Six Damn Fine Degrees #4: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Following on from Alan’s retrospective on the inimitable The Curse of the Cat People, we’re making the leap this time from a horror-sequel-that’s-actually-a-sensitive-drama to a sci-fi movie that’s actually not all that bad. What links both of them? Director Robert Wise, who replaced Gunther von Fritsch after Curse‘s shoot fell behind schedule. Wise went on to have a storied career as a master genre-hopping craftsman responsible for classics like West Side Story and The Day the Earth Stood Still — and a full thirty-five years after Curse, he went on to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

From the off, it must be noted that ST: TMP is by no means a classic. As an attempted revival of the original Star Trek: The Original Series (or TOS) show that was quickly pivoted to the full motion picture treatment (with a premise and arc so similar to the original Star Trek series’ episode “The Changeling” that it launched a few memes), the script’s humbler origins as a Phase II pilot are in full evidence, but with grander visuals than a show at the time would allow. Wise’s direction is unobtrusive, and all of the characters from TOS return in fine fettle for this outing.

The film begins in medias res, where apropos of nothing a Klingon crew with a pronounced overbite attack an interstellar cloud that looks like it was drawn in MS Paint with a source photo of a jellyfish and a healthy amount of Shift+Drag. Considering this was the late ’70s and Paintbrush would have been but a glimmer in Zsoft’s eye, the process behind its creation would have been slightly more complicated.*

As it turns out, the Klingons are promptly evaporated and the cloud moves on, unfazed, towards Earth. This sets up the machinery to get the old gang back together again, and Kirk, now a paper-pushing admiral, relishes taking over his old command in a newly-refurbished Enterprise, even if it means pulling enough strings to trample its current captain underfoot and, adding insult to injury, knocking him down to both executive and science officer. For all that ruthlessness, it’s ironic that Kirk manages to do almost nothing for the rest of the film – he is almost as lacking in agency in the plot as Indiana Jones is in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

TMP also has a fairly dry sense of humour at the outset. It’s aware enough of Kirk’s larger-than-lifeness that when it introduces Ilia – the new Deltan navigator – to the bridge, the first thing she does is tell Kirk that she has taken an oath of celibacy. A minute later, the script presses Bones back into service by dragging him from what seems to have been a life of retired groundbound bliss as a doctor-cum-beatnik drug lord, if his wardrobe is anything to go by. When Spock finally arrives after being chastised by the elders on Vulcan for his inability to throw off the human shackles of emotion, it is his apparent lack of emotion or even acknowledgment of the old crew that earns the raised eyebrow from everyone else.

This reflects on the larger plot where it turns out that the looming threat of the interstellar cloud is in fact a large, intelligent machine entity that calls itself “V’ger”. The Enterprise travels towards the heart of it in a series of gorgeous shots of glowing alien machinery where the crew gape wide-eyed at greebled modelling and animated lens effects that somehow last longer than the entire Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (An unfortunate comparison, given that sequence was the first time I was known to have fallen asleep during a movie, then conked my head on a table edge. Don’t worry: the table survived the encounter.) After a few attempts at communication and some casualties, progress is slowly made while the clock is ticking for V’ger’s fatal rendezvous with Earth.

At a critical juncture, it is Spock who decodes that the machine is not a threat, but simply a young intelligence that does not understand its own feelings – which are to learn, and to be with its creators. This resolves the movie’s central conflict, which is not Earth’s imminent vaporisation by V’ger, or Kirk’s lack of humanity, but the conflict within Spock to erase his irrational human side – and it helps him accept that his emotions are not, in fact, a curse, but give him a window into understanding himself and others that might not have otherwise existed.

TMP ends with a human and a machine uniting into a new form of life. A callback, perhaps, to 2001‘s Star Child; but more poignant is the revelation that V’ger was, in fact, an old Voyager probe from NASA helped along by an alien civilisation to fulfil its remit to learn and transmit information homeward by giving it power and sentience and sending it back — in effect, returning a child to its parent, much bigger, much older, but still not quite grown up.

There is no Voyager 6 in our timeline, but Voyagers 1 and 2 are pressing onwards through the fabric of interstellar space as you’re reading this. They may not encounter an alien intelligence for a good while yet – their trajectories will only swing them by a star in about 40,000 years, give or take. But they’re still learning, and still sending information that surprises us to this day.

Maybe one day, many thousands or millions of years from now, an alien race will find our Voyager twins, and know that there was once upon a time a race of children, from an unassuming blue dot spinning around its unassuming yellow star, who did their very best to learn and understand their own place in the universe.

*Perhaps a little more than just slightly. While I’ve slagged off the special effects in ST: TMP, it must be noted that they are in fact quite fine, as they should be after all the production issues with the original FX house, the year of delays caused by them, and the millions of dollars that went into redoing them with the help of Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra – both responsible for much of the pioneering VFX work in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars respectively. Dykstra was also one of the original founders of Industrial Light & Magic; meanwhile, the gargantuan model for V’ger was created by Syd Mead, who you may know as the man behind Blade Runner‘s darkly industrial designs.

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