I don’t like to rank art, instinctively. This isn’t a sport, and it’s not about ringing all the bells and checking off all the boxes. So, when people ask me to rank the Star Trek movies I always decline. There are ones I like more than others, for sure, and there are some that I think are of particularly low cinematic quality, but they’re all interesting in different ways. (Save for the Next Generation films, which all seem to come from a different show than the one I remember.)
In any case, they’re all of a piece, particularly the core films made during the 1980s and early 1990s (II through VI). They defined the look, feel and mythology of Trek for the late 20th century and provided both a path forward to the Next Generation and backward to the earlier series. But the first Trek film was different, and many fans would rather it were forgotten.
I’m going to be making an argument here for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I’m fully aware of its flaws. That should be mentioned right away. Its pacing is glacial at times, it lingers where it should proceed forward, everyone seems to be taking it way too seriously, there’s a smug self-importance about it (Shatner picks up on it and lets it infect his performance as a distant, arrogant Kirk) and its compressed production schedule led it to make technical mistakes and necessitate multiple cuts. The best version is Robert Wise’s “Director’s Edition”, which he produced in 2002 with the help of a young digital special effects team, but even the best version of this movie will have those flaws.
But if you can see beyond that, within the film itself is the most Trek-like story of all the original films, except possibly The Undiscovered Country. Star Trek puts its mission statement right on front street: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Well, Star Trek The Motion Picture is the closest they come in the film series to actually doing that. Although at times it comes close to plagiarizing scripts from the 1960s, but in an interesting way The Motion Picture is the closest to the spirit of the original series, or at least what the original series stood for.
Even The Original Series (TOS for those not in the know) strayed from its original tone, with greater or lesser success, through its three seasons. The first few episodes, such as “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Charlie X”, “Mudd’s Women”, and “The Omega Glory” (written early but not filmed until later) all had a great deal of involvement from Gene Roddenberry himself. They all reflect Roddenberry’s peculiar interests: social utopia, sexuality, humans coping with power and political allegory. You can argue about whether later incarnations that focused more on characters and traditional good guy-bad guy conflicts were better or worse, but there’s no debate that these early episodes most closely reflect Roddenberry’s vision.
One perennial issue in the world of Trek is that Roddenberry wasn’t exactly the only, or even the best, voice in creating the show. The recent These Are The Voyages books, now in two volumes, go a long way to clarifying some of the historical myths that grew up around the show, many of which were created by Roddenberry himself. (For example, the myth that NBC objected to a woman in a command position in “The Cage”. In fact, the network encouraged this sort of thing and simply objected to Majel Barrett being in the role because she was having an affair with the then-married Roddenberry, not out of sexism. This is typical Roddenberry: create a politically-charged myth to cover up his own character flaws.) Better, worse or indifferent: the public spoke loudly, finally, and Roddenberry’s version of Star Trek is emphatically NOT the one that succeeded.
Roddenberry’s journey from sole auteur to crazy old Uncle, locked away in a “Consulting Producer” position with little power over his creation was repeated at least twice in the franchise history. First, during the run of the original series (he had little to do with Season 3) and second during the run of the movies, where the perceived failure of The Motion Picture (I say “perceived” because it was a huge box office smash, usually a golden ticket in Hollywood) led to his being promoted “upstairs” for the remainder of the run. By 1990, he was reduced to sending strongly worded memos to Nicholas Meyer, where they were politely ignored. In fact, one could say he was living that story out a third time during the run of The Next Generation also, but passed away before he could be completely censured.
Of all those “pure Roddenberry” Star Trek products, and I think there are a rather limited number that can honestly claim that title, The Motion Picture is the best. That sounds like equivocation because it is. No one would argue that it’s a “great” movie. But it is significant in Star Trek history and represents the last time the original creator got to engage with his creation in its original form.
