While Wrath of Khan set the mold for how Star Trek films were done afterwards, Star Trek The Motion Picture is not only a better movie, but it represents everything that made the original series work and then some.
So first off:
Everyone knows the original Star Trek theme music, but it wasn’t used at all in the film. Instead was a full orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith. Variations of this score were used in later films (which Goldsmith also scored) and it was also used in the Star Trek The Next Generation TV show.
Better Effects. Klingons Are Aliens!
This is post Star Wars, so the bar has been raised. Fortunately, they’ve got Star Wars’ Douglas Trumbull supervising the effects, and it shows. The first thing we see is the beautifully detailed miniatures of the new Klingon ships, and the Klingons with their new look and language. For the first time on Star Trek, aliens don’t all speak English. Even the Vulcans have their own language.
|Whose idea was this hair?|
Earth is Futuristic
In the series, we never got to see futuristic earth, but this is the movie, and everything is bigger and grander, so here we have more great matte paintings with a future cityscape and shuttle port.
The Enterprise Is Really Big.
|More Trumbull goodness.|
We’re introduced to The Enterprise in Earth orbit. We get different angles as the Goldsmith score swells. It goes on for a while. Longer than modern audiences are used to. Clearly we’re supposed to be impressed. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is scale. In the original show we never got a true sense of scale. But here we have multiple shuttles floating around of different sizes and guys in space suits working on the ship. It’s huge!
Later Kirk addresses the crew. The whole crew. What looks like hundreds, a few obviously alien, but now we finally see more than just a handful of people passing through the hallways.
The Transporter Sometimes Doesn’t Always Work So Well
This sets a different tone for the story that follows. The Star Trek tech was always reliable in the original series. Everything always worked for the most part the way it was supposed to, with the exception of mirror universes and the “she can’t take any more of this captain” complaints from Scotty. So now we’re introduced to the idea that Star Trek tech can malfunction and this can be very very bad.
The problem with TV until very recently was, except for the odd soap, there was very little change. Someone who had never seen the show had to be able to immediately tell what was going on, and so at the end of each episode, everything had to return to status quo. So Kirk, Spock and McCoy had to basically stay the same, though occasionally some efforts were made to give the characters more depth. But in STTMP, they take a big step forward with Spock.
Spock’s Awesome Entrance
When Spock boards the Enterprise, he’s his usual stoic self, but he’s just come back from his Vulcan logic ritual with a new haircut. The old crew members are glad to see him, but Spock ignores their happy greetings and enthusiasm and gets right to work. It’s a great entrance that immediately lets us know what Spock is about, and it doesn’t take long for the crew members to get it, “Oh that’s right. Spock is Spock” but now he’s even more Spock-like and it’s a little unnerving.
Kirk Can be a Dick
|A big dick.|
Here, right off, we’re introduced to Kirk’s oversized ego. Kirk has talked his way into taking command of the ship from its captain, Decker. Decker isn’t pleased and says that Kirk doesn’t know the retrofitted Enterprise as well as he does, but Kirk claims superior experience and that he’ll figure it out. We always knew Kirk had an ego, but this time he’s taken it that much further, and later it comes back to bite him in the ass.
McCoy Being McCoy
Throughout the movie as in the series, McCoy calls Kirk on his shit. McCoy is often the only person Kirk will listen to, and this continues to prove true. McCoy lets Kirk know that he’s being a dick and needs to tone it down. McCoy also warns Kirk about Spock. Spock seems to have his own agenda, and they don’t know how this is going to affect the mission. It’s back to the old dynamic: McCoy respects, but is a little wary of Spock, but Kirk trusts Spock implicitly and isn’t worried.
The Rest of the Cast
|Aren't these outfits better than those tacky red coats? (Aside from McCoy's Swinger neckline)|
Unfortunately the rest of the original cast gets short shrift and their performances amount to little more than cameos. This is how they’ve often been treated in the films, and it’s always been a shame. In the original series we get to know the other crew members better over time, but STTMP assumes that’s already been covered, and so this is all we get.
Kirk Gets Humbled (Sorta)
During warp, the Enterprise Gets sucked into a worm hole. I don’t know how the science stands up here, but this is where the foreshadowing of the transporter further plays out: once again, the tech goes wrong. They’re about to crash into an asteroid. Kirk says: use the phasers, Decker says “nope, it’s got to be photon torpedoes,” and launches the torpedoes instead. Kirk asks to speak privately with Decker, and Decker reveals that because of some technical jibber jabber, the phasers wouldn’t have worked. So Decker saved the day because he knows the ship better than Kirk. Kirk says something condescending because he’s Kirk, while acknowledging that Decker did the right thing and that he needs Decker after all.
When bald supermodel Iia, the ship’s navigator, first enters the bridge, everyone on the deck pauses to admire her hotness to the accompaniment of a string section (it is 79.) It is revealed that Decker and Iia had a previous relationship, and for some reason I can’t fathom Iia announces apropos of nothing that her “celibacy is on record” I guess to make sure that nobody gets frisky.
