Trek movie rewatch: Star Trek The Motion Picture

The recent passing of the rather wonderful Leonard Nimoy had prompted me to do a Trek movie rewatch. I’ve never actually watched them all in order before, I suspect because it’s quite a tricky thing – once you’ve seen it and know what’s about to happen – to make yourself sit through The Motion Picture. I cheated: I was playing Civ IV as I watched (it’s thematically connected! Every time you discover a new tech, Leonard Nimoy speaks a few insightful words, like “do not throw the arrow that will return to you.” Darn right, Nimoy.)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

star-trek-the-motion-picture This is what I assume must’ve happened: there was a coup, and the writers were toppled by the special effects team. It’s the only explanation for this movie. Off all the Trek movies, The Motion Picture is the oddest one. It starts off brilliantly, sound-wise: pre-credits adventure music; the credits with what’ll become most famous as the Next Generation theme tune; and then we’re into SPACE, with SPACESHIPS, and some fucking epic music (I don’t know its actual name, I think of it as ‘Klingons Incoming!’). And, more importantly, we’re introduced to the movie’s uncredited star, at first a hero, but it rapidly transforms into the main antagonist: the gorgeous special effects. The sets, Klingon make-up, and most especially the Klingon cruisers are stunning. Alas, there’s not much time to enjoy them as in a shockingly (it will be by the time you finish this movie) well-paced encounter, they’re attacked and destroyed by an unknown entity heading straight for Earth. The action shifts to Vulcan, which has never looked grander or more alien, where we find Spock and a priestess (I like this understated thing where between Amok Time, Motion Picture, and The Voyage Home, Vulcan spiritualism is implied matriarchy). Spock’s been busy trying to purge all those pesky human emotions, and it’s not worked, alas, so he doesn’t get the cool achievement unlocked pendant from the priestess. If nothing else, at least this kind of explains why Spock’s so…unSpocky for the rest of the movie. And that’s the great stuff over with. It’s been an excellent opening, but it’s now ten minutes in and it’s time learn what this movie is actually going to be like as Kirk arrives (wearing the least objectionable of those godawful uniforms) and we get our first talky scene with Our Heroes What We Know and Love, or so we thought. They looked like great big seed pods The only regular who manages to convincingly play their character is James Doohan: he’s clearly still Scotty, but he’s not talking to Kirk, even though that’s Shatner on the screen. (This is the point where I start to pretend this is actually a crossover with The Puppetmasters, but we don’t see that subplot.) Deforest Kelley looks and sounds like McCoy, but the writing is off. Nimoy is just depressing. Spock’s never been boring before, a bit weird in The Cage and, to a lesser extent, Where No Man Has Gone Before as he works out who the character is, but never boring. He is here. And, unlike future movies, there’s no work done with the plot to give Sulu, Chekov, or Uhura their moment to shine. Notably though, there’re five women on board the Enterprise with speaking roles: Uhura, Ilia, Chapel, Rand, and DiFalco. You’d think Trek movies made over thirty years later would improve on that a bit, but no. Everything else that’s questionable is minor compared to this: the movie doesn’t work because these aren’t the characters I know. The passion, the humour, the camaraderie, none of that is present. It’s hardly an original criticism (it’s one the cast themselves have made) but it’s true, and it’s incredibly frustrating. There are bits where I’m staring at the screen willing the actors to play the characters I remember, especially during those moments where they get so close…but it never works. Warp speed, Scotty? The other major issue is that it’s a damn slow movie. If it had the right characters in it, I wouldn’t mind (but then I like a lot of sixties and seventies telly, and the pacing there is often sedate, to say the least). You can see why they’re doing it: they’re really proud of those special effects and they want to show them off. A lot. Still, it’s a cold Trekkie heart that can watch Kirk’s first look of the refitted Enterprise and not feel a surge of emotion. The problem is this first look lasts over four minutes. No dialogue, no action, just lovely music, gorgeous effects, and the occasional reaction shot of Kirk. They really, really love those special effects. With all the faffing around looking at stuff, it’s almost relief when Trek’s most ghastly transporter accident happens. Something exciting! And Grace Lee Whitney gets a moment to shine as she makes her major contribution to the story: accidentally killing Spock’s replacement. How long does it take the Enterprise to get out of space dock and warp off to adventure? Excellent question! Eight minutes…but they’re nowhere near the Klingon-zapping entity yet, they just had a messy warp ride. Why? Cause here warp drive isn’t a convenient way to jet about the galaxy in a timely manner, it’s something used to create Dramatic Tension by going weird and wrong in a way never seen before or since. And then the engines need repaired. On the bright side, it does give Scotty, precious actual real Scotty, a few more lines. But then Spock arrives on the ship! And Kirk says “Spock!” as though he’s actually Kirk! I ALMOST CRIED. They should really just not have given Shatner any other dialogue. There are a few moments of exciting attack by the entity before Kirk decides he’s had quite enough of being the star of this show; it’s time to wander into the cloud surrounding the entity! Oh yeah! It’s special effects’ time to shine! And, damn it, there will