“It’s only human”: In Thy Image (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)
We are urgently requesting backup and further advice…Intel on the ground indicates that this timeline has been effectively secured by our forces for the moment, though installing a permanent presence here seems unlikely…While they’ve been mostly keeping quiet for the moment, there’s no doubt The Empire will eventually take notice of what we’re doing here and strike back with a vengeance, and skirmishes with the other renegade factions are a constant problem…We followed your instructions and The Prototype codename “VOYAGER” is complete and ready for a shakedown cruise, though we are concerned as to its structural stability and overall viability and worry it may not yet be capable of fulfilling The Purpose for which it was designed, and that activating it will alert The Empire as to our whereabouts…Please inform as to further action ASAP…
At some point it became inevitable.
While a tenaciously niche property throughout the 1970s, Star Trek gave no indication of ever going away, especially once new generations of fans started to get introduced to it. It had a uniquely built-in self-regenerating audience, and one that was big enough to eventually attract the attention of the higher-ups. It was never a question of if Star Trek would come back, but how and when. The answer to all of those questions eventually came in 1977, when Paramount announced plans to enter the television market with their own network, and a new Star Trek series as its flagship programme. The series, chronicling a second five-year mission of the newly-refitted USS Enterprise under the command of Admiral James T. Kirk, eventually got the name Star Trek Phase II and premiered the following year.
Star Trek Phase II was not the first idea Paramount had for ways to revive the franchise: Originally, there were plans for a British-produced feature film called Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, to be handled by a pre-Star Wars Ralph McQuarrie. This film was in development throughout 1976 and 1977, but was eventually abandoned in favour of doing this show instead (and, presumably, due to McQuarrie’s commitments to the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg camp). It was an interesting story, involving heavily redesigned Enterprise following the original five-year mission involved in a territorial dispute with the Klingons over a planet rumoured to be home to a mythical race of cosmic Titans, who apparently were very influential in the history of life in the galaxy. After a brief dust-up involving a black hole and time travel, the Enterprise finds itself back in time and orbiting prehistoric Earth, where the crew soon discover that they are in fact the mythical Titans.
But returning to Star Trek Phase II, the series premier, “In Thy Image”, was a real event: Unlike the Original Series, which sort of just appeared out of nowhere, Star Trek Phase II was hyped up with a big PR machine and took off with a massive two-hour pilot movie. With much of the original creative team returning, as well as the addition of talented and professional new team members like Andy Probert and Robert Wise, who will go on to leave their own marks on the history of the franchise, this is as good an introduction to the new Star Trek as we could have hoped for, showing genuine maturation and development of themes we’ve seen explored before, and that most Star Trek of promises to continue growing and learning along the way. In fact, “In Thy Image” is basically about this, at least on one textual level.
But wait, we can’t just leap into this like it’s a run-of-the-mill Star Trek story. This is a series premier, a proper one, which means we need to take some time to examine the show’s setting, cast of characters and status quo. The first obvious change is, of course, the completely redesigned Enterprise: The designs of Matt Jeffries, Andy Probert and Mike Minor give both the ship’s interior and exterior a unique look, one that both feels like an evolution of specific design themes from the Original Series and distinctly 1970s, though early 1970s (which makes it also feel curiously outdated). This philosophy extends to the rest of the look of the show, which also evokes a crisp and distinctive style of Golden Age science fiction iconography (especially, and perhaps appropriately, 2001: A Space Odyssey).
The characters too have gotten a noticeable upgrade, and across the board its for the better. Everyone’s been promoted, and each person feels older, wiser and more worldy then they did on the Original Series. This is best embodied in Admiral Kirk, a seasoned veteran space traveller who is consciously depicted differently than the brash hothead Kirk at least had the reputation of being on the Original Series. Some characters, like newly-minted Doctor Chapel, feel completely different: In both the writing and Majel Barret’s performance I see shades of Lwaxana Troi to come: An affable, gregarious, outgoing chatterbox who’s about 180 degrees from any previous depiction of the character and immediately likable (she even gets to carve out a sizable role in the actual plot, which leads me to believe this was the beginning of Gene Roddenberry and his team really recognising Barrett’s strongest when you just let her be herself and don’t make her actually act). Even Janice Rand is back, serving as Commander Uhura’s relief communications officer.
