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2. The Wrath of Khan
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... Prime Directive: Genesis
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Star Trek 1: The Motion Picture

story by Alan Dean Foster
screenplay by Harold Livingston
directed by Robert Wise, music by Jerry Goldsmith
feature film, 136 minutes

In the late 1970's, it suddenly seemed possible that sci-fi films could be big, popular, fun,
visually-stunning successes, both critically and financially. And so a proposed new Star Trek Phase II television series morphed into a major theatrical motion picture instead, and unwittingly spawned a brand new avenue for the franchise's output via feature films.
Hindsight tends to regard this tale as a slow-paced oddity within the canon, one that somehow didn't quite capture the spirit of the characters or their adventures correctly. But perhaps we shouldn't even approach this piece with the same expectations as we would most other common sci-fi narrative films.

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is not so much a narrative film as it is an
audio-visual concert, akin to a Richard Wagner opera or an epic poem, one that happens to have a mythical sci-fi narrative with good characters and their adventures embedded somewhere within it.

We also must note that this film remains a strong piece within Star Trek's canon due to having a very powerful concept at its core - and one that speaks very directly to the franchise's central hopes and dreams. This story is primarily about confronting the unknown, as alien and diverse as it could be. It's about conquering fearful instincts to make such contact about peace, understanding, cultural exchange, revelation, and transformation.... and it's also about the discipline and hard work and team spirit required to get into space to make such discoveries and contact possible. The very lifeblood of this film drips with the essential philosophy of Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek, which really is a good thing in the end.

On a structural level, the first half of the film is noticeably different from the second. The first half concerns itself with introducing characters, and only slowly bringing them together. First up is the film's chief antagonist, the unknown cloud. The film gains much scope by delivering an extensive sequence showing three Klingon spacecraft attempting to confront this cloud. It demonstrates the power and size of the cloud, the utter futility of aggressive tactics, and suggests how the cloud might be "angered" by and thus prejudiced against our entire type of life form. These Klingons demonstrate the wrong way to confront the unknown.

The Klingons themselves are also receiving a bit of a transformation here within the franchise. The basic shape of their spacecraft is retained from the television series' third season and animated series, but is now embellished with far more detail. The infamous change in the look of Klingons (via new make-up processes) happens here, and remains largely inexplicable in story-terms. The Klingons now get their own language, both for dialogue and in written form on their monitors, although it is vastly underdeveloped here compared with what it will later become. Perhaps most important of all is the musical style that Jerry Goldsmith uses to define them, a style which continues to be used and imitated in nearly every subsequent appearance. We mix the grand legendary military call of an open fifth repeated by the brass in interesting variations and combinations with an ancient and exotic percussive section, hinting at elements at the heart of their culture. Thus "Klingon Attack" becomes a very definitive cue not just for the movie, but for the whole franchise as well.

Slowly, our heroes begin to be introduced, all making their way into space to climb on board the Enterprise, with the ticking clock of the unknown cloud's arrival at Earth adding pressure for them to complete their preparations. This turns out to be the most complete of all the reassembling of the TV cast depicted in the movies, thanks to both Christine Chapel and Janice Rand having a number of scenes interacting with the others and getting their share of lines. Thrown into the mix are two new characters, originally intended to become regulars in the Phase II TV series: Commander Will Decker and the alien Ltn. Ilia. I think these sections all work well enough for old series fans and new audiences alike, although the new audiences may not understand how such grandiosity may have been earned, and old series fans may still feel like something's missing.

Something strangely nebulous is James Kirk's promotion to Admiral - nebulous because for much of the time he is addressed as Captain. Strange too that Decker has achieved the rank of Captain, but will be addressed as Commander for this adventure. Huh? This marks the beginning of Kirk's arc of discomfort with being promoted beyond his ideal role in life. He is deserving of the rank of Admiral, but can't stand sitting on the sidelines behind a desk. He craves to be in the midst of the action. I've often felt his ideal rank would be Commodore, as with the character of Matt Decker from the episode "The Doomsday Machine" (TOS season 2) - no proven relation to Will Decker as seen in this movie, though it has been suggested by some that Matt was to be the father and Will his son. Commodore Matt Decker commanded a starship like any other captain, and was in the heart of the action, yet could also outrank other captains whenever two or more starships pooled their talents for a combined mission. What other rank could be better for Kirk?

