Star Trek The Marathon: The Motionless Picture
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KATEY: Before I saw some sneak footage for the new Star Trek last fall, I had to ask Josh, "OK, which one has the pointy ears?" I had gone my whole life knowing nothing more than the phrase "Going boldly where no man has gone before," but thanks to this flashy new movie with flashy young stars, suddenly I had to learn about Vulcan logic and the starfleet and something called Kolinahr. And now that J.J. Abrams' Star Trek has become one of my most-anticipated movies of the summer, I figured Josh's nerdy crash course in Trek knowledge wasn't enough. It was time to delve deep, figure out what all these characters become before we see their origin story. It was time to watch the original Star Trek movies, all of them-- to boldly go where no sci-fi averse girl has ever gone before. We're calling it Katey and the Geek, like Smokey and the Bandit with more spaceships.
So to kick off my weeklong immersion in Trek, we start with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which pretty much everyone I talked to agreed was a horrible introduction to the Trek universe. They were right-- the movie is too long, fairly boring, and the villain is a friggin' cloud. But as you'll learn, even I found plenty to love, and I don't just mean Spock's strange sex appeal. Read below as Josh and I argue about the shock value of V'ger, Jerry Goldsmith's bombastic score, and I ponder great mysteries of the Trek universe, starting with that enduring question: Why is Kirk kind of a prick?
JOSH: So which one of us is Katey and which one is the Geek? I hope I'm Katey. Whether or not I'm Katey there's no denying this: Kirk is the kind of man men want to be and I want to be with. I mean… women want to be with. Obviously I didn't mean me. I'm married and totally into chicks. Well only one chick, please don't tell Shatner, I mean my wife, about the plural use of the term. Hey let's watch this movie! Beware the big satellite dish Katey! HBO is evil! In Star Trek: The Motion Picture the crew of the Enterprise must save us all from a mysterious probe which threatens Earth for no apparent reason. Pay attention, you'll see this plot again.
JOSH: Star Trek: The Motion Picture's big problem is that it doesn't feel as if it were written as a Star Trek story. Instead it feels like someone came up with a completely separate Sci-Fi idea, and then took that script and shoehorned a bunch of Star Trek stuff in it. This is actually how some of the television series' best episodes came about and in fact Star Trek: The Motion Picture was originally intended to be the pilot for a new series. Apparently they thought the same thing would work for the movie, but it doesn't. It just makes the movie longer and more tedious, full of non-sequiturs which have nothing to do with the actual story but that they've shoehorned in to justify putting Captain Kirk and company in it. The worst offender is a drawn out, ridiculous scene in which the Enterprise is sucked into a wormhole, for no particular reason other than that they needed an excuse to fire the torpedoes at least once during the film.
That said, the movie at least deserves credit for being ambitious and taking the idea of bringing Star Trek to the big screen seriously. ST:TMP misses the mark, but at it's aiming high. It wants desperately to be 2001; smart, ponderous, and thought-provoking science fiction, and in fact there are a couple of moments when it almost achieves it. They could have settled, as so many other similar movies around that time did, for cranking out a low-budget Star Wars knockoff. I mean, look what happened to Buck Rodgers. They didn't, and because they didn't, even though the movie never really works, Star Trek went forward while all those crummy, action-adventure Star Wars imitators which flooded the movie theaters around it fizzled and failed.
KATEY: Obviously I didn't have a problem with the movie not feeling like a Star Trek movie-- apparently I still don't know what one really is-- but I was baffled at how little plot there was. It takes 45 minutes for the Enterprise to even take off, and nearly all the action takes place in the last half hour. There were so many character-based subplots introduced and ignored, and I found myself anxious to hear more about Spock's struggle to be truly rational, McCoy and Kirk's back story, and what appears to be a deep and lingering friendship between Spock and Kirk. Instead we got endless shots of the Enterprise in space and the cloud, and a lot of people standing in the bridge looking fearfully at what's outside. If I hadn't been reading up a little for the new movie, I would never have learned half the characters' names.
