Sunday, December 07, 2014
Live-Blogging Star Trek: The Motion Picture
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, the first of twelve (to date) features based on the 1960s television series, premiered nationwide on December 7, 1979 — exactly 35 years ago today and just a bit over ten years after the final episode aired on NBC. Perhaps the biggest myth surrounding it is that it was a flop.
On the contrary, ST:TMP opened at #1 at the box office (knocking off 10, which spend nine consecutive weeks at #1) with the biggest opening-weekend gross of 1979. Not only was it the fifth most successful movie of the year (even outgrossing 10), but — to this day — it’s the second most successful STAR TREK movie ever made. Adjusting box office grosses for inflation, ST:TMP trails only the 2009 STAR TREK reboot.
So, ST:TMP, for whatever its production and dramatic faults, was a big hit with STAR TREK fans and also, probably, non-fans who watched the show occasionally in reruns and were curious to see what it would be like on the big screen. In 1979, it was still a rarity for Hollywood to turn old TV shows into movies and even more so for the movies to star the original cast.
00:00 And so the human adventure begins with an opening overture featuring a black screen (the DC changed this to a starfield) and Jerry Goldsmith’s remarkable music. ST:TMP is one of the last films to open this way.
01:55 After the Paramount logo, Goldsmith’s theme kicks in over the opening titles, which are white type on black. Fans watching ST:TMP today may be surprised to hear the “STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION” theme here. While I understand why ST:TNG executive producer Gene Roddenberry wanted to repurpose Goldsmith’s theme — it’s terrific — I always thought it was unfair to the new cast and a confusing commingling of “universes.” Granted, by the time ST:TNG debuted in 1987, the Original Series movies were more readily identified with the new themes and melodies James Horner created for STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and built upon in STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK.
03:32 One of ST:TMP’s three Academy Award nominations was for its visual effects, which are showcased in the film’s first scene. Somewhat aping STAR WARS’ famous shot of the Star Destroyer, director Robert Wise (whose credits include THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN) opens with the camera lovingly exploring a wonderfully detailed model of a Klingon destroyer. Propelled by Goldsmith’s action-oriented cues, this scene, in which three Klingon vessels are destroyed by a mysterious force, is one of the movie’s most exciting.
04:40 The commander of the Klingon ship is played by Mark Lenard, a familiar character actor who had portrayed a Romulan commander in the STAR TREK episode “Balance of Terror” and Mr. Spock’s Vulcan father in “Journey to Babel” and in the STAR TREK animated series episode “Yesteryear.” His appearance here makes Lenard the only actor to play a Romulan, a Vulcan, and a Klingon. Lenard reprised his role of Sarek, Spock’s father, in STAR TREK III, STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, and in two ST:TNG episodes. The Chicago-born Lenard died of multiple myeloma in 1996.
07:05 David Gautreaux plays Commander Branch of the Epsilon 9 space station. Long story short, before ST:TMP was filmed as a big-budget theatrical feature, it was going to be a two-hour pilot for a new STAR TREK television series that would have been the flagship show of a fourth network owned by Paramount. Leonard Nimoy declined to return to the Spock role, so Gautreaux was cast as Xon, a Vulcan who would have been the Enterprise’s new science officer in the show. When the decision was made to produce ST:TMP and Nimoy signed on, there was no need for the Xon character. Wise and producer Roddenberry rewarded Gautreaux with the small but pivotal role of Branch.
08:51 Nimoy’s first appearance as Spock is set on Vulcan. It was filmed in a tank in a parking lot at Paramount Studios. Because the visual effects were never officially finished, Spock looks up into a blinding sun, but when Wise cuts to the Vulcan landscape, the sky is dark.
