“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” celebrates its 40th birthday this year. The often misunderstood film from director Robert Wise has as many detractors as it does supporters. I’ve found a new appreciation in this odyssey each time I view it. To celebrate its legacy, we explore the idea that inanimate objects can be characters and that good can be an antagonizing thing driving the film’s themes of desire and obsession.
I tend to overthink things.
As I was trying to define how best to celebrate the 40th birthday of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” today, it occurred to me that it shouldn’t be about my experiences having watched the film in spring, 1980. “But Ben, the movie came out in December 1979.”
And the answer to that is, “I know.” I was a three year-old living in the Milwaukee area and as such things go, Milwaukee wasn’t a top market back then (It still isn’t 40 years later), so we had to wait for it to expand beyond the 859 screens that did get it on release.
No. I want to reflect on what makes Robert Wise’s odyssey to bring the fabled television series back to life on the silver screen such a joy, even after 40 years. Many have said it is “the motionless picture,” or that “it’s a slog to get through.” Trust me, I understand: I fell asleep when I first saw the movie with my aunt and my brother.
I WAS THREE! Don’t judge.
The odyssey to bring the movie to fruition is as exhausting as watching the film. From Barry Diller’s to’ing and fro’ing about whether the content should be a television series or a feature film, to last minute re-writes on the script because William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s clauses kicked in allowing them input into the script. From special effects work having to be scrapped six months into the production and a scramble on Douglas Trumbull to get something put together because of Paramount’s insistence to “blind book” the film putting added pressure to everything in between, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is, finally, a character-driven story.
It took my listening to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score for the umpteenth time to realize just how critical the characters, both human and non-human, are to the story. In fact, they ARE the story.
“How exactly does Jerry Goldsmith’s score translate into a character-driven film”?
“Star Trek” worked its best when the stories focused on the trinity of Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley). And yet, our very first image of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is not of our hero, James T. Kirk. It is of an inanimate object; an electric cloud or “a thing that we know nothing about.” That inanimate object is our “villain,” or better stated, our antagonist.
“How is an inanimate object an antagonist?”
After the looming threat of the cloud is established, we are treated to three Klingon D-7 Attack Cruisers pressing toward the cloud with a wide, sweeping shot. While the look of the Klingons had evolved from the television series, we know from their posture that they are making a strafing run on the cloud. In a display of power, the Cloud attacks all three ships enveloping them in an energy field, causing them to dematerialize in front of us. We’re horrified as the crew of Epsilon 9 listening outpost intercepts the Klingon Commander’s (Mark Lenard) pleas for assistance.
The cloud has canceled out the Klingon threat because it can do so without emotion.
We understand the threat that the cloud presents when a technician says, “We’ve plotted a course on that cloud, Commander.” The commander, Branch (David Gatreaux) is stunned as he replies, “Heading?”
“Sir, it’s on a precise heading for Earth.”
From this, we can infer that the Cloud itself is a threat to us, not just because of its direct actions against the Klingons. The threat is also amplified, again through Goldsmith’s cues, by the fact that it wants something. What that “something” is, we don’t yet know. We just know that it is out to antagonize the universe all the way to Earth.
In a way, Kirk is an antagonist too.
“How can Kirk be an antagonist?”
Before we can get to that, we need to address the lack of emotion with which the Cloud attacked the Klingons.
Interestingly, our the first of our original crew to be revealed is not, in fact Kirk, but Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer.
He’s on Vulcan though to go through with the Kolinahr, a process which will shed all of his remaining, human, emotion. Much like the ominous cloud’s display of force, Spock’s stripping of his emotions would have rendered him to be an intellectual among intellectuals; again a sign that the less-than-desirable side of his psyche can be cancelled out simply by casting aside the better part of himself much like the Cloud did with the Klingons.
Yet, Spock knows that the other side of himself, the inquisitive side, is what makes him a superior being and he looks at the sky as the Masters try to finalize the Kolinahr.
The interesting aspect of Spock’s appearance so early in the film is that he is as isolated as the Cloud is and his isolation deepens after he rejects the Kolinahr.
