70s Rewind: STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE Still Goes Slowly Where No One Wants to Go

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

In December 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a major letdown.

Earlier in the decade, a handful of my school friends banded together to form the Science Fiction Club. Initially, we discussed Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Ray Bradbury's stories, and other disrespected literary works. We rode our bicycles to the nearest branch of the public library, and often stopped by a nearby used paperback book store, where we carefully examined the science fiction shelves -- they were low, near the floor, and we had to sit on our haunches, but we were young -- and picked out what we could afford on our tiny allowances. (The owners were always kind and appreciative of our regular patronage, no matter how few pennies they made from us; they were among the few adults who encouraged us in our appreciation of science fiction.)

We loved The Twilight Zone, hated Lost in Space, and were horrified by the stupidity of The Starlost, but we still watched everything, because there wasn't very much science fiction on television in those days, and you got it where you could. So we watched the original Star Trek series in syndication, and we bought books about it, and we ridiculed the silly episodes and praised the good ones, and we made fun of the animated TV series, but we still got up on Saturday morning to watch it.

One of us cut school to see Star Wars on opening day, and we were all jealous of him, but he was angry because he hated the ending, which was stupid 'because they let the Darth Vader guy get away, and they didn't show what happened to him.' (Later, he attended Stanford University and became an engineer, highly respected in his field.) Still, two of us waited for three and a half hours on a warm Saturday afternoon in Westwood, California, and we grabbed the last two seats in the back of the auditorium, and we gasped at the opening sequence and the surround sound, and we cheered and yelled like everybody else, and we counted ourselves lucky to be alive to see science fiction done right on the big screen. (Later, my friend became a pothead; the last time I saw him, years later, he was happily shelving books in the same branch of the public library where the Science Fiction Club had once met.)


star-trek-tmp-poster-us-300.jpgTwo and a half years later, I was no longer a kid and thought myself wiser to the ways of cinema. I'd started seeking out classic Hollywood movies and foreign language films that played on the repertory circuit in Los Angeles -- the late 70s were a great time for educating yourself in cinema history -- and reading serious film criticism on a regular basis. My love for science fiction remained, though it was getting crowded out by other interests. Still, I kept up with as many related titles as I could: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Damnation Alley, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Superman, and, earlier in 1979, Nicholas Meyer's rather daring Time After Time, and the disastrously bad Meteor.

Nothing prepared me, however, for the crushing disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Perhaps it was because my expectations were too high; I was by no means a Trekkie, but I had only minimal expectations that any of the science fiction pictures of the time would be any good, and was always happy to be surprised. I expected much more from Star Trek. (Orson Welles narrated the teaser trailer! Isaac Asimov was listed as science consultant!) It was glacially slow, featured familiar characters who were uncommonly stiff, and the special effects "journeys" made it feel like 2001: Space Odyssey: Yes We Saw That. And the resolution, the big, earth-threatening "issue" that addressed a big, philosophical idea? Ridiculous. I rolled my eyes in disbelief that I'd been foolish enough to expect more.


Years passed. The theatre where I saw it -- Mann's Chinese 2 or 3, adjacent to the original in Hollywood, California -- closed and was demolished in 2000. The following year, a new DVD was released, featuring "the director's edition." Many fans rejoice, claiming that director Robert Wise has created a demonstrably superior version of the film. Eight years later, the film is released on Blu-ray, but only in the original theatrical edition. (It is claimed that the additional / replacement special effects created for the 2001 "director's edition" were only rendered in standard definition.)

Finally, perhaps, all my memories of the original, deadly dull screening have dissipated to the point that I can watch the movie again with an open mind.


Alas, the theatrical edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains stillborn, with only occasional moments in which it threatens to come to life. But at least now I have a better idea why.

Robert Wise famously edited Citizen Kane and others before moving into the director's chair, where, like any good studio director, he specialized in variety. He made the great science-fiction drama The Day the Earth Stood Still and the great horror film The Haunting, as well exciting, dark thrillers like The Set-Up and The House on Telegraph Hill. He even made office politics look thrilling in the oft-electrifying Executive Suite.

star-trek-tmp-bts-wise-250.jpgIn the 70s, Wise made The Andromeda Strain and Audrey Rose, genre efforts that showed he still had a feeling for science fiction and horror. He approached Star Trek: The Motion Picture with a similar touch; as in The Andromeda Strain, he utilized a split-focus diopter multiple times, introducing greater space and classicism to otherwise ordinary scenes of dialogue. But it wasn't appropriate for the Star Trek characters that we'd come to know; it made individuals look more like the U.S. Presidents on Mount Rushmore. Also, it tended to divide the characters from each other, playing havoc with the concept that they were all seasoned crewmates who considered each other to be friends. These were not friends; these were icons.

