Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979)

When it’s on: Monday, 4 June (12.40 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

More than 30 years after its initial release, Star Trek: the Motion Picture continues to divide opinion. Is it the Slow-Motion Picture – overlong, indulgent and full of ‘it’? Or should we admire its attempt to curb the thrills and pyrotechnics for a more philosophical experience that dares to question – and largely gets away with it – the very nature of consciousness?

Certainly, the film was quite different from what we were expecting back in 1979. Paramount had been talking about reviving their old sixties franchise for some time, spurred on by successful reruns on television and new cohorts of fans sprouting up. A new series was under serious consideration, tentatively entitled Phase II. And then Star Wars came along and made it okay – necessary, even – to invest in science fiction film projects once again, all in an attempt to make some coin from the craze for cinematic adventures in space. Even James Bond was entering orbit by the time Star Trek: TMP hit the screens, Fleming’s novel Moonraker gutted in order to contrive a big budget finale set on a diabolical space station. Lavish amounts were plunged happily into Moonraker, Disney’s The Black Hole and the return of the intrepid Enterprise crew. No expense was spared as Paramount hired Robert Wise for direction, Jerry Goldsmith to supply the luscious score and Alan Dean Foster, one of the key names in seventies science fiction, to rework The Changeling (an episode form the original series) into a workable story.

As was obligatory at the time, the film was preceded with Star Wars levels of hype and marketing, all of which made the end product a bit of a disappointment. Where Star Wars had thrilled, Star Trek: TMP plodded. Where the Wars drilled down a complicated narrative to its most exciting base elements, the Trek indulged in endless babble and a reverence for its returning cast, topped off by a ‘fly-by’ of the rebuilt Enterprise that seemed to go on forever. The effects were certainly impressive, but the film seemed intent on offering spectacle over action, slowing to a crawl as the camera panned over awestruck crew members again and again. The Wars it was not.

Since that initial run (this writer, nine at the time, discarding the Klingon action figures in disgust when it turned out that they croaked it in the first few minutes of the film), critical opinion towards the Motion Picture has softened considerably. As the franchise reverted in subsequent episodes to the sort of action-heavy fare that audiences expected, the lot of this film was to appear at regular intervals on television, scheduled to plug two and a half hours’ space and giving viewers the opportunity to refresh their appraisals. It was perhaps here that its reputation started to improve. The story, which is really rather thin, gave the film an opportunity to explore something quite profound and to send in the unlikely Enterprise to do it. Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) obtuseness made sense as his perceptions of the entity threatening Earth resonated with his own struggles back on Vulcan. Kirk (William Shatner) made for a splendid, middle-aged captain, the action man of the series discarded for an older, wiser captain. The tension between Kirk and Decker (Stephen Collins) becomes one of the film’s core themes – is it time to turn this business over to a new generation?

A fresh, ‘Director’s Edition’ of the film was released on DVD in 2002, which updated many of the special effects, not in the obtrusive way favoured by George Lucas that   practically bullies CGI into the mix but instead quietly enhances the visuals for 21st century audiences. There’s a lot of love behind this process, perhaps because the film deserves it after the critical bollocking it received upon its release and the steady reassessment in later years. Certainly, the decision to not simply remake Star Wars with the Enterprise was a bold move. Too many films riffing on that theme were pumped out at the time; not a lot of them survive in people’s memories now, let alone enjoy a lavish restoration for DVD. That says something for the Motion Picture.

For all that, the problems besetting it at the time are just as present now. It is slow. There are effects segments where it seems to cry ‘Look, people spent a lot of money and time making this so you are going to watch it and just it for a minute!’ There’s very little plot when all the baggage has been removed. And yet the end is very nearly worth the wait, the sense of continuity between the pioneering nature of the film’s characters and the entity they spend it’s run exploring.

Star Trek: the Motion Picture: ***

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5 Replies to “Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979)”

  1. Very nice review Mike. I ended up watching about half of it when i saw it was on, which surprised me as I am one of those fanboys who goes with the even number theory of goodness when ti comes to the these films. But I’m also a huge fan of Robert Wise and on seeing the first 90 minutes or so, I immediately wished that the main bulk of the film had been shortened but also that it had begun with a teaser that perhaps involved Kirk and the others – one understands the desire to delay the entrance of the main cast to give everyone that extra frisson, but it would have helped to make the film much more dynamic (I’m thinking of the beginning of STAR TREK: GENERATIONS). And the bits of humour and character interaction that are there work fine – one just wishes it weren’t slow ponderous and glum half the time, I wish the director’s cut were on Blu-ray as I agree it’s a pretty good variant cut …

    1. Thanks Sergio. I happen to think it’s a better film than Generations these days – it just seems a bit more thoughtful, there isn’t the ‘handover’ between captains being forced down our throats and a clear labour of love is taking place behind the project. At the time, I do recall feeling let down by the slowness. I’m sure you’ll remember also it was billed as an exciting Star Wars type adventure, and I wish it had trusted more in its material to ensure people were aware of what they were getting.

      I hoped Channel 4 would kick off a series of Trek flicks, one per week as they seem to roll out with Lord of the Rings periodically. But no such luck – would love to ramble on about ‘Khaaaaaaaan’ someday and to see if the ‘even numbers’ theory holds any water.

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