“And why does V’Ger journey to the third planet in the solar system?” asks Admiral James T. Kirk. The Ilia probe responds, “To seek the creator.” “Who is the creator?” “The creator is that which created V’Ger.”
Star Trek premiered on TV on September 8, 1966. It starred William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelly as Dr. Leonard McCoy, James Doohan as Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, George Takei as Hikaru Sulu, and Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov (who didn’t actually appear until the second season). It ran for three seasons before being canceled in 1969. It went into syndication and became a ratings hit, growing immensely in popularity. An animated series premiered in 1973, and ran about two seasons. It featured the voices of the original cast (minus Koenig). Star Trek had grown popular enough that creator Gene Roddenberry tried to make a Star Trek movie in the mid-’70s, but Paramount didn’t like any of the submitted scripts and pitches, so the project moved to TV and would be produced as a new Star Trek show entitled Star Trek: Phase II. When Star Wars became a hit in 1977, Paramount decided to go back to making a Star Trek movie. The plans for Phase II were scrapped, however, some sets and story ideas would be retained for the movie. Robert Wise was hired to direct, Gene Roddenberry would produce, the entire original cast would return (along with some new additions), and, after a very difficult production period and a post-production phase (which saw a race to meet the release date), Star Trek: The Motion Picture was finally released on December 7, 1979 (Robert Wise would present his definitive version more than 20 years later).
Set in the 23rd century, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise reunite when a mysterious cloud heads toward Earth, destroying everything in its path. James T. Kirk, now an admiral, assumes command of a newly refit Enterprise to intercept the cloud while it’s still a few days away from Earth. This description hardly does the film justice; it’s much more complex than that. The film is partially about Kirk’s crisis in leadership. He’s a man who still yearns for his old command less than three years after being promoted to admiral, and when he temporarily gets back that command, he slowly realizes that he’s not as suited to it as he once was (his unfamiliarity with the Enterprise’s re-design jeopardizes the mission a few times). The film is also about discovering who or what you truly are, as exemplified by V’Ger’s long journey to meet its creator, as well as Spock’s journey towards completing the Kolinahr ritual (which would purge all remaining emotion from him), requiring him to rejoin the Enterprise during the V’Ger crisis.
The original cast shines here (especially the trio of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelly). Newcomers Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta also shine as Will Decker and Ilia. Collins’ Decker carries a chip on his shoulder, partially due to being temporarily demoted to commander (he was supposed to be captain of the Enterprise) and being kept on board only because he supervised the refit of the Enterprise. It isn’t mentioned in the film (but is in the script), but Decker is also the son of Commodore Matt Decker, who took on the Doomsday Machine in the original series episode “The Doomsday Machine” (knowing this adds an extra layer of tragedy to the character). The love story between Decker and Ilia is crucial to the film, as well as one of the best aspects of the film (it would also serve as the inspiration for the Riker/Troi relationship on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and perhaps not coincidentally, Riker’s first name is also Will).
Robert Wise did an excellent job with his direction, and his director’s cut of the film fully realized his vision for the first Star Trek film. Harold Livingston got screenplay credit for the adaptation of the Phase II pilot script (which was entitled “In Thy Image”). Roddenberry took Livingston to arbitration with the Writers Guild several times for screen credit for the film’s screenplay, but lost. The script was rewritten many times (mainly character issues), but it was the ending that was constantly changing during production. Alan Dean Foster received story credit (he had written an early draft of the “In Thy Image” script, but oddly didn’t receive any credit at all until the Writers Guild intervened). Fred Phillips’ makeup design was first rate (it’s too bad the Best Makeup Oscar didn’t exist yet). Harold Michelson’s production design was amazing (truly deserving of its Oscar nod, but I still think it should’ve won). Richard Kline’s cinematography is terrific, as are Douglas Trumbull’s Oscar-nominated special effects, as well as Todd Ramsay’s film editing. I actually liked Robert Fletcher’s costume designs, even thought the main cast hated their uniforms. And last but not least, Jerry Goldsmith created a legendary score, one that earned a richly-deserved Oscar nomination (it’s a shame that it didn’t win; it was the best score of 1979).
I strongly encourage everyone to seek out the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture; it is the version of the film that Robert Wise would’ve released in 1979 if he had been given the time to fine-tune the film instead of rushing to meet its release date. I’m not implying that the original theatrical version is a bad film; it’s still a good film, but I prefer the director’s cut. In creating the director’s cut, Wise’s production team used the original script, surviving sequence storyboards, memos, and the director’s own recollections. A few trims were made, but some footage was also put back in, resulting in a film that runs four minutes longer than the original theatrical version. 90 new and redesigned computer-generated images were created (including correcting the matte shots for the early scene set on Vulcan and fully revealing the actual vessel that stored V’Ger), and care was taken into making sure that the new effects meshed seamlessly with the old footage. A new sound mix was made, and the intensity of it made the V’Ger scenes more menacing (which is believed to be the reason the MPAA re-rated the film ‘PG’ from the original theatrical version’s ‘G’ rating). I’m still glad Wise was able to deliver this new cut of the film in 2001; he died four years later at the age of 91.