One of the reasons for its middling quality comes from its tortured and long production history. To make a very long story somewhat short, the film grew out of a TV show that was planned as the flagship of a new “Paramount TV Network” that was being bandied about as a “fourth network” for American TV in the late 1970s. Star Trek, one of their popular cancelled franchises, seemed like a safe bet to bring back. Significantly, much of this planning was done before the release of Star Wars in the summer of 1977, an event that forever changed the way popular science fiction would be made and marketed. Star Trek Phase II would essentially continue the mission of the original ship, but without Leonard Nimoy, still smarting over likeness rights and marketing points from the original series. In his place would be a new character, Xon, a Vulcan who wanted to understand human emotion, and Roddenberry also brought in new characters Decker, the young Buck of a first officer, and Ilia, who came from a race of psychically sensitive people. (The parallels between the Next Generation characters of Data, Riker and Troi are too obvious to miss.) Scripts were written, sets were built, and everything seemed to be going along when Paramount decided to drop plans for a network and instead take the proposed pilot episode of Star Trek Phase II, a two-parter called “In Thy Image”, originally conceived by sci fi novelist Alan Dean Foster, and turn it into the first Star Trek movie. Once the project became a film, Nimoy was convinced to return, with a substantial cash settlement. (Nimoy recalls the check arriving 15 minutes before the script.) Robert Wise, the Hollywood veteran, was hired as a capable and professional Director, and they were off.
The movie they finally made eliminated Xon, of course, and since in their minds a continuing series was not in the offing, they were able to take bigger risks with Decker and Ilia. But other than that, they stuck pretty much to the plan for Phase II’s “In Thy Image”, using the new sets and the new uniforms, which resembled pyjamas. (Yet another of the many ways this film anticipates The Next Generation.)
Picking up a few years after the end of the “five year mission,” Kirk is now an Admiral at Starfleet, Spock has moved back to Vulcan to become a monk and McCoy is retired and sporting a seventies beard that would make a modern hipster weep. Just as in the proposed pilot episode, an alien entity of unimaginable power is heading towards earth and no one understands it. The Enterprise, fresh from a refit, is “The only ship in the quadrant”. Kirk is called back into action, recruits his fellow shipmates (the other four major characters, Chekov, Uhura, Sulu and Scotty, never left) and goes off to save the world.
Notice that just from that plot outline, there isn’t much in terms of character-motivated drama and conflict there. There’s no “big bad” villain licking his chops and giving great speeches. There’s no opportunity for Shatner to get his shirt off and fist fight with an alien, not to mention getting in the tights of some feisty alien (or human) lady. Oh, there’s some muted tension about how Kirk pushes the ship past its limits, or how Decker struggles with his role as first officer, rather than the Captain’s chair he had been promised, but really this isn’t that kind of movie. The human tension works least well, and seems the most forced. The movie works best when focused on the huge alien, which appears like a gigantic cloud, threatening the earth with destruction. The step-by-step, professional way the Enterprise crew tries to understand and address the threat, working together, is what gives the film its drama. At one point, relatively late into the movie, Kirk says, frustrated, “We know nothing about it as of yet!” He’s frustrated by a lack of understanding, not by a lack of firepower and strength.
This is what Star Trek is supposed to be about. The crew is on a journey of understanding, not conflict. The phasers are never fired in the entire movie, and even a torpedo is used only to clear an asteroid from their path. Instead, the crew uses their minds, their collective power to assimilate and analyze data. It’s what they went to Starfleet Academy for. It’s what these people do. The remarkable thing is that in the history of Trek we so rarely actually see them doing that! Some episodes of the original series of course have this pattern. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is probably the closest in terms of plot and tone, and of course many have pointed out that “The Changeling” is also very close to this plot (although not the mood). I find it interesting that these similarities, when applied to The Motion Picture, are used at criticisms of the film for lack of originality. And yet the very next movie, The Wrath of Khan, literally is a sequel to an original series episode and is structurally identical to many other series instalments, and yet is hailed as a masterpiece.
