By Philip Schweier
I’ll admit to the fact that in my younger days I was what they call a “trekkie.” I read all the books and watched the TV show over and over. So I was thrilled at the age of 14 when the cast of the television show reunited for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Recently, with a more mature mindset, I revisited the film and after 30 years, I am sorry to say it fails to hold up.
Maybe it’s because in 1979 it was the seed of a franchise that has been milked to the point of exhaustion. Since then there have been 10 feature films and four television series running for a total of 25 seasons, collectively. Amidst all that marketing and production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been relegated to the slums of Star Trek fandom. And as a movie, it’s downright dull.
The film begins with a mysterious cloud traveling through space, seemingly destroying everything in its path. With it less than three days from Earth, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) assumes command of the Enterprise and leads his crew to the cloud, at which they believe a vessel or mechanical entity of some kind is at the heart. The cloud-entity scans Lt. Ilia, the navigator of the Enterprise, destroying her in the process, but she is remade by the entity to act as a surrogate for the entity, permitting it to interact and communicate with the “carbon-based infestation” aboard the Enterprise.
It’s impossible to spoil a bad movie, so I don’t mind revealing that in the end, the entity, V’ger, is revealed to be a 300-year-old NASA space probe, Voyager VII. Its mission was to explore the galaxy and eventually return to Earth with its collected data. Kirk and his crew surmise that somehow in its travels, the probe merged with a mechanical life form, corrupting it original programming. It is now set on locating its creator, and is prepared to destroy any who stand in its way, including the entire planet Earth.
If all this sounds familiar, maybe because it’s a rehash of a season two Star Trek episode, “The Changeling,” attributed to series creator Gene Roddenberry and John Meredyth Lucas. Yet the film version “story by” credit goes to Alan Dean Foster. Crafty devil, he, serving up a story idea Roddenberry had already approved once before.
Two things stand out in this movie, both relating back to the original TV show. One, Roddenberry and Co. never met a sexily-clad female they didn’t like, from the various babes in mini skirts from the TV show, to Ilia, to subsequent women in form-fitting body suits such as Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine and Commander T’Pol of Star Trek: Enterprise.
The other common element is that almost from the beginning, starting with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (the second pilot created for the original series), Star Trek has regularly toyed with the concept of meeting God or attaining God-like abilities, yet maintaining the psychological balance so as not to become a scornful, uncaring higher being. After all, power corrupts, and supreme power – ah, you know the rest.
This is the crux of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and again in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). It has happened in episodes of the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in fact was a major plot point of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In that series, Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is assigned to command an occupied space station near the planet Bajor, but when the Federation discovers a nearby wormhole is home to alien beings whom the Bajorans worship as gods, Sisko becomes revered as an emissary of the prophets.
This is one of the areas in which Star Trek: The Motion Picture fails. Aspiring to “meet one’s Creator” is an ambitious storyline, akin to having heroes battle the very personification of evil. But it’s a trick than only be pulled of once, because by encountering a supreme being, there’s nowhere to go after that. To try to up the ante becomes tiresome as the audience is presented unending levels of higher beings, thereby diminishing the original encounter.
Also, I believe it is better to do something on a small scale, and do it well, than to get to ambitious when there may not be the resources to pull it off. I feel that ambitious storylines should only be considered if they can be pulled of well. Otherwise, filmmakers should strive to simply tell a story, and tell it well.
The other flaw is that Star Trek has often prided itself on being much more cerebral than other science fiction concepts. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in December, 1979, it claimed that it couldn’t be compared to Star Wars, which had been released in May, 1977, and its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was only six months away. Star Trek has always had loftier goals of philosophy, and a more optimistic vision of a future world in which social ills such as poverty have been eliminated.
As a result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture features no space battles or fist fights, and very little action. Instead, it relies on the drama of inner conflict, of man vs. his own sense of being, and questioning one’s role in the universe. That’s fine for the narrow Star Trek audience who is quite satisfied seeing the crew of the Enterprise reunited. But for mainstream movie-going audiences, the film becomes an endless series of beauty shots of the starship cruising through space while Kirk, Spock and McCoy debate the merits of machine-like logic over human emotion. Perhaps if about a third of the film could have been edited out, it might have made for a more enjoyable 90-minute presentation.