I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but it being Thanksgiving and all, I wanted to give thanks for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, truly an underappreciated masterpiece. It is a far better film than the laughably overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, with which it shares the esteemed “special photographic effects director,” Douglas Trumbull. It is better even than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the proverbial “best” Star Trek film.
But let’s set aside for the moment questions of what is better than what (as these can only be addressed here by morbid opinions). Having recently watched this now 30-year-old film for the first time, I’m far more interested in talking about what I think the filmmakers were intending, and why this film stands in such stark contrast to the rest of the Star Trek oeuvre (and consequently, why it tends to suffer in comparison).
Having been told by various sources that the first Star Trek movie was utter codswallop and not worthy of its successors, I could only think it’s no wonder the movie has been forgotten by most, and summarily dismissed by those unlucky few who remember it. But as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I figured I owed it to myself to watch the one Star Trek film I had missed entirely.
What I saw charmed me with its familiarity, but even more so, it shocked me with a vision of Star Trek that differed from almost every other rendition I had seen – in tone, in pacing, in aesthetics, Star Trek: TMP paints with an entirely different palette, a different set of brushes. Star Trek, in its various incarnations, is sometimes as exquisitely detailed as a Fabergé egg, sometimes as imposing as Picasso’s Guernica. TMP is like a fresco or a tapestry; that is to say, very old-looking, but also vast and ambitious.
This is a movie made in the old Hollywood style, but just at the moment that the new style, ushered in by Star Wars and the 70s auteurs, was becoming dominant, and in fact, making the old style look “old.” I imagine there were intense labor pains as this picture struggled to get born, as it simultaneously tried to look as technologically advanced as Star Wars, but was consciously harkening back to a filmmaking vocabulary more reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. (Star Wars itself was in some ways a throwback, but with far more action and whimsy than the brooding TMP).
How old-school is this movie? When I popped in the DVD and hit “Play,” I and my fellow viewers were greeted with a star field and the ambient strains of a wistful version of the Star Trek theme. As this near-blank screen dragged on for about a minute, I wondered if the DVD had glitched, since nothing was happening. I finally hit the forward button and the DVD seemed to reach an actual scene, and from that point, all seemed well. Only later on, after I had watched the entire film and gone back to review various scenes for this article did I realize that the star field was the “Overture” to the movie, a three-minute overture, to boot. Following this was a “Main Title” sequence, which I had also unwittingly skipped, consisting of a more amped-up version of the title theme accompanying the opening credits. I had managed to skip the first two segments of the movie without even realizing it (and in so doing, shaved about five minutes off the run time). I can’t imagine this sort of opening playing well to today’s impatient audiences, and even in 1980, this must have seemed old-fashioned. The only surprise now was that there was no intermission.
Of course, this was a calculated blast from the past; just look at the director they chose. Robert Wise had proven his sci-fi chops with The Day the Earth Stood Still, a well-known though poorly remembered film from 1951 (tragically remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves in a suit borrowed from Men in Black and a personality borrowed from, well, any of his other characters . . . sorry, was that too easy?). At the height of his career, Wise helmed such epic entertainments as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. His first directorial efforts were cheesy horror flicks. And before any of this, he was the editor of a little movie called Citizen Kane, and worked with Orson Welles again on The Magnificent Ambersons.
Star Trek: TMP shows a little bit of all these influences – the message-based science fiction, the ominous tone of the horror milieu, the grand panoramas and centrality of music in telling the story. It does, perhaps, show its distance from the economical Wellesian style, but Wise learned his craft well, and there is nothing sloppy about the way TMP is put together.
Not much needs to be said about the actors and their iconic characters. They are and always have been pitch-perfect in their roles. But in this film, you see what a Star Trek movie is like when the characters are put in the service of a story, rather than having the story revolve around their large personalities. The movie seems to acknowledge the legendary quality of these characters – Kirk usurping the captaincy of the Enterprise, to the great pleasure of his adoring crew, Spock arriving on board like a Roman statue – and then carries them almost like passengers along an adventure that ultimately allows them little agency over how things play out.