12:17 William Shatner gets a nice hero shot to introduce him as Admiral James T. Kirk. To the best of my knowledge, this shot marks the debut of Shatner’s “high” hairpiece that would eventually morph into his so-called “T.J. Curly” wig that he wore through the remainder of the TREK movies. Stephen Collins tells a great story on Kevin Pollak’s podcast about the poor makeup girl who made the mistake of asking Shatner about his hairpiece after the first day’s filming...and didn’t return on the second day.
13:05 Wise cuts from Kirk telling Lieutenant Commander Sonak (Jon Rashad Kamal) about a meeting he plans to have with “Admiral Nogura” to Kirk beaming aboard the satellite orbiting near the Enterprise in drydock (after a few nice VFX shots establishing the satellite). The purpose of the meeting is to convince Nogura to let Kirk assume the captaincy of the Enterprise. I always thought this meeting, which does occur in Roddenberry’s novelization of Harold Livingston’s screenplay (from Alan Dean Foster’s story), was important to establishing Kirk’s backstory and motive for going back into outer space. Considering the film clocks in at 132 minutes anyway and that the bulk of the criticism against it is the lack of characterization, the confrontation between Kirk and Nogura would have heightened the drama of later scenes involving Kirk and Commander Decker (Stephen Collins), whom Kirk demotes to Executive Officer.
14:04 First appearance of Scotty’s mustache, which James Doohan also wore in the movies that followed.
14:58 And so begins one of ST:TMP’s most criticized scenes — Kirk and Scotty’s extended flyover of the Enterprise. It takes up a lot of screen time, but its length has never bothered me. One reason is Goldsmith’s music, which was nominated for an Academy Award and is so beautiful and powerful here that it sells the majesty of the Enterprise. A bigger reason has to be considered in context. Wise — and rightly so — considered the U.S.S. Enterprise to be a major character, just like Kirk and Spock and Dr. McCoy. So why not give it a heroic introduction to fans who had not seen the ship in a decade? Plus, the miniatures and starscapes are wonderful eye candy, particularly on the big screen. Kudos to Shatner and Doohan, who, as actors, have to sell the audience on the beauty of the Enterprise without knowing what the hell they’re looking at. For Kirk, who has just come making a major life decision, he has to know that he made the right one. And seeing the Enterprise helps to confirm it.
15:43 Shatner mocks Scotty’s accent.
23:35 Poor Scotty, standing around awkwardly, knowing that Decker is about to get canned. Not mentioned in the film, but it is in the novel (and is considered “canon”), is that Willard Decker is the son of Commodore Matt Decker, the poor soul played excellently by William Windom in “The Doomsday Machine.”
23:47 Interesting look at Kirk’s command style. No beating around the bush. He just tells Decker flat-out, “I’m taking over the center seat, Will.” Shatner plays it with a mix of compassion and professionalism that takes it as easy on Decker’s feelings as possible, considering the urgency of their mission. He even takes an appropriate amount of backtalk from Decker, knowing how disappointed his protege is.
26:19 Shatner’s line reading of “Oh, my God” is not among his most convincing. Wise cut it out of his Director’s Cut.
26:58 Kirk consoles transporter officer Janice Rand, whom Grace Lee Whitney hadn’t played since 1966. Rand was intended to be a regular cast member, appearing in a surprising number of press photos in the series’ first season, but the writers found it difficult to work her into stories, and Whitney — though no fault of her own — was let go halfway through the first season.
27:20 Kirk gets lost in the Enterprise corridors — a nice touch signifying his unfamiliarity with the new starship he bullied his way into captaining and foreshadowing a major suspense scene coming up.
27:37 Why is Decker standing around down here? Just a few minutes ago --in screen time and real time — Kirk ordered him to the bridge.
28:05 The entire crew assembles on the Recreation Deck for no other reason than the filmmakers could, for the first time, thanks to a feature-film budget, show all 400-and-some members of the Enterprise crew. Among the extras, as is well known by now, are STAR TREK superfan Bjo Trimble, “The Trouble with Tribbles” writer David Gerrold, Robert Wise’s wife (it’s interesting how many middle-aged crew members are aboard this Enterprise), and James Doohan’s kids. One extra is dressed like an American Indian.
