In the past month, as promised, I’ve read the entire run of Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones (Jan. 1983-March 1986). I completed reading the run in time to brush up on Indy’s past in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the brand-new feature Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
I’ll start off by saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my perfect movies. I love it unconditionally, and have since I first saw it at the Westmount Cinema in Edmonton in the summer of 1981. At the time, Alberta’s movie ratings system required a parent or guardian to attend with kids under age 16. So, I had to talk my Mom into taking me the first time. She expected to be bored stiff, based on the title, but thanked me afterward for making her see the movie. I saw the movie at least a half-dozen times that summer — sometimes by buying a ticket for Superman II and then sneaking in to see Raiders. Sometimes, I got caught, and sent back to watch 10 minutes or so of Superman II before re-sneaking in to Raiders.
Unlike Star Wars, Raiders didn’t inspire a flood of merchandise. I don’t remember there being any Raiders toys, though I did have some action figures from Clash of the Titans, which came out around the same time. There was a novelization, which I read and enjoyed, and Marvel Super Special #18, which adapted the movie. The really enjoyed this adaptation, which was written by Walter Simonson, penciled by John Buscema, and inked by Klaus Janson — all under a terrific painted cover by Howard Chaykin.
I stopped reading comics shortly thereafter. I was 11 going on 12, about to enter junior high school, and toys and comics were giving way to hockey, rock music, and secret crushes on the girls in my class. So I missed Marvel’s continuation of Raiders, which started in the fall of 1982 and roughly spanned the period in my youth when I didn’t collect or read comics.
Somehow, over the years, I acquired the full Marvel run, but had never sat down to read it until now. The series is wildly uneven, and mostly unremarkable. It never really achieves the kind of high points that Marvel’s Star Wars found, even with plenty of top-notch creators involved.
The difficulty in doing an Indiana Jones comic in 1982 was apparent right there in the first issue, which featured a story and layout by superstar John Byrne, who also contributed a plot and layouts to the second issue before leaving the title to make room for Alpha Flight. Byrne’s story is quite talky — more like a Sherlock Holmes story than anything.
David Michelinie had the longest run on the title, taking over with issue #4 and writing most everything through issue #23. This was roughly concurrent with his run on Star Wars, which produced some of the best Marvel issues set in a galaxy far, far away.
But Indiana Jones was a tougher nut to crack. For one, the character operated in a more realistic world than most comics. It was difficult to find distinctive villains that weren’t retreads of the Nazis. And it was more difficult to create plots where a “finder of rare antiquities” could play the hero. And incorporating the pulp fiction-style supernatural elements was even more difficult.
For most of the series, Indy went on missions for his pal Marcus Brody on behalf of the National Museum, based at Marshall College in Connecticut. Marion Ravenwood showed up and Marcus hired her as a publicist for the museum, assigned to tag along and document Indy’s adventures to promote the good work the museum was doing. At least she did until issue #25, when she abruptly left the series and never returned. This was around the time Temple of Doom, in which she didn’t appear, was released. Short Round made a brief appearance in one issue, but that was it.
The style of action Raiders delivered also was difficult to recreate on the comics page. The workhorse artist of the series was Herb Trimpe, a true comics journeyman who brought a more conventional style of art to the character.
But nothing really works. Even when artists like Chaykin and David Mazzuchelli contributed to the series, it was flat and dull. The covers from Terry Austin, Chaykin, and Michael Golden were the best part of the series,
Sometime after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released in 1984, there was a shift at Lucasfilm that affected both the Indy and Star Wars comics. Interest seemed to evaporate, with both titles eventually being demoted to bimonthly publication for their final year before cancellation.
The later issues of Indy’s comic, however, were some of the better ones. Linda Grant took over writing the series, and Steve Ditko drew a number of the later issues. The results were more entertaining, though still falling short of anything that inspired further reading or required the continuation of the series.
I think Indiana Jones definitely could work as a comic. It takes so much inspiration from the serials of the 1930s, which in turn took inspiration from the pulp fiction mags that preceded comics and the great adventure comic strips of the era. Terry and the Pirates is as close to a blueprint for Indiana Jones as you’re ever likely to find. Tapping into Milton Caniff’s approach would seem the obvious way to make good Indiana Jones comics.
I know Dark Horse published many Indy comics in the 1990s and beyond. I think I’ve only ever read one of them, and it must not have made any impact on me as I never read any more. If there’s a good one I missed, let me know.
Back to the movies to wrap this up: My friends and I bolted out of school the Friday Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opened to get in line for a screening at the Paramount Theater on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton. We’d heard about the bugs scene, and one pal brought a pack of Goodies candy to toss from the balcony during the bug scene. I don’t remember being able to see any kind of reaction, but it was fun.
I still love the Temple of Doom. It’s not as good as Raiders, but I love the freaky energy, the pulpy thrills, the strangeness, the dark plot, and even the tension with Willie Scott and the friendship of Short Round.
I’m not as thrilled with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which I saw opening weekend with my girlfriend at the time in Scottsdale, Arizona. Temple of Doom had been roundly criticized as being too dark for kids, inspiring in part the creation of the PG-13 rating. So Last Crusade played it safe, following the pattern set by Raiders for its plot, and injecting some humor with Sean Connery arriving as Henry Jones Sr. It should have worked, but it played more like this was a character brought in to prop up the ratings in the third season of a TV series that was running out of gas. I felt pandered to, at least a little bit.
I know I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when it came out, but remember only the chase sequence at the start of the film and Indy’s silly hiding in the fridge to avoid being nuked scene.
So, that brings me to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. I’m a bit predisposed to liking it because I have interviewed director James Mangold and came to enjoy his work: Copland, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine, Logan, and Ford v. Ferrari. I liked the movie a lot — it’s not as good as Raiders, and probably not quite good enough to knock out Temple of Doom as my No. 2 favorite, but it has enough style and nostalgia to feel like a real Indiana Jones movie. And in this day and age, that’s enough.
I was 11 going on 12 in the summer of 1981. I loved movies, but knew nothing about Raiders of the Lost Ark until some friends of mine who’d seen it told me how great it was. I pestered my Mom into taking me and a friend to see it at a matinee, which was required by Alberta’s movie ratings system of the day. She thought it was going to be a boring movie about Noah’s Ark or something, and I didn’t know enough about the movie to tell her otherwise.
So me, my friend, and my Mom all headed to the Westmount cinemas in Edmonton one summer afternoon in 1981 to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. We all loved it. I mean loved it. My Mom said after: “Why didn’t you say it had Han Solo in it!” I really didn’t know.
Seeing Raiders was a big deal that summer. I think I saw it six times in movie theaters — most of them requiring me to buy a ticket for Superman II, which started 10 minutes before Raiders, and then slipping into the other theater. I got caught once or twice, sent back to Superman II, and then usually slipped back into Raiders.
Unlike Star Wars, there wasn’t much in the way of merchandise for Raiders. I read the novelization, but preferred the Marvel Super Special adaptation, which Marvel later split up into three standard comic book issues the same way they had done with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The magazine-size edition had a great painted cover by Howard Chaykin, whose name I recognized from Marvel’s adaptation of Star Wars.
I wasn’t reading comics in 1982 when Marvel finally launched its new series The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones, and it took more than 20 years for me to come back around and collect this 34-issue run. Even then, I don’t know if I read them all. Some of them seem familiar, others not.
Unlike Star Wars, Indiana Jones struggled to adapt to comic books, which seems strange in retrospect given how much Indy borrows from comics classics like Terry and the Pirates.
For me, Indiana Jones is a frustrating movie franchise, in a way. I consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a perfect movie. I can watch it anytime and each viewing is as thrilling and as fun as the first.
From there, it’s a direct downhill slide.
My and friends stood in line to see on opening day Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at the Paramount Theater on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton. It’s not as good as Raiders, but I still find its freaky energy entertaining and original. I love that it’s gross and dark and weird — qualities major movie franchises no longer have.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a further step down. If Indy was a TV series, this would have been a fifth-season episode that proved it was time to wrap it up. Sure, Sean Connery is great (I met him once), but this movie plays it very safe, with imitations of Raiders and goofy comedy bits that would be more at home in a sitcom.
I know I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the theater, and I have a copy on DVD somewhere, but I can’t remember much about it save an early sequence where Indy locks himself in a refrigerator to protect himself from an atom bomb test.
I’m looking forward to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. I overall like James Mangold’s films — in particular Cop Land and Ford vs. Ferrari — and enjoyed interviewing him for the DGA magazine at his office when Logan came out. (He had a large blown up poster of Marc Silvestri’s art from the cover of The Uncanny X-Men #251 on the wall, and a huge collection of classic vinyl albums in his office at Fox.) But we’ll have to see if Dial of Destiny can defy the downward spiral after so many years away.
I’ve been re-reading the old Marvel series and will try to post some highlights here in the lead-up to the new movie. Based on the early issues, it may be rough going, but we’ll see if we can find some comics treasure in this largely forgotten comic serial.
The summer of 1991 was huge for two reasons: X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991) and X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991).
I was mostly buying new comics from AAA Best, where I had a pull list. But I was really into it at this point and spent most of my free time that summer hitting every comic shop I could find in the Phoenix area. All About Books and Comics was my No. 2 choice. They had their main store on Camelback Road and also a small Scottsdale location close to where I was staying with my parents.
Most of the comics I was reading at this point were solidly entertaining, and I was buying a lot of them, so I wasn’t trying a ton of new books. Batman, Spider-Man, Justice League, Doom Patrol, Avengers, The Sandman, Hellblazer and probably a few others were keeping me pretty busy.
It was all about the X-Men that summer. The commercial success of the book with Jim Lee on it just spilled over into everything. Interest in X-Men comic books may never have been higher. Both the collector crowd, dominated at this time by speculators who bought up multiple copies — even cases! — of new issues as they came out, and the fans more into the creative and storytelling side of things were unable to resist the oncoming onslaught of X-Men books.
But this interest also was so intense, it couldn’t help but radically change the comics themselves. When Chris Claremont took over as writer on X-Men in 1974, this was a very small and unimportant corner of the Marvel Universe. A mere 17 years later, X-Men and its various spinoffs were an industry of their own. The demand for X-Men material was insatiable, and Marvel was more than happy to do its best to deliver.
