Star Trek: The Motion Picture at 40

Today is, I’m told, the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—the first Star Trek movie, and one that suffered from a rushed production that left several things unfinished (the prints were apparently still wet when they were shipped to theatres) and from a critical response that could charitably be described as lukewarm.

(I saw it in the theatre myself, but as I was all of seven years old at the time, I hadn’t developed much of a critical sense yet.)

Forty years later, though, there seems to be some groundswell of affection for the thing, warts and all. (See Ed Power’s piece in The Independent, for example.) A few years ago I wrote a piece for my fanzine, Ecdysis, called “In Defence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and I thought I was being all heterodox about it. Turns out I wasn’t alone: others have either been reassessing their initial takes on the movie or finding that their impressions weren’t in sync with conventional wisdom.

It probably doesn’t hurt that there have been a dozen Star Trek movies since then to compare it with, and against some of them The Motion Picture compares … rather favourably. It was in that context that I wrote my little essay. Which practically no one read when it first came out, so here it is again:

In Defence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

I dug out my Star Trek DVDs when I heard that Leonard Nimoy died, and I suspect I’m not the only one who did that. You might have done the same. But I suspect you didn’t do what I did, which was to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for that movie. Maybe it’s my chronic affection for the underdog. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has always gotten a bad rap. It was a critical disappointment. It’s hardly a fan favourite. It’s usually listed toward the bottom of lists of favourite Star Trek movies. It was a production disaster. Its $44 million budget gave Paramount execs heart attacks and led them to produce subsequent Trek movies on a shoestring (and with Gene Roddenberry kept as far away as possible).

A lot of the film’s problems were self-inflicted. Its release date was set in stone: Paramount was worried that the public appetite for big-budget science fiction films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a passing fad, and saw its window of opportunity closing—which wreaked havoc on post-production. Special effects were unfinished, and the film just barely made its deadline.

The director, Robert Wise, later described what was released in the theatres as a rough cut. The movie wasn’t really finished in his eyes—and in 2001, in what would be the final project of his thoroughly distinguished career (the man directed The Sound of Music, for crying out loud), he released a Director’s Edition that reflected what the film would have looked like if he and his crew had had the time to finish it properly. Though the effects were done on modern computer hardware, his team was careful to compose them in a way that would have been possible at the time.

The Director’s Edition is a revelation, and not just for the visual effects. The Motion Picture has been given a nip and tuck throughout: a new edit, a new sound mix. Over-explicative bits of dialogue, cut. Droning spoken-word alerts, replaced by klaxons. Extra scenes for the TV version, all but gone. The Director’s Edition shows rather than tells; it’s meditative rather than talky. It’s a better version, and you should check it out: you might be able to find it on DVD, and it’s available for download on iTunes, but there’s no HD version, probably because Wise and crew didn’t composite it in HD.

But here’s the thing. Yes, that $44-million bill—which, by the way, included the costs for the aborted Phase II series—was higher, adjusted for inflation, than any other Trek movie until the J. J. Abrams reboot. But its international box office was higher too. The fact is, Star Trek: The Motion Picture made a metric crapton of money. When we adjust box office receipts for inflation, we discover that it grossed more than any subsequent Trek movie until Star Trek Into Darkness. And remember: Into Darkness was also released in 3D and IMAX, which have higher ticket prices.

Star Trek movie box office, adjusted for inflation

(Sidebar: I hate box office as a metric. You can control for inflation, as I’ve done here by factoring in the CPI and converting old budgets and box office to present-day dollars, but ticket prices don’t always follow the CPI. I suspect that the movie industry has its reasons for obfuscating ticket sales.)

After The Motion Picture and until the Abrams reboot, Trek movies were only modestly commercially successful, some (The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, First Contact) more than others. They were successes only insofar as Paramount had very modest ambitions for them, and budgets to match. They were financially safe bets, with a guaranteed audience that would ensure a sufficient but not extravagant rate of return, so long as you kept costs low. The Wrath of Khan was produced through Paramount’s TV unit, V and VI borrowed The Next Generation’s sets, and the Next Generation movie credits are full of familiar names from the TV series’ production crew. And to be quite honest, take away the additional production values and a lot of them, especially the Next Generation iterations, felt more like rather good two-part episodes than proper movies.