We also have a crop of new characters. The most notable is Vulcan Lieutenant Xon, the new science officer, and Spock’s replacement. It’s hard to read the loss of Spock as anything less than a tremendous blow to Star Trek Phase II, given how absolutely central he was to both the Original Series and the Animated Series. But, Leonard Nimoy didn’t want to commit to another Star Trek show, still stinging from how wholly and completely he’d been typecast in the role he played for three years. So, we get a new Vulcan, and, while he’s not Spock, he’s an engaging and interesting character in his own right. Unlike Spock, Xon is overtly interested in exploring and understanding human emotion, and his attempts to become more human define much of his character arc on the show. He’s also a fresh-face youngster, always eager to please and endlessly enthusiastic about throwing himself into his work, to the point he places doing his job, far, far and away above his own personal well-being. And, the energetic David Gautreaux conveys all of this admirably.
Without Spock present, though, this also means that Kirk and McCoy get to have a much closer relationship in this show than they did in either of the two previous ones. Most of the big character moments in “In Thy Image” are between Kirk and McCoy, and the episode is great at conveying that these are two very old friends who know each other inside and out and who are capable of stepping in to make decisions on each other’s behalf they wouldn’t necessarily make on their own. Two scenes in particular that stick out in my mind are when Kirk approaches McCoy in the wilds of San Francisco and after V’Ger starts towing the Enterprise to Earth: In the former, McCoy expresses ambivalence about serving in Starfleet as Kirk begins to reminisce about the five-year mission, which also doubles as a bang-on critique of the Original Series patently ridiculous and obscene body count:
“What I remember, Jim…are the friends who couldn’t be put back together. For five years…so many of them.”
Kirk tries to get McCoy to sign back on for the new Enterprise‘s crew, while McCoy straight-up asks why he’s not back in the captain’s chair. It’s a great moment that shows off these characters’ dedication, loyalty and restlessness. In the latter scene, meanwhile, McCoy does his usual making sure Kirk gets some rest in the middle of a tense situation, but what’s great here is that it comes right after a scene where Kirk gives a similar speech to Xon, and another where Kirk requested McCoy and Chapel keep a close eye on them. Not only is it Star Trek camaraderie at its finest (and probably a nod at how their relationship was supposed to work all along before Spock came around) and a decisive argument against the tired “triumvirate” and id/ego/superego reading of the Original Series, it’s also a great bit of just basic structural continuity that goes a long way towards proving this show has finally grown up a bit.
Then there’s Will Decker, Kirk’s new first officer, and Lieutenant Ilia, the new navigator. The addition of Decker is the aspect of Star Trek Phase II that makes it the most evident a substantial amount of time has passed: He’s clearly going to be the character who filled Kirk’s earlier role, the commanding and virile lead man (although this episode at least seems a bit uncertain about this), and there’s a bit of a generation gap situation between him and Kirk, though Kirk obviously considers him a friend and a reliable ally. Decker has something of a complicated history, son of the infamous Matt Decker and still haunted by his father’s actions in “The Doomsday Machine”, Will is bound and determined to prove himself, and he was almost given his own command before Kirk requested him as his XO for the Enterprise‘s emergency first mission (for which Will is a bit resentful). Will has a history with Ilia, a member of a mysterious species called the Deltans, renowned for their almost psychic empathic abilities and love of sex and sensuality (so much so that they have to take an oath of celibacy before working with non-Deltans). Will and Ilia were romantically involved at some point in the past, but have since broken up, and moving beyond this forms the basis of their character arcs on the show.
(I also have to give major props to Persis Khambata, who plays Ilia: Deltans are supposedly hairless, and, while she was offered a bald cap, she instead opted to get into character by shaving her entire body. That’s dedication, girlfriend.)
Another milestone “In Thy Image” gives Star Trek is the first real textual confirmation of the universe’s express utopianism. Although previous Star Trek hinted at this and it was largely assumed to be the case by fandom, “In Thy Image” makes it very overt that the world it takes place in is very much an idealistic one more peaceful and prosperous than the one we live in today. This is most evident in the scene where Kirk goes to meet McCoy, which doubles as the first time we actually get to see Earth in Star Trek. And it’s a profoundly weird scene: San Francisco is a mishmash hybrid of futuristic architecture and untamed natural wilderness that seem to organically grow around each other, such that the park we see McCoy in features happy children mingling with actual wild animals, and in particular cheetahs, who just loiter around and play with the kids. The implication, interestingly enough, is that material social progress might eventually get us to a point where there’s no tangible distinction between humans and nature, and that nature itself recognises this. It’s at once Star Trek for the environmental age but at the same time not: This is a genuinely bizarre and unprecedented vision of the future and conception of utopia and I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else, yet alone in any other Star Trek.
