Where One Man Has Never Gone Before:
My Thoughts Watching the Entire Star Trek Series For The First Time
I don't know a lot about Star Trek.
It wasn't anything personal as a result of being a tremendous Star Wars fan; I just didn't have much access to Star Trek. I saw a handful of episodes of the original series in syndication, and had numerous viewings of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on cable, when that was a thing you could catch on cable several times a year, in between showings of Father of the Bride.
I was a teenager when I saw The Wrath of Khan; I saw the J. J. Abrams reboot when it came out; and I saw The Search for Spock when I bought a DVD collection because it was cheaper than buying II and IV separately. All the rest, though, is essentially a total mystery to me. And so I decided to watch every Star Trek movie, in order.
However, that doesn't excuse The Motion Picture for being just horribly boring.
Remember how cool you thought that opening shot from Star Wars with the Star Destroyer passing overhead was? So did the people making Star Trek.
There's nothing logical about Spock's hair in the scene where he fails to complete Kohlinar (spelling? Me caring enough to check?).
We cut from Spock on Vulcan to Kirk on Earth – San Francisco, to be exact. I've always liked that Starfleet's home is San Francisco. There's something about the city that just works perfectly for it, and I appreciate any movie that doesn't just automatically use New York or L.A.
As Kirk and Scotty return to the Enterprise, which they haven't been on for some time, we're treated to looooooong, lingering shots of ships in space while majestic music plays. It's the leisurely pace of 2001 without all the meaning, or even the weirdness a druggie might be able to get something out of.
At twenty minutes in, nothing has happened yet. In the 2009 movie at this point, dozens of people were dead; there were at least two fistfights; and the Beastie Boys classic Sabotage had played. Heck, the first twenty minutes of Drive were five times more eventful, and if I remember correctly, like half of that was Ryan Gosling getting groceries.
Now's as good a time as any to mention that for the movie, they changed the costume designs, and for the worse. The things they're wearing look like burlap pajamas.
GAH GREEN LANTERN VILLAIN! YOU CAN'T JUST CUT TO THAT, MOVIE. NOT WHEN EVERYONE ELSE IN THE ROOM IS HUMAN AND YOUR UTTERLY BORING OTHER ALIENS HAVE LULLED ME INTO FORGETTING YOU HAD THAT KIND OF MAKEUP TECHNOLOGY. YOU GOTTA PAN TO THAT JAZZ. YOU GOTTA PAN.
Kirk is taking control of his old ship, much to the chagrin of the guy who's supposed to be in charge of it now. They have a really on-the-nose conversation, the type characters on House (among other shows) had all the time, wherein Character A tells Character B exactly what Character B is feeling and why, as if everyone is a psychotherapist. Here though, the exchange takes place in plain English and without the fast pace.
A teleporter incident provides us with a hint of Things Happening. It's a ruse.
Kirk goes on to welcome aboard a lady I'll go ahead and call Lieutenant Baby.
Hey, it's Bones! With a beard! He's instantly the best thing to happen so far, in a field of two. It has now been half an hour at least.
Bones talks with Kirk about the “thing” out in space they're investigating. “Why is any object we don't understand always called a thing?” asks Bones. Regrettably, no one informs him that that's what that word is for, and using a synonym would have required Kirk to use a word like “anomaly” or something else equally out of character. It's clear the writers knew Bones had to complain, since that's his bailiwick, but couldn't think of anything actually worth complaining about.
Next, we get a warp incident which lends a '70s soft-focus blur to everyone. Steamy!
REAL ACTION-PACKED DIALOGUE: “You haven't logged a single starhour in two and a half years.”
The guy Kirk edged out – let's call him as he appears: Blondo – has some relationship drama with Lieutenant Baby in the hallway.
Hey! The arrival of Spock has cued Kirk's first hushed “Spaaahk!” of the film! Now it's a party!
REAL ACTION-PACKED DIALOGUE: “I'm aware of your engine design difficulties.”
They really captured the day-to-day business and hum-drummery of space travel.
Two more “Spaaahk!”s. Count 'em! SPAAAHK COUNT: 3.
