I recently took the opportunity to re-watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). This, the first entry in the Star Trek movie franchise, is an oft-panned film. Audiences dislike the emphasis on visual effects over character, the slow pacing of the film, the lack of action, or the trouble with making sense of the story. Nevertheless, the movie was financially reasonably successful, and it's actually filled with interesting symbolism, questions, and classic science fiction. It is because it is a product of its time that it is often given short shrift.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (henceforth TMP) debuted only two years after Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and eleven years after 2001: A Space Odyssey. These three films heavily influenced how TMP came about. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a very similar storyline: A powerful, inscrutable object appears and poses a conundrum, and possibly a threat, to all of humanity. In the end, the object is the key to some kind of higher consciousness, but only for the one person able to make contact with it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved to movie studios that a science fiction film could focus on mysteries and character development questions instead of fast action, but still be a box office success. Star Wars, of course, established the power of the sci-fi mega-blockbuster and the development of top-notch special effects.
When TMP started production, it was transitioned over from early material that was supposed to be a television series -- Star Trek: Phase II. The success of big-budget science fiction movies convinced Paramount to develop Star Trek as a movie instead, and TMP was the result of this changeover. Thus, TMP is actually based on ideas and concepts from earlier Star Trek, since it's a conversion of a continuation. It is, in a sense, 1969's science fiction (the ideas that were unused after the original series was cancelled) turned into a story told in the '70s. This is part of the problem: the release of Star Wars has changed what audiences expect from big-budget spaceship movies. Where's the action? Where're the space battles? Where are the supernatural overtones, psychic powers or mysterious secret societies? TMP isn't about that -- in the entire movie they never fire phasers, and the Enterprise only fires a single photon torpedo (the Klingons are a bit more aggressive, but it does them no good). This is a movie that's about the sensibilities of science fiction from the '60s, but made after the advent of the sci-fi mega-blockbusters.
The result of TMP's timing is that people judge and review it on the basis of comparison with the release of Star Wars, because the audience taste for starships without action had changed. What's the point in having a space ship with phasers and photon torpedoes if you don't use them? Kirk doesn't even throw a single punch! (One recent opinion piece stridently tries to make the case that Star Wars ruined the science fiction landscape. I don't necessarily agree, but I think it did change expectations. Draw your own conclusions.) TMP actually addresses this implicitly in its opening. A wing of three Klingon ships encounter V'ger traveling through Klingon space. They attack with torpedoes! Their torpedoes have no effect. V'ger disintegrates them effortlessly. The opening scene is about the futility of violent conflict.
With that out of the way, the movie goes on to set up the various character conflicts. Though reviewers might consider the characterization tepid, the character scenes are not wasted.
Spock's failed attempt to complete the discipline of kolinahr both provides his connection to the story and later serves to underscore his tension with his former crewmates. Has Spock lost touch with his camaraderie? Will he betray the Enterprise in order to seek answers from V'ger? When he leaves on a jetpack to seek his own answers, this creates tension. Of course we know with hindsight that Spock would never betray the Enterprise, but in 1979 there's no long-running franchise and Nimoy almost didn't even appear in the movie! The whole discipline of kolinahr is a reflection of the V'ger story. Spock's looking for meaning in total logic, but he comes to realize that he can't find it there. Maybe other Vulcans do, but . . . the matriarch who oversees his kolinahr trials gives something of a wry smile when she realizes that his answers, as she says, do not lie with them. His return to Enterprise constantly underscores that he seems to have no connection with his fellows, no sense of feeling anything for them. Of course later when he learns what V'ger is about, the only thing he can do is laugh. Laugh! Because he knows what V'ger can't, and it is what he thought he was leaving behind, but it turns out to be important after all. Spock had what he needed all along and tried to rid himself of it, only to discover that someone else had achieved his aim and found it hollow and meaningless. So he laughs because of the irony, because there is no logic in it, because it's the perversity of the universe and that's all you can do is to laugh.
