Study Guide

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture Introduction


Release Year: 1979

Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi

Director: Robert Wise

Writer: Harold Livingston, Alan Dean Foster, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek television series)

Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley


Before Chris Pine. Before Priceline. Before Rescue 911. And way before Weird or What?...William Shatner was Kirk.

If you don't know what we're taking about, we suggest you keep your mouth shut, lest millions of irate Trekkies try to beam you up, up, and away.

But between us, if you're cutting your teeth on Star Trek, this motion picture (conveniently titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture) is your way in. Because it's not only awesome in and of itself, it's also a testament to the total cultural phenomenon that is Star Trek: this film is the result of the massive fandom that developed as a result of the original series.

Yeah, it's hard to believe but the original Shatner-helmed Stark Trek wasn't all that successful. It was beloved, but it was canceled after only three seasons (like other epic later series such as Deadwood or Veronica Mars). But years of fan service—and we mean real fan service: conventions, not petitions—and the success of an itty-bitty movie called Star Wars brought the Enterprise, the Klingons, and the Vulcans to the silver screen.

Drumroll please: Paramount Pictures decided to make a film adaptation of this failed 60s TV show in 1975.

Wait: huh? Wasn't Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979?

Yup, but Star Trek went through a seriously troubled production, with tension between creator Gene Roddenberry and studio execs threatening to derail the project several times. In fact, no less than three distinct scripts were written for the movie before they settled on a final draft, which itself was based on the pilot episode of an abandoned new Star Trek series.

And the result, in all its glorious 70s tackiness, brought Star Trek back to life. And not surprisingly—even without all the clamoring super-fans (that probably watched the movie in theaters no less than fifteen times), Star Trek is an insightful movie, full of commentary about present day Big Issues.

Although you wouldn't guess that from reading the Netflix plot synopsis.

  

With a giant alien energy cloud heading towards Earth, the scattered crew of the Enterprise reassembles to take on their most fearsome foe yet. Sounds like typical sci-fi schlock, right? Wrong. Once you learn the secret identity of this cloud, you'll realize that this popcorn flick is asking some significant philosophical questions about technology, human nature, and desire.

Whether you watch it for the performances from returning stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the iconic score by Jerry Goldsmith, or the simply groove-alicious (they said that kind of thing in 1979, right?) costuming, Star Trek: The Motion Picture shows that the newer reboots could learn a thing or two from the OGs.

What is Star Trek: The Motion Picture About and Why Should I Care?

We'll say it in a booming, ominous voice: the singularity.

If you have even slightly nerd-like tendencies, are even the ittiest-bittiest bit a current events junkie, or if you're at all concerned that your mind might become fused with your phone—we know your dreams have Instagram filters, we've been there—you're probably aware of the singularity.

But in case you've been too busy Vulcan mind-melding with machines to read up on the phenomenon, we'll give you a quick update.

The singularity is the term to express what will happen/is happening as computers, robotics, and nanotechnology get more advanced. First, we frail humans will use these machines to augment ourselves: think Google Glass, but less obviously creepy. Next, the machines' intelligence will way outpace ours: we'll be dummies compared to our robot overlords.

This idea stems most specifically from a 2006 book called The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil…a man who does not have the wild scientific-genius hair you'd expect him to have.

And we're betting that Kurzweil is a big fan of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Through the film's character of V'Ger, an unmanned space probe that attains sentience, Star Trek: The Motion Picture questions the boundaries between man and machine. That's some real talk. What's more, it questions our relationship to technology as humans, and how technology tends to yank the human straight out of us…but how, at the same time, the questions that humans and machines ask are eerily similar.

For a film that's so obviously 70s that we're surprised that the soundtrack isn't just one repeating loop of "Funkytown," this movie is bringing up some issues that are incredibly relevant in the singularity-obsessed 21st century.

  • Like the slippery role memory has in humanity. Sure, the humans in the film are governed by their memories…but no more than machines like V'Ger are.
  • Or whether machines can learn emotions. Emotions are portrayed in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as an all-too-human thing…until V'Ger starts looking for love.
  • Or whether machine growth parallels human growth. V'Ger is described as being "like a baby," "throwing tantrums," and "wanting." If humans don't have the monopoly on human development…what makes us so special?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture might be set in the 23rd Century, but it's portraying a world that's pretty close to ours. The singularity is happening—and Star Trek: The Motion Picture predicted it.

After all, you already rely on GPS to get you where you're going. Self-driving cars are hitting the market sooner than expected. Most of us sleep next to our smartphone or tablet as though it were a snuggly pet.

And while you might not encounter any sentient machines in your lifetime…chances are pretty good that you will.

Trivia

The Klingon language spoken in the film is actually just gobbledygook made up on the spot. Later, when Star Trek III was in production, the filmmakers decided to construct an entire language out of this handful of lines. (Source)

The famous main theme of Star Trek almost never made it into the movie. The first version was met with a negative response by producers, so composer Jerry Goldsmith went back to work and produced the piece we know and love today. (Source)

Leonard Nimoy originally refused to reprise his role as Spock, but director Robert Wise convinced him to change his mind after his children told him that Star Trek wouldn't be the same without dear old Spock. (Source)

Although the planned series that The Motion Picture's script is based on never saw the light of the day, many of its ideas would be used in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would debut in 1987. (Source)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture Resources

WEBSITES

Star Trek Homepage
While this homepage obviously focuses on the rebooted films, it also contains a wealth of information about the classic series.

The Klingon Language Institute
Want to learn how to actually speak Klingon? Join us, friends.

ARTICLES-AND-INTERVIEWS

Science Mistakes in Star Trek
This fun read nitpicks at a few of the scientific errors made throughout the Star Trek franchise.

Roger Ebert Interviews Leonard Nimoy
Although this chat touches on more than just Star Trek, it provides fascinating insight into the most fascinating member of the original cast.

The Anniversary of the Worst Star Trek Movie: Star Trek V
Although this piece doesn't really touch on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it's too much of a fun hate-read not to share.

VIDEO

Star Trek's Trailer
Fun fact: Orson Welles provides the narration here. That's awesome.

The Making of the Score
This short video investigates the creation of Jerry Goldsmith's score and in particular its iconic main theme.

The Premiere of Star Trek
This twenty-minute video is an amazing document of the hype surrounding the film's release.

AUDIO

Is Klingon a Living Language?
If you want an answer to that, NPR, then you better accept our invitation to the weekly D&D meetup.

How Martin Luther King Kept Uhura On Star Trek
The title says it all—you've got to listen to this amazing story.

IMAGES

The Poster
Star Wars meets Dark Side of the Moon. We like it.

Voyager I
Although the Voyager VI space probe doesn't exist in real life, this is what it would look like if it did.