First off: lets establish that the spaceship, V’Ger looks badass. This is Trumbull doing what Trumbull does best. It’s just a gorgeous design come to life. Back then, it was no easy task to take a production painting and turn it into a convincing special effect, and guys like Trumbull had to practically be magicians to pull this off. These weren’t CGI composite shots like today, but practical illusions that had to be invented on the fly. Like the Enterprise, there are a lot of long pans to show how awesome V’Ger is, because it is genuinely awesome.
So the Enterprise is supposed to intercept and try to stop the potentially nasty alien ship, V’Ger which is headed towards Earth. When they reach V’Ger, Kirk asserts his Kirkness, and Decker freaks out when Kirk orders that they don’t activate the shields. But what Decker doesn’t know is that earlier V’Ger zapped a Federation space station (along with those Klingon ships) out of existence because it perceived the shields as a sign of hostile intent.
So V’Ger sucks the Enterprise into itself and closes the door behind it, but this time when it zaps the ship, instead of disappearing the ship, it disappears Iia. Decker is upset when Iia is zapped away, but also, not so much. While Shatner can overact, I think the actor playing Decker could have been a little more invested here because his relationship with Iia is the whole crux of the story.
So, Iia, or Iia robot probe clone reappears on the ship, announcing that the crew are “carbon units” infesting the ship, which it thinks is sentient. With the hope that original Iia is in there somewhere, Decker attempts to appeal to her human nature, but that doesn’t work out. Iia insists on meeting “the creator” which is supposed to be on earth.
Spock Gets a Real Emotional Arc!
This is where it gets interesting. Spock does his nerve pinch on some random crew member, gets a spacesuit, and heads deeper into V’Ger because he senses that whatever he’s been looking for is there. But he only has enough jet propulsion for a one way trip. Assuming he probably won’t be coming back, he records his observations. It’s a tense scene.
So he discovers V’Ger comes from a machine planet and has been collecting all this information through its travels, and is ready to transmit the information to its creator. That’s its mission Spock decides to mind meld with it, this hurts Spock’s brain, and he’s repelled back towards the Enterprise.
Kirk, dons a spacesuit and intercepts Spock, yells at him to wake him up, but Spock is completely out of it. They bring Spock back on the ship. McCoy says, “brain trauma.”
Then Spock wakes up. This is the best part. His whole affect has changed, and we see a warmth we’ve never seen from Spock. It’s a great performance from Nemoy. He holds Kirk’s hand. He explains that V’Ger lack the fundamental thing that makes us human and that makes Spock human, (or at least, half human): emotion and a sense of meaning and purpose. Spock has found what he was seeking: he couldn’t go through with the Vulcan ritual of logic because he had to get in touch with his emotional side.
|If you don't think this is more powerful than the death scene in Khan, you have no soul.|
So here’s Spock’s emotional arc. This experience changes the interior life of the character in a fundamental way. This is one of the most important moments for the character and the series. He soon returns to his stoic self, but there’s no denying a change in him has taken place.
The Star Trekky Ending
So V’Ger reaches earth, sends a message to the creator and doesn’t get a response. So it decides it’s going to eliminate the infestations of all those carbon units.
|She surely won't be able to able to hear us as we talk about her at full volume literally behind her back.|
So they find out that V’Ger is the original NASA Voyager probe, (V’Ger—Voyager—get it?) it slipped into a black hole and found this technological planet. The machine planet “fixed” Voyager and made it sentient.
So they find the old code response to the original Voyager message in their archives. Kirk explains that the “carbon units” are V’Ger’s creator. V’Ger insists that it has to “merge with its creator.” Decker volunteers because he just can’t get over Iia, and Iia is still in there somewhere. So he joins with V’Ger, and they become a new organism.
And this is why Star Trek is Star Trek. It’s always been about this. It’s what Sci-Fi does best—explore ideas.
Star Trek the Motion Picture Vs. Khan
While The Motion Picture focuses on exploration and ideas, Khan is more of a standard adventure story. Khan wants revenge. Kirk thwarts him. It’s a well cafted adventure story, but it’s not very Star Trekky. The Genesis bomb subplot—and it is essentially a subplot—is the only true sci-fi element in the story. Everything else is space opera. The original Star Trek was seldom space opera.
Spock’s Death is Cheap
|I'm dying but not.|
Set aside the fact that Spock is brought back from the dead in the next movie: his death—even if we assume he’s actually dead-- doesn’t change anything. Spock and Kirk are close. Spock makes a Spock-like sacrifice. Spock is stoic. Kirk is emotional. It’s played for sympathy, a cheap way to manipulate the audience’s emotions, while in STTMP, Spock is the only character with a real emotional arc. While the death of Spock is frequently held it high regard as key and poignant moment in the series it isn’t as powerful or meaningful as Spock’s transformation in STTMP.
Star Trek Is Reduced to Space Opera
So with the assumption that STTMP was a failure and Khan a success, the subsequent movies essentially followed the same pattern, more space opera than sci-fi. The Next Generation series is much better at carrying on the spirit of the original, but the movies are more about action and less about ideas, the recent reboot even more so. The new Star Trek movie franchise barely borrows the superficial elements of the original and completely misses what makes Star Trek unique.
So STTMP is really the most Star Trek of the Star Trek movies. No film better captured the essence of the show and its intention.