HBO Max sent me an update that included a tidbit about them now having all of the Star Trek film franchise available on their streaming service. This seemed like it might be an opportunity for a movie marathon at our house. My wife and I do that now and then, watch some series of movies like Star Wars or Harry Potter or James Bond from start to finish.
And when I asked her if she was up for it, she said she was. We’re still waiting for Andor to get a few episodes ahead and we’re about done with most other things we’ve been watching, so it seemed like a good distraction, and it had been a while since we had done one of these.
Of course, the Star Trek movie franchise definitely has its ups and downs. We said we were up for it, but we will have to see how far we get.
The first in the series is Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the 1979 debut of the franchise on the big screen.
This was a big freaking deal to me back in 1979, and my friend Chris and I, both big Star Trek fans, went and saw it at the Century Theaters… the same place I saw Star Wars for the first time in 1977… and, hrmmm… the memories are a bit faded. On the one hand, I know we were into it in our own way. On the other, we didn’t go back and see it again… and I had seen Star Wars multiple times in the theater when it launched.
Honestly, I cannot remember if I had sat down to watch the whole thing since its debut back then.
So my wife and I settled in to watch it.
It isn’t great.
It isn’t completely horrible, but I can see why I never went back to watch it again.
As I said, at the time, Star Trek landing on the big screen was a big freaking deal, and not just for some teenage boys in what would become Silicon Valley. The original series had been cancelled after three seasons back in the mid-60s, but had gained such a following that it was almost continuously on somewhere in syndication. There was a plethora of novels featuring the crew of the USS Enterprise, and an animated series that tried to fill the gap, but none of it was enough to satisfying the fans.
I know very little about how the film came to be (and avoided reading up on it to keep my impressions distinc), but my speculation, having watched it again, is that the success of Star Wars in the theaters and Battlestar Galactica on TV shook the franchise loose and got people looking to run with it again. The problem seems to be the lack of a decent script.
What they ended up with was basically an retread of an original series episode, writ large to be a full film… and it wasn’t enough. The episode they cribbed from had enough material to fill out the 45 minutes required, but the script had to pad that out to two hours.
So we spend a lot of time… a whole lot of time… basically looking at cool visuals.
And I get it, 2001: A Space Odyssey made it on that, and part of the appeal of Star Wars was the work of Industrial Light and Magic and the images they created for a galaxy far away, so there was pressure on the production team to deliver a stellar look that would compete.
This first Star Trek film is just filled with very slow, almost set piece “Hey, look at that, isnt’ that cool!” moments of the new Enterprise, the space dock, the ship interiors, some Klingon ships (and their interiors), and of course, the spectacle of V’Ger.
It is all very pretty. It looked good on our TV. It probably looked even better on the big screen back in 1979. The story just doesn’t do very much with it. It doesn’t use, make interesting, or deliver on the promise of the effects in the film.
Nor does it do very much with the characters. In the absence of a solid story, the original series used to lean heavily on the cast to bring the stories to life, to add emotion, to get us invested. It is fun to mock Shatner these days, but his performances back in the original series are part of what gave it life. He was the embodiment of the confident, aggressive optimism of the United States before we soiled ourselves and lost our way over Vietnam.
The whole thing felt stretched thin, not enough material to fill the time which lead to gratuitous use of good, but neither exciting not world beating, moments of special effects.
But here’s the thing… it was enough. It did well at the box office, which demonstrated the pent up demand at the time for more Star Trek. That got us six movies overall based on the original series, another four around Star Trek: The Next Generation, and three more as a reboot of the franchise.
It is never going to make my favorites list, but it served its purpose.
My wife wasn’t big on it either, so there is some question as to whether or not we’ll carry on. But if we do, the next on the list is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That started the trend of even numbered titles being the “good” ones, as well as getting the crew in better uniforms. (Did I mention the uniforms in the first movie kind of sucked as well?) But it might possibly be the most overrated in the series as well. It has been years since I’ve seen it, so we’ll have to see.