There was one problem. Claremont and his closest collaborators — the artists he worked with, as well as the editors who backed him, most notably Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti — couldn’t deliver on their own nearly enough material to meet that demand, though they appeared to have a solid grip on the core of the X-Men franchise. And other comics creators, spying the very large checks X-Men books generated under Marvel’s sales incentives program, wanted a piece of that pie.
That changed with the publication of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X serial in Marvel Comics Presents #72-84 (March-September 1991). Claremont for years resisted any attempt to fill in the gaps in Wolverine’s past, and now another creator was doing exactly that.
Suddenly, copies of Marvel Comics Presents were hard to find. I had missed a number of issues prior to Weapon X and had to track down the first issue in particular by visiting just about every store in the Phoenix area before finding one at, I believe, All About Books and Comics.
As the release of X-Force #1 approached, there was a lot of excitement because, for the first time I could remember, comics were becoming popular within the larger culture. I saw people wearing X-Force T-shirts at Target. The Levi’s TV ad featuring Rob Liefeld and Spike Lee was a minor sensation on TV. Comics shops on new release day and weekends were crowded.
And suddenly the comics world didn’t seem so distant from the rest of the world.
I stopped by AAA Best the day that X-Force #1 came out — the first week of June 1991 — to pick up my regular stack of comics as well as take part in that momentous event. The store was more crowded than I’d ever seen it, with people lining up to buy huge stacks of copies of that issue. One guy proudly boasted that he was buying 25 copies of the book – and that this was nothing compared to what he was going to get when X-Men #1 came out.
While there was only one cover, each copy of X-Force #1 was polybagged with one of five trading cards drawn by Liefeld. That means most people bought six copies — five to save, and one to open and read. Within a week, I saw All About’s main location was selling the extra cards from opened copies — for a premium. There also was a brief sensation about a certain number of copies that for some reason had a reversed image of Captain America in the UPC box on direct market issues. I don’t know if that’s a legit variant, but I did scoop up an extra set of those for some reason I’m glad to have forgotten.
I spent most of my free time that summer driving through the desert heat from comic shop to music store to movie theater to bookstore and back around again. One of the nearby stops was a Bookstar outlet in the then-still-new Scottsdale Pavilions. They didn’t have much in the way of comics, but they did have a big newsstand that included copies of the Comics Buyers’ Guide. I doubt I’ll ever forget picking up the July 12 issue and reading that Jim Lee was taking over as plotter of the book, with John Byrne stepping in to script, while Claremont took a “sabbatical.” This was less than a month before X-Men #1 was due out.
There was no internet back then, and few publications that carried comic book news in a timely enough fashion to learn any more details before X-Men #1 came out on Aug. 13, 1991. The new issues of The Uncanny X-Men offered no hint of what was to come. Jim Lee stopped drawing the series after issue #277 (June 1991), with the incredible Paul Smith returning for #278 (July 1991), and Andy Kubert on #279 (Aug. 1991), on which Claremont’s run ended halfway through the comic. The rest was by Fabian Nicieza, who wrapped up the storyline in #280 (Sept. 1991) and set the stage for the Mutant Genesis relaunch.
That summer also was a big one for Star Trek, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued to thrive on TV, its reputation growing with every new episode that aired. The original crew also was due back for one final voyage, with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country scheduled for a December release. Not only was the original crew getting back together, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director and writer Nicholas Meyer was returning to both roles. There also was a rumor that TNG’s Michael Dorn had been cast in a small role in the movie.
The teaser trailer was frustratingly unspecific, but the title — originally meant by Meyer for Star Trek II — was terrific and built up expectations for a satisfying and very final finale.
On the comics side, DC put two more great Star Trek annuals, and put together the first sanctioned crossover between TOS and TNG with a pair of four-issue miniseries called The Modala Imperative. The creative teams swapped, with TNG comic scribe Michael Jan Friedman starting things off with a four-issue story of Kirk and Co. that was released biweekly that summer.
It was followed up with a sequel TNG series by regular TOS scribe Peter David that brought back Admiral McCoy from the TNG premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” as well as an older Spock who was now an ambassador. (That last detail later panned out on the show itself when Leonard Nimoy returned that fall for a two-episode run as Spock on TNG, “Reunification.”)
There also was to be an original hardcover TOS graphic novel titled Debt of Honor from Chris Claremont and artist Adam Hughes, but it was delayed into 1992. More on that later.
August was the big month. With X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991), Marvel was releasing five variants of the double-size first issue. The first four would be standard format comics with covers that would connect to form a single image. Each also had its own pinup spread by Jim Lee. The fifth edition was a deluxe edition on glossy paper with no ads, all the spreads from the other four variants, a double gatefold cover with all four of the other covers as a single image, and some bonus sketches by Lee. The editions were released once a week, rather than all at once, with Marvel pushing back the release of X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991) a week to make room for the deluxe edition room to have its own week in the spotlight.
Ken Strack at AAA told me that he thought the deluxe edition might be hot enough to be worth something. But at that time no one expected Marvel would print and ship 8 million copies of the book, making it the highest-selling comic of all time (at least to comics shops) and the most common. I picked up a couple copies of the first edition at AAA Best on the day of release, also swinging by All About’s Scottsdale location just to get some of the contact buzz.
Reading the book was bittersweet. It was much better than X-Force #1, featuring the full-on return of Magneto as a villain, some cool Danger Room shenanigans to introduce the new Lee costume designs, an orbital nuclear blast, and a final showdown in Genosha. To be continued!
The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991), came out the same day as the first edition of X-Men #1, and was more of a mess. Marvel countered Claremont’s departure by bringing back John Byrne to script both series over plots from Jim Lee (starting in X-Men #4 (Jan. 1992)) and Whilce Portacio in Uncanny #281. While Portacio’s art was exciting, let’s just say letting an artist with limited writing ability plot one of your most visible and top-selling series is about as good an idea as it sounds. The story involved some Sentinels, the return of the Hellfire Club, and some new villains that didn’t make much of an impression at the time.
Claremont changes his plans for the series to wrap things up as best he could. While X-Men #1 was originally intended to be an introductory issue Claremont referred to as “X-Men 101,” it now kicked off a three-issue storyline that attempted to resolve the Xavier-Magneto conflict in some kind of convincing manner. When X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991) shipped in October, it was truly the end of an era. There was no acknowledgement of Claremont’s departure, no farewell message — no mention in any way that the man arguably most responsible for this commercial triumph was being displaced from that role.
Between the release of the first edition of X-Men #1 and the fifth edition, I returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona for my final semester. I was originally slated to be the assistant news editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but after only a few weeks found myself promoted to full news editor, in charge of keeping something like eight reporters busy covering the goings on of a campus of 36,000 students. Oh, and a full load of classes, too.
Next: How I almost — almost! — stopped buying comics after graduation.
Completing my freshman year at University of Arizona, I returned to Scottsdale for the summer. I think I took a short visit back to Edmonton, and then returned to Scottsdale and secured a summer job in the engineering department at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort & Villas, located at 6333 N. Scottsdale Road. I remember getting my first check and heading to the comics shops, the closest of which that I knew to be a good one was AAA Best Comics, located at 9204 N. Seventh St. in Phoenix.
This was the shop to which Fog Hollow transferred its subscription accounts when it closed the year before. I don’t remember much about my single visit to the store the year before, but I do remember pulling up to AAA Best on a sunny morning in June 1988 and walking in to find an older woman sitting by the door and announcing to her son, the owner, that he had a customer. The man was Ken Strack, and he was a terrific comic shop owner who earned a lot of my business for the next five or six years.
On that day, Ken was busy sorting and the new issues were just laid out on a table in near the front entrance. The store occupied a long and narrow space at the end of a strip mall structure. I distinctly recall Excalibur #1 was just out and I scooped it up ASAP to flip through the lovely artwork by Alan Davis and Paul Neary. The other book I recall grabbing, either on that visit or one shortly thereafter, was Marvel Comics Presents #1, with that cool Walt Simonson wrap-around cover.
This also was the summer when Marvel experimented with twice-monthly publication of its top titles, which included X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. The latter was, of course, drawn by Todd McFarlane and was taking off like a rocket.
I still visited other stores, most notably All About Books & Comics, during this time. But AAA Best was my favorite. Ken was quick to spark a discussion and recommend new books based on what he knew you liked. I looked forward to visiting the shop as much to talk with him about comics as to buy my weekly stash. I once was checking out with a large stack and as he rang them up, I said it should keep me busy for a week or so. His reply was something along the lines of “No way! You gotta grab a bowl of cereal and stay up all night reading them!”
I kept my subscriptions with AAA Best even when I went back to school in Tucson that fall for my sophomore year. I had a new place to live in a different part of town, but I also had a car and a girlfriend I met in traffic school that summer. She was starting as a freshman at U of A, but I was so insecure about my comics habit that I didn’t tell her about it until we’d been dating a few months already. I need not have worried. She thought it was kind of cool and even read some of the books — she liked McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man — when I’d acquire a new stack of stuff.
I had braces at this time, and at least once a month would come up to Scottsdale to have the orthodontist adjust them. He had office hours on Saturday morning, so after my appointment, I’d head over to AAA Best. One day in January 1989, Ken was on the phone when I walked into the store. He was having an animated conversation with someone about flying in for an event, weekend accommodations, etc. At the end, he pulled out a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man, #315, which was the most-recent issue at the time, to look up the circulation figures in the statement of ownership in the back, and said he’d be happy to pop a few copies in the mail. That was when I realized he was talking to the one and only Todd McFarlane. When Ken hung up, he looked at me and said, “You are sworn to secrecy!” He then told me that McFarlane was coming for a store signing that spring and that subscribers like myself would get a special poster signed by Todd, whether they could make the event or not. This was quite exciting news, to be sure, but it was easy to keep to myself since I knew almost no one who would have known who McFarlane was.
The signing itself was March 25, 1989 — a Saturday. There was an article with and interview with McFarlane on the front of the Life & Leisure section of TheArizona Republic newspaper on March 23, 1989, promoting the signing and, when I arrived fairly early on there was already a long line of folks ready to meet Todd. It took a long time, and I’m glad this was March instead of July. Todd at one point agreed to take a short break to review the portfolios of artists looking for feedback. But eventually, I got to the front of the line. Todd was sitting at a table in the back of the shop, with a stack of original Spider-Man art that was for sale, as well as copies of most of his books for sale at then-relevant prices. I regret not buying any of that art, but at the time $75 or $100 a page was out of my price range. I remember the guy in front of me bought a copy of The Incredible Hulk #340 for $10, and Todd teased him by saying he could buy 10 Spider-Mans instead for the same price.
