Recently I was watching a re-run of The Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon asks Amy, “Have you ever seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture?” When she replies that she hasn’t, he firmly states, “Don’t. It’s terrible.”
Ever since I earned my Master’s Degree, I don’t bother researching anything anymore. I just pretend I’m on expert on everything and spout assumptions as if they’re truths. (I mean, that’s what we all do, right?) So here’s another trusumption for you: most people, even Star Trek fans, hate the first Star Trek movie. And I mean hate it, like they hate the Star Wars prequels. I am not among them. Just as I argued how unfair it was to pass such harsh judgment on those films, I propose that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not only a great film, but it is, in at least one aspect, the best film in the franchise.
Let me begin by saying: I get it. I understand why this might not be the preferred Star Trek movie for most viewers. Once upon a time I, too, thought it was incredibly boring—even less interesting than the universally hated Star Trek V! (I could write a similar defense of that film). But the first Star Trek film isn’t much good for kids, and that was the last time I had seen it. I was still afflicted with a much shorter attention span, and a need for action and cartoony qualities. (That version of me would have loved Jar Jar Binks.) I couldn’t appreciate what the movie had to offer from an artistic or philosophical point of view. In my late twenties, I watched the film again, and here’s what I discovered:
- It stands up, even if you think it doesn’t. This first item is just for those naysayers who think the special effects are transparent or don’t hold a candle to modern F/X. In fact, the F/X are better and more realistic than a whole slew of things they’re doing with CGI these days. Perfect example: Lucasfilm utterly ruined the Academy Award winning F/X of the 1977 Star Wars with the 1999 CGI. So there’s that. But let’s go ahead and pretend for a moment that Star Trek 1979 isn’t on a par with Star Trek 2009. In that case, I say: so what? That shouldn’t ruin a movie’s credibility. We must rate special effects as compared to other films of the same era, not to films of different eras. We don’t look at a masterpiece like Metropolis from 1927 and say, “Oh, you can tell it’s a woman in a costume. Psh.” No. Metropolis still stands up. And so does Star Trek.
- It’s 100% faithful to the format of the original series. Star Trek was “Wagon Train to the Stars.” It was alien-of-the-week format. All the politics and legacy came later. Not that the politics and legacy are bad—I’m just saying that the core format of the source material was this: (1) our heroes encounter some new creature or force that is intentionally or accidentally causing conflict; (2) they determine its motivations, then (3) they resolve the conflict, by force if necessary, but preferably through diplomacy and mutual understanding, maybe with a little philosophy or moralizing thrown in. That’s it. And the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture follows that formula exactly. It’s just longer, has more detail, and delves further into character development than the TV show ever had time to do. With the amount of complaining that goes on in Geekdom about faithlessness to source materials, I’m actually surprised that so many geeks complain so much about something so faithful.
- There’s a 5-minute tour of Enterprise. According to film theorist David Bordwell in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It, “in films made after 1961, most scenes run between 1.5 and 3 minutes.” (p.57) Not this scene, baby. (And was that some actual research just then?) Director Robert Wise decided that fans needed a full 5 minutes of external Enterprise shots, slow and savory, with no distracting dialog, like a good cigar, all set to an epic score by Jerry Goldsmith. Why? Because filmmaking. Because it was the first time in TEN YEARS that fans were going to get to see the Enterprise on screen—and a big screen at that. Because it was the first time it was actually going to look like a massive, interstellar vessel capable of warp-speed travel and not some rinky-dink model in front of a blue screen. Because Wise didn’t want to do to Star Trek in ’79 what would later be done to Star Wars in ’99. Because it deserved to be epic. And it was.
- It feels hard. I mean this in multiple ways. To some extent, the first Star Trek film feels more like hard science fiction, while the others increasingly feel more like soft science fiction, but it’s more than that. By “hard,” what I really mean is “the opposite of easy.” One of the features that has weakened the importance of the Star Trek Universe as a backdrop for good story-telling is that everything has gotten so easy. Need to go somewhere? Poof. Transporter beam. Hungry? Need a spare part? Poof. Replicator. Made a cosmically bad decision with potentially cataclysmic and multi-dimensional ramifications? Poof. Time travel. Everything is very deus ex machina these days. It didn’t feel that way in the first film. Things felt heavy. They felt hard, and by this I also mean “hard core”—what you might call gritty. Although it had been done more than once in the original series, time travel felt preposterous when the film series first began. It did not offer itself as a reasonable conflict resolution. Replicators? Non-existent. That entire dry-dock scene I was referencing before was about fitting the ship with actual, physical supplies, not “reconstitutionable matter” (or whatever). And it is this scene in which two crewpersons are so horribly mutated by a transporter malfunction that they mercifully died shortly after reconstitution. This takes place before any combat or any other real action. It’s a gruesome workplace accident—the kind of thing that is all-too-common in the military and in labor sector jobs. Finally, when Spock dons a pressurized suit and leaves the airlock for the infinite vacuum of space in order to communicate with V’ger, we just have no sense of security that he’ll return safely. As if to prove my point for me: even the cinematography made obvious visual reference to Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 (both the film and Arthur C. Clarke‘s novel) is best classified as hard science fiction, which Star Trek: The Motion Picture was clearly aiming to be. Which brings me to my final
- Its philosophical and cultural tones rival the masters. I don’t know about you, but when I think “science fiction,” besides Arthur C. Clarke, two names that immediately spring to mind are Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. All three of these men were storytellers who really showed us that science fiction could explore profound and meaningful considerations in human society; that sci-fi characters and peoples could have such depth that we accepted these tellings as more than “stories,” but as “histories.” When Spock is first seen on planet Vulcan in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that place feels like an alien planet, not a Burbank studio. The Vulcans themselves—they feel like an ancient civilization, not a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons characters. And V’ger is beautiful: here is an entity of near-total omniscience that is yet unhappy, lost, utterly alone, and seeking its Creator. Good science fiction is not about asking questions about the future. It’s about using a hypothetical future to ask questions we have right now, about ourselves. For me the defining moment of the entire film is a single line from Spock, after he has communed with V’ger by mind-meld:
This simple feeling [companionship] is beyond V’ger’s comprehension. No meaning… no hope… and, Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions… “Is this… all I am? Nothing more?”
Hearing that line spoken within context and with the maturity to understand just how sophisticated this film was… that was the moment I said to myself, “Holy crap. I’ve been wrong all these years. This isn’t the worst Star Trek movie. It’s the best one.”
Do you enjoy the first Star Trek film, or are you among the haters, like Sheldon? Which one is your favorite Star Trek film? How about your favorite in the Picard series? Do you think the new J.J. Abrams films pay proper homage to the legacy of the show? Let’s talk Star Trek below!