Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Star Trek: The Motion Picture 30 years on

by Rob - December 7th, 2009.
Filed under: Star Trek, Watch.


Today, December 7, 2009, is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

TrekMovie.com has a nice appreciative essay.

In tribute, I offer this sneak peek at a scene from Watch, the second volume of my WWW trilogy, coming in April 2010 from Ace (US), Penguin (Canada), and Gollancz (UK); in this scene, Caitlin, her father, and Webmind watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture. If you haven’t read Wake, the first book yet, note that this contains some spoilers for that book.

“Another movie?” suggested her dad.

“Sure,” said Caitlin.

Perhaps another one about AI, Webmind sent to her post-retinal implant.

“Webmind wants to see something else about artificial intelligence,” Caitlin said.

They stood by the thin cabinets containing his DVD collection. Her father’s mouth curved downward; a frown. “Most of them are negative portrayals,” he said. “Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Matrix, The Terminator, 2001. I’ll definitely show you 2001 at some point, only because it was so influential in the history of artificial intelligence — a whole generation of people went into that field because of it. But it’s almost all visuals, without much dialog; we should wait until you can process imagery better before having you try to make sense out of that, and …”

The frown flipped; a smile. “… and they don’t call it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture for nothing,” he said. “Let’s watch it instead. It’s got a lot of talking heads — but it’s also one of the most ambitious and interesting films ever made about AI.”

And so they settled on the couch to give the Star Trek movie a look. This was, her father explained, the “Director’s Edition,” which he said was much improved over the tedious cut first shown in theaters when he was twelve.

Caitlin had read that the average length of a shot in a movie was three seconds, which was the amount of time it took to see all the important details; after that, apparently, the eye got bored. This film had shots that went on far longer than that — but the three-second figure was based on people who’d had vision their whole lives. It took Caitlin much more time to extract meaning from a normal scene, and even longer when seeing things she’d never touched in real life — such as starship control consoles, tricorders, and so on. For her, the film seemed to zip by at … well, at warp speed.

Even though Webmind was listening in, her dad turned on the closed-captioning again so Caitlin could practice her reading.

The film did indeed make some interesting points about artificial intelligence, Caitlin thought, including that consciousness was an emergent property of complexity. The AI in the film, like Webmind, had “gained consciousness itself” without anyone having planned for it to do so.

Fascinating, Webmind sent to her eye. The parallels are not lost on me, and …

And Webmind went on and on, and suddenly Caitlin had sympathy for her dad not liking people talking during movies.

Very interesting, Webmind observed when the film suggested that after a certain threshold was reached, an AI couldn’t continue to evolve without adding “a human quality,” which Admiral Kirk had identified as “our capacity to leap beyond logic.” But what does that mean, precisely?

Caitlin had to keep the dates in mind: although the film was set in the twenty-third century, it had been made in 1979, long before Deep Blue had defeated grand master Garry Kasparov at chess. But Kirk was right: even though Deep Blue, by calculating many moves ahead in the game, ultimately did prove to be better at that one narrow activity than was Kasparov, the computer didn’t even know it was playing chess. Kasparov’s intuitive grasp of the board, the pieces, and the goal was indeed leaping beyond logic, and it was a greater feat than any mechanical number crunching.

But it was the subplot about Spock, the half-human half-Vulcan character, that really aroused Caitlin’s attention — and apparently Webmind’s, too, because he actually shut up during it.

To her astonishment, her dad had paused the DVD to say the most important scene in the whole film was not in the original theatrical release, but had been restored in this director’s cut. It took place, as almost the whole movie did, on the bridge of the Enterprise. Kirk asked Spock’s opinion of something. Spock’s back was to him, and he made no reply, so Kirk got up and gently swung Spock’s chair around, and — it was so subtle, Caitlin at first didn’t recognize what was happening, but after a few seconds the image popped into clarity for her, and there was no mistaking it: the cool, aloof, emotionless, almost robotic Spock, who in this movie had been even grimmer than Caitlin remembered him from listening to the TV shows with her father over the years, was crying.

And, although they were facing almost certain destruction at the hands of V’Ger, a vast artificial intelligence, Kirk knew his friend well enough to say, in reference to the tears, “Not for us?”

Spock replied, with infinite sadness. “No, Captain, not for us. For V’Ger. I weep for V’Ger as I would for a brother. As I was when I came aboard, so is V’Ger now.” When Spock had come aboard, he’d been trying to purge all remaining emotion — the legacy of his human mother — to become, like V’Ger, like Deep Blue, a creature of pure logic, the Vulcan ideal. Two heritages, two paths. A choice to be made.

And, by the end of the film, he’d made his choice, embracing his human, emotional half, so that in the final scene, when Scotty announced to him, in that wonderful accent of his, that, “We can have you back on Vulcan in four days, Mr. Spock,” Spock had replied, “Unnecessary, Engineer. My business on Vulcan is concluded.”

“What did you think?” Caitlin asked into the air as the ending credits played overtop of the stirring music.

Characters flashed across her vision: I’m a doctor, not a film critic. She laughed, and Webmind went on. It was interesting when Spock said, “Each of us, at some time in our lives, turns to someone — a father, a brother, a god — and asks, ‘Why am I here? What was I meant to be?’” Most uncharacteristically, Webmind paused, then added: He was right. We all must find our place in the world.

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