I got my copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #300 signed — I’d never been to a signing before and hadn’t thought to bring more than the one comic for him to sign! He also signed the poster the store had printed up. That poster now hangs, framed, quite visibly near the dining table in my house.
That summer, I worked again in Phoenix at American Express — this time tracking down, repairing and cleaning credit-card authorization. Not very exciting — and sometimes quite disgusting — but it did put me in position to visit All About Books & Comics and then swing by AAA Best on the way home. I remember buying a copy of Marvel Graphic Novel #5: X-Men — God Loves, Man Kills that summer at AAA Best, and being completely blown away by it.
And for those who don’t remember or weren’t there yet, 1989 was a huge summer for movies, starting with the release in May of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and followed by Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, License to Kill, Ghostbusters II and, of course, Tim Burton’s Batman. The rest of the summer was pretty good too, with Lethal Weapon 2 and James Cameron’s The Abyss. It was all very exciting at the time, even though most of those movies haven’t held up especially well. (One thing to remember is there was a writer’s strike in Hollywood in 1988 that limited rewrites on a lot of those movies, including most notably Batman and Star Trek V. The TV networks were so starved for cash, they started re-shooting old Mission: Impossible scripts as a new series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation used a few scripts that were originally written 10 years prior for the never-made Star Trek: Phase II series that eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)
The runaway success of Batman showed a comic-book property could result in a good movie and make a ton money at both the box office as well as with sales of T-shirts, toys, books and comics. The teaser trailer Warner Bros. released in early 1989 got everyone very excited and Batman comics started selling in big numbers, picking up lots of new readers. New comics at the time were still only 75 cents or $1, so they were cheap enough for kids excited by the movie to buy and read.
The movie came out at a good time for DC Comics, which had been doing right by Batman for a few years with things like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Batman: Year Two, Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast and Batman: A Death in the Family. DC’s investment in quality was really paying off for them.
Leading into the movie was DC’s celebration of Batman’s 50th anniversary with a really terrific story in Detective Comics #598-600 that was written by the new movie’s scripter, Sam Hamm, and drawn by Denys Cowan and Dick Giordano. (That writer’s strike idled Hamm, who I recall reading was quite pleased he was being paid to write comics when there were no movie or TV work to be had.) Issues #598 and 600 were 80-page giants, featuring lots of tributes in the back to Batman from top artists and writers in comics and beyond. I remember how impressive it was that the likes of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, along with the unexpected tribute from Stan Lee, had classed up those books.
There also was a booming business in selling trade paperbacks of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. And Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke was also in the mix, proving endlessly popular that summer with a spot-on $3.50 cover price because it was the closest of any of them to the movie’s plot.
And the public interest was extremely intense. Demand was so high for Batman T-shirts that there was a worldwide shortage of black cotton. (I read this in Variety years later in an article interviewing the then-head of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, but I don’t have the specific citation.) Every newspaper, TV station and radio outlet was doing something Batman related, from interviewing fans to “morning zoo” DJs joking about what kind of sound-effect would appear on screen when Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale got intimate.
I was late to the game on Batman comics, but Ken set me up with trade paperbacks and enough recent issues of Detective Comics and Batman to keep me happy. This was my first regular pathway into DC Comics, which were really strong in those first few years after the reset of Crisis on Infinite Earths. I discovered the Justice League comics by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and loved that affectionate and funny take on superheroes. I tried stuff like Emerald Dawn, which relaunched Green Lantern, but it didn’t take with me.
Marvel was, of course, still going strong with all the Spider-Man, X-Men, The Punisher, Silver Surfer and Avengers titles. I also really dug Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology that exposed me to a lot of characters I hadn’t read before, including Black Panther in an excellent 25-part serial by Don McGregor and Gene Colan.
When I went back to Tucson that August for school, I again had a new place to live, in a new part of town. I also had broken up with my girlfriend and was now intent on majoring in journalism. I don’t know why I stopped getting my new comics from AAA Best, but it was a temporary situation, to be sure.
“The Haunting of Thallus!” (17 pages) Cover: Dave Cockrum and Klaus Janson (signed) Script/Edits: Marv Wolfman Pencils: Dave Cockrum Inks: Klaus Janson Colors: Carl Gafford Letters: Jim Novak Consulting Editor: Jim Shooter
Marvel’s first original Star Trek story is action packed, full of surprises and features much improved art from the movie adaptation. So, of course, this was writer and editor Marv Wolfman’s last issue on the title, which from this point on struggled to find a consistent creative team or direction for itself despite contributions from numerous talented creators.
Storywise, this issue starts off with a rare teaser splash page of the Enterprise encountering a haunted house in space. The actual story starts on page two, with Kirk and Spock receiving a new mission from Admiral Fitzpatrick (no clue why they didn’t use Admiral Nogura, already established as Kirk’s superior officer) to transport a “totally insane!” prisoner back to the prison he escaped from on the planet Thallus. Overly humble Regulan Ambassador R’kgg is to accompany them on this mission, which goes off the rails as soon as the prisoner, Raytag M’gora, is beamed aboard and escapes.
All this happens by the end of page three, so the pacing is already much ramped up from the sullen pace of the movie and its adaptation.
The next three pages feature the Enterprise crew trying to recapture Maytag, who’s escaped into the engine pylon structures and fended off attempts by security and Kirk to stop him. Since Raytag is like a bat and “sees” with sonar, they broadcast a “sonic backlash” to distract him long enough for Spock to deliver a nerve pitch.
That taken care of, the Enterprise then receives new rendezvous coordinates from Thallus and obligingly changes course. Meanwhile, a pair of crewmen “forming friendships” in their cabin are attacked by and fend off a werewolf, and Chekov and Sulu see a ghost on the recreation deck.
Raytag tries to convince Kirk not to return him to Thallus and suggests that the Enterprise will become as trapped as he will be. Approaching the rendezvous, Dracula appears on the bridge and trounces a couple of guards before turning into a bat and vanishing into the turboshaft. He’s next spotted on C-Deck where a crewman fired at Dracula and Ambassador R’kgg is found dead with puncture wounds on his neck.
The Enterprise arrives at its rendezvous to find the floating haunted house teased on page one. Raytag warns Kirk that he and his crew are now also prisoners of Thallus.
Beaming over, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a couple of crew members (they don’t wear red shirts anymore, but they’re definitely in the same category) find an elaborate reproduction of a haunted house with spider webs, dust and a storm brewing outside. They hear a scream and rush in to find Frankenstein’s monster choking a young woman. Kirk knocks it out the window and a whole slew of horror monsters appear around them. Among them is a critter who looks an awful lot like Marvel’s Man-Thing.
The girl says they’ve been holding her prisoner here as long as she can remember. Bones suggests they bail, but then a a crew of Klingons appear and its commander saying there is no escape.
The last page shows a Klingon ship arriving to inform the Enterprise it has entered Klingon space and its landing party has been captured. Meanwhile, Raytag laughs at this madness as he sits in the brig.
This issue features a letters page that provides some hints at what’s going on with the publishing of the title. First, it lists not Marv Wolfman as editor, but Louise Jones. There are few responses to letters, but she does explain in in answer to a letter from Sim Parks of Swansea, S.C., a bit about the rights situation vis a vis the original series.
More adaptations of novels and short stories aren’t in the cards right now, Sim, mainly because Marvel only has the rights to adapt the movie and do new material based the movie. As yet, we have no rights involving the TV shows or other Star Trek material. Nevertheless, we hope to do stories that you enjoy … even if they are brand new. Let us know if we’re on the right track, okay?
Louise Jones, Star Trek: The Letters Page, Star Trek (1980) #4.
Wolfman’s story echoes a tactic the original series used to save money: set the story somewhere that looks a lot like a standing set you’d find on a TV studio lot in the late 20th century. Wolfman does a good job of packing a lot of story into this issue and using the dialog effectively to indicate character and make clear who’s who and what they’re doing. The mystery connecting the haunted house, the Klingons and Raytag is built up well enough to be a convincing reason for a Trek fan to come back and see how it plays out in the next issue.
For the art, this story plays so much better to Cockrum’s strengths as an artist. Most fans recall him for his amazing character designs, but he also had a real flair for action sequences that really shows here. Assuming he and Wolfman worked Marvel-style, the top-notch pacing of the story and the effective storytelling that gets a lot of information across comes down to Cockrum’s pencils. More of Cockrum’s flair comes through Janson’s inks, which works to the benefit of the story, even if I still think it’s a less-than-ideal match that fails to convey the sleek, modern look of the movie.
The cover, however, is not effective at conveying the story inside as a Star Trek story. The Enterprise is small and obscured through a window, while Kirk and McCoy have their backs to the camera. Spock looks good, but he’s too small and the jokey nature of the image not something that would have appealed as much to Trek fans, I think. It looks like a rejected monster comic cover that had a couple Trek elements pasted in to work for this series.
This issue was the unexpected final issue for Wolfman, who did not return to plot the conclusion in issue #5. As mentioned previously, Wolfman had been editor in chief at Marvel for a short while around 1975-76, and when he passed that title on he carved out a writer-editor deal that allowed him to run the projects he worked on himself with little or no oversight. That approach changed when Jim Shooter took over as editor in chief in 1978. Shooter realized that the single editor approach for a line of comics as numerous as Marvel’s was unworkable and began hiring a team of editors to each work on a reasonable number of titles. He also did not think writers should edit themselves, and refused to renew the writer-artist deals. As they expired, the writers who had them — Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Gerry Conway and now Wolfman — all left Marvel for DC Comics.
Wolfman’s departure from Marvel was bad news for Star Trek, but very quickly resulted in him pairing with artist George Perez to create The New Teen Titans, one of the most iconic, best-selling and critically acclaimed superhero titles of the 1980s. So that worked out.
New Shooter hires Louise Jones and Denny O’Neil stepped in to fill the gap on issue #5, with Jones taking over Star Trek as her own title the following issue. It’s interesting to note that Jones, who was then very new to Marvel, was at the same time taking over X-Men from editor Jim Salicrup amid the climax of the Dark Phoenix saga under somewhat tense conditions. Not sure that it had an effect on Star Trek going forward, but it sure didn’t help.
