While it is easy to defend films that boast critical acclaim or have a healthy cult following, we all harbor unreasonable fondness for films that are generally regarded as utter crap. This series will consider those secret feelings we carry for films that are Indefensible.
When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was in production, it was intended as a TV show reboot for a new generation of Trek adventures. Fans of the original series were anticipating a campy romp of low budget fun with The Shat-man and the crew of that hallowed starship Enterprise. Surely, there would be alien women of various hues available for seduction, weird pseudoscience used to escape various planets that all looked like the same collection of rock props rearranged, and tribbles aplenty. The Motion Picture (ST1 for short) caught the notoriously impossible to please audience off guard, to put it mildly. It was a morbidly serious construction that viewed the Trek legacy with a regard that we can fairly call religious. It even went so far as to approach Sci-fi with… I am ashamed to use this word, but… verisimilitude (ducking rotten fruit). It was felt to be no fun whatsoever, and even though it made money, is regarded as the beginning of the rule where Odd Numbered Trek Films Suck. I was unaware of this as a child, and was swept up by this new universe that I found every bit as interesting as that one with the gay robots. Perhaps nostalgia compels me to see ST1 through a rose-colored tactical view, but I still find it fresh and invigorating. The Star Wars prequels had nothing to do with this – I built an elaborate Klingon vessel in grade school, and nobody recognized it. Everyone kept asking what kind of Star Destroyer it was. So I held this unreasonable attraction to a dull and largely forgotten movie, prompting a feature like this. It is to either ask the people of Earth to reconsider its judgement of ST1, or to justify to myself why I like something when I should know better.
If a film’s opening sequence shows its audience how to view the film, then ST1 has few equals. It is similar to Star Wars in that it establishes the scale of the film as no less than epic, with the fate of all on planet Earth as the stakes involved. As we open, an alien vessel unlike anything before seen approaches with a diabolical chime on the soundtrack. It is attacked by three Klingon ships that are utterly dwarfed by the sheer size of the cloud – described as 2-3 Astronomical Units in diameter. For reference, 1AU is the distance between us and the Sun. The ships, and their flight, are beautifully photographed, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score lends it an uncommon urgency. Since directors ceased using models, a great deal has been lost, as the special effects are better than CGI used today. If we had any doubt about the malevolent threat that approached, the Klingon warbirds are wiped out. Instead of being shattered by an identifiable weapon, they are simply erased, and their soundless departure is unsettling. This becomes a plot point later, but more importantly it presents us with an unstoppable enemy that is dangerous, and more importantly, inscrutable.
An outpost identifies this alien force, and with great foreboding it is noted that it is on a direct course for the Earth. Naturally, the only federation ship in interception range is the Enterprise, and we are introduced to the characters we have come to know and love. The characters come fully developed, dispersed after their prior adventures in the TV series with ST1 the next part of the canon. Still, the details are what make this a story that focuses on character more than spectacle. Shatner plays his part like a veteran, walking onto the bridge of his ship taking immediate and implied command. His confidence is as always boundless, but his mastery of the craft is communicated via subtle touches like operating the transporter himself when there is trouble. Spock has undertaken the discipline of Kohlinar, whereby all emotions are purged. Part of his character has always involved the inner conflict between Human and Vulcan, and this continues here. Strangely, he is regarded with a rock star quality, as officers who outrank him give their complete deference. McCoy is introduced in a big fuck-off beard and disco medallion, and really the picture says it all. He is, as ever, the curmudgeon who doubles as the conscience and caution of Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise in general. The remaining crew are their usual selves and do their thing; development is reserved for the principals. Lastly, but not leastly, is Lieutenant Ilia, who is the hottest bald chick who ever lived.