To me though this is also very indicative of how indebted the new creative team is to fandom, and how much they really, truly did listen to them throughout the 1970s. That utopianism and idealism the fans saw in Star Trek and wrote about in droves was actually written back into the next bit of Star Trek Soda Pop Art to be produced: Weird as it is, this is idealistic on every level, and the show goes out of its way to make this clear at every opportunity. What this tells me is that, one again, Star Trek was never explicitly utopian from the beginning: If you actually watch the Original Series, it becomes pretty clear what it was originally supposed to be: Roddenberry’s Fables. But, because of the diverse casting and a few memorable moments, fans read a wonderful, captivating, engrossing utopian dream onto it, and that was so infectious that when Star Trek came back to television it made sure to make this a central theme. Even so though, the universe Star Trek Phase II presents, while idealistic, is not a flawless one. It’s still imperfect and is still growing and learning, and this is in fact the entire message of “In Thy Image”.
It may seem unusual to get this far into an analysis without talking about what “In Thy Image” is actually about, but really, I haven’t done: Given its status as a series premier, by definition a huge swath of the story is going to be taken up introducing everything. And this extends to the rest of the story as well. First of all, while the script was written by Harold Livingston, the original story treatment was actually by Alan Dean Foster. Knowing this, in hindsight, it does make the wonderfully surreal scene in San Francisco make more sense. However, it is also worth pointing out that the experience of “In Thy Image” is also what convinced Foster to abandon writing for Hollywood altogether and focus on his novel work, which is unfortunate (though sadly prescient: Thus begins a long, not-so-proud tradition of Star Trek getting such a horrible reputation for frustrating writers it burns every bridge it ever had the potential of having).
Even so, the script he and Livingston came up with is just terrific: Years after the end of the five-year mission, Admiral Kirk is called upon to once again take command of the retrofitted USS Enterprise, the most advanced vessel in the fleet, and the one that happens to be closest in position to investigate a mysterious force that has destroyed an entire Klingon armada and is making its way to Earth. Rekindling relationships with old friends and making some new ones, Kirk and the new crew of the Enterprise try to make peaceful contact with the alien life force before it wipes out the entire Federation. Engaging the force at the end of the solar system, it’s soon revealed that it’s a gigantic sentient starship that calls itself V’Ger, thinks the Enterprise is alive as well and is gravely concerned about the 400 carbon-based “parasites” that “infest: its body. To make matters worse, after scanning the ship’s records (which the Enterprise computer helpfully provided for it) V’Ger determines that a similar infestation is plaguing The Holy Home of the Creator, that is Earth, and, as its chosen champion, is destined to cure its ancestral home.
Eventually it’s revealed that V’Ger is actually Voyager 18, one of the last space probes sent out be NASA. It was thought lost, but actually fell through a black hole and wound up on a planet of machine-people, where a sharing of minds took place and the newly emerged V’Ger went on a journey to find its origin. Now right away this is probably ringing some bells for my ever-astute readers: This is pretty much the same plot as “The Changeling”, a second season episode of the Original Series about a space probe sent out by 20th century space agencies that disappeared, had an encounter with an extraterrestrial intelligence and then went on a journey to find its origin. Similarly, the space probe, in this case known as Nomad, was deeply concerned about imperfect carbon-based lifeforms and, because its tapes had been scrambled, felt it was its duty to cleanse the universe of all imperfections.
Back when I talked about “The Changeling”, I mentioned the fundamental problem with this story was twofold: Firstly, this is a very Pop Christian kind of story because it’s about a journey to essentially find God (which is clearly meant to be one specific being or thing), and secondly, related to this, it relies on a Western conception of metaphysics because it presupposes a singular objective Truth. “In Thy Image”, however, plays with this concept a bit, and it’s a far more enjoyable and multi-faceted story than “The Changeling” because of it. For one thing V’Ger, unlike Nomad, isn’t looking for perfection, it just can’t understand life that isn’t machine-based. This means V’Ger is a mirror for the ignorance and self-centredness of humans (and, actually, the narrow-mindedness of the early Federation as seen in Original Series episodes like “Arena” and “The Devil in the Dark”-Tellingly, Kirk and McCoy reference the Horta here) and their unwillingness to broaden their horizons to other worldviews and ways of living, which makes it a far more effective metaphor for humanity.
