Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

The human adventure is just beginning.

Space. The final frontier. This is the continuing voyage of the starship Enterprise, on its mission to seek out new life and new civilization. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Star Trek: The Motion Picture pits the crew against another new alien threat in a story worthy of a big screen adventure. And the success of this voyage spawned a film and television franchise that is still in existence over 40 years later.

First Impressions

The Enterprise is up against a strange living machine in the newest voyage of the venerable crew. The trailer shows that the crew including Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Scotty are all reunited in this newest adventure. They are also joined by two new crewmembers Will Decker and Ilia, a bald Deltan female. There are many exciting looking shots of explosions, laser blasts, and warp speeds. But what is really going on? As the trailer says, “the human adventure is just beginning.”

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


Sci-Fi Saturdays

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Sometime in the late 23rd Century, a mysterious, alien cloud is tracked by Starfleet science station Epsilon IX as it attacks and destroys a trio of Klingon vessels and continues on its way toward Earth. On the planet Vulcan, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is undergoing a purging of his remaining emotions called kolinahr, when he senses the alien vessel. On Earth, in San Francisco at the headquarters of Starfleet, Admiral James Kirk (WIlliam Shatner) meets with his new science officer, a Vulcan named Sonak (Jon Rashad Kamal) and orders him to report the newly refit Enterprise in one hour. Kirk then boards a space pod with chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) and the two take an extended flyby around NCC-1701 in orbital drydock.

Kirk tells Scotty that they only have twelve hours until the Enterprise needs to launch. It is the only vessel within intercept range of the alien cloud. Scotty remarks that the ship needs more of a shakedown, but that she’ll be ready. On board the flagship of the fleet, Kirk finds Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins) and informs him that he will be taking over as Captain, and that Will has been temporarily reduced to Commander and made first officer. Decker is upset but follows Kirk’s orders. Shortly two crewmembers, Commander Sonak and another officer, are being beamed aboard when the system shorts out. They are both killed when they fail to be received by the Enterprise. Kirk asks Decker to look into getting another Vulcan science officer, but with no others available, Decker is also tasked with those duties.

On the recreation deck, Kirk addresses the assembled crew which also includes helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), weapons officer Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Dr. Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett). He informs the crew that the alien cloud is days away from Earth, and that the ship will be launching within the hour. A transmission from Commander Branch (David Gautreaux) at Epsilon IX is cut short as the cloud ”devours” that space station as well. Back on the bridge, Kirk and company are joined by the newest navigator, Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a bald Deltan who apparently has a pre-existing relationship with Decker. Kirk also gets notice of the final crewmember refusing to beam aboard. Visiting the transporter room, Kirk greets Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) who is upset at being “drafted” back into Starfleet.

With the crew assembled, the ship departs spacedock for its shakedown cruise. When Kirk orders Sulu to enter warp drive, an imbalance in the engines creates a wormhole that causes the Enterprise to get stuck in warp. Heading for an asteroid that was pulled into the wormhole along with them, Decker orders photon torpedoes to blast the debris, and returns them to normal space. Kirk is upset at the Commander taking control, but Decker reminds him that he knows more about this redesigned ship than Kirk does. McCoy cautions Kirk about competing with Decker. A shuttle pulls up alongside the Enterprise, and Spock joins the ship offering his services on the mission. He quickly fixes the problems with the engines, and the ship is off for an intercept course with the cloud.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The new characters were introduced early in the film, Commander Decker, and Lt. Ilia.

Approaching the cloud, Kirk refuses all recommendations to raise shields, thinking it may be construed as hostile. They are scanned by an electrical probe made of plasma energy, which burns Checkov’s hands and attempts to access the computer before Spock smashes the controls. The cloud is gigantic, dwarfing the already enormous Enterprise. The Federation ship is brought inside the cloud as scans continue, which zap and dematerialize Lt. Ilia. A short time later a replica of Ilia is beamed back onto the ship. She looks just like the Deltan navigator except for her monotonous speech pattern and a red control button on her throat. She is also a probe from the cloud, now identified as V’ger, made in the image of the ‘carbon units’ to gain further knowledge.

