Star Trek: The Motion Picture Review

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When he was travelling to the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Walter “Chekov” Koenig happened to find himself sitting next to Gene Roddenberry on the plane taking them to LA. Not having seen the finished picture yet, the actor eagerly turned to the Great Bird of the Galaxy and asked innocently what it was like. The response was not what he had hoped for or expected. Instead of turning to meet his gaze, Roddenberry just stared pointedly ahead, and with a fixed expression and through gritted teeth replied “It’s a good picture.” “And at that moment,” Koenig recalled years later, “my heart sank.” From Roddenberry’s response he knew: they’d blown it. The rest of the journey was, apparently, conducted in a rather awkward silence.

Star Trek was one of the biggest names to try and jump on the post-Star Wars boom of the late Seventies. For most of the decade Paramount had been politely indifferent to the show and its creator; they had given Roddenberry an office and allowed him to waste his days developing scripts which would never be made, but it was only after the box office went into hyperdrive over the adventures of Luke Skywalker that they began looking round for their own space opera and found Captain Kirk waiting patiently in drydock. For a brief moment they got very excited, commissioning an entire new television series of Trek, Phase II, before deciding that the most lucrative way to exploit the franchise (and, as much as it pains me to say, too many times over the years the word exploitation is the most appropriate) was to put it on the big screen. Sets already built for Phase II were rejigged, the show’s pilot script hastily readapted into a two hour feature, and Leonard Nimoy, who had refused to have anything to do with a new TV series, persuaded to once more don the pointed ears with which he’d had such a love-hate relationship down the years. To show they were serious about the project, Paramount greenlit the film with a huge budget (the biggest, by far, any Trek would have until JJ Abrams’ reboot) and called in Robert Wise, whose sci-fi credentials would have been impeccable for The Day The World Stood Still alone but who had earlier in the decade returned to the genre with The Andromeda Strain. It was all systems go, warp one straight ahead Mr Sulu!

Unfortunately, as Koenig soon appreciated for himself when he sat down to the premiere, Roddenberry was right. Star Trek: The Motion Picture stunk. It still stinks, no matter what a noticeable fan re-evaluation over recent years will tell you. It’s long, it’s boring, it has a dull story, a leaden cast who look miserable and a horrible, horrible decor. It has delusions of grandeur, an inflated sense of its own importance, with pretensions to being a 2001, being to the lively but pulpy Star Wars what the original series was to the lively but stupid Lost in Space. But a mixture of poor planning, muddled thinking and conflicting agendas meant that any message it tried to convey was garbled and ultimately lost, resulting in a film which thinks it's far more profound than it is and a very pale shadow of its bright Sixties incarnation.

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The story sees a mysterious cloud (somewhat improbably stated as being 82 AUs in size) travelling through the galaxy and destroying any ships or space stations unfortunate enough to get in its way. The bad news is that it’s heading straight for Earth; the good news is that Admiral James T Kirk (William Shatner) and the newly refitted Enterprise are on hand to go and sort things out. However, Kirk is rusty; since he’s been promoted out of the Captain’s chair he has lost track of the Enterprise, which brings him into conflict with the ship’s new commander Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), and as the Enterprise leaves Earth on its mission his crew are not certain he’s the best man to handle the job. Can he put aside his own ambitions long enough to do what’s right, while solving the mystery of the cloud, or will his own indecision and lack of command practise put in jeopardy not only the ship and his crew, but the entire Federation?

Poor Robert Wise, virtually from the moment he walked onto the set, was lost. Severely hampered by daily rewrites prompted as the film’s stars and Roddenberry conferred, conspired and battled with each other to get the biggest part and the most lines, it was not by all accounts a happy set. For this reason Wise is to be congratulated for what he did manage. The film’s biggest achievement is that it does feel epic. Despite the fact much of the action (if one can call it that) takes place on the Bridge, the movie has a scale and grandeur about it; we really do believe that the Enterprise is travelling vast distances, get a sense of the scale of the ship herself, experience, perhaps more than any other Trek, the “final frontier-ness” of it all. From that perspective the film is a success; movie history is, of course, filled with examples of film adaptations of TV shows which just feel like elongated episodes (hello Star Trek: Insurrection!) but even if there had been no more big screen Trek made TMP would qualify as a successful transition – this feels like a movie, an epic, larger in life and scale than the television series.

