Highlighted by Oscar-nominated Art Direction & Set Decoration, Original Score and Visual Effects, Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened forty years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with Inglorious Treksperts co-host Mark A. Altman, who reflects on the film four decades after its debut.
In case you missed them or desire a refresher read, this column’s other Star Trek-themed retrospectives include Star Trek: The Original Series 50th anniversary, Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th anniversary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture 35th anniversary [article 1], Star Trek: The Motion Picture 35th anniversary [article 2], and Free Enterprise 15th anniversary.
Mark A. Altman is the Executive Producer/Showrunner of the hit CW sci-fi series Pandora. In addition, he is also the author (with Edward Gross) of the bestselling oral history of Star Trek: The Fifty-Year Mission, recently released in paperback by St. Martin’s Press. His new book, Nobody Does It Better, an oral history of the James Bond films, will be released by TorForge in February. He is also the writer/producer of the beloved cult classic Free Enterprise and co-host of the popular Star Trek podcast, Inglorious Treksperts, which is available on Apple Podcasts as well as on video on the Electric Now channel on Stirr, Xumo and Distro TV.
Altman kindly spoke to The Bits recently about the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Star Trek: The Motion Picture should be remembered on the 40th anniversary of its release?
Mark A. Altman: Star Trek: The Motion Picture is both the beginning and end of an era of filmmaking which is quite extraordinary. Those who would dismiss it as The Motionless Picture and lethargic and dull have only seen it on TV…or have ADD. The fact is that while Jaws and Star Wars minted blockbuster movie culture which transformed the business from platform releases to wide theatrical releases, it was Star Trek that was at the forefront of IP (intellectual property) culture which has infested the movie business much like the carbon based units did on the Enterprise. By taking a TV series (or a comic book or a toyline), largely considered a failed one at that, and transforming it into a big-budget, motion picture which was profitable and spawned numerous hit sequels changed the business and it doesn’t get the credit — or the blame — for that. Without Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there’s no Mission: Impossible, Serenity, Wayne’s World, 21 Jump Street, The Fugitive… and definitely no Charlie’s Angels. It’s also the penultimate film with an overture (The Black Hole being the last until Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), a hangover from the days of the big movie house epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus where movie-going was an event in an ornate movie palace. It’s also one of the last films to be directed by Robert Wise, closing the door on an era of Hollywood we’ll never see again. This is the man who cut Citizen Kane, helmed The Day the Earth Stood Still and directed The Sound of Music and West Side Story. A true gentleman auteur.
Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Altman: It’s hard for me to really separate my experience from nostalgia since seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture was such a seminal moment of my youth. Not only do I vividly remember counting the years, months and days to its release, but I can remember the hours feeling like days as I sat in junior high school waiting to leave to run to the Georgetown Movie Theater in Brooklyn before it was cool to see the film opening day only to be rebuffed by the ticket taker who wouldn’t let my friends and I inside. Despite the fact the movie was rated G, they would not allow children into the theater after 4 without a parent or guardian. As a result I boldly went to find my mother at the nearby Brooklyn Savings Bank to beg for her help. Not only was I fortunate enough to have a mother who felt my pain and dutifully took us see the film that day (a movie she found incredibly tedious, by the way, so my condition is definitely not genetic), but many years later put the whole scene in a film that Rob Burnett and I made, Free Enterprise, in a complete act of narcissistic self-indulgence.
Coate: How much of a fan of Star Trek were you prior to the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Altman: I was a huge fan of Star Trek already. I devoured the repeats in syndication and had followed the travails of its making and unmaking in Starlog through Susan Sackett’s column. Later I would get the colorful newsletters from Paramount updating fans on the progress of the motion picture and to quote Commander Kor, it looked glorious. There was no way Star Trek: The Motion Picture could compare to the movies we were all making in our minds, but back in 1979 we didn’t believe in binary choices. Something wasn’t just great or awful, many of us, even as kids, could appreciate Star Trek wasn’t a perfect film, but it had a plethora of nearly perfect moments.
Coate: Is Star Trek: The Motion Picture significant in any way?