One of the most important characters being introduced in this section is our heroes' spacecraft - the Enterprise. This is the vessel that makes our heroes' continuing adventures possible, sitting at the heart of the franchise's format - and much screen time is devoted to admiring her external shape and maintenance requirements through model work and special optical effects. The music for the first half of the film is dominated by a brand new heroic theme from Jerry Goldsmith, introduced over the main titles and reinforced often throughout the lengthy model sequences of the Enterprise. It is strange in retrospect how much more strongly this theme became associated with the later "Next Generation" crew, when it became the title/credit music for their TV show and subsequent movies. Seeing it debut here for Kirk and co. makes it feel like more of a theme for Star Trek in general, and that Kirk's team has now truly arrived in the future.

For the second half of the film, all of our characters are now together, and the encounter with the unknown occupies the rest of the running time. The music is much darker, more mysterious, more experimental and unpredictable, yet is still filled with a majestic beauty and magic that tells you that this is Jerry Goldsmith at his best. One of the fresh new sounds here is the "blaster beam", which quickly became popular enough to find its way into James Horner's score for "Battle Beyond the Stars" at around the same time, becoming something of a signature ominous sound for big space movies.

Hard Separation of Content

What seems to be at the heart of the film's slow pace is its reluctance to truly mix and merge many of its elements together in the edit... which may even have occurred by design. The story is often moved forward by character dialogue scenes that have little of interest going on visually or in the sound department. Alternately, we get long sequences of stunning visuals, music, and sound that merely pile sensory detail upon some sort of transition through various environments - while nothing is really advancing the story. This hard separation between these two types of content in the edit often sticks out quite strongly.

Director Robert Wise is quite vocal on the documentaries and commentary about how this happened. He cites the tight schedule surrounding the release date, and the relatively late receipt of many of the critical effects shots, and that these resulted in a rushed editing job that didn't complete all of the passes and have a chance to respond to internal reviews or test audiences, which was his normal process on every other film he's every made. Okay, but.... How did he not see this problem coming when shooting all that massive amount of footage of nothing but reaction shots from the cast as they stared at a blank screen during principle photography? The writing seems to have been on the wall for all to read quite early on....

Perhaps this element of this film's format was a bit par for the course for director Robert Wise, whose cinematic credits include musicals such as the highly acclaimed "The Sound of Music". I've often felt that the chief drawback with musicals is that cinematic audiences quickly lose patience when an otherwise satisfying drama comes to a complete halt each time a musical number begins - and more often than not the musical number isn't much to write home about and the film would be stronger, as a piece of narrative cinema, without 70-80% of such musical numbers. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" seems to be inheriting some echo of this phenomenon, but it is expressed differently here.

It is important to note that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the rest of the cast have all formed a very excellent on-screen rapport with each other throughout their work on the 1960's TV series and 1970's animated series. That cast charm is still definitely present here, but perhaps not quite getting all the attention and focus that it deserves. It feels as though the camera is too shy to go up close and capture the magic the way the TV show did, and prefers to content itself with long-shots of the scenery a little too often. So perhaps the drama here doesn't quite pull us along as well as the drama in the musicals, as the immediate impression is somewhat less than what a great TV show may have led us to expect.

The flip-side is the far greater degree of interest and success in the audio-visual spectacles here than in the usual musical numbers in other movies. No obnoxious lyrics here - instead we get great artistic detail about the unknown visually, combined with some of the best orchestral music the industry has ever had to offer. You can get away with special effects "numbers" when Jerry Goldsmith is composing them, and I believe his contribution is critical for the continuing success of this film and fans' love for it.

First Person Cinema

We should though address the concept championed by special effects genius Douglas Trumbull which he called "First Person Cinema". This concept is all about letting the camera see exactly what a forward-moving exploring character would see, and to some degree attempt to put the audience directly in that character's shoes. Trumbull also used this style prolifically in his work on Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". But is it really as good an idea as he says it is on the audio commentary track? Should it really be sustained as long as possible, as he recommends? Personally I think there's a whacking great flaw directly in the supposed benefit of it, just as there is in a number of similar experimental techniques from other pioneering filmmakers, in that these techniques assume a sort of audience participation which never materializes - and indeed CAN'T truly materialize - because the film/TV medium is fundamentally NOT INTERACTIVE.