That said there is a scene near the climax where Kirk, speaking to V’Ger’s representative (a probe that’s temporarily assumed the form of Ilia) tries to convince it of the virtue of imperfection and human foibles, V’Ger not being able to understand why humans would want to settle for such things and about ready to vaporize the Earth. Kirk’s point being, of course, that humans pride themselves on being able to learn from their mistakes and are always growing and trying to better themselves. What’s great about this scene though is that it’s in the same park where Kirk met McCoy at the beginning of the episode: As idyllic as Earth is it’s still not perfect because, in truth, it can’t be. Eventually, Ilia-Probe gets V’Ger to call off its attack by lying to it, a human imperfection she learned the situational value of. The point being on the one hand another affirmation of the Star Trek lesson to never stop growing and learning, but also what can be gained when two people talk to each other and share perspectives.
But the other needed twist on this story “In Thy Image” provides is how it conceives of truth and the divine. One of my favourite moments comes where Kirk gets indignant at V’Ger’s insistent use of the phrase “The Holy Home of the Creator”. This irritates Kirk because, according to him, there can be no one “Home” of a singular “Creator”: The point of origin of not just V’Ger, but humans, and every other form of life in the universe, is not one place but everywhere at once. The entire Cosmos. We are all stardust. “In Thy Image” is not quite Star Trek’s definitive statement on the divine, nor even of the Original Series story, but it’s a damn good one, a clear step forward for the franchise and the moment where the philosophy of Star Trek really starts to crystallize for the first time. The structure of the story may retain some of the Pop Christianity of “The Changeling”, but it’s shunted all of that onto V’Ger’s role and is trying very hard to come up with an alternative. It doesn’t have one just yet, or at least hasn’t expounded on it, but the fact it’s working hard to get there is one more sign that Star Trek is growing and learning.
With all of that in mind, it’s hard for me to claim that “In Thy Image” isn’t simply one of the single best pieces of Star Trek we’ve yet seen. It’s without question one of the best episodes yet made: Aside from the engaging and mature philosophy, a breath of fresh air from the two-fisted moralizing of the past, it’s also a structural song, and I attribute all of that to Livingston and Foster’s influence. The Original Series had an annoyingly reoccurring problem with pacing, and a *ton* of the episodes on that show felt badly, badly padded; stretching really basic, pulp material far beyond the point anyone should have tried to stretch it. But “In Thy Image” doesn’t have any of those problems: Every single moment feels worthwhile and important, and every moment comes back in some form or another later on, tying the whole story up into a neat and tidy bundle. Furthermore, any worries that the creative team might feel tempted to get self-indulgent with a feature-length story are quickly put to rest as “In Thy Image” moves along at a crisp, jaunty pace. It’s always provocative, always engaging, and always a pleasure to follow.
…But that said, there are a few problems with it. For one thing, as much time and care as it takes to introduce the new characters and the new setting, it still tends to fall back on focusing on Kirk, McCoy and Xon pretty heavily. At least this episode also elevates Chapel and Will Decker to that league, which is nice, and Chekov, Sulu and Uhura each get their moments to shine, which is also very much appreciated. But other characters aren’t so lucky: Janice Rand is basically an extra, which is annoying, but the real problem is Ilia. She’s supposed to be a major new character, and the script does basically nothing with her. She gets to sex up Sulu for a laugh, but that’s the extent of her role in this episode as she’s quickly whisked away by V’Ger due to her empathic abilities (not the last time Ilia would be used as a vehicle for an alien to try and explore and understand humanity). Persis Khambata gets a meaty role as she comes back as “Tasha”, one of V’Ger’s probes who temporarily takes on Ilia’s form and sort of becomes its spokesperson, but it still seems odd to not have her play the role she was actually hired to play for the majority of the episode she was introduced in. For all of the feminist strides Star Trek has made over the years, we’re still seeing women used primarily as plot devices, so I guess we’ve still got a ways to go.
Then there are the special effects. Which, OK, hate complaining about effects, this is the most money Star Trek has *ever* had and the overwhelming majority of this episode looks *gorgeous* to be sure. However…this is still television in 1978, and it’s painfully obvious there were corners cut in places one would perhaps like corners to not be cut in. One thing that bothered me was the reuse of a lot of costumes from the Original Series, which jar pretty horribly with the look-and-feel of the rest of the show. But the biggest VFX fail for sure has to be V’Ger itself: If I were to be charitable, I’d say it looks like an update of the Planet Killer from “The Doomsday Machine”, which would be altogether fitting given the presence of Will Decker, but if I’m being honest…It looks like a dunce cap. And don’t get me going on the CSO composite shots with V’Ger and the Enterprise: The script says our ship looks like a golf ball against the incomprehensible vastness of V’Ger and that’s exactly what it looks like. There’s no getting around the fact that when you’re trying to convey a sense of cosmic awe and wonder, golf balls and dunce caps are not quite the best way to go about doing that.
