Sunday, June 20, 2010
Not the Worst Trek
The date was Saturday, December 8, 1979, and my brother and I were standing in a line at the Village Green movie theater that wrapped around the building. Winter hasn’t really begun in South Florida by December, and it was a sunny afternoon, so we weren’t uncomfortable, besides we were waiting to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Nothing could dampen our spirits. Now before you start rolling your eyes let me explain the state of Trek fandom at the time. The Original Series (TOS) went off the air in 1969, and with the exception of a brief foray on Saturday morning television as a cartoon, and some poorly made fanzines that were not readily available to a 15 year old boy in those pre-Internet days, we had seen nothing new from Star Trek. What we didn’t know was that Gene Roddenberry and Robert Justman had been working on bringing Trek back to the small screen with Star Trek Phase II, but then in 1977 Star Wars took the world by storm and Paramount decided they wanted a movie, not a TV series. I don’t really remember when I first saw the now famous rainbow ad for ST:TMP, but I do remember the thrill that coursed through my guts. I memorized the date, scrutinized the magazine racks and newspapers for any mention of the film, and waited. Finally the day came, and my mother dropped my brother and me off at the cinema, and we happily joined the queue.
The lobby was decked out with huge pictures of the new Enterprise including a cut-away poster showing the new interior layout, which I purchased for the princely sum of $5. I don’t think anyone was in costume that day, but I do recall seeing one of my teachers in the crowd. We found seats as close to the center of the auditorium as possible and, again, waited. After what seemed an eternity the lights dimmed, and the greatest event of my life to that point began. The next 2 hours seemed to go by at warp speed as I memorized every square centimeter of that gorgeous ship. To this day I feel that the flyby of the Enterprise that most people think is too long could be longer. I left that theater elated, overjoyed, and totally satisfied. What I didn’t realize at the time, and what took me four more viewings to get, was that the movie was completely lacking in all the things that made Star Trek something other than a hardware expo. I went from joy, to unease, to boredom, to outrage. How dare they give us Trek that was substandard?! I spent the next two and a half decades calling it The Motion Sickness, or The Motionless Picture, and until Star Trek V came out I considered it the worst film ever. (but I still loved the new ship, and built many a model)
Somehow, as the years went by, I grew to dislike TMP less and less. Then, last year, I picked up the special edition DVD at a second hand store and watched it with a more charitable eye. Yes, it is still the slowest moving movie of all time, and yes probably forty-five minutes of footage could be cut out without affecting the story one bit, and yes the script is almost a carbon copy of The Changeling, but all that being said there is a lot to like about the film. The ship was, and still is awesome. The effects were very good for their time, and a lot of what has become standard in the Trek universe was established in TMP (Klingons that look like aliens, the large, glowing warp core, Scotty’s mustache). And though the characterizations were stilted and dull, they weren’t out of character, just boring. Finally, when I was starting to actually like much of the movie, I listened to the commentary track. Director Robert Wise explained a lot of things that softened my view of the film even more. Some of the complaints about the film had to do with it being hugely over budget, but what never made it to the papers was that the money already spent on pre-production of Star Trek Phase II was put under the accounting umbrella of TMP, so more than half of the film’s expenditures had little to do with the movie. They were also saddled with an unreasonable, and non-negotiable release date, and as a result of the special effects companies being terribly behind schedule Wise never got a chance to screen the film to test audiences, or even to edit it much. He literally hand carried a still-wet print to the gala premier. Finally there were many visual effects shots that just never got finished, so a lot of the scenes seemed incomplete. In my opinion the director’s commentary on TMP should be required listening for any true Trek fan. It may not make you love the film, but it might help you hate it less.
I will grant that there were many flaws in The Motion Picture that had nothing to do with budget or schedules. The uniforms, while functional, were drab and unflattering. The dialogue, while more accurate from a ‘we’re really on a space ship’ sense seemed overblown and stilted. The ship’s interiors were sterile and monochrome, again probably more realistic, but not very fun to watch. And that, to me, sums up the largest problem with the film…it wasn’t fun. I just rewatched the director’s cut this evening. Wise cut it tighter, and the studio used excellent CGI to either finish or put in bits that were either undone, or unaffordable, but the sense of humor and fun that permeated all of TOS just wasn’t there. Roddenberry had brought in a NASA scientist to help make the new Enterprise seem as realistic as possible, and that lead to a kind of clinical sterility that just didn’t fit for Star Trek. All that being said, however, none of the cast behaved in ways that were grossly out of character; they just spent too much time staring at the view screen looking puzzled, and not enough time doing anything interesting.
So, I can forgive Star Trek, The Motion Picture many of its sins because it was the film that brought Star Trek back from the grave, and because even though it was not an exciting thrill ride, and even though it was pretty much a rehash of a much superior TOS episode, it didn’t violate canon, or make anyone do or say anything that was wrong, and it gave us a beautiful new ship to play with. It certainly wasn’t the best of the films, but it was, in my opinion, far and away not the worst.