For 10 years after the cancellation of the original Star Trek TV show in 1969, creator Gene Roddenberry’s mission was to seek out ways of getting a movie version, helped by the growing re-run fanbase and a warp-speed boost from the colossal success of Star Wars. The end result was Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, now re-released in a 4K restoration, directed by veteran all-rounder Robert Wise with Douglas Trumbull on special effects. This is the “director’s edition”, first authorised by Wise in 2001: it brightens and clarifies the effects, enriches the sound mix, adds minor expository and ambient scenes and emphasises the unhurried visionary grandeur that Wise was aiming at.
At the time of its original release, I was disconcerted by the Enterprise crew’s silly new uniforms: the men’s tunics are extended downwards at the waist to form an entirely ridiculous triangular flap over the crotch area. And living in the eternal TV present as I was, I was secretly shocked at how much older the main cast suddenly looked, everyone’s hair greyer and more precariously bouffant-ed. With this first movie, the Star Trek concept had evolved into something more ambitious and Kubrickian, with plenty of andante outer-space sequences and an entire pre-credit “overture”, just dark starry space to a muted orchestral theme. I missed the cartoony narrative snap of the TV show and the original signature tune, but the doors still go fshhhht-fshhhht and the dialogue scenes between Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) still have that wonderfully theatrical resonance and serio-comic panache, Shatner’s DRAMATIC way of SPEAKING, often-doing-a-one-breath-run-up-to-a-big-EMPHASIS is still a joy. It’s only now I can see that the relationship of Spock and Kirk has a Jeeves/Wooster drollery.
The setting is 10 years on from the original show and Kirk, now an admiral, demands to be given command of the refitted USS Enterprise once again, because this is the only starship in a position to intercept a destructive alien cloud-formation with a hyper-evolved intelligence at its centre, heading for Planet Earth: a sinister entity that appears to call itself “V’Ger”. Kirk’s high-handedly pulling rank to assume command infuriates the existing captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), whose competence and loyalty Kirk nonetheless comes to respect.
Kirk gets the old gang together for his new Enterprise jaunt, the most important of course being the stonefaced Spock, who – in an outrageously enjoyable and over-the-top scene – has had to abandon the “Kolinahr” ceremony on his home planet, in which he would renounce emotion for ever. But his human side would not permit it. There is also a new crew-member: Lieutenant Ilia from the Planet Delta IV, played by Indian star Persis Khambatta, a mysterious and elegant figure with a shaved head who once had a relationship with Decker on her home planet and it soon becomes clear that Decker is still deeply in love with her. (Deltans are said to be more attractive than other people and can only serve aboard Starfleet vessels if they have taken “oaths of celibacy” – a sexier thing can hardly be imagined.)
All this is to have important consequences when a probe from V’Ger invades Ilia’s body, effectively making her its avatar, but with Ilia’s own memory and consciousness still intact somewhere within her. It’s a bit overextended but very watchable with flourishes of exotic invention: I was sorry that Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura is not given greater prominence but I love the “giant’s causeway” of stepping stones leading from the Enterprise to the centre of the alien.
• Star Trek: The Motion Picture is released on 19 August in UK cinemas, and is streaming on Binge and Stan in Australia.