Altman: Bryan Fuller recently called the movie on our podcast, Inglorious Treksperts, “a flawed masterpiece” and after all these years, I’m inclined to agree. Ultimately, it could never be a perfect film because there were too many cooks in the kitchen and you had a studio that barely tolerated Gene Roddenberry who probably understood the material better than anyone, but also didn’t want to cede any control to anyone else. It took an esteemed director who Roddenberry admired like Robert Wise to at least give the movie a fighting chance to transcend the tropes of the TV series and aspire for something like motion picture-like scope. Had the Bob Collins version gotten made with the Joe Jennings TV sets, there would have been no Khan, no Next Generation and no JJ Treks. That said, I doubt that Dennis Lynton Clark or Harold Livingston left to their own devices would have produced anything as good or better. If anyone seemed to understand it the best, it was probably Leonard Nimoy, who had a fundamental appreciation of what the movie needed to deliver, although in the subsequent years he proved to be much too critical of the finished product with criticisms that seemed like petulance because of his resentment over roads not taken.
Star Trek was also one of the last big sci-fi films to take its cues from 2001 rather than Star Wars so rather than be a film filled with explosions and laser flights, it’s a film of ideas. The biggest problem is that some of these ideas had been explored before in Star Trek, including the robot probe returning to Earth. That said, there’s nothing in The Changeling that can compete with the visual majesty and sumptuous special effects of Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra’s visual effects on The Motion Picture. In a way, by opening the film with the incredible battle between the Klingons on V’ger sets up a false expectation for the rest of the film that this is the movie we’re going to be seeing when, in fact, the rest of the movie is something else entirely.
Coate: In what way was Robert Wise an ideal choice to direct?
Altman: As Tom Parry, the production exec on the film, told us on our podcast, he was a great producer, even more than a director and Trek needed a traffic cop at that point. There were many different competing factions and there was the herculean task of getting a script that everyone could agree on and making sure the visual effects were completed on time and to everyone’s satisfaction. Also, it has been suggested that Robert Wise was someone Gene Roddenberry admired; he was a big fan of The Day the Earth Stood Still, so there was a feeling that possibly Roddenberry would be on better behavior around Robert, which turned out to be true to a certain extent. Also, he was an Oscar- winning director so he was a talent magnet as well and as much as settling the merchandising lawsuit was a big impetus for Nimoy to return to play the Spock role, I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of having Robert Wise in the center seat. Ultimately though, in many ways, ST: TMP is a glorified bottle show so there was only so much he could do given how much of it is set on the bridge although some of the composition and Richard Kline’s lensing is really impressive.
Coate: Where do you think Star Trek: The Motion Picture ranks among late-1970s/early-1980s sci-fi and fantasy films?
Altman: It’s interesting because it really owes more to the 70s than the 80s both in its ideas and its visual aesthetic. If you watch the scene where Kirk lands at Starfleet, that could just as easily have come out of Logan’s Run. And as I said, the trippy visuals owe a debt to 2001, which came out in 1968. There were some kooky sci-fi films in the 70’s like Zardoz whereas the 80’s was more grounded and I don’t feel ST: TMP is a very grounded film. 1982 is probably the greatest year for the genre of all-time and not one of the films owes a debt to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As I said, it was the end of an era and an antiquated era of studio filmmaking. And unfortunately, later Trek filmmakers and the studio ran from it. Despite its success financially, it was considered a failure by most due to the critical reaction and the fact that it wasn’t as profitable as they hoped given the budget. The 80s were almost the prequel to the 90s and CGI and digital filmmaking which transformed how movies were made, released and told. ST: TMP was truly a child of the 60s.
Coate: Where do you think Star Trek: The Motion Picture ranks among the Star Trek (movie) franchise?
Altman: I find myself watching ST: TMP as much, if not more, than any other Star Trek movie. That said, obviously Wrath of Khan is wildly entertaining and action packed and it’s hard to argue it’s not the most enjoyable Star Trek movie. I’m a big fan of Star Trek VI as well and First Contact, but none of them have the sheer cinematic power and impact of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Nicholas Meyer is a brilliant writer and that’s what helps make Khan a true classic, but he didn’t have the money or the resources to make a film that as visually sumptuous as ST: TMP. The curse of The Motion Picture is that Paramount walked away from it saying, “We spent $43 million on this and still made money. What if we spent less, think of all the money we could have made,” which until JJ is exactly what they did. They made them down, dirty and cheap. It’s sort of what happened with Bond where post-Moonraker the movies kept looking cheaper and cheaper until Licence to Kill, which is an embarrassment, and then with GoldenEye, things changed.