The audience knows full well, even if only subconsciously, that nothing they do can impact the film. Nothing they are about to see will change based on what they do or think. The images will be the same; the camera will keep moving forward without slowing. Furthermore, as long as we hold on a first person cinema shot, we will not be able to see the protagonist characters (such as Kirk, or the Enterprise) do anything to affect the things we see either. We resign ourselves to a section of non-interactivity, and if that is sustained for too long, what actually happens is that the minds of the audience members wander off, and next thing you know, they're thinking about their laundry, and lists of things they will do as soon as they can get their butts out of the theatre. You know, things they actually CAN do or interact with. If a piece of TV or cinema is going to ask for the undivided attention of its audience, it should say what it wants to say and then let us go, not hold us there and depend on us to invent great conversation in its presence. We can just as well do that somewhere else.

What most of these filmmakers think they would achieve with these techniques actually does materialize when we switch to a different, INTERACTIVE medium, such as video games, or internet searching, or things of that nature.

To be fair, Trumbull offers some of the very best and most balancing concepts regarding his ideas about pace at the very end of the audio commentary track, over the end credits. In fact, I would have to agree with nearly everything he says at that point, a lot of which neatly dovetails into what writer/director Nicholas Meyer will say on future Star Trek extras concerning leaving sufficient space for the audience to hear their own thoughts and find their own interpretation. It is a balancing act in the end, and different films can go out of balance in different directions. Sometimes the problem with leaving a gap for audience interpretation lies in the fact that the film up until that moment has not prompted anyone to think about anything truly fascinating or new - in effect, the audience doesn't need that moment, and won't use it to interpret anything related to the film. However, I will also suggest that one of the biggest things Trumbull has not highlighted here that will make the difference between an image that is truly worthy of being sustained for a time and an image that isn't worthy, is its level of interactivity, and the degree to which an audience can anticipate that it will have interactivity within it.

A related concern that we will return to over the course of examining Star Trek movies is just what it is that makes a good optical effects shot. For me, one of the most important things I can think of is that there should be two or more major independent objects in it, so that we can see some kind of relationship or interaction between them. Maybe the shot tells us where these two things are in relation to each other geographically, whether they're getting closer together or flying apart, whether they're going to hit each other or miss, or how big one is to another. Will one do something do affect another? BUT, none of these questions are really active when you get a shot with only one object in it. First Person Cinema, by definition, creates shots with at least one of the important objects missing, gives us no information about it until we cut away, and eats away at EFFECTIVE cinematic grammar. It pretty much forces us to fall back on the old Eisenstein experiments, as "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" does repeatedly, where we dig for meaning in the cutaways to the faces of the Enterprise crew - and often find little help there to justify the amount of material delivered in this format.

In terms of this film's First Person Cinema sequences, I'd have to cite the Vejur Flyover sequence as the worst of its offenders. There's not much to establish narratively at this point other than the size and impressiveness of the big Vejur spacecraft relative to the Enterprise, and the Enterprise's final position at the far end of it. Three optical shots could tackle that and take no more than 30 seconds. Instead, it becomes a five minute sequence, with more long boring non-interactive single-object shots than I can count. Goldsmith's musical cue is a bit like a politician's answer at this point, rambling on and on very eloquently and interestingly without actually having anything to say or any important point to make. I'm not sure there was anything else to be done here, but I think I like the cue better outside the film on CD than in the film.

By contrast the best of the film's First Person Cinema sequences is the Spock Walk, possibly because it really doesn't confine itself to many of the same restrictions. Most notably, Spock is narrating his impressions throughout the whole thing, so we at least get some interactivity from the audio. As we see stuff, we hear how one of our major characters is responding to it, interpreting it, and he draws our attention to this or that, and suggests ideas that we can think about, whether we agree or disagree. Here, we get the kind of merger of character dialogue with audio-visual spectacle that so much of the rest of the movie is lacking, the very thing that could boost the pace of the film up to what is considered more normal today. Of course, this sequence attempts to end with Spock touching some part of Vejur physically to begin a mind-meld with it - and I'm just not sure that the first person nature by which this environment has been presented allows us to believe that Spock is actually IN that environment, or that there is anything real in front of him that he can touch. Are these not just images, as Spock himself suspects in his narration?

From Off-Script to Archetype

While I'm very impressed with the many archetypal qualities that this story has going for it, the script and much of its dialogue merely turns out to be decent, rather than great. In particular, it spends a lot of time on Spock's favourite subject - logic - without being particularly impressive or profound with anything that it says. In many ways, Star Trek wore out this word, ascribing far more to it than it could truly bear, things that might have been better described using other words. For my money, the best handle on logic and its overblown scope can be found in the contrast between two polar opposite philosophies that it is seen to support - one pole showing up strongly in some of Spock's earliest appearances in "Where No One Has Gone Before" (TOS episode 2) and "Balance of Terror" (TOS episode 9), and the opposite pole that shows up in Spock's final true appearances in "Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country" and "Unification" (TNG fifth season episode).

