Star Trek: The Motion Picture is both a distillation of classic Trek themes and a corner-turning moment for the series. It recalls the show’s early episodes even as it breaks with the traditions of those episodes. It is, in a sense, its own metacommentary.
(By the way, I am trying very hard not to sound either too pretentious or too stoopid. No promises, though.)
The classic Star Trek formula was very close to allegory. Spock was the Brains, McCoy was the Heart, and Kirk was the Decider. Together they would tackle the problem of the week, usually some other allegorical personification. This POTW might have been a passenger on the ship or a whole planet full of metaphor. Whatever the result, though, the Enterprise sailed away every week pretty much unchanged. Sure, the crew might leave a little sadder or wiser, but with very few exceptions, Spock was still the Brains, McCoy was still the Heart, and Kirk was still the Decider. They were there to serve the story, because the whole format was designed to facilitate a wide variety of storytelling styles.
Even after Star Trek was cancelled, plans to bring it back weren’t far off. I won’t go into the whole convoluted history of the early movie scripts or “Star Trek: Phase II,” except to say that the bulk of stories had to do with the crew coming back together after their mission had ended. Some of this included contingencies for people like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy moving on, so when the dust settled, The Motion Picture had two new characters: Will Decker and his old flame Ilia.
Let me get this out of the way while I’m thinking about it: TMP was made with the fans in mind. This is not a movie that spends a lot of time explaining who the Klingons are, who Spock is, or why Kirk is jonesing for the Enterprise so badly. It is a movie that wants to be Bigger! Louder! and Techier! than the show could ever have been. It presumes that the viewer knows the show’s parameters well enough to see the degree to which they have been surpassed.
In that spirit, Kirk is now an Admiral, because why wouldn’t he be? But wait, the viewer wonders: if Kirk isn’t captain of the Enterprise any more, who is? After all, Kirk took over when Christopher Pike was promoted off the ship, and whether Kirk or Pike, the captain was always the storytelling focus of the show. Does that mean Kirk is no longer the center of attention?
Don’t be silly. Captain Decker is mentioned in dialogue before we meet him, but only to tell us he’s about to be booted out of the center seat in favor of James T. Kirk. Even so, TMP sends a little rumble through the old format by making the titular captain of the Enterprise into the guest-star-of-the-week.
Let’s step back for a minute. TMP has three main characters: Kirk, Spock, and Decker. Each gets his own arc, and Kirk’s is the most prominent (of course) although it travels the least distance. Spock learns that logic is not enough; and Decker, through his union with V’Ger, gets to explore higher planes of being while being reunited with his one true love. Kirk gets thrown in the briar patch.
Decker’s story is actually pretty similar to that of David Bailey, the GSOTW in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the first episode filmed after the series went into production. Bailey was a whiny navigator who, when the Enterprise encountered an immense alien starship which threatened to destroy it, freaked out on a level equaled only by Guy Fleegman’s whimpering shuttlecraft breakdown. Kirk, Spock, and Bones took turns convincing Bailey that space was filled with grandeur and beauty, and never mind the giant killer starships. It ended with Bailey sipping tranya with the giant ship’s pilot, having agreed to an extended visit aboard the vessel. As for Decker, after Ilia is disintegrated by V’Ger, he snaps at Kirk, but next to Bailey he looks positively stoic.
Still, Decker, like Bailey, is a classic example of the passenger who finds what he needs during the voyage and leaves the ship somewhere other than his expected destination. This puts the crew of the Enterprise in familiar roles as facilitators, if you ignore the little detail of Kirk protesting Decker’s union with V’Ger. (It’s still in character for Kirk, who did spend five years defeating omniscient soul-killing computers.)
Decker’s joining V’Ger is also reminiscent of the choice presented to Captain Pike in “The Cage.” Pike, burned out on command, is kidnapped by big-headed Talosians who want him and their female human captive, Vina, to repopulate their planet. The Talosians offer to use their vast mental powers to create convincing fantasy lives for the two of them, but Pike refuses, knowing that behind the illusions he’ll still be in a cage, father to a race of slaves. Naturally, Pike escapes, but Vina stays behind, because the Talosians’ illusions help her forget her horribly disfigured body. Indeed, Pike returns to Talos IV in a later episode, following his own crippling accident. Pike leaves his useless body behind so the Talosians can free his mind from it; and similarly, Decker gives up his corporeal existence for the exploration of higher realms.
Spock’s arc may have the most emotional resonance for longtime Star Trek fans, but structurally it seems the least connected to the rest of the plot. Spock has spent the past few years on Vulcan, purging his mind of all remaining emotions. Finally, at the moment he’s ready to graduate to a state of perfect Vulcan logic, he gets walloped with the psychic whammy of V’Ger’s exactingly logical thought patterns. This stirs something in Spock’s human half, causing him to fail the final exam. He links up with the Enterprise, en route to intercepting V’Ger, but Kirk and Bones suspect he has his own agenda.
