Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the Flaw in Us

Everything in Star Trek develops the mentality of the themes: even when it’s acting out, it’s still growing up. Even if an episode blisses out on action, at some point there will be a comedown; we’ll learn something over brandy and scoffing. The primary fault of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the criticism of it so deeply felt that I feel the need to begin with it, is that since there’s no action, themes are only developed through development. They are deliberately changed and challenged, in words. They speak their new frames of mind, rather than demonstrate them. This means that Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacks the particular charm that drives the themes in Star Trek to be remembered even more persistently than the worlds and actions that surround them, something which Star Wars (and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) does not lack.

In fact, if Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an original creation along the lines of Star Wars, I don’t think anyone would remember Spock (that weirdo) or Jim Kirk (that jerk) or Bones McCoy (that weirdo jerk). This film banks so hard on familiarity with the characters that it could be a two-hour finale to the original show, one in which difficult questions are asked and answered blatantly, in ways that often construe into a winky reference to something from the show.

And how it accomplishes this, despite lacking action, is what makes it so brilliant. It may not have action and it may speak its themes into existence like the God it doesn’t believe in, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture manages to develop to conclusion the entire Star Trek concept, a feat so daring and impossible that most audiences didn’t even pick up on it. It doesn’t postulate new horizons for these old characters, but instead banks on their old journey and brings it to an end. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have considered the feat completely illogical.

The original Star Trek seemed to be about a lot of things: duty, racial acceptance, kissing pretty girls, negotiating with aliens, killing computers by making them think too hard. But all of this was portrayed in action, and the action served the only real theme in all of Star Trek, which is: mankind coexisting with technology. Star Trek is about using technology to exceed our limitations, about being cautious of relying on it to the point of worship, and even with interacting with it on an emotional and sexual level (in Requiem for Methuselah, Kirk did not even realize that he had fallen in love with a machine; in What are Little Girls Made Of? he becomes one).

Star Trek: The Motion Picture explores and concludes this theme with miraculous clarity, especially when compared to the way Star Trek films are being handled today, as action movies basted with references. Its poor reception in 1979 and today tells me either that we don’t deserve clarity or that we don’t want beloved things to end. Both are probable.

The film begins with Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) angling his way back onto the bridge of the refitted Enterprise when a destructive cloud is detected on a collision course with earth. I have two problems with this scenario, of the plot-hole variety. The first is that I don’t see why Star Fleet would accept his request in this dire time if they did not agree that he was more qualified than the Enterprise’s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins). In that case, Kirk would either not get the post, or he would have nothing to feel guilty about when he relieves Decker. Still, Bones (DeForest Kelley) jumps down his throat about being petty and competitive and Kirk has one of those distant introspective looks that shoot right through the hull-plating. My second problem is more systemic in the realm of Star Trek movies, which is this notion that the Enterprise being repaired in dry dock is “the only ship in range.” On Earth? In the heart of the Federation? When warp speed exists?

My intention is to point out these old flaws, well-worn through conversation, in order to excise them from a film that is so much better than niggling holes. Star Trek never acknowledges the vacuum of space or blows anyone out of the airlock; space is even shown as containing sound and gravity. It strives for the grander picture of aging into understanding one’s relationship with the universe and with our technology; its airlock does not lose pressure even from these leaks.

That’s because The Motion Picture lusts after its objects in images of them; the camera interacts with technology as we do. Observe the introduction of the USS Enterprise, after over a decade of retirement from our viewing screens, in as reverent a characterization of an inanimate object as I have ever seen. The Millennium Falcon is never given this treatment (“What a piece of junk”). Kirk and Scotty (James Doohan) take a ride in a shuttle up to the docked Enterprise in a scene that is unapologetically romantic. The Jerry Goldsmith score accompanies Shatner’s starry eyes like violins on a gondola: we’re reminded that the Enterprise has always been Kirk’s lady. Hers is the nurturing and demanding presence in his life. She overtures him, like a lover undressing. The lights on her bow show off her curves, the engines whir, the length of cool metal and sparkling glass stretches forever. Kirk spies her through slats in the dock, taking in her frame, dreaming of commanding her again. As in any romance, his relationship with the Enterprise is full of beauty and conflict (“This vessel,” he said once, “I give, she takes”).

