For more than a few Star Trek fans, the first cinematic outing featuring the crew of the Starship Enterprise is something they would rather forget. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an outcast of the Trek family. Many prefer to pretend it doesn’t even exist and consider Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the true beginning of the film franchise.
The recent release of the remastered “Director’s Edition” of the film in 4K UHD on Paramount+ provides an opportunity to revisit this venture. While it has not been magically transformed into an all-time masterpiece, it no longer deserves to be jettisoned into the wormhole of irrelevance.
To fully appreciate the film, one must understand the context surrounding it – the rocky road to getting it made and how it paved the way for future installments on both the big and small screens. The drama behind the scenes more than matched what was shown on the screen when the movie premiered just ahead of Christmas 1979.
The real story behind producing the movie mirrored its plot in many ways. Episode three of the excellent History Channel series, The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek, documents the difficulties that plagued production.
The Director’s Edition
The original “Director’s Edition” was released on standard definition DVD in 2001. It represents what legendary director Robert Wise wanted to present in theaters, but could not because he ran out of time. The new version can now be viewed in ultra-high-definition and the special effects scenes have been improved similar to the “Remastered Edition” of The Original Series that began airing in 2006.
Enhanced special effects and tighter sequences make the movie more enjoyable to watch. Unlike the “Special Longer Version” that came out in the 1980s and haphazardly recycled scenes from the cutting room floor, there are a few added scenes that really help pull the movie together to tell a more cogent and engaging story.
The film is still far from perfect, beginning with the least creative title in movie history. Admittedly, it is difficult to come up with something better given the esoteric and convoluted storyline. Titles such as The Wrath of V’ger, The Search for Spock’s Mojo, or The Voyage into a Space Cloud don’t really cut it. The story is also derivative, as it was very similar to The Original Series episode, “The Changeling.”
At least the title sequence is much improved. The opening credits in the new version now look like they belong in an actual motion picture, instead of a fifth-grade class project.
The upgraded visuals and better editing immediately draw the viewer in. The first act, which was always the best part of the film, is now even better. For instance, the opening segment that sees a trio of Klingon cruisers rushing headlong into battle against an unidentified foe is riveting, including a more refined glance at the Epsilon Nine communications station monitoring the fight as it happens. The combination of the music, sense of anticipation, and the modern look of the Klingons on display for the very first time make this a memorable sequence.
Likewise, redesigned shots of (a very boho) Spock on Vulcan really drive home a ‘lost in the desert searching for the Promised Land’ vibe that wasn’t there previously. New shots of earth and Starfleet headquarters look much better in this edition, providing more vibrancy and realism.
Continuing the Voyage
The real highlight comes when the Enterprise is reintroduced in all its glory as Scotty takes Kirk tooling around the exterior of the vessel on a shuttle pod while it is in space dock. The scene is brighter now and the ship positively glows.
Some criticize the homage for being too drawn out, but they miss the point. Imagine yourself witnessing the Enterprise in live action for the first time in a decade and for the very first time on the big screen. The spacecraft was always one of the stars of the show, as prominent as the bridge crew. Now, she is finally getting her well-deserved close up as spotlights literally illuminate her amid the darkness of space.
William Shatner’s finest acting in the movie, primarily through facial expressions, is showcased in this moment as well. The look on his face as he gazes upon the Enterprise head on is all Trekkies.
It was a long journey to get to this point. After NBC cancelled Star Trek following its third season, the show really took off in re-runs during the 1970s. Long before social media, fans of the show organized fan clubs and conventions, thus turning a short-lived series into a cultural phenomenon.
A new generation of fans who had never seen the show as it initially aired clamored for new adventures featuring the crew they had learned to love. The success of the show in syndication and the growing fan base convinced Paramount to continue the mission. The only question now was, what form would the reboot take?
Taking the Helm
Aboard the Enterprise, Captain James T. Kirk takes command once more amid a chaotic situation, relieving an inexperienced commander. A new shot with crew on the bridge (absent Kirk) involves Lieutenant Commander Hikaru Sulu stating that Kirk wanted the ship back and he got it, and Lieutenant Commander Nyota Uhura noting that their chances of returning from this mission just doubled with him taking over.
Another added scene shows a crew member telling Kirk that one person waited behind before beaming aboard to see how badly their molecules were scrambled in the transporter. No one familiar with the show is surprised when Dr. “Bones” McCoy materializes shortly thereafter. These instances offer a glimpse into the inner thoughts and fears of the crew; the sort of humanizing interaction that the theatrical release sorely lacked.
On the other side of the camera there was also jostling among several Hollywood heavyweights over who was truly helming the production. Paramount executives Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Academy Award-winning Wise, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry all had their hands on the tiller.