V’ger has been attempting to contact ‘the creator’ on the third planet of the Solar System, but has gotten no response. Spock, deciding he needs more information–and drawn by the calls of the mysterious life form– puts on a space suit and attempts to make contact using the Vulcan mind meld. He is ejected from the ‘cloud/ship’ and returned to the Enterprise. The Ilia-probe believes that the carbon-units that infest the Enterprise are interfering with V’ger’s communications and is about to eradicate them when Kirk makes a desperate gambit. He will provide information on the creator, but only to V’ger directly. The Enterprise is brought into a central portion of the ship, which contains representations of every planet and lifeform that V’ger has ever met.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Decker follow the Ilia-probe onto the surface of a structure (which is given an oxygen atmosphere) towards a small amphitheater containing V’ger. There Kirk discovers that this sentient machine is in fact Voyager 6, an American space probe from the late 20th Century that was lost into a black hole. It was discovered by a planet of sentient machines and bonded with them, continuing to fulfill its mission of collecting data on everything. It now wishes to complete the mission and transmit data back to the creator. When Kirk transmits the passcode, V’ger shorts out its receiver in order to be able to meet the creator personally. Decker, having lost his one time love and his command of a starship, sacrifices himself to join with the Ilia-probe, transmitting the code, and becoming a higher level being. Kirk, Spock and McCoy ruminate on witnessing the birth of a new lifeform, as Kirk directs the navigator to take them “out there…thataway.”

It knows only that it needs, Commander. But, like so many of us… it does not know what.” – Spock

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The size of V’ger was enormous, with an organic component to it, making some scenes look like a space-version of the trip through the human body in “Fantastic Voyage.”

History in the Making

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not the first film based off a television show, but it was probably the most notable. Sci-Fi Saturdays has already looked at two: Thunderbirds Are Go and Quatermass and the Pit. By 1979 there had only been a handful of truly popular sci-fi television series, such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Doctor Who, Space: 1999, and of course Star Trek. But none of those shows touched its fan base as much as the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Originally airing from Fall 1966 through Spring 1969, the original series clocked in 3 years of the historic 5 year mission, and only 79 episodes, with the final episode “Turnabout Intruder” airing on June 3, 1969. It was not considered a “hit” at the time, with the network not really understanding the context of the shows they were airing (it even needed two Pilot episodes just to get on the air). But the fans supported the show, even when declining ratings threatened to cancel the series after Season 2. Unfortunately no amount of letter writing could dissuade NBC from terminating the show after the third season, and it was up to the fans to keep the series alive, in some fashion.

Star Trek was the first show that garnered a strong fan base, with enthusiasts of the show gathering for conventions–which touched off a popular and ever growing summer event–starting in 1972. Paramount, who held the license to the show, took notice of the enthusiasm and created a short-live animated series in 1974-74, with the majority of the actors returning to voice their animated counterparts. They also realized that science-fiction films were gaining popularity, and with the syndication of The Original Series continuing to be popular, Paramount decided to create a feature film. Unfortunately that didn’t pan out for a number of reasons and instead a new television series was put into development, called Star Trek: Phase II. The new series was slow going in its development but was buoyed when fans continued a letter writing campaign, this time to the White House, to let President Ford know that they wanted the inaugural Space Shuttle named Enterprise. The fans were pleased at their continued success, watching series creator Gene Rodenberry and the original cast on hand for the christening of the shuttle in late 1976.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The main cast of Decker, Spock, generic crewman, Chekov, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, and Kirk witness something never before seen.