His dejected look is not one of failure, but of purpose. Spock, too has a purpose; that his emotions are an integral part of his being and his need to explore, to give meaning to those emotions are an integral part of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
“Now, why is Kirk an antagonist?”
It’s a partially true statement. Much like the cloud’s ominous push toward Earth, Kirk desires something
Desire . . . . that emotion hadn’t occurred to me until just now, but it does give more meaning to The Cloud, to Spock and now to Kirk.
We actually don’t see the character make an appearance until about ten minutes into the film when he hurriedly rushes through Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco (beautifully displayed with an effective matte painting in the original theatrical cut and an enhanced CGI rendering for the 2001’s “The Director’s Cut” DVD release.) Goldsmith’s rousing score reminds us of the heroism that Kirk is capable of, though he is not wearing a Captain’s uniform and is referred to as ‘Admiral’ by Lieutenant Commander Sonak (Jon Rashad Kamal).
Kirk had become a bureaucrat in the years between the end of the first five year mission and the start of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and in this first scene he is on his way to get command of the Enterprise after asking Sonak why he was still on Earth. Kirk just brushes him aside, telling him that the Enterprise needed to be ready in 12 hours. Sonak, who is completely devoid of emotion, furrows his Vulcan brow at Kirk’s insistence at pressing forward.
In low earth orbit, Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) greets Kirk as he ferries him over to the Enterprise in its dry dock. The famed ship, now redesigned and refitted has not yet had a shakedown cruise. Scott refers to it in a loving way; Kirk, devoid of emotion and full of relentless purpose, pushes himself into command, saying that it is “the only Starship in interception range.” He is demanding when he says, “Ready or not, she launches in 12 hours.”
Kirk’s push to get the Enterprise out of dry dock disrespects what a character she is, something that he quickly realizes is wrong as Scotty gently takes Kirk for an inspection tour. Goldsmith gives life to the darkened hull, its lines are dramatically different from the last time Kirk saw her
Enterprise is another inanimate character in the film. Not because Goldsmith’s music says so or because of Wise’s direction. . Kirk’s gaze softens for just a moment as he takes in the ship, in all its infinite beauty. Though he doesn’t know his own ship; she’s dramatically different, operates differently too. Kirk, still thinking that his experience is what is needed on this mission, would learn that lesson the hard way.
Kirk’s hurriedness puts him at odds with everyone in that first act. No more than Commander Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). Decker, Kirk’s protégé, is alarmed when his self-assuredness is put in to question as he is demoted allowing Kirk to assume “the center seat.” Each man’s desire to command the ship are for differing reasons. Decker, throughout the preparations and then in the second act, constantly remind Kirk that experience does not make up for lack of knowledge.
When Kirk first appears on the bridge, his command crew, Chekov (Walter Koenig), Sulu (George Takei) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) all greet him with smiles. He quickly rebukes their pleasantries, demanding that Chekov, now the ship’s weapon’s officer assemble the crew at 0400 hours. In the theatrical cut, they immediately cut to Kirk hurrying to the Engine Room to speak with Decker. In later versions, there’s a scene where an ensign questions Kirk’s ability to command through this situation. Sulu understands Kirk’s desire while Uhura voices it. Chekov knowingly smiles at the wistful thoughts as they carry on in their duties. The theatrical version supports Kirk’s relentless push; the later versions support the underlying reason why: “Ensign, the possibilities of returning from this mission in one piece, may have just doubled.”
Now that Kirk has command, the pressures of his own relentless push forward are met with every obstacle he can handle: a malfunctioning transporter that kills two crew members, violently. Note that the original theatrical release was rated G by the MPAA, whereas the extended television version in 1983 was not rated. Finally, the Director’s Edition was rated PG, which is more appropriate to the level of violence expressed at the expense of Kirk’s need to move forward.
After the transporter accident, Kirk finds that he does not know his own ship, that he needs help. Decker tries to offer it when he corners Kirk, but Kirk just doubles down on the stuff rolling down hill.
