Friday 11 October 2013

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

I didn't mean for this to happen. I only watched the 2009 Star Trek movie on TV this year so that I wouldn't be completely lost when my friends organised a trip to see Into Darkness at the cinema. But something about the USS Enterprise and her crew caught at my imagination, and I'd be at work on a quiet day and find myself staring into space, thinking about Spock and Kirk and all the rest. No! I told myself, There is a line, and once you've crossed it, once you've got into Star Trek, there's no going back. Yet I went to my friend Sam, who has always been a bit of a Trekkie and conveniently owns most of the boxsets, and borrowed the first Original Series season. I planned to watch the first Original Series, and the first Next Generation series, and maybe a few odd episodes she could recommend for me, just to get an overview of the story. And then, somehow I found myself watching all three seasons in as many months. Perhaps part of me, subconsciously, always knew I could not watch Star Trek casually, because for me there are no half measures: I am either indifferent to a story world or utterly engrossed in it. And in Star Trek, there are a lot of worlds to get engrossed in.

It was my birthday last week, and one of my presents from my parents was the boxset of the first ten Star Trek movies. (6 with the original cast, 3 with the Next Generation cast, and Generations, which features both.) I don't plan to rush through the films as I did with the series, because I have become very attached to Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al, and though I'm excited about getting to know Captain Picard (do I need to know anything other than that he is Patrick Stewart?) and crew, I don't feel quite ready to see the Enterprise without the characters I've grown to love.

The Motion Picture opens several years after we last met Kirk and the crew. In the TV series, not a lot changed from week to week; you could watch the episodes in any order, as the status quo was always restored by the end of the story, no matter who got married, wounded or fatally ill. (Except for the fallen redshirts, who tended to remain dead, Jim! So it is interesting to come back to the 'verse some time after the five-year mission has ended. The central trio of the cast have all gone their separate ways. James T. Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, and yet his heart still belongs to the Enterprise. (I felt that there was a sort of sadness in this renowned officer yearning for his past glories.) Spock has returned to his home planet of Vulcan, where he is attempting to get rid of those pesky things called emotions once and for all. But something calls to him from among the stars, and apparently he is not as coldly detached as he'd let on. Also, he is in serious need of a haircut.

One can only hope there is a decent Starfleet barber, because Spock is not alone in needing his services. Doctor "Bones" McCoy makes his first appearance with a pretty terrible beard. For reasons undisclosed, McCoy has put his Starfleet days behind him, where he wants them to stay. It was hinted in some episodes that McCoy's life was not what he had hoped for. He did his duty as ship's chief medical officer, uncomplaining (well... often complaining, but not feeling sorry for himself) yet never really happy. I suppose his friendship with Jim (and, though he'd never admit to it, Spock) made life aboard the Enterprise more tolerable, but they have since taken different paths. It is not long, however, before the old crew are all back together - Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov are all right where we left them, and they head off out into the stars to face an unknown foe known as V'Ger, which threatens Earth. It's familiar territory for Star Trek, but the story's conclusion surprised and awed me. It was definitely a story of its era, and I imagine it would have been even more thrilling to have watched at the height of the space age in the 1970s. (This month, too, was a pretty appropriate time to watch the movie for the first time.)

I had been warned that odd-numbered Star Trek films are (to put it politely) not as good as the even-numbers. The Motion Picture was certainly somewhat strange, felt very, very different from the series, and had some strange special effects. I read that it was intended to be a 2001: A Space Odyssey for the 1970s. There are some striking similarities, notably the looooong, indulgent shots of space scenery with grand music (though no monkeys and no freaky giant space baby!) It is more atmospheric than plot-driven. Yes, it is slow, but watching it while knitting at the end of a long day, I found it almost soothing. But I felt that the characters were underused; the relationships between the central trio were strained and awkward, perhaps because they had been apart for so long.

When Spock returned to the Enterprise, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Instead of his usual cold disdain, Spock seemed almost angry to be there. The banter between him and McCoy fell flat. Perhaps it was that the characters had to get used to each other after a long time apart. It had been a while since Spock had been among humans and their strange ways, and maybe their illogical ways reminded him of his recent failure. But upon discovering what a purely logical existence is like, Spock acknowledges and accepts that he does have emotions, and that the Vulcan ideal towards which he has been striving his whole life is not what he wants after all. Which emotions, specifically? Which "simple feeling?" It is most unlike Spock to be so vague, but then, so is speaking of emotions as anything other than a failing of character. It is not a subject that comes easily to him, while clasping Kirk's hand and looking into his eyes... Subtext? No. Not this time.

Reading up on Star Trek: The Motion Picture online, I was not surprise to find that it is widely disliked. Its 2001-esque pacing verges on the ridiculous at times, and I really missed the depth of character from the TV series. I found it interesting in an experimental sort of way, and quite watchable for a lazy evening, but I would be disappointed if all the films were in this style. Next up: The Wrath of Khan. I have high expectations for that one. Also tissues.


  1. Star Trek is one fan-favourite fictional world I've never dived into. Due to the wealth of TV shows and films and everything else there is to do with it, I can totally believe you that it's easy to get lost in. Hmm, I do like finding something new to be a fan of...

    1. Beware! Once you've crossed the line into Trekkiedom, there is no going back! But they are fantastic stories, brilliant characters, and I REGRET NOTHING!


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