Reviewed Jun 15, 2012
Tim Pelan’s review:
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus deals with how the quest for God, or The Creator, can end up biting mankind in the ass. I thought I’d look at a Star Trek film that considers similar themes, with a more positive, humanistic, message. Not Star Trek V however, with its infamous “What does God need with a starship?” line, but the grander, first cinematic odyssey /folly in the film series – Star Trek The Motion Picture (STTMP).
“Enterprise, are you seeing this?”
I feel that director Robert Wise’s STTMP is unfairly maligned as being boring, and not reflective of the true characters of the series; crucially, lacking in character development. The argument that it isn’t “proper” Trek is a complete fallacy. It seems like an oxymoron, but without it, there would be no ST II The Wrath Of Khan. By that I mean Star Trek’s first cinematic foray had to aim high to succeed at all. It was a return to what the TV Network had lamely criticised the original pilot, “The Cage” for -cerebral science fiction. There were too many Star Wars imitators post 1977 – the stately, grand, yearning quest of STTMP’s themes stood out, and Robert Wise, who had helmed The Andromeda Strain, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, was a fine choice to treat the material seriously. While I would not claim it is on a par with the philosophical musings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a model it clearly strives for, it is no crime to aim high. It boasts superb special effects, especially the Director’s Cut – that stupid Vulcan matte shot is fixed, in keeping with the storyboards. Albeit the VFX were created almost at the last minute by supervisor Douglas Trumbull (who worked on 2001), when the original company wasn’t up to the job. It has otherwise excellent model effects and matte paintings, some by the recently deceased master of the art, Matthew Yuricich. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is superb, reflecting the many moods and characters of the film, from the warlike, marshall, tribal Klingon theme, to V’Gger’s alien, mechancal gurgles, and Ilia’s romantic theme.
Prometheus certainly cannot be said to lack ambition either, reinterpreting several myths and Religious totems in a science fiction setting. Although hailed now as a classic, Star Trek II didn’t exactly set the critics alight on first release. People magazine called the pacing and writing “leaden”. The Washington Post stated it couldn’t compete visually with Star Wars, and that “the Enterprise still looks like a toy boat in a lava lamp (the Mutara Nebula).” It is shot like a TV movie – STTMP is the most cinematic in scope of all the Star Trek films. And it most definitely features character arcs – in the case of Spock, one that would be wilfully disregarded in the rest of the series, yet is curiously reinstated in JJ Abrams’ reboot.
In the 23rd Century, a vast cloud / energy field shielding what is later revealed as a “living machine” passes through Klingon space, swatting 3 warships in an instant. A Star Fleet spy post tracks its eventual trajectory to Earth. A newly refitted USS Enterprise is sent to intercept it, captained by a newly promoted and frustrated desk bound Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), riding roughshod over her new, younger captain Decker (Stephen Collins). – “Gave her back, sir?” asks Scotty. “I doubt it was that easy with Nogura.”
A newly cold and even more aloof Spock joins them en route, fresh from an unsuccessful attempt to achieve Kolinahr on Vulcan – the purging of all emotion for a purely logical state of being. His mind felt the intruder’s reach out across the lonely void, seeking answers – attempting to find its creator, to discover meaning to its existence. Once intercepting the Cloud, the crew learns that within is a living machine called V’Ger. Furthermore, V’Ger is the NASA probe from the 20th Century, discovered by a race of living machines, sent back to Earth to unite with its creator. Only, it can’t countenance that the “carbon units” or humans, can have created it. It is up to Kirk, Spock, Bones, Decker and Ilia, Decker’s former lover (reconfigured by V’Ger as symbiotic interpreter) to “touch the Divine”, neutralise the threat, and save the day.
Now, the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, believed that in his idealised future society, Religion was a no-no. In the series, Kirk was forever breaching the Prime Directive of non-interference in primitive societies to tear down false idols. But couched here in terms of a symbiotic relationship between man and machine (expanded on from an idea in the original series episode “The Changeling”), Star Trek is considering what it means to be “human” – a bit like the Replicants of Blade Runner and the android David in Prometheus. V’Ger has amassed so much knowledge, on its long journey, but without the human capacity to feel, to look outside the box, to intuit, dream, if you like – it is cold, barren. Only by joining in union with Decker and Ilia can it become whole. “I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose, out of our own human weaknessess, and the drive that compels us to overcome them,” Kirk says.
Yes, V’Ger just needed to get laid! That’s a flip reading of the plot, but it’s true, there are so many sexual metaphors in the film. Kirk, after being separated from Enterprise during her two year refit, is given an inspection of the vessel by Scotty via travel pod. He gazes upon her like a husband upon his new bride in the marriage bed – it’s just as well he is already standing up, he must have a massive boner! There are two lingering shots of the pod and Spock’s shuttle docking with Enterprise. To gain access to further examine the V’Ger machine, and attempt to “mind-meld” with it, Spock matches the trajectory of his “thruster pack” with the opening and closing of the next chamber’s “orifice”. Filth!
And of course, Enterprise travels though the “fallopian tube” of the interior towards the “womb” where the antique NASA probe resides, delivering the “sperm” of new life. Spock calls the co-joining of humans and machine as a possible “next step in our own civilization.” Decker and Ilia mate with V’Ger in what one nameless paramount exec. called a “40 million dollar fuck.”
Spock, and Kirk, are in a sense, reborn in STTMP. At first Kirk is arrogant, selfish, grasping, determined that only he can succeed. “Jim, you’re pushing,” Bones admonishes. “Your people know their jobs.” Only when he acknowledges his mistakes, his unfamiliarity with certain upgrades to the ship, and defers to Decker and others, does he become the captain we are familiar with. He unifies with the ship and crew once again, instead of standing proud and alone. Similarily, Spock undergoes a transformation. Also starting out aloof, he believes understanding V’Ger will enable him to become as logical as it – to finally achieve Kolinahr, and purge his half-human emotion. What he learns from mind-melding with it is that logic alone is not enough for V’Ger, and ultimately for him. Spock grasps Kirk’s arm – V’Ger is missing this “simple feeling” – organic connection to other life. The answers it (and the crew) seek are within – the Creator, or God spark, is within all of us, and life springs from our own mistakes, our shared experiences, as much as our victories.
In the novelization, a little more explanation is provided for Decker’s easy willingness to co-join with Ilia and V’Ger, to become a higher level of conciousness. He was largely brought up by his mother on Earth, a follower of the “new human” school of thought. Star Fleet is populated by, for want of a better term, “evolutionary throwbacks” – apparently in its early years, Starship crews were prone to being swayed by higher evolutionary contact and “jumping ship”. In the novel, Kirk wryly notes his class was the first to graduate with less than glowing marks. (And presumably full of cheats – he rigged the Kobayashi Maru test, remember?)
This is why it is so annoying that Spock remains so static in the further films of the series – clearly, by the end of STTMP, he has learned to embrace his human side – the culmination of everyone’s journey has been enlightenment, recognition of the human equation. Indeed, the film’s strap line is “The human adventure is just beginning.”