But, even in spite of its quirks and imperfections, I’m still going to call “In Thy Image” one of my absolute favourite Star Trek episodes to date. It’s conclusive proof that not only is Star Trek back, it’s grown to become something bigger and better than what it used to be. And, in doing so, it’s reaffirmed its commitment to neverending personal growth on its neverending journey through the stars. After all, isn’t that the whole point of this episode? That humans can better themselves and shouldn’t settle for a simulacrum of perfection, as that way lies complacency and a toxic stasis? The least I can do is take the lessons of this episode and apply them to “In Thy Image” itself. All art ultimately comes from our own experiences and positionalities, and no matter how hard some try, that can never be distilled out of the finished product. If that’s the image Star Trek reflects for us now, it’s hard not to feel heartened by it.
UPGRADE OR DIE. PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.
The first thing we should square away is that of all the possible ways for Star Trek to come back, this was by no means the inevitable one, or even, really, one that would be seen as in any way logical or reasonable.
For ten years, it seemed obvious that whatever form Star Trek would return in, it would always remain something particularly niche. As recently as 1977 we had the entire cast and Gene Roddenberry himself positing that, for the foreseeable future at least, fanfiction was the future of Star Trek. Even when we looked at things like The Star Fleet Technical Manual and Star Fleet Battles, those were still, ultimately, products of fan love and ingenuity. Comics and tie-in books? Bantam’s, and later Pocket’s, Star Trek line was full of wild experiments and world building and Doug Drexler was writing for Gold Key. All by fans, for fans.
In other words, it would be absolutely unthinkable for anyone even a year or two prior to 1979 that Star Trek’s actual return to the world of Soda Pop Art would be in the form of a massive, sprawling, self-consciously epic “Motion Picture Extravaganza”. What everyone would have expected would be something like a revived Star Trek TV series with a comparatively larger budget and studio support airing on a niche timeframe either on a niche network or even direct to syndication, especially considering Paramount had announced precisely that exactly two years ago. What eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture began life as a special two-hour pilot movie, “In Thy Image” for a proposed new Star Trek TV show entitled Star Trek Phase II, which would have premiered in 1978 as the flagship show of a new Paramount-owned network.
The only reason we have this movie, and by association the film series it spawns, instead of the should-have-been third Star Trek TV show is because Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind happened and Paramount suddenly thought they should be competing with them. Now, there are a great deal many and varied reasons why Star Trek cannot compete with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not the least of which is that none of the three are remotely comparable works aside from the fact they can all be loosely called science fiction, but that’s a discussion for another time and place. The bottom line is that the move to scrap Star Trek Phase II and rewrite “In Thy Image” to be a feature film was a decisive one, and a damning one, and it’s impossible to properly talk about one without also talking about the other.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a deeply flawed and problematic film. It’s nowhere near as bad as Star Trek fans say it is (which is somewhere in the vicinity of “The Worst Movie Ever Made”): It has a great deal of captivating moments and paves the way for a lot of really good Star Trek to come. But it doesn’t really work either, and the reason for this is entirely because it’s a television episode (and not just any episode, but a pilot) artificially stretched to become a movie (and not just any movie, but a barnstorming cinematic epic) and also because Gene Roddenberry was the guy who did the stretching. This is without question the reason this film is frequently accused of having the pacing of glacial melt, aside from the fact that it does.
But this is worth parsing out, because while this criticism is perfectly valid and likely the biggest issue with this film, the argument is almost always made completely the wrong way; citing things as problems that aren’t actually problems and flat-out ignoring cripplingly serious flaws. In this regard, my biggest gripe with those who denounce this movie on the basis of its pacing is their claim that the various VFX shots (in particular the V’Ger Cloud stuff and the scene where Scotty takes Admiral Kirk on a tour around the exterior of the refit Enterprise) linger forever and drag the film out intolerably. First of all, in the context of V’Ger I just have to flat-out disagree: Those special effects are incredible and are without question some of the most evocative and mesmerizing science fiction images ever conceived, let alone put to film, bar none, and I’ll debate anyone on that. The film was right to linger on those shots, because that’s precisely the sort of imagery you should linger on.