More about the Cloud is revealed; perhaps a way has been found to better understand its intentions as Epsilon 9 falls victim to the Cloud. Undeterred, Kirk knows the stakes and he pushes his crew forward.
Yet, the harder he pushes, the greater the resistance he encounters. Especially when he meets Illia. Persis Khambatta makes her screen debut as the sensual Deltan navigator. Immune to her species’ sensual abilities, Decker has to remind Kirk that he has the “utmost confidence” in him when Ilia questions his rank, this after he admits to knowing her having been stationed on her planet. Interestingly, this relationship would be the basis for William Riker and Deanna Troi in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” not eight years later.
Despite all of the resistance, Kirk still believes he is the right man for this job. He has a bias that is not questioned. That is until McCoy makes his appearance. Even McCoy doesn’t understand the need, or the desire to meet this Cloud head on: “why is any object we don’t understand always called a “thing?” Kirk realizing he needs an ally, someone who knows Jim Kirk pushes: “Dammit, Bones, I need you. Badly.” There goes that desire again, but without McCoy, Kirk has zero emotion.
Like the Cloud, Kirk just pushes through.
With McCoy’s arrival, the Enterprise limps forward, unprepared. Visually, her departure is glorious, made only more spectacular with Goldsmith’s rousing score, the individual running lights shone one by one, giving her even more character.
Kirk’s first test comes once Enterprise leaves the solar system when the warp engines overload, creating a vortex. Decker, having more knowledge countermands Kirk’s orders, setting up one final confrontation between captain and exec: “Stop competing with me!”
“Obsessive Competition Gives Way to Trinity and Unity.”
The story lets off some of the steam between the two men when Decker, finally, is open about his concerns: “You haven’t logged a single Star Hour in two and a half years. That, plus your unfamiliarity with the ship’s design seriously jeopardizes our mission.” Kirk, realizing that he just bulldozed his way back to command finally sees his bias for what it is: even the most experienced of commanders need the emotion and the intellect to know when to say “no.”
There’s the need for that trinity again. Kirk relents. “I trust you will . . . . nursemaid me through these difficulties?”
McCoy confirms as much, “He may be right, Jim.”
Annoyed and thinking he already had an ally: “Make your point, Doctor.” Unabated, McCoy continues: “The point, Captain, is that it’s you who’s competing . . .”
Desire finally gives way, fully to obsession. Obsession has always been a part of the early part of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”: Kirk’s push to meet the Cloud on his own terms, the Cloud’s relentless march forward . . . .
And just as McCoy’s revelation happens, Spock with his obsessed desire to better understand the calling he felt from space which quashed his obsession to remove all emotions returns to the Enterprise.
Kirk is elated at seeing his old friend, but there is a disconnectedness about Spock, as if he is distracted. Once Spock shares with Kirk and McCoy, again the trinity, his thoughts, Kirk demands that any changes he feels should be immediately reported.
Spock is able to figure out what Scotty and Decker could not and the Enterprise becomes a trustworthy vessel to carry our heroic crew. This doesn’t make Enterprise any less a valuable character to the film – it is an intrinsic part of the story, but she is now able to withstand the oncoming onslaught of the Cloud.
Before that, Spock’s presence must be accounted for and McCoy tries, once again, to warn Kirk about his own obsession competing against others’ obsessions. It was as much about a desire to be in the right place at the right time, a hallmark of the character. McCoy feels what Kirk understands, but can’t admit.
As we encounter the full greatness that is the Cloud, Enterprise is finally shown in the right light, withstanding the full power of its destructive force. Spock gives more characterization, motive, to the cloud as they being to penetrate its cores, “Captain, I suspect there’s an object at the heart of that cloud.” Yet, Kirk can’t shake the feeling that he is still being questioned even as he begins to relent. Decker still feels slighted, but understands his role as Exec to question Kirk’s decisions, reminding him constantly, of the dangers in front of them; the trinity is not yet fully in place, Decker is still an outsider: “Captain, as your Exec, it’s my duty to point out alternatives.”