When Kirk and Scotty get on a shuttle to head over to Enterprise, there's the lengthy "beauty shot" as they circle around the ship as it finishes construction. While this is a slow-paced shot, it's an important reintroduction for the audience. The Enterprise is often cited as a character herself, and this is the first look of the audience at her new beauty. Plus, we see Kirk and Scotty's reaction shots. Keep in mind, Shatner and Doohan probably aren't looking at a model or even a greenscreen -- they're looking into a camera, doing the hardest trick that any actor can be asked to do: Communicate emotions without words. In fact, they can't even use gestures, since Scotty's flying the travel pod! Written in Kirk's face we have to see his wonder at the changes that have been wrought on Enterprise, his thoughts about returning to his ship after so long, about the confrontation he's about to have, pulling this great lady away from Decker, the captain who's earned the right to command her. Decker, son of the man who died on Kirk's watch, facing down a doomsday machine. A giant, enigmatic alien device that could destroy the world! Is history repeating itself? Shatner has to convey that combination of wonder, trepidation, and homecoming with just a tilt of the head and a storied gaze. Did they succeed? Watch and decide for yourself.
A clashing element in characterization comes from the fact that the film tends to work the characters in pairs, but the dynamic established from the classic series was the trinity of Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Decker and Ilia are a pair who deal with chafing at boundaries and striving with the problems of awakening old memories -- whether that is too easy or too hard. Enterprise and V'ger are a pair, a pair of magnificent machines emblematic of humanity's drive to create something that launches us into the cosmos to learn. Kirk has to hold the center and winds up paired off with most of the other characters one at a time -- Kirk versus Decker, the young new captain chafing under the savvy admiral who's taken back his command; Kirk versus Spock, trying to reconnect with his longest, best friend and struggling with Spock's refusal to acknowledge their former friendship ("Will you please . . . sit . . . DOWN!"); Kirk versus McCoy, as Kirk pushes to get what he wants and to face the threat of V'ger, using that as an excuse to paper over his roughshod seizure of Enterprise, his brusque treatment of Decker, his own impatience, while McCoy reminds Kirk of his duties, his commitments to his crew, and that he can't hide his motivations from himself even if he tries to conceal them behind "duty" or "experience." This means that we really only get one significant scene with Kirk, Spock, and Bones all in discussion, and their discussion dances around their character interaction to talk about V'ger -- but that very dance is deliberate, because it's underscoring Spock's remoteness and the fact that he has lost his connection to his former friends. The scene isn't about establishing the old links between the characters, but establishing how they are broken, so that they can be mended later. It's not that the movie lacks characterization for the principals -- its that their characterization is deliberately flawed, to underscore how remote Spock has become from Kirk and Bones, in order to build the contrast later when Spock realizes that he needs that connection with his friends, that he has something that V'ger does not.
Another oft-cited issue is in the lengthy effects sequences as Enterprise flies into the heart of V'ger's energy cloud and sees all the strange vistas there. Webs of lightning? Rivers of green ice and blue cobalt walls? Sea-urchin like spheres amidst jagged pieces of alien technology? It's a long-running series of images that make no sense. Keyed by Star Wars, the modern viewer rejects this and asks, why are you showing me this? Why are you wasting all of this time and money on these long, quiet effects shots? But this is what the movie owes to 2001: A Space Odyssey. (That's why all these long shots have Jerry Goldsmith's orchestral scores.) These vistas are not supposed to make sense. V'ger is not comprehensible to us. It's a huge, strange, alien intelligence. What purpose do these things serve? What do they do? Why are we seeing them? We are supposed to look at it in wonder and not understand. The crew of the Enterprise doesn't understand any more than the viewer. "Type of energy, unknown. Pattern, unknown. Composition, unknown." Over and over that word, "unknown." But that's the whole job of the Enterprise and crew: To find the unknown! To go out there and discover it, see it, learn from it! The audience is seeing a puzzle and a mystery. You are flying into the heart of the enigma. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the slow space shots were often symoblic, carrying subtext about humanity's halting journey into space. (See one interpretation here.) TMP is doing the same thing. We start out seeing the majesty and grandeur of Enterprise. She is a glorious ship, powerful, sleek, fast. When she meets V'ger she is dwarfed, powerless, meaningless. Over and over again, Enterprise is dragged by a tractor beam, deeper into V'ger -- because humanity's greatest machinations are helpless. V'ger is the enigma, and we are helpless before it; all we can do is be drawn into it. The exoteric meaning is the same as the esoteric meaning: Humanity must solve the enigma or humanity will die.
