Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture as it was meant to be seen

by Rob - May 23rd, 2012.
Filed under: Star Trek.

Spoiler Alert!

In 1979, before I’d yet seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a friend of mine came up to me and said, “So, what did you think when V’Ger turned out to be Voyager 6?” I’ve never had any idea what my reaction to that revelation would have been; I was robbed of that moment. But this week, I finally got to experience ST:TMP as it was meant to be seen …

I think most of the world was robbed of the power of the V’Ger revelation, anyway, because almost all of us who saw ST:TMP had already seen the classic Trek episode “The Changeling,” which involves the very similar revelation that a marauding super-advanced AI is actually an old Earth probe; we immediately dubbed ST:TMP “Where Nomad Has Gone Before.”

But on Sunday I watched the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture with my friend Sherry Peters, who is new to classic Trek (but has now seen about half the episodes), and who hadn’t yet seen “The Changeling.” I got to vicariously share her experience as the big reveal was made in ST:TMP — seeing it as the fresh work that Harold Livingston and Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry and Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner (the writer, director, producer, and studio executives behind the film) had seen it. Sherry liked the film (as do I) and she was surprised and pleased by the revelation. Her eyes went wide and she actually let out a little startled gasp.

The next day, I showed her “The Changeling” on Blu-ray. It took just eleven minutes into the episode (before we even got to the “Jackson Roykirk” bit) for her to say, “Wait a minute — this is the same thing as Star Trek: The Motion Picture!”

And seeing the two of them back-to-back, in that order, really does drive that home: both begin with super-high-powered energy bolts being fired, both have the crew shocked at old-style binary radio messages being sent, both have the Enterprise‘s computer banks being scanned at super-high speed (shorting them out in “The Changeling,” Spock actually smashing the console with interlaced fists to stop the uploading in ST:TMP), both have an AI wandering the Enterprise to learn about its people (Nomad itself; the Ilia probe); both have the visiting AI refer to the crew as “units” (or sometimes, in ST:TMP, as “carbon units”); both have the AI heading back to Earth to meet a “Creator” that it has misconceptions about, both have Spock mind-melding with the AI and from that learning the history of how an encounter with alien AIs led to the modification/enhancement of the original probe.

Of course, the endings of the two versions are very different. In “The Changeling,” Kirk does what he did to M5 and Landru and Mudd’s androids — arguing them to death. In ST:TMP, we get a transhumanist/singulatarian vision that’s quite lovely and much more upbeat.

And, to me, anyway, the real strength of TMP isn’t the V’Ger story: it’s Spock’s response to V’Ger, his character arc going from wanting to purge all his remaining emotions via the Kohlinar ritual, to his crying on the bridge when he realizes via the example of V’Ger how barren such an existence is, to his telling Scotty in the final scene that “My business on Vulcan is concluded.”

I do admire the movie, and enjoy seeing it again every few years (and one of my favorite scenes in my novel WWW: Watch has a character watching the film for the first time). But I got a particular kick out of finally seeing it, albeit vicariously, as its creators had intended it to be seen — thank you, Sherry!

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7 Responses to Seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture as it was meant to be seen

  1. I never Knew the classic Star Trek movies could be so intense. I started watching Star Trek from The Next Generation (ST-TNG). Methinks it is a Gr8 Franchise!

  2. On first viewing of TMP when it opened (I think it was Dec. 9, 1979 that I went to see it), I recall feeling extremely cheated. I had deduced V’ger was Voyager quickly, and spent the rest of the time thinking that this was just an expanded version of The Changeling, but with clunkier bridge design than TOS and comparatively weak special effects considering the budget. Consequently, my feelings about the movie have always been tainted, much like Ralphie, in A Christmas Story, who discovers that the Little Orphan Annie decoder is just an advertising vehicle for a lousy commercial.

    My disappointment did not persist into the other films. I am a died-in-the-wool ST fan, always have been, and am willing to forgive a lot, including what I consider the huge misstep of the franchise (ST:TMP). The good of the many films outweighs the weakness of the one (to paraphrase Spock and John Stuart Mill).

  3. Two years ago I experienced a similar renewing. My wife had never watched the original Star Wars Trilogy — I know, right? — and I finally convinced her of the Holy Trilogy’s utter greatness. She claims she doesn’t like Science Fiction, but as she experienced the story for the first time, I experienced it anew. This renewed everything, especially “The Empire Strikes Back,” by far the best written of the three. I saw story arcs I hadn’t noticed before. I understood better the power Darth Vader held over almost everyone in the Empire. And I appreciated Yoda more, especially as he lay dying.

    I haven’t watched ST:TMP since my ex-girlfriend and I watched all of the ST films. Sorry, but I agree with brickswithoutstraw; it wasn’t the best. But it is still a part of the cannon and I wouldn’t mind watching the Director’s Cut to see how it improves the experience.

    So far, my top three ST films are ST:TWK, TVH, and First Contact. After those, ST:TUC and ST 0 (JJ Abram’s ST) (42:Squamous Unutterable Horrific Lovely Eldritch Nameless Life)

  4. I remember seeing this in the theater with my Dad when I was 11 and that revelation was truly mind-blowing. I remember talking to my Dad about it afterwards and we both thought the movie was great. As a result, I’ve always had fond memories of Star Trek 1 and never really understood the reason for the majority of ST fans that think the movie was bad or slow or whatever. After becoming a serious fan years later, I realize that the style of the movie was not very characteristic of the series. Your point about the movie being ruined by either foreknowledge of the V’Ger reference or having been familiar with the original episode makes sense.

  5. Awwww, now you’ve spoilt it for me! I just got all the TOS movies and haven’t seen any of them yet.

  6. Sorry about that, GP. But it is a third of a century old, that movie … ;) Still, I’ve added a spoiler alert at the top.

  7. I too like TMP quite a bit, but my experience was different than Rob’s. I was 11 when it premiered, so I believe I was a little younger than Rob, and I thought not at all about The Changeling (which I had already seen many times), the special effects, the pacing, or any of that.

    To me, TMP was magical. I had started watching TOS two years earlier, and from the beginning the Enterprise was a character to me, as important as any crew member, and to see her on the big screen was glorious. I saw the movie six times in the theatre, including a memorable showing at the Cinesphere at Ontario Place. When I listened to the LP of the soundtrack, I could picture each scene based on the music cues.

    But without a copy of the movie itself, the replaying of it in my mind was my only access to the movie for many years. (Well, that and the “Photostory” book that came out in 1980, and which I just grabbed from my shelf for the first time in years.)

    So until I was quite a bit older, TMP existed as a fond childhood memory.

    When I watch is now, I do realize that it is slow, effects laden and has some other flaws, but part of me is always that 11-year-old watching the Enterprise glide out of drydock, and I still hear Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing score.

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