A bizarre and dangerous space cloud is heading for Earth, so a recently refitted USS Enterprise – again commanded by its old captain, James T Kirk – is sent to investigate…
Regulars: Kirk is now an admiral, Earthbound, and rather stern. He quickly takes over the Enterprise, the only available ship, when the crisis occurs and clashes with its captain, who he demotes. Spock begins the movie on Vulcan, taking part in a ritual to purge any emotional tendencies or something – when we first see him, he has a haircut like Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead, but he’s changed it by the time he turns up on the Enterprise at the 47-minute mark. Dr McCoy is on fine grumpy form after Kirk drafts him out of retirement for the mission – he gets all the best lines and acts as much as Kirk’s counsellor as a medical doctor. Scotty’s been refitting the ship for 18 months and is worried that it hasn’t had a ‘shakedown’ test run yet. Chekov at least gets a cheeky smile when he first sees Ilia and is later injured; Uhura and Sulu have only functional lines and are, in effect, extras with minimal dialogue. Majel Barrett reprises her TV role of Christine Chapel (and is credited as if part of the main crew), as does Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Rand.
Guest stars: Stephen Collins (All the President’s Men, Brewster’s Millions, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, recent news stories about being a paedophile) plays Will Decker, the guy who Kirk pushes aside to assume command. Persis Khambatta shaved her head bald to play Ilia, a Deltan navigator, and was cast when the project was a TV series. Ilia announces her oath of celibacy within seconds of showing up, takes Chekov’s usual place on the bridge (he gets a new station off to the side), and then is essentially killed off. There’s good conflict between Kirk and Decker, but the plethora of crewmembers means that neither Decker nor Ilia, potentially interesting characters, gets enough focus.
* The clanging, electrical-disturbance sound effect given to the cloud.
* The first appearance of the Enterprise’s bridge. It’s a hive of activity, shown off in a slow pan, before Kirk steps in and there’s silence.
* The body horror of a transporter accident. (“Starfleet, do you have them?” “Enterprise, what we got back didn’t live long. Fortunately.”)
* McCoy’s Robinson Crusoe beard, which he soon shaves off.
* The psychedelica – freaky streaks of colour on the film, slow-motion dialogue – as the ship flies through a wormhole.
* Spock arrives – and calmly takes over (Kirk is clearly happy to see his old pal).
* William Shatner gives us a couple of brilliantly idiosyncratic line-readings, such as when he implores Spock to sit down so they can chat.
* Ilya suddenly vanishing from the bridge.
* Spock’s 2001: A Space Odyssey-style journey into the heart of the cloud and the subsequent attempt at a mind-meld. (Special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull worked on both movies.)
* The revelation of what V’Ger actually is.
* Kirk’s final line. Asked for a new course, he says, “Out there… Thatta way.”
TV tie-in: For each movie of this process, I’m also watching an episode of TV Star Trek that somehow relates to it (directly or thematically). Here, I did The Doomsday Machine from the original show’s second season. When The Motion Picture was being written, it was decided that Will Decker was the son of this episode’s main guest character, Matt Decker. It’s a drama chiefly about Starfleet officers relieving other Starfleet officers of command, but it has a good countdown-to-detonation climax.
Review: Cinematic in scope, but televisual in story, this certainly has a lot going for it. The model work, matte shots and other special effects are fantastic and give the movie a real sense of grandeur. The music, by Jerry Goldsmith, does too. The concept of V’Ger – what it is, what it’s doing – is a terrific sci-fi idea. But, as many others have said, the whole thing is just too lethargic to be fully entertaining. Scenes drag on; there’s no drive to the storytelling. The film swoons and pores over model shots, tiresomely showing them off rather than – as in, say, Star Wars or Superman: The Movie – making them seem part of the fiction. The most bizarre example is a four-and-a-half-minute sequence where, with no dialogue at all, Kirk and Scotty take a shuttle ride over to the Enterprise. (“Get on with it!” you scream.) It doesn’t help that the film is almost totally po-faced. Kirk’s relationships with Spock and McCoy give us a few moments of charm, and the film comes alive in a scene between the three men, but mostly it’s earnest and humourless stuff. The physical production design – especially the antiseptic, unflattering costumes – is also really drab. It’s a good job I already know the series gets better than this.
Five friendly messages out of 10.
Thanks to Robert Dick for help with research and planning of these reviews.