Wise was not familiar with the original series, and by the time he came on board the project, the script had already been through numerous development cycles. Work began in 1975, but was halted as a feature film project in May 1977, without a script satisfactory to the studio. The project was turned over to the television division, where a treatment by Alan Dean Foster was turned into a teleplay by Harold Livingston. Six months later, after the double triumph of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the project reverted to the feature film division, and the teleplay was revised into a screenplay that went through many changes. Production began in August 1978 without a finished script.

Reportedly, the visual effects were a nightmare, with the first company hired unable to complete the work. The delays meant a greatly accelerated schedule for the replacement artists led by Douglas Trumbull (who was actually the first choice but had passed). Wise blamed the rushed post-production schedule and delays in visual effects and felt that what was released represented only his "rough cut."


star-trek-tmp-cast-publicity-250.jpgEven if Wise had all the time in the world, he would not be able to salvage this particular wreck. In this first filmed version, the Enterprise crew members are strangers to one another; there is no chemistry, almost no friendly banter, no sign that they lived and worked and slept under the same roof for years at a time. They are on an adventure, but not one that any of them particularly cared about. They are reduced to being passive observers, for the most part, letting things happen and occasionally wondering what it all means. There is no sense of urgency.

The filmmakers made a mistake that we recognize more easily today, in view of the veritable flood of remakes and reboots that we've experienced since 1979. The mistake is that they rebooted Star Trek without recapturing what made the original series memorable. No one watched the original show because of the special effects, or because of any deep philosophical issues that were occasionally raised in an oblique, meek manner.

We watched because Star Trek was a pioneering workplace comedy-drama, and we didn't even know it. But we knew any place where all the employees got along and the boss could be pretty cool as long as you did your job was a place where we were happy to spend some time. And the first movie adaptation missed that entirely.


70s Rewind is a column about the writer's favorite movie decade.

Around the Internet:
  • Bruce

    Dear Peter,

    I, too, discussed Asimov's Foundation Trilogy enthusiastically with my friends, during late childhood / early-teenhood.

    Anyway, ever since I first read the Foundation trilogy, way back then, I have dreamt of seeing something like Seldon’s “psychohistorical equations” in my lifetime.

    Finally, I have!

    But it took the discovery of a new mathematics, a
    “psychohistorical algebra”, to make them “write-able”.

    The arithmetic undergirding this algebra is a “non-standard
    model” of the arithmetic of the ordinary “Natural Numbers” -- 1, 2, 3, ... --
    such as was foretold, but not constructed, by the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem, and by the combined implications of the Gödel Completeness Theorem and
    Incompleteness Theorem. This new arithmetic even shares the first four “Peano Postulates” with the “standard” natural numbers, but with -- astoundingly -- different axioms thereafter.

    The algebra of this undergirding new arithmetic is a
    “contra-Boolean algebra”, based upon a hitherto unnoticed “strong negation” of
    Boole’s “Fundamental Law of Thought”, or “Law of Duality”.

    A system of seven such equations are presented at www.dialectics.org. The URL for the blog-entry summarizing these
    seven equations is --

    http://www.dialectics.org/dial...

    They are intended to capture a core framework of foreseeable
    historical succession that undergirds any more detailed, e.g., statistical,
    data utilization.

  • Qinlong

    My favorite Star Trek movie, along with The Final Frontier. I know these are flawed movies (especially the latter), but they are both the most thoughtful installments of the franchise. They take on big ideas, sometimes too big for them (the search for God in the budget-challenged Final Frontier), anchor them in something more relatable (Kirk getting to grips with his possible obsolescence in The Motion Picture), the meaning of friendship in The Final Frontier), and slather them in some of Jerry Goldsmith most awe-inspiring music (the V'ger cues in TMP are amazing).

  • Mateusz R. Orzech

    While TFF is not one of my favs I must agree completely that the theme of friendship is portrayed there wonderfully and even for this reason it's a good film. Scenes of camping or when Sybok tries to manipulate them are wonderfull, especially in the context of the all Treks with the original crew. It also is one of the most ambitious Trek projects. I certainly like it better than all TNG (except for FC) and Abrams' films.

