord of the Rings than any other fictional universe.

Karen said...

Chris, I'm hoping that now that the film-makers have the 'origin' story out of the way, we'll see more character development in the second Trek movie. Maybe Scotty will be less of a joke and a wee bit more serious in the next go round. I thought the rest of the supporting cast came off well, although I'm not completely sold on the Spock-Uhura romance. I think it lessens the sense of isolation for Spock, which was one of the things I always loved about him.

One thing I do hope they change is the look of that engine room! That just drove me nuts!

And let me say, I am not anti-Star Wars; I actually love the first three movies. But I agree, they're more fantasy films than anything else. Unfortunately we now have a lot of people who think Star Wars defines science fiction.

Chris PV said...

See, I think that Abrams was trying way, way too hard to make Spock even more isolated. Hence, sucking Vulcan down a black hole. I actually made a not nice hand gesture at the screen, unbidden, when that happened. If you've ever read his plans for Superman back when he was in the running, you'd see that he's really keen on the angry, isolated protagonist. I think he wants to make Spock into Neo, and that annoys me. A lot.

And I can't shake the feeling that, since people thought Scotty was funny this time, they'll just make him even broader next time. If it worked once, do it bigger. Which is a shame, because Simon Pegg is a REALLY good actor.

I actually didn't mind the design of the engine room, but the fact that Scotty apparently got stuck in the ship's septic system gave me a good chuckle, although probably not in the way the filmmakers intended!

Oh, I love Star Wars too. The prequels not so much, nor the CGI'ed new releases, but the old movies are fantastic. It's just that, as I've spent more time reading about their effect on film making, I've developed some mixed feelings about them. It's kind of like the Dark Knight Returns for me. The story itself is great, but the trends it unleashed via other creators slavishly parroting the most obvious assets might be more trouble then the actual work is worth.

Karen said...

Sure, blowing up Vulcan isolate Spock in the sense that there are fewer Vulcans. Maybe Abrams is trying to give him an 'edge'. But I always felt Spock's isolation came from being neither human nor vulcan. He never had anyone he could relate to. Giving him Uhura as a lover sort of takes that away - now he has someone to turn to when he is suffering.

I completely agree with your Dark Knight comments. I think the emulators nearly ruined the industry.

Chris PV said...

I personally saw the Uhura/Spock thing as more of a (not terribly well thought out) attempt to out swerve the audience. We were all expecting Kirk to hook up with her, but rather than just not give us a needless romance they gave it to Spock. I doubt much more thought went into it then "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if Kirk's trying to make time with her, and she goes over and starts making out with Spock?"

And I agree, he doesn't need an edge beyond his mixed heritage. It's that conflict where the traits that are his greatest strength cause him the most pain.

Dark Knight was a good story, but I think it's also telling that Frank Miller's pretty much been trying to out Frank Miller himself ever since. Have you taken a look at All Star Batman and Robin? It's so bizarre and over the top you'd think the man had overdosed on testosterone when he wrote it!

Horace said...
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Horace said...
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Horace said...


I enjoyed reading your thoughts on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. I agree with most everything you said.

But, I admit to having a soft spot for the sequence when Kirk and Scotty are on their way to the Enterprise in drydock. The combination of Douglas Trumball's miniature work with Jerry Goldsmith's score makes for one of the best sequences in any Star Trek film.

dbutler69 said...

I'm glad to read this, because I recently noticed that this is going to be on TV, and I've set the DVR to record it. I haven't seen this in maybe almost 30 years, so I'm interested in how I'll like it this time around. I'm a big fan of the original series in particular (though the Next Generation is good, too). I think this is one of those films that it's become fashionable to bash. People probably do so without having seen it.

Edo Bosnar said...

Just discovered this post thanks to Doug's "spelunking" suggestion, and had to comment (even though I doubt anyone'll get around to reading it) because I guess I'm one of those odd-duck Trek fans who really liked the first Trek film, especially after a few viewings. In fact, I'd say it's one of my favorite Trek films. Yes, it was a bit too slow at places, but it has a real good story, and as Karen said, the Kirk and Spock characterizations in particular are really well done.
My vote for absolutely worst, never-should-have-been-made Trek film is V, that Shatner written/produced/directed travesty...
p.s. liked the last, "re-boot" Trek film as well, because it was so fun and action-packed, although I really take issue with the whole idea of re-booting Trek - seems unecessary. Also, the Uhura/Spock romance is completely pointless...

Matthew Bradley said...

History certainly seems to have been good to STTMP, which in my mind is a testament to the talent of the late Robert Wise, whom I had the honor of interviewing for FILMFAX years ago. In addition to the original TDTESS, his credits in the horror/SF genre include CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER, THE HAUNTING, and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. But he also excelled in so many other genres with classics like THE SET-UP, EXECUTIVE SUITE, RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and THE SAND PEBBLES--truly a renaissance man of the cinema.

Am I the only one for whom Persis Khambatta evoked Marvel's Moondragon?

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one in the world who liked the Spock/Uhura romance? Come on, people! I liked elements of ST:TMP, but the Enterprise show-off scene is merciless; but I didn't mind the deposed captain and the bald chick as new characters either...the scene where the bridge gets attacked and she gets absorbed/evaporated/whatever is cool...

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

I was glad to find this post on ST:TMP. For me it was one of my favorites because the Enterprise met an enemy that could have easily swallowed the ship. They had to use their intellegence to set things right. I expected to see beings like the Borg inhabit this ship the first time around and was surprised there was no Star Trek style action in the story. I'll never forget when I took my grandfather to see it.

To him it was all blinking lights, however, to me it was much more. My Grampa, not being from my generation, was totally mystified as to why I'd like such a program.

I took him to see Star Trek V and he told me that it was the same movie he saw in the first one!

He was used to watching John Wayne and didn't understand my admiration for the Star Trek genre. I was hoping he'd get the premise of the show but he never had the patience to sit down and watch the episodes, to see the characters.

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