A lot has been said about 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so in order for me to explain why I’m thankful for this movie, we must first set aside the highly-discussed elements like that bald lady, Shatner’s new thicket of hair, the unflattering costumes that put camel toes and moose knuckles center stage, the many long, tedious special effects shots, and let’s even choose not to discuss the alarming fact that there’s a pedophile in the cast. Most of these (pedo excluded) are superficial aspects of the film. Beneath these things lies an emotional undercurrent that seems at odds with its reputation as the most boring of all the movies.
People don’t really even ARGUE that Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t boring these days, because it’s generally accepted that it is. Yes, it can be a nightmare for those of us who struggle with ADD, and it’s inarguable that this first film in the series is an entirely different beast than any other that would come after it, but I’ve actually come to see this as its greatest asset. You won’t find any fist fights or long action scenes in this movie. No one has sex (that we know of). There are no space chases, no scenes of a ship whizzing by the screen at high speed, and nary a Beastie Boys song to be found. As an entry in then-new blockbuster cinema filmmaking, it fails to ignite and it fails to excite.
I appreciate how the movie spends the bulk of its running time showing the crew come back together, overcome their differences and their own character flaws, particularly Kirk (“Captain’s log: Kirk is a jerk). There is a larger, universal threat that looms throughout the plot, but the real focus of the story falls on the people in the ship. I believe that the real enemy of Star Trek: TMP is our own nature. Kirk is consumed with jealousy and his need to have power and be in control at all times, refusing to cooperate with others or recognize the competence of those who have been hired for this mission. While future movies would explore other aspects of Kirk such as his refusal of death, only Star Trek: TMP spends so much of its time on Kirk’s insecurity and need for power. Not many movies take the time or have the luxury to explore the flaws of their leads like this one does.
I appreciate that the screenplay finds new and interesting ways to deal with the overall threat in the film, eschewing the usual tropes of a climactic battle and instead opting for CREATION instead of destruction. As our characters start to rediscover their own purpose, the film seems to be trying very hard to tell us that there is beauty in exploration, discovery, and birth, which is what it thinks we are here to do as a human race. In contrast to the dark, uncertain backdrop (which reflected the political and social climate of the 1970s during which this film was created), the messages of humanism, optimism, and reaching beyond our own flaws to work together are kind of staggering in their boldness.
Unfortunately in my opinion, the sequels were brought more in line with traditional blockbuster tropes. Nicholas Meyer was hired and things were changed forever. I love ALL of the movies in the series and I adore Nicholas Meyer; however, the shift in tone is somewhat unfortunate; every subsequent movie offers more popcorn thrills and larger-than-life bad guys to please all audiences and sacrifices some of the introspection that makes ST: TMP so unique. Roddenberry, was only allowed to be heavily involved in this first film, making it the strongest, purest example of his vision for the fictional world he created. Maybe that’s why he was conflicted and sometimes harsh in his thoughts on the end results of future films. It’s sad to me that Gene Roddenberry’s thoughtful, challenging vision of the future never really mixed with mainstream popular entertainment. Maybe it never could.