I liked the ending, actually, and never saw the V'Ger thing coming. It seemed to fit in nicely with Spock's struggle, and the way he identified with the machine was a nice twist on the way most movies treat alien life as, well, alien. But the way that it ended, with Kirk and McCoy essentially wiping their hands and saying "Wow, that was fun, and I think we all learned a lesson" made it feel even more like a very special episode of a TV show rather than a movie in and of itself. I imagine that's a mistake they learned to fix in later movies, though.
KATEY: Even though I've seen the footage from the new movie in which Kirk gets in bar fights, I was still surprised to see how much of a jerk he seems to be. He marches back onto the Enterprise, barks orders at everyone, shows little to no personality, and only seems to like the people around him when Spock is in the sick bay (though I liked that moment of friendship between the two of them a lot). Spock, on the other hand, was instantly compelling with his internal battle between Vulcan logic and human emotion. I know this is a running thread in his character throughout the franchise, and I'm excited to see it play out more. I get that Scotty and Chekhov are intended as humorous side characters, but didn't get much out of them here, and Uhura and Sulu seemed like background noise. I want to know more about the friendship between McCoy and Kirk, since McCoy also got the shaft here in terms of character development. Shatner didn't come across as epically bad as I'd been led to believe-- score one for you, Josh! All the other acting was, eh, fine-- the acting didn't really seem to be the point here.
JOSH: Kirk is always kind of a dick, it's a byproduct of being the ultimate Alpha Male. It's also sort of what we love about him. Admit it, it's what you love about him! You can't help but crave his manly, musky musk. The thing is, this is far from Shatner's best performance as Kirk, but it's more the way the movie's written than anything he's doing. He's just not given a lot, especially compared to what happens in Star Trek II and III, when the films become more character driven. I'm with you on Nimoy too. I'd forgotten just how great he is in this movie. He's so good that at times it's almost as if he's in his own movie, or maybe a really amazing Shakespearean tragedy, while some other silly movie goes on around him.
JOSH: It's hard to believe they went from fighting a formless cloud to, in the next film, battling the greatest villain in movie history. Katey your head is going to spin right off when you see Wrath of Khan. The idea of a NASA probe returning to Earth after gaining consciousness isn't terrible and I imagine the first time people found out what V'Ger was back in 1979 they probably shit their pants. But in retrospect it's a bit silly and the Star Trek franchise actually ends up doing the all-powerful, Earth-destroying alien probe bit better anyway later on in Star Trek IV. That's the one “with the whales”, Katey. Women seem to love that one, but not so much this one. I mean they don't even really fight the bad guy. This barely even has a bad guy. It's more like, as Spock refers to it more than once, an angry child in need of a spanking. Sure it kills Ilea but does anybody really care about Ilea? Otherwise it's pretty much smooth sailing for the Enterprise. V'Ger could have tried harder.
KATEY: Yeah, the lack of a real villain or threat in this movie was really its downfall-- it felt more like a bunch of people stuck in a room fighting with each other than any actual adventure. Again, I like the V'Ger reveal, and it's interesting to find myself in a universe in which machines can gain consciousness and a half-human, half-Vulcan actually feels sorry for them. But when the Enterprise spent five minutes flying through the cloud and I was supposed to be feeling awestruck, I kind of just wished they were arriving on the planet from Aliens instead. And Decker's desire to become part of V'Ger and help fulfill his mission would have felt a lot more meaningful if I'd had any idea who he was. He and Ilea were basically redshirts in this movie, and took attention away from characters that seemed much more important.
JOSH: Hey who told you about redshirts? Oh yeah, me.