This visual language, of the love and conflict with machines, threads through every moment of The Motion Picture. Decker’s lost love, Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is killed, but preserved and recreated by the monster cloud into a robot probe with visionary legs, pouting lips, glacial eyes. It presents the tantalizing opportunity for Star Trek to at last act on its desires and marry its machines. It is the most positive technocracy in cinematic history, where the homosocial tension between HAL and Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey portends disaster, where a simple sexual attraction in Her complicates the entire universe. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its misgivings for Data the android, acts as though The Motion Picture never happened, for fear that understanding it would negate the most interesting aspects of its own universe.

As we learn that our logical machines are part of us, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) learns that emotions are part of himself. “Is this all that I am?” he asks desperately, in the place of the computer intelligence at the heart of the cloud, “Is there nothing more?” Acquiring every shred of knowledge in the universe is no replacement for feeling a simple touch; in the same way, no amount of logic or special effects could substitute for the human moments in Star Trek. The very notion of solving the “Spock conflict,” between his emotive human and repressive Vulcan halves, would have given any exec an embolism if they had given The Motion Picture time to incubate. But space movies were in, circa Star Wars. They hadn’t even finished the script by the time filming began.

Is this way, in the fashion of pure Trek, The Motion Picture extrapolates and de-energizes the old show with artistry. Robert Wise takes the sweet time of a painter unveiling these images, Goldsmith officiating. A Klingon battle cruiser sweeps ahead, excavating space with hunting horns and drums. The Enterprise swoons. The cloud clicks and whirs. Within it: a galaxy of imagery both fantastical and sexual, of electrical causeways lit by the beams of laser “orifices.” The ship at its center seems to skew off in all directions, warped into the matte in dreamy defiance of design. If you would beam at a painting for this many hours, you will be entranced by The Motion Picture.

You will sympathize with the mechanized planet when you see its dreams, of centuries of wandering, of the planets it’s seen, of “all the knowledge in the universe.” You will do so more, I’m afraid, than with the crew of the Enterprise, who are playing bits in their own opera.

There is nothing terrifically amusing or profound about the presence of the Star Trek characters in this motion picture (Spock resonates, but in a way that is a stand-in for the show’s themes, not as a portrait of himself). Kirk, who is known as much for jostling sense into his shipmates as for winking at an undiscovered star(let), sort of turns up empty here. He’s barrel-chested, emphasis on the barrel. Bones winks now and again, offered up to a few cutaway frames to remind us that he’s still here. Sulu and Chekhov and Uhura (George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols) say their lines in the line of duty. In this franchise, they have become autopilots.

Perhaps it was the minimalism of Star Trek that inspired its spunk, which a budgeted Hollywood release can never harness. Gone are Kirk’s burnished eyes lit by slats of shadow as they defy a terrible choice, the serrated dialogue cruelly matching the pace of the camera as it zooms in and out of Kirk’s view. Gone are the shmaltzy costumes and twinking lights, replaced by muted sky-white jumpers and beige jackets perfect for Ikea sitting rooms circa the era of bell-bottoms. The Motion Picture wants for stagey drama and the spark of ingenious crudity. But still it dares to go where science fiction franchises will not anymore: to conclusions, to the gravitas of a theme desired and explained. Its veteran inhabitants seem to have come along at half-power, after years of obscurity, with very little anger or fear or knee-slapping joy, the range of which was covered by the show time and again. But we are all flawed, after all, and it makes us capable of finding more. At the conclusion of the human problem, perhaps ambition is enough.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Robert Wise

Harold Livingston (screenplay)

Alan Dean Foster (story)

Gene Roddenberry (characters)

James T. Kirk William Shatner
Spock Leonard Nimoy
Leonard "Bones" McCoy DeForest Kelley
Willian Decker Stephen Collins
Ilia Persis Khambatta
Montgomery Scott James Doohan
Uhura Nichelle Nichols

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