Picking up where we left off:
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!
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