32:33 “My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain.” Without the proper context, this line makes no sense, and I don’t understand why it’s still in the movie, even in the Director’s Cut. The late Indian-born actress Persis Khambatta plays Lieutenant Ilia, the ship’s navigator who is a Deltan and completely bald. The idea behind the Deltans, as described in Roddenberry’s book (as well as earlier scripts), is that they are highly sexual beings who give off powerful pheromones that stimulate members of the original sex. In the book, Sulu is unable to stand up to greet her because of his embarrassing erection! And though it’s established that Ilia and Decker had a previous relationship, the book notes that they were never lovers, because a human could never survive sexual intercourse with a Deltan. None of this made its way to the film, except Ilia’s line about her oath of celibacy. So now it looks like all Starfleet members have to swear one. But we know James Kirk never would have joined up if they did.
32:40 Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) tells Kirk that one crew member is refusing to beam up to the Enterprise. Kirk hints at a smile and heads to the transporter room: “Oh. I’ll see that he beams up.” I like the way Shatner and Nichols play this. It’s subtle, and on a larger level, it’s a bit of a mystery: who is refusing to beam up and why? Kirk, of course, knows who is beaming up, but the way Uhura relays the news, it’s like she doesn’t know. But if you read the scene as she does know — and Nichols’ line reading carries a hint of mirth — then the scene becomes one of camaraderie involving an in-joke between two old friends. So while this short bit seems to be not very important, I think it carries some of the characterization that the film is often criticized for lacking.
33:08 A dramatic entrance for fan favorite DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. And, of course, he’s bitching and moaning and looking like an old hippie in his beard and neck chain. McCoy — and Kelley — are essential to STAR TREK, in this case providing most of the film’s humor. Kelley, whose background was mostly playing brawn heavies in westerns before Roddenberry rescued him from Dodge City, played Everyman between Shatner’s heroic, handsome Kirk and Nimoy’s otherworldly Spock and was — is? — the series’ most relatable character.
33:47 I like that Janice Rand is amused by McCoy’s tirade as we are.
35:42 The Enterprise leaves drydock, and we’re heading into Act Two. Another sign of how quickly this film was produced is the presence of dirt on the lens shooting some of the model shots.
38:03 Kirk’s first Captain’s Log entry is punctuated by a few bars of Alexander Courage’s iconic theme from the TV series. Goldsmith even brought in Courage to orchestrate this cue. When Roddenberry first approached Goldsmith about scoring ST:TMP, the composer was hesitant about using the TV theme and was happy when Roddenberry assured him that he wouldn’t have to. Nothing against Courage or the music, obviously, but Goldsmith wanted to do his own thing (and his theme has become almost as strongly identified with STAR TREK as Courage’s). I think using the Courage theme is a sweet touch, a reminder of why we’re watching this film in the first place, and spotting it in its traditional slot behind a Captain’s Log entry shows that Goldsmith was paying attention.
38:43 I like how Kirk asks McCoy a question and totally does not give a shit about his answer.
39:24 Why are those guys in Engineering standing at attention?
39:50 Wooooooo! Warp speed is all rainbowy!
40:00 Shit! WORMHOLE!! This scene is what comes closest in this movie to an action setpiece, and it’s suspenseful and imaginatively directed. The “streaking” effect appears simple, but surely wasn’t, as it involved painstaking animation. It gives the scene a weird, unsettling feeling. I still don’t know how blowing up the asteroid ends the wormhole.
40:08 Kirk has a seatbelt now! No more cheap jokes about the bridge crew falling out of their chairs.
41:29 Decker belays Kirk’s phaser order — a dramatic moment foreshadowed in the earlier scene of Kirk asking a yeoman for directions.
43:45 Kirk looks pissed.
