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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- The Director's Cut

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I watch and rant about something in my DVD collection.  Today, we start something very special in this column.  I am a huge Trekkie.  Back in the spring, as I was getting ready for Star Trek Into Darkness, I got it in my head to sit down and watch every Star Trek movies.  So welcome to part 1 of my 12-part series, Every Star Trek Movie.  Like the song says, "Let's start at the very beginning...a very good place to start."  This is Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  This is dated in my notes at March 29, 2013.

Movie Poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  My earliest memory of a comic book is this image on the back cover.

Ya know, for the longest time, in doing this, I wanted to sit down and do an epic series where I watch everything in an entire franchise. Last year, I'd hoped to do every Batman movie before The Dark Knight Rises came out. I've considered doing the entire Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy in the course of a weekend. And, a few friends know of my occasional daydream to do an entirely new podcast dedicated to watching and ripping apart all the Pokemon movies. And finally, the idea of what to do for one of those came to me.

I'd been pondering doing this for the last couple of days, and tonight, I figured I'd go for it. If I'm doing the math correctly, I've got about six weeks before the latest Star Trek film, Star Trek Into Darkness, hits theatres. So I've been thinking, "Why not do every Star Trek movie?"

So tonight, I went for it. I decided to start doing every Star Trek movie. And like the song says, "Let's start at the very beginning...a very good place to start." And I popped Star Trek: The Motion Picture into the DVD player.

I've long considered Star Trek to be more a phenomenon of the 1970s than the 1960s. I mean, Star Trek didn't become the pop culture fixture we know and love today until it was into reruns and finally found it's audience...something that didn't begin until 1970. As such, as many a trekkie can tell you, throughout the 1970s there were many false starts at doing a Star Trek movie. Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry kept pitching an idea called The God Thing in which a gigantic vessel claiming to be God entered orbit around Earth and demanded to be worshiped, and the Enterprise investigated. The most well-known one was called Planet of the Titans, which involved the Enterprise being thrown back into time to prehistoric Earth and accidentally kickstarting human evolution. All these ideas came and went, though, until Paramount decided that Star Trek always worked best as a TV show, and that it should be a TV show instead.

But then Star Wars came along, and everyone in Hollywood wanted to make sci-fi movies, including Paramount. So, since they'd already done all this development work on a new Star Trek TV series, they simply decided to switch gears and make it a movie. In Thy Image, what would have been the pilot episode of this new series, was now going to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

They did get some serious muscle, though, to work on the film. The special effects were supervised by a man named Douglas Trumbull, who pretty much invented modern special effects with his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. And for a director, they managed to nab Hollywood legend Robert Wise. Wise cut his teeth as an editor, where he worked on Citizen Kane. As a director, he brought us West Side Story. He brought us The Sound of Music. And for his sci-fi cred, the original They Day The Earth Stood Still. Truly, this was going to be the thinking man's space opera.

But, all was not well. Under the overenthusiastic eyes of producer Gene Roddenberry, the film was a runaway production. It went over its shooting schedule. It went over budget. Its summer 1979 release date had to be changed to a Christmas 1979 release date. And not even that was enough. On the day of its world premiere, the film was delivered to the theatre wet. In movie talk, that means the film was still damp from the chemicals used to develop it. Needless to say, Wise was unhappy with the situation, as he had to rush to finish the film and couldn't properly do things to his satisfaction.

And its in situations like that where we start getting director's cuts and alternate versions. Now, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is unique among Star Trek films in that there's three distinct versions.

The Original Theatrical Version - This is the one you would have seen when you went down to your local theatre in 1979 to see it. This is also the version currently available on Blu-Ray.

The TV Version - For TV showings, Paramount went in and added another 12 minutes worth of footage. This is the version that was on VHS for many a year.

And finally, the Director's Edition. 10 years ago, when DVD was new and exciting, everything was getting a director's cut in order to show off the format. And, when it came time for TMP's DVD release, Paramount approached Wise about doing a director's cut, and Wise eagerly agreed. "Back in 1979, I told Paramount I needed 2 more months to finish the film to my satisfaction," says Wise in the DVD's liner notes. "It's like they finally gave me my 2 months." I know, on most Star Trek and home theatre message boards back in the day, the idea of a director's cut of TMP was widely mocked. After all, it does have the reputation as being the longest and most boring Star Trek movie. "The Motionless Picture" is what some critics condescendingly called it back in the day. So the message boards were filled with the very sarcastic, "Yeah, that's what that movie needs. More footage." But if you look at the actual running times, I swear, this is the only director's cut that's actually shorter than the original theatrical version. I remember first watching when I snatched it up on DVD. I couldn't tell what was removed or what was changed, but the whole movie felt like it was moving faster. And that's why many trekkies consider this to be the best version.

