Who Knew Space Was So Boring?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

To understand the story of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, you first have to understand the history that came before. After The Original Series, Paramount really wanted to try and get a new version of Star Trek off the ground. While fans appreciated having even The Animated Series, what Paramount really wanted was something they could sell, something that would bring in big advertising revenue. Their idea was to launch a new version of the live-action series which would be called Star Trek: Phase II, a true continuation of the Enterprise's original five year mission.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This new series was to have been one of the highlights of a proposed Paramount Network that would, at the time, compete with the other big three TV stations -- ABC, CBS, and NBC. But then the network's plans fell through (meaning we wouldn't get a real Paramount network until the short-lived UPN decades later), and Phase II was scrapped. However, paramount still wanted more Star Trek, so the decision was made to take the pilot for Phase II and convert it into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This is why, in short, the movie feels like an overly-long episode. So very overly long. Interminably long. Just, like, really, really long.

In the movie, the Enterprise (which has just undergone an extensive retrofit) is called into action to face against a giant space probe/killer cloud. The probe/cloud had already taken out three Klingon ships and a Federation starbase without breaking a sweat, and it's the Enterprise's job to figure out what the probe wants and how to stop it. To that end, Admiral Kirk (Shatner) takes over the Enterprise (temporarily demoting her new leader, Captain William Decker -- Stephen Collins -- to the rank of Commander). They then fly the Enterprise out to the probe, and then into the cloud to try and find out what's going on. Eventually, the probe, going by the name of V-Ger, makes contact with the crew by taking over the body of a crew member, Ilia (Persis Khambatta) and converting it into a living bio-organic machine.

This new probe then inspects the ship, and her crew, to learn all she can about the Enterprise and Earth. Her goal is to find out where V-Ger's creator is (since they were expecting the creator to be on Earth) and then merge with the creator. The problem is the creator isn't answering and V-Ger didn't like that. Kirk and his crew have to figure out what's really going on and find a way to stop V-Ger from killing everyone on Earth.

Conceptually, I kind of like what The Motion Picture wanted to do. Once you can get deep enough into the film, it actually has a decent hook that draws you in, plus it's got a pretty decent twist that actually works within the universe of the movie. Spoiler for a 40 year old movie: V-Ger is actually Voyager 6, a space probe sent out by NASA to find information about the universe and send it back to NASA. Since this movie came out two years after the two Voyager probes were launched and while, sure, we never actually got four more Voyagers after that, I still like the idea that this space probe went out, got lost in space, upgraded by some far off race of intelligent beings, and then sent back to Earth to finish its mission. That's a great story.

The problem is all of the film around that story. It takes forever for The Motion Picture to ever get to that part of the story, or any story for that matter. Hell, the Enterprise doesn't even leave space dock for 35 minutes and it takes another 40 minutes for anything remotely interesting to really happen. That's an hour and fifteen minutes of, essentially, flying around the Enterprise to look at how pretty it is and then flying through a giant space cloud to see how interesting it is. An hour and fifteen minutes of padding, basically. The meat of the movie comes in the last hour and then just ends abruptly. So much of the movie could have been trimmed and no one would have cared and, maybe, in the process, the actually interesting section of the movie could have been punched up to be a real movie in its own right.

The plot of the movie is perfectly in line with the kinds of stories The Original Series liked to tell: weird mysteries in space that require the crew to think logically, act from their hearts, and, sometimes, cheat to solve the day. The Motion Picture, because it was really meant to be a Phase II episode, is nothing more than an episode of the TV series stretched way beyond its intended length and padded with so much superfluous nonsense. It really sucks.

It sucks even more because there's a lot to like within the movie. New characters Ilia and Decker have solid chemistry together, a past history of romance and love. The scenes they share together fire. Sadly, we barely get any scenes together. Their romance is simply there to facilitate some kind of ending, but because the movie undersells it, the love and sacrifice that comes from the ending doesn't land. When Decker gives himself to join with the Ilia-machine and, in the process, V-Ger itself, this should be a big sweeping moment. Hell, the movie plays it like a big sweeping moment. But it doesn't land. We barely care about Decker, or Ilia, so who gives a crap if they go off with V-Ger never to be seen again?

There's a lot of that in this movie. Sure Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (Hikaru Sulu), and Chekov (Walter Koenig) are in the film. Are they given anything to do? Nope. When an engineering problem comes up, Spock (Nimoy) solves it instead of Scotty despite it being, you know, Scotty's one job on the ship. When someone needs to communicate with the probe, that should be Uhura's job, and yet Spock is at it again. Sulu sits around the bridge most of the time, turning nobs and flipping switches, but not doing much else. And Chekov's big moment is to get burned by the probe half-way in and then stand in the background afterwards. A real waste of the whole cast.

I want to say there's a decent movie lurking in The Motion Picture, but I think the best that can really be said is there's a halfway decent pilot episode in this mess. Star Trek really needed a faster-paced, tighter story to really sing on the big screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not the movie people wanted. Hell, it's barely a movie at all.

Thankfully, the next film in the series would correct just about every issue this film had...

Notes:
  • I always forget that the theme song from Star Trek: The Next Generation was also the theme song from The Motion Picture. At least one part of this movie was good.
  • "Do you think a five minute sequence of Kirk slowly approaching the Enterprise in a shuttle craft is a little gratuitous?" "No, why do you ask?" "No reason."
  • God, the uniforms in this movie are wretched. Essentially Starfleet Onesies.
  • Apparently there was a Voyager 6. Who knew?
  • And, ugh, that schmaltzy, moralistic, Star Trek ending is so bad.