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And, indeed, the first half hour is generally superb. The opening scene, in which the Klingons are destroyed (single-handedly, as a side-note, redefining that race for ever after), is suitably scary, while the lead-up to the Enterprise’s launch is absorbing. Not unlike the Abrams film, we believe we are on board a living, breathing, functioning ship, while the conflict between Kirk and Decker is well drawn and believable (Collins, although not recognised for such nowadays, gives one of the finest guest performances in any of the Trek films). Even the infamous shuttle trip around the Enterprise, which goes on for five minutes, is while indulgent serving a purpose, emphasising the scale of the ship – it’s a bit of a Trekgasm admittedly (I love it) but not inexcusable (unlike similar scenes later on.)

However, from the moment the ship leaves Space Dock we’re in trouble. Because the plot amounts to little more than “the Enterprise travels very slowly through the cloud while the crew bicker about what to do” we get a collection of random set pieces, like Spock going for a fly around outside and the early encounter with a wormhole. Things move at a deathly crawl, which helps emphasise that space is very big, but doesn’t make for gripping viewing – one sequence which lasts a good ten minutes consists of the crew simply gawping at a series of not-very-special special effects shots. That is not good drama, it is the absence of good drama, an early example of reliance on SFX to substitute for story. The film’s bitty nature is partially because the script was changing so often (they began shooting without a proper ending) and partly because the message at the heart of the cloud (and the movie) is actually, in sci-fi terms, a rather banal one. The idea of sentient artificial life, which can only truly become whole by the introduction of a “human factor,” was one which had been done to death even at the time of the film's release (indeed, there’s an episode very similar in the series itself, The Changeling, which is a far superior take on the same idea), lending the end of the movie a massive anticlimax. The use of Lt Ilia (Persis Khambatta) as spokeswoman for V’ger, the entity at the heart of the cloud, is muddied by our not being clear exactly how much of the original Ilia is in the mechanoid’s memory, and the relationship between her and Decker is thus not convincing. Despite Jerry Goldsmith's best efforts with his musical score, the characters and their interactions are as cold and artificial as V'ger itself, ironic given the moral trying to be put across.

As a result, it’s not very good science-fiction, and compounding the problem it’s not good Star Trek either. The original series’s appeal was partially due to its humanistic appeal to the beatnik generation, but more so because of the jolly chemistry between the three principals, Kirk, Spock and McCoy. In even the dullest episodes there was a banter and camaraderie, a twinkle in Kirk’s eyes, a raised eyebrow from Spock and a “You green-blooded, inhuman – “ utterance from McCoy that leavened the tone. That camaraderie is almost completely absent here. The original series was joyful, but this film is joyless, even the couple of moments of humour – McCoy’s entrance, or his reaction to Spock’s arrival on the ship – blunted by the lack of response by, respectively Kirk and Spock. Mirroring the contrast between the original’s series bright primary colours and this film’s dull beige palate, the film comes across as the very antithesis of the series – from the moment when a character dies while beaming up we know we’re on a very different, far less fun Enterprise. As all the subsequent films demonstrated humour doesn’t have to get in the way of the drama – indeed, it usually emphasises it – but the po-faced seriousness of the film is more Space: 1999. The film just isn’t much fun and at the final count that is its biggest single problem.

And yet, despite the problems, it was a hit. This was partially because Trek had become reasonably popular in the decade since it had been off the television, partially because of the Star Wars effect, and partially because the poor Trekkers went back time and again, boosting the box office while trying to persuade themselves that this grey misery of a film was actually very good, and proper “grown-up” Trek. Looked at now, TMP is very different from all the subsequent Original Series films. It was the only one with a significant budget thrown at it, the only one under the direct control of Gene Roddenberry, and the only one which prioritises a high concept science-fiction story above its characters. But it didn't work, and Roddenberry, sitting on the plane next to Koenig, en route to meeting his fate, knew it. After ten years trying to get it back on screen, he seemed to have forgotten how to make good Star Trek (or, at least, didn't have his fellow TV producer Gene L Coon to help him any more) and was convinced it was over. Of course it wasn't, but it would take a completely new creative team, one with no previous associations with the franchise, to remember what had made it work in the first place.

