Grandiose. Both the film and its subtitle were grandiose. Ponderous, and grandiose. And expensive. It takes up to a year for sheep to grow back their woollen coats after they have been sheared. Mel Gibson
's first name is not short for anything; it is simply Mel
'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' emerged at a time when the modern blockbuster was taking shape, setting into stone. The early 1970s had been characterised by Hollywood's reaction to 'Easy Rider', an anti-blockbuster with substantial youth-dollar appeal; by the end of the decade, the unexpected successes of 'Jaws', 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters' caused studios to indulge large sums of money on a mixture of personal and commercial long-shots, William Goldman's maxim that 'nobody knows anything' no doubt ringing in the ears of studio executives baffled at the continued successes of directors barely out of their twenties. The results were generally disastrous. Unlike 'Heaven's Gate', '1941', 'Honky Tonk Freeway' and 'The Blues Brothers', ST:TMP turned a profit; as with 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Superman', its birth would be traumatic. Critically, the film received a drubbing. Its subtitle invited ridicule. Moviegoers worldwide were initially dazzled by the special effects and the Klingons, but were left cold by the frigid characters and lack of drama. Fans of Star Trek went back for seconds and thirds, but even that most passionate of all subcultures had a wallet of finite size.
'Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture' grew from Paramount's plans for a second Star Trek television series, to be entitled 'Star Trek: Phase II', a series which in turn grew from a mixture of Star Trek's still-passionate fan following and Gerry Anderson's 'Space: 1999', which showed that there was still an audience for televisual science fiction. This latter series was not a great success, although its status as an expensive sci-fi television programme sold straight into network syndication anticipated the procedure whereby 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' would eventually emerge. Indeed, TNG was essentially Phase II defrosted, although this is moving ahead of the narrative somewhat. Pre-production work extended to casting new actors around William Shatner's returning Captain Kirk, but the combined impact of 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters' gave Paramount sufficient incentive to revert to an earlier plan and make a film instead. In late 1977 it was scheduled for release during 1979's lucrative Christmas season. This deadline was absolute, the cinemas booked months in advance.
Various scripts had been bouncing around for a good five years, including one by Gene Roddenberry himself, none of which were felt by Paramount to be up to scratch. Eventually the studio settled on an expansion of Alan Dean Foster's pilot for 'Phase II', itself a reworking of the original Star Trek's 'The Changeling', beefed up by Roddenberry and TV writer Harold Livingston, a man whose name does not end in the letter e. No solution to the problem of expanding a fifty-minute drama into a two-hour film was ever devised. Unlike the contemporary 'Battlestar: Galactica' and 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century' movies, TMP was envisaged as a stand-alone movie, hopefully the first of many.
'Star Trek: The Motionless Picture' had a rushed filming schedule. As noted, the script was created during a period of confusion as to whether it would become a film or a television pilot, and eventually the subsequent release of the original 'Phase II' television script revealed that many potentially interesting sequences had been dropped for lack of time in which to film them. Director Robert Wise - an old pro, indeed an aged pro, late of 'The Andromeda Strain', 'The Sound of Music' and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' - was therefore compelled to fill the empty minutes with special effects, expensive to create but relatively worry-free from a director's point of view. Nowadays a telephone call to ILM would have been sufficient to ensure prompt delivery of twenty-eight kilogrammes of spaceship footage, but Wise did not have that option. Instead he telephoned Robert Abel and Associates, CGI pioneers who would later go on to work on 'Tron'. Unfortunately the company lacked sufficient experience with the demands of full-scale motion picture production, and the abstract effects they produced were not suitable. This had all cost several million dollars with nothing to show, leaving Wise with five months to create the film's special effects.
At which point he telephoned Douglas Trumbull, the one-man ILM from before ILM. Trumbull had worked extensively on '2001' and Wise's 'Andromeda Strain', as well as directing 'Silent Running'. The Kubrick credit was more than enough to keep him in business, and he set to work with aplomb, roping in young John Dykstra to help. Dykstra had been one of ILM's founding members before falling out with the company over his work on 'Battlestar: Galactica'. ILM were, in 1979, the personal property of George Lucas, and outside work was not allowed.
Wise also telephoned Jerry Goldsmith, the Hollywood composer. If, as they say, the cheapest special effects are breasts and/or dwarves, not much more expensive is a lush orchestral score. Goldsmith was an old hand, writing the famous theme from 'The Twilight Zone', winning plaudits for his percussive, atonal scores for 'Planet of the Apes', 'Tora, Tora, Tora', his music for 'The Omen' having won an Academy Award in 1977 after eight previous nominations. Later in 1979 Goldsmith would score the first 'Alien' film. Over the course of his career Goldsmith scored over a hundred more films than the Beatles recorded individual songs, but his music for TMP is by far the most familiar to modern audiences, as it was also used for 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. With all the sweeping effects shots Goldsmith was given free reign to create a romantic symphony which is a favourite amongst film music fans to this day. Along with John Williams' contemporary soundtracks, Goldsmith's TMP score bought orchestral music back into fashion after a lengthy period in which films were as likely to be scored with lightweight pop ballads, disco numbers or instrumental slush. Although TMP's sequel and some subsequent Star Trek films would rope in the rising - and presumably less busy - James Horner, Goldsmith cast a lengthy shadow. For many people Goldsmith's music is TMP's only saving grace. The score was nominated for 1979's Academy Award for Best Music, losing to Georges Delerue's score for 'A Little Romance'. Jerry Goldsmith passed away in 2004.
