Boring is such an ugly word. It’s a word that should really be banned from critics’ vocabularies and scratched from their dictionaries. It reveals nothing of a film’s structure, story and characters, and even less of the quality with which those things are brought to the screen. Boring is, well, boring. And it’s been used far too often to describe Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or Star Trek: The Motionless Picture as it’s been dubbed. Thing is, TMP is neither boring nor bad. In fact, it’s really rather good, and one of the most interesting science fiction films to be made after the release of Star Wars. Problem is, it was released after Star Wars.
George Lucas’s film looms over its opposite franchise like a Death Star over the forest moon of Endor. Made just two years after A New Hope hit the screens, The Motion Picture owes its very existence to the epoch-defining shift that Wars brought about. Star Trek was both unpopular and unprofitable before Lucas welcomed us into that galaxy far, far away. The series had been cancelled in 1969 and the Animated Series had done little to revive it. Syndication rights had been sold successfully worldwide and the show had developed from mainstream dud to cult triumph, so there was definitely the potential for a big screen revival – but it still needed the right catalyst. <em>Star Wars</em> (along with its fellow Summer of 77 sci-fi hit Close Encounters) was it.
However, Wars is both Trek’s blessing and its curse. A film out of its time, The Motion Picture bears more in common with the great sci-fi films of the late 60s and early 70s than it does with Star Wars. There’s a touch of 2001, a smidge of Silent Running and a dash of Dark Star in <em>The Motion Picture</em>’s DNA, and none of those films can be found in the roots of Wars. If Lucas’s mantra on the set of Star Wars was ‘faster, more intense’, ‘slower, more thoughtful’ was the order for The Motion Picture, and once Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie swung their lightsabers and shot their blasters that was never going to be enough. How could it be? Wars had a gigantic Death Star, a sexy princess and a dashing rogue. Star Trek had a weird alien machine called V’ger, a bald lady and a bearded Bones. There was never any contest.
So yes Trek is boring compared to Star Wars, but that’s it’s charm. This is slow and stately science-fiction; science-fiction about the wonders of space and exploration. Science fiction about science. The much-maligned scene where Kirk and Scotty board the new Enterprise, for example, has often been held as an example the film’s slow pace. If anything, that scene sums up everything that’s so good about the film. The way Robert Wise gently caresses the ship with the camera, and the grandeur of Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning score both add to a feeling of genuine wonder, more in tune with Spielberg’s Close Encounters than Star Wars. The audience is invited to behold not the impressive effects, but the beauty of what those effects are depicting: the triumph of man to create a machine so impressive and the intention behind it – to go beyond his reach in search of something greater. It’s what all utopian sci-fi is about, and what Gene Roddenberry strived for when he conceived Trek back in the mid 60s. It is, in essence, the very heart of Star Trek in one scene.
Course, The Motion Picture is also the first time fans had seen the Enterprise’s crew since the show’s cancellation nearly ten years prior, and it doesn’t disappoint. Bones, reluctantly returning to the fray, is the same pessimistic humanist he was in the series, bearing only a big bushy beard and the baggage of the extra years, to differentiate himself. Spock meanwhile brings the same cold logic but seems more distant than he had in the series. Haunted and enigmatic, he’s emblematic of a film that as a whole is darker and deeper than anything in the series. It’s only Kirk who offers some levity. He’s struggling to maintain control of his ship, eager to relinquish his senior position at Starfleet and get back out into open space, and his childlike wonder of the great unknown is one of the film’s most charming elements. It is, arguably, the only Star Trek in which Kirk is more than just a great captain; he’s a real, believable and sympathetic human being.
The heart of the film lies in two new characters, however: Ilia, the bald chick I referenced earlier, and Willard Decker, the new kid on the block and Kirk’s replacement as Enterprise captain. The two are at the centre of V’ger’s mysterious machinations, and it’s a pretty bold move on behalf of story creator Alan Dean Foster and screenwriter Harold Livingstone to put such faith in two new characters. It pays off though. For series newcomers, the two offer a pathway into an already-established universe, while for fans they add to and enrich the mythos, playing integral roles without ever talking the limelight off the established cast. Their love story adds pathos to what could (and some would argue is) a very dry science fiction spectacle, and their scenes together once Ilia becomes possessed by V’ger are as deep and moving as anything in the admittedly superior sequel Wrath of Khan. It’s Star Trek trying something a little different, and it works delightfully.
The Wrath of Khan brought the series closer to its televisual roots by reintroducing one of the show’s most famous villains, but it also ushered it towards the Star Wars model, making it higher on spectacle, lower on wonder than its predecessor. The film, unarguably, is the finest Star Trek film yet made, including the JJ Abrams reboot, but it seems a shame that so many praise it at the expense of what came before. Flawed it may be, but The Motion Picture is a unique entity, one caught between two eras of sci-fi and blending the best from both to create a film that’s full of cinematic spectacle and brimming with science fiction wonder. Yes, it’s slow. Yes, it’s stately. Yes, it’s even, at some points, a little annoying. But it’s never dull, it’s never tedious and it is never, ever boring.