Saturday, March 7, 2015

Stubs – Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan. Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nicols, George Takei, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Harold Livingston. Story by Alan Dean Foster. Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry. Produced by Gene Roddenberry. Run Time: 132 minutes. U.S.  Color. Adventure, Science Fiction

Star Trek (1966-1969) was a TV series ahead of its time. Developed by Gene Roddenberry as a western in space, the series failed to catch on and was cancelled after three seasons in 1969. But good ideas don’t completely die. Star Trek found a rabid following in syndication. While I do not consider myself to be a Trekkie, I did watch the series on the UHF channel back in Dallas that carried the re-runs. (Yes, before cable, satellite and streaming, there was this thing call broadcasting.)

Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and
Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) from the original Star Trek TV series.

Paramount Pictures considered Roddenberry’s idea to continue the series in a movie, but scrapped it in 1977 to instead concentrate on a new series, tentatively titled Star Trek: Phase II. The proposed series would see Shatner and Kelley return, but Nimoy had declined over financial and creative issues. The series, planned to air in 1978 on a planned Paramount TV network, was likewise scrapped.

Following the success of Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Paramount decided to resurrect the idea of a feature film. Initially, the Spock character was originally left out, since Nimoy did not plan to return. Give Robert Wise’s children credit. They convinced their father that it would not be Star Trek without Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Jeffery Katzenberg, then a production executive at the studio, was dispatched to meet with Nimoy in New York with a check in the disputed amount of royalties Nimoy was due and Spock was back. (Ironically, Nimoy, who had grown tired of the Spock character, has played Spock not just in subsequent Star Trek TV Series, but is so far the only actor/character from the series to reprise his role in the rebooted film series.)

Getting Spock back in the fold was perhaps the last great idea anyone had when it comes to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The resultant film is a bit like watching paint dry in space. Unlike the TV series it is based on, the movie is extremely slow paced, to the point of exhaustion.

An alien force has entered the galaxy, a massive energy cloud, which Starfleet observes. Three Klingon warships move to intercept. But the mysterious force not only defeats the Klingons, it vaporizes them. The cloud moves into Federation space and likewise destroys the Starfleet space station, Epsilon Nine, on its trajectory towards Earth.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has been going through Kolinahr, the ridding of all emotions, back on Vulcan. But Spock is distracted from his studies by the arrival of this new intelligence and fails to achieve Kolinahr because of it.

Spock is kept from completing Kolinahr.

Enter Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), now Admiral in charge of Starfleet Operations (is he to blame for the very dull looking uniforms?). With the mysterious cloud coming towards Earth and with the “dry-docked” Enterprise, the only vehicle close enough to intercept, he convinces his superiors to give him the command of the Enterprise, usurping Captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins), who has been in charge while the Enterprise has been refitted. Decker is not happy about being demoted to Commander and First Officer and is pretty vocal about his displeasure, almost to the point of insubordination.

Captain Kirk gets his first look at the Enterprise after being away for a few years.

One of the new officers is Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a Deltan navigator. Decker knows Ilia from having spent time on her planet. There is obviously sexual tension between the two.

New crew member Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is replaced by a robot version of herself.

Kirk is not as familiar with the Enterprise as Decker is and not everything is working as it should. The first is the transporter, which malfunctions, killing Kirk’s handpicked new Science officer, Lt. Commander Sonak (John Rashad Kamal) and another officer on their way to the Enterprise. But things must get fixed, because Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) uses that means to board the ship. McCoy, who has apparently retired, has been recalled to activity duty at Kirk’s request.

Dr. "Bones" McCoy is called out of retirement.

Kirk’s own unfamiliarity with the refitted Enterprise almost gets everyone killed as he insists on going to warp speed before the engines have been calibrated properly and the Enterprise creates a wormhole. To the rescue comes Spock, who is ready to be reinstated as a Starfleet officer and replaces Decker as the Science Officer. Spock helps Scotty (James Doohan) calibrate the engines and the Enterprise is off again.

Spocks' return further dilutes Capt. Decker (Stephen Collins) importance
 to the crew. Can you say expendable?

The Enterprise intercepts the cloud and avoids doing anything that might appear to be aggressive. Spock figures out that the alien is sending out a signal that the Enterprise isn’t able to respond at the speed the alien is expecting. When he changes their response, the alien ship sends a probe. The probe takes away Ilia and sends back a robotic doppelganger with Ilia’s memories. She informs the crew that she has been sent by V’ger to determine if the carbon-based life forms (humans) on the Enterprise need to be destroyed.

The Enterprise intercepts the alien cloud headed towards Earth.

Spock, meanwhile, takes it upon himself to take a spacewalk. Landing on the vessel’s surface, Spock does a mind meld and learns that V’ger is a living machine. The systems on the Enterprise must still not be up to snuff, because Spock is away from the ship before any sensors detect and notify the crew.

Spock mind melds with V'ger.

Ilia informs Kirk that V’ger is looking for the Creator and has a message. Kirk thinks fast and tells Ilia that he has information he can only share with V’ger, not a probe. V’ger agrees and Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Decker and Ilia leave the Enterprise. V’ger turns out to be Voyager 6, (the full name covered over by a thin layer of space smudge) sent into space by NASA back in the 20th Century. Spock, through his mind meld, has learned that Voyager was damaged and found by a race of living machines who interpreted its programming as to learn all that can be learned and share that information with the creator. The aliens built a space ship to house V’ger and upgraded the spaceship to fulfill its original mission. (Apparently the alien machines couldn’t be bothered to clean off the nameplate and see the full name.)

