Star Trek: The Motion Picture

STtmpStar Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979, 132 mins, 4K UHD 

Looking back on it, I’m tempted to suggest -sweeping over-generalisation that it is- that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a pretty clear marker of the old giving way to the new. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the feel of Old Hollywood, of creative teams more used to making westerns and crime thrillers suddenly getting scripts featuring aliens and spaceships. There’s a sense of people suddenly making sci-fi films with no interest in such genre material, and little affinity for it – indeed, at a time when such material was considered the realm of the cheap b-movie quickie. The days of genre fans/geeks who grew up loving the stuff then making genre films would still be a few years away, but already with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the changing times were clear: post-Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was still in transition, and the old guard hadn’t yet been replaced by the geeks. So Hollywood sci-fi was still Logan’s Run, The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 

In the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that’s possibly its strength. It feels like a serious (albeit often misguided, at times) attempt to make a great ‘Motion Picture!’ back when that still meant something (today any distinction of quality between television and cinema is largely gone). Its not played for laughs, there’s no dodgy sets, there’s no geek in-jokes and surprisingly low-key fan-service if any at all (I suspect much of what we’d identify today as ‘fan-service’ in the film is actually incidental). It’s not 2001, and neither is it Star Wars, but rather it sits somewhere in between, in a place few genre films have dared position themselves (maybe Interstellar would be a modern example). I am endlessly surprised whenever I re-watch the film over the years, just how refreshing it is, and enjoyable.

Indeed, having recently read Robert Preston Jones’ superlative oral history of the film, Return to Tomorrow, I’m actually more surprised than ever that the film even got finished and in sufficient shape to be considered a film at all. Its possibly a textbook lesson of how NOT to make a film. The script wasn’t finished when they were shooting the live-action, the director and actors were cooking up the finale on the fly: imagine making a film like Ben-Hur and making the last reel on-set without a script (it wasn’t quite that bad, but not far off- I’m always amazed at films going into production without finished scripts but it continues to happen). The original effects team was great on ideas but lousy at execution, wasting millions of dollars in research and most importantly wasting priceless time. Once that effects team was largely dismissed (albeit most of the staff rehired), the deadline that Douglas Trumbull and his team/s were faced with, the task left them regards its scope and the visual effects it needed, back in that era of physical miniatures, lighting and motion-control rigs and photo-chemical printing… its mind-boggling.

The pacing is obviously the film’s biggest problem, something not helped by many visual effects shots hanging around too long or sequences being overloaded with just too many of them. Its tempting to suggest that Wise and/or the editor Todd Ramsay became too enamoured by all the expensive effects shots coming in at the eleventh hour but the simple truth is, the shots were all coming in very late (Preston’s book has some timeline stuff that is just jaw-dropping regards when models became available and filming happened and elements arrived at the optical printer etc) and they never had the perspective we have with the finished film- hence the justification of the Directors Cut. But considering how late everything was… its amazing that Jerry Goldsmith’s score was so good (in my mind the composers very best) and maybe having to cut the film to the timing estimates handed to Goldsmith which he scored the music to… well, little wonder the film’s pacing is dodgy.

The odd thing about this which bugs me, is when Trumbull and everyone got together with the script and storyboards, why didn’t they cut some of those boards? I find it hard to understand why, with effects teams working alternate day/nights shifts in at least three facilities working twelve to sixteen-hour days labouring over really difficult shots to unrealistic schedules, they didn’t rip up more of those boards. The Epsilon 9 and Orbital Office Complex sequences are obvious examples, featuring too many shots. The Orbital Office Complex is a lovely miniature and beautifully photographed, but do we need to see so many shots of its exterior before cutting to the interior and Kirk arriving? Clearly nobody could ‘see’ that so much of it would be redundant or could have been culled to allow more time and resources on stuff that really mattered. I suppose its a technology thing, nowadays films have CGI storyboards, and I recall ILM shot animatics as a guide for The Empire Strikes Back to help nail the pacing of effects shots/sequences like the Hoth battle.

But nonetheless, I still enjoy watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Many much prefer the second entry, Wrath of Khan, but for me there is always something special about the first. They aimed for greatness and largely failed but you have to admire that they tried, and watching it I often have a little mischevious fun berating the suits that enforced an unrealistic deadline agreed with theatres, and all the production cock-ups and crashing egos behind the scenes. Maybe this year’s version of the Directors Cut will indeed finally be the film it could/should have been; we’ll just have to wait and see…. (and yes, likely have to buy this film yet AGAIN).  So it seems I’m not quite finished writing about this film…

Star Trek: Picard

stpicardAs far as first episodes go, I thought this was a pretty solid effort. Certainly it feels more of a genuine ‘Star Trek’ than anything in Star Trek: Discovery,  which is all good in my book. I suppose a lot of this is due to having as familiar (and iconic) a face as Jean Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) as the central protagonist.  I must confess to feeling a certain glow when I saw Picard and Data together wearing their old TNG uniforms- I rather think that Stewart and Brent Spiner must have gotten a bit of a kick filming that scene. Whats most surprising though is that this still remains a pretty clear departure from Star Trek of old, particularly from TNG. This Picard is a rather bitter, lonely and frustrated man in his twilight years questioning the institutions that once held such importance to him, and perhaps questioning his life, what he achieved, what was the point of it all.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it (this first episode hints at more than it delivers, but I expect its just teasing answers soon to come in subsequent instalments) but I rather fancied that this series could just have easily been titled Star Trek: Kirk had it been made a decade ago, and perhaps would have made a fascinating epilogue for both Kirk and William Shatner’s role in the franchise, had that been possible.

