Comparing The Three Versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Is there a definitive version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture at last? We compared all the different versions of this misunderstood movie to find out.
Some 44 years after it went into production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is finally complete.
We don’t say that frivolously. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of Hollywood’s most famous “unfinished” films. Rushing to meet a December 7, 1979 release date, with many of the visual effects being completed right up until the last possible minute by Douglas Trumbull (who had replaced the previous VFX supervisor), director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music) pretty much just stopped working on the film, carrying the first available print on a plane to the movie’s Washington D.C. premiere.
The complicated story of how ST: TMP – the first major motion picture based on an existing TV series — was developed, written, filmed, and released is a long, winding one that has been told before. It’s also well-known that the original theatrical version of the film – the one that Wise had to deliver finished or not – was not well-received by either fans or critics, although it became a sizable box office success.
Yet Star Trek: The Motion Picture steadily grew in stature over the years, gradually beginning to hold its own with fans even as later favorites like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ascended to the top of the franchise.
With fans and even critics constantly reappraising the original film, Paramount Pictures – with the encouragement of two members of Robert Wise’s production company, David C. Fein and Michael Matessino – allowed Wise and his team to revisit the movie in 2001, reconstructing it to finally adhere more closely to Wise’s original vision.
The release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition in November 2001 on home video (DVD and VHS) confirmed for many fans that there was a far better film after all hidden inside the “rough cut” (Wise’s own words) released in 1979. Scenes were excised or trimmed, a few were reinstated, and most importantly, the visuals were spruced up with the help of CGI. The legendary Wise, who passed away four years later in 2005, got the chance to finish the movie the way he wanted.
But the story wasn’t over yet.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture Reborn
Earlier this year, Paramount+ premiered a 4K Ultra HD (high definition) version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition. Prepared over the course of six months by Fein, Matessino, and a visual effects team with access to Paramount’s archives, this iteration of ST: TMP stayed true to the vision established by Wise for The Director’s Edition in 2001, while doing a further, extensive, HD restoration and upgrade of the entire film.
Now the Ultra HD Director’s Edition, along with 4K Ultra HD versions of the original theatrical cut and the “Special Longer Version” that was created for broadcast television in 1983, are available in a newly released set called The Complete Adventure, which gives us a definitive document of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in all three versions, looking perhaps the best they’ll ever look (The Director’s Edition is also available on its own or as part of a set containing Ultra HD upgrades of all six films starring the original Trek cast).
Having seen the film in its original theatrical release, then on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, we were always put off by the seeming drabness of the image and the colors. To our eyes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture – despite the occasionally awe-inspiring visuals it did manage to pull off against all odds – never seemed to pop off any screen or medium we watched it on.
That problem is now solved, and overpoweringly so: the film in 4K Ultra HD looks absolutely magnificent, as if we’re truly seeing the film for the first time.
Yes, many of the VFX have been digitally enhanced or even freshly recreated, but they’re integrated almost seamlessly into the original aesthetic of the film, while many of the rough spots in the original release have been repaired or replaced. Now the 4K image really does leap off the screen in amazing color and detail. To watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture in this way is to watch a 44-year-old science fiction movie that looks in many ways like it was made last year.
And now that all three versions of the movie are here in this beautiful, pristine form, which one holds up the best and do they differ?
The Original Theatrical Cut
It may look better than it ever has, but the original theatrical cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture still has all the issues it had when it first came out. It’s slow-moving to the point of being inert, it spends way too much time on endless visuals (the first sight of the refurbished Enterprise, the lengthy flyover of the massive V’Ger spacecraft – heck, even Spock’s neck-pinch of some poor slob guarding an airlock takes way too long), and it leaves certain plot information and character motivations ambiguous at best and absent at worst.
What ST: TMP does retain is a sense of grandeur, and occasionally a sense of wonder, that often marked the best of the original series and has been sadly lacking in so much filmed science fiction ever since, including later Trek movies and TV series.
So many of the later movies – especially the J.J. Abrams-conceived Kelvin trilogy, but some of the classic and Next Generation films have the same problem – revolve around fairly simple bad guy/revenge motifs.
The original series had its share of those simple action-adventure episodes, but so much more of it was dedicated to great ideas – whether it be truly alien encounters, mirror universes, or moral quandaries posed by the Enterprise sticking its saucer in a new planet’s business.
And yes, even though Star Trek: The Motion Picture is in some ways a rewrite of the original series episode “The Changeling,” it’s much more expansive and even cosmic in its implications. While several later Trek films are superior in many ways, few of them have matched ST: TMP in its ambitions and pure science fiction concepts.
The acting is inconsistent, to say the least, although all our old favorites each have a memorable moment or two, and the glacial pacing really is at odds with the imagination glimpsed in the storyline and the visuals. In many ways, the theatrical cut remains a slog, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind Trek movie.
