In Defense of Robert Wise’s Star Trek – The Motion Picture


Having discovered that surprisingly it wasn’t just me that adored William Shatner’s Star Trek only directorial effort, I thought I’d push my luck again and explain why I think Star Trek – The Motion Picture also deserves our love and respect.

Of course, the story of The Motion Picture doesn’t start in 1979. We need to go back a few years prior and chart its rocky journey to movie theaters. But before we do, let’s set the scene:

Star Trek The Motion Picture Teaser Image

I was just 8 years old when it hit cinema screens and my excitement was triggered and my curiosity piqued by the teaser image that adorned the back cover of any number of Marvel comics published in the lead up to December ’79. You should know the image of which I speak: the USS Enterprise (not quite the one from the TV series and not quite the one we’d get to see in the movie itself) at a slant, against the backdrop of some kind of planet or moon. Along the footer, small rectangular photos of the main cast. And that was it. No tagline. No indication in thy image of what the plot entailed (sorry, I meant in the image… no idea what made me accidentally type that. Ahem) and what we could expect. And in context, I was probably too young to even think about such things. All I had, too, was my Dinky Toys Starship Enterprise and a consciousness of the series that had been running on BBC Television. But I loved that image (I stuck in on my bedroom wall) and I knew it was of a toy I loved playing with.

It was only a mere handful of years later when I started researching the show and its movies that I discovered the USS Enterprise on the teaser poster was actually derived from an unmade TV series (I was even more surprised to learn that there had been a cartoon show as well!). Back then in the UK, we didn’t have the exposure that we have so easily now, and so many intrinsic details simply weren’t available to me in my innocent formative Trek years.  Not knowing much about Star Trek seems such a long time ago now.

So anyway…how did end up with Star Trek – The Motion Picture?

The background:

It started life (as is well-known) as Star Trek – Phase II, a sequel series to the original that became nothing more than an intriguing concept. Just like Star Trek Voyager actually did in 1995 for the United Paramount Network, Phase II was intended to help launch the (ultimately shelved) Paramount Television Service in 1977.  Many of the original cast were in place with some new faces in new roles: Will Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta), the former taking the position as Kirk’s executive officer and one who would, in essence, take the captain’s place on missions off the Enterprise (because the captain’s place was on the bridge). However, it’s hard to imagine though that William Shatner would have accepted staying out of the action for long. This was a set-up that became common-place in Star Trek The Next Generation, with Riker fulfilling that role and his relationship with Troi being gleaned from Decker’s with Ilia.  Leonard Nimoy didn’t want to return, so the character of Xon was developed, with a twist on the Vulcan-Human looking to become fully Vulcan by having this new, young Vulcan finding out what it meant to be human. When Nimoy eventually signed to reprise his role as Spock, actor David Gautreaux was recast in a minor role as the quickly despatched Commander Branch. It’s clear though that Data was eventually born from Xon’s character outline with Brent Spiner embodying much of what Xon had the potential to be.

The Enterprise herself had an overhaul with new nacelles, shoulder arms, and secondary hull. Other slight tweaks were made but she was without a shadow of a doubt, easily recognizable.

When it was announced that Phase II would cease production (sets and props had been partially built, costumes designed) it shifted over to motion picture status (and this was where Nimoy’s interested was kick-started). We’ve got Star Wars to thank for that (a notion that Star Wars fans do occasionally like to remind us of, even to this day): sci-fi was big again and Paramount was keen to ride the wave.

So a weekly to-be-syndicated budget series based on a much-loved 60s sci-fi show became a full-blown movie with a $46 million price tag.  For Phase II‘s stormy life, you could do no worse than track this excellent book down.

The story:

From a treatment for Phase II’s pilot, called ‘In Thy Image‘, the idea of a machine that became self-aware had been an idea that Star Trek had touched on before. The 1967 episode ‘The Changeling‘ told the tale of Nomad, a 21st Century Earth-based deep space exploration probe that had malfunctioned in a meteor storm and had merged with Tan Ru, an alien probe with a similar function. The enhanced Nomad was on the hunt for the Creator, in this instance Dr. Jackson Roykirk, who built and programmed it. It confused Kirk with Roykirk and in true James T. fashion, the captain talked the machine into a nervous breakdown.

With Nomad changed to Voyager 18 in the updated version, Tan Ru a nameless machine planet and the Creator becoming humanity in general, ‘In Thy Image’ was written by Harold Livingston from a story treatment by Alan Dean Foster and based on ‘Robot’s Return’ by Gene Roddenberry. Nobody seems to mention John Meredyth Lucas, though.

With some further massaging, it was restructured to fit the format of a motion picture and the original ‘In Thy Image’ was relegated to legend.

The criticism:

Admittedly, The Motion Picture is weighed down by us staring at the screen staring at the characters staring at another screen.

It has even been given the moniker ‘The Slow Motion Picture’. So is this the only problem with the finished movie? To be honest, that’s the only one I can see.

