The opening scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the coolest and eerie sequences in the franchise’s history that pits the newly designed Klingons against an unstoppable entity hidden in a massive cloud of energy. The three K’t’inga-class warships slowly advance upon the entity as their theme music swells. Known for shooting first and asking questions later–if at all–the Klingons power up their weapons and fire at their mysterious target, but their firepower proves useless. After absorbing their torpedos, the entity unleashes a plasma field that disintegrates all three vessels.
It was a scene that immediately ushered in a feeling of danger, a promise that the Enterprise’s silver screen debut would be a thrilling outing and give Captain James T. Kirk and his crew a worthy adversary. However, the rest of the film that follows the opening sequence is a slow search and destroy flick that critics call boring and almost convinced Paramount not to produce any more Star Trek films. Critics unfavorably compared the Enterprise’s debut outing to the colorful action and boldly characterized Star Wars antagonists. It’s an unfair criticism, especially considering the television series’s profoundly philosophical nature predating the film. Not to say that Star Wars isn’t philosophical–and that’s a conversation for another time–but the franchise prioritizes explosive and thrilling action sequences. In contrast, Star Trek has always focused on the investigation and the crew coming together to problem-solve, preferably without using their phaser or violence unless necessary.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture embraces the ideas of artificial intelligence and human evolution. True to the television series’s nature, the film focuses on the deeply philosophical rather than action. The moody, depressing, and immersive atmosphere on the Enterprise’s bridge is one that hasn’t been matched since by any proceeding entry in the franchise, and I think that adds to the film’s appeal. Gone were the unbridled and colorful early adventures of Kirk and his crew. The hotheaded and spontaneous captain was now older and more jaded (with his trademark arrogance), while his commanding officer Spock was unsuccessfully trying to rid himself of all humanity, and Dr. Bones McCoy looked like he’d come out of exile in the mountains.
The decision of director Robert Wise and producer Gene Roddenberry to match the film’s tone with the direction and inner journeys of the three leading characters makes sense. This was a different and darker galaxy than we’d seen before, and Starfleet never seemed more serious or militaristic than they appeared in the motion picture. While the plot was reminiscent of early episodes from the original series, the new designs and the alien probe V’Ger’s awe-inspiring nature revealed as a relic of Earth’s past and a living machine felt appropriate for Star Trek’s first outing on the silver screen.
It was also thrilling to see the return of fan-favorite characters like Uhuru, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov, who jumped into their posts and positions on the bridge as if barely a day had passed since their early adventures. They weren’t given a lot to do in the film, but their presence felt necessary, and they are each as iconic as Kirk or the Enterprise itself. One performance I enjoyed came from Persis Khambatta as the Deltan navigator Lieutenant Illia, an Indian model and actress who famously shaved her head for the role. Not only is she a stunningly beautiful woman, but Illia brought warmth, kindness, and vulnerability to the bridge, and her romance with Commander William Decker set the stage for the iconic relationship between Commander William Riker and Counselor Deanna Troi.
Aside from the film’s uniquely dark tone and incredible special effects, it’s worth pointing out that Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened the door for future movie adaptations of television programs, and being the first major film adaptation meant several challenges came along in the movie’s early production. In the Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Inside the Art and Visual Effects Jeff Bond and Gene Kozicki, visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull said the following:
“The story I was hearing was that they were terrified to be the first people to turn a television series into a feature film. That was just the weirdest idea at the time. There were other people who done passes at it, who shot sizzle reels. There were several false starts, two or three different productions.”
Early drafts of the film featured Kirk meeting a snake-like alien who attempts to alter Earth’s timeline, and another in which Kirk and his crew encounter the mythical Titans and travel back millions of years in time. These drafts were all rejected by the studio, and at one point, the film was canceled just months before the release of Star Wars. When production resumed, the studio demanded a timely release, as every other production company had a sci-fi film already released or in development.
Despite a problematic production cycle, the film was released in 1979 and earned a modest $139 million worldwide. It wasn’t enough to match Paramount’s expectations, but it did open the door for work on a less expensive sequel, The Wrath of Khan, which is universally loved by Star Trek fans. Admittedly, the film is slow, and it spends a lot of time focusing on character’s reactions to events they see on the viewscreen, but there can be no denying the impact Star Trek: The Motion Picture had on the franchise and the science fiction genre as a whole. Without Illia and Deckard, there’d be no Deanna Troi and William Riker. Without the motion picture, they would be no resurgence in interest in Star Trek or future films.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture deserves a lot more credit for its stellar special effects, updated designs of the Klingons and the Enterprise, philosophical discussions around life and purpose, and for the impacts it had on future films and television shows. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn fine start for the film series and lives up to Star Trek’s premise and mission statement to seek out new life and civilizations and to boldly go where no one has gone before.