Treknobabble #71: A Reappraisal of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

treknobabble71

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington about Star Trek and how it has influenced his life.

When I first watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture (STTMP) in a theatre in 1979, I must admit that I thought that Gene Roddenberry could do no wrong. I was one of those Trekkies who were eager for new adventures after years of watching reruns. I think I watched the theatre screen with rapt attention even with the interminable fly-throughs of the V’Ger spacecraft. I must admit that I didn’t clue in to the twist even when the crew approached the Voyager type spacecraft. I remember being disappointed by the simple resolution of the threat. And I did miss the fun factor even though I had thought most of the humor in the television series was hammy.

Visually, I liked the monochromatic design with the gray and muted colors. I thought Star Trek needed a more serious, realistic look to counter the overuse of color that was used in the Original Series (TOS) in order to sell color televisions. The costumes appeared more dignified. I thought that it made more sense now that engineering personnel had special outfits. Also the security personnel now had head and chest protection. I had pre-imagined the all-in-one pants and boots as a visually appeasing look. I was probably influenced by the svelte appearance of Bruce Lee in a form fitting track suit. In our current day and age, this idea of the pants and boots being one piece seems rather impractical, but in the 23rd century, laundry doesn’t seem like it would be much of a problem. As the movie showed, after you showered, you could have transporter technology “instantly” clothe you.

The new Enterprise looked beautiful. I liked the rectangular rather than cylindrical look of the nacelles. Wrist communicators seemed like a good idea although it may have seemed a bit retro because of Dick Tracy. Even though ten years had passed since the television series, it was rather surprising to me that no new technological ideas were introduced in the movie. Everything just seemed to look different. I suppose the airbus that brings Kirk to Starfleet Command was something we had never seen in Star Trek before, but it was similar to the shuttlecraft. I’m still trying to decide if I like the stick-shift on Sulu’s navigation console.

I will begrudgingly admit that STTMP was slow and boring. I did think that the fly around of the Enterprise by Kirk and Scotty seemed to take forever. We had an entity destroying everything in its path and coming towards Earth while Kirk and Scotty were casually enjoying the beauty of a starship. I was anxious for the Enterprise to get under way! I understood later that the excuse given for the fly around was to give the Trekkies a moment to appreciate what could not be shown in the television series due to budget constraints. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith was without a doubt one aspect of the movie that was exemplary and the fly around did give one the opportunity to appreciate the musical score along with the hard work put in by the Enterprise modelers.

Before his death, the director Robert Wise was able to supervise a director’s cut in which originally planned visual effects were completed using today’s technology. Care was taken to make sure that the added effects complemented the original effects. Also the pacing was improved through judicious editing. When I saw this revised version, I must admit that my opinions about STTMP didn’t change.

What has changed over the years is my regard for the movie’s plot. I think I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to come up with an original plot or even an interesting variation. The lack of originality in STTMP’s plot is often criticized. STTMP shares similarities with TOS episodes “The Changeling,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Comparisons have even been drawn to an animated episode, “One of Our Planets is Missing.” At least Star Trek was copying from itself (although Star Trek stories can be traced back to earlier science fiction source material). And if one considers that a goal for the movie was to expand the audience beyond the loyal Trekkies, then the choice to expand and enhance elements of Star Trek that had worked before seems logical. Trekkies should be grateful that Roddenberry didn’t decide to remake a television episode for the big screen although I actually wouldn’t have minded this too much as long as the movie had retained the impact of the episode it was based on. I should note that in “The Changeling,” Kirk saves the day by performing one of his patented mind-f*cks with the obstinate computer intelligence. I’m surprised that Kirk didn’t attempt this against V’Ger. Ha ha.

I do think that the use of V’Ger and its search for life’s meaning is relevant for a Star Trek movie involving a re-introduction of the characters of Kirk and Spock after the original five-year mission. At the beginning of the movie, we find Spock attempting to attain Kolinahr, a “Vulcan ritual intended to purge all remaining emotions in pursuit of the ideal of pure logic.” Throughout TOS, we saw Spock struggling with his human side as he had chosen the Vulcan way to live his life. After serving with humans for so long, we can imagine the frustration that Spock must have felt in denying his human self. The approach of V’Ger prevents Spock from achieving Kolinahr, because Spock’s human half is stirred by the disturbing telepathic thoughts from V’Ger.

