Leonard Nimoy’s passing prompted me to write some long-in-the-kitty reviews for the original cast. His work will never be forgotten and his contribution will be forever recognized.
Adios, Sweet Prince!
“Star Trek” both literally and allegorically has always been about re-birth, starting anew; one door closes, another opens. Star Trek was counted out more times than Joe Frazier and had just as many comebacks with the also great animated series from 1973-75, to the many attempted, but aborted leaps to the big screen, back to the small screen and back once more.
Several attempts were made to bring Trek to the big screen. One of Roddenberry’s first and most interesting pitches was called “The God Thing,” (what would eventually be “The Motion Picture”) and another was an ambitious treatment by British writers Chris Bryant and Allan Scott called “Planet of the Titans,” set after the five-year mission depicted in the series, the film involved Starfleet competing with the Klingons for claim to the supposed home world of the mythical Titans, a technologically-advanced race long thought extinct. As the planet is pulled into a black hole, the USS Enterprise must also face off against the Cygnans, the alien race responsible for the Titans’ disappearance. Ultimately, Captain Kirk is forced to take the Enterprise into the black hole to defeat the Cygnans, a decision that sends the starship and its crew backwards in time thousands of years and into orbit around Earth. After introducing fire to the primitive Humans living at the time, Kirk and his crew are revealed to be the legendary Titans… (Fascinating indeed as this is similar to Chris Nolan’s “Insterstellar’s plot).
Production moved forward further than previous ideas which never made it past the pitch. The Director was chosen- Phillip Kaufman, (a colleague/friend of George Lucas who would later help him create Dr. Indiana Jones for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and provide the McGuffin of a the Arc of the Covenant and directing such films as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” (co-starring Leonard Nimoy), The Right Stuff, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being), was ready to reinvent “Trek” in a radical way by taking the “cultist vibe from it.”
Despite the bad science of the Enterprise entering and exiting a black hole fully intact, there was plenty to get excited about, especially the consideration of Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune (who also at the time was offered but declined as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) as the lead Klingon baddie. Even though momentum was gained, Paramount studio exec Barry Diller had an attack of the douchebags and didn’t like the direction Trek was headed and cancelled the movie idea in May 1977- instead he proposed a second television series wrapped in an agenda of course.
Set to premiere in the fall of 1978, “Star Trek: Phase II” would be the new flagship series about the continuing adventures of the Star ship Enterprise starring the entire original cast except Leonard Nimoy who had had a falling out with Roddenberry years before and refused to return. The move was not an altogether artistic one as Diller, along with Michael Eisner, also had a bold idea for a fourth television network to compete with the then, big three of, CBS, ABC, NBC.
To fill in the gaps left by Nimoy’s absence and Shatner’s less than full-time workload; three new characters were added: William Decker as the ship’s human first Officer and two new alien characters, Science Officer Xon (pronounced Zahn) a full-blooded male Vulcan and navigator Ilia, (pronounced I-Lee-Ah) a bald-headed female empath from the planet Delta as ship’s Decker was made to be a younger version of Kirk so he could take over much more of the physicality of the show’s male lead. With Shatner getting older and expensive; the logic was that the actor and character would be gradually phased out and replaced with Decker a younger, cheaper version of Kirk.
Xon was to offer the cold-logical POV (point-of-View), even more so than the half-Vulcan Spock, that would otherwise have been missing due to Nimoy’s absence and provide healthy philosophical debate with Dr. McCoy.
It would later be revealed that Lt. Ilia had a previous relationship with Decker and would provide plenty of sexual chemistry between her and Decker and especially Kirk.
If the three characters have a déjà vu vibe, it’s because they would later be altered into Commander Will Riker, Lt. Commander Data and Deanna Troi of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
A half of a season worth of scripts were written (one episode had Kirk, thanks to transporter malfunction, return to earth hours before the Pearl Harbor attack; some would eventually be re-worked for “TNG” like: “Devil’s Due” and “The Child,” during the writers’ strike of 1988) as was the series ‘bible,’ sets and models were built, special-effects tested, actors cast- three weeks before principle photography began the whole project was cancelled in August 1977.
Studio heads began having second thoughts, first they looked around at the phenomenal success of “Star Wars;” and wondered why “Star Trek” couldn’t do business like that. Also the mounting costs of the pilot, the subsequent series and the lukewarm response from affiliates getting on board for this fourth network, which by now seemed unlikely- a movie just sounded far more prudent. As usual with all things Trek, the end is never final as the cast, save one, Xon was dropped completely (replaced in the movie, briefly by Sonak who was killed in a transporter malfunction) was now headed for or is it back- to the big screen- again, but for real this time.
