Contrary to popular belief, Star Trek did not enter the movie business simply because of the success of Star Wars in 1977 (with apocryphal accounts suggesting Paramount more or less remarking, “What’ve we got like that?”). Gene Roddenberry, the fans, and even the studio that had seen the original series apparently run its course after three seasons in 1969 were looking for ways to revive it throughout the 1970s, including the relatively obscure but still famous Phase II attempt to launch a new TV series, which led directly to what audiences finally saw at the end of 1979.
It might have come as a little bit of a surprise to insiders who knew how much Gene had been getting marginalized in the final year of his own show that he was once again the driving force of Star Trek in this new incarnation, though a number of collaborators, as he himself had always welcomed, had been suggesting and inspiring new twists in the fallow years. The story for The Motion Picture came from what had been intended to be the two-hour pilot of Phase Two (which itself, its possibilities, does fit the mold of that popular belief already stated). You can’t imagine the lengths some had gone to in developing concepts large enough to push Star Trek back into production, and how none of them was considered to fit the bill, even though to this day, many fans would no doubt be more interested in those than what they ultimately got. What becomes ironic about The Motion Picture is that Gene apparently got exactly what he wanted, but in a manner that few of the fans could understand even then.
Where the original series had been characterized by an almost Errol Flynn-like spirit, embodied by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, this new movie represented everything as if captured from the perspective of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, which was itself ironic, because Nimoy was the lone holdout from the Phase II reunion, having felt, in some way, betrayed by the lack of recognition for the popularity of the Vulcan he had made iconic. There was also some sense that The Motion Picture felt less like Star Wars than 2001: A Space Odyssey, a sprawling, cerebral narrative that felt cold and uninviting. Then again, for others, it sometimes seemed to be a little too reverent to what had been done before, too distant to truly enjoy what it was accomplishing.
But for Gene, it was a definite sign of what he had wanted to do, which if rebuffed by Wrath of Khan, would be vindicated with The Next Generation, when he finally got his second television series, featuring many of the same templates for the characters he’d hoped to add to the canon. Will Decker (Stephen Collins) became Will Riker, Ilia (Persis Khambatta) became Deanna Troi, and Xon became Data. Of the three, only the new Vulcan was truly sacrificed, though the actor who had been hired to portray him, David Gautreaux, did have a bit part in The Motion Picture (personally, I think it would have been nice to eventually give him a significant part, once the franchise blossomed into lasting success, as an acknowledgment for his part in its history). (It is also worth noting that the distinctive Jerry Goldsmith fanfare developed for the film became the theme for The Next Generation, and another clear connection between the two projects.)
Far from the embarrassment many have taken to considering it over the years, I’ve long been fascinated by The Motion Picture. I confess to never having seen 2001 perhaps the biggest gap in my cinema experience), so I have no idea if, having seen that, its Star Trek equivalent does seem a little redundant in comparison. But as a storytelling style, The Motion Picture is still to this day entirely unique, what I term a stark and emotionally compelling adventure.
The passage of time, more than anything, is what’s really on display here, what might be lost from one moment to the next, when one refuses to accept what has also been gained. Kirk is no longer captain of the Enterprise. He isn’t even the most powerful figure in his own world anymore, which was what the impression of the series had always been. Even if he manages to convince an implacable admiral to have things his way, he still has to answer to someone. A once-proudly independent individual now has others invading his ability to do as he pleases. Could you imagine Kirk clearing his every gambit by Starfleet Command in the original series? Here he constantly meddles with the command of his supposed successor, Will Decker, until finally there’s no choice left but to let him have his way, but even then, it’s no longer his choice, but the imposing presence of the thing called V’Ger.
Spock, too, is separated from the Vulcan fans had grow to love. He has undergone cultural ceremonies meant to finally purge himself of the pesky human behaviors he had long criticized, as if he has willfully moved on from the old days (almost a metaphorical representation of Nimoy’s maneuvering). Only McCoy (DeForest Kelley), of the central characters, seems to have remained much the same, a cranky officer in the best of times, but like the others, strangely incapable of favorably serving in his custom role as trusted consultant.
Decker and Ilia inhabit their own level of the story, keeping mostly to themselves, which serves the movie and the franchise just fine when it leads to their effective elimination from further adventures. Scotty (James Doohan) serves as the most visible of the remaining familiar cast, as he had in the original series, and is the first of them to develop a new look, adding what would become a signature mustache.
Speaking of looks, the uniforms and even the ship receive a considerable overhaul (not to mention the debut of the new Klingon forehead), something else that was no doubt completely unexpected by fans who had been waiting a decade to see Star Trek again. The uniforms in particular, the first change in the new muted art direction for something that had resembled in so many ways the vibrant attitudes of the 1960s, were quickly rejected and replaced, never to be seen again. Is it much of a surprise for me to say that I liked them? Like the rest of the film, they fit the grim grandeur, the sense of responsibility, which perhaps more than anything else was what might have been going through the mind of James Kirk in the midst of this journey. It was a sobering reflection on the days that were gone and would never be seen again. The only way to truly recapture it, in the end, was to completely reinvent the wheel. And that didn’t happen until 2009, exactly two decades later.
That much of the film is a visual experience is almost a implicit acknowledgment that, if the characters themselves had changed, Star Trek hadn’t. For once, something proved to be far bigger than any of them had seen before, or could truly grasp, and in that sense, it’s exactly what a Star Trek film should have been in 1979. It forced each of them to take stock of their lives, and determine whether their choices had been as beneficial as they once believed. It might be worth noting that Kirk didn’t regularly command a starship again until The Final Frontier, ten years later, everything preceding that an indirect continuation of his search for a new purpose.
I continually challenge others to take another look at The Motion Picture, but among the most fundamental opinions within franchise lore, chief among them is that it’s a boring failure, even though its existence did, happily, resurrect Star Trek. It was also the beginning of a film series that continues to this day, one of the most enduring ever in cinema history. For that much, it’s not hard to take pride in it.