At the same time, Kirk’s own aimlessness at this point in his life parallels both V’Ger and Spock’s search for meaning. After completing the successful five-year mission, Kirk had been promoted to admiral, thus consigning him to a desk bound position. At the beginning of the movie, we find a Kirk who is eager to once again sit in the captain’s chair. We feel his frustration at not knowing his way around the new Enterprise. When Captain Will Decker confronts Kirk with a correct assessment of Kirk’s actions, we are glad to see Kirk recognize that Decker is right. This reaffirms our belief in Kirk as the honorable hero.

By the end of the movie, Kirk is back on firm footing as the captain of the Enterprise. When Spock realizes that V’Ger can never understand its purpose without the ability to feel, we know that Spock has also realized that Kolinahr is not what he needs. Will Decker makes the sacrifice to bond with V’Ger, allowing V’Ger to transcend its machine origins. The sacrifice is made not only out of duty but also out of love, because Decker will also be bonded with Ilia who had been assimilated by V’Ger. Kirk, Spock and V’Ger have all achieved contentment for the time being.

Much fun has been made of the alien intelligence that found V’Ger, because it wasn’t smart enough to wipe the smudge off the exterior of V’Ger’s nameplate to reveal V’Ger’s true name. I would think that the aliens would have discovered V’Ger’s real name somewhere in V’Ger’s data banks. If so, I imagine the alien intelligence might have a wry or whimsical sense of humor and have nicknamed the spacecraft, V’Ger, based on the nameplate that it did not bother to clean. After communicating with the alien intelligence, V’Ger might simply have come to refer to itself by its nickname. However, we are told that V’Ger was damaged when the alien intelligence came across it and the alien intelligence repaired V’Ger. Perhaps the damage had wiped all data pertaining to Voyager since V’Ger had no “knowledge” of itself except for the notion that it should transmit all accumulated data to its creator. But how do we know that the alien intelligence was corporeal? Would the fact that the alien intelligence was able to see the smudged nameplate necessarily mean that it must have the physicality to remove a smudge? Might it be so smug as to not bother to remove the smudge?

There is some speculation in fandom that V’Ger in its damaged state had landed on the Borg home world. Thus the alien intelligence that had reprogrammed V’Ger was the Borg! This deduction seemed logical since V’Ger was no longer benignly gathering data. V’Ger had been transformed to basically assimilate everything that it came across during its search for its creator. One wonders if V’Ger was also given the unspoken motivation that the Borg have of achieving perfection.

When V’Ger arrives at Earth, it sets up satellites around the planet and threatens the planet in order to meet its creator. If this movie was remade nowadays with our current CGI technology, then I’m sure we would witness scenes of destruction on Earth which seems to be de rigueur for science fiction movies. Perhaps the climax of STTMP would have benefitted from this type of visual impact.

What made me reconsider STTMP was a book entitled, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, written by a neuroscientist, Robert A. Burton, M.D. His basic premise is that the “feeling of knowing” does not arise from conscious reasoning. From this, he goes on to speculate about subjects such as the ongoing debate between science and religion. People have this idea that Star Trek is all about science and how technology will provide all the solutions to our problems. Curiously, I think the message of STTMP is that science alone is not enough and not just because the movie had the audaciousness to show a transporter mishap. Humanity is special because we have a quality that transcends pure reason. Since Gene Roddenberry was a humanist who despised organized religion, he was asking us to have faith in ourselves rather than in some external deity. And in this movie, the solution lies in humanity.

Burton discusses the myth of the autonomous rational mind and our understanding of objectivity. Basically he thinks people, even “smart” people, fall into the trap of thinking that any problem can be solved by reasoning. Philosophers have been tackling the question of the existence of God and the meaning of life ever since humanity attained consciousness. (Note that there have been interesting discussions of when exactly humans achieved a sense of self or consciousness, but I won’t get into that right now.) Burton thinks that the meaning of life is one of those questions that cannot be deduced through reason. Many others have come to the same conclusion that it’s impossible for the mind to know itself. I think this is the limitation that V’Ger encounters. Even when it is presented with the evidence that humanity created it and it fulfills its purpose by uploading all the data that it has accumulated while traveling through space, it still isn’t satisfied. It rationally decides that it must bond with its creator, its God, in order to gain further insight into its existence.

On an episode of Enterprise, “Breaking the Ice,” T’Pol solicits Tucker’s advice concerning her pre-arranged marriage. When Tucker suggests that she subconsciously made a decision by postponing her arrival date, she replies with a typical Vulcan response that she doesn’t allow her subconscious to make decisions for her. But as Spock discovered in STTMP after a mind-meld with V’Ger, there is a limit to logic and rational thinking. In addition to giving our lives meaning, feelings for which we have no conscious control over help us to make decisions. The scene where Spock reveals this insight to Kirk was not in the theatrical release of the movie. In order to speed up the already languorous pace of the movie, someone apparently thought that this scene was superfluous or at least that the expressed idea was not necessary to be explicitly stated.

At the end of the film, Kirk believes they’re witnessing the birth of a new life form. I would suspect that the resultant hybrid of man and machine would still ponder the question of the meaning of life, but its human side will allow it to cope with this unanswerable question. It would be interesting to revisit V’Ger. Like all good Star Trek stories do, STTMP leaves us to speculate on the consequences.

Burton mentions a Terry Bisson science fiction short story, They’re Made Out of Meat, that I think is amusing. Imagine a machine intelligence coming across Earth and discovering humanity, and trying to come to grips with meat that thinks. I think STTMP missed an opportunity to have V’Ger provide some comic relief. Ha ha.

So, does STTMP deserve better consideration as a science fiction film? I don’t wish to reopen the familiar art debate of a filmmaker’s intentions versus what a viewer interprets. The well-documented difficulties that arose in coming up with a script for this movie provide suitable evidence for the reasons why there is a lack of dramatic thrust in the movie. Filming began without a completed script and both Shatner and Nimoy got unfairly blamed for being conceited actors when they tried contributing ideas of their own. When all is said and done, I think what an audience member gets from viewing a movie shouldn’t be disregarded. STTMP is certainly a unique film. We often complain about the dearth of intellectual science fiction movies. I suppose when one tries to make an intellectual science fiction film, one is bound to produce something that is labeled boring and pretentious.

I’m sure many of you are thinking that I’ve rationalized away or downplayed all the things that made STTMP “bad.” And I admit I probably am. Years from now, I will probably admit that my initial impression of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek was wrong. And I’ll be calling it a masterpiece.

Around the Web:



  • you make my brain hurt sometimes.

    Lx

  • Damndirtyape

    Glad you wrote about this..I happen to love that film. Yes, it does have more than a few weaknesses, but for me the strengths far outweigh them. The intro sequence alone kicked more ass than all of Final Frontier or Generations (blech)

    The vast, sweeping and enigmatic feel of Vger really made an impression on me as a kid. It felt truly alien and incomprehensible. No, it was not very much like the original series in tone and crew dynamics, but it truly personified the “explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations” spirit of Trek like no other film.

    For me, every other Trek film has felt smaller in scope and grandeur than STTMP. Despite some of them involving huge space battles etc, they don’t convey much mystery and “unexplored possibilities” of deep space.

    So although I love Wrath and First Contact and Undiscovered Country etc, when I’m in the mood for a more contemplative Trek experience I can go back and appreciate STTMP. I would love to see the next Trek movie involve some grand themes like STTMP did instead of the having a generic vilain of the month for an antagonist. The bad guys in Insurrection, Nemesis and the new movie all blend together in my mind.

    Besides, a movie with a hot bald Indian chick in heels cant be all bad!

  • sitromdrol

    Nice piece Reed.

  • Big Hungry

    Nice Job Read
    For me… STTMP or Star Trek in General I did not like as a kid. But when they released STTMP on dvd the director’s cut, I thought I would try it again. Well to make a long story short I loved it. So – I saw the rest of the movies. I think STTMP is one of the better ones. I would love to hear your re-review of the last Star Trek movie when you buy it dvd or blu-ray when it comes out. I think you should do a commentary on it with jay – just like Star Trek II. In fact I think you should not watch it till then and do your commentary on your first watch on dvd or blu-ray.

  • Thx for your comments, everyone.

    Damndirtyape, I totally agree with all of your sentiments except I have a certain fondness for Final Frontier.

    Big Hungry, I’m surprised you gave STTMP a second chance. Most people wouldn’t, and probably not even Trekkies. I’m still trying to figure out why the movie made so much money beyond the common reasons people have made.

    I think I would have to watch the latest Star Trek movie again before doing the commentary in order to think of things to talk about. Otherwise I would end up concentrating too much on the dialogue and not say anything during the commentary. I’ve been reading about interesting subtleties that I totally overlooked and did not appreciate during my first watching. For example, when Kirk is eating the apple during the Kobayashi Maru, I thought it was too cocky and sort of strange. (Where did he have the apple before he started eating it? What is he supposed to do with the core when he’s done?) But I had totally forgotten that when he relates the story of the Kobayashi Maru in The Wrath of Khan, he is eating an apple!

  • Ben

    My main issues with STTMP are filmmaking ones. It really is just incredibly boring. Most of the film is the crew sitting on the bridge looking at semi-psychedelic view screen images. I don’t need wham bam action in every movie I watch, but at least create a purpose for why a story is being told using a medium of moving pictures.

  • Damndirtyape

    @Ben

    – Do you feel the same about 2001? I think they share some similarity in that regard.

    Doesn’t the directors cut with redone effects cuts some of the long Vger sequences down? Reed would know..

  • Big Hungry

    ::Damndirtyape::
    I could not agree more with your comment on 2001 – to me it is like a ball of string being slowly undone and I like what I am seeing as it unwinds.

    ::Reed::
    A second chance for STTMP does not really count for me because I only remembered just parts of it and I might of fell asleep during the first view of it when I was kid. So I forgot or did not remember the ending of it enough. So – it was like a first watch to me. I just remember being bored the first time and Totaly into it the second time. Maybe I was in the mood for a slow plot at the time and that I will agree with, it is slow…. but I think it works that way…. for me….

    And I hope you do commentary for the new movie! It sounds like you are starting to like it more than you did, but maybe I am wrong.

  • I plan on watching the director’s cut beside the longer video version, because I don’t know how much trimming was actually done. Actually, I’m wondering if the theatrical release was ever released on video (including DVD). The director’s cut still seemed long to me, probably because I was familiar with the traversing V’Ger footage.

    For me, 2001 is rather boring as well. It wasn’t reviewed well when it was first released. I think it only got a reappraisal after stoned audience members began appreciating it. :-) Actually, when people started attaching meaning to the images, high-brow critics started appreciating it.

    I think Ben raises a valid point. It’s hard to make an involving non-action science fiction film without having dialogue that is didactic. STTMP tries with having Ilia taken and replaced, for example, to break the monotony of the journey through V’Ger. The visuals weren’t interesting enough, but try to come up with something yourself to see how hard that task is. I suppose there could have been an interesting parallel B plot introduced, but that would have probably distracted from the V’Ger threat.

    STTMP would probably have been better as an hour long episode since its plot did come from a script for the planned new television series at the time. It’s interesting that the Next Generation pilot originally involved only the mystery of the Farpoint station when the episode was only supposed to be an hour long. When the executives wanted a two-hour pilot, Roddenberry added the parallel Q story which turned out to have the most resonance (although most writers thought this idea was hackneyed by now).

  • Bob The Slob

    I gotta admit, I think STTMP director’s cut is one of the best of the series. maybe I’m weird.

    Good review Reed.

  • Ben

    Sorry for the late reply to anyone that actually notices it:

    @Damndirtyape, I do feel the same way about 2001.

    I can enjoy it as an incredibly rich, deep film. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s boring. I think this just goes to the fact that not every story is ideal for every medium. As Reed Farrington pointed out, the story would probably have worked infinitely better as an hour long episode.

    There are ways to turn “boring” stories into interesting films. Some filmmakers have become incredibly adept at doing so over the past few decades(aside from the Bay approach of simply blowing more shit up). Filmmakers like the Cohen brothers, Ridley Scott and David Fincher, in particular, to name a few, have a keen understanding of how to use presentation to make simple, slow, “boring,” events entertaining. Kubrik had this understanding as well, to a certain extent, which is why 2001 stands the test of time better than STTMP.

    In STTMP, for an all too large portion of the film, we simply get static shots of the bridge crew cut with static shots of the view screen. This allows for a great sense of how large V’ger is that would probably be lost were the film made today but it is rather monotonous.

  • Nice review, STTMP is my favorite of the Trek film series. That said, yes there was a VHS release of the original theatrical release. This was back before Paramount broke price norms with the $14.95 VHS release of TOS. Just as there were 2 VHS releases with 2 episodes each before that time and 1 single episode release. These tapes at the time retailed around $99.98 each. There was no clean up in the transfer, so the “special longer version” looks much better. Big reason for having a copy is the overture music is even intact as opposed to missing in all the subsequent “special longer version” releases. I’m going to have to back it up to DVD soon so I don’t lose the ability to view it. If there are changes as I have read about in the Blu-Ray release, then I worry even more about keeping a viewable copy intact. I’m always amazed at just how much Paramount has never released, i.e. the alternate cut of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Another VHS I need to back up. Thing is I want to learn more about digital restoration before I proceed. Time waits for no VHS, march on!

  • Thx for that informative comment, Sahav. A friend gave me a VHS dub of that alternate cut of “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” I don’t think there are enough Trekkies to support an official release from Paramount. And I think most Trekkies would accuse Paramount of milking the franchise if Paramount were to release items like it. Then again, there are Trekkies like you, Sahav, and me that feed on all the scraps. :-)