Saturday, May 30, 2015

Why Star Trek The Motion Picture is the Best Star Trek Movie Ever

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:

What’s New?

The Jerry Goldsmith Score

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.

Planet Vulcan

Whose idea was this hair?
We finally get a good look at Spock’s home planet with a big giant beautiful matte painting. We haven’t been to Vulcan since the glimpse we got in the original series in the episode, Amok Time, but here, Vulcan is a harsh—and literally—volcanic planet. We see Spock with bad hair going through a Vulcan ritual where he’s supposed to achieve some ultimate state of logic, which he fails because of his human blood. But he fails for another reason: something is calling him to space, and space is where he’s going to find whatever it is he’s searching for. I’m not sure how this works—something to do with his Zen-like Vulcan powers, but we go with it.

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

The last time the transporter didn’t work in the original series, Kirk got transported to the evil mirror universe to be replaced by evil Kirk. But this time when the transporter fails, it’s horrific and scary. We see a deformed glimpse of the rematerializing (and screaming) crew members before what’s left of them phases back to earth.

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.

What’s Familiar

Emotional Arcs (or Lack Thereof)

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.

The Story

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 McCoy makes one of his down homey country doctor observations: V’Ger is like a child and should be treated like a child. He says all this in earshot of Iia, so I’m not sure how she’s supposed to ignore all this, but Kirk does his Kirk thing and bluffs. He says that he’s got the info V’Ger needs, but won’t give it up unless he can meet with V’Ger. So this is at best a stalling tactic, but also, Kirk is curious. This is at the core of Star Trek—the “to boldly go where no man has gone before” part. It’s about curiosity and discovery.

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.


  1. Thanks for the minority report. STTMP gets a 42% rating from viewers at Rotten Tomatoes. I was bored witless when I saw the movie when I first came out. I tried watching it again several years later on video (a laser disc, actually); the friend who owned it considered it criminally underrated. I quickly didn't connect with this second viewing and gave up amid the gape-jawed awe of reaction shot after reaction shot. With your review in mind I can imagine giving it another shot. Maybe when I retire.

  2. You also have to put it into context: this was the FIRST Star Trek movie. Note all the new stuff they added to the mix that we take for granted now, like aliens having their own language, the scale, future earth, malfunctioning transporters.

    Also, really really pay attention to the visuals. This stuff is all done practically. NO CGI. How do they do this shit? Who knows? Every movie they did back then, they had to invent a new approach to solving the problem of special effects. So think of it as this beautiful hand crafted sculpture and light show. There's of course some post production manipulation, compositing and so forth. but a surprising amount is done in camera.

    So just take that in. If you saw something like V'Ger in an art gallery it would blow your mind--if they could recreate this stuff in an art gallery, which isn't really possible, but seriously!

    Also it's the most powerful transformative moment for Spock's character. Nothing in the later films matched it. Particularly his death. Even if his character had really died, it wouldn't have been as powerful.

  3. "Everyone knows the original Star Trek theme music, but it wasn’t used at all in the film."

    WRONG! It played during the transition sequence between the worm hole event and safe warp travel — once Spock came aboard to adjust the computations and fix the warp drive.

  4. You may not chose to post this but here goes. I have a couple of additional comments to make, if I may. First, you do make some valid points. The film has the most EPIC SCOPE AS A WHOLE and to this day (i.e.; NuTrek) it has never been repeated. Yes, I do love me some TMP. In some respects, it is actually a more "true" version of TOS, however there is one huuuuuge, glaring exception to that: the characters are very stiff. They seemingly have no soul. In fact, hardly a shred of the character nuances we fell in love with in the tv series even made an appearance — with the possible exception of McCoy's grumpy entrance. Most shockingly, I cannot believe anyone who loves TOS would ever say the med lab scene with Spock in TMP is "more powerful" than the death scene in TWOK. No friggin' way, I'm sorry. People were literally CRYING in theaters when Spock put his hand to that glass and subsequently died in front of his best friend. Everyone I know *still* tears up at that scene even after watching the film 10-20 times! Just for saying that one thing you should have your Trek card revoked for LIFE. In any case, you do make some valid points but HOLY HELL, man. If you do actually post this, thank you : )

  5. Of course I'm glad to post a well-reasoned response, however much I disagree!

    And I still think that moment when Spock has that burst of emotion for the first time is much more powerful than the death in Khan.

