Looking back at Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Feature Stefan Mohamed 12 Jun 2014 - 06:32

Odd numbered Star Trek movies are rubbish, right? Stefan goes back to the beginning to check that assertion...

Writer’s log, supplemental. While conducting a routine re-watch of the original cinematic adaptations of Gene Rodenberry’s little-known but much-loved Star Wars homage, Star Trek (kind of like Firefly but with aliens instead of horses), some thoughts occurred regarding the first entry in the series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Critical readings of the film are mixed, as are fan reactions, and it is routinely paraded out as Exhibit A when making the case for the odd-numbered Star Trek films being rubbish. It is my suspicion that this consensus is fallacious, and I have decided see if there is in fact anything new to be said about a series of films that debuted all the way back in 1979, when racist dinosaurs ruled the airwaves with whiskey-soaked fists.

Before we begin, let me quickly present my personal Star Trek credentials. My favourite Trek series is DS9, followed closely by TNG. I love the original series’ crew (or at least the idea of them – I’ll explain later) but find it difficult to re-watch the series itself. I could probably offer a half-plausible defence of some of Voyager if you wanted me to, although I’d rather not. I thought Enterprise was naff. I thoroughly enjoyed JJ Abrams’ first reboot in 2009, and Into Darkness initially sneaked past my defences by employing the sly and devastating Cumberbatch manoeuvre.

I laugh at the majority of the jokes on Larp Trek, find Flirty Cardassian Waitress and Drinking Kanar With Damar to be hilarious comment section avatars, and am unreasonably in love with this video. Also, optimistic future, alien races, human condition, strange new worlds, SPACESHIPS, etc. If you take issue with my qualifications, please feel free to engage me in the comments section. I will then make it so you can have no objections. It’s my Number One priority. Um, tea, Earl Grey, hot.

So, speaking of tea, without further ado, let’s heat up some gagh, get a pitcher of Romulan ale (there may be a drinking game) and set phasers to “analyse”. Or just use a tricorder, you qoH.

He’s Kirk, Jim, but not as we know him

One of the strangest aspects of the film is its treatment of a certain James Tiberius Kirk. Imagine that you were bringing a seminal TV series back to life on the big screen, after over a decade off the air. Imagine that your main character was a smooth, heroic space adventurer who had previously punched, shagged and diplomacy’d his way around the galaxy saving people, planets and ships from mad computers, insane telepaths, cruel incorporeal entities and doomsday machines. How would you reintroduce him? Obviously you would paint him as stiff and out of touch, even out of his depth, bullying his way onto a ship that he doesn’t understand anymore, and making mostly poor decisions – when he can actually make them, of course, because often he’ll just look worried and freeze up. Wouldn’t you? Guys? Hello?

It’s supremely odd, but entirely typical of The Motion Picture’s approach, i.e. to heavily dial back the optimism, derring-do and even the colour (God, this film is so beige) that characterised the original series in favour of a sombre, doom-laden atmosphere. Understandable, perhaps, seeing as how the crew is dealing with a potentially Earth-annihilating threat, but it leaks into every aspect of the film; where once seeking out strange new worlds was an adventure, albeit one where you ran the risk of dying any number of horrible deaths depending on the colour of your jumper, here space travel is confusing and frightening. It’s hazardous. Before they’ve even left space dock (after several minutes of loving, gorgeously-realised, almost entirely gratuitous Enterprise porn) there has been a horrific transporter accident, and the closest thing the film has to a genuine action set-piece is a random encounter with an asteroid in a wormhole, which has nothing to do with the overall plot of the film and seems to have been included in order to show that a) space travel is really dangerous you guys, and b) that Kirk doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Now, a lack of action sequences is not inherently a bad thing, by any means – I’d take The Motion Picture’s long stretches of uneventful but ominous star trekking over Into Darkness’ hyperactive HEY LOOK ‘SPLOSIONS approach any day of the week. But it does highlight the main reason why I think people have trouble connecting with this film, which is that even with all the “space is dangerous” stuff, the main threat never feels particularly visceral. V’Ger is a hugely imposing creation, conceptually, and it’s a masterstroke having it effortlessly destroy a bunch of Klingon ships at the beginning (best way to make new enemy seem threatening – have it see off some established enemies), but apart from that early scene it’s generally a fairly abstract presence, an immense and ultimately unknowable mass. OK it burns Chekov's hand and threatens to destroy the Earth, but hey, who hasn't?