Stan Lee wrote in one of his Stan’s Soapbox columns in the 1970s that Marvel had been very interested in getting the rights to do a Star Trek comic book, but that they were all tied up. Western Publishing and its Gold Key Comics line started publishing Star Trek comics in 1967 and retained the license throughout the 1970s as the show’s popularity soared in syndication and its fandom was in full blossom.
As with many things, the success of Star Wars changed the expectations for what a space property could be. George Lucas and company had targeted Marvel for a Star Wars adaptation and had to be pretty persuasive to get them to agree to the project. Of course, the Star Wars comic famously was a huge hit and all by itself propelled Marvel to profitability the year it came out. Its success spawned lots of imitations, with Marvel taking on Battlestar Galactica, adapting Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, of course, landing the rights to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Gold Key’s rights ended so abruptly that there exists a script for the unpublished Star Trek #62 that can easily be found online (or here). Gold Key managed to stay in the licensing game with licenses for The Black Hole, which ran a mere four issues, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which ran what looks like 15 issues. But Gold Key’s more child-oriented approach to comic-book storytelling was not to survive much longer; the company closed down completely in 1984.
Marvel seemed the ideal fit for Star Trek, and there was no shortage of professionals on staff at the publisher champing at the bit for a shot at the title. Among them were artist Dave Cockrum, acclaimed artist on DC’s futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes title, co-creator of Marvel’s New X-Men, and working at the time, I believe, on staff at Marvel as a cover designer; and Marv Wolfman, who had parlayed his 1975-76 stint as editor in chief into a writer-editor deal. It was under this deal that Wolfman headed up the adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the monthly comic book series that was to follow.
That seemed like an ideal team at the time for a top-tier comic book, especially when they were joined on inks by Klaus Janson, who had made a huge impact on comics as the finisher and inker on Frank Miller’s classic Daredevil run.
The Marvel Super Special series was an irregular line of color comics in magazine size, printed on nicer paper and selling for $1.50 and up. The first issue was an original The Beatles story and a big hit, but by the time it came to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it became the line for projects like movie adaptations that could sell to fans of the movie that don’t normally read comics. Marvel Super Special #15 includes the complete adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a single, 52-page story, along with supplemental material such as photos from the movie, an article on the Star Trek phenomenon, a glossary, and an interview with Jesco von Puttkamer, a NASA consultant on the production of the movie. The cover features a really nice painting by Bob Larkin. A facsimile edition of this magazine was published in 2019 by IDW in celebration of the movie’s 40th anniversary.
As was the norm at the time, Marvel was looking for new markets for its comics. With Star Wars, Marvel had a lot of success not just reprinting the original issues, but also in repackaging them into new formats, which included treasury editions and a black-and-white mass-market paperback size edition. The same approach was taken from the start with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with the Marvel Super Special edition coming out to coincide with the movie’s release, followed closely by the first issue of the regular Star Trek comic and a color mass-market paperback edition. All three featured the same content, with the regular comic book breaking the adaptation across three issues and the paperback edition reformatting the panels into a 144-page reading experience.
Production on the project was admittedly rushed. In a full-page article on the Star Trek comic series in Starlog #33 (April 1980), Wolfman and Cockrum admit to a difficult adaptation. Wolfman says he didn’t think much of the story and found the script inscrutable, making it difficult to do more than transcribe what they had received into comic book form. They had photo reference, but no idea what the effects – which were famously worked on until the very last minute — were going to look like. And Cockrum admits he had to work too fast, cranking out two pages a day, preventing him from giving the project his very best work.
Cockrum himself backs this up in an interview with Peter Sanderson in The X-Men Companion I, published in 1982 by Fantagraphics. Asked about his return to penciling X-Men in 1981 and which of the new issues was his favorite so far, Cockrum replied:
Sanders0n: Which issue is your favorite of the ones you’ve drawn, and why?
Cockrum: That’s hard to say too. I’ll tell you, in some respects I’m most pleased with #145, the first of my new ones, because it was like coming out of a tunnel into the daylight after the Star Trek crap and all that. I’m a Star Trek fan; I got the book because I asked for it, and there was nothing but garbage the whole time. [sighs]
Sanderson: Do you mean the stuff you did, or the writing, the limitations imposed by the Trek people?
Cockrum: No, no … For one thing, Klaus [Janson] and I don’t make a happy combination, I think. I like Klaus’s inking on other people but I don’t think it works on me. Most of the stories were dumb. The whole thing was a big flop, I thought …
The X-MEN COMPANION I, P. 78, FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKS, INC., 1982.
Similarly, Marv Wolfman had this to say:
“The Marvel problem was deadlines. I had to write the entire adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was 64 pages, in less than a month. And that was without knowing a lot of what was going on inside it because the first movie was so late in the working that we flew out to Doug Trumbull’s and John Dykstra’s studios in August and they had yet to design half the major things which would be in the movie which was being released in December. Also Marvel’s deadlines were ridiculously tight because of the release dates. Dave Cockrum had to draw faster than I think he’s ever had to draw in his life, and I had to write it faster.”
Covers on the comic book version were drawn by Steve Leialoha (#1), Cockrum and Janson (#2) and Bob Wiacek (#3). There was another version of the cover to #2 drawn by Terry Austin that uses the same basic concept as the published version. Austin’s version was included as a pinup in the final issue of this series, #18.
None of the covers is terribly effective.
Leialoha delivers a movie-poster like image that has decent likenesses of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but its images of Decker and Ilia are soft looking and do little to really sell the book. Cockrum and Janson’s cover to #2 is the best of the lot, extrapolating a much more dynamic image of the V’ger probe’s incursion on the bridge. The coloring kills it though, making it hard to even figure out what you’re looking at. And Wiacek’s cover is just an image of the Enterprise firing photon torpedoes; generic, and likely pulled together at the last minute to meet a deadline.
The adaptation itself is, overall, serviceable. It follows the general plot and tone of the movie rather well, despite being unable to rely upon Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score. There are obvious attempts to give the art some technical flair via color holds. These work much better in the Marvel Super Special edition than in the regular comic book, which was printed on the then-standard newsprint. That said, there are a few spots where the newsprint edition looks better because of how the paper mutes some of the uses of more highly saturated tones.
The magazine format’s nice paper and larger size also gives some clarity to the artwork that brings out the details and helps it look better. Janson is a formidable artist who has always produced good work quickly and to high standards, but his rough style is a mismatch for the clean and slick look of the movie. Cockrum does an admirable job re-creating the likenesses of the actors, though his work on that aspect is inconsistent. And Marie Severin does a fantastic job on the colors, though as you’ll see production didn’t always serve them well.
Coloring a book like this is yet another challenge, given the muted grays, whites, slate blues and faded oranges used for the costumes and sets in the movie. The original Star Trek series at least had variations in the colors of the uniforms with black pants and boots that offered contrast. This version just comes across as muddled, especially on the newsprint page over Janson’s sketchy inking style.
Wolfman and Cockrum deserve credit for doing all they can to save the pacing and varying the visual storytelling enough to keep it from descending into complete boredom. I’d hate to see how some of the artists today would handle the endless discussions on the bridge and cruises through V’ger’s interior.
The comic book version adds new splash pages to issues #2 and #3 to catch up readers and provide credits for those issues. Nothing special, but it is two extra pages of art.
Much of the excitement surrounding the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture faded pretty quickly after its release. It was clear by Christmas 1979 that the movie wasn’t going to be a huge hit along the lines of Star Wars. It just didn’t tell the kind of story that inspired kids to play Star Trek and send their parents out to the stores in search of that great V’ger playset. (Although, if Roddenberry had his way, I’m sure the parents would be heading out to other kinds of toy stores to re-enact “forming friendships” in the bowels of the Enterprise … ugh.)
So with Marvel Super Special #15 coming out right around the movie, followed quickly in December 1979 by Star Trek #1, that puts the conclusion of the adaptation in February 1980 and the first original issue of the comic book in March 1980. By which time, the movie had already been largely ignored and forgotten, with everyone champing at the bit for the May release of The Empire Strikes Back (I know I was).
Add to that, the changes at Marvel and the restrictions that fans would soon learn applied to the book, and the new comic book series was already seriously behind the eightball.
We’re 83 minutes into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Kirk has taken back command of the Enterprise from Will Decker to deal with a huge alien object heading toward Earth that destroyed some Klingon ships and a Starfleet space station. Decker’s day gets ruined further when his ex-lover, Lt. Ilia, shows up. Spock leaves behind his yoga practice on Vulcan to join up and then fixes the ship so it works. They arrive at the alien object, get sucked in, and Lt. Ilia is killed by a probe and re-incarnated in the shower.
And now, the conclusion of Star Trek: The Motion Picture!
Dr. Chapel examines Ilia in sickbay, mostly to use the set and make the point that even though Ilia’s now a machine she’s still capable of common biological functions like, uh, crying? And Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett, gets in a few more lines to keep her a part of the series.
Decker sees Ilia’s still alive and she responds by whispering his name. Spock and Kirk both have the same idea: It can’t hurt if Decker distracts it with sex. It takes a big man like Kirk to admit the younger officer is better suited for this task, which according to Starfleet tradition falls to the captain.
The effect of Ilia bursting through the metal door is weak at best. They have to hide its cheesiness with quick cuts.
Spock proves how invaluable he is by recognizing almost immediately that Decker sexing up an alien probe is unlikely to solve his personal problem or make the movie more interesting.
Decker takes on his assignment with limited gusto, giving Ilia-lite a tour of the ship that the real Ilia never got to see. Kirk and Bones spy on them from the captain’s quarters. But there’s not much to see: The long gazes between Decker and Ilia are as cold as they are drawn out and boring. The big news is that Ilia reveals V’ger’s plan to digitize the Enterprise and store it in a library — like an early version of iTunes. Of course, Decker’s horrified, as any good vinyl man would be.
Back to Spock, who decides the only way to get this movie moving is to steal a space suit and penetrate V’ger himself!
Meanwhile, Chapel and McCoy are tagging along with Decker and Ilia. Since Ilia was only on the ship for about 10 minutes before she was vaporized by V’ger, it’s really not clear when she and Chapel became friends. I suppose they could have met on a previous assignment, but that’s exactly the kind of seemingly broken plot point the novelizations love to fix and, in this case, do not.