Bad timing for Shatner, great timing for Stewart then, who seems to be relishing the opportunity this series affords him.

A friend of mine from work who left a few years ago, and was an avid Trekkie who read all the books etc, dropped me a text over the weekend informing me that he’d watched the show. He seemed to enjoy it, but couldn’t help but wryly note that the show credited 18 producers. A sign of the times, I guess, but I did text him an observation that too many cooks can spoil the broth, and that the cohesive vision of, say, a Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, the two grand old masters of the original 1960s Trek, seems to be lost to us now. Star Trek: Discovery seemed to spend too much effort trying to be all things to everyone, getting lost in a spiralling mess in the process, and I only hope that this series goes its own path and maintains the promise of this fairly solid beginning.

Its Trek, Jim, but not as we know it….

…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve been watching the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, and I’ve been enjoying it more than the first season; on the whole I’d say its much improved. I’ll withhold my final thoughts until I’ve seen the whole thing -I’m at the midpoint now, having watched the first six episodes- but clearly there’s good and bad. Funnily enough, mind, when I’ve been thinking back on these episodes I’ve watched, some of the best and worst moments has surprised me.

stOne of my criticisms of season one was simply that, like the film reboots, it didn’t really feel like Star Trek. One caveat here- when I refer to ‘Star Trek’ I’m talking about the original 1960s show, for me that’s always Star Trek and what I’ll always compare later stuff to, whether it be ST:TNG, DS9, Wrath of Khan or whatever. Anyway, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery surprised me by being, for the most part, not a complete disaster. But it didn’t really earn the title ‘Star Trek’ simply because, as a prequel to the original show, it fell into the familiar trap of not feeling authentic- by being so modern and flash and sophisticated it lost a lot of the simple charm of the original. It seemed, like the Disney Star Wars films in a way, to be appropriating the franchise ‘objects’ like Klingons, Vulcans, Starships etc from Star Trek but, in making it of its own it lost the authenticity, in just the same way as the ‘hot rod’ Enterprise of the Star Trek film reboots in no way looks or feels like the original Enterprise. It feels alien, an inferior subsitute.

The funny thing is, the second season possibly succeeds best when it fails to be ‘Star Trek’ and fails worst when it slips into the nightmare technobabble deux machina plots that the writers solve with technobabble in just the same way as Dr Who always fixes everything with that bloody sonic screwdriver- lazy writing basically. Are we supposed to be excited when three characters in engineering excitedly discuss theoretical solutions for their current predicament and come up with some handy gizmo and theory just in time, some  scheme so outlandish it might as well be sorcery? At least in the original Star Trek it was usually Kirks wits or Spock’s logic or just plain fisticuffs or photon torpedoes that saved the day- I didn’t have to stomach two minutes of meaningless techno jargon to somehow explain away something. In this respect, it seems the showrunners are too enamored with ST:TNG and those tv incarnations of that era. On the whole I just think its lazy writing, setting up problems/predicaments and then writing yourself out of it with a solution based on magic and sorcery, something out of left-field and excused by it being a story set in the future.  You know, that whole Arthur C Clarke thing about some sufficiently advanced alien technology being indistinguishable from magic misappropriated in a Star Trek writer’s series bible.

One thing I will say- it looks gorgeous. The sets, costumes, visual effects looking very feature-film quality (to stretch that Arthur C Clarke thing a bit further- television of sufficiently advanced visual quality being indistinguishable from theatrical productions, (ha ha, shoot me now while I go get my coat)). Its got a wonderful widescreen presentation and the Dolby Vision HDR really kicks, which really makes it all the more frustrating when the technobabble gets to spoil everything. While the Star Trek milieu should be really something to treasure it feels strange to report that it also handicaps it. I wish they’d use this quality and effort in a more retro fashion, really evoke the ‘period’ of the 1960s Star Trek than this odd ultra-2001/Avatar hybrid that feels more an approximation- I’m sure the showrunners would argue its what Gene Roddenberry would have intended to do with 1960s Star Trek if only he had the toybox they have now, but that’s not really true. Roddenberry wasn’t really interested in Klingons (that was Gene Coon’s baby) and neither did he really investigate Spock’s Vulcan heritage beyond his alien-ness, so all modern Trek’s fascination with Klingon and Vulcan cultures and languages is all LOTR Elvish to me. Sure it’s fun if you can spin some worthwhile plot from it but it shouldn’t be everything or bog down the adventure. Some of this stuff, well, maybe hardcore Trekkies (who can speak Klingon, God bless their nerdish hearts) lap it up.

Oh well, I’ll see where it goes, but it is pretty good so far. Its the best TV Trek since the original show I think I’ve ever seen, to be sure. It comes so frustratingly close to being brilliant, but maybe the second season saves its best till last….