Movies · TV

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the Black Sheep of the Franchise

By  · Published on July 22nd, 2016

With marketing for Star Trek Beyond calling back to it, we look back at The Motion Picture.

As the Enterprise crew gets set to boldly go where no man has gone before in Star Trek Beyond, an opportunity arises to look at the first big screen adventure of Captain James T. Kirk and Spock. Star Trek Beyond has certainly embraced Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the posters deliberately call back to the film. Why would Star Trek Beyond want to draw comparisons to what is widely considered to be the black sheep of the franchise? Perhaps they envision Trekkies far and wide are nostalgic and nostalgia is the hottest commodity in town.

Left: Star Trek Beyond (2016) Right: Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979)

Bringing back the franchise and appeasing fans aside, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an abhorrent film. Paramount was excited to launch a Sci-fi film that was more in line with Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Star Wars after their humongous box office takes, but what they got was a lot closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The latter being more concerned with philosophy and science, not exactly what worked for Star Wars. Instead of relying on fun (the backbone of Star Trek: The Original Series), Star Trek: The Motion Picture doubles down on seriousness.

With a prologue that sets up a blue space cloud as an enemy stronger than the Klingons, James T. Kirk is called upon to lead the Enterprise into battle. It had been sometime since the last adventures and Kirk had been promoted out of command of a space vessel. Instead, he spends his days behind a desk. This new alien threat is the perfect opportunity to regain command of the Enterprise and set off into the final frontier once again.

After gaining control of the Enterprise, Kirk and the crew must investigate this new threat. Of course, all the Enterprise crew beloved on the television series eventually shows up to join the mission including Uhura, Chekov, Bones, Sulu, and Spock. They head off toward the giant space cloud and discover that it is an entity that calls itself V’Ger. Of course, this is all built up as the most dangerous mission the Enterprise has ever attempted and who knows what they will find. This all sounds fine for a typical Star Trek mission, but this was supposed to be something grand.

Captain James T. Kirk: Evaluation, Mr. Spock.

Commander Spock: Fascinating.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the pace at which the story develops. How slow are we talking about here? We are talking abnormally slow. Turn on your coffee machine and brew a pot slow. Remember that in the age of light speed, it takes Kirk and Scotty four minutes to travel to the Enterprise, where most of that time is spent by the special effects team patting themselves on the back.

The scene stars with the promise from Scotty that the Enterprise will “Launch on time and be ready”. Well not if it takes this long to get there. The sequence continues with glazed over stares from Kirk and Scotty at the wonder before them. It’s almost as if Kirk has never seen a Starfleet vessel before or perhaps it is the equivalent of waiting for his first look at his bride.

The only thing that is redeeming about the sequence is the terrific score from Jerry Goldsmith. Honestly, you would get the same benefit from listening to the soundtrack separately. This is something that could’ve been accomplished much quicker, but artificially adds to the run-time of the movie, which is something it suffers from repeatedly.

Director Robert Wise was working from a script for a TV pilot as Star Trek was originally supposed to return to TV screens not multiplexes. Meaning what could’ve been an enjoyable television episode, had to be expanded from an hour and a half pilot (two hours with commercials), to a two and a half hour feature film. Star Trek: The Motion Picture even has an overture for added measure. Often called “Star Trek: The Motion-less Picture”, it certainly earns its moniker and then some.

Lt. Ilia: [Ilia the probe] You are the Kirk Unit. You will assist me.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the original cast return, but the crew is a little worse for wear. When Kirk returns to the Enterprise, he not so much asks for his position back, but leaves little ultimatum. Spock has decided to return to Starfleet, since he has a feeling that there is unfinished business he has to attend to. Bones feels like he has been drafted back into the military, though he looks like he has been enjoying his retirement. The only explanation that Kirk needs for Bones is “There is a thing out there. I need you,” and off they go into the great unknown. These are supposed to be returning characters that were loved from their hit series making a glorious return, but they act disinterested and imposed upon. That is only sampling of how the original cast fares in the movie, but of course there are new characters to contend with as well.

Stephen Collins (Decker) and Persis Khambatta (Ilya) are the two major additions to the cast for The Motion Picture. Decker was the man assigned as captain of the Enterprise, who gets his command basically usurped. His purpose is to provide an antagonist figure against James T. Kirk, but humorously he comes off better than Kirk. Ilya exists solely as a sex object for the film, as one of her lines showcasing her vital importance is “My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain.” When she becomes an avatar for V’Ger, her character hasn’t been developed enough to really miss and Khambatta’s poor acting is actually better suited as a vessel for artificial intelligence. If the tedium of the film didn’t rely on the actors to give life to it, maybe these roles could be forgiven. Unfortunately, these actors and the returning cast are supposed to be the captivating characters that move the film away from the special effects bonanza, but fail mightily.

Lambasting Star Trek: The Motion Picture is easy once the novelty of it actually existing had subsided. That alone was enough for Star Trek fans. They lost their beloved show after only three seasons on the air and they never imagined to see Captain Kirk again, never mind on the big screen. It took ten years for the powers that be (Paramount and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) to put together the revival and fans were ecstatic to see the special effects and the Enterprise as they never saw it before. For all of the many problems of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it resuscitated a dormant franchise and allowed for it to continue until today. It’s just a shame that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is such a bore.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.