In the 23rd Century, the Starfleet monitoring station Epsilon Nine detects an alien entity hidden in a massive cloud of energy headed toward Earth. It is investigated by three Klingon K’t’inga-class warships, who fire upon it and are promptly destroyed. Epsilon Nine is itself destroyed. On Earth, the Starship Enterprise is undergoing a refit. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), its former Captain and now Chief of Starfleet Operations, cashes in his chips as a frequent saviour of the Galaxy, to get himself appointed its Captain, as it is the only ship within range. It has to go into action without its final systems check.
Captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) has his nose out of joint at having to step aside for Kirk. Two officers, including the Vulcan Science Officer, are killed in the rush to launch, and the engines nearly destroy the ship. Kirk makes sure to get the old band back together: Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Weapons Officer Pavel Chekhov (Walter Koenig), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and pilot Hikaru Sulu (George Takei). Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) interrupts his purge-of-emotions ritual on Vulcan to join the ship, having sensed some inkling of consciousness in the cloud itself.
Enterprise reaches the cloud, after some technical problems with a wormhole, and the ship is attacked by the alien vessel within. The Deltan Navigator Ilia (Persis Kambatta) is abducted and a robotic replica returned to communicate with the carbon-based units infesting the Enterprise. The alien ship calls itself V’Ger. Decker is angered because he had a backstory with Ilia, whose memories and feelings still reside within the robot. Spock exits the Enterprise alone to mind-meld with V’Ger. Eventually, they understand that V’Ger is Voyager 6, the 20th Century Earth space-probe that was long thought lost in a Black Hole, but had been found by an alien civilisation of sentient machines who increased its intelligence and sent it back to Earth in search of its creator. Despite all the knowledge it has gathered, it insists on meeting its creator—the human species—in person. Decker volunteers to merge with Ilia to share his consciousness with V-Ger. With Earth saved once again, the Enterprise heads out into space, ready for future missions.
It is remarkable that this movie was made at all, and even more remarkable that, despite the disgruntled critics and some fans, it turned out as good as it did. Leonard Nimoy had been robbed of much of his royalties from the Star Trek TV show, and did not intend to play Spock again, so he did not appear in the script. But the daughter of director Robert Wise (Director of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and many more) said the movie would not be Star Trek without Spock, so Wise sent Jeffrey Katzenberg to New York to bribe and beg Nimoy to change his mind. After assurances that he would get script approval, and the payment of what he was owed, Nimoy agreed to appear. How many of my favorite movies, I wonder, have been saved by somebody’s child?
Shatner and Kelley lobbied for the same power over the script but were basically ignored. The rest of the cast had reservations all the way through, and George Takei pointed out the script rewrites tended to favor Shatner. Stephen Collins, as Decker, was the only actor cast by Robert Wise himself, and he got the job because he knew nothing about Star Trek. Since Decker was an outsider, it worked out well. Collins’ dressing room was next to DeForest Kelley’s and the older actor took him under his wing.
The Original Series ended in 1969, and reruns immediately sparked a cult following. Creator Gene Roddenberry began lobbying for a feature film as early as 1968 and many of his concepts appeared in the final film. There was also a struggle for another TV series called Star Trek II. Ideas were flying about from the likes of Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison, all resulting in what was called a script by committee, but they did succeed in getting President Gerald Ford to change the name of the Space Shuttle Constitution to Enterprise. But the idea of a Star Trek film was dropped until Close Encounters of the Third Kind became a hit, and Robert Wise was appointed director. Gradually, Roddenberry faded into the shadow of Robert Wise. If a visionary is successful, the world changes, and he tends to lose his visionary status.