Indeed, he sneaks out of the ship to mind-meld with V’Ger’s CPU, and again the experience fries his brain. He awakens in sickbay to realize that for all its knowledge (V’Ger is basically a probe, reporting back to its creator after having analyzed the universe for almost 300 years), V’Ger is barren and cold. Spock’s human half has given him the answer that V’Ger still seeks: logic is not enough. Spock sees himself in V’Ger, and realizes with a chuckle that he has, at last, come to terms with his human and Vulcan backgrounds.
I should mention here a couple of obvious episode parallels. The movie itself strongly resembles a grander version of “The Changeling,” wherein NOMAD, an Earth probe from the late 20th Century, is lost in space, damaged, and rehabbed by an alien race which gives it immense power. NOMAD thinks Kirk is its creator, Jackson Roykirk, which allows Kirk to control it somewhat. Spock’s story also recalls, at least superificially, the episode “The Immunity Syndrome,” in which he pilots a shuttle on a suicide mission into the center of a giant one-celled organism.)
You can see how Spock’s experience informs Decker’s. Decker’s human psychology helps complete V’Ger. Furthermore, I suppose the argument could be made that since V’Ger has absorbed and at least replicated Ilia’s psychological emphasis on sensuality and (shall we say) more intense emotions, it can use those as well. Those three components, naturally, mirror the id/ego/superego trinity that the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic symbolize — so, in a way, Decker, as the mediator between V’Ger’s pure logic and Ilia’s pure emotion, has, at last, become Kirk.
That brings us, of course, to the man himself. Kirk is, in many ways, the most important figure in TMP. All of his actions in the early part of the film are meant to recreate his glory days as Enterprise captain. Indeed, Kirk recommended that Decker succeed him, and recommended a Vulcan to replace Spock. (When Sonak dies in a transporter accident, Kirk still wants a Vulcan.) It’s a little on the creepy side, almost a Vertigo situation. Bones calls it an “obsession,” in the course of upbraiding Kirk for not doing his homework on the ship’s new capabilities. (Kirk learns from this — in Star Trek II, he says “We’re only alive because I knew something about these ships [Khan] didn’t.”)
And yet, he loves the Enterprise and her crew, and they love him. A mouthy ensign snits that Captain Decker has been with the ship every moment since her refitting, but Uhura puts him in his place with “Our chances of coming back from this mission in one piece may have just doubled.” Kirk’s story plays just on the “driven, decisive” side of obsession, like Vertigo when you think Jimmy Stewart has finally figured things out.
The positive aspect of Kirk’s story is mentioned as he tells Decker he’s back: Kirk has “five years, out there, dealing with things like this,” and Decker doesn’t. Metatextually, this suggests to me that Kirk has to be in command, because those five years as The Decider have made him better qualified. You don’t just get to be The Decider overnight, after all.
It also suggests that Kirk had come to define himself by his role, both dramatically and in terms of career. I don’t mean Shatner had become so identified (although of course he had) — rather, Kirk the allegorical personification couldn’t play the same kind of dramatic role as a desk-bound admiral, and Kirk the admiral similarly couldn’t traverse the final frontier. This is why Kirk drafts Bones back into service, telling him “I need you — badly!” It’s why he wants a Vulcan as science officer. The character is returning to his comfort zone, and the show is restoring its familiar format.
What Kirk’s arc ignores, and indeed what TMP was somewhat forced to ignore, is the ability of Star Trek to absorb changes in cast in the name of preserving format. Only Spock survived the housecleaning from the first pilot to the second. Likewise, “Star Trek: Phase II” was prepared to absorb the loss of Leonard Nimoy. It would have replaced him with Xon, a young Vulcan lieutenant who wanted to act more human. By the time Star Trek did return to television in 1987, Xon had evolved into the android Data, just as Riker and Troi were clear descendants of Decker and Ilia.
Therefore, to me, Star Trek: The Motion Picture contains the seeds of its own criticism. It offers different permutations of the Kirk/Spock/Bones id/ego/superego dynamic, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time on them. Instead, it prefers to focus on reuniting the originals. Once that’s taken care of, though, it settles into some very familiar rhythms, because it has to attend to the guest-star-of-the-week. As a bonus, it allows Spock some significant character development. Unfortunately, everyone else will have to wait until at least the next movie.
By confirming Kirk and company as the only viable crew for the Enterprise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture also laid the groundwork for a more definite shift in the series’ format. The next movie would force the series to choose whether it was going to be about the characters, or about the voyages.
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