Which is to say that The Motion Picture’s virtues, overlooked and unappreciated at the time, become more clear when you compare the movie to its successors. And it’s not just about the money.

First, it has grandeur that the other Trek movies lack. If it was slow, it was stately. Its pacing matched its scope: you don’t get a proper sense of scale by rushing through (and with V’ger, scale is everything). The Motion Picture also represents a kind of filmmaking that went out with the 1970s, where movies for a mass-market audience didn’t have to satisfy a toddler’s attention span. Ever notice how slow The Godfather is? Or 2001?

Second, it was the most plausible of the Trek movies. Hard as it may be to believe, but an an artificial alien intelligence grown from the nut of a Voyager-class probe is among the most scientifically plausible premises we’ve seen from Trek on the big screen. (The Genesis effect is chemically illiterate gobbledygook; the Next Generation films tech the tech with the particle of the week a bit too much.)

But it’s also more plausible on a human level. In The Motion Picture, the crew has been reassembled for the first time. The junior officers have moved up one step in rank: Uhura and Sulu are lieutenant commanders, Chekov’s a full lieutenant. Later films stretch credulity. Chekov becoming the Reliant’s first officer makes sense, but returning to the Enterprise and staying there, along with everyone else, to the point where everyone’s a captain or a commander and they’re all doing the same damn job they were doing 25 years before—it strains credulity. In a real military organization, no crew would be kept together for decades: it’s not good discipline. They would all have moved on. They would have had careers.

Reassembling them all for some good reason is a trick that’s hard to repeat: you can only get the band back together so many times. (Notice the plot gymnastics required to get Worf onto the Enterprise-E after he transferred over to Deep Space 9. Three times in a row.) In The Motion Picture, it’s less implausible, because it’s the first time. The crew are still relatively young (it’s only been 10 years since the end of the series, and an unspecified amount of in-universe time) so the Enterprise doesn’t look like the spaceborne retirement home it will become in The Undiscovered Country.

And third, it’s the most Trek-like Star Trek movie ever made. Almost every other Trek movie has something that The Motion Picture lacks: a villain.

But wait: Isn’t V’ger the villain? No, not in the same sense: V’ger’s an antagonist, but not a villain. It isn’t Khan, or Commander Kruge, or General Chang. It isn’t the Borg Queen or Shinzon.

No, V’ger’s an antagonist of the sort we see in several classic Star Trek episodes: the alien whose intents and purposes are unknown; the goal of the crew of the Enterprise, whether they know it or not, is to discover what the alien wants. V’ger is in the tradition of Balok and the Horta, of “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Devil in the Dark.” The climax of the film occurs when the antagonist alien is understood—not destroyed.

This is Star Trek at its best.

The only other movie that treats its antagonist in the same way is The Voyage Home—which, not surprisingly, is well thought of. But I’d argue that IV screws it up because the solution is figured out in the first act. The point of the movie is to get the cast into the present day; the probe is a McGuffin rather than a source of wonder.

Sure there’s plenty of hugger-mugger fist-fighting, Shatner’s-flying-dropkick action in the original series, but action sequences feel so out of place on the silver screen, particularly when non-Harrison Ford aging actors are tapped to perform them (Patrick Stewart never had so many physical scenes in the series as he did in the four Next Generation movies). It’s like they’re trying to be action movies, but until Abrams came along, they kind of sucked at it.

In comparison, The Motion Picture feels like pure product. Imperfect and incomplete on release, it still aspired to be something greater—something grander—than an overgrown TV show or an underweight, half-hearted action movie.

Worthy, carbon units, of another chance.

This article first appeared in Ecdysis 5 (April 2015).