Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (4 Stars)

There are two conflicting opinions about the Star Trek films. Some people say that the odd-numbered Star Trek films suck. Others say that they all suck. Both opinions are generalisations that I can't accept, but I do have to admit one thing: none of the Star Trek films are as good as the television series that they're based on.

I don't blame the writers or directors of the Star Trek films. I blame the source material. Even though the original Star Trek series, broadcast from 1966 to 1969, was made up of standalone episodes, we still needed to watch a lot of episodes to get to know the characters. This is in contrast to films, where only a few minutes are available to introduce characters before their story begins.

This film was made in 1979, ten years after the last episode of the TV series was broadcast. This anniversary is only a coincidence. In the late 1970's there were plans to make a new Star Trek series featuring the original cast. After the massive success of "Star Wars" in 1977 the studios decided they could make more money with a film than with a new series. They were probably right. A successful film earns millions within a few weeks of being released, more than a successful TV series earns in years. It's a shame that money is the most important factor when it comes to making art. A new TV series would have been far superior.

The film assumes that the viewers are already familiar with the TV series. That was a reasonable assumption. Despite being prematurely cancelled because of poor viewing figures, throughout the 1970's the series was being repeated on American television all year round. The popularity was surging. In the 1960's Star Trek was ahead of its time, but in the 1970's audiences were catching up. For this reason, none of the members of the original cast are explicitly introduced. We know who they are. As soon as we see William Shatner walking through Star Fleet headquarters we immediately know that he's Captain James Kirk. We're only slightly wrong. We're told that he's been promoted to the rank of admiral.

Leonard Nimoy returns as the half human, half Vulcan Spock. He seems colder than he was in the TV series. Maybe this is deliberate, because Spock has spent the last few years further suppressing his emotions. Maybe it's just Leonard's personal interpretation of the role changing over the years.

DeForest Kelley is third of the main trilogy of characters from the series in his role as Leonard "Bones" McCoy. In the film his technophobia is exaggerated, making him a caricature of his former self. He's more of a moaner and a whiner than he was in the series.

I'm glad to see that Nichelle Nicholls is back as Uhura. She hardly aged in her ten years. My only problem is the uniform. In the series the women wore super-short mini-dresses that hardly covered anything. Now the short dresses are gone and she keeps her legs covered. Why? Are uniform regulations changed so often in Star Fleet? The new Star Trek films also get the uniforms wrong.

This screenshot of Uhura from the original series shows what the Star Trek uniforms should look like. This is how the women should dress in all future films and TV series. No excuses allowed!

Despite his relatively small screen time in the TV series, Scotty, played by James Doohan, was always one of my favourite characters. I can relate to him, because he talks the way I did in my career as a programmer. He says he needs 48 hours to do a job; he's told he only has six hours; he complains that the new schedule is unrealistic, but he manages to do the job in six hours anyway.

One of the standard themes of the original Star Trek series was that on their journeys the crew of the Enterprise regularly met alien races who were so far superior that they could barely be understood. This aspect was toned down in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (TNG). In TNG there are occasionally far superior beings, such as Q, but humans are generally shown travelling in space as equals to the other races that they meet. In many episodes the races encountered are culturally and technologically far inferior, which is why the Prime Directive is mentioned a lot more frequently in TNG.

In this film we return to the theme of the Starship Enterprise unfathomably superior beings. A creature is travelling across space destroying everything in its path. It's heading towards the Earth, because it wants to merge with Earth's creator. Didn't anyone tell him that God is dead?

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" isn't a bad film. I enjoy it. But it's not up to the level of the TV series. Not even close.

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