I can still remember the excitement I felt the first time I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a child in the early '70s, I can recall being slightly bored when my older brothers watched Star Trek reruns on TV. But it didn't take long before I was hooked, too, and I followed the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew with avid fascination. Even as new science fiction adventures hit both the big and small screens, I remained loyal to Star Trek and creator Gene Roddenberry's dream.
I was supremely confident that Hollywood would bring them back in style. (Hey, I was still young and naive.)
So the movie starts and -- wow, look at those Klingons! Their ships are cooler than they used to be, they have weird head ridges and bad teeth, and they even have a language requiring subtitles. We switch our visuals to a Federation space station and catch a glimpse of the new pajamas -- uh, I mean uniforms, a replacement for the gold, blue and red tunics and black pants of yonder days. Then it's a quick flash to the planet Vulcan, where a shaggy-haired Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is about to attain a pinnacle of logical achievement -- a goal interrupted by a consciousness touching his mind from space.
All this is mere preliminary to the next scene, set in 23rd-century San Francisco, when Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), now an admiral, makes his first entrance at Star Fleet headquarters. From that point, it's a swift reassembly of the old crew. Kirk reclaims his command from the new captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). Engineer Scott (James Doohan) takes Kirk on a long, slow shuttle ride to show off the new, sleeker Enterprise -- a ship much updated from the models used in the 1960s. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) are still at their old posts on the bridge. Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), once Kirk's personal yeoman (and a short-lived member of the series cast) is now transporter chief, suffering through an accident that brutally reminds Kirk of the hardships of command.
Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) makes the best entrance of all, bearded and steeped in a heavy drawl, unwillingly yanked back into service at Kirk's request, still complaining and as irascible as ever. Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett Roddenberry, best known to modern audiences as Lwaxana Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the voice of Star Trek computers in most television spin-off episodes and wife of the late Gene Roddenberry) is now a doctor, although she slips quickly back into a subservient role once McCoy is back in sickbay.
Then Spock returns (the new science officer was conveniently killed in the transporter accident) and the old crew is complete.
There are new elements as well, particularly Decker and Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta) as the new navigator. Unfortunately, both characters are fairly flat and uninteresting; fortunately for the film series, they didn't continue on into the sequels.
But once all that is said and done, there's one major flaw with the film. It's kinda boring.
Perhaps "boring" is too harsh a word. But this reintroduction of Star Trek to an audience still excited by 1977's Star Wars spends far too much time on dialogue, too much time on long, slow shots keyed to prove that George Lucas didn't have a lock on spiffy special effects. (When the Enterprise encounters the alien cloud, I kept wishing someone would hit the gas so we didn't have to sit through more of the ship's endless approach. Yes, director, we know it's really, really big.)
The plot is simplistic, lifted from an old episode ("The Changeling"). Rather than summarize it myself, I'll let Kirk do it: "An alien object of unbelievable destructive power is less than three days away from this planet (Earth). The only starship in interception range is the Enterprise." Does that sound familiar? How many ships does Star Fleet have, anyway? And why, when there's a crisis, is the Enterprise the only one in that part of the galaxy?
Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack is occasionally overbearing, although it's quite effective at times and does provide us with the theme that started every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
On the plus side, the director made full use of the big budget never available to the Star Trek production team in the '60s. Not only are the special effects top-notch, but the background scenes are filled with the kind of hustle, bustle and official chatter you'd expect from Star Fleet crews. Also, the philosophical dilemmas which have always been a hallmark of Star Trek adventures are still a big part of the plot, preventing the story from spiraling down into a futuristic shoot-em-up.
On the minus, the new masculine computer voice is grating and the Red Alert alarm is awful. The new uniforms, as mentioned, are ugly. Security guards, the old dispensable red-shirts of the '60s, are even worse, looking like futuristic football players. The wormhole effect, stunning in episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager in the '90s, is pretty cheesy looking here. The romance between Decker and Ilia is awkwardly handled. Spock's stilted reintegration into the crew is both overdone and too quickly resolved. And, most importantly, the old rapport that made the original Star Trek crew so appealing, takes its bloody time in reasserting itself.
Add those pluses and minuses together, and what's the sum? Star Trek: The Motion Picture has clearly been exceeded by successive Star Trek television shows and films. This crew in particular did far better in the second, fourth and sixth movies. But this was a long-awaited reintroduction of friends thought to be gone forever. It is clearly superior in many ways to the series, and it's a hint of better things to come. For that reason alone, I'm a fan of this film.
Notes on the special-edition DVD:
The release of the new director's edition of this film in 1999 re-excited my interest. The Motion Picture has always been my least favorite of the movie series, but I had to watch again to see what director Robert Wise had in store for us. And, unlike a lot of "big whoop" director's cuts on the market, this one really provides the bang for your buck.
The bonus disc offers three documentaries about the resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, the work that went into the reinvention of the ship and its crew, and the decisions that led to this new edition. There is also a nice collection of trailers, TV spots, story boards and deleted scenes to tempt series fans.
But it's the movie itself that's worth noting. The enhanced special effects have vastly improved the original version of this movie and general re-editing of the film has helped the flow immeasurably. Yes, the movie still drags in places, but much less so. Surprisingly, I found myself newly enthused by this film!
Anyone who missed this movie in the past deserves to see this enhanced version, and Star Trek fans who either loved or hated the first big-screen outing owes themselves a look at the improvements Wise and his team have made. This is why DVDs exist!
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