The ‘Special Longer Version’
Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered on American network television – ABC, to be exact – on February 20, 1983. Not only was this the first TV showing of the movie, but it also introduced a different cut of the film that came to be known as the “Special Longer Version.” Running for two hours and 24 minutes (without commercials), as opposed to the theatrical cut’s two hours and 12 minutes, the “SLV” essentially incorporated a number of scenes that were left unfinished and kept out of the picture by director Robert Wise in 1979 – who apparently did not approve of this version.
A lot of the scenes that were added back into the movie for the “SLV” were and are clearly extraneous, although in some cases amusing to watch.
There are a couple of exchanges between Sulu (George Takei) and the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) – whose species is apparently quite sexually attractive and active – that are possibly meant to suggest Sulu is coming under her spell, although they were jettisoned to focus on Ilia and Decker’s (Stephen Collins) relationship (there is also more of that present in this cut).
Other sequences – like a moment in which Spock (Leonard Nimoy) weeps for V’Ger and a quick scene of Ilia helping to relieve Chekov’s (Walter Koenig) pain after he is injured – actually made it into the Director’s Cut and work well there as improved character moments.
Most infamously, the original release of the “SLV” contained a literally unfinished shot of Kirk (William Shatner) leaving the Enterprise airlock in a spacesuit to pursue Spock as the Vulcan himself spacewalks deeper into V’Ger’s interior. When the “SLV” was first shown, parts of the soundstage around the airlock set were still visible, as a result of the effects for the scene never being completed (the new 4K Ultra HD version of the “SLV” rectifies that, although the incomplete version is provided as a bonus feature).
Importantly, the new version of the “SLV” has restored it to its theatrical matting – the movie was cropped to the old TV screen ratio of 1.33: 1 for broadcast (and for several subsequent home video releases), turning Wise’s widescreen compositions into a nightmare of forced zooms and pan-and-scanning. At least now this version of the film is restored to its proper ratio.
That said, the “Special Longer Version” is in many ways the worst version of the film. While it’s always interesting for completists to see footage left out of a theatrical movie, this iteration simply pastes all that material back into the film – ostensibly to fill a three-hour “network movie premiere” slot, back in the day when such things mattered – without any consideration of whether it should be there. If the pacing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture has always been a bone of contention for you, the “SLV” doubles down on that.
The Director’s Edition
Ironically enough, the Robert Wise-supervised “Director’s Edition” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture runs for two hours and 16 minutes – four minutes longer than the theatrical release. It also includes some of the scenes Wise left out initially, which surfaced in the interim in the TV version of the movie (a detailed list of alterations and additions can be found here).
But while it still suffers from pacing issues, they’re less of a detriment. The Director’s Edition still moves slowly, but doesn’t feel like it drags, and there’s more of a stateliness to it that is befitting the movie’s larger themes – which are also given more clarity in this version.
Perhaps the most important edition in that sense is the scene in which Spock weeps for V’Ger – a scene that makes it much clearer what V’Ger is seeking as it returns to Earth, and why its quest has reached a potentially catastrophic dead end.
More importantly, the scene also brings Spock’s own character arc in the film into much better focus – he realizes that his desire to purge all remaining emotion from his own life (the kolinahr ritual) could lead him to the same cold, empty existence that V’Ger now faces, which he firmly rejects.
Also retained is Ilia’s healing of Chekov, adding a little more nuance to what is mostly a blank slate of a character, as well as some brief interactions between the supporting crew members.
What is left out are, most notably, the full-length travelogues along V’Ger’s exterior and interior (although we do get a neat shot of the entire V’Ger vessel emerging from its cloud above Earth). The scenes are still there, but this material – and a number of other visuals – is trimmed and sharpened to give the movie a little more forward motion. Along with that, so many subtle visual and audio touches have been added – whether it’s better matte or CG backgrounds or original sounds from the TV series – to create more ambiance and an overall more fulfilling cinematic Trek experience.
When Wise and his team took the movie back into the shop in 2001, they overhauled the visuals and the sound mix with the best available technology at the time – yet the limitations back then in terms of resolution meant that the Director’s Edition was only available on DVD for the next 20 years. With the new upgrade, all the visual and sonic enhancements (plus new ones) have been rendered so that they can now be seen in 4K Ultra HD – thus giving Star Trek: The Motion Picture the most up-to-date restoration possible.
The result is an often eye-popping science fiction spectacle that looks fresher and better than ever before. As rushed as the original production was, it’s a tribute to Wise, Trumbull, and the team that completed the film in 1979 that so much of their work still holds up and was able to mesh so well with the enhancements of both 2001 and 2021.
But just as importantly, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now about as close as it will ever come to being the visionary sci-fi epic that it was first conceived as. The new version of The Director’s Edition retains all the narrative revisions that Wise made more than two decades ago, while adding the visual grandeur that such a cerebral story needed in the first place. Yes, there are still flaws in the film, and it may never replace, say, The Wrath of Khan at the top of Trek movie rankings, but more than four decades after it first came out, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now finished.
This film’s journey is at last complete, but the human adventure is still just beginning.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – The Complete Adventure is out now on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray.