It’s the big sci-fi movie of my childhood, the one against which all others are judged. Watching it still gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s a whole hell of a lot, and I can quote lines or do entire scenes. I recognize that it’s a highly flawed movie, and for the most part I liked the rejiggered effects in the “Director’s Edition.” At least they didn’t try to shoehorn in bathroom jokes like the later, much suckier movies in the series.
Even if you haven’t already read the title or seen the accompanying picture, in this post-ironic age you’ve probably figured by now that I’m not talking about Star Wars. Instead, I refer without irony to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
I can hear the witty rejoinders already: “You mean Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, don’t you?”
Yeah. That one.
Thanks to my family having remarkable taste (which also resulted in a lifelong love of The Beatles and Dylan), I’ve been a Star Trek fan from a very young age. Most of my fellow Generation X’ers hate the movie, though. As do Boomers. I haven’t asked any Millennials, but I’d gather that for them, Star Trek movies start with the Khan one, and they all kinda suck anyway. Story of my life, loving something everyone else hates.
Actually, I don’t know anyone who actively hates Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (Though I imagine a few haters will chime in in the comments section. Hello, haters!) Most people just dismiss it as “the slow and boring first movie,” even if they haven’t seen it in a decade or three. It doesn’t raise the well-deserved ire of the underbudgeted, poorly written and incompetently directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, or the overbudgeted, poorly written and incompetently directed Star Trek Nemesis, the latter being the one Trek movie I cannot sit through. Gods, Nemesis was horrible, so talky and unwatchable. (Irony alert: many people feel that way about The Motion Picture.) At least The Final Frontier has a certain ramshackle charm to its badness. Watching it can be like a parlor game: there’s something wrong with practically every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue. See if you can spot them all! Just be sure it isn’t a drinking game, lest you have alcohol poisoning by the time Spock plays “Row Your Boat” on his lyre. It’s like the Turkish Star Trek with a thirty million dollar budget, and I mean that as the highest praise.
I believe I’d love The Motion Picture regardless, but for now let’s consider timing. Star Wars may or may not be the defining cultural event of my generation, but I kinda missed it the first time around. Oh, I knew it was a big deal, but I was just shy of four years old when it was released in May 1977, and I didn’t get to see it. Speaking thirty years later as someone who despises being around small children (in movie theaters or elsewhere), my parents made the right decision.
When Star Wars hit, Paramount abandoned work on a new teevee series called Star Trek: Phase II in favor of a feature film. Other studios produced such Star Wars cash-ins as the teevee shows Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the pilot episodes of which were also given theatrical releases in the spring of 1979. Ironically, and perhaps a little sadly, seeing those are my earliest movie memories. Hell, I think Buck Rogers may have been my first non-animated movie. It’s a wonder I’m not more screwed up.
Neither of those really had much of an impact on me, possibly because of what they were: teevee movies. Projecting them wide with Sensurround or even featuring a brand new scene in which the Cylons kill Baltar! oooh! didn’t make them any better . (I recently re-watched the Battlestar Galactica movie, which is essentially the first three episodes smooshed together, and whooboy, is it a frackin’ pile of felgercarb.) In all likelihood I was taken to Star Wars when it was re-released to theaters in July of 1978 and August of 1979, but I don’t recall seeing it. I do remember The Star Wars Holiday Special in November of 1978, even if George Lucas wishes I didn’t.
Meanwhile, Star Trek was very much on my consciousness, both the original series and animated series, which I saw as being parts of a larger whole. I was a fan, I knew the characters, and I loved the ship. The publicity machine was also starting to turn for Star Trek: The Motion Picture by that point, and I was excited about it. It all looked so familiar, but…different. In a good way. And those streaky light effects were neat.
The Motion Picture was released on December 7, 1979. A day which will live in infamy, indeed. (Fun fact: thanks to 2004 being a leap year, September 11 has not landed on a Friday since 1998. The next one is on 2009, and I promise you that marketers are not looking forward to putting “Opening 9/11” on movie posters. I’m going to laugh, though.) I couldn’t tell you when we saw itprobably not opening nightbut boy, do I remember seeing it. One moment sticks with me the most, what was clearly supposed to be an emotional peak and which worked perfectly with one precocious six year-old in Fresno. If that isn’t damning with faint praise, I don’t know what is.
