star_trek_the_motion_picture1979 – THEATRICAL VERSION


DIRECTOR: Robert Wise

May Contain Spoilers!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a much maligned entry into the Trek canon, seen as too slow, cold and lacking the heart of the original cult TV series, which had finished a decade earlier. But I feel that nearly 34 years after its hasty release back in December 1979, this epic and much purer science fiction feature film should be reassessed.

A little known fact about this movie is that it was last to feature and theatrical overture, though it also speaks volumes about the tone of which Robert Wise was trying to set for the silver screen debut of a moderately successful adventure show from late 1960’s. Star Trek’s popularity built to legendary proportions in the 70’s, after the show’s three-year run and after the runaway success of Star Wars in 1977, Paramount were keen to exploit their own franchises and Star Trek seemed like a good bet.

Robert Wise was by 1979, one of the most respected director’s working, with classics such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), a film which re-defined science fiction, musicals The Sound Of Music (1965) and West Side Story (1961) and more recently Michael Chriten’s The Andromeda Strain (1974), which bears the most resemblance to The Motion Picture. His approach to science fiction in the 1970’s, as was many directors, was slow burn, clean and scientific, most owing a debt to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

But Star Trek was many things, most notably a social commentary on its time and it played around successfully with high sci fi concepts but it wasn’t a dry science fiction drama, which is what Wise was trying to do here. This is where the revival and the unparalleled success of Star Trek began, spawning the much more successful and tonally accurate Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982), leading to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) hit our TV screens and would lead to a Star Trek spin-off being broadcast for 18 years until 2005.

But by then, the franchise had run its course and was yet again in need of a reboot, this time by J.J. Abrams in 2009. But it’s important to compare both this and Star Trek (2009) as both, though polar opposites in their approach to distancing themselves from TV series, both took a drastic approach in how they handled characters and narrative. This film is almost pure and undiluted Star Trek from a philasofical perspective, with grand ideas and a desire to translate that for the audience to understand and perceive in a simalar way, not dissimilar from the series.

But It lacked any of the magic or charm of the characters, who were almost playing different roles. Star Trek (2009) took the opposite approach and tried to bring out the characters at the expense of the science fiction. Yes, filled with sci fi concepts and gadgets but lacking any real depth,  ideas, or the heart of science fiction. If anything, Wise and his team, which did include show runner Gene Roddenberry, had an over abundance of respect for the show which inflated their perception of it, rather than Abrams, who seems to afraid of anything but the lucrative title!

star_trek_1 The story follows an enormous interstellar cloud which is making its way towards Earth, destroying everything in its path. It will arrive at the planet in three days and the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise must intercept it and try to figure out what it s going on before it destroys their home planet. This takes the ship and crew deep into the heart of the cloud and the massive spacecraft which generates it.

It’s there that the Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and crew discover the truth and that at its core is a Voyager probe, launched by NASA in the 1990’s, though in real life the probe was never launched, it is similar to those which were. It has been upgraded by a machine race in deep space and sent it back to earth to fulfill its mission to “Learn all that is learnable” and to relay the information back its creators on Earth. But on the way, it has learned so much that it has gained self-awareness and is now looking not only to meet its creator or “God”, but wants to merge with it and evolve.

Deep stuff. There are no Kirk romances or alien fights or battles. This is about exploring the question of our place in the universe and how we all create god in our own image. So what if you’re a machine?

I wonder now, that if you took away all the Star Trek tropes, characters and iconic sets such as the Enterprise and replaced them with something more unique, would this have been heralded as 1970’s science fiction classic? Because lets face it, in science fiction terms, it’s brilliant! It’s scienece is sound, as are the concepts and the execution, though slow, it is in keeping with the style of the day. I find that this film just gets better after each viewing as its science fiction elements just send chills down my spine.

Then there’s Jerry Goldsmith’s now iconic score, his theme which was used later as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation and four more Star Trek films. But this is a classic movie score from start to finish, with each track conveying the story, with a great deal of tension and emotion, which is quite an achievement for a film which is so clinical and cold.


The Director’s Edition

In 2000, Paramount green-lit a Director’s Edition of the film, which led by Robert Wise himself, was intended to seemly restore the director’s original vision of a film which was rushed out back 1979, leaving many effects only half realised. They claim that most of the new effects footage was taken from original story boards from the time and due to time constraints, where not fully realised on the screen. I believe them. The Director’s Edition is one of the best Special Editions that I have seen, blowing Lucas’ Star Wars Special Editions from 1997 straight out of the water in my opinion.

Re-cut slightly, this would be the third version of the film, with the theatrical cut, the 1983 television version which had many of the deleted scenes simply restored and this one, which looks great.

All in all, The Motion Picture has been Star Trek’s whipping boy since 1979, but without its success there would be no franchise to speak of, and maybe it took J.J. Abrams to show us how NOT to reinvent the franchise in order to make it relevent. This, rightly or wrongly believes that Star Trek is top class, epic science fiction, whilst Abram’s believes that it’s a cheesy TV show which has nostalgia value and built-in audience. I believe both and that both films took a position which was too strong and it took The Wrath Of Khan to find the perfect balance.

But I urge any science fiction fan to take another look at this one and re-assess it for what it is. I believe that it’s a science fiction classic lost and mired in the Star Trek brand and that’s a real shame.

N.B. The Director’s Edition is only available on DVD (I believe) and the Blu-ray and more recent DVD releases have the original theatrical version.

Star Trek Into Darkness is out in theatres in the U.K. from Tomorrow.


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