Once the Enterprise is deep into V'ger's sphere of influence, the aperture closes behind them -- there's no turning back -- and Ilia is digitized, only to return later as a mechanical probe. It's probably not a coincidence that the sensor that records everything for V'ger is above her collarbone. In other science fiction, such a device would always be placed on the forehead. It's the third eye, after all -- a technological one, designed to see and know things. But V'ger knows all about all kinds of things and still does not understand. So the sensor is halfway between the throat and the heart. It's trying to bridge the gap between communication and emotion. When Decker tries to re-awaken Ilia's memories, it's not by talking about the missions that the Enterprise has been on, or about how the probe should mechanically be able to reproduce her thought patterns. It's through play, by spending time recreating emotional bonds that they have had. But V'ger and the probe can't fathom these connections. Ilia-probe can feel them but she doesn't know what to do with them, and V'ger doesn't know what they mean, so V'ger makes the probe continue on its very logical, orderly business of learning about the carbon-based units and deciding whether to exterminate them.
In the end, of course, the solution to V'ger's problem is that V'ger needs to be more than a machine. It cannot simply reason its way out of its box. It has to make a "leap of faith," or at least gain the ability to see what might be instead of what is. V'ger has, according to Spock, absorbed entire galaxies in its information matrix, but all it can do is look at things that exist in the universe and record them. It can't dream. It can't imagine. That quality is what it needs. That quality is what comes about in the end with the merging of Decker and the Ilia-probe, with V'ger finally given, as Kirk says, the ability to make its own purpose. Spock, of course, has this figured out after he mind melds with V'ger, not because of something he learns from V'ger's mind, but from what he realizes that it lacks. V'ger can't create its own motivation; it has no choice but to seek out its creator and report what it has learned. But in knowing it has come to realize that there is something that it does not know in spite of all that it has absorbed. Even having absorbed entire planets and people, it does not know how to understand their minds. TMP is talking about the idea that the mind is more than the body, that we are more than a deterministic set of chemical equations, that the universe may be so complex in its beauty that there are elements that cannot be described within consistent logical sets (that is, things like Godel's Incompleteness Theorem). Numbers alone cannot explain the universe, so V'ger needs something more, and that something more can only spring out of the "human equation," the arising of some ability of consciousness to make sense of a world that cannot be adequately and self-consistently explained by pure logic or mathematics. Whether you agree or disagree, this is some heavy stuff!
At last the crew of the Enterprise manages to give V'ger the tools to find the answers that it seeks, and it vanishes in a halo of light, leaving behind the Enterprise over the Earth. This is a fitting departure, as it's once again the pair of characters -- V'ger, a tool that humanity sent out long ago to explore the universe, has fulfilled its purpose, giving way to the Enterprise, the tool that the humans of our future now use to explore the universe. The enigma has been solved: the puzzle at the heart was a reflection of humanity. Humanity sent its best tools out to learn about the universe, and catalogued facts and numbers and figures, and in the end had to learn that those facts and numbers and figures could not substitute for the personal connection, the ability to leap to realizations that are not bound by those numbers and figures, the ability to give something to someone and receive something in turn that is not a communication based on pictures or words but upon experiences and feelings. The tools that we relied upon to learn became a danger -- a danger of cataloguing everything, reducing everything (humanity included) to nothing but data, and forgetting that we have to reach out and touch. Forgetting the very reason we have the Enterprise: because we have to go out there for ourselves, see it for ourselves, experience it and live it to understand it. In TMP, we sent a probe called V'ger to study the universe, and when it came back, it sent a probe called Ilia to study us. We could only complete the function of the probe's study of the universe by teaching it about ourselves. The modern viewer, keyed to the internet and the virtual world, would see this as the quest for authenticity. It's the exit from T. S. Eliot's Wasteland, an escape from the life inauthentically led to recapture the life of meaning and wonder.
That's the double meaning in the final text of the movie: "The Human Adventure is Just Beginning." Sure, there will be a sequel. But it's also promising that understanding the cosmos goes hand-in-hand with understanding humanity. The message in TMP is that you can't reduce truth, or humanity, or the cosmos simply to data. The data tells you important things about how the universe works, but it's up to you to decide why you care.
(P.S. I can't help but feel some sorrow for Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Grace Lee Whitney, and Majel Barret-Roddenberry. All of them reprised their roles -- Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Rand, and Chapel, respectively -- but since they were not paired with a contrasting character, they didn't get chances to really shine in the script, which is unfortunate and does underly some of the complaints about the characterization.)