KATEY: I'll go easy on the goofy special effects, even though it's crazy that this came out two years after Star Wars and some of the effects-- the warp speed blurring!-- look as goofy as they do. But the effects on the menacing cloud and of warp speed, though they kind of resembled a screensaver, were pretty impressive. And the ship models, especially the Enterprise when it's taking off, looked so good that it made me hope they'll use at least a few in the new movie, as opposed to constant CGI. Of course, I did have that whole five-minute long scene of Kirk's return to the ship to admire the Enterprise-- has any spaceship ever been so fetishized in a movie? I'm tempted to give a pass on the costumes given that the movie was filmed in the late 70s, but those jumpsuits are flattering on absolutely no one, even skinny little Chekhov.
JOSH: Ok I'll give you that the warp speed effect isn't great and the wormhole bit is beyond ridiculous, but except for that, I mean consider when this movie was made! 1979, and here you are wishing they'd use some of the same starship effects in the new movie. You're turning into a nerd! You're going to start building models in your basement before this is over with. This marathon will ensure that your social life is forever ruined. Join us Katey! Join us in staying home to watch DS9 on Friday nights! Sure we didn't need a five minute sequence flying around the ship at a snail's pace, but it's goddamn gorgeous, and so well done that you almost can't begrudge them that. It's not just the models that are great either, I really love the look of the interiors of the Enterprise. They'll get minor touchups in later movies, but it's an amazing set. I love the dim lighting and the hard, metal edges and railings on the bridge and around the engine room. I even love Captain Kirk's rather oversized quarters, they're only missing a rotating bed.
I think the look of V'Ger is more of a mixed bag. I love the set design at the end, with the weird, honeycombed platforms which reach out to the Enterprise, and the probe surrounded by energy flowing into it. Unfortunately, I still don't know what V'Ger's ship looks like. I get that it's big, but would it have killed them to give us a massive, wide shot of it? They try to give you a sense of scale by showing the Enterprise as a tiny dot flying next to this wall of technology, but without any idea where the wall of technology is on V'Ger as a whole, and how it all fits together it's really tough to visualize what V'Ger's exterior looks like.
Lastly, and you'll be happy to hear this Katey, this is the first and only time you'll ever see these horrible costumes. Trek fans called them “Penguin Greys”, and it's not because they look as if they should be narrated by Morgan Freeman. The uniforms are hideous, especially when you consider all the lavish effort that usually went into costuming on the original show. I do dig robot Ilea's pantless outfit, but seriously, the crew is basically wearing Dharma Work Man suits from Lost. What makes the whole costume thing even more bothersome is that they seem to change them regularly. You could start a drinking game based on the number of times Kirk changes. Remember this only takes place over a 20 hour period, yet I'm certain I saw Kirk wearing at least 6 or 7 different variations on the same, awful Starfleet uniform. It's as if they wanted to make sure we got the whole range of just how awful their costuming department could be. Mission accomplished.
JOSH: The score is overbearing. It's a beautiful, amazing score which later went on to be used as the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it's never worked in as part of the story. Instead it's this big, bombastic thing laying on top of it, blasting away. It's never used properly, except in some of those lingering outer space shots where the camera seems to be making sweet sweet love to the Enterprise and I may or may not have rubbed up against my television set. If anyone asks Katey, you did not see that. In those moments, you need the score blasting if only to cover my coos of geeky delight. Not so much though, when Kirk, Decker, and McCoy are hanging out in Jim's bachelor pad talking. The sound effects in the film work a little better, on the rare occasions when you can hear them over the score.
KATEY: I agree that the score can be overbearing, though I think it's key to distinguish the movie from just an extra-long TV episode, which is what it feels like much of the time. I like that the score places the movie in the early era of the blockbusters, and clearly Jerry Goldsmith had John Williams' Star Wars work hanging heavily over him. But given that much of the movie felt bombastic and silly in parts, the score usually seemed to fit right in.
KATEY: What on earth were Kirk and Spock up to between the end of the series and the movie? And was everyone else just hanging out on the Enterprise, going about life as usual?