One component of Goldsmith's score deserves further analysis; the memorable, deep 'twang' noise which served as the lietmotif for the film's baddie, V'Ger. Sounding like a cross between a harpsichord and a deep bass guitar, this noise was produced by the 'blaster beam', an instrument custom-made by Craig Huxley. Physically the blaster beam resembled a twenty-foot long pedal steel guitar, made out of metal and played with spent artillery shell casings. Tuning was a hit-and-miss, and although the instrument was essentially capable of just one sound effect, it remains an impressive sound. The blaster beam also appeared in John Barry's score for 'The Black Hole' and Laurence Rosenthal's music for 'Meteor', where it provided the 'theme' for the titular rock. After briefly appearing in James Horner's 'Star Trek II' it was official declared overused, although Jean-Michel Jarre's subsequent 'laser harp' sound was an obvious allusion to the beam, whilst Japanese musical terrorist Kitano owns and uses a reproduction. Bawwwwng. Bawwwww-wwwNNNNGGGG! Baaawwwng. And so forth.
Technically therefore Wise had the right people. They didn't have much time, but they turned in sterling work. ST:TMP was a technical triumph, and with a few exceptions (the matte paintings, in particular) its effects are still impressive today; indeed, large segments were recycled in the following films and television series - the Enterprise leaving spacedock, the approach of Klingon battlecruisers, stock shots of photon torpedoes blasting into space, and so forth. In the cinema in 1979 the film's special effects were dazzling; combining the fluid motion control of 'Star Wars' with the towering, intricate designs of Disney's 'The Black Hole'. In this latter respect the film was unlike Trek before or since, an intriguing venture into the realms of the gothic, closer in tone to the aforementioned 'Space: 1999' than anything envisaged by Roddenberry. The Enterprise's journey over the surface of V'Ger was closed to '2001: A Space Odyssey' than a series which had once produced 'Spock's Brain'. Nonetheless there was only so much that the film's effects could do to compensate for the lack of a story; the film's dramatic shortcomings were particularly painful when viewed on television. Where the protagonists of the television series had been dynamic, there they were passive. Kirk & Co spent most of the film as bystanders, forced to watch things happen to them via the Enterprise's viewscreen.
Indeed, large sections of the film consisted of just that; reaction shots of the cast staring in awe and worry at the Enterprise's viewscreen. Leonard Nimoy had turned down 'Phase II', but Paramount's chequebook exerted a gravitational force sufficient to draw him into the orbit of TMP. Apart from the other major players, there were two new additions to the cast, holdovers from 'Phase II'. Stephen Collins was given almost nothing to do as a spunky young captain, whilst shaven-headed Persis Khambatta was called upon to wear an extremely short skirt in her role as helmsmanwoman and latterly robot. Khambatta had been Miss India in 1965 and sadly died in 1998.
Structurally, 'Star Trek: The Motion Sickness' was monotonous. Its opening sequence, in which a trio of Klingon battleships were outfoxed by a mysterious energy cloud, was superb. Action-packed, tense, leading to a brief encapsulation of the film's plot, it was everything a film's opening sequence should be. After that TMP spent an hour establishing the cast, during which time the audience was made to sit through a ten-minute special effect of the new Enterprise, plus some inconsequential special effects of a broken transporter and some broken warp engines. This was followed by a lengthy special effect in which the Enterprise flew through a cloud, which was in turn followed by a long special effect of the Enterprise flying over the massive bulk of the mysterious 'V'Ger'. The human drama took up a tedious half-hour in which the two least interesting characters - the bland Commander William Decker and his late romantic partner, the shaven-headed Ilya - talked and talked, after which Mr Spock flew past some more special effects, which do not include images of Darth Vader or Miss Piggy no matter how often this is restated on the internet.
The end of the film involved the cast walking over a matte painting to go to a set so that more special effects could happen, after which the film ended. Some of these special effects conveyed an awesome sense of scale and machine-like beauty, but they were nonetheless there to be observed rather than absorbed in. For a film whose tagline had been "The human adventure is just beginning", there wasn't much in the way of human drama. The film's main character was a large, smoke-shrouded model of an alien spaceship.
With a tiny budget, Roddenberry's original Star Trek had been forced to concentrate on the cheap stuff; plots, scripts, performances and so forth. Although the actors played their roles broadly, relying heavily on raised eyebrows and other character tics, they were nonetheless engaging; the writing, occasionally provided by actual science fiction writers, was often ridiculous but never boring, whilst the show's technical shortcomings were bypassed by creative staging. 'Star Trek: Egg, he said Egg, like a Bird's Egg!' possessed none of these virtues. After multiple revisions the script had been drained of all life, consisting of functional dialogue. The actors seemed subdued, their performances as limpid as the pastel uniforms in which they were dressed.
