WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: When a massively powerful alien force threatens the Earth, vastly experienced Admiral Kirk rolls back the years by taking control of the USS Enterprise, much to the surprise – though not unanimous delight – of its crew. As the ship races to intercept the force, it interrogates the Enterprise too and Kirk, Spock and company discover that the ‘alien’ threat may not be so alien after all.
The five-year mission of the starship Enterprise, to explore new worlds and seek out new civilisations, was cut short not by enemy ambush or catastrophic warp core malfunction, but by TV bosses who didn’t much take to the show and killed it with budget cuts and unsympathetic scheduling. However, come 1979 and science fiction was back in vogue, thanks to the insane success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; so Paramount dusted off the faithful Star Trek characters and sent them out on one* more mission.
A mission that couldn’t be more vital for our planet. A vast cloud, which has already eliminated three Klingon warships, is heading directly for Earth; so despite the fact that he’s not been on a ship for two years, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) commandeers the Enterprise, itself ill-prepared to hurtle into deep space. The crew, by and large, are Kirk’s old buddies: Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nicholls), Chekhov (Walter Koenig) and Sulu (George Takei); Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is also reluctantly press-ganged into action. Missing, though, is Spock (Leonard Nimoy), last seen flunking a ceremony to acknowledge the total cleansing of his emotions back on Vulcan.
The invasion of the Enterprise’s old guard puts the nose of Captain Decker (Stephen Collins) well and truly out of joint, especially when Kirk’s ring-rustiness almost causes catastrophe in a wormhole; but his mood is lightened by the arrival of Deltan baldie Ilia (Persis Khambatta) who also happens to be an old flame, just as Kirk is happy to see a strangely moody Spock when he finally puts in an appearance – though he doesn’t stay on the ship for long. The Enterprise penetrates the cloud and finds an enormous spacecraft, the inquisitive intelligence behind it scanning the Federation vessel and creating an android clone of Ilia to communicate with the ‘carbon units.’ But V’ger, as the form is called, has some strange ideas about its own origins and Kirk has some convincing to do to stop it from wiping out the ‘infestation’ of human life on Earth.
If you’re thinking that this all sounds a bit heavy-going for a Star Trek movie, you’re not alone. To my admittedly inexpert mind, Trek was always about Kirk’s suave seduction of bejewelled/green alien ladies, cantankerous badinage between the crew and the unfortunately predictable deaths of nameless crew members wearing red (see Galaxy Quest for details). In short, the TV show was naff but fun. For whatever reason, Robert Wise (yes, the The Sound of Music one) eschews any notion of frivolity for the big screen and serves up Gene Roddenberry’s universe as a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He really means it, too: 2001 effects wizard Douglas Trumbull and legendary sci-fi advisor Isaac Asimov are both on board.
The combination of all these talents is majestic, metaphysical and… monumentally slow. The vision is an epic one, but in essence Star Trek: The Motion Picture is little more than a sequence of lengthy model shots overlaid with overwrought orchestral stirrings, the actors required to do little more than gawp at viewing screens and react to the impressive but protracted light shows thereon as they get ever closer to the secret of V’ger, only talking occasionally to further the flimsy plot. When Spock goes out on a spacewalk to communicate with V’ger, it couldn’t be more 2001 had he said ‘My God, it’s full of stars.’ It all looks very realistic and you can tell that time and effort has gone into the film, but it’s a pretty exhausting watch.
The over-arching theme – the continuation of evolution – is pure 2001 too, and though this shouldn’t be a criticism, it has to be. Firstly, because there’s already a film (called 2001) that covers all this ground and more; secondly, because the effects aren’t quite at the standard of Kubrick’s 1968 classic; and thirdly, because you just don’t expect to find Kirk and his buddies in something this sterile. The film opens with Klingons so you look forward to conflict, a space battle or some hand-to-hand combat; but there’s hardly any action, just a lot of looking at things in awe. And while there’s a hint of the old relationships at play, it’s all done with the humour toned down as the film explores its big ideas (such as the malfunctioning transporter – oh, the ethics!). Even the potential flashpoint, Decker’s antipathy towards Kirk, comes to nothing as he turns his attention to fake Ilia and volunteers to boldly go etc. In fact, just about the only concession to Star Trek’s 60s heyday is android Ilia’s dress – though ‘dress’ isn’t perhaps quite the right word, since dresses tend to cover some part of the leg.
There’s no doubting that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a feast for the eyes on the big screen and is always technically very competent. I don’t doubt either that many people prefer the comfort of having familiar characters to explore the vastness of space with, rather than Dave Bowman and his creepy computer friend HAL. The film could, however, have done with clipping its delusions of grandeur and acknowledging its humble television roots. For while there’s a nice-looking motion picture here, it leaves some small-screen actors with not enough to do in an awful lot of time and space.
NOTES: Well, alright, six and a bit. But they didn’t know that at the time.