I’d like to tell you a story, a true one, about Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
STTMP was released in December 1979, a decade after the TV show was canceled. Up until then, those of us who loved Trek had been subsisting on reruns and novels. The first Trek novel was fittingly written by James Blish, who had novelized the TV episodes. Spock Must Die was derivative but with a twist and it was an enjoyable read. I recall tremendously enjoying The Price of the Phoenix by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath, a book that made clear the untapped potential of Star Trek.
But then word came that a movie was in the offing, and fans held their collective breath. This was in the wake of the massive success of Star Wars, and the studios were looking for intellectual property they could leverage to reach similar heights. Science fiction movies, after all, were suddenly “in”, and a Star Trek movie must have seemed a no-brainer.
And so, after a long buildup and a seemingly endless wait, it was released. In Ottawa, Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened at the Elgin theatre downtown. This was in the days before cineplexes. When you entered a movie theatre, there was a small area in which you could purchase tickets and snacks, and then you proceeded directly to the auditorium. When there was a lineup, you waited outside. Now, we’re talking about Ottawa in December in the 1970’s. Winters were very cold. There was a lot of snow. And the night my roommate and I walked to the theatre, it was cold and dark with tall piles of snow all around us. As it turned out, although we arrived early, the showing was sold out. So we and a lot of other people stood outside and waited to get into the next one. Why? Because this was STAR TREK. And we were highly motivated. And young. That helps too.
I want to emphasize, in case it isn’t obvious, that the audience was really was up for this. I don’t mean that expectations were sky high, but rather, that it would have been easy to make us happy. An above average episode would have done it.
After a long wait in the cold winter night, we took our seats. The lights dimmed, and there was applause before the movie even left dry dock. The opening credits rolled on the screen. William Shatner. YAY! Leonard Nimoy. YAY! And so on.
Sadly, that enthusiasm waned rather quickly, and at times the audience laughed at the movie. Not with the movie. At the movie. “[Bones.] I need you. Badly.” Laughter. Later on, “You mean this machine wants to physically join with a human?” Decker and Illia exchange longing glances. Laughter. There were probably other examples, I don’t remember. In the end, as the grumbling, disappointed audience left their seats, the feeling was that the plot was derivative (see the episode “The Changling”), the script was wooden, and the actors spent far too much time staring out the window in wonder.
William Shatner was among those unhappy with the result. After The Wrath of Khan was released to near rapturous reviews, he pointed out that STTMP had a much higher budget (in fact, it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time) but “it wasn’t a good movie.” His words. TWoK, he said, had a smaller budget, but was a much better one.
There are some positives, of course. One review at the time said that STTMP was nearer in tone to 2001: A Space Odyssey than to Star Wars, and that this was the ultimate compliment. In retrospect, it’s quite something to see the cast looking so young and fit. William Shatner had gained quite a bit of weight after Star Trek was cancelled, but to his credit he got himself back in fighting trim for the movie. There were certainly some amazing visuals. In the Director’s Edition, the special effects were completed and missing scenes reinserted. These helped to make sense of the thing. In particular, the scene where Spock realizes that V’ger is incapable of understanding the simplest (of human) feelings was one of the best in the revised movie.
If you like STTMP, I’m not trying to tell you that you’re wrong, not by any means. Obviously, there is no concept of wrong. Art touches everybody differently. But I have to be honest and say I’m puzzled by the number of very positive comments I’ve seen lately, particularly since the 4K version was released. I’m well aware that a movie shot on film can appear quite spectacular in 4K, but improving the visuals does nothing to solve the problems listed above. For a generation who was hungry for more Trek, we who viewed the film upon its release felt that STTMP limped out of dry dock on impulse power alone. The Enterprise didn’t achieve warp speed until the release of The Wrath of Khan.