I used to be a huge fan of this movie: Before rewatching it for this project, I would have called it one of the three or four best Star Trek movies (admittedly not a title with a ton of competition or prestige). Seeing it again with a new perspective, I found it to be the *definition* of “slow motion train wreck”, but even still V’Ger was the *only* thing from it that was anywhere remotely near as powerful and imaginative as I remembered. Seriously, I could do an entire essay just on how V’Ger looks and what that means to me.
As for the Enterprise scene, bear in mind this was the first new footage of the ship people had seen in a decade, and it was on a movie screen and completely redesigned by Matt Jeffries and Andy Probert to look slick and cool: This is Star Trek’s moment of triumph, and it’s allowed to indulge itself. The problem is that the actual effects shots used in filming that scene are nowhere near as good as they need to be to justify that indulgence. We’ve got this lovely new model and, while it’s clear the workbee, drydock and starbase models are equally as intricately designed and we do get more of a sense for the presence of the greater Star Trek universe, this is all conveyed…through a crappy 1970s CSO job. It *doesn’t* look as good as Star Wars, it *doesn’t* look as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (though it’s clear Roddenberry and his team are painfully trying to ape both) and it doesn’t even look as good as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was eleven years old by this point.
I’m not one to pull the eye candy card, but I think the fact the VFX comes up a bit short here actually proves to be a massive problem for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and here’s why: See, Roddenberry isn’t just envisioning this as a Star Trek movie, he’s very clearly envisioning it as a cinematic epic. Roddenberry’s not only trying to compete with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even with 2001: A Space Odyssey (by which “compete” of course means “try very hard to show that we can do everything bigger, better, more spectacular and more extravagant than everybody else”), he’s genuinely trying to make a case that Star Trek: The Motion Picture deserves to stand alongside Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. He even went so far as to pluck Douglas Turnbull (who worked on 2001) to be the VFX supervisor (which is probably why the V’Ger stuff looks as good as it does), tapped Hollywood veteran Robert Wise to direct and got Paramount to host the biggest, most lavish press conference in their history to that point to announce the project. Gene Roddenberry actually thinks he’s Cecil B. DeMille.
And he absolutely isn’t. Just like the VFX shots of the Enterprise in drydock, Roddenberry isn’t remotely as up to the pale as he thinks he is, because the story is just as over-stretched as the effects are. What I find so completely baffling is that Roddenberry somehow took a tight, perfectly functional script and for some inexplicable reason decided to thin it out before adapting it into a movie! I’ve read the original script for “In Thy Image” and it was a terrific piece of work. In fact, I’d say with a few minor tweaks and revisions it could have been filmed as-is and would have been one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made. Roddenberry, however, takes a hack saw to it and his usual deft hand ends up introducing a whole new raft of problems. This is another reason Star Trek: The Motion Picture moves along at the speed of continental drift: The vast majority of the runtime is actually taken up not by lingering special effects shots, but with military procedure.
Without question the most aggravating and unwatchable moments in this film for me came when Roddenberry has the crew spend agonizing minutes reciting bits of starship procedural lingo at each other, making reports from their stations and waxing profusely on Starfleet rules and regulations. It’s the exact same shit that drags down all of Roddenberry’s other scripts, from “The Cage” to “The Savage Curtain” and he’s clearly learned nothing in over a decade. It’s not even that the movie has too much exposition, another common complaint. Actually, the problem is the exact opposite: There is no exposition! The original script for “In Thy Image” had a lot of really well done, really *relevant* scenes introducing the new setting, the new status quo and showing us all the important moments that explain who all the characters are and the relationships they have with each other. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has precisely none of this, Roddenberry deciding it best to take all of it out and replace it with more of his Little Boy Soldiers military pornography.
It’s the characters who get shafted the most, obviously, to the point where entire motivations were changed without any real rhyme or reason. Admiral Kirk gets it the worst: In “In Thy Image”, Kirk is reluctant to take command of the Enterprise again considering himself to be too old and at too much of a different point in life. He actually has to be pushed into taking action by McCoy, who reminds him that this is where his heart truly lies, and Admiral Nogura (who is an actual character in this version, as opposed to merely being mentioned occasionally in passing, like he is in the movie) who points out Kirk is the best person for the job, Also, Kirk *personally requests* Will Decker as his XO, who was about to take command of an entirely different and unrelated ship because he valued his judgment and needed someone younger and sharper around. In the movie, meanwhile, Kirk becomes a total asshole, selfishly muscling his way into command, alienating McCoy and Decker for no real reason and the story becomes generic burden-of-command, married-to-the-ship drivel.
