Gabby: I hate to sound like an idiot but what on Earth happened in Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Was it two hours of people looking at stuff?
Jeremy: Pretty much. And some hazy pro-atheism statements. Was this one of your first Star Trek experiences? Because if it is, I feel bad about starting you here.
Gabby: No, thank goodness. I have seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is amazing. The 2009 Star Trek film and a few episodes of the original series of Star Trek! I am glad I wasn’t being an idiot because I felt very lost sometimes. So they are still looking at stuff…?
Brett: I started watching this on my phone and thought something might be wrong until I turned the volume up loud enough to hear that the music was playing and I noticed the star field floating through. That was three damn minutes and THEN the Paramount logo showed up. I was watching the special extended, longer than Ken Branagh’s Hamlet edition.
Jeremy: Gabby, I’m glad to hear you weren’t watching this and thinking to yourself, “Wait, this is Star Trek?”
I’ve grown quite fond of the overture in the last few years, but as much as I appreciate it now, it’s a perfect example of how out of touch this movie is with the original TV show and what audiences wanted out of a sci-fi movie in 1979.
Gabby: Wow, how long was your version Brett? Was it 5 hours of people looking at lights? And you watched it on your phone? Interesting. I kind of like what you are saying Jeremy. Because the overture might be a great example of not capturing Star Trek. The series is sooo camp it seems so strange! But if it was what lead us to Khan I am very grateful.
Jeremy: I want to know what was going on in television in the late ’60s (and no readers, the answer isn’t just drugs), because shows like Star Trek were so colorful and energetic, in a way unlike any other era of television. Even at its best, the original Star Trek is unapologetically big, earnest, and very, very silly. And I’m not sure that show was ever the one Gene Roddenberry really wanted to make.
From everything I’ve read, most of what fans love about Trek – apart from the core concept and the belief that the future will be a better place – came from other minds. This movie and the early seasons of The Next Generation are unfiltered Roddenberry, and I can never get on board with his Star Trek or what he’s trying to say with it, which is that humanity will completely overcome its flaws and baser instincts. I much prefer Nicholas Meyer’s (director of The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country) vision of Star Trek, which is about flawed characters discovering the better angels of our nature.
I hate saying it, but Roddenberry’s vision of the future is often both inspiring and dreadfully dull.
Brett: At some point whilst watching it I thought, “Kirk has been looking at The Enterprise for about the length of time Oceania has been at war with Eastasia.”
Jeremy: The look on Shatner’s face during that scene… It’s like Kirk just spotted the Enterprise on the other side of a smoky bar and is desperately coming up with the perfect pickup line.
I’m on the fence about the docking sequence. It’s too much of a good thing. There’s no denying how important the Enterprise is to Star Trek, and I can see hardcore Trek fans in 1979 weeping with joy for those three minutes. No other moment in the film says that this thing they love is back and bigger than ever before. It’s also three minutes of needless spaceship porn and reaction shots from everyone’s favorite ham.
Brett: The thing is, it’s not really a bad movie, it’s just padded and some of the things that should be explained aren’t. We never find out in the movie why Ileia’s celibacy oath being on record is important. I know that was set up for Star Trek Phase 2 and if they made that series they would have explained.
Gabby: That brings us to the production of the film, which was said to be highly problematic. Could you share some of the stories behind that production?
Brett: Once upon a time, Gene Roddenberry wanted to reboot Star Trek. They got together a lot of scripts, and actors and screen tests and stuff. But Paramount abandoned their TV channel and Star Trek Phase II died with it. The Star Wars and Close Encounters did well and they took the Pilot for phase II was turned into a movie. Plans for a movie actually came up before, there was a thing called ” Star Trek: The God Thing”, which never got off the ground because Roddenberry couldn’t stop being Roddenberry for five god damn minutes. Still, Paramount poured nearly 4 times as much money into Star Trek as Fox put into Star Wars and I think it shows. The thing is, this more like 2001 than Star Wars. It would make a good middle ground if you were going to watch all three.
The biggest problem is that it needs an unmerciful editor to cut about 30 minutes out. Some big bits, but some little trims too. It really puts Wrath of Khan into context though, you can see them consciously working with the criticism of STTMP in mind. Khan only cost 11 million rather than 45. And Khan made 97 million rather than 140. Less money, but a greater profit. The thing is, Motion picture is beautiful and contemplative. It’s not meant to be a rollicking Star Warsesque Adventure. I think most the critics at the time wanted another Star Trek and not another 2001. Star Wars, not trek. Oh hell, they wanted another Earth 2, another Babylon Five. They wanted another Auto Manor Manimal. THESE ARE ALL REAL SHOWS! He was a man that turned into animals.
