Sunday, 8 December 2019

The Odd One Out: The Motion Picture at 40

For 40 years I've shared the Earth with The Motion Picture and even now I’m not 100% sure what to make of it.  

Of all the Star Treks of all the eras of all the times, The Motion Picture is an oddment, a sore thumb some might say which stands out when everything else around it has managed to blend in. I could equate it to the quiet kid in the class who gets picked on because he’s different, unique and doesn’t have to be part of the ‘in’ crowd.

I can personally vouch for that situation as my school life had moments where I felt the odd one out for one reason or another - several times because Star Trek wasn't the cool thing to be liking during the '90's Britpop era. In that sense it does speak to me. It's the only Star Trek movie that Gene Roddenberry really had any serious involvement with before The Next Generation (the theme tune's a bit of a giveaway!) and therefore may well be the closest single cinematic Trek to the creator's vision for the franchise with a plot that steers clear of phaser fights and starship battles to seek out a much deeper meaning. Whether it gets there or not is debatable.

Now, The Motion Picture wasn't the first Star Trek movie I watched, that credit went to The Wrath of Khan but after I was hooked on the spectacle of that it was only a matter of time before I got to watch the earlier entry and that would occur over a Christmas in the mid-80's on a recorded version that had the last ten minutes chopped off...I had to wait another year or so to see what the twist was!

Frankly the first two movies couldn't be more different and while the drafting of McCoy, return of Spock and promotion of Kirk are important elements of the timeline, you might be forgiven for skipping "One" and heading straight for "Two" and the Mutara Nebula. However, I would heed you to avoid such a bold step and take the time to appreciate just what The Motion Picture was trying to do and what it succeeded in doing.

Legendary Sound of Music and Run Silent Run Deep director Robert Wise's space epic is indeed unique among its 12 other feature-length relations. First, it's the only one produced in the 1970's and has the benefit/disadvantage of using the sets and even script from the aborted Phase II series which meant that it could utilise existing materials - which didn't stop a ridiculously high $35 million on a projected $15 million budget.

In my article for HeroCollector I talked about how the arrival of The Motion Picture ushered in the future of Star Trek - series, movies, merchandise and the like but if we take it at face value it is possibly Star Trek's single greatest event.

It's unique not just because of the incredibly bland uniforms or the one off appearances for Decker and Ilia (losing out on being main cast for Phase II and this being their payoff if you will) but because it's meant to be seen on that cinematic monster screen. The film is a visual spectacle which turns away from the pew-pew fighter battles of Star Wars instead attempting to build a universe in the movie theatre right from the introduction of the refit USS Enterprise, the warp speed wormhole through to Spock's spacewalk and onto the final reveal. 

The beige and grey interior of the Enterprise contrasts to the swirling and sparkling colours of the universe created here and on a smaller home TV it loses something in its majestic translation. At the time this would have been totally different, aiming more for the jaw-dropping modelwork of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a more "realistic" display of ships in space (let's just ignore the warp speed but though huh...).

Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn't just about the visual opulence invested in it but also the reintroduction of favourite characters. Forty years ago it had been ten years since the crew had been together in a live-action setting. Syndication as we all know had boosted the show into realms and markets otherwise untapped and unthinkable even influencing the naming of the USA's first space shuttle, unveiled in September 1976. 

These characters had become household names and their first big screen appearance needed to be impressive and have time donated to it. Spock's return from the failed Kolinar ritual is a significant event in the life of the Vulcan (not really addressed thereafter, mind), McCoy's reactivation is a clever touch and Kirk's discomfort at being a deskjockey is evident from the start.

While they are certainly more three-dimensional than Discovery's crew from the off, the dynamics of the series don't quite work most notably between Kirk, Spock and McCoy while the secondary bridge crew feel a bit relegated to the sidelines particularly in favour of the Decker/Ilia thread. In fact if you look at it even more closely this is the only Star Trek movie where one-off characters take such a massive lead unless they're the antagonist of the piece. 

Why's that? Well, for financial reasons they were already invested in the actors for Phase II but moreso it allows for Roddenberry to fully explore the human condition and the poster tag of the "Human Adventure" - these are characters that can be sacrificed for the plot in a not dissimilar way to Bowman evolving into the Starchild of Kubrick's 1969 masterpiece.