SPOILER ALERT... The discovery of exactly what Vejur is, becomes both a blessing and a curse to the story. More recently I've become a huge fan of the exploits of the real life NASA probes Voyager 1 and 2, particularly #2 due to it having completed the grand tour of the gas giant planets of our solar system, and it being the only probe man has yet sent or planned to visit Uranus and Neptune. I've said much more about this in response to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Episode 6 which featured live discoveries and data analysis being made by NASA using this probe right around the same time as work on "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was being completed. I like the way that Star Trek extrapolated a future continuation of this program, using a fictitious Voyager 6 at the heart of the mystery. That move seemed to strike just the right artistic balance between reality and fiction to work really well.

The reality aspect is important, because this portion of the story, archetypally speaking, needs us to see something of ourselves at the heart of the mystery, that in our biggest external challenges we will be revealed to be looking at some aspect of ourselves reflected back, and we will see how we have participated in creating our own reality. And the film does this incredibly well in designing a prop for Voyager 6 that is nearly the spitting image of NASA's real life Voyagers 1 and 2. You can recognize the two opposing boom arms, and see which of them has the TV camera for recording planetary images. The top radio dish for communicating with Earth is prominent. The main housing is the correct shape and style. Nice! Missing are the three long thin antennae, which would have made it difficult to place in the set and have the actors move around it - and for story purposes it makes sense that these may have been damaged in transit or otherwise removed and replaced.

The fiction aspect is also important, because as a story, certain creative freedoms need space to breathe. It is good that this isn't Voyager 1 or 2, whose real life stories must diverge from this piece of fiction. Voyager 2 is now headed towards the star Sirius, via a random process of decisions that were about other things, none of which could have been predicted when "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was made. Meanwhile, Voyager 6 needs to head for a black hole, to get a boost so it could actually arrive somewhere civilized in time for this story to take place. It is interesting to note that Star Trek had already done something like this aspect of the story in its second season episode "The Changeling", but using a later, more advanced, more fictional probe, which then didn't quite hit home on the "reflection of self" concept to anywhere near the same degree.

It is also interesting to note that Voyager 6 appears to be missing another major component of Voyagers 1 and 2 - that of the Golden Record containing greetings, pictures, sounds, and music of Humans, Whales, and a few other creatures, not to mention the anatomical diagrams of the male and female of our species. In fact, the only appearance of anything of the Golden Record in this film is buried in a montage of images flashing across Spock's visor during his meld at the end of the Spock Walk, and you'll need to freeze frame those images to find it. It is more difficult to believe that the Vejur character could have the degree of disrespect for carbon-based units displayed in the film if it had understood anything of its own Golden Record.... but I'd have to say that this initial disrespect is so important to driving the drama of the story, that it should be kept, and of course the Golden Record cannot be understood if it is simply not there in the first place. Perhaps a burnscar where it should normally be found, added to a line about how it may have been damaged and/or lost during some accidental encounter with other high speed objects, might be the most plausible way forward. However, it is the Golden Record that reveals Earth's position relative to several other key stars, which Vejur needs to know to begin its return journey. In the end, Voyager 6 is not the most airtight of plot devices, but it is mostly a fairly satisfying one.

The end of this film continues to be BIG in terms of the mythological archetypes that it invokes. Anyone who's read Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" will recognize many of those themes reflected here, including transformation experiences such as the merger of male and female, the merger of an individual with the whole of the creator, death and rebirth in new forms, and also the hero who travels to the depths of a new world and returns with new fruits of knowledge to share with the rest of his society. This Star Trek film plucks all those strings at once with its ending, reaching that subconscious part of each human being in the audience, giving us a sense of completion and fulfillment which we may not have suspected possible based on earlier portions of the film - even though important groundwork was laid for all of that, we jaded film viewers have often seen films toy with the ideas and then fail to deliver an ending that stands up to them. This film's ending stands up better than most, I would say.

Director's Cut

Interestingly, this film has been released in many, many different versions. The 1979 theatrical version bookends them all by being the first and also bizarrely the most recent as the Blu-ray format embraces its primacy. Subsequent versions, such as the 1983 TV version, have seemed obsessed with adding as much extra footage as possible, arguably fascinating for die-hard fans, but perhaps bloating the film and slowing the pace down even further. I suppose I'm most familiar with a version released on VHS tape in the 1980's, which boasted about how many minutes of extra footage had been re-inserted. I admit I got used to thinking of that version as "the film".

