Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Cut

It’s hard to impress upon fans born in the twenty-first century just what deserts television networks and movie theaters were for science fiction in the twentieth century. This is not to say those media were devoid of sci-fi, but with only three networks and five major studios, fans were lucky if there were more than two new TV shows or two new motion pictures to watch in any given year. Fans latched onto whatever they could get, and were glad for the privilege. But it’s hard to blame executives for shying away from “genre” entertainment: it was weird, it was hard to pull off, it had limited appeal, and (worst of all) it was expensive. If you had told studio executives in 1970 that by 2020 eight of the ten top-grossing films of all time would be sci-fi/fantasy films, they’d have told you to get bent.

So, it’s also hard to impress upon the latest generation what a sensation 1977’s Star Wars was. Let’s be frank: Star Wars was ultimately a confection, all calories and no nutrition, but it made going to the movies fun again and convinced the money-men in Hollywood that genre entertainment could mean big bucks. 

In the wake of Star Wars’ juggernaut, Twentieth Century Fox’s competitors scrambled to cash in on this newfound thirst for sci-fi adventure. These efforts were largely disappointing; for example, hastily made schlock like Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars. But Paramount had a ready-made TV franchise with household-name recognition and a devoted fanbase that it hoped could make the leap to the big screen: Star Trek.

Star Trek (nowadays retroactively referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series or ST:TOS) ended its three-year run on June 3, 1969, but lived on—indeed, thrived!—in syndication. A short-lived “continuation” aired in 1973 and 1974 in the form of an awkward, half-hour Saturday morning cartoon (also titled Star Trek, but now commonly referred to as Star Trek: The Animated Series), which was voiced by most of the original cast and featured many of the same writers. Just three years later, around the time Star Wars became an international sensation, Paramount decided to pivot from their development of a spin-off series (to be titled Star Trek: Phase II, starring all the original cast save Leonard Nimoy), and to throw their weight behind what ultimately became Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST:TMP for short).

ST:TMP was a box office success, but got little love from the critics. Directed by Robert Wise (the same man who directed such diverse offerings as West Side StoryThe Sound of MusicThe Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Andromeda Strain), it was derided as Star Trek: The Motionless Picture due to its slow pacing and villain-less storyline. Nonetheless, this film is not without its gratifications: it is thoughtful and enigmatic in contrast to the shallow flash-and-bang of its contemporary alternatives.

The film picks up some years after the close of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s five-year mission to explore strange, new worlds. Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) chafes at his promotion to Starfleet Command, itching to get back in the big chair, where all the action is. Kirk’s half-human half-Vulcan First Officer Spock (Nimoy) has retreated to his homeworld, where he struggles to complete the rigorous training that all full-blooded Vulcans undergo to purge themselves of emotion and embrace pure logic. Ship’s Doctor Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired to his native Georgia, where he can spout curmudgeonly chestnuts from behind a bristling beard. The rest of the main crew, including Engineer Scott (James Doohan), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Helmsman Sulu (George Takei), and Navigator Chekov (Walter Koenig) have stayed with Starfleet. The Enterprise—practically a character herself–is in Earth orbit, receiving an extensive refit under the command of new Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Suddenly, a major threat appears that will pull together old comrades and new allies: a vast and fast-moving “energy cloud” (at the center of which, we eventually learn, is a mysterious intelligence calling itself “V’Ger”) on a direct course for Earth.

There are many things to complain about, aside from the infamous leisurely pace and variable acting performances. Some of the galaxy-wide plot-holes include:

  • The mighty Federation, with its miraculous technology, only detects this mysterious energy cloud, two astronomical units across, when it’s a mere three days from Earth.
  • The Enterprise is the only Starfleet vessel available to intercept the intruder. That’s right: Earth, one of the core planets of the Federation—indeed, the headquarters of Starfleet!—has only one starship in orbit, and a marginally functioning one at that. To top it off, Spock is delivered to the Enterprise (while it’s on its intercept course with the cloud) aboard another Federation vessel dispatched all the way from Vulcan. So why couldn’t that vessel also intercept the intruder?
  • Spock is psychically aware of a consciousness hidden inside the energy cloud. How? Why? Why are no other Vulcans experiencing this?
  • Early in the film, there is a horrific accident involving two crew members who die excruciating deaths due to a transporter malfunction. A few minutes later, Kirk laughingly brushes aside the concerns of Doctor McCoy (pressed back into service by Starfleet) when he understandably objects to having his “molecules scrambled.” (It’s worth noting that the humanistic McCoy has always been depicted as a paradoxical Luddite whose career involves exploring the universe in a faster-than-light starship.)

On the plus side, it was a joy in 1979 to see the beloved crew of the Enterprise, only slightly the worse for wear, reunite for another adventure. And while Gene Roddenberry’s restrictions on what could and could not be depicted as “Trek” eventually led to his being sidelined from his own creation, the technocratic, cerebral mystique of ST:TMP sets it apart from the gussied-up nerd fantasy and dysfunctional family soap opera of a galaxy far, far away. ST:TMP (like all Trek) is about the wonders of the Unknown, about the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of truly understanding intelligences, should we ever encounter them, that developed outside our little planet. Indeed, ST:TMP’s journey draws heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its damn-this-is-beautiful-but-what-am-I looking-at tumble down a cosmic rabbit hole. ST:TMP also tips its hat to Andrei Tarkovsky’s simultaneously much-beloved and much-maligned masterpiece Solaris, about a space station full of researchers driven mad by their attempts to contact a vast, unknowable alien mind. But ST:TMP, like much of the sprawling franchise it has since spawned, is ultimately about hope; hope that humanity (or any sentient beings) can thrive in an indifferent or even hostile universe; hope that the desire for emotional and intellectual connection will trump fear and ignorance and violence. (Indeed, Spock’s insight into V’Ger—that despite its incredible artificial intelligence has no internal emotional experience by which to give meaning to its existence—touches on what I have long thought is a problem in nearly all science-fictional depictions of AI: that human consciousness is a fleshly experience, with the ebb and flow of hormones and pheromones providing a qualia that cannot be reproduced by mere electronics.)

ST:TMP also benefits from what, at the time, was a ripped-from-the-headlines premise. It’s not a spoiler, forty-plus-years later, to say that V’Ger turns out to be a Voyager probe, discovered by an alien civilization of self-aware machines who, seeing it as a kindred creature, give it enhanced abilities to collect data. Centuries later, Voyager-now-V’Ger’s emergent consciousness has led it back to its beginning in search of the meaning of its existence. (Voyagers I and II were planetary probes launched by NASA in 1977, with flybys of Jupiter occurring in January and July 1979, respectively. Their spectacular images of our neighboring gas giant and its moons were splashed across magazine covers and TV screens all over the world. And there was considerable speculation about the ultimate fate of the Voyagers, which eventually exited our solar system carrying the famous “golden records,” now-antiquated LP recordings of music, sounds of nature, and greetings in dozens of languages. Futurists and social commentators had a field day wondering what would happen if and when an alien race encountered one of the Voyagers, deciphered the record, and found their way back to Earth. Would they bring peace, new technologies, and comfort at finding others in the cosmos? Or would first contact end with the annihilation of the human race? The Voyagers and their potential consequences would have been in the forefront of Trekkies’ minds when they sat down in December 1979 to enjoy the much-anticipated return of Kirk and crew. And for what it’s worth, the Voyagers are still operational 45 years after launch, expected to continue to return data on interstellar space for several more years.)

ST:TMP was a success, leading to an impressive number of television and motion picture sequels and spinoffs (including 13 feature films, ten additional television series, and countless books, comics, games and toys). Fans who lamented the end of ST:TOS in 1969 would be astounded if offered a glimpse into 2022, with five active television shows, and more in development. 

This first Trek film, despite its warts, is an entertaining and intellectually engaging film with perennial social relevance, as well as a retro-futuristic curiosity and fascinating cultural artifact. The director’s cut, overseen by Robert Wise before his death in 2005, has now been remastered and endowed with enhanced visual effects. It’s available at special screenings in theaters, as well as on Paramount+.

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