As usual, Bones has the best lines. When he notices Decker becoming aroused (either through those funky monitor belt buckles everyone wore or just by looking at his skin-tight gray pajama uniform), he basically tells Decker that fucking a machine is a terrible idea — an opinion he surely formed from watching first hand his pal Kirk in action. The pacing is really bad in this scene, with even Goldsmith’s score failing to give it any energy whatsoever.
The countdown to Spock firing the thrusters on his suit marks the return of the dreaded procedural aspect of this movie. He can just hit fire and it would shave a few moments of boredom off the proceedings. Everything about this sequence takes on a huge amount of innuendo. The V’ger “orifice” is very biological looking and the sequence has this weird sense of trepidation on Spock’s part. There’s also a sense of obtaining forbidden knowledge, of lost innocence or, perhaps more in line with Roddenberry’s predilections, deflowering. Nimoy does a good impression of Keir Dullea in “2001: A Space Odyssey” here.
Once he’s inside V’ger, Spock’s journey becomes one of the visual highlights of the movie. The images are all pretty great and spot-on, though it’s hard to figure how Spock travels through all of this so quickly.
Roddenberry’s influence can be felt here — there’s lots of tunnels. And balls. Heh.
Even the giant Ilia looks cool, and the mind meld was a good throwback to the elements that made the original series so much fun. It’s clearly trying to play to “2001,” and while it falls far short of that, it’s an admirable attempt and gets closer than you’d think.
Spock attempting to mind meld with the giant Ilia plays like he’s emotionally reaching out to his partner postcoitally. Of course, doing so breaks his brain — and gives him the tools to move on and get a life. As we’ll see later. And it is Kirk who comforts him after the trauma.
There is an alternate version of this sequence that sees Kirk join Spock on this journey. The two of them encounter a little bit of action inside V’ger, with some alien things attacking Kirk, and Spock fending them off. That version is in the Marvel Comics adaptation, and photos of the filmed sequence are easy to track down online.
There also is the extended version shown on ABC and released on VHS that show unfinished shots of Kirk standing in the doorway and jetting out to follow Spock. They are truly unfinished, meaning you can see the set scaffolding at the side of the screen because the matte painting effect wasn’t finished. Showing these on TV with the pan-and-scan 4:3 aspect ratio made it only slightly less obvious.
But the finished version is much, much better, even if Kirk is left out of Spock’s adventure and can only ferry him inside to see McCoy when it’s all done.
Having finally become a man, Spock sees the meaningless of his life so far and laughs at the joke that it is! This is very significant for the character and the story. Kirk and McCoy don’t look like they buy it. And they’re trying hard to make it work, but the script here is weak and the direction can’t save it. The grasped hand, knowing nods, Kirk’s flat summation of all this as “incredible” — it’s flabby, undefined and just plain weird.
Back on the bridge, it should be clear for even the densest of viewers with Spock’s reveal of a “radio” signal that we’re seeing a re-hash of the TV episode “The Changeling.” The let-down is palpable, even as V’ger threatens to kill everyone on Earth.
So thank god for Kirk! When you have an omnipotent, logic-driven, god-like mechanism threatening you, he’s the guy you want on your side. He invented this defense, and quickly sets about — with help from the newly enlightened Spock — shutting down V’ger’s logic with a contradictory emotional argument. This bargaining also plays into the poker element that was part of Trek from the start (“The Corbomite Maneuver”) and continued to play a major role in The Next Generation.
I wonder if anyone working on the movie thought it was weird that V’ger’s yonic orifice gets all electric as soon as it gets “angry.” And as soon as Kirk complies, it opens up for him.
We’re now 105 minutes into the movie.
It’s somewhere around here that a key scene was deleted. It shows Spock shedding a tear for V’ger, claiming that as Spock was before he came aboard the ship after failing to achieve Kohlinar, so now is V’ger. This is a pretty important scene to cut! This gives closure to Spock’s arc for the movie and helps establish the mental framework of V’ger that leads to its decision to merge with Decker. Everyone involved admits this omission was a mistake, and every subsequent version of the movie
I always hated the matte painting of the ship as they exit for the final walk to V’ger. The proportions are wrong. They fixed this in the Director’s Cut.
The reveal of V’ger is pretty impressive. By all accounts, this was an impressive set but also a dangerous one because it was elevated off the stage floor to accommodate all the light effects and more than one crew member took a tumble.
The use of the Voyager 6 probe was pretty smart — it connected Star Trek to then-current space projects, such as the early Voyager and Pioneer probes that captured such amazing photos of Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. Star Trek always relied on having just enough real-world scientific plausibility to be convincing and this really establishes the movie as a work of science fiction as opposed to the space fantasy or space opera of Star Wars.
And it could have been really almost profound in that 2001 way — if only it hadn’t been done before multiple times in the original series of Star Trek.
On thing that couldn’t have been done on the original series was to have the human and god-like alien consummate their love in a cosmic merger. The patterning of Ilia shows itself to have had a greater impact on V’ger than might be evident on a first viewing. V’ger-Ilia now has enough emotion in it to get all doe-eyed and whiny about needing to lose its virginity to its god.
That’s a damn weird idea to think about, and this movie deserves credit for at the very least squeezing it in at the last minute. It’s a shame it’s not more rewarding, as neither Ilia nor Decker have developed personalities that make the audience care for them as much as they do for the classic crew members or even the Enterprise itself.
While it kind of makes sense for V’ger, I have no idea what’s going through Decker’s mind beyond the prospect of being somehow re-united with Ilia inside V’ger. But to do that, he’s giving up being a starship captain, and even his humanity. I’d think Starfleet captains would be a little more dedicated to their missions to fall prey to a trope that’s essentially “going native.”
Despite all the story problems, the movie does a fine job selling the merger of Decker and Ilia thanks to some good practical effects and visual effects. The light and wind blowing on Collins on set works extremely well with the glitter effect added later. And Ilia’s little swagger as she walks over to join him finally gives viewers an idea of why she’s so unforgettable to Decker.
Even better, the glitter effect spreads rapidly and effectively. It’s one of the cooler moments in the movie, watching it spread from V’ger as Kirk, Spock and McCoy haul ass back to the ship, and then it dissipates in a massive cloud of light that reveals — with a great flourish from Goldsmith’s score — the Enterprise triumphant.
And just like that, we’re ready for our denouement. This scene could have been taken straight from one of the episodes, which gives viewers a sense of hope that future adventures would be a bit more fun.
And to complete the weird double entendre undertones of the movie, the climax has produced what Dr. McCoy calls a “baby.” Spock, having now found peace for himself, is happy to stick with the ship as it heads off on more adventures.
So we end with another loving shot of the Enterprise being caressed by Goldsmith’s rousing score before it warps off into expected sequel land, indicated by the final card before the credits.
As most fans know, the critics were not terribly kind to the movie. Neither were many fans.
The movie opened Dec. 7, 1979, with a solid $11 million opening-weekend gross. It went on to a domestic gross of $82 million, which is pretty impressive. Other reports put the worldwide gross at $139 million.
The old rule of thumb was that a movie had to make two-and-a-half to three times the production budget to earn a profit. What the exact budget was on the movie ranges from about $35 million to $45 million. By that metric ($45 million times three is $135 million), Star Trek: The Motion Picture defied its troubled production and poor critical reception to become profitable solely via box office receipts. So profits from licensing and merchandising for everything from action figures, toys, novels and comic books to soundtrack albums, costumes and McDonald’s Happy Meals is gravy on top.
And that doesn’t include the revenues from the then-nascent home video market. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a hit on videodisc, video cassette, pay TV services like HBO, and — as mentioned in a previous post — garnered a big broadcast deal with ABC that saw the extended version air as a three-hour Sunday Night Movie event.
To bring this all back around to comics, I’ll next take a look at Marvel’s adaptation of the movie and the short-lived monthly comic book series thast followed. Stay tuned!
So let’s go through the theatrical cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture:
Right from the start, everything is much more serious than it was in the original series. In case you don’t know why there’s a long blank screen while “Ilia’s Theme:” plays, it’s because this was one of the final movies Hollywood released with an overture. These were common on prestigious pictures especially in the 1950s and ’60s, though the practice had largely faded out by the early 1980s. I remember the 1980s well, and the previews — once accurately known as trailers for appearing after the credits of a feature — ran before the movie. These days, there’s about 20 minutes of rules and previews before most movies, so I doubt anyone would have the patience for an overture.
The credits also are serious, appearing as white text on a black background as the theme music plays — over and done with, lickety split. This movie has two possessive credits: A Gene Roddenberry Production and A Robert Wise Film. I’m not a fan of possessive credits because they suggest that one person (or in this case, two) made the film, which is (almost) never true. But it does reflect the behind-the-scenes jockeying for position detailed in the previous post.
Of all the parallels with Star Wars, the opening is the most obvious as the camera imitates the massive Star Destroyer zooming overhead with a loving pans and pivot around a trio of powerful Klingon warships on their way to intercept V’ger.
The Klingon design here is much more extreme than we’d seen in the original series, or would see later in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ridges on the Klingons’ skulls are huge and they have fangs.
Mark Lenard, who played a Romulan commander in the original series and Spock’s father, Sarek, in the original series, features and TNG, is unrecognizable as the Klingon commander. It is nice, though, that they gave the role to a fan-favorite instead of an unknown actor.
And the Klingon theme and development of a gutteral Klingon language all have stood the test of time.
The new Klingons are nothing to V’ger, who at this point is so amorphous a presence that it’s not easy to always know exactly what’s going on here. As with most sequences in this movie, the opening is overly long. There’s lots of procedural shots showing how the Klingons order the firing of photon torpedoes, etc. And the Starfleet response on the Epsilon 9 station is a scene that similarly takes an indirect route to achieving its purpose in the story, which is revealing the threatening object is headed for Earth.
What’s disappointing is the Klingons appear here and are done with. I think some good action elements could have been brought into the movie if the Klingons returned later in the movie to conflict or cooperate with Starfleet in solving the V’ger mystery.
Mark Lenard, left, as the Klingon commander in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
The visual effects here are elaborate but definitely shaky. Adopting the techniques ILM used to great effect in Star Wars, the models are detailed and the motion is smooth and to scale.