One of the consequences of this battle for control was constant script re-writes. Shooting began before the script was finished and changes occurred daily during production. In some cases, Wise got a final script for a scene after he shot it.
Rushing to Launch
In the storyline, the Enterprise is being rushed into service to intercept a mysterious entity of enormous power that is making a beeline for Earth for unknown reasons. The ship has been undergoing a massive overhaul and is far from ready, but circumstances dictate it must launch.
Similarly, after years of debating whether to relaunch the franchise as a new TV series or a movie, the box office success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind convinced Paramount to produce a film. However, there was now pressure to release something while the momentum from the two blockbusters was fresh.
The result was an extremely tight production schedule because Paramount promised theaters the film would be released on December 7, 1979. The studio stood to lose tens of millions of dollars if that deadline was not met. They cut it so close that still-wet final film reels were shipped straight to theaters.
Shortly after the Enterprise departs on its mission, another added scene features the new navigator, Lieutenant Ilia, using special powers she possesses to ease Chekov’s pain after he is injured. The brief spot adds some personality to a character who spends much of the movie in the role of an android.
Star Trek originally had big plans for the lovely Lieutenant. Persis Khambatta, the 1965 Miss India who portrayed Ilia, was signed to a multi-year contract when Paramount was developing the Star Trek Phase II TV series. Perhaps in the Kelvin timeline Lt. Ilia goes on to a long career in Starfleet. However, in this universe she has a different fate.
The scenes of the Enterprise going through the abstruse cloud still give the impression one is tripping on acid, but it no longer feels like such a bad trip. The sequences have been cut down somewhat and the special effects are much better.
The theatrical release was criticized for concentrating too much on special effects and not enough on fleshing out characters. It is true that there is a certain “shock and awe” element that is overcompensating for a weak plot and poor character development. On the other hand, given the challenges the film experienced in this area, it is a miracle they had any visual effects.
The original special effects team was fired just a few months ahead of the release because they had virtually nothing to show after spending some $5 million. Fortunately, Paramount was able to bring Douglas Trumbull aboard, who directed the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as much of the team that worked on Close Encounters, led by John Dykstra.
The new effects are brighter and tighter. In addition, the viewer gets a much better look at V’ger (the name of the entity) itself, not just the smoke and mirrors cloaking it, which was not the case with the original version.
We also learn more about what makes V’ger tick in the new edition, such as that it thinks its creator is a machine and that it only sees machines as true life forms. An earlier dialogue between Kirk and Spock also new reveals that V’ger doesn’t understand humans and is all about logic, not emotions.
The link between V’ger and Spock is much clearer in the updated version. A critical moment not seen previously has Spock weeping for V’ger. The half-Human, half-Vulcan officer realizes that what he has been trying to purge is the same thing that V’ger so desperately seeks.
In a way, this mirrors the personal turmoil of Leonard Nimoy during this period. In 1975, he published his first autobiography, “I Am Not Spock,” where he tries to differentiate himself from the character that brought him interstellar fame. In 1995, he would publish “I Am Spock,” detailing how he eventually comes to grip with the fact that Spock is a major part of who he is.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
The Director’s Edition also includes a new scene where Kirk tells Scotty to prepare the Enterprise to self-destruct on his order, which in addition to another added scene on the bridge, really dials up the tension. Finally, augmented effects provide a better look at the inner core of V’ger as well as it literally building a bridge between itself and the Enterprise.
Thanks to the better effects and added dialogue, we finally see the true heart of V’ger, both physically and spiritually. All of this helps the ending make more sense, though it still smacks of a production that ran out of time and budget, which is exactly what happened.
The tagline at the end of the film, “The human adventure is just beginning,” was ironic in the original version because there was so little humanity in the film. Thankfully, the new edition does a better job of showcasing the humanity of the characters, including V’ger.
The new phase of Star Trek also began with this movie, though it was a fitful start.
The Motion Picture didn’t necessarily ignite a blaze that immediately swept across the landscape. More accurately, it served as proof of concept facilitating further efforts that did eventually catch fire.
There is a perception that The Motion Picture bombed at the box office. In reality, it grossed $139 million globally, which placed it fourth among all films in 1979 and was more than any other Star Trek film grossed until Star Trek: First Contact in 1996.
The financial success encouraged Paramount to green light a follow up film. This time, they listened to the fans who demanded more action and character development, which they got in spades with The Wrath of Khan in 1982, and it both received critical acclaim and made a ton of money. The success of that movie led to both film and television franchises that continue to this day.
The “Director’s Edition” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is still not the best Star Trek movie, but it is worth watching and no longer deserves to be ignored.