DeForest Kelley and William Shatner in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The very first Star Trek film is often maligned and it is far from a perfect film. However, after rewatching it for the first time in many years, I was surprised to discover just how much of it was actually pretty good. This isn't a movie that's horrible by several light years, it could have reached entertaining on mere impulse power and a slice or two of footage with a phaser. And unlike the recent Star Trek reboot, this movie stays very true to Gene Roddenberry's original vision.
In the mid-seventies, thanks to a resurgence of interest in science fiction and strong lobbying by fans, there was talk of reviving the Star Trek franchise. The only question was whether to revive it on the small screen or on the big. Reportedly it was the success of Star Wars that prompted Paramount to scrap plans for a new series and work the ideas for a pilot into a large scale film.
A conscious decision was made by Roddenberry and others to make this movie different from Star Wars. There would be no true bad guy to battle. The only time a weapon is fired is to blow up an asteroid. Instead, the plot involves Kirk, now an Admiral returning to the Enterprise to investigate a mysterious object approaching the Earth and determine whether or not it's a threat and to stop it if possible.
It is the script that is often unfairly blamed for the movie's failure. It was written and rewritten many times. Reportedly the ending wasn't known when filming began. It has also been accused of being a rip-off of the original Star Trek series episode, "The Changeling" (prompting some Trekkie wags to say about this movie that "It boldly goes where Nomad has gone before", since Nomad was the name of the probe in the episode). Despite all the problems with it though, it's not the script that cripples this movie.
Two large problems with this movie are its plodding pace and its love affair with its own special effects shots. You could probably edit this movie down to 90 minutes without losing a single line of dialogue. There are way too many scenes of the crew standing around and staring at view screens or out port holes. I mean, yeah it's great to see the Enterprise and it must have really been great to see it when the movie was first released, but do we really need such a long tracking shot as Kirk flies to it in a shuttle? And how many shots of V'ger do we really need? Apparently since this was the most expensive movie ever made at the time, the producers wanted to get their money's worth on the screen.
The heart of the original Star Trek has always been the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy and not the special effects. They're the reason the show is so beloved and why during the initial run the show could get away with cheap sets and low budget special effects. It was the good natured arguing between the logical Spock and the emotional McCoy and the level headedness of Kirk to mediate between them that was soul of the show.
Rightly or wrongly, since I'm not sure how much freedom he was given, I place the blame on director Robert Wise. He sets a dark tone and a slow pace that undercuts the movie. There are a few moments of banter with McCoy and Spock, but they're played so deadly serious as to be ineffectual. Kirk seems angry and depressed here and is never allowed to Shatner out with melodrama. Wise admitted to not being a fan of the original series, which wouldn't be a problem except that he never seems, as evidenced by the finished film, to grasp what made it so special in the first place.
Despite the many problems, there is the germ of a good idea buried in the heart of this movie. There's just too many superfluous elements surrounding it. Thankfully there were enough Trekkies who supported this movie anyway so that the far superior Wrath of Khan would follow.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1979)