In order to help Wise finally realize his vision, some new special effects had to be added as well. The new special effects were done by an outfit called Foundation Imaging, who, at the time, were doing the effects for Star Trek: Voyager. And if I have a complaint about this director's cut, it's with some of the new effects. In most scenes, Foundation went to painstaking lengths to make sure the new effects perfectly matched with the effects made in 1979. But there are a few that look like they came straight out of season seven of Voyager. And those ones do kind of take me out of it.

In fact, it's because of those new effects why this version isn't on Blu-Ray. Apparently, Paramount was too cheap to have the new effects rendered in high definition. So DVD is where you've got to watch it.

Let's take a minute to talk about some of the new characters that we were introduced to in the film. First up, we have William Decker, the new first officer on the Enterprise. He'd been supervising it's refit and re-construction between when the series ended and when the movie takes place, so he fully expected to be taking command of the Enterprise. Needless to say, there's quite a bit of tension between him and Captain Kirk when Kirk shows up and announces he's taking command once again. It's nice to have some tension among the crew, even though Gene Roddenberry says that such a thing wouldn't exist in the Star Trek universe.

And then, we have Ilia, the ship's new navigator. Ilia is a Deltan, as such is strikingly beautiful, but completely bald. Deltans...I really wonder why they didn't explore that race more on the series. See, when they were creating this for television, Gene Roddenberry wanted to create a new kind of alien to shock the viewers. So whereas Vulcan society was governed by logic, Deltan society was going to be governed by sex. Everything in their lives was going to revolve around doin' it. That's why, when Ilia is introduced in the film, she makes the comment about "[her] oath of celibacy is on record." According to Roddenberry's original character outline, the day-to-day sexual activities of Deltans were going to be so disruptive to life on a starship, that Deltans had to take an oath of celibacy when they serve in space. And they wonder why the core audience of sci-fi is still adolescent boys.

So those are the real two new additions in the film. And, as we learn, Decker was one stationed on Ilia's home planet, where they had a passionate romance, but their careers took them in different directions. It's a relationship that Roddenberry would eventually recycle into Riker and Troi on TNG.

Trekkie that I am, when is the first time that I saw TMP? Well, that would be on Christmas Day, 1989. I got it on VHS for Christmas. I know it was 1989 because the big video release that holiday season was Tim Burton's Batman. My brother got that one, and he insisted on watching it first. So after Batman, I finally got to watch The Motion Picture. And if you're like me, whose main exposure to Star Trek at that time was the first 2.5 seasons of TNG, then your reaction was the same as mine when you fired up that movie for the first time.

"Holy crap, why does this movie have the Next Generation theme?" That's right, what became more widely known as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation was originally composed to be the theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Apparently, Gene Roddenberry loved it so much that he specifically requested it be used as the Next Generation theme.

So many elements of Star Trek were introduced in this film. The theme...the vertical warp core assembly...bumpy headed Klingons! Klingons originally looked just like humans in the original series, albeit with darker skin and Fu-Manchu moustaches. This film is when they changed them to have bumpy heads. I wonder how Trekkies reacted when they first saw it in the theatre. Was there outrage? Was there immediate acceptance?

How did Trekkies react to the film in general when it first came out? Were they glad that Star Trek was back? Were they excited that it was finally getting a big budget treatment? I really wonder how these pop culture events were treated by their fandoms at the time.

Despite the film's reputation for being the longest and most boring, there is some great character stuff with our classic Star Trek characters. I love the chaos on the bridge of the Enterprise, only to be replaced with a hushed reverence when Kirk appears, showing you what respect he commands as a captain. And the whole scene is pretty much repeated when Spock appears, only now it's Kirks' turn to express the hushed reverence. And when McCoy returns, just as cranky as ever and full of McCoy-ness. Whenever these characters make their returns, there's a fantastic "Getting the band back together" vibe to everything.

Should I bother with a plot synopses? I'm not going to lie, I sometimes get bored writing them, and if I get bored writing them, you must get bored reading them. Besides, odds are, you've seen the movie anyways. But you might not have. So I'll try to make this brief.

This mysterious cloud appears out of deep space, on the edge of Federation space, and it easily vaporizes three Klingon warships. They determine that it's heading straight for Earth. Back on Earth, Admiral Kirk takes advantage of this crisis to re-take command of the Enterprise and intercept this thing. Of course, Kirk's resumption of command pisses of Decker, who's temporarily demoted to Commander and made the first officer. McCoy is brought out of retirement, and Spock is suspiciously absent.

With the newly re-built and re-designed Enterprise, Kirk is a little bit out of touch, and his unfamiliarity with the new systems gets the Enterprise sucked into a wormhole, and Kirk finally admits he should defer to Decker's authority on some occasion. After this, the Enterprise meets up with a long range shuttlecraft carrying Spock, who rejoins the crew. Spock was on Vulcan, trying to achieve the state of Kholinar, the highest Vulcan discipline upon which all emotion is finally shed and you attain total logic. However, Spock telepathically detected an entity in space, and it piqued his curiosity enough to make achieving Kholinar difficult. He believes the entity is at the heart of the cloud, and that his answers lie there.

