Scott Martin Guest Column: Is 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' Better or Worse Than Sex?

(CS: The original Star Trek series is beloved now, but when it originally came out, it was not a ratings success but did have a strong and loyal cult following. That obviously grew over the years to now we always have a form of the series on TV. The initial movie had many challenges as studio executives weren't sure if the niche audience would be big enough to justify a big budget movie adaptation. It ended up being one of those idea that was stuck in developmental hell for years and went through several rewrites and story ideas. The massive success of Star Wars suddenly made sci-fi hot again, and even though the two series are very different, Paramount executives decided to try to do their own sweeping space opera based off a former TV series. The story of the creation of this movie is largely said to be way more interesting than the actual movie, which has a poor reputation even among die-hard Star Trek fans. Scott Martin looks to see if the movie is much better than its long-held reputation of being a messy slog.)

As a fan of sci-fi, there used to be a pressure to back either Star Wars or Star Trek. I’m not sure how global this was in the 80s, but in my corner of elementary school it was key to know which one was better than the other. Lots of people seem to have participated in this battle over the years, but I always thought it was an apples and oranges kind of thing. Really, they shared the fact that they both took place in space, and there aren’t a whole lot of similarities past that. There was no need to argue the merits of one over the other, yet it happened. Early on in life that those in favour of Star Wars had the advantage, and that came from the quality of their movies.

Once again, it’s apples and oranges. But when trying to validate one side over the other, the fact that all three Star Wars movies were great trumped a franchise that gained a reputation for only its even numbered films being good. Growing up, I understood that reputation quite well. Wrath of Khan was as good as any movie could get, The Voyage Home was humorous and unique, and The Undiscovered Country had Klingon ships that could fire when cloaked! And zero gravity blood bubbles! All that goodness still lived in the shadow of three movies that were rather forgettable.(CS: I think, Search for Spock is better than its reputation, even if I admit it isn't better than the three movies mentioned)

So, I figured that I may as well investigate the first of the movies, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I know I had seen it when I was young, but the only things I could remember was Kirk flying in a shuttle to the Enterprise, and the Enterprise flying through a space cloud. Many people I knew described this film as boring, but I kind of wondered if we didn’t all just have improper expectations that it would be like A New Hope, which came out two years previous. (CS: Though Star Wars was probably still in theatres for many markets)  Paramount had looked at doing a Star Trek movie, and the success of A New Hope just may have influenced their decision to go ahead with a feature film. We were all pumped up from the fantasy adventure that George Lucas gave us, so perhaps we just wanted more of the same. Perhaps Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn’t that bad at all.

The truth is, it isn’t that bad. The truth is also that it isn’t fun. Watching this film, I think there was a lot going on that was a misfire. Pacing was the biggest issue, and I will get further into that soon. Another large issue was that the antagonist was a space cloud. Yes, a cloud. The very thing that is a villain to a picnic was a villain to The United Federation of Planets. Not great for creating tension.

I have to say, I was really shocked to find that I think this film is all about sex. This isn’t any kind of joke on my part. When Kirk is flying out to get on the Enterprise, it is an epic scene… for at least a few seconds. That sequence runs for almost five minutes (part of the pacing issue), and I couldn’t help but feel this was supposed to be foreplay, and that Kirk’s arrival was a sexual experience. Nonsense, I thought. There’s no way that could be correct.

Then there were the uniforms. The redesign of the uniforms was not good at all, as they seemed pretty sterile, but I couldn’t help but noticed some of them seemed flesh coloured. A bit odd, but I must be looking too deeply into this. Then there was the tight-fitting nature of them, and the fact that I saw definitive ‘contours’ on a character that ends up having some solar system sized digital sex. The person he gets funky with is a robotic representation (created by the space cloud) of a crew member that for some reason needed to point out when they boarded the enterprise that they had taken an oath of celibacy. Oh, and when that crew member is replaced by the robot, her outfit is a shirt that comes down just far enough to provide G-rated cover, because she sure as spit isn’t wearing any bottoms.

When the Enterprise comes across that dastardly space cloud, they fly into it. At first, that is exactly what they do, as the effects around them seem cloud like. Slowly, those clouds turn into more tunnel like formations. Before long I started to feel like they are constantly arriving at and entering orifices, penetrating them, if you will. Honestly, I’d like to believe that I wasn’t interpreting this correctly, but when the words ‘orifice’ and ‘penetration’ end up being said on screen, I can’t call that coincidence.

Ultimately, the cloud has a robotic core, and the only way Kirk and his buddies can think of to save Earth is to… uh… you know, show it a good time. To quote Bones, “you mean this machine wants to physically join with a human?” Which human will join with the machine, though? Obviously the one whose ‘contours’ we have already been introduced to. Pixels appear, pulsation seriously happens, and then it all leads to one massive solar system wide special effect orgasm. By this point, I was feeling pretty sure that my early interpretations of this film were correct.

Does any of this make the film bad? Well, kind of. I honestly find that the approach that director Robert Wise took sucked any possible life out of the film. (CS: If that director's name is familiar to you, he was a very prolific filmmaker since the 1940s and was an editor in the 1930s, and made movies held up as classics in Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting and The Sand Pebbles among many others) This slow, foreplay-like atmosphere when Kirk was heading to the Enterprise returned when the ship penetrated the cloud and its many tunnels and orifices. I had the feeling as though this was supposed to be arousing to the audience, but we had already said we had a headache, had to get up early, rolled over, and gone to sleep. Ten minutes were spent with the ship penetrating the cloud. Then it stopped. Finally, I thought. This is over.

Nope, because then a tractor beam grabs the Enterprise and pulls it deeper for another eight minutes. A total of twenty-three minutes in this film is slowly moving ships making their way towards and through special effects. Slowly. This accounts for just over eighteen percent of the film (not including opening or closing credits). I respect the ambition shown in this film towards their special effects, but this sluggish approach of building anticipation is enough to destroy any momentum this film has. 

Pacing is one of the most important aspects to a movie. The best directors know precisely how long shots should be, how quickly to move the story, when to slow down to catch a breath, when the audience needs a tease, and so on. (CS: To be fair, the best directors can also make bad movies, which would be more the case here given Wise's previous track record)  A movie that is paced properly disappears in front of you, making it feel like the time flew by. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is paced very poorly. To think that eighteen minutes of slowly moving through a cloud is entertaining is a miscalculation by director Wise. I’ve given my interpretation as to why they did this, and regardless of whether I’m right or wrong doesn’t change the fact that it’s just plain boring. When almost one fifth of an entire film is slow moving boredom, one has lots of time to come up with crazy interpretations.