A bunch of years ago, I got a big DVD set with all the Star Trek movies prior to the JJ Abrams reboot. And, at some point, I decided to sit down and go through all of them. I was mostly pleased with the movies. Heck, there were one or two I hadn’t really seen before. But one thing I learned about the experience was this: if you hear what sounds like the theme music for the Next Generation crew, but the movie features the original series cast, you’re probably in for less than a good time.
That happens twice, by the by, and the first time was for the first Trek movie: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
But this time around, I tried to approach this movie with an open mind. See, I know this movie is just kinda weird. It’s a very Star Trek kind of movie, an experience that makes sense since, apparently, this was the only one series creator Gene Roddenberry actually had any real level of control over. The end result was profitable, but not something people felt like they really loved all that much. This movie came out in a post-Star Wars world, one where the audience may have expected a more action-oriented story. Later sequels would do something closer to that, but this one is purely Gene’s vision, both for better and for worse.
So, we have the only movie to bring back both Christine Chapel (now a doctor but still the writer/producer’s wife!) and Janice Rand (did anyone miss her?). Rand, I’ve learned, had small roles in many of the other original cast movies, but since I only just learned that, I am guessing she wasn’t that memorable. I’ll see if I can spot her again in the next few films.
Heck, Mark Lenard has a small role too, but not as Spock’s father. No, here he’s a Klingon, commanding a trio of warships to attack a mysterious space cloud that’s coming into Klingon space and causing problems.
And remember: this was the first time we not only got the Klingon language (conceived of here by, of all people, James Doohan), but also the more recognizable forehead ridges. There’s a bit of a Vulcan language too, but nobody really takes lessons in that.
And then there’s the basic plot, that may not have been intended as a story for the original cast. No, Roddenberry was working on a sequel series featuring a new, younger crew, and when that didn’t go anywhere, he worked a couple of those characters into this movie, namely Stephen Collins’s Captain Decker and the late Persis Khambatta’s Lt. Ilia…sort of.
Let’s face it: Khambatta probably spends most of her screentime not as Ilia but as a synthetic duplicate the mysterious V*Ger makes from her, using her basic appearance and even some memories to make a drone for itself to make demands from Admiral Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. That both Ilia and Decker appear to end the movie if not dead then at least what Kirk calls “missing” means that, well, maybe we shouldn’t get too attached to them anyway.
But for all this movie is very much a Trek movie where the antagonist is more misled and confused, what Spock calls a child, mistaken about where it came from and what it is, and not understanding that the “carbon units” that it thinks of as parasites or something are not the enemy. I coincidentally actually watched a video on the Trek movies just before I sat down to write this, and the more I learned about the first movie, the more I realized it’s a bit of luck the movie got made at all. The budget shot out of control, the script was being written while the movie was being filmed, mostly by Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy had some demands that needed to be met in order to come back, and Sulu, Uhura, and Cheikov don’t really do much. Heck, neither does Scotty aside from fly Kirk to the Enterprise in a shuttle. The transporter isn’t working quite right yet, but a shuttle allows the camera to spend a couple minutes soaking in every possible angle of the ship from the outside. After that and a few other scenes, Scotty disappears for a good chunk of the movie. The studio spent a lot of money on these effects. They apparently were bound and determined to get the most of them. As such, there are long, lingered shots of the Enterprise and other spacecraft laced throughout the movie.
But even with those long, loving shots of a model spaceship, we still have some other oddities. The new Starfleet uniforms looks to be various jumpsuits, most of them an ugly brown, a less ugly gray, and a passable blue. Kirk gets a white shirt, but that’s about it. We actually get more color during a brief visit to Vulcan where Spock senses V*Ger coming.
That said, I am rather amused by McCoy’s outfit when he finally appears onscreen with a scruffy beard and what I can best describe as a swinger’s outfit, open chest with a medallion around his neck and everything.
So, in the end, Kirk, back on the ship he used to command after years as a pencil pusher, is back with his command crew. He, Spock, and McCoy manage to figure out the mystery while the others, well, react. Spock seems a little more alien than usual, and McCoy is there to bicker with him as much as this Spock is inclined to bicker back. There’s action, but it’s thoughtful action. The closest the movie comes to a combat scene is when the Klingons try shooting the cloud, and that doesn’t go well for them. It’s over within the first ten minutes or so. The movie may spend more time just showing us the Enterprise.
Now, the movie did well enough to get a sequel, and the studio learned a few lessons, pushing Roddenberry aside in order to produce a movie the likes of which was different from everything Star Trek had ever been, and is wisely considered the best movie in the franchise’s history.
But that’s for next week.