The costumes of TMP look terribly dated nowadays, a mish-mash of plain tunics, chest hair, and in the case of Commander Decker, a starkly profiled penis brought into inescapable relief by an overtight jumpsuit and unsympathetic camerawork during his opening scene. The costumes were designed by Robert Fletcher. In contrast to this film his work on subsequent series entries was both futuristic and timeless, and thus whatever blame exists cannot entirely be directed at him. The film had an air of Jimmy Carter about it, an air of worthy failure. An air of disco, of faded film, of the late 1970s.
For a film with such money spent on it - over forty million dollars, a huge amount at the time - the sets varied in quality from the stunning (the engineering level) to mid-70s kitsch, with most of the Enterprise resembling a civic centre or NHS waiting room. The bridge was underlit, with computer displays which looked less advanced than those in '2001', whilst the direction was as unmemorable as that of a television film. In short, it was exactly the action-packed Star Trek film one would expect from the director of 'The Andromeda Strain', which was a rigorous two-hour sci-fi documentary about invisible viruses.
In the film's defence, it remains superb when taken as an audio/visual experience rather than as a story. The opening sequence is exciting, and the film was at least ambitious, an attempt to do something more than was strictly necessary to get bums on seats. In this respect it is unlike such 1990s fare as 'Batman and Robin' and 'Godzilla', both of which were awful, profitable, and worthless. TMP was not awful, it was merely bland and dull, and its failings were those of studio pressure and overambition in the creative domain rather than from a cynical lack of care.
Pliny! You've Killed my Unborn Children!
'Star Trek: Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday' made a lot of money, although not enough to comfortably cover the cost of production and publicity. Clearly there was still an audience for Trek, and Paramount made plans for a sequel. 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' was produced by Paramount's television team - producer Harve Bennet had worked on 'The Six Million Dollar Man', scriptwriter Jack Sowards had written for 'Bonanza'. Director Nicholas Meyer had been a novelist, and 'Wrath of Khan' was simultaneously punchier and smarter than TMP. A mixture of space action and meditation on age and death, ST2:TMWRNJ was a big success that ensured the survival of the series, at least until 'Star Trek: Nemesis', which seems to have killed it off again, like those soldiers in 'The Wild Geese' who have cyanide gas blown in their faces.
TMP's Phase II roots had a notable influence on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. The theme music, tight jumpsuits and engineering deck were much the same, as was the inclusion of two captains, one an action man in love with a telepathic alien woman, the other a geriatic old-timer from the British Commonwealth.
For television showings from 1983 onwards, an expanded version of the film was often shown, although unbilled as such, in contrast to Spielberg's 'special edition' of 'Close Encounters'. This included twenty minutes of reinstated trims and minor additional dialogue, the most significant additions bulking out the final V'Ger sequence. Infamously included was a short sequence in which Kirk set off into space to discover the whereabouts of Spock via jet-pack. As Kirk exited an airlock door on the hull of the Enterprise it was obvious that the set designers had only built the door's immediate surroundings, the rest of the set a mass of scaffolding and spotlights. The sequence had been originally scrapped because the matte painting was not ready in time, and that this blatant error escaped the television editors was testament to how confused and murky the film had become at that point.
In the wake of George Lucas' hugely successful 'Star Wars' special editions, Paramount gave Robert Wise time and money with which to finally polish off TMP for a tentative cinema release. However, market research indicated that the general public held much less residual affection for Paramount's franchise than it had for George Lucas' baby. When the first of Lucas' original trilogy was released to cinemas in 1997, DVD players had been on the market for less than a year. By 2001 the format had been such a success that 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director's Edition' emerged as a DVD-only project. For the Director's Edition Wise removed all of the aforementioned re-instated sequences, trimmed others, and added a few new CGI effects of the Enterprise. Some of the matte paintings were removed, others were improved, and some sound effects were altered (particularly the original 'red alert' siren). Overall Wise's tinkerings were almost invisible, tightening the film without losing anything of significance. No amount of tightening would solve the film's myriad problems, but the effort was appreciated. Paramount repeated the experiment with subsequent Trek DVD releases, although these films required much less alteration, in some cases almost none at all. 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' would however have benefitted from being edited down to half a second, and then expanded to feature length by including every single scene from 'Short Circuit' or 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' or 'Batman' or anything, in the correct order, so that essentially the film would then become half a second of blackness, followed by 'Short Circuit' or 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' or 'Batman' or anything.
As a postscript, it is worth noting that the TMP's television and cinema trailers were voiced by no less than Orson Welles. A step up from advertising frozen peas, but... Orson Welles.
Yes, there is a Wikipedia entry for this film. Yes, I have read it. Yes, the details above are similar, as is the structure. My version is more entertaining. Issue one of Cinefex has a fantastic feature on the film, which was a great help. Hell will never be too full. I have written a rock song, I can't write down the music but the words go:
Doesn't matter where you stand
doesn't matter where you stand
doesn't matter where you stand
doesn't matter where you stand