The compositing is the tricky bit and it shows the limitations of the era’s techniques. There’s lots of lighting mismatches and an obvious patchwork look to many of the effects. All of this was very hard to do, by the way, working with film and pre-digital optical printers. Even ILM struggled to get it right, as you can see from the transparent matte effects in the original version of The Empire Strikes Back.
David Gautreaux as Epsilon 9’s Commander Branch.
Epsilon 9 offers a first look at the new Starfleet, which is sleek and posh and unimaginably dull at the same time. The new uniforms can’t help but look like pajamas, with their muted pastel tones and leisurely cuts. I’ve read Gene Roddenberry always thought we’d evolve to unisex clothing and that the sexy bodies underneath the clothes would shine through no matter what. Obviously, not an accurate prediction — ever, I’d say — but it does save on costume designs, if not fitting and fabrication.
Behind-the-scenes photo of Leonard Nimoy as Spock on the Vulcan set.
Next, we cut to Vulcan, which looks terrible. Our first image is a glimpse of Spock as a Vulcan monk with long, ragged hair looking up at the hot sun amid. It’s supposed to look like a rocky plain with steam from lava rising up, but it comes across like Spock’s looking for dropped quarters and empty bottles in the parking lot of a cheap Hollywood liquor store. The matte painting is awful. The supposed giant statue looks like the work of a small child and the moving planets are scientifically inaccurate and just plain dumb.
Shot of Vulcan that’s mostly a matte painting.
To be fair, this was not how this sequence was meant to look and this was one of the big casualties of the visual effects production difficulties. But to spend that much money on this movie and this is the result is … unfortunate, as Spock would say.
Storywise, we find out Spock’s been trying to achieve pure logic, a state the Vulcans call Kolinahr. He’s about to graduate, when the siren call of V’ger spoils it and the priestess declares he’s failed. Further mucking up this scene is the dubbing of Vulcan language over actors who are obviously speaking their lines in English. The lip synch is bad and the trick obvious, cheesy and, well, unfortunate.
Kirk’s shuttle zips past the Golden Gate Bridge to Starfleet Headquarters.
We then cut to Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. I think this is the first official reveal of its location, as Kirk travels past the Golden Gate Bridge in an air shuttle on his way to reclaim command of the Enterprise. Again, the matte painting of the interior is weak and obvious. You can see the borders of the matte painting and the figures in the distance are not moving.
Shatner looks good as Kirk — he’s in shape, had his hair done (or at least Shatner could afford a new toupée), has a spiffy white admiral’s uniform, and brings some energy to a short exchange with a hapless Vulcan named Sonak.
Interior of Starfleet Headquarters. Most of this is an unfortunately very-obvious matte painting.
By the time we get to the next bit of dialog, the movie’s pacing problems are already becoming clear as the next setting, an orbiting Starfleet station, is over-established with multiple long, slow shots of its operations and more of Goldsmith’s lush score to tell us how majestic it all is.
Kirk beams up to an orbiting office platform where Scotty tells him the transporters aren’t working, so he has to drive Kirk over to the drydock where the Enterprise is preparing to launch. Slowing down the movie even more is some clunky exposition explaining the unlikely circumstance of the Enterprise being the only ship Starfleet has around its home planet to send out to intercept this mysterious object that’s threatening its home world.
The refitted USS Enterprise is revealed in drydock.
The reveal of the Enterprise is a sequence I happen to adore, despite going on and on and on some more, while advancing the story exactly not at all. Most of it has to do with Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing musical score, which gives all the loving shots of the upgraded, ready-for-action, all-new Enterprise its 2001-inspired gravitas. The cuts back to Kirk and Scotty “watching” all this as a grip moves what looks like a garden lattice in front of the lighting is pretty bad, as are the optical effects placing them in the pod. But the shots of the Enterprise are gorgeous, lush and detailed. This is the USS Enterprise that the fans always wanted to see, and even though everyone deep down knows this sequence is masturbatory, it’s still quite, ahem, satisfying.
Now, things start to pick up a bit. Kirk returns to the bridge and is welcomed back by Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, who are still right where we last saw them. I do like that some of the new crew are loyal to Decker and wary of Kirk. Had this become a series, that would have been an interesting conflict to resolve.
There’s a couple odd things I always notice in this scene, which is much longer in the extended edition: One is the practical effect that looks like they hung a pair of legs from the ceiling with a disc attached to the feet to make it look like they were using some kind of levitation technology to change the lightbulbs.
The second is the blurring effect from Wise’s use of a split-diopter lens. That’s a lens that splits the frame into more than one depth of field — in this case, a character like Kirk is in focus in the foreground and the background immediately behind him is blurry, while the other half of the frame has a character further back on the bridge in focus. I find it distracting and puzzling since it’s so obvious.
A split diopter lens was used in this shot to create different depths of field.
Now we get at our first look at one of the longest-running sets in Trek history: the engine room. This was revamped and reused all throughout The Next Generation and well into other series and Next Gen sequels, complete with the silly little elevator between levels.
And we meet Captain Willard Decker. It’s not overtly mentioned in the movie, but I always thought Decker was the son of Commodore Decker, who went mad and rammed the USS Constellation down the throat of the alien menace in the original series episode “The Doomsday Machine.” Playing Decker is Stephen Collins, who was a rising actor at the time who’d appeared in numerous TV guest starring roles. After Trek, he starred in a series called Tales of the Gold Monkey, which was a short-lived attempt to cash in on the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, was married to “V” star Faye Grant, and then starred as a preacher in the long-running series 7th Heaven opposite Catherine Hicks of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home fame, before accusations of sexual impropriety with underage girls effectively ended his acting career (and marriage). But that’s neither here nor there at this point.
Stephen Collins as Commander Willard Decker.
Decker personifies Kirk’s fears that he’s too old, too out of date, too washed up to live up to his glory days as a Starfleet captain. (I’m sure this reflects Roddenberry’s own insecurities after being unable to replicate the success of Star Trek.)
It stands in sharp contrast with the admiration Will Riker shows Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think Riker is a much more likeable character than Decker would have turned out to be, but we’ll never really know.
A pair of Starfleet officer die a horrible death without having to watch the rest of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
The transporter accident is easily one of the most messed up and scary sequences in any version of Star Trek. I don’t know what made that screeching noise, but it’s damn creepy with the images of the figures distorting in the transporter beam. Kirk’s not too convincing in telling Janice Rand that it’s not her fault. And I really kind of want to know what the pile of flesh that returned to Starfleet headquarters looks like.
Another interesting note on this scene comes from the novelization of the movie, written by Roddenberry (much more on that later), in which he reveals Kirk’s romantic relationship with Vice Admiral Lori Ciani, who was the other person killed in the transporter accident.
Fans populate the extras in this recap scene from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
At this point, we’re a half hour into the movie, so what’s a better idea than a plot recap on a huge, expensive and mostly unnecessary set? That’s exactly what we get as Kirk assembles the crew on the two-level recreation deck. The crowd here is full of fans who had helped keep alive interest in Star Trek over the previous decade. Among them: uber-fan and author Bjo Trimble and “The Trouble With Tribbles” scripter David Gerrold. It’s a straightforward update, then advances things a bit with Uhura taking a call from Epsilon 9 in which we learn the object is 82 AUs in diameter. AU stands for Astronomical Unit and is the distance from the Sun to the Earth, about 93 million miles. So 82 AUs is about 7.6 billion miles, making it at least as large as our solar system as measured by the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. There also is a nice, slightly scary moment in this scene in which a spacewalking astronaut is floating toward the camera as Epsilon 9 is digitized in the background. The figure moves abruptly as the shockwave hits, in a way reminiscent of how Stanley Kubrick moved his spacewalkers in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stephen Collins as Cmdr. Willard Decker welcomes Persis Khambatta as Lt. Ilia aboard the bridge of the USS Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
But before the Enterprise can launch, we still have a few more characters to introduce. First, there’s Lt. Ilia, played by the beautiful and exotic but (appropriately) stiff Persis Khambatta. I thought (and still do) that her shaved head is a great look. I think it would have been really fun to see that character on a weekly series, but it was not to be.
Roddenberry had put a lot of thought (probably too much) into the super sexed up Deltans, almost none of which makes it to the screen. I wonder if every TV show on Delta would be classified by humans as pornography? They were supposed to exude super pheromones that made all the human men around her crazy excited. I think it’s funny that the most obvious portrayal of this on screen comes from Sulu, as George Takei was not yet out as a gay man when the movie was made. Khambatta looks exotic but her performance is very reserved and almost robotic, so the sensuality she was supposed to exude doesn’t play at all in the movie. Her declared oath of celibacy comes across more like she’s some kind of a nun in a convent. Again, if this had gone to series, I’m sure the character and her impact on the men around her would have been more fully explored.
DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy accepts Captain Kirk’s request for his help in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
And, finally, McCoy comes along to give the whole shebang a few lively moments and remind everyone why they liked this stuff in the first place. First, he looks like he’s been having a great time with that beard, weird medallion and leisure suit. And, as always, McCoy gets the best lines, ranting against Kirk for being “reactivated” to Starfleet duty. DeForest Kelley was, by all accounts, a very gentle and kind man, but as a performer he was at his best when he was griping and complaining as he does here, with gems like: “And they probably redesigned the whole sick bay, too! I know engineers, they love to change things!”
With everyone introduced, the movie now — finally! — has to get going with its plot. We’re 35 minutes into the movie, by the way. And we get more fanfare and procedural jargon as Kirk orders the headlights turned on and Sulu obliges. It takes a long time to get this ship actually moving and out the door. The movie should be taking off, but it’s done so slowly, with Kirk staring at screens and even checking the rear view window — perhaps to see if the plot was following the ship — that it moves like sludge.
A time-distorting wormhole sneaks up on Kirk faster than the plot in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
The movie can no longer delay having something happen, but it looks like the filmmakers had yet to figure out the plot, so the wormhole sequence is dropped in like filler. Even more amazing, the big threat from the wormhole is that it slows down time. In a movie that’s struggling to find a heartbeat, it’s hilariously apt, even at the same time it looks pretty cool. The weird jiggling motion everyone does, but especially on Ilia, reminds me of the sequence in Airplane! with the line, “She’s starting to shake! She’s starting to shimmy! … ” Some of this approach to danger appears to come from Gerrold’s criticisms in his book The World of Star Trek, where he argues for scientific accuracy and the drama of a countdown as opposed to explosions rocking the actors out of their chairs.
Kirk takes criticism from McCoy and Decker in stride.
Livingston earns some of his paycheck here by tying all this into Kirk’s rather limited character arc for the movie. He pushes the crew to warp speed before they’re ready — we know this because McCoy literally tells him so — and then Decker has to come to the rescue because only he knows the new ship well enough to get them out of it.
This is rehashed in a decent sequence in Kirk’s quarters as Decker speaks his mind and McCoy backs him up. It’s well shot, well directed and well acted. The biggest difference between Decker and Riker is that the former is more confident — he’s already made the rank of captain and being demoted frees him up to criticize Kirk in ways that Riker never would have dared with his admiration for Picard. Kirk doesn’t come off well in this — he’s pretty clearly obsessed with regaining control of the Enterprise and Bones is correct in that it blinds Kirk to more important priorities. This idea came up more than once in the original series, but usually in a way that was flattering to Kirk and his devotion to the mission. Here, it’s a defect and a bit of a downer.
The orange-colored corridor on Deck 5 for the scene in which Ilia and Decker talk always has and always will remind me of an episode of “The Love Boat” I saw as a kid in which Captain Stubing was trying to get a specific, obscurely named color of paint for the Lido Deck. This scene would not have been out of place on that show. (And wouldn’t Roddenberry have loved to “cast” Charo on Trek.)
Thankfully, the wormhole incident has slowed down the plot enough for Spock to catch up with the Enterprise 45 minutes into the movie. The feature-level makeup for Nimoy is excellent, and Spock looks better and more alien than ever in his return to the bridge. There’s a weirdly corny bit here with the crew’s reaction to seeing Spock: Uhura gasps, Sulu says “Why, it’s Mister …” and Shatner completes it with “Spock!” And then repeats “Spock!” like he can’t think of any other words.
Leonard Nimoy sports an updated and much improved look for Mr. Spock.
Spock, of course, is a superstar. And everyone defers to his magnificence, including Decker. With Spock in charge, they get the warp drive working well. I always liked the warp effect in this movie, with the rainbow refractions and swirling stars. It was altered for the later movies, but this one is the sharpest.
Spock, Kirk and McCoy catch up in the fancy new officer’s lounge aboard the USS Enterprise.
The scene in the officer’s lounge is a good one, with Spock explaining himself to Kirk and McCoy. It works because there are obvious conflicts at play here, but it’s not until the end that the script goes completely on the nose. But the dialog is good and it’s well acted. Remember that, because it’ll be a while before you see it again.
And here’s where Roddenberry’s novelization weighs in with some real weirdness. After solving the warp drive issues, Spock heads off to meditate in the section of the Enterprise where crew members go for quickies.
Spock made his way to the extreme forward area of the engineering hull. It was here that a labyrinth of forcefield generators and spider-webbed hull supports provided a maze of odd-shaped cubicles which some architect-psychologist had designed into comfortable and private alcoves, each with its individual view of the stars. This was in some ways the most pleasant area of the starship, being as it was a casual design afterthought and without the purposeful efficiency of the rest of the vessel. It was popular as a place for the many pleasures which a crew member might find in solitude or in new friendships.
As he entered, Spock’s ears caught the sounds of humans at love, which told him that privacy was still respected in this area of the ship. He moved quickly on, wishing his hearing was not so acute at times like this — it was the beginning of coupling he had heard and it distracted him. Odd this human need to continually rub this and that part of their bodies together, particularly since humans conducted it while fully rational, sometimes even intermixing it with conversation, which was certainly far from any definition of passion by Vulcan standards.
— Pages 125-126, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture — A Novel” by Gene Roddenberry, Pocket Books, first printing, December 1979.
Imagine trying to get that past the NBC censors.
The USS Enterprises cruises over the surface of the alien V’ger.
Fifty-five minutes into this movie and the Enterprise has finally intercepted V’ger. For some reason, it reminds me of the scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, where you start to think that, thanks to Soviet technology of the time, Kelvin is going to drive to the alien planet and you’re going to watch it in real time. But at least we’re finally here. Commence the plot!
The Kirk-Decker exchange is good — Kirk is changing. Spock’s connection with V’ger is deeper and more telepathic than previously shown. The second probe attack has some weird timing issues and apparently a missing sound effect that makes the probe’s lack of impact anticlimactic. I’m sure Roddenberry came up with Kirk’s weird self-adjusting chair, which looks like it’s designed to cover up unwanted erections more than anything else.
George Takei tries to figure out what Lt. Sulu is looking at on the bridge.
As the Enterprise penetrates V’ger, it’s just weird to watch Ilia and Sulu staring at the screen with no idea what they’ll be looking at in the finished film. The images are in some cases very good and interesting and in others less so. The first view of V’ger is of a very yonic (look it up) structure. The images of the ship itself are much better than those in the cloud. But the movie is still yawning along at a terribly slow pace. We are now 72 minutes in as we see the mushroom and complete the first flyover of the V’ger ship.
V’ger’s probe attacks Spock while Ilia realizes she’s about to be written out of the movie.
I’ve always wondered about this strange effect during the scene where the probe is on the bridge. There’s a distortion around the vertical column of light that makes it look like the background behind it has been stitched together imperfectly from two separate images. I like Chekov’s line: “Absolutely I will not interfere!” And I think the images on the bridge monitor screen as V’ger scans the computer are from the Star Trek blueprints set you could buy in the 1970s. There is a bit cut from the sequence in which one of the security guards gets zapped. And it really is unclear why the probe chooses Ilia to digitize and store instead of, say, Spock, who smashed the computer to stop V’ger’s scan. Maybe the probe is a male and was attracted to her pheromones. Decker shows his potential as a series character with that final line: “This is how I define unwarranted!”
But before we can even miss Ilia, V’ger’s anus puckers up and sucks in the Enterprise. The biological look of all this stuff can’t be unintentional, but did it have to be so strangely graphic?
Chief DiFalco, who takes over the now-toasted Ilia’s navigation duties, is played by Marcy Lafferty, Shatner’s wife at the time. Spock’s line foreshadows the Borg: “Any show of resistance would be futile.” (The Borg and V’ger would likely get along like Deltans at a school meet and greet.)
And then Ilia’s back — in the shower, of course. They call it a sonic shower, but she’s clearly wet, so it’s not clear what the difference is. And how does that bathrobe appear?
Ilia steps out of the sonic shower wet and fully dressed. What?
It’s 84 minutes in and Ilia mentions V’ger’s name — the first time we hear it — and its desire to join with the creator. Pixar movies can evoke an entire range of human emotions in that time frame. And, once again, as Ilia is examined and it’s revealed every function of her body is duplicated in exhaustive detail, it becomes clear that this movie’s focus on exploring the unknown includes as primary concerns: What is this alien life form, and can we fuck it? And there’s no clearer acknowledgement of time’s passing and Kirk’s “maturing” in this movie than the machine’s preference for Decker.
Next: The rest of the movie, and the answers to the questions everyone is asking!
I became a Star Trek fan at the age of 6. I started grade one and all the kids on the playground were talking about how cool Star Trek was. This would have been in September 1975, and Star Trek had just started being shown locally in syndication five days a week in the late afternoon — perfect for kids to absorb after school and before dinner. I was an instant fan. My mother told me she and my father used to watch Star Trek when it first came on the air, and would make sure they were home the nights it was broadcast.
The show’s syndication success made possible a good amount of merchandise for the day.
The Star Trek Exploration Set model kit box. It looks like it’s not too difficult to land one of these.
First, it was model kits of the USS Enterprise, the bridge and the “Exploration Set,” which included a phaser, communicator and Tricorder. Each one came with an order form for iron-on transfers, and I sent away for as many as I could. I remember having to wait an unusually long time for one set to arrive as Canada Post was on strike and no mail was being delivered. There was one set that included the Starfleet symbols for Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty, and my mom would put them on the correct colored turtlenecks I seemed to wear a lot. I’m wearing my Kirk yellows in my Grade 1 school photo. (Side note: A few years back I was seated at a press event across from William Shatner and showed him this photo. His response: “That’s wonderful!”)
The offer for the iron-on transfers. I believe I ordered than one set of these.
There also was the Dinky die-cast USS Enterprise, for which I lost the shuttlecraft one day and was crushed never to recover it; toy utility belts and various cheap “ray guns” that came in Trek packaging despite looking like nothing on the show; some cool walkie-talkies; and the Mego dolls, or “action figures” as they would soon be called. I remember having quite a few of those, including a few hard-to-get ones (at least in Canada) that my parents brought back from a trip to the U.S. And I was lucky enough to get the Enterprise bridge playset with the cool transporter function for Christmas.
Die-cast USS Enterprise vehicle with shuttlecraft. It also had disks you put in the saucer and when you turned the bridge they’d fire out the front.
The USS Enterprise bridge playset from Mego was made of printed heavy cardboard with a vinyl coating on it. The chair and helm were very cheap. But the real attraction was the transporter. You’d put a figure in on side, spin the top and then press the right button to stop it on the other side and it emulated the look of the show! They used the same thing for the tornado in the Wizard of Oz set my sister had.
The Mego Star Trek Walkie Talkies were pretty cool. They were much bigger than the ones on the show, but they did work reasonably well.
These cheap utility belt toy sets were common in the 1970s, though this was easily the best, with accurate looking versions of the phaser, communicator and tricorder.
But time moves on, and a cooler space show came along the next year: Space: 1999. That was what my friends and I were all into in 1976-77, with season two episodes airing weekly on the CBC on Saturday afternoons, to be followed by a couple of curling matches and, hopefully, a good cartoon from the NFB before Hockey Night in Canada came on at 6 p.m. I was wearing my Space: 1999 costume, in fact, the night my parents shoveled us all in the car at the end of the school year to go to the drive-in and see a new movie called Star Wars. (That’s a whole other story.)
Back cover ad that appeared on August 1979 issues of Marvel comics. Note the shared screenplay credit for Gene Roddenberry and Harold Livingston. This scan was from a copy of X-Men #124. This would have appeared on newsstands in April or May of 1979.