Thematically, however - and this is why I think The Motion Picture, for all its flaws, still holds water as a piece of serious science fiction - the antagonist's mysterious nature is in keeping with the depiction of space as a scary, fundamentally alien place. Until the end, V’Ger’s motives are entirely unknown; it’s a Big Dumb Object emerging from the void on a mission we don’t understand, which is a key SF trope, from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama to – hey! – Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales. V’Ger is a very literal representation of the great unknown, of the strange new worlds and life forms that the Enterprise is assigned to seek out, and when its motives are finally revealed they turn out to be something that we do understand: the search for a creator. For a sense of belonging. To find out where one came from.

There are few endeavours more human than that, and it fits with Gene Rodenberry’s (some might say naively) humane approach to SF that our intrepid crew of heroes should triumph over the great unknown by exposing and appealing to its humanity. Arguably it’s a somewhat reductive, overly human-centric perspective, suggesting that even the weirdest, most foreign galactic beings will always have something in common with us (and it’s been done to death in Trek with Spock and Data particularly), but it’s basically well-meaning and, yes, optimistic. It represents striving for something better, for understanding, to explore and make friends rather than conquer everything, and there is a nobility to that which I find appealing, and sadly lacking from much of modern screen SF. It's so much richer, for example, than “this angry guy wants to blow up the Federation because of reasons”.

The human adventure is just beginning?

It is peculiar that this should be the main thematic thrust of the film, though, because humanity is so conspicuously lacking elsewhere. Kirk is aloof, distant and pensive, Spock even more so. Bones tries his best to bring a bit of humour to proceedings, but not much of it hits. The human interactions in the film are almost universally awkward, as though these people have no idea how to relate to one another. You rarely get the sense that they have been through a whole series of crazy adventures together, and the new characters are either indifferent towards Kirk (Ilia) or actively antagonistic (Decker).

The theme of rediscovering one’s humanity is also curiously under-developed, considering how bloody long the film is. It ties in with Spock’s arc, as his failure to complete the kolinahr ritual and purge his emotions drives him to seek out and understand V'Ger – although ultimately not a huge amount is made of this - but it doesn’t really gel with Kirk’s character progression, considering that he’s ostensibly the hero. What does Kirk learn? To listen to people? To accept his limitations? That’s a possible reading, but it’s not necessarily backed up by his actions – Kirk doesn’t exactly push himself to the limit here, and his obsessive desire to be back on board the Enterprise and chasing this latest galactic threat smacks more of arrogance and recapturing his youth rather than any real sense of duty. He gets a nice moment of levity at the end of the film when he tells Sulu to head ‘thataway’, with a vague wave of the hand, but it’s hard to know exactly what has been learned, or earned. Unless his ultimate aim was just to get rid of Decker entirely. Which it could have been, I guess.

So let’s talk about Decker, shall we?

Nah, let’s not.

Shields up

Now it might sound like I don’t like this film, but that’s not the case at all. I love Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring theme, later repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation, every note of which positively screams “boldly going”. The endless exterior shots of the beautifully re-designed Enterprise should be catnip to anybody who gets a visceral thrill from spaceships (i.e. anyone worth talking to). I even kind of like the fact that Kirk is out of his depth, clumsily executed as it is – it’s the type of unexpected character progression that few would attempt now, in case they irritated the focus groups. The idea of the lone probe heading out into the universe and coming back irrevocably changed is fascinating. Ultimately, though, I admire the film more than I like it. Its portentous, cerebral approach could have worked, but for my money this particular crew works best in a more plot-driven environment, because when there are lots of things going on, with plenty of planet-hopping and events rather than one stately, ominous voyage, you’re distracted from the fact that none of the characters – blasphemy alert – are terribly well-developed.