Scotty (James Doohan) and Kirk (William Shatner, duh) are flying from the space station to the drydock in a shuttlepod. Kirk has just talked his way back into command of the Enterprise, and Scotty knows this; he also knows that Kirk hasn’t seen the Enterprise since it’s been refitted, and is teasing him by taking a deliberately roundabout route, with only bits and pieces of the ship visible through the drydock. This is one of the movie’s infamous “endless” effects sequences, and I find it ironic that it’s the antithesis of Roddenberry’s original justification for the transporter: to get the story started as quickly as possible.
James Doohan is acting the hell out of this scene, Scotty keeping an eye on Kirk, watching his reaction. There’s no dialogue for several minutes, and their faces tell the story; a lazier script would have exposited it in words to make sure the audience gets it. Hell, Gene Roddenberry’s script probably did spell it out in dialogue, and I’d like to think Robert Wise threw it out.
Anyway, the shuttlepod deliberately overshoots the drydock, it turns, and the music swells as the camera closes in on Shatner’s ginormous face, finally cutting to a head-on, unobstructed shot of the Enterprise as Jerry Goldsmith’s gorgeous score cresendos (or whatever the musical word is for “a cymbal crash followed by the rousing main theme”). In the theater, I turned to my mother and whispered, “It’s beautiful.” Whether or not I whispered (god, I hope I did) or used those exact words is uncertain, but that’s the gist. It was just about the most beautiful thing I’d seen, this ship I knew from this show I liked, but suddenly looking…well, real. Like it actually existed. This was powerful to me. The music helped, too; it’s considered one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, and even if you consider the movie to be a turd, it’s a turd with incredible music.
The shuttlepod circles around the Enterprise onceyes, only once, no matter how many times it felt like to you, and not even a full circlebefore docking. According to Robert Wise, the point of the sequence is to reacquaint the viewer with the ship. The model is nine feet long, with a level of detail which was simply not possible before. I suspect Wise may have underestimated the desire of the average viewer to get that acquainted with the ship, and they probably don’t share his level of technofetishism (cf. The Andromeda Strain). I’m not into hardwareI won’t see Michael Bay’s Transformers until we do it for Bad Movie Night in Novemberbut in this case, it worked for me. Nearly thirty years later, it still does.
Because it’s cinematic. The whole damn movie is. Aren’t movies cinematic, by definition? No. Most moviesincluding the rest of the Trek movies, save for Generationsoperate on a smaller scale. The filmmakers know that the majority of their film’s ride on The Long Tail will be video, and compose in those terms. This is not inherently a bad thing, nor am I suggesting that a movie has to be in 70MM Cinemascope to be good. David Cronenberg is probably my favorite director (he ties with David Lynch, anyway), and he never shoots widescreen because he knows the composition will be lost on video. The rather surprising acceptance of letterboxing and widescreen teevees has changed this somewhat, but not much. Letterboxing of teevee shows still feels more like a gimmick than anything else. It’s a good gimmick and I’m happy for it, especially after I’ve been bitching for years about the evils of pan-and-scan and having to explain how those black bars aren’t covering up the picture. (Except for matted widescreen, but pick pick.)
Director Robert Wise was old school, though, and old school in 1979 meant composing for a big, 2.35:1 (two and a third times as wide as it is high) movie screen, the 1.33:1 ratio of teevee screens be damned. Not that Wise always shot in that aspect ratio; his previous movie, Audrey Rose, was a meager 1.85:1. But that wasn’t a big science-fiction epic, either. Wise often uses the whole frame, with remarkable depth of field in many shots, what would just be blurry or a bunch of blinking lights in the subsequent films. And, of course, the split-focus diopter, which I’d abuse the hell out of it I ever made a movie. Most of this is lost on pan-and-scan VHS, which is how I saw it the most.
I didn’t exactly memorize the widescreen compositions when I was six years old, so seeing it projected at the Tower Theater in Fresno as part of a mini-marathon in the mid-eighties was a revelation. Like, when the shuttlepod is docking, if you don’t blink you can see a guy in the porthole on the far right side of the screen! Neat. I couldn’t have been much older than eleven or twelve at the time, but when you were a kid who was heavily into Star Trek in those days, you studied every frame. (What the hell else was I going to do? Hang out with friends?) At a buttnumbing 1991 marathon of the first five films, I noticed how during the shuttlepod sequence, the space station remains visible, far off in the distance. Again, these are things which are lost when the image is cropped. Most directors of recent decades either don’t compose like that, or they’re so obsessed with super-detailed CGI landscapes that there’s no sense of dynamics and it all becomes a blur.