Still, nobody had an idea how V’Ger could be defeated by a handful of carbon units and there was basically no third act. The actors were told not to memorize anything after the second. Finally, a Penthouse interview with Robert Jastrow, Director of NASA, suggested that mechanical forms of life were possible, and they came up with an end to the movie. Matt Jeffries (of the Jeffries Tube) returned to work on the sets of the Enterprise. Roddenberry insisted the new ship be as close as possible to Jeffries’ original. It was, however, recast in a slightly art-deco style. The V’Ger model was 68 feet long, made of wood, foam, macramé, Styrofoam cups, neon- and strobe-lights. It was built in sections so parts could be filmed while other parts were being made. The only gadget in the movie that came from the original series was Uhura’s earpiece, but her uniform was not sexy enough for her taste. Cool new uniforms were designed by costume designer Robert Fletcher, but they were not popular with the actors, as usual.
When they shaved Persis Khambatta’s head for the role, they promised they would ensure her hair in case in grew in all wrong, but they found out it would be extraordinarily expensive. She refused to play in the nude during her first appearance, but she still caught cold. Technical experts from NASA and MIT had a hand in redesigning phasers and comm devices, many of which had become reality since the series. Isaac Asimov approved of the ending, which is like getting the Pope’s blessing. Robert Wise kept a friendly set and relied on the actors for details about their roles. The part of the Planet Vulcan was played largely by Yellowstone National Park. Three people were almost electrocuted. The big crew briefing scene was filled with Star Trek fans employed as extras. Many of them framed their checks instead of cashing them. Willard Decker is supposed to be the son of Mathew Decker from the Doomsday episode of the original series. Mark Lenard played the Klingon Captain in the opening scene; he also played a Romulan in the Balance of Terror episode of the original series and Spock’s Vulcan father many times. Marcy Lafferty, who plays Chief DiFalco, was William Shatner’s wife at the time. The relationship between Kirk and Decker mirrors that of the Captain and the Executive officer in Run Silent, Run Deep, also directed by Robert Wise. It took two hours to do Spock’s eyebrows, hair by hair, for the big screen. The crewman that Spock neck-pinches so he can leave the ship was James Doohan’s son. The plot of the movie is similar to The Changeling from the original series.
For me, in a movie like this, it mostly comes down to the eye candy. If I can see something amazing, be taken to a place I’ve never been before, with the right music, I call a movie a success. I’m shallow that way. Star Trek: The Motion Picture provides a lot of that. The opening, with the Klingon ships and their startling foreheads—a long way from John Colicos in a Fu Manchu moustache—and the driving, exotic Jerry Goldsmith music, put me in the mood right off. The Klingon dialogue was created by Jimmy Doohan and then picked up by Mark Okrand to found the study of an entire Klingon language. Doohan also wrote the Vulcan words spoken in the scene on Vulcan.
The Enterprise drydock scene puts in motion what special effects designer Douglas Trumbull learned from working on 2001: stop talking sometimes and let it all flow. I have heard various explanations for this sumptuously long scene with no action and no plot-thrust. Someone said the editors started too late and could no longer edit the music, so they just edited all the visuals to fit. Others say it was a love-sonnet to the fans for their loyalty. It has often been called spaceship porn. Let’s face it: The Enterprise is a major character like the TARDIS or the Babylon Five station and was ready for its closeup. Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, with the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Alexander Courage, and Fred Steiner, kind of created this movie.
The Vulcan landscape and the new, deeper Spock are beautiful. He is now a Vulcan seer, his human side buried for a time, though he can’t resist the call of friendship, which is really what Star Trek is about. Persis Khambatta as Ilia qualifies as eye-candy, certainly--she was Miss India 1965. She rocks baldness and her smooth skull, laboriously shaved every day, is somehow as sexy as her legs. Even as an automaton, she is somehow vulnerable and endearing, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Decker and Ilia were the basis for Riker and Troi in Next Generation.
Finally, V’Ger has a kind of vast, threatening, ethereal beauty. If the Arc of the Covenant were a spaceship, it would be V’Ger. It is so huge that the Enterprise pulls up inside it like a car in a parking lot and the carbon units step out from the prow of the familiar old ship and walk across a terrace to its centre, which holds one of our reliable old space-probes, a triumph of human ingenuity. We know those Voyagers were about the best things we ever built powered by the equivalent of a refrigerator light, but this one has experienced robotic apotheosis. It is a machine, but you believe its hunger to be one with its Creator. It’s kind of what science fiction is all about.