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Presentation


All six "Kirk and Spock" films have made their hi-def debut in a complete "Original Motion Picture Collection" which comes with newly remastered prints and additional extras. Each of the six films is presented on a single BD 50 disc, held in a slim amaray case which is in turn housed in a slipcase. The cover art and disc design is minimalistic: you can see the plain cover to the left up there, and the front of each amaray case has a simple title and a shadowy image of one of our heroes' faces - it's McCoy on TMP's. The design is a little too spartan for my tastes - the faces are quite hard to see, and I don't think either the cases or the overall artwork is very exciting - but it's certainly stylish. The menus, uniform across all the discs, have a similarly pared back design, featuring a pan around the Starfleet logo through which space can be seen, accompanied by an extract from the film's score. Very nicely done, but again there's nothing to distinguish one film from another, and I rather miss the standard definition menus from the Special Collector's Editions a few years ago, each of which was made of a CGI rendition of one the film's key scenes.

Pre-release, the major complaint voiced regarding this set was Paramount's choice of which version of each film they were going to include. Whereas the SCEs featured, in the case of The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, director's editions, all six films in this new set are presented in their original theatrical cut - over the course of these reviews I'll go through what that means for each film, but it's The Motion Picture where the differences make the most difference. The SD had a completely new director's cut overseen by Wise himself, complete with CGI replacing the theatrical cut's effects, rejigged sequences and a notable difference in pace. The changes were unquestionably to the film's benefit: while the movie still had big problems, the improved pace (ironic, given the fact it was actually four minutes longer!) made it slightly less of a chore to sit through, and there were several nice character moments, such as Lt Ilia healing Chekov's hand and Spock shedding a tear. The new SFX, while not to everyone's tastes, were a little more interesting, and the scene at the end when our heroes actually walk onto V'ger is far more convincing and understandable. Unfortunately, such things are now academic, as we are stuck with the original cut. To a certain degree, the choice was unavoidable (the DC's SFX were for some inexplicable reason rendered only at 480p which would have made them impractical for a HD release) but it's to be regretted nonetheless that we have what now feels the inferior version (especially given that Wise himself has said that he considered this theatrical edition "a rough cut.")

However, to counter that issue, the Video is a vast improvement. The DC had a 2.17:1 aspect ratio and the print used for the DC was at times astonishingly dirty, with lots of nasty artefacts popping up all over the place, as well as a generally lifeless, grubby-looking image. Things are so much better here that; the original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 is restored, rendered at 1080p of course, and from a purely visual point of view, the film is now a joy to watch. I'm going to say it time and again over the course of the week but the improvement, even barring the set's problems with DNR, is so great over the Standard Definition prints that one can, in the main, forgive the new tranfers their occasional flaws. Luckily, TMP is one of the strongest. Application of DNR, which for a couple of the latter films does indeed appear a trifle excessive, is kept to a very sensible level here, so that a nice film of grain still rests on the dimly lit bridge scenes, those in V'ger itself and others. Contrast is at a lovely level (again, not something I'll be able to say for all six films) and the colours are as vivid as the dull, pastel and beige decor will allow.

Here are a few comparison shots, including one illustrating the very different view of Vulcan in that early scene.


Standard Definition - Director's Cut


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High Definition - Theatrical Cut



Standard Definition - Director's Cut


Click to Enlarge to Full Size.

High Definition - Theatrical Cut



Standard Definition - Director's Cut


Click to Enlarge to Full Size.

High Definition - Theatrical Cut



Standard Definition - Director's Cut


Click to Enlarge to Full Size.

High Definition - Theatrical Cut


The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD Audio is similarly strong. The film has a subtly striking and at times very alien soundscape, helped along by Goldsmith's wonderful score, and scenes including the sequence on Vulcan and the climax on V'ger make good use of all channels. The Enterprise's interiors similarly surround us, especially when an alarm is complaining somewhere, and although the audio mix is not as detailed as that on the DC it is not to any great degree less atmospheric. From the opening shot of the Klingons being attacked, right through to the final warp, it's a strong, competent track which help make the film that much more immersive.


