Title Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Writer(s) Gene Roddenberry, Alan Dean Foster, Harold Livingston
Director Robert Wise
by James Stewart
Just prior to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness in the UK, I suggested on the forum that we should review the previous eleven films in the franchise as a sort of tribute (and also to get us match-fit for what would follow). I'm glad that we didn't follow through with the idea, however, because – and I mentioned this at the time – it was impossible for me to write anything about Star Trek: The Motion Picture without waxing lyrical about the score (in the end, I nearly filled up the allotted word count talking about the damn soundtrack).
And why not? It's the best soundtrack to a Star Trek film. As much as I love James Horner's work on Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock, and as bombastic and thrilling as Giacchino's music is for the latest films, NOTHING compares to Jerry Goldsmith when he's in form. Every single track is an instant classic: the thrilling title theme (which Roddenberry loved so much he co-opted it for The Next Generation), the pounding Klingon Battle music, the mysterious, blaster-beam laden score for V'Ger … there isn't a single tune that I couldn't listen to a million times over (and I have done, while working in LightWave).
The beauty of the music is in how closely it ties in with the film; as each piece plays, I can see the film in my head, and I'm in the position of being able to insert the characters' dialogue around it.
The plot eighteen months after the end of the five-year-mission, James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to Admiral (a position which he thoroughly resents) and the Enterprise has undergone a massive refit under the supervision of her new commander, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). Meanwhile, an enormous cloud of energy attacks three Klingon ships while passing through the Neutral Zone on the way to Earth; with the Enterprise the only ship in interception range, Kirk gets himself reinstated as captain (to his crew's delight, and to Decker's crushing disappointment). En route, after an engine failure nearly destroys them, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) returns from undergoing the Kolinahr discipline to banish all remaining emotion, and helps put the ship to rights. After narrowly surviving an attack from the energy cloud, they probe deeper inside and find a massive vessel (it's here that the soundtrack really takes over: with the sequence of passing through the energy field and the flyover of V'Ger's ship being accompanied by some of the most beautiful and mysterious music ever composed) unlike anything they've ever encountered before. Suddenly, a beam of light appears on the bridge and begins downloading all the information from the Enterprise's memory banks; when Spock attempts to interfere, the light-probe attacks him, before finally disappearing … along with Navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta).
Amazingly, Ilia is returned to her quarters, but Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) quickly deduces that she is in fact a bio-mechanical duplicate. The Ilia-Probe explains that she was sent by V'Ger to learn more about the “carbon-unit infestation” on the Enterprise. To discover more about the nature of their captor, Spock dons a thruster suit and heads deeper inside the vessel; he sees a holographic representation of the vessel's entire journey, from its departure from a planet of living machines, right up to its encounter with the Klingons and Epsilon IX. When attempting a mind-meld with a representation of Ilia stored by V'Ger, he is overloaded with information and is sent rocketing back to the Enterprise. He explains to Kirk and the others that V'Ger. Decker has also discovered from the Ilia-Probe that V'Ger is seeking its creator, but does not know why.
Arriving back at Earth, V'Ger begins broadcasting an old-style radio signal toward the planet; when no one responds, V'Ger unleashes a barrage of incredibly destructive plasma torpedoes which will obliterate the “carbon-units”, which it believes are stifling the creator. Kirk and his crew soon deduce that V'Ger believes his creator to be a machine, although they know that there is nothing on Earth which could've been responsible for designing such a vessel. Bluffing for time, Kirk tells the Ilia-probe that they have information about the creator, but can only disclose it to V'Ger itself, not its probe.
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Decker and the Ilia-probe journey to V'Ger's central brain complex, and to their amazement, they discover one of the ancient NASA probes, Voyager 6. Decker explains that it fell through a black hole some two hundred years earlier; Spock theorises that it was caught in the machine planet's gravity well, they repaired it, discovered its programming, and built the vessel to send it home and fulfil its creators' intention. Along the way, it amassed so much knowledge, it became sentient. Decker keys in the transmission sequence, after an earlier effort fails, and begins to merge with the vessel. Kirk and company high-tail it back to the Enterprise, in time to see V'Ger, now with Decker's “human failings” added to it, depart for dimensions unknown.
The good as already mentioned, the soundtrack is quite superb.
In the thirteen years since the TV series ended, you could've expected the cast to be a little rusty, but all of them ably recapture the spirit, while adding fresh layers to their performances (particularly Nimoy, who has perhaps never been more alien and cold, before realising that his place is amongst the Enterprise crew, not the harsh rigours of Vulcan).
The new Enterprise is gorgeous, and the level of detail (interior and exterior) puts even the latest design to shame.
A proper, science-fiction plot about the perils, pitfalls and potential of humanity. No shouty arguments, no women in skin-tight leather, no romping with catgirls …
Having said that, that does drift into somewhat bad territory, as it can be rather cold and sterile at times, and the pastel-coloured outfits are truly abominable.
(One bad thing I have to have a go at regarding the Special Edition DVD: I never wanted to see V'Ger in its entirety. I was quite happy with the original intention: show bits of it, and even then clouded and mysterious, so that you can interpret the ship however you like. Foundation did a stellar job, and the design is now used for a Borg ship in Star Trek Online, but actually seeing the V'Ger vessel renders it rather … small.)
The mark of any good film, especially science-fiction, is how much you think about it after it's over. This, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, is one that I love to contemplate. There are questions within the film, such as the nature of the machine planet (brilliant enough to design a complex, seventy-kilometre spacecraft, but dense enough not to read an inscription?)? Is a merger of man and machine truly our future? And there are questions that span the franchise: where did V'Ger go next? What, if any, is its connection to the Borg?
The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home are often lauded as the high-point of Star Trek, but while both are great films, neither of them are about Trekking through the Stars. Khan is Horatio Hornblower in space, Home is a time-travel comedy (better than Hot Tub Time Machine, yes, but other than the scenes with the probe, it barely feels like a Star Trek film). Frankly, I would take this over those two any day.
In summary a beautiful, densely-layered film that challenges the viewer with some pretty heady stuff. If you view Star Trek as purely an action-adventure series, there'll be little here to sustain you (other than the brilliantly-executed battle sequence at the start), but for the thoughtful, it asks some big questions.
(Yes, I'm deducting a half-point for: “Enterprise, what we got back didn't live long … fortunately.”)