Something else which leapt out at me during the 1991 marathon was that they cut out the overture. How could they? First of all, it’s “Ilia’s Theme,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of movie music ever with only Angelo Badalamenti’s “Moving Through Time” from Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me coming close. Second of alland this is the crucial point, I thinkthe movie has a goddamned overture! That’s how O.G. a motherfucker Robert Wise was. Good lord, what was the last American movie before that to have an overture? For that matter, have any since then? These are the kinds of questions I asked when I was in the Cinema department at San Francisco State University in the mid-nineties. Unforuntately, nobody knew or particularly cared. If Tarantino had used overtures, I’m sure they would have been all over it. Film school in the mid-nineties sucked if, like me, you didn’t care for Pulp Fiction.
From a production standpoint, the overture was probably have been the easiest part of the process: just a few minutes of music over a blank screen before the Paramount logo. What amazes me is that it, with everyone else going on, it didn’t slip through the cracks.
To put it mildly, the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was troubled. First off, it was rushed; Paramount had pre-sold it into theaters for December 1979, and because of contractual voodoo the date could not be changed. They’d already sunk a lot of money into Star Trek: Phase II, but since that was for teevee, the scope was all wrong for a motion picture and most of it was unusable. The $40M price tag which Paramount happily used to promote Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the time and ultimately ended up being held against the film wasn’t entirely accurate, as it included the scrapped work done on the teevee show.
The proposed pilot script for Phase II, called “In Thy Image” and superficially similar to the original series episode “The Changeling,” was adapted for the movie. Not the exactly the best decision that went into the making of the film, and not necessarily the worst, but possibly the laziest. Then again, if you’ve read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre or watched this Tom Snyder clip on YouTube, you know that even Harlan Ellison took a shot at it. Then and now, the bigger the movie, the less important the script seems to be.
Post-millennial alchemy: if you hunt around the int0rwebnetz (starting with this link), you’ll find a torrent for Star Trek Phase II: In Thy Image. It’s a fan remix of Star Trek V, repurposing it as the pilot episode of the series that never was. Edited down to an hour and broken up into teevee show segments, most of the crappy stuff is gone. What’s left still isn’t really great, but it’s much better than it was. (Second irony alert: many people feel that way about the Director’s Edition of The Motion Picture..)
Shooting began without a completed script, which never bodes well. What there was of a script kept getting rewritten, by Roddenberry and the actors and whoever else had access to a pencil. The effects didn’t go smoothly, either. The original company (Robert Abel and Associates, of The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It” fame) was fired and replaced with the always reliable Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, who were brought in nine months before the film opened and managed to complete five hundred-odd effects. Not everything, and they weren’t always perfect, but damnit, they were there. Mostly. The unfinished effects were eventually completed in 2001 for the Director’s Edition, and it’s easy to believe they were intended the first time around. Most of them fit in seamlessly and would be unrecognizable to all but the most ardent fan such as myself, as opposed to much of Lucas’ overt CGI tomfoolery.
Fresh out of the lab, the film was literally drying as prints were rushed to theaters in December 1979. There was no time to do preview screenings or sit with it and figure out where it needed to be edited. As a result, what was not the most action-packed script in the first place was hurt by scenes which went on too longtrimming just a few seconds here and there can make a tangible differenceand exposition such as “We’re out of it!”, intended to replace effects should they not be ready in time. Not the fault of the filmmakers at all; they did the best they could under the circumstances. Still, the net result would be liketo use a contemporary exampleJ.K. Rowling delivering a manuscript to the publisher, and them printing it without even reading it first. (I’ll reserve comment on the editorial quality of her last few books.) Most of these editing and pacing issues are solved in the Director’s Edition, which includes a nifty-to-me bonus feature in the form of Trims, an “assembly of footage which represents shots from the original 1979 theatrical version which have either been shortened or eliminated from the Director’s Edition.” Which, as I say, is fascinating to me, since I recognize the snippets.