Spock’s emotional connection with that object gives way to further motive; attempts to communicate. Enterprise breathes in these moments with the alert klaxons that annoy most viewers. Those klaxons have been softened for The Director’s Edition. The klaxon’s importance is to key on action cues, building up the drama of exploring the unknown, one of “Star Trek’s” greatest attributes.
Once Spock identifies a way to allow them to move forward, Kirk finally eases back into a comfort level. Enterprise’s posture is still firmly on-guard, but the wonderment and excitement of the exploration, the obsession with exploring the unknown takes over. The cloud, which now has further motive, makes way for Enterprise. The cloud is still not willing to give up its secrets as it locks Enterprise in and then probes the ship.
That probe is a reminder of the relentless obsession it has with its journey toward Earth. But, another motive becomes apparent: that of communication, taking Ilia from the bridge. At this point, Enterprise as a character becomes helpless and trapped, despite its crew’s best efforts; one inanimate object begets another as a facsimile of Ilia is deposited in her cabin, a humanoid representative of “V’Ger” as its name and more importantly its intent become apparent.
Kirk, trying to make sense of it all finally has a use for Decker. Kirk is not ashamed to coerce Decker into doing his duty by advantaging himself of Decker’s former relationship with Ilia. Decker initially protests saying that the facsimile is the probe in another form.
Spock is still detached, wanting to know more about their surroundings. He does what any good Vulcan would do and goes out exploring in a jet-pack space suit. He is able to witness all of “V’ger,” making the realization that “V’ger” is as much a living object as Enterprise, or Kirk or Spock, or . . . anyone. It is here that “V’ger’s” obsession and desire to know more.
That’s all it knows.
“Is V’Ger More Human Than We Are?”
No, it’s not. Spock’s mind meld brings him closer to V’Ger, but the Ilia probe still refers to the humans that occupy Enterprise as objects to be removed, an infestation of the greater whole. This is, finally what sets “V’Ger” and Enterprise as inanimate characters. “V’Ger” is not the threat they initially perceived it to be when Spock correctly points out that “V’Ger,” who is in fact a reprogrammed NASA space probe, Voyager 6, is a child and it needs to evolve, but lacks the human quality of being able to imagine what the world is like; to think beyond our obsessions and desires.
I might be reading more in to it than the poorly structured, beautifully shot third act allows for, but Decker’s final desire AND obsession along with the ability to feel and emote, join his passionate love for Ilia (in any form) and V’Ger’s desire to evolve.
Another trinity has been formed. With it comes responsibility to learn, love. grow and to be self-sufficient. Even the shackles of responsibilities, we are each of us dependent on one another to evolve and grow; to experience the world, or the universe that surrounds us.
Robert Wise had the good sense to use his human frailties to guide the odyssey that is “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Shatner, Nimoy, et al made sure that their parts made the whole thing work.
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, even after all is said and done, is about the drive that compels us to be better than we were yesterday. It reminds us to stop and smell the flowers every once in a while too. Finally, it reminds us to cherish the connections we make, to use our “flawed human emotions” to make our way into the world.
As the film closes, our Enterprise, triumphant in its survival against “V’Ger” is a bookend of hope where the opening shot of “V’Ger” is one of despair. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago; the advent of technology has caused us to drift apart in our humanity, but it has not ceased our push to drive technology ahead of humanity. In that regard, characters like Enterprise and “V’Ger” are equals to Kirk and company.
“”Star Trek: The Motion Picture” Is A Character In Its Own Legacy.”
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is not a perfect movie. Its history suggests otherwise.
Obsessed and desirous people like Gene Roddenberry and Jeffrey Katzenberg kept the home lights burning until the film made its release date. New versions have appeared on television and home video throughout the years.
It hasn’t changed the flawed, emoting character that is “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”
But, there are good humans who are stewarding its legacy, first in a finalized version supervised by Robert Wise, the most human of everyone involved. That same group is hopefully poised to bring “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to the brighter pasture of Ultra High Definition Blu-ray.
Until we sort out our “foolish emotions,” ‘the human adventure is just beginning.’