Setting new standards

TV spin-off reunites final frontiersmen

Published: Sep 10 2014, 01:01:am

Thursday, December 13, 1979.
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. Written by Harold Livingston, from a story by Alan Dean Foster. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Directed by Robert Wise. Running time: 132 minutes. General entertainment.
IN MARCH, 1969, after a three-season run on the NBC television network, Star Trek was cancelled. Its 78 episodes proved durable in syndication, though, and are seen to this day.
    Ten years separate the TV series from the motion picture. In that time, a lot of the old fans have grown up. Star Trek, unfortunately, has not.
    Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the ultimate adolescent fantasy. A clever, incredibly expensive comic book, it retains all of the awkward charm and corrects none of the dramatic flaws of its small-screen predecessor.
    Given that its creator, Gene Roddenberry, hasn't had a new idea in nearly 20 years, and that Paramount Pictures is said to have more than $35 million invested in it, I suppose that was inevitable.
    Still, I do wish that the big-screen reunion of the series principals — nine performers, none of whom has managed any major success on his or her own — wasn't quite so self-congratulatory.
        All of them — Canadians William Shatner and James Doohan, together again with Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett (Mrs. Gene Roddenberry) and Grace Lee Whitney — play the old roles with new broadness and obvious relish. Most of them look as if they're about to break into big grins.
    Some time has passed since the starship Enterprise NCC-1701 returned from its  fabled five-year mission. James Tiberius Kirk (Shatner), now an admiral, commands from an Earthbound desk at Starfleet's San Francisco headquarters. The fleet's best-known ship has a new captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins), and is undergoing a complete refit in an orbital drydock.
    The film opens with Earth menaced by an oncoming "thing." ("Why is any object we don't understand always called a 'thing'?'' snarls loveable old Dr. Leonard McCoy (Kelley).)
    Kirk uses the emergency to resume his starship command. Arriving   aboard the Enterprise, he informs Decker that he's now in charge. "I'm sorry, Will."
    Try to guess Will's response. Does he set his jaw, swallow his disappointment and say "aye, aye, sir!" like a properly disciplined officer?
    Not on your Flash Gordon combination whistle, compass and decoder ring.
     "No, Admiral," says the petulant subaltern. "I don't think you're sorry. Not one damned bit. I remember when you recommended me for this command. You told me how envious you were and how much you hoped you'd find a way to get a starship command again. Well, sir, it looks like you found a way!"
    Later, when Kirk crudely asserts his authority over Decker, the ever-outspoken McCoy tells him off for so flagrantly "competing" with the younger man. McCoy's right, too.
    I've never had much respect for Rodenberry's Starfleet. The greatest collection of misfits since F Troop, it again manages to put the fate of all humanity into the hands of an arrested adolescent.
    On the other hand, the picture is authentically Star Trek.  And beneath it all, there is something going on, something unexpected and quite remarkable.
    Star Trek, the TV series, was for the most part an original. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the remake of another feature film, one revered and beloved in the annals of fantasy fiction.
    In much the same way as Forbidden Planet (1956) reworked Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), STMP reprises Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the process, it does much to demythologize the earlier epic.
    The two films are alike in both plot and style. Robert Wise's direction has the same deliberate pacing, the same ponderous emphasis on space hardware, and the same metaphysical pretensions so evident in Kubrick's 1968 picture. In both movies, people seem to spend most of their time staring at things.
    Wise parallels Kubrick's apes-and-slab opening with Klingons and the Menace. Sent to investigate, the Enterprise passes through the required "stargate" and is swallowed whole by a large, living being. ("We got him right where he wants us," quips Kirk.)
    As it turns out, the menace has a name — "V'ger" —and a purpose. Just as 2001 ended with man evolving to a higher plane of existence, STMP produces its own version of Kubrick's "star child."
     A lot of nonsense has been written about the meaning of 2001. Strikingly visual and defiantly non-linear, it was "about" little more than itself.  A black comedy, it argued that man's "progress" was really a process of trivialization and dehumanization (a theme Kubrick would return to in his 1972 feature, A Clockwork Orange).
    In remaking 2001, STMP makes the same point in bright, comic-book colours. After confronting V'ger mind-to-mind-meld, science officer Spock (Nimoy) grasps Kirk's hand. "This simple feeling is beyond V'ger's comprehension."
    Film buffs still argue about what astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) encountered at 2001's Jupiter. Screenwriter Harold Livingston clears up all that. In STMP, the Ultimate is a cosmic adolescent.
    "It knows only that it needs," says Spock. "But like so many of us, it does not know what."
    C'mon, Spock, it wants what every teenager wants. And STMP comes through, providing V'ger (and the fans) with a climactic cosmic consummation.