For me, it was one particular scene, perhaps the most controversial scene in the movie, that made me appreciate the complicated soul of this film – the unveiling of the new starship Enterprise. This enormously important and impossibly lengthy scene, set to Jerry Goldsmith’s glorious music, is the first time that both the viewers and the characters in the movie see the Enterprise in all her beauty and immensity. Standing seemingly at Kirk’s shoulder, we move at a glacial pace across dry dock, gazing languorously at the USS Enterprise, an achingly detailed scale model shot to look as big as the galaxy. Lingering fetish shots of the starship alternate with glances at Kirk and Scotty in their puny shuttle, and after lord knows how many cuts back and forth, the two men look like they don’t know how else to play to the camera. About seven minutes later, we finally complete our zero-gravity pilgrimage, and Kirk and Scotty exchange a priceless look, thoroughly bemused, as if they were watching a Vulcan who couldn’t comprehend “Row, row, row your boat.”
Even for a patient chap like me, this was a bit much, and without Goldsmith’s score to anchor this scene, it would have been unbearable. But I think of it this way. This is the very first time anyone had ever seen the Enterprise on the big screen, with big budget technology to bring it to life. Anyone who has ever seen the original Star Trek TV series, especially from this many decades away, knows how hopelessly lame the special effects were on that show, and especially the plastic toy that was the Enterprise. I have no doubt that Gene Roddenberry and Robert Wise wanted the big reveal of the Enterprise to be a defining moment of this movie, a chance for all those fans who had waited so many years for this movie to get to see the Enterprise exactly the way they always wanted it to look – huge, gorgeous, shiny and glowing, covered with twinkling lights, branded with house-sized letters, a real vessel that real future people could board, a ship worthy of a beloved crew, a monument to the ingenuity of the human race and to Roddenberry’s imagination.
On the audio commentary, Wise says of the scene’s mixed reception, with his typical understated wit: “Some people have very strong feelings about that.” It is too long, it is old-fashioned, and it almost doesn’t even work, thanks to Kirk and Scotty looking like goofballs, but despite it all, it is a Star Trek moment through and through. It was a riskier choice than the later films would tend to make, but the later films also didn’t have the momentousness of this occasion to fulfill. Wise: “Gene really wanted to finally show the Enterprise the way the fans wanted to see it. He wanted it to look big and real.” By that measure, the scene succeeds.
Douglas Trumbull, as the supreme artist of the special effects on TMP, is perhaps even more responsible for this and numerous other extremely long, slow scenes in the film. He’s on record in the commentary expressing his displeasure with the current style of action-oriented filmmaking with its quick cuts and dialogue-heavy explanations.
The later Star Trek films would take us on more jaunty, though I would argue, less poetic journeys through space. The Wrath of Khan, for instance, which I also recently watched, though certainly very engaging, plays almost like a double-length episode of a television show. It’s almost too snappy, and at the risk of inciting many a nerdlinger to an “Amok Time” style fight to the death, I must say that Wrath of Khan simply looks and feels like a smaller, less daring movie than TMP.
Of course, there’s no practical reason to pit the movies against each other when they are all worth watching. What’s remarkable to me is that, given all the grief that avowed Star Trek fans have heaped on TMP, consider that if this movie had failed at the box office or otherwise incurred the wrath of the studio execs, Star Trek as a big screen franchise would likely have died in the womb. Whatever one’s thoughts on its artistic merits, it was the success of this first Star Trek movie that made all the other movies possible. And without that revival of the brand, would we have seen the offshoot Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, and all the subsequent TV Star Treks to follow?
They never made another Star Trek movie as contemplative as the first one, but I see hints of its philosophical style in many of the episodes of the various TV series, especially Next Generation. Most of the Q episodes, Data’s quest to become more human, the existentialism of the Borg, even the groan-worthy “Kes evolves” subplot of Star Trek: Voyager – these are all explorations of purpose and identity, and the terrible and glorious ways in which they intertwine. As Spock says in TMP, “Each of us at some time in our lives turns to someone, a father, a brother, a god, and asks, ‘Why am I here, what was I meant to be?’”
If Star Wars is the apotheosis of the hero myth in science fiction, Star Trek is its counterpart, showing us not heroes, but the men and women within, journeying through a universe they scarcely understand in search of the new, and ultimately coming face to face with themselves.