Jay West drops by the Hero Complex with a guest essay on the legacy of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture“
With a new “Star Trek” film ramping up it’s a good time to reflect on the history of a film franchise that dates back to the Carter administration but has a complicated legacy. Below, you’ll find a rarely seen, 10-minute featurette on the making of the first movie, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which beamed down into theaters on Dec. 7, 1979. The featurette has never been released in any home-video format, amazingly, but it provides a unique and engaging behind-the-scenes look at the making of this inaugural “Star Trek” movie — showcasing some of the movie’s models (with especially interesting footage regarding the classic dry dock sequence) and sets. There are also glimpses of the main cast preparing for scenes, alien crew members donning their masks and even the on-set birthday celebration for director Robert Wise, the Hollywood veteran whose film credits include “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Sound of Music.” The funniest moment may be watching fashion model Persis Khambatta get her full head of hair completely (and reluctantly) shaved off for her role as the Ilia of Delta IV.
Many fans look back on the very first “Trek” film with mixed feelings. Inspired by the original “Star Trek” television series, which ran from Sept. 8, 1966, through June 3, 1969, on NBC, the feature-film project was actually first conceptualized as a revival series on network television called “Star Trek: Phase II” that would have capitalized on the life-after-death popularity the original series found in syndication. That changed, however, when a little film called “Star Wars” reached theaters in 1977. “Trek” icon Leonard Nimoy reflected on the Jedi impact in a video interview that was included in the Blu-ray collection of the original “Star Trek” movies: “We all owe a big thanks to George Lucas – because we were canceled in 1968 or 9… and were ‘off the air’ except for re-runs, which were very active… but it wasn’t until 1977 when ‘Star Wars’ opened and did big business and had this incredible success, that the people at Paramount said: ‘Oh… we have something like that, we have something called ‘Star Trek;’ let’s make a movie.”
At the time of its release, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” wasn’t a winner with movie reviewers (Richard Schickel of Time magazine had a typical take in his review: “‘Star Trek’ consists almost entirely of … shot after shot of vehicles sailing through the firmament to the tune of music intended to awe. But the spaceships take an unconscionable amount of time to get anywhere, and nothing of dramatic or human interest happens along the way”) and many young moviegoers were put off by the slow pace. In the years since, though, there’s been some swing-back and a significant number of fans have discovered (or re-discovered) the film and appreciate it for its atmosphere, cosmic moodiness and sometimes striking visuals. The movie also features a rich and stirring score by the esteemed Jerry Goldsmith – it’s widely considered to be one of his finest.
Wise, who died in 2005, reflected at one point that he was satisfied with the theatrical version of the film, but he also said that he considered it to basically be a “workprint” because of the film’s tight production schedule. A director’s cut was released on DVD in 2001, and while it does contain some deleted scenes and select enhanced visual effects, it is not markedly different from the 1979 release in an overall analysis. So the question remains: Was “Star Trek’s” maiden voyage as a cinematic enterprise an underappreciated achievement or merely a movie that failed to achieve warp speed?
— Jay West
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