    At 132 minutes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is about twice as long as it needs to be. The special effects, impressive as they are, have all been seen before. The storyline, on the other hand, sets an expensive new standard for science-fiction silliness.
    *    *    *
FILMGOERS SHORTCHANGED — Vancouver's science-fiction fans are in for a big disappointment. Ticket prices are up. Film production budgets are out of sight. But, despite the fans' best efforts, neither Star Trek: The Motion Picture nor Disney's outer space epic The Black Hole is being shown here in a 70-millimetre/stereophonic sound version.
    The movie audience, a clueless Famous Players Theatres executive told me, can't tell the difference between monaural sound and stereo, or between 35mm and 70mm pictures.
    Barb Dryer disagrees.
    Dryer, 25, is president of the Vancouver Star Trekkers. Concerned about the quality of film presentations locally, she asked the folk at Famous Players why only 35mm, monaural sound prints were playing here.
     They explained to her that it was a matter of money.
    Because there are no film laboratories in Canada equipped to manufacture 70mm prints, the full movie would have to be imported from the U.S., she was told. That would involve paying customs and duty charges.
    Because the theatres playing Star Trek are not now equipped for 70mm presentation, they would have to be converted. That would be expensive, too.
    And, totally breaking the bank, the provincial film classifier charges more to deal with 70mm films.
    (In fairness to Famous, it must be said that the nation's other theatre chain, Canadian Odeon Theatres, shows no enthusiasm for the 70mm format either. Odeon does go to some trouble to book stereo-sound prints locally, though.)
    All of the financial points that the Famous Players spokesman raises are legitimate. On the other hand, Famous Players is not a poor company. In December 1977, it was one of 42 corporations cited by the federal government's anti-inflation board for excessive earnings.
    Famous Players, a subsidiary of the multinational Gulf and Western conglomerate, dominates the film exhibition business in Canada. It has not committed itself to 70mm or stereophonic sound films because it doesn't have to.
    Both Star Trek and The Black Hole are handled in Canada by Paramount Pictures. Since Paramount is also a Gulf and Western company, it books exclusively with Famous Players. As a result, there is no such thing as competition for these new movies in the Canadian marketplace.
    Given that particular set of business realities, Canadian Odeon, a much smaller company overall, is just as happy that Famous has so little inclination towards dynamic showmanship. Unfortunately, while the two national film circuits enjoy such a congenial relationship, Canadian audiences are unlikely to see the results of the most relevant advances in film technology for some time to come.
    In Seattle, where there is something like genuine competition for the filmgoer's ticket dollars, the 70mm stereo version of Star Trek shows for the same $4 admission price that Vancouverites have to pay for 35mm monaural.
    The irony is that Paramount spent something like $35 million to make STMP a singularly memorable experience. A lot of those dollars went into special-effects work that is at its best in the big-picture, surround-sound format.
    The Disney Studio, in an attempt to reassert its supremacy in the realm of special effects, sank a record $20 million into the making of The Black Hole. Although a a 70mm stereo-sound print was tentatively booked into Vancouver's Stanley Theatre, the continuing success of Apocalypse Now, at $5 a head, convinced the decision makers at Famous that Vancouver would be just as happy with the 35mm monaural version of the Disney opus.
    Barb Dryer is not happy at all. She's angry, and rightly so.
     At this moment, she's asking her fellow Trekkers to join her in writing to Famous Players president George Destounis and Paramount Pictures in Toronto. She wants to tell them that Vancouver filmgoers resent being shortchanged.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ. LINK

Afterword: Although I found much fault with the first Star Trek feature, that didn't stop me from going after the Famous Players theatre chain for not presenting the picture to its best advantage. Looking back on that column today, I can't help being nostalgic for a time when the famous "firewall" between newsroom and ad sales was real, and that a critic could take a major advertiser to task on the same page as his ads appeared. Rereading the review portion of the article, my reference to F Troop, a 1965-1967 TV comedy series about a dysfunctional U.S. cavalry outpost on the western frontier, now seems pretty obscure. What really surprised me, though, was the complete lack of any reference to Jerry Goldsmith's awesome score (for which the composer received an entirely deserved Oscar nomination). Goldsmith (who died in 2004) wrote some of the greatest film music every recorded. His rich and varied STMP themes set the style for every Trek feature and TV series that followed after. If the picture's screenplay set a standard for sci-fi silliness, Goldsmith set new standards in musical excellence that more than compensated.        

See also: My reviews of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and my 1977 Star Trek "leaked memo"  feature that ran on April 1.