40th Anniversary of Star Trek
Who would have guessed it STTMP is 40 years old, on the 7th December 1979 it had it’s cinematic release in the United States. It had not been an easy process to get it to the big screen but it was worth it for all it brought to Roddenberry’s universe, and what it managed to set up to follow it. If it wasn’t for STTMP we wouldn’t have had the films that followed, The Next Generation, DS9, Voyager and much more.
The Journey to Star Trek the Motion Picture
When Star Trek ended in 1969 and went into syndication most people assumed that would be the end. The popularity of the TV show through syndication meant the fans had other ideas . In 1973 Gene Roddenberry decided to continue the story in Star Trek the animated series. This series reunited the original cast for the voice work and is considered by many to be in reality the fourth series of Star Trek.
Paramount decided that they wanted to start a new Television Network and realising the impact that Star Trek had, they wanted a new live action series as their flagship program. Gene Roddenberry was to be the executive producer, it was to be a second 5 year mission with all the original cast (though they didn’t manage to persuade Leonard Nimoy initially). The Series Called Phase II we all know never went into production, but it went as far to have sets redesigned, costume, make up tests and even actors cast.
On August 3rd 1977 three months after Phase II had been officially announced a meeting occurred where Alan Dean Foster’s story ‘In Thy Image’ was pitched for the show. After the huge success and buzz over Star Wars Michael Eisner heard the pitch and decided that Star Trek was not to be a TV series but a movie instead. This was a huge change in plans for all involved.
A Director was found in the form of Robert Wise who’s diverse catalogue included The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain and The Day the Earth Stood Still. He always said that part of his reason for taking the film was that he always wanted to do a film set in space. Taking on a film that had originally been set to be a TV show had some problems, the script needed huge amounts of rewrites and the release date of the 7th December 1979 was set in stone. They were shooting the film when they hadn’t even worked out how the film was to end. Then there was a breakdown with the original effects company so Douglas Trumbull was brought on board. On a positive note all the actors were cast (after Leonard Nimoy was persuaded to return). The only actor that Robert Wise was involved in casting was Stephen Collins as Commander Decker. He has stated that he was surprised what accomplished actors Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner were as he was worried they would be stuck in TV mode acting but was so glad to have been proven wrong.
The tight deadline meant that the production was having changes made right to the last minute. It was according to Robert Wise the only one of his films he never got a sneak peak of, he actually took the film to the premier and handed it to the projectionist without having seen a full viewing himself (he had seen it during editing but not as a whole).
The film had mixed reviews on release and as much as it made a profit did not make as much money as Paramount wanted. Paramount did however commission a sequel for a much lower budget and removed Gene Roddenberry from overall control. We did get good films following this but I would have loved to have seen where they would have gone if the tone and aesthetic of STTMP would have been kept. In all the Star Trek films The Motion Picture is one of the most individual looking, with it’s slightly starker uniforms and production design, which I personally felt when transferred to the screen looked amazing.
Influence and Legacy
I have always found this entry into the Star Trek universe hugely underrated in both impact and content. I saw it on release and remember being sat eagerly in the cinema, what assailed me is what I still believe to be the most Cinematic in look and feel of all the Star Trek films. Financially it was strangely looked upon as a bit of a failure, the film set the record in the U.S. for it’s opening weekend beating Superman from the year before. In the U.S. it also sold the most amount of tickets for any Star Trek films until J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot, adjusted for inflation it still remains the highest grossing of the Star Trek films worldwide.
Why is/was it considered a financial failure? Paramount had greater expectations considering it’s marketing. The film cost $46 million, though it did included the money spent for the abandoned Phase II TV series reboot. This was the largest budget of any film produced at that time. It was estimated it needed to make three times it’s budget for it to be profitable for Paramount. Initially it only made $139 million in the domestic market. A sequel was commissioned though, at a much lower budget and sadly with Gene Roddenberry pushed out of creative control. Critically it received mixed reviews with people complaining of the slow pace and that the effects over shadowed the story.
Why do I love this film so much and think that you need to either watch it for the first time, or re-evaluate it? As I’ve mentioned, to me it feels the most cinematic of the Star Trek films visually and in the story. Despite in some ways riding on the coat tails of Star Wars (that was released 2 years earlier) STTMP like Disney’s The Black Hole, that was released 2 weeks later suffered because of the implied expectations that Star Wars gave. Star Wars at a base level is more of a Space Opera rather than the harder forms of Science Fiction. Lots of action and melodrama, whereas STTMP is slower and more considered. I think a lot of people expected the fast pace of Star Wars or even the original series of Star Trek. In what I personally see as a brave move it was decided to make use of the cinematic medium and make something different to the TV series. I love the whole aesthetic of the film, the stark uniforms and the wonderful production design all go to add to the feel of what you are watching. Added to that Jerry Goldsmiths fantastic Score (that was later used on the Next Generation) what’s not to love?
Look out for the article on the 2002 Director’s Edition of Star Trek The Motion Picture Coming Soon (I’ll link to it here once it’s done).