Basically, it's a submarine movie without internal tension or an external enemy. It's kind of like a sailing movie where the “elements” are the enemy, given the warp and teleporter problems. I get that there's a tradition of Star Trek being the thinkier series where there isn't always a way to fight your way out of the problem, but that's no excuse to be the boringest. They would have done well with an on-ship character who's not necessarily bad, but butts heads with the cast in more antagonistic ways than Blondo. Of course, that's tough too, since the show is already designed to have three characters there arguing all sides of an issue.
The “thing” (suck it, Bones!) the Enterprise is investigating is a big cloud, the inside of which resembles a Windows Media Player visualization. We get more long, quiet shots of the ship sailing through these mildly groovy backgrounds.
Can you tell which is which? I mean, yeah, probably. But still.
REAL ACTION-PACKED DIALOGUE: “500 meters?!”
A pillar of lightning enters the ship, then just chills and borrows the computers. “Nobody interfere!” Kirk cries as no one makes any effort to interfere. The lightning, having had its fill of searching the Enterprise's user directories and document folders, attacks Lieutenant Baby, causing her to vanish. Her death is the film at its most airless, and that's saying something. If the cast isn't going to react more strongly to her death (sorry, Blondo), the music could try to step in and convey some emotion. But no, as good as it is, the score is interested only in awe and mystery – never emotion and rarely tension.
A new lady named DeFalco wanders in, looking confused, as if she'd just been pulled from her crafts services job to be part of the film. She proceeds to be entirely forgotten.
We can't waste time not-grieving for Lt. Baby, so the Enterprise presses on. The crew stares up into the huge blue anus before them. “It's closing,” reports Kirk. “I believe the closed orifice leads to another chamber,” Spock theorizes. Awkward.
Another interloper comes aboard at this point, this time not looking like she was supposed to go to an entirely different movie and got the address wrong. That's because this interloper is... Lt. Baby herself! But not really. Her body has been recreated as a robotic probe, which stands for PRetty short ROBE. She engages in some circular answers; Kirk and Spock exchange a look of exasperation that mirrors my own.
This is followed by a scene where the Big Three literally just watch two new movie characters do important plot/character stuff. It's like going to the theater to see Batman observe an arrest from a safe distance.
Spock sneaks up on a crew member like a sex predator in a bad educational film. He nerve pinches the poor sucker and takes a spacesuit out for a cruise. “I have successfully penetrated the next chamber of the alien's interior,” he declares. Awkward.
Spock floats deep into the Thing, which Lt. Baby Probe calls “V-GER,” which does not stand for Victory in Germany. Spock gets freaked out and injured by V-GER and returns to the Enterprise.
By the way, SPAAAHK UPDATE: 4.
I don't subscribe to the idea that any strong male bond has to be interpreted as sexual, but dang do Kirk and Spock have a heck of a slashfic moment while Spock's in bed recovering.
VGER means to kill some folk because it's mad that it can't find its creator. VGER, through Lt. Baby Probe, asserts that “They are not true lifeforms. Only the creator and other similar life forms are true.” VGER, you've just been proven racist by the racist prover.
Bones, in regards to VGER: “What do you suggest we do, spank it?” Awkward.
Scotty appears briefly, after about an hour's disappearance, to remind us that he's in this movie.
Spock feels empathy for VGER's search for meaning and the emptiness of logic. Spock has always been the secret emotional core of the series, despite Bones and Kirk embodying the heart more obviously. And it's effective every time, even here.
Spock, Kirk, and Blondo go out into the center of the cloud, and this is where we get the lamest subpar Twilight Zone knockoff crap. The twist is that VGER is Voyager 6, modified by alien robots, but still interested in collecting information. Ugh.
VGER likes to throw in a little Moog boom whenever it's mentioned, which I think is cute.
Shatner at his best is so much fun, but a movie this long and slow makes his pauses purely painful.
Blondo becomes one with the computer, giving it the humanity it needs to decide to not kill everybody who isn't an overgrown late '70s style space probe. Kirk and Spock look on in amazement, which raises the question: How do movie characters always know just how long they're allowed to watch a crazy fantasy thing before it self-destructs and they have to run?
Kirk throws in another “Spaaahk!” for old time's sake.
The final line is Kirk, saying... “Thataway.” Truly embodying the excitement (lack of) and character engagement (little to none) this film engendered.
Shh... Don't wake him.
That was a long, rough ride, but I can buck up because the next installment is one that many consider the best of the series. So check in next time as I watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan!