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I got into watching science fiction in the 1980s, and that was a fallow time for Star Trek. Unlike in America where the adventures of Kirk and Spock were on permanent syndication, in the UK I remember watching a few episodes on BBC2, and I remember reading one or two novels, but I didn’t really grow up with Trek the way some people did. When The Next Generation launched in 1987, I devoured it, and watching those episodes again, spiffed-up on blu-ray, the best of them have scarcely dated at all. What’s shocking is that TNG launched 27 years ago and still looks great, whereas 1966 Star Trek had already begun to look old and creaky after only 21 years when TNG began.

So, my affection for the old crew rests largely on the original films. I was just about old enough to want to go and see The Motion Picture when it first came out. I don’t remember seeing the next two at the cinema but I read and re-read the novelisations and I’m sure I saw The Voyage Home and all the rest on the big screen. There follows brief reviews and historical context based on recent re-watches of the movies on blu-ray.

A quick rant first of all. Buying and rebuying the same material is something I’ve grown accustomed to and made peace with. I’ve bought the James Bond movies four times now (VHS, DVD, remastered DVD, blu-ray) and I don’t rule out buying them again if consumer 4K ever becomes a thing. But it is galling to have had original director Robert Wise recut the first Star Trek film and supervise the creation of new special effects sequences for the DVD, only to learn that this work was only ever done at DVD resolution which means that the blu-ray release has reverted to the theatrical cut. Anyway. Some history…

With hindsight, it seems inevitable that a Star Trek movie franchise would be attempted but what’s remarkable is that it survived this shaky start. Gene Roddenberry, genius though he surely was, seemed incapable of learning from experience. The original pilot of Star Trek back in the middle sixties was rejected by NBC for being “too cerebral”. Roddenberry had pitched “Wagon Train to the stars” and had delivered a philosophical musing on the nature of freedom. He got a second chance and so the good humoured, action-oriented, show we (some of us) came to love was born. Yes, the original series had some strong science fiction elements, and some notable moral stances, but the audience was really there to see Bones tease Spock and for Kirk to hit people with both fists at once. Hurrah! At yet, The Motion Picture seems determined to revert to the style of storytelling which Roddenberry had conclusively proved there was no audience for.

The first Star Trek film had a troubled birth. The success of films like 2001 and Silent Running initially convinced Paramount (who now owned the rights) that a Star Trek movie would be a smash hit, and so they began pre-production but when script development began to hit the weeds, they decided that a new TV series made more sense and so “Star Trek Phase Two” began to gestate, with a few younger actors to round out the cast and to cater for the absent Leonard Nimoy and the expensive William Shatner. And then, with casting complete and sets under construction, the even greater success of Close Encounters and especially Star Wars reconvinced Paramount that the movie idea had been right all along. Nimoy was tempted back into the ears after director Robert Wise was told by his daughter that it wouldn’t be Star Trek without Spock.

Throughout this process, the notion of the Enterprise encountering God refused to go away – an early draft for the movie was called The God Thing and the story concerned a god-like extra-dimensional alien supercomputer and the eventual movie script began life as a Phase Two pilot script called In Thy Image which is basically the movie as released (even including the name “Veejur” corrupted from “Voyager”) but with a damp squib of an ending. And all this despite the fact that the original 1960s series had included countless god-like aliens including but not limited to Charlie X, Gary Mitchell after his encounter with the Galactic Barrier, the Squire of Gothos / Trelane and Gorgan the Friendly Angel. The Enterprise had even previously come across an Earth probe retrofitted by unseen aliens which now murderously sought its creator – Nomad in the episode The Changeling, hence the bitter joke that the first movie should have been called “Where Nomad Has Gone Before”.

