Star Trek Retrospective: Week 1

In honor of the upcoming release of Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), FMR’s Mike Gifford will be revisiting the Star Trek films of the past leading up to the release of the new film.  This week we begin with the first resurrection of the franchise.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Dir: Robert Wise (1979)

Before I get into any focused discussion on a particular film, here’s a very brief history of the Star Trek franchise leading up to the first feature.

Something that many members the general public seem to forget (or not realize) is that the original Star Trek (1966) TV series was considered a failure.  The show debuted to high ratings after the original pilot was rejected by NBC and a replacement pilot to be rushed into production. However, the series ratings plummeted by the end of the first season. NBC had threatened to cancel the show during the 2nd season, but a small cult following had already began.  The reluctant series renewal by NBC lead to drastic budget cuts and the resignation of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, from his role as producer. NBC honored a third and final season, but that was the end of Star Trek’s brief run.  This is only strange to think about now because the franchise has grown into such a worldwide phenomenon over the last 40+ years.  Many TV shows of the current day are cancelled after only a couple episodes. I’m sure there are many cancelled shows that wish they could have still got 3 full seasons on sub-par ratings.

Following the cancellation of the show, NBC was able to sell Star Trek into syndication all over the world.  The long running success of the aired reruns of Star Trek prompted a small rebirth as a Saturday Morning cartoon, Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973). Following suit with the original series, the cartoon was short lived yet surprisingly received and Emmy for Best Series. Paramount studio’s failed attempt at creating another major broadcast network lead to the cancelation of the animated series, yet allowed for Roddenberry to begin development on yet another TV series entitled Star Trek: Phase II.

The “Phase II” TV pilot never happened.  The worldwide success of recent science-fiction films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) lead to Roddenberry scrapping the idea of a new TV series and Paramount developing the would-be proposed pilot into a feature film.  Consequently, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was released to the world on December 7, 1979.

At the helm of the first Star Trek feature was Director Robert Wise. Prior to Star Trek, Wise had much success directing films such as The Sound of Music (1965), The Haunting (1963), and West Side Story (1961).  He was also nominated for an Oscar as editor of Orson Welle‘s masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941). Wise also already had a presence in the science fiction community, so it was natural that he’d be put into this position. However, this was to be his venture into the sci-fi world.

The familiar faces from TV series of the previous decade were back reprising their respected roles (but this time with worse costumes) and the film picks up years after the original series.  After a mysterious space entity is discovered by Epsilon Nine, another Starfleet ship, Admiral Kirk comes back to Captain the revamped Starship Enterprise to explore and examine the entity. That’s basically it.

I hate to have such a generic complaint about the film, but a glaring defect with it is that is has very minimal action.  Even though the TV series wasn’t always phaser battles, you’d expect more from the first film.  The lack of action causes the 132 minute runtime to feel like an eternity. This film crawls in parts.  It makes me wonder if there are so many “filler” scenes because they were extending a proposed 50 minute TV pilot into a feature length.  Many of these filler scenes are just odd crawling shots of space, or a multi-angle montage of the unveiling of the revamped Enterprise. The first glimpse of the new Enterprise lasts almost 5 solid minutes. Even the color scheme used in the film is very bright and vibrant at parts, which creates a nice contrast with the deep black of space, yet it feels like the filmmakers were trying to distract the audience with rainbow colors so they’d ignore the lack of core in the film.

Another thing that always becomes very annoying in this film is the complete over saturation of the use of the Star Trek theme.  I think by the time the audience hears it for the sixth time in the first half of the film, it’s over. On the other hand, this film does something that I truly love.  The beginning of the film has an overture like in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The black screen allows the audience to focus solely on the film score. This is something that I wish more sci-fi films of today would adopt.

No matter how many times I view this film, I get the same feeling.  I compare this film to a very sleek looking car.  One with a perfect paint job, all the interior specs that you’d want, but when you get in the car you realize that there’s no engine to make it move or even function like the machine that it is. It still makes me wonder if the film franchise would have suffered the same feat as the original TV series if a film like this was released today.  With a $43 million budget, the film was a financial success as it brought in $139 million worldwide.  I think a lot of this played into the cult following that the TV syndication had created, but even though it might not be a popular opinion, I think the casual fan was willing to give this film a shot because of the success of Star Wars just seven months prior to the release of this film.

Overall, this isn’t anywhere near my favorite film of the series, but like the ending credits of this film say: The Human Adventure is Just Beginning.

Coming next week:

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2 / 5 stars     

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