(There’s also a great scene in Kirk’s quarters in the original script where he explains to Decker, McCoy and Chapel that his repressed desire for the Enterprise might cloud his judgment, while Decker also confesses his bitterness at losing command might do the same, and they both ask the doctors to keep an eye on them: It’s a great, idealistic scene where two people talk about their feelings, and it got cut right out, replaced with a far more antagonistic and confrontational one. Actually, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is far less utopian than “In Thy Image” across the board, yet another reminder that what Star Trek means to the professionals and what it means to the fans are two very different things.)
The one thing I will give this movie is that it does a good job fleshing out the relationship between Will Decker and Ilia, which “In Thy Image” never quite managed to do (though the later Star Trek Phase II scripts do explore their relationship, it really should have been introduced in the pilot. It’s one of the minor tweaks and revisions I would have made). The film also has the good sense to have Decker be the one interacting with the Ilia-Probe instead of Kirk, though ultimately this is all pointless because Decker and Ilia ascend to a higher plane of existence at the end of the movie, just as we always knew they were going to. But apart from this, the movie just doesn’t seem to care about them: There’s no mention of Ilia’s Deltan heritage and what that means (which is the whole reason V’Ger picked her, because she was empathic) and nothing about Decker’s backstory and personal demons. As the two legacy characters introduced for the abandoned TV show, of course they have to be the ones to snuff it, so it becomes impossible to actually get invested in anything they do. Originally intended to be major characters in Star Trek Phase II, Star Trek: The Motion Picture turns Decker and Ilia into glorified redshirts, which makes their story, much like most of this film, feel like a complete waste of time.
There’s also an entire character who doesn’t make the cut at all, science officer Xon (though his actor, David Gautreaux, has a minor role in the movie), because Paramount rightly decided they couldn’t have a Star Trek movie without Spock. Writing him in, however, required another massive change to the original script, and this had the side effect of messing up the story’s primary theme. Originally, the point of V’Ger was that it was incapable of comprehending a form of life that wasn’t like itself, making it a kind of mirror of the Federation. The plot was resolved by V’Ger and the “Carbon Units” learning to communicate and coming to understand how similar they were. Now though, V’Ger ends up a massively overblown metaphor for the standard Spock story about learning how both logic (here defined as “quantitative information”) and emotions (here defined as “sensuality”) are necessary to live a fulfilling life. And while that’s not terrible, it feels less effective, especially since D.C. Fontana did this story twice already and her combined efforts are a fraction of the length of Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘s runtime.
But the biggest conceptual problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘s V’Ger is the end resolution, where Spock describes it as a “child” and encourages Kirk to “treat it as such”. This opens up a *huge* swath of worrying implications and subtexts it flat out submarines any remaining vestigial potential effectiveness this movie had. Back when I discussed “Bem” for the Animated Series I took issue at that script’s conception of God as a benevolent, divine authority beyond reproach, a description and phrase which longtime readers will probably figure would get under my skin a bit. So now, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we have a Jobian, Pop Christian concept of godhood once again, and now we’ve gone an extra alarming step and attributed this perspective to Kirk and Spock. Forget all those criticisms Star Trek: The Next Generation gets about being holier-than-thou and entitled, this has me the most concerned: After all, humanity is explicitly V’Ger’s God, so this movie is tacitly endorsing the selfsame benevolent dictator perspective that will most assuredly run Star Trek aground faster and more catastrophically than anything else. But this is worse than even “Space Seed”, because now Star Trek isn’t just claiming to be your augmented, superior philosopher king, it’s claiming to be your patrician GOD.
(The implication is likely supposed to be that humans too are like children, as we’re in some sense still meant to be seen as comparable to V’Ger, but that meaning is absolutely not conveyed anywhere close to how explicitly it would have needed to be to actually work.)
The result is all of this is that we’re right back at the presumptuousness and hubris that Gene Roddenberry burdened Star Trek with from the beginning. Though there have been many examples, I can’t think of a more perfect embodiment of this problem than this movie. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an overstuffed, overwrought, pretentious, middlebrow slog that’s demonstrative of nothing else except Star Trek enthusiastically and ineffectually trying to punch above its class. And it kills me, because there are a lot of things to recommend here: Robert Wise’s work on this film gets a bad rap, but it’s actually pretty good: His feel for actor placement, blocking and visual symbolism is pitch-perfect. It gives Star Trek a cinematic scope that it usually doesn’t have and shouldn’t have, but is appropriate here. The scenes with V’Ger are nothing short of landmark science fiction, and there’s a great story buried underneath all of that just waiting to be told. But it’s just not enough in the end. When you aim that big and miss, you’re only gonna crash and burn big too.