But let's keep that speculation at bay because Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a statement piece. Cleverly reusing and updating its Phase II origins for the cinema, making a decent amount of money and paving the way for a run of sequels, series and more that have kept the franchise running for a further 40 years.

You might not be over impressed with the dialogue, the unflattering onesies or the lengthy panning visuals but there's always Jerry Goldsmith's stirring soundtrack to raise goosebumps to usher in the new era. There's even Klingons for god sake and... what....they changed the Klingons?!

Yep, sounds really silly now doesn't it when you bring into consideration the revisions made for the Kelvin Timeline and more recently Discovery and that's one more thing going for The Motion Picture that we kind of take for granted now - it UPDATED the franchise. Just as we now have tweaks for Discovery, more than likely for Picard and certainly technological upgrades for the rebooted movie trilogy, The Motion Picture did exactly the same - new minds, new ideas, new visions of where it needed to go. Higher detail in just about everything to translate to the big screen including scrapping the Phase II Enterprise because it wouldn't cut it under cinematic scrutiny.

It was still Star Trek but it had taken an all important step forward, a move in the right direction to take it from wobbly TV sets  and while new Klingons and Scotty with a 'tache might have rocked fandom to its core and spurred a furious letter writing campaign, it had all settled by the time we get to The Wrath of Khan. OK, that was generally in different creative hands tillered by Harve Bennett. 

The Motion Picture quintessentially captures the exploration of the human condition so vehemently championed by Roddenberry with The Original Series and captured here in V'Ger's desire to link with and understand its creator through the interactions of the Ilia probe and finally physically linking with Decker. Even as close as The Wrath of Khan was to the first film in the production timeline it veers more to action and revenge rather than a more intimate and personal story that we find with the first Star Trek movie.

Pace-wise it's a million miles off anything that came after and even a mite slower than a few of the original episodes but that is a direct contrast again to the adventure serial style portrayed in Star Wars. It marketed itself as the more intelligent option if purely from the perception of The Original Series and Roddenberry's much publicised vision of the show. 

Later films would continue to focus their attention on the "Big Three" of Kirk, Spock, McCoy with a higher swing to action/adventure and "space opera" but here it feels more like an extension of the TV series. The Motion Picture, for all its faults, flaws and missteps feels like a spiritual sequel to the classic series. For me the challenge comes of how to reconcile it with the vastly different movies succeeding it that were virtually devoid of Roddenberry's involvement - and that certainly rings more true with the 2009 reboot and its (currently) two sequels of varied quality.

The Motion Picture wants valiantly to be about character in which the interactions of the crew and the perceptions we encounter within the confines of V'Ger lead us to seek further exploration, that there are further evolutionary possibilities and perhaps, more interestingly, that we are fallible as a species. Thing is that the trip there is so drawn out its almost a relief when Decker decides to join with V'Ger and we can sense the end credits aren't far away.  For me now, The Motion Picture represents a turn in fortune for Star Trek, a moment that was captured - nay saved - from the jaws of TV and maybe a true end for Star Trek. Instead it presents a feeler into the unknown - was there a thirst for Star Trek and was it on the cinema screen which seemed to be the way forward? Of course the franchise would return to its roots and the flickering box in the corner of the living room some eight years later but for now there was a new start, a new channel to explore...Indeed, that Human Adventure WAS Just Beginning...

What are your memories of The Motion Picture? When did you first see it and have your attitudes towards it changed?

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  1. I recently saw the Fathom Events 40th Anniversary showing of ST: TMP. While it was a nice bit of nostalgia, it was odd seeing things I didn't notice before, like visible Matte lines and the support holding the model Enterprise as it exits Drydock. I would have like to have seen Robert Wises' re-edit with improved FX. Maybe Fathom Events will offer a showing of it some day.

    1. It's one of the things that you can say the remastered Specials for Star Wars got right. I was watching TMP the other night and there are some really glaring matte lines even when the Klingons arrive and when we see the Federation station. A clean up would be welcomed - don't remake it, just polish a few bits that have aged due to tech advancements.