Extras


The collection of supplementary material for TMP is disappointing. Gone AWOL from the DVD release are three documentaries, Phase II: The Lost Enterprise, A Bold New Enterprise and Redirecting the Future while the new featurettes are a desultory collection. Sadly, the new Commentary (not subtitled) pales in comparison to that on the DC - while the latter featured Robert Wise, Jerry Goldsmith, effects guru John Dykstra and others, now we have to make do with Michael and Denise Okuda, the writers Judith and Garfield Reeves Stevens and Daren Dochterman, who was visual effects supervisor for the Director's Cut. The commentary is actually pretty good - no one knows more about Trek than the Okudas, who have spent their professional lives working on the films and TV spin-offs, while the Garfields have written a number of non-fiction books on the making of Trek, including one on the aborted Phase II series, so we get a lively, informative track. However, as they were not actively involved in the film's shoot their knowledge is inevitably second-hand, lacking the immediacy of the DC's commentators. The Okuda's text commentary from the DC is also missing, as they are from all the films, replaced by the new Library Computer feature. This consists of a pop-up feature overlaid on the movie, in which every time anyone mentions anything remotely interesting an entry appears, giving you the option to read a couple of sentences on the subject in question. It's not much use, given a lot of the time the entries just repeat what we've just heard on screen, and it's a shame that it takes a purely fictitious viewpoint of the films, so that we are left without the Okudas' commentaries behind-the-scenes tidbits.

The difference between the new and old commentary are a perfect illustration of the major problem with the extras we do get: with the exception of the brief The Longest Trek: Writing The Motion Picture* (10:45), there are no contributions from those who were actually there. Obviously Roddenberry isn't around anymore, but there's plenty of archive footage of him, as there is of Wise, Goldsmith and the others, and there's no sign either of Shatner, Nimoy or others still alive. Even The Longest Trek isn't as good as it could have been. The documentary relates the frenetic evolution of the film's screenplay, from early ideas in which Captain Kirk met God (literally, as opposed to the imposter from The Final Frontier) through to the pilot of the aborted Phase II pilot and then the day-to-day rewrites which drove poor Robert Wise to distraction. Producer Jon Povill (realistic) and writer Harold Livingston (who still thinks the result was splendid) recall the time, while the Garfields also pop up to recall their research into the history of the film. It's fine, but a little sparse.

It also comes across as the opening chapter of a story, the rest of which we don't get. There are no featurettes regarding the film's production or reception. Instead, the only other featurette is the Special Star Trek Reunion* (9:38), so named presumably because it's special for the people involved, rather than the viewers. Feeling like one is watching someone else's school reunion, this features five of the extras who appeared in the briefing scene before the Enterprise leaves drydock, including James Doohan's son and David "Creator of the Tribbles" Gerrold, gathered together to recall their brief voyage on the Enterprise. All very lovely, of course, but utter filler.

Things get worse. There's a whiff of desperation about Starfleet Academy: Mystery Behind V'ger* (4:24), as though those responsible for putting together the BD content of the disc realised what they already had was hardly great but had literally no other ideas on what they could include. The result is something which looks a bit like your average fan film, in which an actress clearly reading off cue cards and dressed in a poor replica of a Starfleet uniform, pretends she's teaching a seminar to Starfleet Academy cadets and relates the plot of the film, helped along by some clips and graphics. And that's it. You know you're in trouble on a disc when a featurette exists solely to summarise the film's plot - even more so when said extra reappears across the rest of the discs...

The collection of Deleted Scenes (8:03) features a number which were included in a TV version which screened at least once in the UK, but are mainly comprised of cutting room snippets which don't add anything to the movie. Storyboards of three sequences - Vulcan, The Enterprise's Departure and V'ger revealed - are also included, although there's no option to watch them alongside the finished product. Both the effective Teaser Trailer (2:18) and regular Theatrical Trailer (2:29) make the transition from the DC to the new version, and are now presented in HD, unlike the TV Spots (3:39) which show plenty of wear and tear.

As with the other films, there's the BD Live: Star Trek IQ quiz included, although I couldn't access the latter so can't report on it. Those extras which are asterisked are presented in HD, the others in SD and all extras bar the commentary are subtitled.

Overall


Very much a mixed bag, the weakest film of the six gets the weakest disc in this new set. The transfer is excellent, and the commentary not bad, but we are still to have a definitive account of the making of this most challenging of Trek movies. Fortunately, things get better with The Wrath of Khan...


Film
4 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10
Tags
Category Blu-Ray Review

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