    Also I do not know of this "Trek Card" of which you speak. Clearly I was not invited to the party. Perhaps this post is the reason. I suppose I'm doomed to forever be an outsider.

  6. So this may sound odd to you all, but my first tear in a theater was in Star Trek 3. When the Enterprise is blown up and streaking across the sky and Kirk ask, "What have I done?". Then McCoy's response just broke me down. I do love TMP more than most of my Trek friends. And that being said, crying and all in 3, my very favorite is 6. There is good Trek in all the movies.

  7. Youre missing a Very important point -- Star Trek Really is best summed up by the first 2 episodes of TOS trek produced. In the first pilot The Cage we have a very cerebro adventure ( and both share the exact same criticisms between 1964 and 79 versions ) and in the retooled second attempt Where No Man Has Gone Before -- we get a second far more adventurous but equally compelling episode. ( star trek 2 anyone ) Unlike star wars, Star Trek is really a big enough tent to be both and the first 2 episodes or first 2 films actually share the same parallels and in so doing both forms share equal authenticity. -- Logan 7

  8. Actually, spock only THEORIZED that the machine planet is where V'ger came from, and that those who built its carry ship had only V'ger's return to earth and subsequent reunion with its creators in mind.

    Furthermore, Kirk THEORIZED that it was still our galaxy that the Voyager-6 probe re-emerged in.

    I have this theory that the Doomsday Machine civilization built the V'ger carry ship, and for more purposes than to reunite a simple primitive probme with its earth scientists centuries later.

    And that's assuming that Voyager-6 emerged anywhere in the same time it started out in; the inclusion of a black hole in the equation was made note of, after all-- so what if Voyager-6 popped out of a black hole untold eons in the past, all the way in the unknown galaxy where the Doomsday Machine makers live(d)? And what if they were desperate to save themselves by migrating to another planet in another galaxy thinking they'd escape their own screw up in unleashing the Doomsday machine? But, after learning of Earth from the databank of the Voyager probe and thusly having an escape destination in mind, they knew they had to get on our good side for us to share our planet with them?

    So naturally, they would offer us ultimate knowledge of the universe-- but again they make a huge screw up in making a ship capable of accumulating such knowledge and making it accessible to the Voyager probe the decided to return to us as an added gesture of good will? And in so doing, created a self-aware super-machine that might use its nightmarishly powerful self defense armament to annihilate the humo-carbs once Voyager's newfound self-awarenesss also gave it a desire to seek its own purpose (Mat Decker even comments "We all create god in our own image" at one point after the I-leah copy says "only the creater and similar lifeforms are true."

    Therefore, the unknown species that first built the Doomsday machine and unleashed their own future self-extinction will have made another careless mistake that endangers the planet and galaxy they seek to flee to in order to escape that very doomsday machine in the first place.

    But, growing patient that the V'ger ship hadn't yet found the earth because it started doing its own rogue exploration instead after becoming self-aware unexpectedly, the aliens finally build the whale probe out of desperation with only the earth and the making of contact with a far more benevolent intelligence than the war-like humans in mind (the idea being that they will have resigned themselves to accepting that they'll have to just wipe out the violent humans to forestall a would-be migration war, then planning to get along with whatever other intelligent species might be on record in the Voyager probe's databanks at the time of launch).

    In other words, just because a species can build huge honkin' whale probes and V'gers doesn't mean they are automatically wise with the immense power of invention they wield. Under this theory of mine, the prior building of the Doomsday machine would prove that very reality.

    Meanwhile, the Doomsday machine is still munching up their own galaxy and finally succeeds before the V'ger ship or the whale probe can find them a place to escape to in the nick of time.

    Now, as for the machine planet:

    I'm convinced that, while the idea of the borg was not yet a thing by the time this film was made, it was an unspoken and unrevealed plot feature that V'ger merely PASSED BY a machine planet, borg or not, and continued on.

    Nothing in the entire star trek genre would later confirm or disconfirm spock's own personal OPINION that the machine planet he saw the hologram of was where V'ger was from. And the lack of future exploration into this is the only reason that all future Trekkies went with that. I like to look or at least ponder deeper than that, personally. But that's just me.