Of course the following year Star Wars became a huge hit for 20th Century Fox, which helped turn Paramount’s mind around about needing a film, and so the efforts on Phase II, were transitioned, again, into a feature film. It was decided that the first episode of the show, “In Thy Image,” would be given the enhanced makeover to become Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The revised television show was to include the entire original cast, minus Leonard Nimoy, plus the following new characters: science officer Lt. Xon, navigator Lt. Ilia, and ship’s executive officer Willard Decker (who was made the son of Commodore Matt Decker from the second season episode “The Doomsday Machine”). The cast had been hired, including David Gautreaux as Xon, Persis Khambatta as Ilia, and Stephen Collins as Decker. But after the decision to move back to a theatrical release, Nimoy opted to return as the Vulcan science officer, and so Gautreaux’ was no longer needed and he was relegated to a cameo appearance in this film.

Star Trek’s release heralded a return to the thoughtful sci-fi epic, pulling themes from the original run of shows, and releases such as 2001: A Space Odyssey; a film about the wonder and awe of the mystery of the cosmos. The Motion Picture was considered by many to be slow and lacking on action, something befitting of its ‘G-rating.’ But, what it did was revive a dormant franchise that had been in a decade long slumber. And it did so in the last month of the 70s, helping to establish that science-fiction was back, and it was here to stay through the 80s and beyond.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The contents of V’ger include replications of full solar systems and worlds.

Genre-fication

What does Star Trek do as a sci-fi property better than any other sci-fi franchise? What makes it such an endearing series? What makes the Star Trek fans more vociferous than other genre fans? First look at the other sci-fi TV series that were on during the 1960s. Eliminating The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits which were anthology shows, there were really only four episodic series: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The most successful series were Voyage and Lost in Space which ran for four and three seasons respectively, allowing them to stay in syndication in the 1970s. Of these one was about a terrestrial crew on a submarine having adventures with aliens and monsters and other sci-fi inspired ideas. The second was a family stranded in outer space ala Swiss Family Robinson and had robots, aliens, spaceships, and other traditional sci-fi tropes. They both had action and humor, but didn’t explore deeper themes.

Along came Star Trek in 1966 and presented audiences with a scientifically inspired space action show about the crew of a starship that visits planets and promotes exploration and discovery rather than war and action for action’s sake. These voyages were not about the colonization efforts of a space-faring human culture, but the wish to seek out new life and new civilizations. To expand and explore the human condition in a weekly TV series. Star Trek inspired audiences, and other creators alike that space shows could have a point of view, and could really say things. The show explored contemporary cultural themes in a sci-fi arena where (supposedly) the crew of the Enterprise had transcended humanities petty issues with gender, race, and sexuality in order to seek loftier goals of bettering oneself.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture picked up right where the TV series left off and, as the tag line implied, began the human adventure. While other sci-fi films of the time were trying to imitate what Star Trek was, The Motion Picture created a new look at the franchise. It dealt with the themes of sacrifice, humanity, and self-awareness; asking the audience to examine these ideas with the crew as they encounter the next step in the evolution of mankind. And while the film did bog itself down throughout with elaborate special effects and extended sequences, these questions that it asks do not diminish.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Spock, Kirk, and McCoy–the trinity–are still the core focus of this film.

Societal Commentary

Star Trek was always unique in creating a show, and films, that used aliens to better understand humanity. The character of Spock, who was half Vulcan and half human was usually the one that discovered something new, but also guests stars served that purpose. In this film, which takes place several years after the end of television series, Spock has decided to purge the emotions from the human side through a process known as kolinahr. However he is interrupted when he encounters V’ger’s presence in the universe. It is perhaps a kindred spirit. Perhaps something that can help him achieve his desire. So he sets off to rejoin his fellow crew members to potentially abandon them when meeting the new entity. His motives appear unclear. It’s not until he interfaces with the entity that he realizes it is all logic and no emotion. It was “barren, cold.” This seems to come as a shock to him, possibly for the fact that it represents his previous desire and he doesn’t like what he sees. And V’ger didn’t have the answers Spock sought, only more questions. Just like every intelligent being it was asking the questions of truth. Is this all that I am?