44:55 Decker looks apologetic. But not enough to resist tossing Kirk an I-told-you-so.
45:23 We learn ST:TMP takes place two-and-a-half years after the completion of the original five-year mission. Which is pushing it, considering the actors have visibly aged ten years.
47:06 One of several “split diopter” shots composed for the movie by Wise and cinematographer Richard Kline.
47:35 I like the use of rear projection here, which allows Shatner to stand in front of the viewscreen and make the technology more believable.
48:35 I always liked the cool flip this shuttle does when it docks with Enterprise. Wise removed it from his Director’s Cut, dammit.
49:29 And Spock is on the bridge. Reactions vary from Uhura’s startled gasp to Sulu’s bemused, “Why, it’s Mister…” Spock acts like a total dick, which seems to amuse Kirk at first. By the end of the scene, Kirk is convinced something is weird after Spock fails his “welcome aboard” test.
51:20 Another Captain’s Log and another cameo by Alexander Courage’s TV theme.
52:03 And we have warp speed for real this time. Warp Seven! Thanks for fixing the ship, Mr. Spock.
57:11 Captain Kirk is a pretty good boss to work for, which never gets talked about. Here, Decker gets in his face again about something. Kirk’s first reaction is to ream him out, but he stops, thinks — in the middle of a major crisis — realizes Decker is in the right, and admits it in front of the bridge crew. A boss that is able to admit he’s wrong about something in front of his employees is a guy you want to please with your best work.
57:29 By the way, the “belt buckles” on the tunics are not just decorative. They aren’t explained in the film, but the buckles are actually medical devices that can monitor the vital signs of the person wearing it. I presume it can also be used as a sort of GPS device that would allow Dr. McCoy (and who else?) to spy on your whereabouts. Bob Fletcher designed the costumes. The cast hated them — they had to be sewn into them, including the boots — and they demanded new costumes for STAR TREK II. I don’t mind them, even if they do resemble pajamas. I think they’re a nice complement to the colored lights and monitors on the bridge and the colors of V’Ger.
59:18 Chekov screams. That son of a bitch was always getting hurt in these movies. This scene is missing an interesting character bit for Ilia that Wise reinstated for his Director’s Cut. Deltans have the ability to absorb pain, and there’s a deleted scene where Ilia rushes to help the injured Chekov by placing her hands on him and relieving his pain. As the theatrical cut plays, Chapel sprays some stuff on Chekov’s burned hand, and Ilia’s disappearance from the navigator’s station results in a continuity error.
1:00:15 Shatner milks the line for humor, which isn’t appropriate here. Still, I suppose one could argue any humor is welcome in this film.
1:01:55 Something to ponder while watching ST:TMP is whether the Enterprise would have been able to prevent Earth’s destruction if Decker had been in command. We aren’t given enough information to know for sure, but Livingston and Wise’s viewpoint seems to be that Decker’s overly cautious nature might have jeopardized the mission. Decker is not incompetent — Starfleet would never have given him the Enterprise, nor would Kirk have such praise for him if he were.
1:04:12 If you love scenes of people watching TV, this is your favorite part.
1:06:36 At least they’re watching some pretty pictures. ST:TMP lost the Visual Effects Oscar to ALIEN, but I think it wuz robbed.
1:10:10 Still watching TV. This stuff goes on for some time, doesn’t it? Jerry Goldsmith really is ST:TMP’s unsung hero, because — as nice as these effects are — they wouldn’t imbue such awe and mystery without the music helping to carry it. Can you tell this is my favorite film score?
1:12:56 Something happens! Plasma being! It’s augmented by optical effects, but it was mostly created on the set so we could see the light on the actors. It’s effective.
1:14:29 Spock uses a two-fisted approach (literally) to smashing his computer keyboard. I fail to see how this would prevent the energy being from doing what it’s doing.
