Star Trek: The Motion Picture Review: Boldly Going Where They’ve Gone Before

As the May 17 release date for Star Trek Into Darkness approaches, it seemed like the perfect time for the Sentries to shine a light on the motion pictures that are part of the franchise.

While plenty of television series were enjoyed around the world, Star Trek fans took their devotion to a whole new level, including participating in a mail-in campaign credited with getting the show a third season that aired from 1968-69.  Though its canon status is debatable, the actors and writers of the series returned for an animated series by Filmation that aired from 1973-74.   

With the enormous popularity of the original series in syndication around the world, there were numerous attempts to bring the crew of the Enterprise back together.  Creator Gene Roddenberry and other writers had some ideas for films that never got passed the writing stage.  Paramount Chairman and CEO Barry Diller considered starting the company’s own broadcast network, Paramount Television Service, with a new Star Trek series as a major component of the programming.  Star Trek: Phase II was going to tell stories about the second five-year mission of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew and was set to debut in 1978. 

Although PTS never came to fruition because of the Paramount board’s cost concerns, Diller proved to be ahead of his time.  A decade later in the ’80s as Chairman and CEO of Fox, Inc. he co-founded FOX, a fourth broadcast network, and a decade after that in the ’90s, the United Paramount Network (UPN) made its debut with Star Trek: Voyager.

While Phase II never went into production, quite a bit of pre-production work had been done.  With the popularity of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the box office, Paramount decided they wanted a science fiction movie, so Gene Roddenberry and his creative team modified the intended two-hour series pilot into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Director Robert Wise, Oscar winner for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, had previously made science fiction films before with The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, and seemed like a good choice.  He brought a classic Hollywood feel to the film, which opens with a majestic overture by Jerry Goldsmith as the opening credits run. 

Goldsmith’s work is one of the best elements of the film, enhancing every scene it appears.  This is immediately made clear in the opening scene as a trio of Klingon ships approaches an enormous luminescent cloud of some type.  It is said to be over 82 AUs in diameter, but that would be more than twice distance from the Sun to Pluto, so it’s not accurate.  The music combines a militaristic march with some very exotic sounds created by a device called the Blaster Beam.

These Klingons are different from the ones from TV show.  Their foreheads have bony ridges that run along them and they don’t speak English.  Being Klingon, they naturally choose photon torpedoes as a greeting instead of communications.  That turns out to be the wrong tactic and the cloud continues on its route…to Earth!  The Epsilon IX station passes on the information to Starfleet before the cloud absorbs it.  An uncredited Michele Billy plays the unnamed lieutenant but the whole time I thought she was a young Megan Mullally.

Admiral Kirk has been deskbound for two and a half years, but with the impending emergency, he goes through channels to take command of a newly retrofitted Enterprise from Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins), who is made Executive Officer and reduced in rank to Commander.  Naturally, this causes friction between the two.

The transporters are conveniently not working, even though we are told the ship isn’t ready to go out yet, but the real reason appears to be so we get some nice shots of the Enterprise in dock.  The model looks impressive but the sequence goes on too long expect possibly for the most die-hard of fans.  Much of the old crew is aboard, but Kirk pulls some strings to shanghai Dr. McCoy, who is one of the standouts with his very amusing performance.  New to the ship is Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a new species to the franchise known as Deltans who require a vow of celibacy to work with humans.  Unfortunately, there’s no sexy payoff.  She has had a prior relationship with Decker, and looking back, their relationship brings to mind that of Riker and Troi from The Next Generation.  

Both the ship and Kirk are shown to not be completely ready for action when the warp engines cause the Enterprise to go into a wormhole with an asteroid at the end of it.  Kirk’s orders to resolve the situation are overridden by Decker.  Though seemingly intense, this scene also has a lot of people sitting around and looking for the most part.  Spock, who left Vulcan after failing to complete the Kolinahr ceremony because he was distracted by the cloud entity, shows up by shuttle and helps fix the warp-engine problem. 

Once they enter the cloud, there are a lot of shots of the crew looking at it as they head towards the center.  The great-looking visuals bring to mind 2001, which may not be a coincidence since Douglas Trumbull did special effects on both.  A probe in the form of energy bolts is sent to scan the Enterprise‘s records and Ilia is taken.  She returns, but a probe has taken her form.  She refers to the entity as V’Ger and claims it is in search of the creator. 

V’Ger gets to Earth and demands to speak to its creator but no one knows what that means.  V’Ger thinks carbon units are to blame and considers destroying them until Kirk bluffs for time.  Once they discover V’Ger’s identity, they of course save the day, but fans of the show will likely remember a similar situation from the TV show.  So in essence, ST:TMP is a remake of “The Changeling” from the second season?!  That seems a very strange decision. 

It’s unfortunate that Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffers from poor pacing, a lack of action, and a familiar story because it has some very good qualities as well.  Goldsmith’s score is outstanding; Trumball’s visual effects are captivating; and it’s good to see the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy back in action and how the changes to the characters since last seen in the series.  In 2001, a Director’s Cut was made with Wise’s involvement.  I am curious about the changes, of which there would need to be a good many.

Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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