Both V’ger and Spock sought to better understand themselves. While Spock was reckoning with two sides of his being, V’ger’s was a more fundamental question: where do I come from? It sought to know its origins, and to meet its creator. The crew of the Enterprise was caught between a temperamental machine having an existential crisis and the destruction of all life on Earth. The ability to help stop this purge came down to Decker. He was a character put in the untenable position of serving under Captain Kirk. Decker was forced to step aside as Captain and then was questioned at every turn, it’s almost as if he chose his path to get away from the megalomania of Kirk. But all kidding aside, he chose the greater voyage. He chose to take the bold step of being the first human to combine with a machine and transcend human realities. All that he was, and all that V’ger was, were evolved into something anew. However schmaltzy this may seem, it’s a real Star Trek theme–going where no one has gone before.

One additional element that may get overlooked as Star Trek evolves, is the fact that in the 23rd Century and beyond humanity has found a way to overcome its differences. The United Federation of Planets consists of a united Earth. A world in which the daily struggles of poverty, war, crime, racism, and territoriality have been put aside, and the individual efforts of every person are used to drive the culture forward. This is something that is present in every incarnation of the show. Art, science, and culture flourish in this new world, even when Starfleet (the military arm of the UFP) needs to flex its muscles.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The crew of the “Enterprise” discover that V’ger is actually “Voyager 6” which is ready to complete its mission and returns to its creator.

The Science in The Fiction

The other thing that Star Trek did that was novel and new, was having the show taking place in the future using potential real-world technology for the time. Aside from warp travel and transporter technology, the remainder of these futuristic gadgets the crew used could possibly exist at some point. In fact, Star Trek has influenced technology and engineering like no other property. Handheld communicators paved the way for cell phones. Tricorders and other wireless medical equipment have influenced the production of tools for diagnosing illness, such as handheld thermometers. And the universal “real-time” translator is also something that exists today as well. The show, and the films, were always up to date with current scientific advancements and used them to extrapolate to the 23rd Century tech familiar to fans.

As an example, the main antagonist of this film is V’ger, a hybrid of the Voyager 6 NASA probe and an alien probe. The Voyager program was a NASA exploration program meant to explore the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn. Only two robotic probes were launched in late 1977, but in the world of Star Trek, there were at least 6, with Voyager 6 being an even longer range probe. The film also leverages the recent dedication of the space shuttle as Enterprise, including this ship as one of the many vehicles bearing that name, all the way up to the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701. These can be seen in the address Captain Kirk gives to the crew on the Rec Deck, and also later when Decker gives the Ilia-probe a tour of the ship.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Decker and V’ger, in the guise of Lt. Ilia, merge as the a new form of life, proving that the human adventure is just beginning.

The Final Frontier

It would be remiss to end this article without mentioning the music of Jerry Goldsmith. His theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an iconic and solid score that influenced the future of the franchise, becoming the theme for the upcoming spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation. His score stands toe-to-toe with John Williams Star Wars and Close Encounters themes, and the Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers themes from Stu Phillips.

Other than the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek is the most influential sci-fi franchise of all time. Bits of our language come from the series and films, such as the heading for this very section! The reinvigoration of the franchise with this film kicked off a 13 film run, including six films with the original cast, four films with the Next Generation cast (with the first one having a hand off from the original cast to new one), and three modern reboots. There have also been over half a dozen new TV series including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and the most recent Discovery and Picard, with new animated and live action series in production.

As with any successful sci-fi property from this time, there were books, toys, comics, and even the Happy Meal. Yes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first tie-in for the Happy Meal, which was created specifically for this promotion. Obviously McDonald’s thought it was a great idea as the iconic boxed meals with surprises inside lasted for decades to come. As the 70s come to a close, the quality and creativity of science-fiction films continue to increase as nearly every studio decides to get involved in the action. After 20th Century Fox released Star Wars, Universal had the Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica projects, Paramount revived Star Trek, and next week will see the addition of Walt Disney stepping into the serious world of sci-fi.

Coming Next

The Black Hole

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