Boldly Gone

So, I’m working on this really exciting project, and it’s going well, but it has become a nocturnal project, which is wrecking my brain slightly. And as a result The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon just hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened even more than it usually doesn’t happen (because I don’t chase contributors in a personal and assiduous way). BUT!

Peter Winkler has sent a lovely piece — a vintage review he wrote in 1979 for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (late Robert Wise, last Gene Roddenberry, more or less), bracketed by his contemporary observations. It brought back my memories of seeing the film with my mum at the time (and liking it, though she suggested it might be a wee bit long, a judgement I would now support).

Hope you enjoy.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Produced by Gene Roddenberry. Written by Harold Livingston (and Roddenberry without credit)., based on the story “Robot’s Return” by Alan Dean Foster. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. 132 minutes. Released by Paramount Pictures on December 7, 1979.

Originally Reviewed by Peter L. Winkler in December 1979 for CineFan Magazine.

I wrote this and several other reviews of sf films released at the end of 1979 while on my Christmas break from law school. I had no expectation that I would end up writing two books and numerous articles decades later. I wanted to see my name in print. At the time, I was still avidly interested in print sf, Star Trek, and sf films. I thought CineFan was worth writing for, and that the editorial barrier to entry was probably fairly easy to overcome.

Star Trek : The Motion Picture succumbs to the disease endemic to the major sf. films of the 70s: a poor story. A strong story can be about a mystery being resolved, a goal being achieved, or diverse characters in conflict. ST: TMP has little of this.

The film is structured as a mystery. Something incredibly powerful has devastated a flotilla of Klingon battle cruisers, and a Federation starbase, and is headed toward Earth. The only available starship is the Enterprise, still undergoing refitting in drydock and not yet finished. With it’s crew reunited, it sets out to meet the impending threat. Unfortunately, the mystery of the alien entity is not worth the two hours it takes to encounter and resolve.

The plot of the film is essentially that of the television series episode “The Changeling.” It’s disappointing enough to see a television episode recycled for the big screen, but if one had to choose a Star Trek tv episode on which to base a major motion picture, “The Changeling” would most certainly not be the one.

ST: TMP’s story, by Alan Dean Foster, is inexcusable. It borrows the plot of the old tv episode whole, amplifies its weaknesses, and pads it to feature length. If you’ve seen “The Changeling” and can figure out what “V ‘GER” is a contraction for, you’ll be able to decipher the feeble plot of ST:TMP in nothing flat. But even if you don’t, the story simply is not interesting or exciting enough to hold you for the time it takes to unfold.


Alas, ST: TMP also lacks what was one of the strong suits of the best of the television episodes: character conflict. The very manner in which ST:TMP begins, reuniting the old crew, as well as introducing two new characters, is an open invitation for human drama. Some promising starts are made—between Kirk and McCoy, Spock and the crew, and between Kirk and Decker (Stephen Collins) (which short-lived conflict is lifted whole from director Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep [1958])—but are just as quickly abandoned.

If the film lacks substance, its execution is spotty as well. The special effects are hardly state of the art. While the miniatures are impressive, the optical effects are frequently obvious. Almost uniformly disappointing are the interior sets, hand props, and costumes. Though they have a slick, updated look, they lack the invention of their predecessors.

Despite its poor story and uneven production values, ST:TMP is not entirely without merit. The first half hour has a sustained sense of wonder which is rare in recent sf films. William Shatner, for the first time, gives a controlled performance that helps give the film some dramatic weight. Robert Wise, given a difficult task, gives coherency to an obviously thrown together film. The greatest praise should be reserved for Jerry Goldsmith. His score is simply superb, It saves much of the film, but can stand alone as one of the finest scores for an sf  film, or any film, that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.

Though not a groaner, ST: TMP is at best a pleasant, sentimental reunion. It could, and should, have been more than that.