1:15:03 I like Persis Khambatta in this movie. Yes, she looks gorgeous with no hair, which was a prime job qualification — really, her unusual look in general. Later roles in NIGHTHAWKS and MEGAFORCE indicated she didn’t have much range as an actress, and in most of her ST:TMP scenes, she’s playing an emotionless automaton. However. She genuinely appears to be scared shitless in this scene.
1:15:15 Wonderful use of silence by Bob Wise.
1:16:53 Ilia’s replacement at the navigator’s station is Chief DeFalco. She’s played by Marcy Lafferty, who was then Mrs. William Shatner. They acted together many times, including IMPULSE, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, and several T.J. HOOKER episodes, and they were on TATTLETALES. Her father was Perry Lafferty, the one-time head of CBS.
1:17:13 One of the few dolly shots in the movie. Wise prefers to keep the camera stationary, even though some camera movement may have enlivened some of the many dialogue scenes.
1:18:30 More TV watching. By the way, in addition to Oscar nods for Visual Effects and Original Score, ST:TMP also was nominated for its art direction. Only STAR TREK IV and STAR TREK 2009 were nominated for more Oscars: four each. Out of the STAR TREK films’ fifteen Oscar nods, the only win is for STAR TREK 2009’s makeup.
1:22:41 Leave it to Gene Roddenberry. Somehow, even with the costumes looking like footie jammies, he managed to get a beautiful woman into a revealing outfit. The Ilia probe steps out of the sonic shower wearing a robe that’s cut so high that it’s about a quarter-inch from revealing when Khambatta last waxed. Okay, perhaps it can be justified as something that the sonic shower would provide after a shower, but the high heels?
1:23:26 Ensign Perez gets a line. Nice job. McCoy has been on the Enterprise only a few hours. It seems unlikely he would know the names of everyone aboard.
1:24:10 Lots of circular talk about V’Ger and the Creator. As is well known, ST:TMP’s story bears more than a resemblance to John Meredyth Lucas’ plot of “The Changeling,” a 1967 STAR TREK episode.
1:26:26 Ilia’s sexuality is a major theme in Roddenberry’s 1979 novelization of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, but it has been completely excised from the film. Did Paramount balk? Did Roddenberry and Wise want a G rating? Some of the more adult material in Roddenberry’s book (which I read at age 12) is silly, but Ilia’s impact on the men she works with and how the Ilia probe finds it awkward is an intriguing dramatic conceit. I wish the film had found a way to hold on to this material in some manner. Roddenberry: huge perv, by the way.
1:27:24 Another Captain’s Log, another snippet of Courage’s TV theme.
1:30:26 It’s a bad habit of Spock’s: assaulting his fellow crewmen. In STAR TREK II, he pulls the same stunt in the engine room before saving the ship.
1:31:30 A hint that Decker is getting turned on by the Ilia probe — obviously enough that McCoy has to remind him that it isn’t really Ilia, but a mechanism. Again, Bones’ line seems confusing without the original context of Ilia as a pheromone-producing machine (pun not intended).
1:33:09 Majel Barrett, again playing the voice of the computer, as she did throughout the TV series.
1:33:57 I’m surprised ST:TMP got a G rating with its mild swearing and its subject matter aimed over the heads of children. Perhaps Paramount wanted the G to ensure that the kids who were watching the show in afternoon reruns would go. All later TREK movies would be rated PG or PG-13, and the Wise Director’s Cut was re-rated as a PG.
1:37:12 Spock: always trying to mind-meld with stuff. How many times did he try a mind-meld and was sorry later?
1:37:50 Kirk outside in a thruster suit to retrieve Spock. Cut from the release print, but reinstated for television broadcasts, is a shot of Kirk leaving the Enterprise for his space walk. Embarrassingly, the shot’s visual effects were not completed, so what you see is Shatner’s double dangling in front of a set, which is surrounded by lights and scaffolding, plain as day in the shot. You even see a member of the crew standing off to the side. It looks even sadder in 2.35 on the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes.