I mentioned before that after its December 1979 release, the film was a huge box office success, more than covering its then-enormous $40 million budget. (Most of that budget was money that was spent developing the TV series and never made it to the screen.) But mentioning the budget became one of the many ways people attacked this film in subsequent years.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was always the red-headed stepchild of the Trek movies. (Star Trek V was, of course, much worse, but that one was at least consistent with the other later instalments in look, feel and tone.) Lampooned as the “slow-motion” picture, with its stuffy tone and high-minded ideals, everything I just mentioned as a positive was used as a negative. And, importantly, many of these arguments were applied to the next film as a positive. “It’s just like the series!” “It’s not like the series!” (I know… you can’t win.) “They don’t even use the phasers!” “Kirk doesn’t get into a fight!” Etc. etc. There was something about this movie the fans really hated, once they were given something to compare it to, of course. Remember that Khan didn’t appear until the summer of 1982, two long years in which there was only The Motion Picture, playing in various cuts on TV, re-edited. That made sense: the studio spent so much on it that getting back even part of the revenue from the then-new market of home video was worth it.
Despite being rated “G”, and thus interpreted by everyone as meaning that it was “for kids”, this is actually the least child-friendly of any Star Trek film. It really is Star Trek for thoughtful adults, not those who yearn for fisticuffs and explosions and spaceships flying around. Maybe that’s why the fans turned on it so quickly? It did seem to be a disproportionately bitter response. Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some fans are ashamed that while they speak in lofty terms about “IDIC” and Trek’s great socially moral program, what they really want are some bloody spaceships and lasers.
Taken out of its Star Trek context and compared to its contemporaries, such as Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Alien, it really ranks up there with Alien for being fully-realized, well thought-out science fiction, rather than fantasy adventure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either! Apples and oranges.) It represents a much more adult, intelligent and mature engagement with science fiction themes than its contemporaries, and probably grapples with its themes just as capably as The Undiscovered Country. Compared to the rest of Robert Wise’s films, it once again makes a great deal of sense, being very similar in tone and style to his 1975 film The Hindenberg. Wise was no lightweight: he directed West Side Story, The Sound of Music and The Day The Earth Stood Still, in addition to having a history that stretched back to Citizen Kane. He made a film in his style, not necessarily the Star Trek “house” style, which may have alienated some longtime fans.
I mentioned right off the top that The Motion Picture has flaws, but many of those flaws recede if you think of this film as not really a Star Trek film but as a Robert Wise film from the late seventies. Skilled, a bit old-fashioned, but with an unmistakable grace.
For his part, Wise himself was never satisfied with the editing, effects, music and pacing, the picture having been rushed into theatres for Christmas 1979. Subsequent versions added and trimmed but it wasn’t until the aged Wise came back in 2002 to do what he called his final “check cut” (to use his old-fashioned Hollywood term), improving effects with CGI, creating a real 5.1 soundtrack and, probably most importantly, doing dozens of small, subtle edits, sometimes cutting a single line at a time. It’s the work of a master technician, who by that point had worked in the business for 60 years and knew what he was doing. (Nick Meyer, on the other hand, who directed and wrote everyone’s “favourite” Trek films wasn’t even really primarily a filmmaker, but a novelist and script doctor.) In some ways, this was the only Trek film made by a truly professional director until JJ Abrams took over in 2009. (JJ’s films, by the way, can be defended or attacked on the same basis: forget Trek, how do they compare to other sci-fi in 2009, or 2013? How do they compare to his other films?)
The problem with enjoying Star Trek: The Motion Picture today is that we can’t take ourselves back to 1979, when all the Trek we had was the original series, and the die-hard fans may or may not have seen some of the animated series. There were the Gold Key comics, of course, but in the public imagination, this was a startling, engrossing and thoroughly adult take on Star Trek. I doubt we’ll ever see another Star Trek film like it again, which I think is a real shame.