In retrospect, I think I may have been a little too hard on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, ”There is, I suspect, a sense in which you can be too sophisticated for your own good when you see a movie like this.” With some exceptions, it’s slick, impressively executed in spots, moderately engaging and fairly intelligent, a hallmark of the original TV series. Unfortunately, it shares the same flaw as Apocalypse Now (1979): Both films begin with their most exciting scenes. Only Mr. Spock’s spacewalk to penetrate V’Ger’s interior, a sequence devised by some of the film’s effects team, gives the film some much-needed kinetic excitement late in the game. What ST: TMP isn’t is the human adventure the film’s end title promises; the sequel delivered on that adventure. On the other hand, I’m hard-pressed to retract any specific judgement I made in 1979, and a least one other critic, The Cleveland Press’s Tony Mastroiani hit some of the same points as I did. “For all of its length it has about as much plot as one of the original one-hour TV shows, maybe a little less than many of them had,” he wrote. “There isn’t much anybody can do about this except peer at the approaching cluster of light and vapor through TV monitors and cope with occasional malfunctions that threaten to destroy the ship. The film’s chief virtue for fans of the series is its reunion of the original cast after a decade, picking up the old relationships and rivalries, repeating lines of dialog that have become permanently associated with some of the characters.” (“Star Trek –– Motion Picture is bigger, not better,” Cleveland Press December 22, 1979.)
ST: TMP’s troubled production poses the question “What went wrong and who was to blame?” In 1969, NBC unceremoniously cancelled Star Trek. The series became a surprising success in syndication, especially in markets where it was shown in the after-school time slot, where it found its natural audience. Then the Star Trek conventions became a successful phenomenon. Paramount planned a moderately budgeted feature to be directed by Philip Kaufman, but it failed to go into production. Paramount decided to launch a fourth network of syndicated programming. The bait for local stations was to be Star Trek: Phase II, reviving the original series with the original cast. Scripts were commissioned while costumes and sets were being constructed. Then something phenomenal suddenly happened: Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) demonstrated that science fiction could be more than just moderately profitable, but shatter box office records.
Paramount quickly cancelled Star Trek: Phase II and announced a Star Trek feature to be directed by Robert Wise, who had a proven affinity for science fiction, having directed the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). What Paramount didn’t have was a screenplay but was committed to deliver the film to theaters in early December 1974. Gene Roddenberry’s screenplay was rejected. Harold Livingston, who had never written for the TV series and was not an sf writer, was hired to turn Alan Dean Foster’s Phase II teleplay “Robot’s Return” into a screenplay. Roddenberry couldn’t keep his hands off of Livingston’s screenplay and rewrote it on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
Serious trouble arose when the original effects firm, responsible for some award-winning animated TV commercials, produced very little useful. Paramount had to scramble, assembling two parallel effects teams, one run by Douglas Trumbull, the other by John Dykstra. Robert Wise was editing until the last minute available. The prints shipped to theaters were barely dry. Wise was later invited to produce a director’s cut more to his liking. It added a few minutes of running time but simply feels distended. Wise made two more films after Star Trek before retiring.
ST: TMP cost 44 million dollars but proved profitable enough to justify a sequel. By giving himself a writing credit on the screenplay, producer Roddenberry triggered an automatic arbitration over credits conducted by the Writer’s Guild of America. Roddenberry rejected a story credit and received no screen credit. He was blamed for the film’s production difficulties and budget overruns. He was booted from his own brainchild when it came time to produce a sequel: he received an executive producer credit and an undisclosed sum to keep the fans happy. Paramount hired TV producer Harve Bennett to make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) more efficiently through Paramount’s television division. Nicholas Meyer, with no previous association with Star Trek, wrote and directed what would prove to be the best Star Trek film so far. George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic produced Star Trek II’s impressive effects.
Copyright 1979, 2020 by Peter L. Winkler.


9 Responses to “Boldly Gone”

  1. I must admit I was never that big a Star Trek fan, so the movie was interesting if not that exciting for me. But as you note the very troubled production is mirrored in the film. It is slow—especially toward the beginning where the effects crew keeps giving us endless shots of the space ship and all the original cast members are brought back in. A friend who is a Trekkie said for fans these moments were very moving and special. Definitely agree about Jerry Goldsmith’s score which is indeed magnificent. The sequel is a much more entertaining film, due in no small part to Ricardo Montalban and the zipper pace set by director Nicholas Meyer. Back in ’79 though here is what I said “The guys in the space pajamas are now on the big screen. Apparently in the future with all the technological upgrades mankind is still using old technology for toupees.”

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I love Wise, especially “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Odds Against Tomorrow.” But this is a sadly stodgy affair. The sequel Nicholas Meyer’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is tons better with Ricardo Montanblan overacting like there’s no tomorrow.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Meyer’s autobiography THE VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and he delivers some fascinating insights about his involvement with the franchise. Apparently, nobody was happy with the first entry in that film series.

  4. Persis Khambatta’s appearance naturally made a big impact on viewers. Some years later she was unfortunately involved in a car accident and it was reported in one daily newspaper that the injuries she had sustained to her scalp were such that she might never be able to play a bald role again.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    David check your mailbox for my contribution to “The Late Show”

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Recall a review that described the new uniforms as making Kirk and company look like very fit dentists. Also a claim by Roddenberry that his script had the Enterprise confronting God, and it was kiboshed by a Catholic studio executive.

    Something I remember from the movie itself: Early on, a couple of crewmen die horribly in a transporter mishap. Shortly thereafter it’s supposed to be comical that McCoy didn’t like being transported.

    Eventually the crew DID meet God — or an imposter — in #5. That film was notable mainly for gags such as Sulu and Chekov following a Klingon woman like a couple of Marx Brothers, and Spock’s fan-fiction line:

    Also this:

  7. Wow, a cascade of comments!

    You can see Kirk’s special uniform is designed to try to de-emphasise his gut.

    A friend described it as a film where the characters look at something on a screen for two hours then go outside and look at it live.

    I was disconcerted that they killed the Persis Khambatta character and had her replaced by a drone or something. Seemed a bit harsh. From the publicity I expected her to be a new addition to the ongoing cast.

    I also remember being freaked out by the transporter malfunction. Very good job on the sound effects there. Fast-forwarding a DAT tape always seemed sinister to me, once that technology came along.

    Must get the Meyer book, he seems a rather charming chap, and I like a bunch of his films. Time After Time!

  8. Pauline Kael called it “a convention of pooped out middle age dentists in space.” A sad footnote: After a minor career in films and tv, Khambatta returned to her native Bombay, where she suffered a massive heart attack and died in August 18, 1998 at the age of 49. I definitely recall reading at that time that she had committed suicide, but can’t pin down the source (Cinefantastique?) and can find no confirmation of this in the official obituaries.

  9. Myer’s View From the Bridge is a short, easy read and I’ve heard him on two episodes of George Noory’s late night AM radio talk show. Meyer comported himself like a true gentleman, never mocking or talking down to the Trek fans calling in.

    I also recommend William Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories. Gossipy and readable anecdotes about the making of the films made using the original cast.

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