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William I. Lengeman III
Sun, Mar 1, 2020, 1:32pm (UTC -6)
Re: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

My peak Star Trek watching years came in the seventies. Those of us who were too young to catch the show when it first aired in the mid-sixties could gorge ourselves on seemingly endless reruns of three seasons worth of shows. It was a far cry from Netflix and calling up any episode any time but we made do.

As the seventies wound down my interest in Star Trek waned and I wasn’t really cognizant of what came along later — four more TV series and a heap of movies. I sought to rectify this in the early years of the new century, watching as many TV episodes as possible and some of the movies, but my intake of the latter was sporadic.

So with the recent announcement of yet another Star Trek TV series I decided it was as good a time as any to rewatch the movies. What better place to start than with Star Trek Movie: The Motion Picture, the one that kicked it off. I’d seen bits and pieces of it over the years but as it unfolded I realized I had never seen it all the way through.

Even though it was the first instance of live-action Star Trek in more than a decade, the first movie doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. Of the original cast movies, only The Final Frontier ranks lower, as measured by the thoroughly scientific and foolproof method of Rotten Tomatoes rankings. The only other movie of the bunch to rank lower than The Motion Picture is Nemesis.

My aim is not to be a contrarian, but I actually liked TMP quite well. Which is not to say that it didn’t have its share of shortcomings, because it did. Yes, those endless shots of the Enterprise were well done but they got to be a bit much. Yes, those interminable shots of the Enterprise making its way through the innards of the big dumb object were very well done, especially by 1979 standards, but they too were a bit much. And that’s just for starters. But for the most part I thought the good outweighed the bad.

The history of TMP has been covered elsewhere much more capably than I could hope to so I’ll summarize very briefly. Suffice to say that after the original series was axed, ideas for another series and a movie were tossed around and the movie finally won out. Which surely had nothing whatsoever to do with the success of late Seventies SF hits like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

To summarize the plot in the broadest terms, Earth finds itself threatened by the aforementioned big dumb object. Coincidentally the Enterprise is the only starship in position to be able to save the day. The audience is treated to long, lingering glances of the ship in drydock before Admiral Kirk comes aboard, wrests command from the existing captain, gathers the old gang about him and sets off to make things right. There’s a decent twist at the end of it all this which explains what the BDO is and what it was up to and there’s a halfhearted romantic subplot that’s resolved at about the same time.

As I’ve already suggested, there’s an okay movie at the heart of all this. The BDO (which is pretty knowledgeable, mind you, but lacking in street smarts) is a promising concept, as far as these things go, and is presented in a manner that conjures up all that stirring science fictional sense of wonder type stuff. In terms of concept (and pacing) I’d venture that TMP isn’t that far removed from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But while Kubrick had a way of transforming the glacial pace of his yarn into something stylish and gripping, TMP director Robert Wise seemed to lack that rare skill. It should be noted that he took another crack at it some years later, with a director’s edition, but this was not the version that I watched.

I’ll close with a few random observations.

The theatrical release debuted on the 38th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Make of it what you will.

Dr. McCoy’s first appearance here — sporting a spiffy Grizzly Adams beard and growling like a cranky grizzly bear — livens up the proceedings considerably. He’s used to good effect elsewhere, especially when he’s acting as Kirk’s conscience and daring to actually question his motives. The more TOS I rewatch the more I like the doctor.

Spock’s first appearance — ice ice, baby.

The uniforms weren’t much of an improvement over the TV show but at least they ditched those absurd mini-skirts. Except for Ilia, who sports the mini-skirt to end all mini-skirts and high heels, to boot. Why ask why.

Seeing a large group of crew members in one place once again raises the question of what they all do. One assumes that automation must be very sophisticated this far into the future. So what need is there for 400 or so crew members? I shouldn’t skip ahead but let’s note that in The Search for Spock a handful of the core cast members manage to operate the Enterprise quite nicely by themselves.

Klingon 2.0. The vaguely “Oriental” and “swarthy” Klingons of yesteryear have now given way to big imposing types with sporty body armor and latex headpieces.
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