Kirk leads a landing party that visits V'ger.

V’ger has learned so much that it has achieved consciousness. Spock informs us that V’ger sees the Enterprise as the living being and the crew as nothing more than parasites (though this doesn’t explain why the Kilngon ships and Epsilon Nine were also destroyed and not just the carbon-based forms within.)

V'ger turns out to be Voyager 6,  a space probe launched by NASA.

While Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) finds the NASA code to respond to V’ger’s request to share its data, the ship sabotage’s itself. It wants to become one with the creator and Decker volunteers for the job. He and robotic Ilia become one with V’ger. Apparently, they form a new life and move to a new dimension, saving the Enterprise and Earth in the process.

Now the Enterprise can resume its mission, but by this time, I doubted anyone in the movie theater cared. Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffers from so many maladies, I’m not sure I can count them all. The biggest offender, I would say, is pacing. The story plods along, numbing the audience into submission and boredom induced slumber. Painstakingly slow to get to the point and the film spends way too long on everything. When Scotty takes Kirk out to the ship aboard a shuttle craft at the beginning, the indirect path it takes is only so that there can be long loving shots of the starship Enterprise and we can see the loving-look in Kirk’s eyes as he sees his ship after his multi-year absence. I have distinct memories of seeing this the first time, thinking “Get on with it.

Next is the story, which is nothing but a regurgitated version of an episode from the series, “The Changeling”. In that episode, the Enterprise encounters a probe named Nomad. Originally launched from Earth to explore, the probe collided with an alien probe, reprogrammed itself to find new life, but to also sterilize imperfections (humans). Nomad is looking for its creator, Jackson Roykirk, and mistakes Captain Kirk for him. After killing several crew members, Kirk convinces the probe that it, too, is imperfect, his example being mistaking him for its creator. Nomad, true to its altered mission, destroys itself. Sound sort of familiar? Had they really already run out of original ideas that they had to so blatantly reuse one?

But to make things worse, The Motion Picture reduces series supporting characters Uhura, Scotty, Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Sulu (George Takei) into glorified cameos, instead spending way too long on new characters Decker and Ilia. Okay, they’re added to be expendable, but they still take away from what should have been a victory lap for the series supporting cast, finally getting their just big screen rewards.

And the famous “Space, the Final Frontier” narration is missing. This is like a Bond film without Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme song played at least once. It seems that someone unfamiliar with Star Trek is in charge, rather than its creator.

I hate to pick on production values, but I’m befuddled as to why they would have so changed the uniforms from the series to the movie (and of course so radically change them again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). I’m not going to argue about the original series uniforms appropriateness for space travel, but the uniforms were immediately recognizable and distinctive. Why fix what isn’t broken and why change them, especially to such dull and drab colors?

Characters like Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) get reduced screen time in favor of new crew members.

You can argue that things change and military uniforms are no different. But why then wouldn’t the Enterprise label being applied to a new ship by then as well? One of the things that hampers the film from getting going are the painful tracking shots showing just how little about the Enterprise has actually changed. Why is the ship so much more important than the characters? Is the ship the reason people watched the series in the first place? I hope not.

A lot of screen time is spent admiring the Enterprise in drydock.

The special effects haven’t aged well by comparison to modern films and those used in the rebooted film franchise, but you have to remember that at the time they were done, they were pretty good. Maybe they were not as good as subsequent Star Wars films, but were probably on par with the original film, which was the standard bearer at the time.

So much about the film seems to be a miscalculation. While they certainly didn’t cow tow to the fan base, Trekkies being the first fanboys, I can’t think that the film satisfied the core audience it was aimed at. Too much time was spent on characters no one cared about portrayed by actors who make Shatner look like a Shakespearean trained thespian. And the lack of a good original story shows a certain amount of contempt from the fan base that made this filmic resurgence possible in the first place.

One of the influences of Star Wars was the development of the Klingon language, something that would take hold in Search For Spock (1984), when the language was finally fleshed out. This like the alien tongues heard in Star Wars, which gives it a certain, I would suppose, authenticity. Apparently it was James Doohan who came up with the first gibberish which would later be codified. Like nothing else in this film, Klingon as a language would be eaten up by the fan base. Perhaps as a punch line, the Klingon language has been referenced in such diverse TV series as Frasier and The Big Bang Theory.

Watching the movie, then and now, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would see a reason to continue with the exercise. While the film made money, it certainly wasn’t Star Wars money or even as much as Paramount had hoped for. But it was enough for them to see the greenlight of a sequel. Subsequent films would be made, but Roddenberry would be removed as creative director. The second film would likewise return to the original series as well, but was more of a sequel rather than a retelling and would do a much better job of using the entire crew of the Enterprise in the story telling, not just Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Wrath of Khan would pave the way for all the Star Trek (films, series and reboots) to come.

If you’re a completist, then you owe it to yourself to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, if only to see how bad things can get. Otherwise, I would say that in the vastness of space, it would be easy to avoid this poorly executed film, which is a disservice to the original series fans, whose rabid devotion made it possible.

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