Anyway, the whole bridge crew was eventually assembled, an end was found for the Phase Two script and Robert Wise was handed a handsome budget with which to shoot his epic adventure. Watching it now, what is at first immediately apparent is that this belongs neither to the tradition of Star Trek movies (not surprising since no such tradition then existed), nor to the tradition of the Star Trek television series, but rather to the cycle of ponderous, highbrow and above all beige science-fiction movies which Star Wars had only just brought to a decisive end – films like Logan’s Run, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Soylent Green. Very little of the charm and good humour of the original series survives this earnest and plodding encounter, with Spock in particular a shadow of his TV self and Bones given very few lines which are anything other than strictly functional.

Part of this is the need to give new crew-members Decker and Ilia some room to establish themselves. They are the first in a long line of new crew-members introduced at the beginning of a movie who take screen time and lines away from the TV cast, but fail to make it to the end credits because they get unexpectedly killed half-way through / sacrifice themselves at the end / turn out to be working for the bad guys. But Stephen Collins is too stiff and annoying to really register as Decker and Persis Khambatta, although cutting a very striking figure, doesn’t really make much of an impression before her reappearance as a probe, which makes her fate considerably less shocking than it might have been. Compared to Nomad wiping beloved Uhuru’s memory (don’t worry, she got it back) this is weak sauce.

The other problem is that writers and director are both putting the emphasis in all the wrong places. I read and reread the novelisation when I was a kid and so when I rewatched the movie I expected the first Shatner scene to be Kirk negotiating the return of his ship from Star Fleet top brass. Actually, when we first meet Kirk, this scene is already presumed to have happened. Fair enough, by all means start in the middle, but we then have ten minutes of sometimes impressive, but sometimes ropey, model shots to get Kirk and Scotty over to the Enterprise. I’d far rather have five more minutes of my hero standing up for what he believes in than five minutes of dialogue-free effects work, no matter how stately.

In fact the movie seems determined to undermine Kirk at every turn. He doesn’t know how his own ship works, is shown up by subordinates, is helpless before Veejur, is disobeyed by Spock and generally does very little to earn his keep until the very end. A pretty poor return for such a heroic figure, and this is especially noteworthy when so few of the original cast are given anything to do. It even seems to go unnoticed that on the TV show, Sulu and Chekov used to alternate in the same job. Here, both Walter Koenig and George Takei get about half-a-dozen bland lines each and that’s your lot. I hope they got paid properly because this will only have added to their typecasting problems. I’m assured that Nichelle Nichols is in it, but I honestly don’t remember even seeing her. Oh wait, yes I do, because she’s been given a very unflattering Diana Ross “do”.

What is good then? Well, the sets are nice, if beige, although it’s a shame we spend so much of the damn movie on board the Enterprise. “Bottle shows” are an inevitable feature of year-round TV production, where an unusually expensive adventure is paired with a show which uses only the regular cast and standing sets to keep the average price-per-episode within the budget. But on a big budget movie, surely we could stretch our legs a little? And then there are those damn silly uniforms with their navel height buckles-with-no-belts and Dick Tracy style wrist communicators, scrapped like so much else, after this movie.

So, the film retains its reputation for being slow – not only do scenes drag on for ages, but whole sub-plots such as the wormhole are included as very obvious padding. And overall, it does nothing which the TV series couldn’t do in a third the time with better jokes and more colourful décor. The effects work is often top-notch for the time, with a particularly snazzy transporter and warp drive effect – both too expensive to ever use again – and of course we get that wonderful Jerry Goldsmith sig tune for the first time. And if you’re in the mood for something not quite as glacial as 2001 but not quite as mindless as Buck Rogers, then this will fill 132 minutes quite handily. But it doesn’t really have much to do with Star Trek past (save re-using a basic plot) nor does it really set the template for Star Trek’s future. Best thought of as a slightly wonky prototype, this film established the need, but much more work needed to be done on the fit-and-finish before it was ready for mass production. Much better films were to come, and some much worse.

Facts and figures

Released: 7 December 1979
Budget: $46m
Box office: $139m
Writers: Alan Dean Foster, Harold Livingstone
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

At the movies: Interstellar
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