be NOTHING else happening to distract from the pretty. Look at how shiny we made this space thing! LOOK! LOOK AT IT! How long does this go on for? Another excellent question! The music, reaction shots, and the endless, oh so endless (but very impressive) special effects continue for over four minutes. But don’t worry: there are two whole lines of dialogue to break up the monotony. In fairness, the moment it changes from space cloud to Something Vast and Alien is quite thrilling, before becoming progressively less so for every minute we spend admiring it (I don’t know how long any more, another three minutes? Four? But, heh, sometimes Kirk orders Sulu to change the viewer shot, so…yeah. Fun times.) The complete journey into the Unknown Entity (which is Giant Alien Spaceship plus Vast Cloud Surrounding it) with minimal dialogue and nothing happening except forward momentum lasts over ten minutes. After all that, you kinda want to know what this thing is. I mean, you want to know, but you’re afraid the answer is going to be another half hour of effects. Thankfully, the next piece of the puzzle is an exciting special effect that pops right onto the bridge and looks like a tremendously dangerous pillar of electricity. Hurrah! It has a look through the computer banks then zaps Lieutenant Ilia. And with that bit of drama over, it’s back to looking at the view screen. If you don’t appreciate those effects at the start, you will; it’s the only way to survive. Yes, there is a plot! V’Ger? Who is V’Ger? Ah, plot arrives! The Unknown Entity sends a probe in the form of Ilia back to the Enterprise. As Kirk questions her, Trek fans may begin to sigh as they recognise plot elements from season two’s The Changeling. Sigh not, the movie tells them, for our special effects are AMAZINGSAUCE! Have you NOT YET NOTICED? WOULD YOU LIKE SOME MORE? And then everyone shuts up about the plot being nicked because dammit, at least it is a plot and it’s there, on the screen, fighting to take time away from the endless lingering shots of the Enterprise moving through stuff. Kindly, the movie decides not to show us the four hours of Decker and Ilia wandering around the ship (it’s the inside of the ship after all, minimal special effects required), we just get the bits where the copy of Ilia discovers that human thing called love. Meanwhile, Spock decides to go for a space stroll. For totally logical reasons, obviously, not so we can see the special effects team show off with Spock in a spacesuit jetpacking through the inside of the vast alien spacecraft, nooooo. Kirk almost tries to bring him back, but then he remembers who’s in charge of this movie. Off Spock jets, shooting past weird lighting storms, stars, planets, moons…why? Oh, who cares? Don’t they look nifty? Then Spock mindmelds with V’Ger for shit and giggles – it’s no bloody wander he failed the Totally Logical No Emotions Vulcan Test – and discovers V’Ger is from a planet of intelligent machines and it’s come to Earth looking for its creator, as you do. And Spock discovers it’s pretty rubbish being V’Ger cause this living machine intelligence has no feelings, no sense of hope, or purpose. It ain’t subtle, but at least it’s a recognisable Trek theme. V’Ger starts transmitting to Earth via ye olde radio as it’d like some answers from its Creator. There’s no answer so V’Ger starts getting very logically and unemotionally tetchy and throwing bad shit at Earth. What to do, Our Not-Exactly-Themselves Heroes? What to do? Apparently it’s obvious V’Ger operates from a ‘central brain complex,’ which Spock mentions at a convenient moment, and that’s where Our Heroes are going to give V’Ger information they don’t have. There’re only twenty minutes of the movie left, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have another ten minutes of effects as the Enterprise is dragged even further into the alien spaceship, and Our Heroes have a wander outside which requires, yes, more special effects. Heh, V’Ger looks an awful lot like an Earth satellite! …I shouldn’t mock. I remember the very first time I saw this. I was terribly young and playing through most of it, but I remember Ilia’s death (that upset me), and the Enterprise finally getting somewhere interesting, and the Big Reveal that V’Ger is written IN ENGLISH at the heart of the alien thingie, but it’s got a wee bit mucky, so Kirk gives it a clean and, lo, it’s a Voyager! Launched by NASA! It’s still a cool moment. Just not cool enough to justify everything before it. So an alien machine merged with the Voyager, and went off on its mission to discover all the things, and then it became sentient, and now it’s come home with some homicidal biases against carbon-based life. Luckily humanity kept records of stuff, so Our Heroes can find the NASA signal to send to souped-up Voyager to tell it everything’s a-okay and please don’t destroy all humans, ta. Voyager decides to melt a bit of itself so the Creator has to come finish the NASA signal in person. Naturally, the only one there who can finish the signal is Decker, since he’s not a member of the original Trek crew, and the Creator is going to get zapped, sort of. Decker goes all sparkly fairy dust and V’Ger is a happy computer as it merges with him, and ascends to a new level of consciousness and goes off exploring other universes and stuff. Naturally, these sparkly special effects take FOREVER and Kirk, Spock and McCoy stare in wonder instead of immediately getting the hell out of there. Happily as V’Ger explodes in light, the Enterprise magically escapes without having to do anything at all, the Earth is saved, and a new lifeform is created, hurrah! Everyone turns up on the bridge for one final scene just in case you’d forgotten how bleh their characters are here, before….guess. Yeah, it’s one last bloody special effect. And then this happens:

