I was a huge fan of sci-fi as a kid, to the point where I’d watch just about anything featuring spaceships, aliens and lasers. Star Wars is to blame; coming out the same year that I was born, it was always just there – I seemed to be around and at my most impressionable when hype was building for the first two sequels too, with The Empire Strikes Back being the first film I remember seeing on the big screen.
Despite seeing the 60s Star Trek re-runs on TV a lot in the 80s though, I wasn’t a massive fan. I watched it a lot and I got pretty excited when – in 1987 – The Next Generation premiered, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to obsessively see every episode. I watched the films and always found them a little lacking – at least until the eighth instalment, First Contact, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Culturally, I knew that Star Trek was a big deal; I’d heard of Trekkies, of course, but hadn’t really known any – most kids my age were as Star Wars-obsessed as I was but had little fondness for Trek.
So when I first recorded Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS when it was broadcast on TV (and if that statement doesn’t make me sound old, I don’t know what will) in the mid-80s, I don’t really know what I was expecting – but I didn’t enjoy it at all. It’s only recently – following the 2009, JJ Abrams reboot kicking off the ‘Kelvin Timeline’ – that I properly started to appreciate OG Trek, TNG and so on; perhaps now that my tastes have matured somewhat, I can appreciate the more thoughtful, deliberately paced nature that we see in the majority of Star Trek shows and movies.
I thought it was about time, then, that I checked out the movies again. To watch them now, as an adult, in chronological order (something I’ve never done, incidentally – having watched them randomly when they were on TV; the only one I ever saw on the big screen in full was First Contact). Which brings us here, again – to the very beginning: 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
First, some more history. Star Trek was famously cancelled before the Enterprise’s five year mission to explore strange new worlds and go where no man (or no one, as it was amended to in The Next Generation) had gone before could be completed. Its fanbase was outrageously dedicated and vocal, which was not an easy feat, decades before the rise of social media. Campaigns to bring Star Trek back were numerous and frequent; attempts to launch a ‘Star Trek: Phase Two’ faltered and an early 70s animated series didn’t have anywhere near the same impact as the live action series.
So I have absolutely no doubt that, following the phenomenal success of Star Wars and the resurgence of sci-fi that it kicked off (with the success of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind being the film that convinced Paramount that a Star Trek movie could be successful), the fact that Star Trek got the opportunity to return (and on the big screen, too!) was an absolutely massive event in 1979. Being too young to experience it first hand, I can only imagine how immense it must have been, how much it must have meant to the fans that had – for years – tirelessly written letters en masse to try and revive Trek or pack out conventions to keep it alive.
The film itself has a plot that feels as if it could have been told over the course of a normal, original series episode for the most part: a sentient cloud of energy is approaching Earth – and Starfleet task the Enterprise with intercepting it. Kirk – now a Starfleet Admiral, keen to get back in the saddle, manoeuvres himself into the position of command of the recently upgraded Enterprise, shunting aside her new Captain and gathering together his old crewmates to put a stop to the energy cloud’s relentless advance.
There’s a reason that people often refer to Star Trek: The Motion Picture as Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture. It moves at an absolutely glacial pace; it wants us to feel the awe and wonder of seeing the Enterprise and its crew on the big screen – to marvel at the very fact that they’re back. It spends far too much time doing this, though; there’s a sequence where we’re reintroduced to the Enterprise – with Scotty piloting a shuttle, accompanied by Kirk – that goes on and on, showing us the ship from numerous angles while Jerry Goldsmith’s score operatically swells. In 1979, 10 years since the last original series episode had its first broadcast (before falling into syndication and endless re-runs), this must have felt like a big deal. Long term fans would have likely been in awe at every second of this unfolding – but it genuinely feels like it lasts an eternity. It doesn’t help that the ambition to provide such spectacle is often undone by the special effects, which vary wildly in quality.
The same can be said of the effects throughout the rest of the film; we’re often presented with long, effects heavy sequences that are supposed to impress with their scale and grandeur, but which fall down due to clunky matte work or obvious matte paintings (if in doubt, blame matte!). There are still quite a few shots that do impress, however – and the main antagonist vessel at the heart of the cloud is pretty well rendered for the most part, with some lovely work with light and colour.
One aspect of the film that dates it horrendously are the very 70s beige Enterprise interiors and pastel Starfleet uniforms. Kirk rocking a tight white t-shirt doesn’t do him – or the viewer – any favours either.
There’s a bizarre handling of Kirk throughout to be honest; he’s supposed to be this driven, passionate guy who just wants to be back at the helm of a ship – his ship – but he comes across as such a colossal dick about it all, that it’s really hard to sympathise with him at any point. The same can be said for a few other of the original crew members – Spock just seems cold and completely detached from most of what’s going on (and his awkward, too convenient arrival on the Enterprise doesn’t help) and Bones just seems to be a grumpy old geezer who’s just there for the sake of it (his introduction to proceedings is incredibly bizarre too). Poor Uhura suffers the most; she’s there for little more than the odd line of exposition. The ‘new’ crew members don’t fare much better, though you do have sympathy for Kirk’s ‘rival’ – the younger, more chiselled and more qualified Captain Decker.
It’s a struggle to get through in one sitting – and an extremely unsatisfying, frustratingly sluggish watch. Though the reveal of what the energy cloud is turns out to be a really clever concept, we spend way too much time getting there and what we sit through is incredibly indulgent in so many ways. Though Kirk’s character may be fitting for someone who’s reached a non-spacefaring position in Starfleet and yearns to be back in charge of his old vessel, the script – and Shatner’s performance – render him particularly unlikeable. The old crew feel like they’re in the mix conveniently and not out of any specific need to be involved. It tries hard to reach a 2001: A Space Odyssey level of awe and profundity, but struggles to have anything particularly interesting to say. It evolved from a script that was to be used for the pilot episode of a new TV series – this is painfully obvious, as it does feel unreasonably stretched out to feature length.
There’s an old line of thinking amongst Trek fans that only the even numbered films were any good; though this has always been arguable – with an entry or two along the way (both odd and even!) disproving this – and was definitely broken by the tenth film, it definitely started with the first sequel: The Wrath of Khan. Going by what I remember, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a genuinely excellent film. Does it hold up though? Hopefully, we’ll find out soon…
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