Star Trek Phase II

The characters:

Yes, throughout all the special effects, there are character moments.

Absolutely none of them play against type or contradict their original appearances from the TV show. In fact, every single one of them is fully realized, fully embracing personalities developed over 10 years before in 100 or so episodes (I’m including the 3-year run and the animated series, here).

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Kirk is noticeably older (perhaps nearly three years as Head of Starfleet Operations aged him as well as making him a little stale) but his steely determination is still pretty on point. He was always a driven and focused individual, passionate and powerful, and his goal to get back into space and start captaining a starship again is absolutely true to form. In fact, why in the Nexus he preferred a life chopping wood and frying eggs when he could have relived his glory days never made any sense to me. His ruthlessness towards Decker but with a compassion, only William Shatner could inject is Kirk through and through. And I can’t let this article go by without a mention of that scene…the one with Enterprise in dry-dock and Scotty’s chauffeuring of Kirk around her. Many people ridicule Shatner’s acting as wooden and stilted…but here he is, an actor looking at absolutely nothing in front of him…yet the love on his face, the wonder, the adoration, the joy…all in complete silence. It’s William Shatner’s most perfect acting moment and he showed here in just five minutes Kirk’s unalloyed love for his Enterprise.

Spock attempting to shed all human emotion, having returned to Vulcan following the end of Kirk’s five-year mission, perfectly complements the struggles he went through (and make even more sense in light of his time with his sister). His journey to seek answers and using the Cloud Incident to do so is exactly what a Vulcan battling with his identity would do. His return from the mind-meld and his disappointment, his tears – yes, his tears – take Spock to a whole new level.

McCoy ramps up his irascibility – which is understandable following him resigning his commission then getting redrafted – but is soon shoulder to shoulder with his beloved friend and captain. He is the voice of reason as ever – in fact, more than ever.

The three of them have some good solid scenes together, particularly in Kirk’s quarters soon after Spock’s arrival. McCoy even questions Spock’s state of mind and reason for being aboard. As three men who have known each other for a while, they are spiky with each other but wholly respectful. This would be an approach carried through into the establishing scenes in The Wrath of Khan.

Scotty is proud of this newly refitted starship – and why not? Just look at her! She’s beautiful! He is back in the engine room and relishing in the new technology. After all, the Enterprise had been out in deep space for years so many of the advancements now installed would have been in part already adopted across other Federation vessels. Some are trial pieces and Scotty can’t get his hands dirty quick enough.

Uhura, Sulu, Chapel, and Chekov are all in their customary places, too as if they never left. While this does seem a little far-fetched that the same crew compliment would staff a refitted version of the ship they served on for nigh on 5 years, I guess we as the audience needed the familiarity of old faces in new places. It’s the little moments too that solidify this film as something special: take the moment where the crew have watched the feed of the destruction of the Epsilon IX station and a stirred but not shaken Kirk has to repeat his command to a very worried Uhura to switch the viewer off…it’s just one human moment that this film is full of (and sadly it’s missing from the Director’s Edition).

The new legacy:

From this point onwards, every design of every armchair, of every console, of every corridor of every everything of every starship springs.

If there was ever perfect developing visual continuity across the subsequent iterations of the franchise by multiple production teams, it’s The Motion Picture we acquiesce to.

It’s astonishing to think that there was so much care taken to get this so right and it will be exciting to see what the new Picard series will do (and I agree that it is a shame that Enterprise and Discovery, being set in the series’ past, got it so wrong from a design point of view).

The music:

I’m going to cheat here and supply the link to my (admittedly gushing) previous article on Jerry Goldsmith’s score.

The direction:

Robert Wise, for all the issues leveled at the film for everyone just standing around doing lots of staring, captured the action and the emotion perfectly. The idea of a sentient spacecraft was at the time pretty tricky to realize, I would have imagined, but he made V’ger a character in its own right. He gave us Decker and Ilia, two new characters that jumped off the page with a backstory and a purpose that we believed. He let the Big Three emote, become characters beyond what The Original Series allowed them to do and paving the way for everything that came after.

The impact:

Without The Motion Picture, there would have truly been no resurgence in popularity that warranted multiple spin-offs. Star Trek would have been remembered as a 60s series that yes, may have had a solid fan-base, but would not have had the incredible life that its rebirth in 1979 gave it. In fact, it would have most likely wallowed in development hell for decades until someone came along in the 21st Century and pitched a new series for a company like Netflix based on the old property. Just imagine what that would have been like, all modern and flashy and contemporary…

Related Story. In Defense of William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. light

So yes, there is a legacy The Motion Picture began and yes, we should acknowledge that. But go back and watch it again. Consider its thoughtful nature and that it captures the very heart of what makes the franchise great: the contemplative approach, the human conflict, the technology, the drama, the wonder, and the hope and then try and tell me it’s not Star Trek.

Because it sure feels, sounds and looks like it to me.