In conclusion I can understand how anyone seeing this in theatres at the time was horrendously disappointed. It’s not a terrible movie; it’s just nothing like Star Trek. Go in expecting everyone to be out of character and the special effects to be the real star and you’ll be fiiiine. Probably. For me, it’s the worst of the original Trek movies, and though it may be tremendously painful for me to admit, I’d actually rather watch the bleeding terrible Insurection or Nemesis than this. They aren’t better movies; they are awful, awful movies, but at least I recognise the characters in them. The best thing about The Motion Picture is probably that it got so much so tremendously wrong that the next production team could see all the errors and were determined to get it all absolutely right. And, lo, they did. Things I did elsewhere: – I’ve an essay in the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine! It’s about Peter Cushing and how he is brilliant and in sci-fi and brilliant. It’ll be available online for free next month, but you can read it right now if you subscribe to the magazine, or buy the issue. It’s a smashing mag, and the whole of the first two issues are available to read for free. -So much Pinteresting! I may have spent quite a bit of time pinning geektastic nail art, and cosplay what I love, and cakes. Other nifty things:This week’s Verity! has Deb, Erika, Katrina, and Tansy talking about the Doctor’s regenerations. – The Bank of Canada would like Canadians to maybe please stop Spocking their fivers. OH CANADIANS. You are v good.

2 thoughts on “Trek movie rewatch: Star Trek The Motion Picture

  1. I admire your dedication at sitting through the entirety of Star Trek: The Motionless Picture in order to bring us this blog post.

    To be honest, I have always felt that Leonard Nimoy as Spock was the best part of this movie. His entire quest to completely purge himself of all emotion makes perfect sense when we consider all of the turmoil that his character underwent throughout the original television series. And then Spock encounters V’Ger, an entity that is without any emotion, which it what he thought he wanted, except now he realizes what an empty, barren existence this would be. Certainly the character of Spock was a much more balanced, serene individual who was at peace with himself in the second movie, and that appears to be a result of his experiences in this story.

    Having said that, no, the movie absolutely does not get a pass for all of those looooooong special effects sequences. You could probably chop off half an hour of footage from the first Star Trek movie and lose zero percent of the plot.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Your wit is amazing. I was actually crying with laughter at some of your descriptions of the Special Effects coup d’etat! I am a huge fan of Mr. Nimoy’s and felt truly gut-punched by his death. I spent the entire weekend re-watching the movies from favorite (Kahn) to least favorite (TMP). The only exception is ST5. I just can’t imagine sitting through that one again.

    Like you, I multitasked through the re-watch of this film but I was truly stunned by the gorgeous special effects. They were lovingly gorgeous despite the excess. And I even managed to appreciate the strange interactions between our heroes. Seeing them was made all the more touching byhow few of them are left. Thank goodness for the longevity of film.

    I’d heard Ray Wise was going for a “2001” atmosphere on this film. It explains a lot.

    Anyway, thanks again for this wonderful recap. It made my day!

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