I was primarily aware of Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the ads that appeared on the backs of comic books in the year or so leading up to its release. I saw the movie the day after it opened, on Saturday, Dec. 8, 1979, at the Paramount Theater in Edmonton as part of a friend’s birthday party. I liked it a lot while I was watching it. What’s not to like? It’s space! It’s Star Trek! It looks cool! But the memory of the movie faded really fast. By Christmas, you would have had to remind me that I’d seen it.
Not anymore. I previously owned two copies on VHS: one the letterboxed theatrical cut and the other the home video extended cut. I have the Director’s Cut on DVD (more on that later). And now I have on Blu-ray the original theatrical cut, which I popped in the other night to run through one … more … time.
Note: This is a post I meant to write about six or seven months ago, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Stuff happened, but I still have a lot to say on this topic. So here’s a belated tribute to the movie’s anniversary, told in three parts.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most divisive entries in the decades-long canon of Star Trek.
Much like the return of Star Wars twenty years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture faced high expectations from a fan base that had patiently waited a decade for a continuation of the beloved series. Weighed down by behind-the-scenes production problems that have become legendary in their own right, the movie upon release was heavily criticized for its languid pacing, meandering direction and lack of action. Coming just two years after Star Wars had sparked a sci-fi and visual-effects boom, the movie was not-unfairly dubbed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture and Spockalypse Now by fans and critics upon its release Dec. 7, 1979.
Despite its many flaws, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an unlikely hit. It failed to generate toy sales and licensing revenue along the lines of Star Wars, but Trek fans tenaciously indulged in enough repeat viewings to deliver an impressive domestic box-office take of $82 million and a worldwide gross around $175 million. That made it the No. 5 film of the year, ahead of Ridley Scott’s Alien and just behind Apocalypse Now, Rocky II and The Amityville Horror. Kramer vs. Kramer was the year’s top-grosser, with $106 million in domestic ticket sales.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture also ended up being a hit in the then-new secondary market of home video, becoming a top rental on videocassette and the short-lived videodisc format upon its release in 1981. And it was further boosted by its airing as an ABC Sunday Night Movie in 1983, which restored some 12 minutes of footage cut from the theatrical version. The restored scenes had a huge impact on the story, including as it does a scene where Spock comes to terms with his own internal conflicts and sheds a tear for V’ger. The extended edition was released on home video to become the definitive version for fans. And a director’s cut was released on DVD in 2000, with Robert Wise going back in to polish the edit and finish several sequences that fell victim to tight deadlines.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a long development history. Production on the original Star Trek series was never smooth, from the original 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike that NBC rejected, to the then-unheard-of second pilot with William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk, through the fight to save the show from cancelation and its eventual demise. Most accounts from people who were there portray an often-chaotic production.
After Trek ended its original TV run in 1969, Roddenberry tried to move on to other projects with little success. He wrote and produced the feature Pretty Maids All in a Row, a screwball romantic comedy which starred Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowell and featured Trek veterans Jimmy Doohan and William Campbell. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. And his Trek-like attempts to do more sci-fi concepts on TV struggled to find an audience, with Genesis II, The Questor Tapes and Planet Earth all airing as TV movies but failing to make it to series.
Realizing Trek would likely be his one and only golden egg, Roddenberry moved back to the property in the early 1970s as Star Trek’s syndication success was skyrocketing. He succeeded in getting Trek back on the air as an animated series, but that was (unfairly, I think) dismissed by pretty much everyone as kids’ stuff, with the real goal being a live-action reunion of the original cast on the small screen or the big screen.
Entire books have been written about the back-and-forth between Roddenberry and Paramount on the issue of reviving Star Trek. Those plans were constantly in flux, taking the shape at various times of a low-budget feature series similar to Planet of the Apes, a series of 90-minute TV movies, a weekly hourlong TV series and, again, as a feature film of some kind. What eventually clicked was a return to the TV series format as Star Trek: Phase II, which would premiere in 1978 as the flagship show of Paramount’s planned fourth television network.
Most Trek fans know what follows: Roddenberry reworked the series, taking on suggestions most notably from the detailed and loving critique offered by “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode writer David Gerrold in his 1972 book (revised in 1984), The World of Star Trek. Among the changes: Kirk was too valuable as the captain of the Enterprise to go into dangerous situations each week, so an executive officer was created to handle that part of the job in Willard Decker. Decker also had some emotional baggage in his relationship with the ship’s new navigator, Lt. Ilia, who was from a planet where sexual relations was just how they got along. (This idea was never explained beyond the idea that Deltans just had sex with each other at the drop of a hat and it was normal for them. Being promiscuous is one thing, but the idea that you’d go into, say, a business meeting and do something sexual as a form of greeting is, well, strange and, frankly, sounds more than a little exhausting.) Chekov got promoted to chief security officer and Nurse Chapel, played by Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett, was promoted to doctor. When Leonard Nimoy refused to return to the daily makeup routine that Spock called for, Roddenberry created a replacement in Xon, a full-blooded Vulcan science officer who instead of trying to control his emotional side like Spock sought to discover that side of himself as a way to better work with and relate to his crew mates. (If any of this sounds familiar, just change the names of Decker, Ilia and Xon to Riker, Troi and Data, and you’ve got half the crew set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The success of Star Wars lit a fire under Paramount, which invested a lot in developing Star Trek: Phase II. What’s especially interesting is that the show never had a chance. Announced in the summer of 1977, it was clear by early August that Paramount’s fourth network didn’t have the support to ever get off the ground. In the book Star Trek: Phase II — The Lost Series, the Reeves-Stevens write that Paramount’s then chief Michael Eisner decided in a meeting Aug. 3 that the pitch for the pilot “In Thy Image” was feature worthy and in that moment the series was dead. But it was a secret kept in that meeting for four long months, during which time scripts were written that would never be produced and sets half-built while behind-the-scenes machinations progressed on the real project, which was the feature. The great expense was apparently justified by the idea that if Paramount decided a year after the feature to return to TV, they’d have a dozen scripts already in the can and ready to go.
Meanwhile, the production cast Stephen Collins as Decker, Persis Khambatta as Ilia and David Gautreax as Xon. Coming on as director was Robert Wise, a true Hollywood legend who started as an editor on Citizen Kane before directing such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Heck, even Leonard Nimoy agreed to come back, demoting Gautreaux to a cameo as the commander of the Epsilon 9 station in the final movie.
It looked at this point like a feature would be smooth sailing, but the production was anything but. The script, first and foremost, needed to be updated to work as a feature. Veteran TV writer Harold Livingston was brought on board and began running afoul of Roddenberry, who constantly interfered in the scripting process by poorly rewriting pages that didn’t need it and setting everything back with substandard work. Livingston quit and was re-hired several times by Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Roddenberry, it seems, was trying to earn a screenplay credit by any means necessary, with his rewrites providing evidence he could submit to the WGA to earn that credit — and the money that came with it. (Roddenberry pulled a similar stunt with original series composer Alexander Courage, writing lyrics to the show’s theme song that were never meant to be used as a way to earn half the writing credit and therefore half the royalties from the tune. Courage never again worked on Star Trek.) Final writing credits went to Foster for story and Livingston for screenplay. You can read one version of the script here.
So production began without a finished script, which is never a good idea. With the movie shot almost exclusively on sound stages, production proceeded largely in story order. That explains why the movie’s plot is so vague for so long, treading water with lengthy re-introductions of the crew members and the USS Enterprise. DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, as usual, point out the idiocy of this with one of the movie’s best lines: “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?”
At some point, clauses in the contracts of Shatner and Nimoy kicked in to give them story approval, so production slowed down again as everyone tried to figure out an ending to the movie. There were reportedly days where scenes were written in the morning for the cast and crew to shoot later that day.
The ending they did come up with is actually pretty good, though the middle of the movie is a serious slog. The alien object is revealed to be Earth’s primitive Voyager 6 probe, given the ability by an advanced race of alien machines to complete it mission of gathering all data possible and returning it to its creator. Along the way, it amassed so much data it became sentient. But it lacks the emotional side it needs to move to the next level. So V’ger seeks to merge with its creator, which it does with Decker, and moves into the next realms.
Having finished principal photography, Star Trek: The Motion Picture moved into its next disastrous phase: creating the visual effects. Again, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kindhad pushed visual effects to a new level and shown their storytelling potential. And in the wake of Luke Skywalker’s rush down the Death Star trench, there was no way effects like those used on the original Star Trek series or on more recent efforts like 2001: A Space Odysseyor Space: 1999 were going to cut it. But George Lucas and his team at ILM, which created those effects and innovated those techniques, were working on The Empire Strikes Back. That meant Star Trek: The Motion Picture had to go elsewhere to find work that lived up to that level — a very tall order.
By all accounts, the original effects team, Robert Abel & Associates, spent somewhere north of a million dollars and had produced almost no usable footage. Adding to the pressure, Paramount pre-sold the movie to exhibitors, who had forked over significant advances for the right to screen the finished movie on Dec. 7, 1979. That money had helped Paramount finance the movie, but it also meant the release date couldn’t budge. It was a mad scramble to finish the movie and several important shots and major sequences got lost in the shuffle.
Wise also was battling the studio over the final cut of the film, with the studio pushing a version that featured more of the expensive VFX it was paying for while Wise was trying to balance the story. The mad race to finish the movie left Wise without a chance to test screen the movie with an audience, which he said for years afterward would have helped improve the balance of VFX spectacle and story.
Standing out as a triumph amid this scramble is the iconic score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Reportedly, Goldsmith’s original score was found lacking by Roddenberry, Wise and the Paramount brass. They wanted a triumphant theme along the lines of John Williams’ score for — you guessed it — Star Wars. Goldsmith came up with a theme on the spot that satisfied everyone and went on to become an iconic part of Trek’s musical history, returning in subsequent features and as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Finishing the film truly came down to the wire. Final effects sequences were cut by hand into each individual print of the movie on a Paramount soundstage occupied by hundreds of film canisters waiting to be shipped out. Wise himself carried the print shown at the Washington, D.C., premiere with him on his flight out of Los Angeles.
Fan reaction could be summed up as disappointed but grateful for the movie’s existence. The box office results were not in Star Wars territory, but they did reveal an audience existed for Star Trek. And the movie turned a profit despite the studio calculating a then-record production budget of $44 million that — fair or not — included all the development costs of Star Trek: Phase II and likely all the way back to the early 1970s.
That success opened the door for more Star Trek, albeit versions that were much less extravagant.