  • Lodewijk Gonggrijp

    Still my favourite Star Trek movie. A movie about a great and amazing idea that slowly unfolds. The ultimate powerlessness of mankind. Sacrifice.
    I'm sorry there were not enough laser battles and karate kicks for you :)

  • At least it was better than 'The Black Hole' :)

  • Mr. Cavin

    Bite your tongue! (But yeah.)

  • Omar Hauksson

    The first time I saw this was the director's cut DVD. I was never a fan of the show, saw a few episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager and thought it was OK. But I've become a big fan of the film series. I loved the Motion Picture precisely because of its pacing and massive scope. It was not an action film but a film about ideas and I think it pulled it of greatly. I have not yet seen the original theatrical cut though.

  • Respect. However. The ideas are treated reverently, but we never even get into them until well past the mid-point of the film. Before that, it's a lot of staring and standing and sitting and 'What do you think it is?' For me, anyway.

  • Mateusz R. Orzech

    The mystery in the first half really works for me, and the visuals itself (i.e. entering the cloud, first seeing the Enterprise or Spock's journey through V'Ger) make up for all the story flaws and surprising coldness between characters. And there is also great joy of seeing favorite characters reunited after all those years.

    And while VOY is indeed OK, DS9 is a great show with some greatest story arcs, ideas and characters in the whole Trek lore.

  • Mateusz R. Orzech

    Regardless of anyone say or write, I still love direrctor's cut of the first Star Trek, even if storywise it tried to tackle its subject in a somewhat clumsy way. I have no problem with slow pacing though and V'Ger effects, Vulcan, Enterprise and more are greatly executed with some interesting visuals and music. As far as feature films are concerned ST:TMP-DC is my 4th favorite Trek.

  • I agree that some of the visuals are quite arresting, and Jerry Goldsmith's original score is arguably the best in the series.

  • Ard Vijn

    I re-watched this myself a few weeks ago, and what struck me was how incredibly bad this film has aged.

    Weirdly enough not in the effects department: many of the effects are still astounding in ambition and execution, and done prior to the endless possibilities of CGI. I love the endless fly-by of the Enterprise in dock, I love some of V-Ger's details and the way its massive size is shown. And there is that soundtrack...

    But the feel and look of the actors and shots places this squarely in the late sixties / early seventies era, older already than its actual age. Back in the eighties I watched this with friends. Now I probably wouldn't watch it with anyone. Brrrrr.

  • Wise definitely shot this with a more classical approach than the material warranted, in my mind.

  • Mr. Cavin

    This movie came out the summer before I turned nine, and I think I saw it in the theater six times. Some of that was just because it was the thing to do that summer, part was because I really loved it. I loved the lingering and serious way the movie seemed to legitimize genre fiction. Of course, I would never have actually put it that way at the time (and perhaps I wouldn't feel that way now), but that's the problem with the adult trying to explain what the kid was thinking. I loved what felt to me like a very mature story created with supposedly kid things. Even now, it's one of the very few American science fiction movies that really does remind me of the literature. And if it indeed went astray somewhere along the way, I still appreciate the attempt it represents: that someone tried to make something smart in a genre with little cachet, yes, but even more that they tried to pay off this victorious enlargement of mere television with size and spectacle and maybe way too much reverence. Better than too little, in my opinion. I'm not sure there have been any serious attempts at philosophizing, or even art, in the series since.

    And while, yeah, a couple years later the kid I was really did think the second movie was better, the adult actually rues the fact that the franchise was already beginning to capitulate to a Star Wars populism that ignored any pretense of big ideas in favor of military adventure. I don't mean to say that this is necessarily a bad thing, but Wrath of Khan does seem a lot more pedestrian--in hindsight--than its nearly unique precursor.

  • In theory, I agree. For me, though, the reality is that the first movie feels like it could have starred any random group of actors and turned out the same, while the second one felt directly tied to the original series. Having rewatched the second one the same night as the first, I'll grant you that it's far more cheesy than I remembered!

  • David Allen Powell

    This movie was my 13th birthday present. It didn't disappoint me. Sometimes, I think we forget that there had been a decade long Trek drought. It wasn't great, but it was good enough to satisfy me at the time. I can still watch it again and enjoy it in context.

  • In its own way, it was daring. Making a movie out of a TV show was a risky idea. But, with 79 episodes that were popular in syndication, as well as the animated show, it wasn't a complete drought.

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