Coate: Has Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been treated well in its numerous home video editions over the decades?
Altman: It’s been treated horribly. I do have fond memories of first seeing it on Betamax at Willoboughy’s Electronics Store on 34th Street in New York which led to me asking for a video recorder for years after that. The VHS was exciting because it was the TV cut, so that was a thrill. But after the LaserDisc era, the masters have been terrible and the special features, with the notable exception of the Director’s Edition, are usually horrendous, which is inexcusable given the story of the making of this film is one of the great stories in Hollywood history when you look at what a cluster fuck it was to get it done all due to the desire to make an arbitrary release date with Jerry Goldsmith sleeping on stage on a cot and the visual effects guys working seven days a week and prints of the final film being delivered wet to theaters on the day it opened. Despite the fact that Star Trek has always been one of the top-sellers for the studio, all the movies have usually gotten sub-par releases in the past.
Fortunately, it appears there may be hope for a 4K UHD of the Director’s Edition after all these years. Although I have to emphasize, it needs to be treated with the reverence and respect of Charlie de Lauzirika’s brilliant Blade Runner set. It needs to have a 4K remaster of the theatrical cut and the ABC TV version and the Director’s Edition to make it a truly and definitive complete set. The original version is the way we experienced it in theaters and no set would be complete without its inclusion. There also needs to be a definitive making of about the creation and legacy of this complicated film and its creators.
Coate: Which cut of the film do you like best?
Altman: I prefer the Director’s Edition because it benefits from more deeply mining the emotional nuance of the characters and original intentions of Robert Wise that he was denied by the mad rush to complete the film to make the December 7th release date of the film. I’m also a big fan of the space bridge sequence at the end. It’s the same reason when the film premiered on ABC on the Sunday Night Movie with extra footage we all fell over each other to extol how much better it was. And people forget how exciting that was when it had its TV premiere and was loaded with some major new additions. Even then there was a movement in Trek fandom to lobby for a 70mm release and a new cut of the film, although it wasn’t until the Director’s Edition that this [dream of a new cut] was realized. That said, like many, I deeply miss the second “Viewer Off” in the rec deck scene which is now very Maclunkey. But I think all Trek fans owe a debt of gratitude to the team behind the Director’s Edition who never gave up on it and have so much love and respect for Bob Wise that they’ve pushed this boulder up the mountain like a modern-day Sisyphus, but never gave up on it and despite a lack of resources and budget, really achieved something special which honors the memory of Bob Wise and his aspirations for the picture.
Coate: What is the legacy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Altman: Sadly, I think the film continues to be under appreciated to this day and the risks it took are not widely appreciated even by many of those involved in its creation. We find the characters in a fairly dark place. Kirk is incredibly unhappy, Spock is a total failure and the last thing in the world McCoy wants to do is return to active service. Through the course of the film they come together again as a family and that’s the triumph of this movie along with its groundbreaking visual effects and a denoument that came as a complete surprise at the time. Now the V’ger reveal is as well-known as “I am your father,” but at the time it packed a wallop for those of us who hadn’t read the gonzo novelization yet. There will never be a Trek film like this again on TV or film which is allowed to transpire at what some deem a glacial pace nor made without a physical adversary that our characters can punch out or phaser. And with Jerry Goldsmith long gone, we can be assured there will never be a score as magnificent as Jerry’s iconic music which elevated the movie in ways I can’t begin to articulate. For those of us who get it, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a spectacular swing for the fences. And for those of you who don’t get it, it’s your frakkin’ loss.
Coate: Thank you, Mark, for sharing your thoughts about Star Trek: The Motion Picture on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.
You can join Altman and Daren Dochterman and Michael Sussman from Star Trek: Enterprise as they do an audio commentary for the entire film on Inglorious Treksperts wherever you listen to podcasts, along with the year-long celebration of the film including episodes on the novelization, music, director’s edition and more.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Paramount Home Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Robert Wise Productions
- Michael Coate