From its then budget of $47 million, (an enormous amount at that time) the pilot for the aborted television series would be reworked into a bigger canvas from which to work. From the giddy-up, this endeavor was to be an event- to its Director Robert Wise (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and Composer Jerry Goldsmith- Trek’s return was going to be huge. An unknown Paramount studio exec was heard to have said, “Make it like ‘Star Wars, only bigger.”
Writer Harold Livingston was picked to write a compelling screenplay that would say all the things Roddenberry wanted to say and most agreed, from Wise on down to the actors that he was a fine writer, except Roddenberry.
Both men grew to hate each other with Livingston holding the bigger grudge as Roddenberry would constantly rewrite his work, never tell him what he was doing to said work and take all the credit, but only when it was good, blaming Livingston if it was not, infuriating Livingston to the point of getting physical. This continued on until Director Robert Wise acted as referee. Creating havoc, production was constantly delayed leaving actors angry and confused and no one having a clue as to how the film would end. This episode followed many more like it – Roddenberry’s dick behavior would be remembered during the early stages of Wrath of Khan’s pre-production.
Once the conflict was resolved, another problem arose, what to do about Spock/Nimoy’s return. Roddenberry and Nimoy had a testy relationship that began during production of the original series when Nimoy took umbrage with Roddenberry’s Trek merchandising, using Nimoy’s likeness as Spock and not getting compensated for it and selling the shows bloopers. Not only did he feel he was cheated out of some dough, but his integrity as an actor was compromised with the blooper reels being sold to the highest bidder. One must remember this was long before Dick Clark fake-laughed, packaged and sold Hollywood fuck-ups as entertainment.
Their personal relationship was dead, but they continued on professionally until it reached its logical breaking point.
Due to budget constraints of the animated series that began in 1973, GR supported the network’s decision to not hire Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. Nimoy hotly rejected this and took a pay cut just to have his former cast mates back together- except Walter Koenig, his voice was not heard, but was compensated by writing an episode titled, “Infinite Vulcan.”
The merchandising and the blooper issues were never resolved to the Nimoy’s satisfaction so once the animated series was canceled in 1975, he bid Spock and the Trek universe a heartfelt adieu by writing an autobiography titled, “I am NOT Spock!”
Nimoy could very well have done a Garbo and retired into the good night had it not been for Michael Eisner, Diller’s second in command, who wisely said, “How the fuck can we do a Star Trek movie without Spock?”
Wise words, indeed.
Efforts, including those by his co-stars Shatner and Kelly, were made to meet Nimoy’s demands the first would be to make Spock an integral part of the story and not some cameo.
With production back online things moved to the completion date and then on to its release December 5, 1979, fans were ecstatic making the film a $100 million plus hit, a fact that must be stressed as the film is perceived to have been a commercial failure- odd since its spawned ten sequels!
The film begins with the brand new Klingons, bumpy heads seen for the first time, (the Captain played by Spock’s Daddy himself, Mark Lenard) three warships being destroyed by a strange energy cloud. When word gets out, the only ship that can intercept and hopefully stop the cloud is the newly re-designed Enterprise, which has yet to take a shakedown cruise around the galaxy.
After two and half years behind a desk, Admiral James T. Kirk jumps at the chance to take his old ship, former crew on yet another mission to save the galaxy and all of humanity’s collective asses. Forcing ship’s Captain, (technically not Captain of the ship, just Captain of the re-fit) to is his First Officer, Will Decker (Stephen Collins) who is none too pleased about the demotion. The rest of the cast is re-united, including the grumpy Dr. McCoy (the late Deforest Kelley) and the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who makes a late in the game appearance, but effectively dramatic entrance. Spock senses a kinship with the vast consciousness that exists at the heart of the cloud as he goes through his emotional purge called the Kolinar, but did not finish and feels he can helps his former Captain with the mission at hand.
Also on board are Chief Engineer Scotty (James Doohan), Security Chief Chekov (Walter Koenig), Helmsman Sulu (George Takei), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and a newcomer, Navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a bald, female from the planet Delta.
After battling several systems failures, including a malfunctioning transporter that kills two crewmen and a propulsion system that becomes unstable and creates a wormhole, the Enterprise makes contact with the entity within the cloud, called V’ger.
Ilia is killed when a probe invades the Enterprise bridge, and V’ger later sends a second probe to the ship in the form of a mechanism that mimics Ilia’s body and features. Kirk learns that V’ger is a living machine traveling to Earth to make contact with its “Creator”. If this contact is not made, V’ger intends to wipe out all of the human beings on Earth. It is up to the crew of the Enterprise to save the day.