Gabby: What do you both find beautiful and contemplative about it? I know atheism was brought up. I am eager to know the ideas in this movie I have missed. And Jeremy can you tell us some of your history with the film?
Jeremy: The Star Trek movies were a huge part of my childhood – especially The Wrath of Khan (the greatest movie ever). When I was a kid, I didn’t watch this one as often as the others. I always understood that something was missing, though I was in awe of its spectacle. I’d come back to it every few years, hoping to discover a better film than I remembered, not finding it, but still watching it for the experience the effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s score created.
My opinion of The Motion Picture changed with The Director’s Edition in 2001. It’s a better version of the film – not great, but better. The parallels between Spock and V’Ger’s spiritual journey finally came into focus for me. Thanks either to my own growing emotional maturity or just watching the damn thing enough times, I stated to get – even embrace – what the movie had to say about the need to grow past your upbringing and the preconceptions that come with it.
I believe, Brett, the intention for Phase 2 was to have a classic “will they, won’t they” relationship between Ilia and Decker. As I understand it, part of Roddenberry’s better tomorrow was a sexual liberation where casual sex wasn’t a big deal or awkward when you’re trapped on the same ship with the same people for five years. This was probably wishful thinking on Roddenberry’s part.
I’m not sure they could cut Ilia’s line about her celibacy without interrupting the flow of the scene, but man, I wish they had. It’s so awkward without any context. It’s like someone starting their first day at a new job by telling everyone, “Nice to meet you. Great to be on the team. But let me make it clear right now that I have no intention of doing the no pants dance with any of you. I mean it – not even hand stuff.”
Brett, I still don’t know your level of Trek fandom. I’d like to know a little more of your take on Roddenberry, because my opinion of him sadly lessens with time.
Brett: Everything I’ve read/heard about Roddenberry says he did not play well with others. Some people seem to have really liked him, but a whole lot of people really hated him. He was very married to his idea of what Trek should be, and was very unwilling to bend or adjust his idea. Studio execs hated him, and certain writers have nothing but bile when they talk about him. Actors, however, seem to overwhelmingly love him, and certain other writers have said he was the best boss they ever worked for. I mean, they basically kicked him off Trek during the production of Khan and he didn’t get back in until sometime around Next Gen. I am a fan of TOS, Next Gen. DS9… I’m less of a fan. I never saw enough of Voyager or Enterprise to know if I was a fan or not. And the movies are sometimes good and sometimes bad for me.
Jeremy: And what you say, Brett, about Roddenberry being ideologically stuck in his ways is ironic when you think about this movie, because his creative output – and what he tried to say with it – from here on is reminiscent of V’Ger’s unwillingness to accept its nature and limitations. Also, you need to give Deep Space Nine another chance, Brett.
Gabby: I watched The Director’s Edition DVD release, which runs about 2 hours long. A question back to the idea of celibacy and atheism being brought up in the film, how do you feel it influences the tone? I can see why as a child the spectacle of Star Trek would appeal.
Jeremy: It’s a maddeningly contemplative movie – especially if you’re coming to Star Trek expecting a space opera. Despite being underwritten in places, I like the journey these characters go on. For V’Ger, it’s about casting aside the belief that a higher power created it. V’ger is flawed, ignorant, limited – and the first step in growing past these limitations is admitting that. Oh, and by having some freaky, glowy space sex. Again, Roddenberry…
This movie is about characters acknowledging they’ve come to dead ends in their lives, thanks to their own choices, and finding new directions for themselves. I rather like that.
Gabby: Brett what are the good areas for you?
Brett: Visually, the movie is a perfect vision. It’s a view into what the Star Trek universe should look like. It doesn’t look like a set, it feels real in a way only the best sci-fi can ever manage. It’s very impressive.
Jeremy: Agreed. The Motion Picture ended up defining the look of Star Trek going forward. The costumes – the most pajama-y of all Star Trek uniforms – are the only weak link in the visual design. As a kid, I always knew movies weren’t real, but the first two Star Trek movies got very close to convincing me that there wasn’t anyone behind the curtain. These worlds were alive and out there somewhere, waiting for kids like me to find them.