1:40:35 Spock and Kirk holding hands, making ‘shippers swoon around the world.
1:41:20 Sulu in the captain’s chair, forever giving George Takei feelings of grandeur.
1:42:35 Interesting that none of the crew members thinks to mention that time that one probe asked for its Creator, Jackson Roykirk, and mistakenly believed Captain James Kirk was its Creator. Sure would like to have seen Kirk talk V’Ger into blowing itself up like he usually did with crazed computers.
1:45:02 Here’s that Kirk now. Arguing with the Ilia probe. He even runs a bluff on it, like in “The Corbomite Maneuver.”
1:45:54 The look on Nimoy’s face as he reacts to another useless McCoy homily with complete indifference.
1:48:42 Considering that the Enterprise’s entire mission lasts only a few hours — perhaps a day — it seems unusual that all the crew members would have changed their uniforms as often as they do.
1:49:51 Aaaaand Kirk’s bluff has been called.
1:51:59 I’ve always thought this shot of the landing party standing on the Enterprise was cool, even though the matte lines are evident. I supposed they could have just beamed over to V’Ger, but this way is more creative and visually interesting.
1:52:57 These final scenes of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Decker, and the Ilia probe sure are reminiscent of the final scenes of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy meeting another malevolent god-like being in STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER, aren’t they?
1:54:11 The Oscar-nominated art directors and set decorators did a great job with this V’Ger set. It looks unfunctional, machine-like, messy--just as if it were cobbled together from spare parts on a journey through space.
1:55:07 So here’s the big twist: that V’Ger is actually Voyager 6, which left Earth in the 1990s to collect knowledge and has now returned as an omniscient living machine to deliver its data. It seems a little weird that the beings that reconstructed V’Ger didn’t know enough to wipe the dirt off the spacecraft’s nameplate, but… In the ST:TMP novel, Roddenberry spells it “Vejur,” though the name is usually spelled “V’Ger” everywhere else, including in the film. I believe Roddenberry did this to preserve the mystery and prevent readers from guessing V’Ger’s identity.
1:55:54 I bet the actors hated working on this set. It looks hot and cramped and hard to walk on. I wonder if they taped their ankles.
1:56:45 Split diopter!
1:57:23 Another nice camera move. It really stands out because of Wise’s normal hesitance to do so.
1:58:04 I love the professionalism of the Enterprise bridge crew. Kirk calls them and demands the response code for a 300-year-old United States spacecraft, and they just say okay, cool, no problem, on it.
1:59:34 Boy, the colors sure pop on the Blu-ray.
2:02:47 Decker’s decision would carry more dramatic weight if the film had been able to go into the relationship between him and Ilia. It’s a little confusing why Decker would do this. Sure, he’s brave and saving the Earth, but it’s more than that to him. The film forces us to take it on faith though, which is a weakness.
2:04:30 The Earth is saved through the power of love.
2:05:52 I love this tag, which is very much like the scenes that used to close the original episodes. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy clearing up the philosophy and sharing a quip.
2:07:08 Scotty’s on the bridge. Since no one could have possibly known at the time that this crew would ever be together again, it’s great to have everyone together at the end.
2:07:36 “Thataway.” Love it. Perfect ending. It sets us up for another adventure, it makes us feel comfortable knowing the Enterprise and its crew is out there exploring, and it perfectly illustrates Kirk’s intrepid nature.
2:07:46 The camera swoops around the Enterprise just as it did the Klingon vessel in the opening shot. Lovely bookending.
2:08:30 “The human adventure is just beginning.” Dammit, there must be some dust floating around in here.
2:08:36 The closing credit crawl runs exactly three minutes and 24 seconds. Can you imagine that happening in a big-budget studio science fiction film today?
Thank you for watching STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE with me. If you had a good time, let me know in the comments. Maybe we’ll do it again sometime. Maybe our human adventure is just beginning.