Red Letter Media’s review of Nu-Trek 2009, when discussing the crew, hit the nail on the head. Each has a few personality traits that define them (and, as the review notes, are sent into OVERDRIVE in the reboot) and character development is, at best, limited. Kirk ends up having something of an arc through the films – dealing with his age, for example, which is explored with a lot more delicacy in Wrath of Khan – but generally the characters are static. Bones is curmudgeonly and folksy, and cuts to the heart of things. Sulu is… noble, I suppose? Kinda? Spock is dry and logical. Uhura has a thing in her ear. Etc.

This is what I mean when I say I like the idea of the crew more than their reality – their various tics, quirks and quotes have become cultural touchstones, not just in the geek sphere but everywhere, to the extent that we feel we know them more than we actually do. We rarely get glimpses into their inner lives, largely because television in the 1960s was so different from what we’re used to now – there wasn’t anywhere near the same focus on continuity and character development. Even The Next Generation struggled with it, and while this isn’t such an issue in an episodic series, where there is an endless stream of events to carry the characters along, when it comes to a film you need more to hold on to.

Unfortunately, The Motion Picture’s glacial pace means that we need to focus our attentions elsewhere in order to find some emotional investment, and there’s little forthcoming. The characters, charming as they are, are ultimately cyphers, and the lack of humour in this film means that they’re as distant from us as they are from each other. Kirk and Spock overcoming their estrangement should be a major plot point, but it just kind of occurs, and is pretty much forgotten about, taking a backseat to the V’Ger crisis.

There could have been a lot of mileage in seeing the crew react to this latest threat, how it affects them emotionally and/or intellectually, but all we really get are lots and lots of extended shots in which they stare anxiously at the viewscreen. The film’s thematic concerns also don’t really marry up with any kind of emotional arc – the only person who gets anything approaching a resolution is Decker, and what’s his arc exactly? He gets stiffed by Kirk. He fancies an unknowable alien character. At the end, he gets to join with her and ascend to a new plane. It seems bizarre to focus all that heady stuff on a guy we’ve never seen before, and who is portrayed in direct opposition to the ‘hero’.

And yet... and yet. Despite myriad flaws, bizarre creative choices and a singular lack of dramatic inertia, I can’t bring myself to call the film a failure. My reasoning might not stand up, but it’s mine, damn it, and if I’ve learned one thing from Captain Kirk, it’s to trust your gut (except not in this film because his gut is mostly wrong in this film). I love what Star Trek: The Motion Picture represents. That it tried to do something weird, something different. That it tried to be a piece of serious SF, exploring big questions. It took chances that simply would not be taken with a franchise picture now, and while I won’t deny that subsequent entries are much more straightforwardly enjoyable, they are character-driven action flicks rather than pure SF. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is often compared with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while in some ways that’s accurate, the comparison ultimately makes it even clearer that the crew of the Enterprise NCC-1701 was not the crew for this mission. Insert joke about TMP feeling like it actually depicts an entire five-year mission (or perhaps a TEN-YEAR one haha ROFL) here.

The Star Trek: The Motion Picture Drinking Game

(In which “a shot or drink” is represented as “one Kirk unit”)

Drink one Kirk unit every time:

The Ilia probe says “Kirk unit”.
Admiral Kirk seems unsure of what to do.
Decker corrects, contradicts or otherwise undermines Kirk.
Spock coldly gives one of his friends the brush-off.
You think (or say out loud) that a special effects sequence has gone on substantially longer than maybe is narratively justified.

Drink two Kirk units every time:

You think (or say out loud) that you thought this special effects sequence had gone on substantially longer than maybe is narratively justified a couple of minutes ago, but now they’re really taking the piss.

Drink three Kirk units whenever:

You feel any sense of warmth from any of the characters.

KLINGON DIFFICULTY LEVEL

Drink one Kirk unit every time:

Something is beige.

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