In addition to the pacing issues, I think a lot of what people respond negatively to is the color pallette. At the very least, it makes it difficult to overlook the other shortcomings. While I love the cinematography and the beautiful optical effects and the blocking, the sets and costumes are blah. According to the December ’01 issue of Star Trek: The Magazine, “one technical adviser insisted that everybody would wear pastels in the 23rd century.” I would love to find that man (you just know what it had to be a man) and kick him in the shins. Thus, the bright uniforms which had been intended to show off NBC’s bitchin’ new color broadcasts were replaced by a grayish hybrid of jumpsuits and pajamas, or the occasional white shortsleeved shirt with a slit in the collar for manhair cleavage. The colors (which designated the department) were reduced to a circle behind the insignia. Rank is still signified by stripes on the wrist, a callback to the original series which makes me happy.
The bridge of the Enterprise (where most of the movie takes place) is also on the ultrabeige side, with mostly black and white computer displays. Gone are the swatches of color which characterized the bridge on the series, especially early in the first season. These were both Robert Wise’s call; perhaps he felt that having bright colors would distract from the movie’s big themes, and the color scheme would help set his film aside from the garishness of the rest of the sci-fi flood. I have to admit that one of the things I liked about Star Trek Generations was seeing the bold colors of the Next Generation uniforms in a movie, but even those didn’t last, replaced in the next movie by (surprise!) more gray. I haven’t been to a convention since 1996 and probably won’t go to another one soon (unless, like, Medialoper sends me as a correspondent), but I’d wager that you don’t find many people walking around in Motion Picture uniforms.
Which is fitting for the film’s place in Trek lore, existing in a weird canon all its own. Nobody much likes it, nobody homages or recreates any aspect of it, but nobody can deny it happened, either. Its ginormous success paved the way for the rest of the movies and teevee shows, and recycling as many effects as possible helped keep the budget of the more popular followup Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan down. The footage of the Klingon ships was reused as late as the first season of The Next Generation in ’88. Oh, yeahit established the new look of the Klingons, even if the following movies and series more closely used the Star Trek III look.
Of course, if Star Trek: The Motion Picture never existed, then the episode of Enterprise called “Unexpected” (“Spock’s Brain” looks like Lawrence of Arabia by comparison) in which a Klingon says “I can see my house from here!” would never have existed either. Huh. That one’s a thinker.
To me, The Motion Picture‘s worst sin is that it bites off more than it can chew. Both Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry were trying to make a Big Movie about Big Ideas, about what it means to exist and have purpose and the possibility of meaningful contact with God. As if that weren’t bad enough, it was a post-Star Wars movie with almost almost no violence. The closest thing to a space battle is in the beginning when V’ger mops the cosmos with the Klingon ships, and though they were designed and built and used in a deleted sequence, a phaser never appears onscreen. There isn’t even a single princess in need of rescuing. As a result, it was one of the last non-animated major studio films to be rated G.
Though no violence is added, The Director’s Edition received a PG rating for “sci-fi action and mild language.” The mild language is “damn” and “hell,” mostly from McCoy and all present in the original cut of the film. (Rumors of an outtake featuring DeForest Kelly saying “Fuck me like a Mugato!” are wholly unsubstantiated, and in any event are not included on the DVD.) The transporter accident has always been quite harrowing, though I choose to believe the addition of the Wilhelm Scream bumped it up to a PG.
I don’t know who felt the need to make it a mondo special effects extravaganzaI’d wager their first name rhymes with “Sarah” and their last name is the verb for getting onto a horsebut it didn’t do the movie any favors. Perhaps it was deemed necessary to compete with Star Wars, the effects budget of which was actually quite small, not to mention the chintzier knockoffs flooding screens both large and small. (The poster for the theatrical release of Battlestar Galactica claimed that it was “Two years in the making, presented at a cost of $14,000,000.” Good for them.) Don’t get me wrong, the state-of-the-art late-Seventies opticals are gorgeous, and when I finally get one of those fancy-pants flatscreen teevees, it’s the first movie I’m watching. I’m fond of both the journey through the cloud and V’ger flyover, and I like them even better on the spiffy Director’s Edition DVD where you can actually see everything and get a sense of the V’ger’s scale, and the Enterprise itself has never looked better. But the movie wants to be more than that, which is more than you can say for the rest of the Trek movies. (Except for Generations, but that’s another article.)
And then there’s the advertising. Oh, my lord, but I do love the advertising.
For Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount decided a big publicity blitz was needed. (Kinda like what Twentieth-Century Fox is doing now with The Simpsons Movie, overpromoting a property that everybody’s already intimately familiar with.) This was Paramount’s big gamble, their spend-money-to-make-money grab at some of those sweet Star Wars dollars, and they needed to market the fuck out of it. The problem was, they didn’t have much to work with.
Now, most movies get promoted before they’re complete, with teaser posters and trailers appearing as much as a year in advance. (If I may pick on Star Trek V again, it has one of the goofiest teaser posters ever, though I’m not even sure if I mean “goofy” as a pejorative. It’s like goofy enthusiasm, and what could be wrong with that? On the other hand, the main poster for Star Trek Nemesis is just plain rotten, big-face marketing at its worst.) It’s not unusual for the marketers to have little concrete to work with, since the film is inevitably still being worked on. It happens, and as a result the teaser trailer will often have footage that isn’t actually used in the movie itself. The Star Trek Nemesis trailer is composed almost entirely of deleted footage.
The Star Trek: The Motion Picture teaser trailer is brilliant. It tries so hard to be a potent, to suggest great things, but that’s difficult when you don’t know what those things are supposed to be. Flying through the animated red white and blue stars spawned from the Paramount logo, mostly incomplete shots of the model of the Enterprise, raw footage of the cast, and, best of all, an inexplicable animation sequence reminiscent of Xanadu complete with what sounds like but surely isn’t the THX “The Audience is Listening” music, punctuated with a final long organ chord and a bit of electronic noise at the end. Oh, and Orson Welles doing the voiceover. His flat delivery is the one letdown; he should sound so much more…Wellesian than he does. Maybe he was just phoning it in because was pissed off at Robert Wise, who had edited Citizen Kane. Not only was Wise the big-shot director Welles never managed to be, did Robert return his calls these days? No…. Imagined feuds notwithstanding, the teaser trailer says nothing whatsoever about the plot of the film.
The full trailer has more footage of both the actors and the effects, though it’s clear (if you’ve seen the movie) that the effects are still very much in progress, and they used whatever they had which was remotely cool-looking. And either because they knew more about the plot or had permission to hint at things, it’s summed up thusly: “This, then, is the epic journey of the Starship Enterprise, traveling to the outer limits of time and space to challenge a vast, living machine of destruction…” Man, you know that when they trot out the Bible-ese like “This, then,” it’s gotta be some important shit, huh? The organ makes a return at the end, with shakey rainbow animation and big loud flashes and the title zooming onto the screen and the kitchen sink and everything else they could find to throw which might stick. And just a hint of desperation.
The print-based marketing was going off in another direction entirely, featuring designs of the Enterprise left over from Phase II, scenes and action that aren’t in the actual film, and effects shots which look even more half-baked than those in the trailers. I love it all so much, and it’s through sheer force of will (which is to say, the ability to talk myself out of stuff) that I haven’t acquired a lot more of it on eBay. Okay, sure, I did just win an auction for a set of Topps Cards, but hey, including shipping it was only ten bucks. That’s one of the hidden advantages of liking the underdog: in this particular economy, low demand equals low prices.
I expect the cards will feature plenty of the most curious element of the marketing: The Aliens Not Appearing In This Film. Klingons and Vulcans are fairly prominent in the movie; the rest are off in the background if at all, and only for the first half-hour or so. (There’s the guy with the big forehead and the orange eyes on the Bridge through most of the film, but he only has two lines and comes across as a bit of a dickweed.) Forever popping up in the promotional materials (including detailed descriptions in the liner notes of the soundtrack album (?)) were aliens such as the turtle-like Rigellians or the ever-popular Saurian, who on a promotional poster I own is referred to as “Lizard Man.” I’ll bet the Saurians find that hella racist. And, of course, the melty-faced Arcturian, aka the Petergabrielthreeian.
Now we know where the $40M went, huh? If I had to hazard a guess as to the logic behind all this, maybe it had something to do with the popularity of the Cantina scene in Star Wars. But, as I say, that’s just a guess. Or it could just be symptomatic of a film which flew in all directions while it was being produced, and while it’s questionable whether it ever formed a cohesive whole, it still has its own awkward appeal, and kickstarted a gazillion-dollar franchise in the process.
And, in case I hadn’t been clear about this before: Jerry Goldsmith’s score rules.