The character to take center stage, however, is the Enterprise itself. As Kirk approaches in a shuttle craft, this vessel is given a revealing introduction that is so lovingly intimate it can only be described as pornographic. Kirk observes it in awe, holding a tear back only just; as an Admiral he only longed to return to its ivory embrace. The portentous tone set so far becomes deserved with this reverent introduction – after so many years of Trek, and the many to come, it has become an important part of our pop culture. The deification of the Enterprise is in keeping with the mission statement of ST1: We Mean Business. This reintroduction to the Star Trek mythos has a reverence that is self-serious and almost drives off the nearest cliff of pretension, but I can appreciate that. Trek is in some ways about the best in all of us, the drive to discover in both galactic knowledge and intellectual endeavor. Everything works the way it should, and most everyone works together in a universe where cynicism takes a backseat to greater matters. The journey upon which they are to embark is of a distant threat, but it turns ever inward as their exploration of an intelligent alien lifeform teaches the human involved most about the value of humanity.
All is not well, however, as Kirk is a bit rusty at the helm, and his unfamiliarity with his charge endangers the mission. He must come to grips with his limitations, and learn to accept criticism. Spock must come to terms with his human side, as his search for Kohlinar dovetails with this alien superintelligence that has achieved perfect logic – and is deeply flawed because of it. Bones must keep the potential conflict of interests of these two from destroying everyone. It is interesting to see how such longstanding characters can be established, yet still be capable of change when necessary.
Throughout, there are fun details that make this a rich experience. There is a transporter accident that eventually leads to Spock’s arrival, but at the time, it seriously fucked me up as a six year old kid. Bad omens abound as a wormhole is created by a warp drive problem; it looks awesome, but also serves to immerse us in that lovely pseudoscience that is Trek’s bread and butter. When the alien is finally reached, it becomes a familiar Trek struggle – discovering a way through using some trial and error, and brilliant guessing as they work to define a new method of communication with the unknown. And during this process, delicious hints are dropped that perhaps the crew is more familiar with this threat than they realize. The vessel itself, and its imaginative design is beautiful, pulling us inward. During the course of the film, perspective is cleverly used to give an idea of the scale of the ships involved. The shuttle craft that docks with the Enterprise is minuscule; the Enterprise is in turn swallowed whole by the alien craft. The scene where Kirk wordlessly negotiates with the alien vessel is a thoughtful presentation of intuitive writing: Kirk orders Sulu to drift over the alien ship at a range of 500m, then go back out to 100km. Whatever language you speak, the move insinuates the desire to enter. ST1 is in no hurry to reach its destination, and that suited me fine. What is done will transpire no sooner than it is meant to.
(Spoilers) ST1 has no real plot apart from the crew finding their way to the center of the threat – interpretation, adaptation, and discovery. The slow pacing is meditative, and threw off many who otherwise dismissed ST1 as a dull meander. Fair enough – discovery rewards the patient, and the crew of the Enterprise comes to find an alien intelligence that challenges their understanding of what intelligence is. In a way, the search is also for where religion lies in human understanding; the alien seeks the Creator, and in this setting, where a machine has achieved self-awareness, artificial intelligence becomes a misnomer. Exploration of Man as God and playing with ideas regarding the nature of intelligence is what makes this Star Trek fascinating. The probe that V’GR sends to the Enterprise is a recreation of Ilia down to the molecular level with machines, suggesting that intelligence comes from the design of the mechanism – the physical symbol systems hypothesis of AI theory. At the same time, the alien is incomplete, childish, and unwise for its lack of carbon units. Life itself and the formative experience of evolution over eons and adaptation over a single lifetime is what creates a flawed and learning intelligent being. And all this came from penetrating an orifice to the reach a chamber where answers lie. The way in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy work through this philosophical debate is a joy to watch, and contrast sharply to the Star Wars approach. There is no central threat to shoot at until it explodes – this is a two and a half hour negotiation. Small wonder it has so little mass appeal.
The end is hinted at all along, and we progress haltingly toward that end over an uncertain sojourn. It is preposterous and overwhelmingly pretentious, and serious to a fault. On the other hand, the ambition to toy with ideas regarding the meaning of intelligence and our place in the universe as a stand-in for God? A computer of perfect logic achieves completion by merging with flawed humanity (Bones delivers a child, he muses), and a human from the Enterprise crew merges with the computer because of his need for hot bald chicks. I think that covers all one needs to know about human nature. That is why I have an unreasonable love for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.