Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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Day four of my own little Robert Wise Film Festival

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The most common complaint about the more recent Next Generation Star Trek movies is that they seemed more like run-of-the-mill TV episodes shot on a big-screen budget. While a valid criticism, this is most literally true of this first cinematic outing for Gene Roddenberry’s then-cult television hit.

The plot for Star Trek: The Motion Picture borrows liberally from the original series episode called “The Changeling,” about a space probe named Nomad that comes back, vastly enhanced by some alien race and programmed with a low tolerance point for human imperfection. At the time of its release, some retitled the film, “Where Nomad Has Gone Before.”

The similarity to an existing story is only one weakness. The other is the fact that the story, as written, might have made for taut 90-minute television pilot, but expanded to a two-plus-hour motion picture, the movie drags like a rhino with gout. The motion picture grew out of an aborted attempt to resurrect the TV series as the flagship for a new Paramount television network (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), so the basic plot was probably adapted from the original pilot. Unfortunately, not enough was done to fill the screen time with a plot that would hold the attention of a movie audience.

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The basic story is that huge cloud-like thing is plowing through space, vaporizing everything in its path, which happens to lead directly to Earth. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is assigned the task of doing something about it. The only ship at his disposal is the Enterprise, still finishing a massive redesign and not exactly shipshape. Kirk is given command of the ship, much to the dismay of its current captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins). The ship pulls out of dry dock and, after a few near-fatal glitches (and one fatal one), rendezvous with the cloud.

Before reaching the cloud, however, the Enterprise receives its replacement science officer, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has recently finished a ritual purging of all his emotions. Needless to say, he’s even more of a barrel of laughs than normal.

The ship then spends about four years (or at least it seemed that way) plodding through the insides of the cloud. When it finally reaches the center, the crew makes a discovery that anyone who remembered “The Changeling” saw coming a parsec away.

If the plot and pacing are a bit off, the look and design of the film are complete busts. The new interior of the ship is dull, gray and sterile, the costumes look like bland pajamas and the bridge is lit like an underground parking garage. It’s hard to believe that Robert Wise, who usually has a keen sense for the visuals of a film, directed this mess.

The new version available on DVD makes significant changes. Deleted footage was added, unfinished effects shots were completed and the pace of the interminable flight through the cloud was tightened up. It’s a definite improvement but it doesn’t solve the basic structural problems of the film.

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