The story is very cerebral (maybe too cerebral for some tastes) and a bit too staid for the Enterprise’s maiden movie voyage; with little in the way of space battles, instead the TMP goes for ideas. Striking a resemblance to a re-hash of the original series episodes combined and rearranged (“The Changeling “being the most obvious inspiration and echoes of Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama are prevalent).
This is the first and so far only Trek film that deals with hard-core science-fiction, a concept that would have been best suited for a middle sequel perhaps as the film doesn’t boast much action, and the only real sin the film commits is too much story, but only if you are a real cement head will that bother you.
Many claim the character interaction is off, but I think there’s something deeper going on and I believe the film works exactly as it was meant to be- reuniting the crew and that feeling of completion is never fully felt until at the end when the friends are finally together, whether it was by design or by fate, it works.
Sulu, Scotty, Chekov and Uhura all act like themselves, but the main kids, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are just slightly off. Kirk is defeated and has lost his familiar spirit; lazy from being a desk-jockey for the last two years, McCoy was sick of the whole thing and wanted out while Spock went through the Vulcan ritual of purging his humanity. If there characters seem off’; that’s what the characters are experiencing, so are we! The film’s final scene with Ilia and Decker is the payoff, not only is it the birth of a new lifeform, but the rebirth of this crew’s friendship. It’s so symbolic- the redesigned Enterprise underscores how these friends were meant to be; take the shot of the ship sailing out of the light and when it returns the characters have found themselves again. Notice the slightly more connected and energetic rapport between the three. They are finally at home. It’s not lazy writing, it’s intentional.
The acting is good all around. Shatner does some fine work as a he captures Kirk’s first love of being in Command perfectly. We know instantly how he feels when he steps aboard the newly re-designed Enterprise and thanks to his charisma; we forgive him for being a conniving prick against Decker.
Deforest Kelly as McCoy is his usual grumpy self with most of the film’s best lines and his one testy debate with Spock harkens back to the best moments of the original series. Nimoy is as cool, compelling and calculated as ever with an interesting perspective in regards to V’ger’s plight.
Although Persis Khambata makes no impression as legend has it she took an astounding seven-teen takes for a single line reading of “No.”
A more prudent editor would have cut many of the lingering shots as the film desperately needed a tightened mid-section; too many have the cast just standing around. That said, compared to today’s ugly, avid/MTV, slash cuts, the slow panning shots, especially of the spruced up Enterprise and the innards of V’ger, and is a sight to behold.
Director Robert Wise does give the entire film a sense of class and genuineness. No longer is this a campy network TV show as its inspiration from “2001” is obvious but something with balls and an attempt at least to expand some gray matter. Those lovely widescreen shots are worth the time alone as it effortlessly lifts Trek out of its television confines. Wise set an impressive standard, that visually and thematic has yet to be surpassed by its sequels.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is the standout however, a character itself, the score represents majesty and wonder as it mirrors the visuals perfectly. The film’s opening overture nearly beats John Williams’ first Star Wars score in its beauty, danger, mystery and richness with Ilia’s theme being the single best piece of music in the film; the entire score stands as the very best one of all of the movies with Trek in the title.
I have and always will love this film for what it at least tried to do; inspire its audience with awe, wonder and most importantly- ideas. The cold mechanics of V’ger only underscore the unique beauty of being human and our ability to temper our emotions with logic and knowledge. Spock gets this when he weeps for the entity, “As I would for a brother…” he feels regret perhaps attempting the “Kolinar” as we see in the films’ opening moments; he finally learns to accept his human side. The entity learns that it must move beyond its cold mechanical programming to evolve and join with its creator.
After thirty plus years, the special effects are still impressive; from the introduction of the Enterprise to its journey inside V’ger; all exquisitely conceived shots. My favorite is Spock in the space suit intent to mind meld with the alien as the camera moves in on the eye of V’ger- the artistry is amazing; the visuals, the music, still is an eye-popper even compared with today’s sophisticated tools.
The films epic look is still astounding as every cent is shown onscreen. The film starts of big and keeps getting bigger. Ironically enough, as the sequels continued to be released, getting generally positive reviews, much more than the first and making money, their budgets were continuously reduced and none had the sumptuousness or epic view this film holds.
I am an original series whore, so the complaints are merely nitpicks since they do not ruin the movie for me in any way. Maligned from the start, time has been very kind to this film and looking back its one of the best entries. I can always spot a pretender or a fake Trekker when they bash this movie and then try to say that the odd numbered movies are the bad ones and the even numbered are good- which was and still is total fake BS. Avoid these types.
For what it’s worth, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is one of the greatest love stories ever made. It’s not about instant gratification, but about the journey. A much maligned masterpiece that will soon get the credit that been long overdue.