JOSH: The movie answers those questions early on. Remember, Spock was on Vulcan learning how to get rid of the last of his emotions? Kirk is an Admiral when we meet him, and there's some talk about him having a desk job. Everyone else, well this is the military so presumably they've had other missions. Most of them spent at least a couple of years on the ship with Decker, redesigning it. I keep forgetting you haven't seen the original series, but the Enterprise you saw on screen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a complete redesign of the one from the television show. They've been busy doing that.
KATEY: What was going on with McCoy's beard?
JOSH: More importantly, what's going on with McCoy and the massive, Austin Powers-like medallion? Bones is ready for the love making. When McCoy boards the ship he says they dragged him out of retirement, so presumably he was off living a double life as a futuristic disco star. That was a joke. Actually he was probably laying on a beach somewhere drinking Mint Juleps. Why bother to shave?
KATEY: Does Kirk always seem like this much of a prick?
JOSH: Not always, but he's in charge so being nice isn't always part of the job. Like I said earlier, he's the ultimate Alpha Male. Being a dick sort of comes with the territory.
KATEY: I get what Kolinahr is, but not exactly why Spock had to give up on it to serve on the Enterprise. And isn't he half-human anyway? Why would they expect him to be fully Vulcan if that's the case?
JOSH: Spock had to give it up because he had not successfully rid himself of all his emotions, not because he wanted to serve on the Enterprise. He is half-human and they don't expect him to be fully Vulcan. That's just something he's chosen. Not all Vulcan's follow Kolinahr. Kolinahr monks are like Vulcan extremists. They're like the difference between normal Christians and Pat Robertson.
KATEY: Who were the people who got zapped by the cloud in the very beginning-- Klingons? Are they our allies?
JOSH: Klingons! And allies? Who told you that? I think you've been secretly watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in your spare time. No Klingons are not our allies, they are the mortal enemies of the Federation. A hundred years from Kirk's time, they will eventually become allies and that's probably what you're thinking of. But in this time period, they are enemies. Expect to see more of them as we keep on with the marathon.
KATEY: The V'Ger reveal at the end indicated that Star Trek engages with actual human history at a level I hadn't really expected. How often does that happen? Or is it usually limited to scenes on earth showing off things like the Golden Gate Bridge?
JOSH: Trek is big on callbacks to real events in human history. Remember the whole point of the series was to show what modern man could become, if we get our heads out of our asses and do things right. Star Trek is supposed to be the kind of future we want to shoot for, so it also often ties back to our current past. Heck, Star Trek IV takes place in the 80's. Spock hates punk rock. How's that for a tease?
KATEY: Yes, this is a bad movie. But I do get the appeal of the franchise, mostly thanks to the limited moments we get with each of the characters, and the suggestion that there's a lot more backstory here that I want to learn about. The special effect can be cheesy, sure, but I appreciate the ambition here so early in the sci-fi game. And the ideas behind it, about finding humanity even in robot life and, yeah, boldly going where no man has gone before, are something I'd want to see explored further. And unbelievably, I kind of see the sex appeal of Spock-- even though I refuse to see the same in Sylar.
JOSH: Of the bad Star Trek movies, this is the best one. Maybe that's more because those movies are just that awful, but lucky for you most of the worst ones are Next Generation films (That's the stuff with Picard… you know, Patrick Stewart?) and we won't have to sit through them for this marathon. Perhaps the next one. Still, I think The Motion Picture deserves a lot of credit for how hard it's really trying. As a movie it's ambitious. Sure it drops the ball but it's trying to achieve something bigger and more ideologically interesting than just another space shoot-em-up. And even though the script doesn't always work and it probably needs a better editor, it's a beautiful film. What they achieved on a technical level, especially for 1979, is impressive. And hell, they did it on only $15 million dollars! Give me carefully crafted models and gritty sets over CGI starships and shiny iPod vomit any day.
What do you think of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
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