Shakedown trials to commence *immediately* on The Prototype codename “VOYAGER”. Proceed with swiftness, as the enemy grows ever stronger and wiser.
March 19, 2014 @ 8:06 am
It's with Star Trek: TMP / In Thy Image that your alternate-universe motif comes into its best use. Really, it's working through counter-factual situations through the science-fictional motif of the alternate universe: changing a few core details of a situation such that the world completely transforms. It also articulates the political use of the counter-factual as utopian thinking: It doesn't so much rewrite the past as actually transforms history. I tried to do a similar thing with my imagined timeline of Assignment: Earth, but this works much more effectively, because you already have the In Thy Image script to work from.
When I was younger and looking into the history of Star Trek, I usually saw Star Trek: Phase II regarded as a curious also-ran not really worth thinking about, a dry run or inferior iteration of what eventually became TMP. Now that you've shown clearly what was in the original script, I can see how that received view amounts to a whitewashing of history in favour of the lionization of Gene Roddenberry.
I find the role of Xon in the Phase II timeline particularly interesting, because it gets to a key concept in how we understand the nature of Star Trek (which I think will be especially important when covering Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock): the reification of the original seven crew. The notion that there is no Star Trek without Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekhov all together seems to have become so pervasive that it isn't even discussed. After all, the first Abrams film was structured particularly to give every member of the original crew at least one sequence of ass-kicking. I wonder if we'd see it this way if Leonard Nimoy had gotten his wish, and was allowed to be written out of Star Trek in favour of this remixed version of the TOS crew in Phase II (Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, Xon, Decker, Ilia, Sulu, Uhura, Chekhov, Chapel, feat. Rand). If In Thy Image is any indication, Phase II would have included more character drama in its sci-fi settings and narratives. Having such a large crew to play with, along with creative staff unafraid to shake things up could have resulted in a television masterpiece. Instead, we got a movie so dull that, even though it ultimately made money, had a public impact that nearly killed the franchise.
Definitely, TMP showed that the biggest weakness Star Trek had, was Gene Roddenberry, which was why he ended up marginalized in the production of the future films.
March 19, 2014 @ 4:35 pm
The reification is key, I think. The presence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and to a lesser extent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock absolutely ossifies one specific idea of what Star Trek is supposed to look like.
I have a feeling this is a major reason that Star Trek: The Next Generation met with the resistance it did at first, which was considerably more then Star Trek Phase II got: The movies made it eminently clear that without Kirk, Spock and McCoy you couldn't have Star Trek. And, no matter how successful The Next Generation eventually became (and also how successful Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was at first, though most people seem to have forgotten that), the myth and structure of the Original Series remained, and still remain to this day, a big monolithic thing that we can't seem to move beyond.
March 19, 2014 @ 10:49 pm
Wow what an article. Agreed with Adam above, I love your alternate universe work here, and the framing narratives you use from other civilisations who appear highly advanced. Great stuff.
I first watched this when I was about ten years old and pretty much was in awe of the whole experience and then felt a lot of nostalgic love for the film for a long time after. The main elements that still draws me to the film are Robert Wise's direction (he adds a lot to Start Trek's visual iconography), and the sequences inside V'Ger which still blow me away. I feel that there is a whole story missed there somehow in that journey that is shown inside V'Ger. I can't fully grasp what it is, but my capacity for awe still gets grabbed every time I see those sequences.
In Thy Image sounds far, far superior – I would have SO watched that. I certainly feel that it is one of the biggest mistakes ever made in Trek to have Roddenberry allowed to hack a working script apart and remove its heart.
"UPGRADE OR DIE. PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE" – rings in my ears like Roddenberry talking at us and all around him as he tries to fulfil his mission of getting his own narrow vision of storytelling accepted.
March 20, 2014 @ 3:23 pm
Thanks for the kind words!
I absolutely agree with you about V'Ger: I wished I could have spent more time talking about it, but the post was running super long already. But, thankfully, you got it across well yourself!
March 30, 2014 @ 8:17 pm
While this is surely obvious, I never noticed it before: the Riker/Troi relationship is simply the Decker/Ilia relationship rebooted — male human action hero and female alien empath with prior history together.
March 31, 2014 @ 4:11 am
That's not the only thing from Star Trek Phase II Gene Roddenberry recycled into Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard as originally conceived was basically the older Kirk from "In Thy Image" and Data was basically Xon.
Pretty much anything special and unique about that show came solely from the actors and subsequent creative teams who expanded on everything considerably.