The Dead Spot of ST:TMP
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released 42 years ago yesterday.
Like most Trekkies I have a lot of fascination with this film: the design, the aesthetic, the VFX, the score (!!!)—the world it created.
And, at the same time, for such an expensive, high-talent undertaking—it’s stodgy, lame, dramatically inert and preposterously dull.
Gene Roddenberry was a great visionary but, after the first season of The Original Series in 1966, he was a terrible producer whose ego and incompetence mismanaged ST:TMP almost to the point of catastrophe—and this happened again on the first season of The Next Generation in 1987.
PLUG: I helped with the publication of Preston Neal Jones’s oral history about the making of ST:TMP, Return to Tomorrow, available on e-book for only $9.99. Check it out!
PLUG #2: I also helped (in a very limited way) with Omni Music’s book of Jerry Goldsmith’s complete orchestrated score. Fabulous!
I don’t want to litigate ST:TMP, or Roddenberry, today.
I just want to point out, in case you’re wondering (though you’re probably not), where the movie really goes into sleep-mode.
It’s in the second half of act two: the Enterprise encounters V’Ger and is almost destroyed, except for Spock sending a high-frequency message to V’Ger. V’Ger is intrigued and allows the ship to enter its protective cloud.
So we have a five-minute sequence (“The Cloud” in Goldsmith’s score) of the ship penetrating V’Ger’s cloud, while the crew watches the view screen in awe, and really good Goldsmith music plays.
They get through the cloud. We’re like, okay, cool—those were some good effects.
Then there’s a second five-minute sequence (“V’Ger Flyover”) of the ship doing a fly-by of V’Ger’s huge inner spaceship—with great VFX, music, and faces staring in awe at the view screen.
That’s ten minutes straight of effects and faces. We’re like...uh, okay, I gotta take a leak. And this is gonna get better...right?
Finally, something does happen: V’Ger sends its light probe to the bridge, which zaps Ilia and leaves. Okay, that’s exciting, and it looks and sounds neat. And somebody died (or the sci-fi version of death).
Now what happens? V’Ger brings the Enterprise inside its spaceship—for a third five-minute sequence (“The Force Field”) of VFX, music and faces!
At this point, it’s like, AAGGHHHH! Am I actually watching this?
That is 15 minutes’ worth of VFX, music and awestruck faces over a 20-minute stretch of movie.
The music is great, but still: this is insane. Nobody in his right mind would write a movie this way.
And for me the movie just jumps the shark (if there was a shark left to jump). It’s like, okay, they blew it. They did the best they could, but this should not have been filmed. This is a fiasco.
Famously, or infamously, the film was so late to be finished that it was essentially released as a rough cut. Bob Wise and his team would have absolutely trimmed these sequences if given the normal postproduction time...although I’m not exactly sure what good that would have done.
To me, it’s really a writing problem, not an editing problem: You could cut each five-minute sequence down to two or three minutes, sure. But narratively, it hasn’t gotten any more interesting—just shorter. And each time, it risks looking like a crappy time cut.
I think the Director’s Cut team did try to trim some of this material, but they were locked into Goldsmith’s score: you hate to lose any of it, and edits have to be done very carefully to avoid sounding terrible.
I was on Inglorious Treksperts a few years ago and tried to explain my analysis—but Daren Dochterman (one of the Director’s Cut producers) wasn’t having any of it. He cut my ass off! He loves this movie, and it’s his podcast, so I said, okay, I’m being a dick.
But now I have a blog where I can be a dick all day, every day!
The best line in the Return to Tomorrow book comes from screenwriter Harold Livingston, when told of the phenomenon of people getting high to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey:
“Well, if they smoke pot with this one, they’ll stop smoking pot!”