That said, I have to say I like about 90% of what director Robert Wise and his team did with the film in 2001 when they issued "The Director's Cut" on DVD. The titles were finally upgraded from those substandard white-on-black cards to a more professional yet simple font against moving stars, and finally had a degree of life and interest to them that could match the effects visuals seen in the rest of the film. I like the new shots of Vejur, particularly in how the story is better told with these visuals in the film. A few very worthwhile dialogue scenes have come back from the cutting room floor, while others have had irrelevant bits trimmed off keeping the story better paced and more focused on relevant material. Much of this was being done with 20-20 hindsight, and turns out well.

I do have a few nits about it though. The odd trim to a scene AFTER it has had perfect scoring from Jerry Goldsmith can't really help things along enough to be worth making the change. The opening Klingon Attack for example, is still going to be slow unless it is completely re-edited from start to finish, which I would NOT recommend. Better to let the cue play out properly from start to finish there. And though the entire soundtrack has been nicely overhauled and more professionally completed, particularly where sound effects are concerned, I admit I do deeply miss that clunky old red alert sound that made its debut in this film. Sure, we got way too much of it over the course of previous versions of the film, so it needed trimming. But the soundtrack still feels incomplete without hearing it START in several places. Mind you, it'd be okay if it quickly faded out after it started, or if it would only give off 8 beeps before automatically silencing itself, but... yeah I miss it in a lot of places.

One big nit I had with the previous VHS version was the inclusion of extra footage of an airlock somewhere on the saucer's underbelly with Kirk coming out of it in a spacesuit - because it seems to have been designed to be composited into a model shot, but it was never finished and ugly bits of soundstage are everywhere to be seen. Kudos to the Director's cut for removing this - it can still be seen in the very extensive package of deleted scenes on the DVD.

At any rate, I know this film is not necessarily regarded as the pinnacle of Star Trek in the feature film format, but it's got a LOT of things to recommend it which I would regard as being philosophically healthy. In that respect, I really do love it. I think it's somewhat of a niche film, with profound appeal to those who love space exploration, new age philosophy, archetypal myth, or happen to be die-hard fans of the Star Trek TV show and its format and characters. Those looking for more traditional action/adventure/drama may easily note its shortcomings more strongly, and prefer other films in the series accordingly. To each his own; infinite diversity in infinite combinations. There's still much to be enjoyed here in this film for everyone. Visually, auditorially, and musically, we see the essence of Star Trek here, and get more detail about the look and sound and feel of the franchise than ever before. This film was a landmark, setting the rest of the franchise on a bold new level from here on....

Read the next Star Trek review: "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan"

Star Trek 1 is available in various incarnations on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the desired disc format and location nearest you for pricing and availability:

Director's Cut 2-disc DVD Special Collector's Edition


DVD Canada


DVD Features include:

  • Director's cut (2001) with new CGI shots (136 min.)
  • Audio commentary by director Robert Wise,
    actor Stephen Collins (Decker), VFX geniuses
    Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, and
    composer Jerry Goldsmith.
  • Text commentary by scenic artist Mike Okuda.
  • "Phase II: The Lost Enterprise" pre-production
    featurette (13 min.)
  • "A Bold New Enterprise" making-of doc. (30 min.)
  • "Redirecting the Future" on 2001 upgrades (14 min.)
  • Deleted & alternate scenes (37 min.)
  • Trailers & TV spots (1979 & 2001, 13 min.)
  • Storyboard archives (still menus)
Theatrical version 1-disc Blu-ray

Blu-ray U.S.

Blu-ray Canada

Blu-ray U.K.

Blu-ray Features include:

  • Original 1979 theatrical cut
  • Commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda,
    Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
    and Daren Dochterman
  • Library Computer
  • The Longest Trek: Writing the Motion Picture
  • Special Star Trek Reunion
  • SCISEC 1: Mystery Behind Voyager
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Trailers and TV Spots
  • BD-Live--Star Trek I.Q
The blu-ray and director's cut DVD versions of
this first movie are virtually completely different
packages with no overlapping content.

Or, get all 6 original crew feature films on Blu-ray at once with an exclusive bonus disc.

The First Six
Feature Films


Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray U.S.

Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray Canada

Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray U.K.

Also includes exclusive bonus 7th disc, with
"The Captain's Summit" discussion (HD, 70 min.) between
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy,
Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Article written by Martin Izsak. Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

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Read the next Star Trek review: "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan"

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