The Enterprise arrives at the cloud, and journeys inside, in one of the film's many, many, long and slow flying sequences. Inside the cloud, they find a vessel, leading to another long and slow flying sequence. And then Ilia is abducted by the entity and replaced with a robot doppleganger. The doppleganger introduces herself as a probe in service to V'Ger, the being that commands the vessel. Because of Decker and Ilia's relationship, Decker is given the job of escorting the Ilia probe around the ship, hopefully able to awaken some of Ilia's memories and get more information on V'Ger.

Not satisfied that this is their only way to get more information, Spock goes on a spacewalk into the vessel and manages to mindmeld with it. Spock learns that the entire vessel is V'Ger...a living machine, and that V'Ger is on a quest to find its creator. V'Ger believes its creator is on Earth. And thanks to this mindmeld, Spock finally attains a degree of inner peace. Being a machine and existing on nothing but logic, V'Ger was unable to make a leap of faith and determine it's own purpose, hence why V'Ger wants to find it's creator: ask what it's purpose is. But now knowing V'Ger's experiences, Spock understands that his human half gives him a certain strength...the ability to leap beyond logic.

So V'Ger arrives at Earth, and transmits a very primitive radio signal to the Creator. When the Creator does not answer, V'Ger threatens to destroy the Earth unless the Creator shows himself. Kirk says they can take V'Ger to the Creator, but they can reveal it only to V'Ger himself. So, the Ilia probe takes Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Decker to V'Ger. Leading to another long and slow flying sequence as the Enterprise heads into the heart of V'Ger.

Heh...I remember watching this back in college with a friend who had never seen it before, and she really wanted to see it just so she could finally say she'd seen all the Star Trek movies. When this long and slow flying sequence began, she turned to me and asked, "How much longer is this movie?" "About half-an-hour," I said. "Oh, fuck this, I'm going to bed," she said. And that should be all you need to know about how long and boring it is.

Back to that plot. In our M. Night Shamalyan twist, V'Ger is revealed to be Voyager 6, one of NASA's old Voyager probes. It amassed so much knowledge in its trip throughout the galaxy, that it attained consciousness. It eventually stumbled across a planet of sentient machines (speculated by some Trekkies to be the Borg homeworld) that saw it as one of its own, and built the vessel for V'Ger so it could return to its creator...humans.

Kirk tells V'Ger that humans are its creator, and to prove it, has the Enterprise transmit the old NASA code summoning Voyager to download its data. But, at the last minute, V'Ger burns out its antenna so it can't receive the message. V'Ger wants to physically merge with its creator. Kirk, Spock, and Bones determine that, by assimilating a human, V'Ger might finally gain the ability to take a leap of faith and determine its own fate. Decker volunteers, and he fixes Voyager's antenna and manually enters the final code. Decker, of course, does this because it will reunite him with Ilia. Decker and Ilia merge into a single being and V'Ger disappears in blinding flash of light, presumably heading off to a higher plane of existence, now that it can take things on faith and believe in such things.

With the task completed, the Enterprise goes back to boldly going where no man has gone before.

If there's one word that sums up the theme of The Motion Picture, it would have to be "obsession." Kirk is obsessed with regaining the Enterprise, Spock is obsessed with finding the entity, V'Ger is obsessed with finding the creator, and Decker is obsessed with reuniting with Ilia. All these characters are missing something from their lives, and they're obsessed with finding it. They're just a bunch of people, bumming around space, trying to find themselves. But, they must have been onto something. Kirk getting obsessed with regaining the Enterprise is something that's explored much, much better in The Wrath of Khan.

And watching it again tonight...the 70s. Oh, the 1970s. This thing is so 1970s in its designs. I mean, when McCoy shows up sporting a leisure suit, it's like they beamed him straight out of Saturday Night Fever.

Even with the nice brisk pace of the director's cut, this still holds its reputation for being the longest and most boring of the Star Trek films. They slowly fly though space, then sit and talk and debate and philosophize. But then, I can't help but wonder. If that's all that happens, then why is this film hated so? I mean, the JJ Abrams reboot was widely criticized by the fandom for having too much action and not much of that deep space exploration that Star Trek valued so much. This film is nothing but deep space exploration. It so much wants to be a mainstream 2001: A Space Odyssey. Isn't that what the fans want?

I guess we'll try to answer that next time when we tackled The Wrath of Khan, still regarded by many to be the best ever.

And I'll end with the end of The Motion Picture, because it still has my favourite beauty shot of the Enterprise.

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