Saturday, September 10, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Magicks of Megas-Tu"



STARDATE: 1254.4 

The U.S.S. Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy on a scientific mission to investigate the "creation of matter" in that mysterious region of space.  Unfortunately, the ship becomes trapped in a "matter-energy whirlwind" and tries to make for the eye of the storm.

Instead, the Enterprise leaves time and space as "we understand it" and emerges in a parallel dimension where the laws of physics don't operate as Mr. Spock expects.  The ship's chronometers stop. The engines die. Life support fails...

...but a strange, devil-like being called Lucien appears on the bridge and saves the Starfleet crew from certain death.  Lucien then takes Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy to the surface of his planet, Magus-Tu, and reveals that his people long-ago visited Earth, and are responsible in some way, for the legends involving devils and demons.  He also reports that his people are calm, contemplative, and lacking rivals or competitors.  

While Spock realizes that magic in this alternate universe is like "science" in the prime universe, and that "belief" is as potent as "energy" is in our reality, Lucien's people capture the Enterprise crew and hold all aboard accountable for the grievous savagery of humanity, as demonstrated by their burning of Lucien's people at the Salem witch trials in 1691.  Kirk defends his species during this trial, noting that humans have evolved in the hundreds of years since that tragedy.  He offers as evidence data-recordings of the Enterprise's missions.

Lucien's people decide to free the Enterprise crew, but punish Lucien, and Kirk speaks up for his friend, who has been sentenced to "limbo for all eternity."  

But Kirk must question his friendship with Lucien, however, when he discovers that the alien's real name is...Lucifer.



I've always considered Larry Brody's "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" to be one of the best and most provocative episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series.  

This is so, I believe, because the intelligent teleplay asks the viewership (largely children...) to reckon with the idea that not all stereotypes or stories are true, and that just because something looks different from the norm, or even monstrous, that appearance doesn't equate to evil intent.

In this case, Lucien is simply an alien who visited Earth.  Yet he is a recipient of "victor's justice" meaning that because he was expelled from Earth by his enemies, they wrote the myths about him...and literally "demonized" him in the process. 

They transformed him not into a "real" being with flaws and foibles, but an icon of evil, the Biblical Devil.  


Some would quibble with this episode's idea of, essentially, "sympathy for the devil," and yet it is not the Biblical Devil which Kirk and crew face here, plainly.  Instead, Lucien is an intelligent alien who has been "cast" in the Devil role unfairly, simply because he lost his particular war or struggle.  

Accordingly, Kirk and his crew must look past mythology and bigotry to judge Lucien not on what others say about him, but on his own actions.  And Lucien's first action was to save the Enterprise and her crew.

So Kirk dismissively tells Lucien's people "We're not interested in legends," a comment which establishes, among other things, the idea that religion -- any religion -- is no more than folklore or mythology.  Men and women of Kirk's time have outgrown the need to believe in such mythology.

I've always felt, as well, that "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is in the inspiration for the Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint."  

There, Captain Picard and his crew are captured by a being of God-like powers -- the Q -- and transported to an historical period (the 21st century on Earth) to be tried for the various and sundry crimes of humanity.  

That's indeed what happens here, with Kirk defending humanity in a recreation of Salem, circa 1690.  And again, like Picard does later, he's battling creatures that possess God-like or so-called "magic" abilities.  

The similarities are impossible to ignore, especially since Captain Kirk and Captain Picard offer the same argument for humanity's continued existence: We once were savage, but we have evolved. Judge us on who we are now.


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) also owes something to this story from the Animated Series, it seems.  Like that film, this episode involves a dangerous trip to the center of the galaxy; a trip that ultimately uncovers a God/Devil who ultimately turns out to be no more than another alien.

"The Magicks of Megas-Tu"  represents the kind of adult storytelling that the original series excelled at, and it demonstrates remarkable maturity and humanity.  This is not a shoot-em-up or traditional adventure, but a story about basic matters of human existence, such as the nature of religion, and our responsibility -- as adults -- not to judge others based on their appearance, or on the "testimony" of folklore.



Like the equally-brilliant "The Survivor," which asked us not to be limited in our perceptions by an alien's "form," "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is a daring and forward-looking episode of this early-1970s cartoon series.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Infinite Vulcan"



STARDATE: 5554.4

At the periphery of the galaxy, the U.S.S. Enterprise discovers a world with an incredibly advanced city on its surface.

Soon, the landing party (consisting of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Sulu) encounters highly-intelligent plant beings called Phylosians.  Their leader, Agmar, cures Mr. Sulu when he is stung by a dangerous (and ambulatory) native plant.

Before long, however, the Phylosians capture Mr. Spock and take him to their “master,” a giant humanoid named Dr. Stavos Keniclus 5. Keniclus is the clone of a scientist who lived during the time of the Eugenics Wars, and is presumed to have died some 250 years earlier.

Now, Keniclus desires to build a giant clone of Mr. Spock who can police the galaxy as a kind of genetically perfect law enforcement official.  He believes that this army of giant Spocks will represent a new “master race.”

But the creation of a giant Spock clone will bring death to the original…


Walter Koenig contributes the script to this week’s adventure on Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974) and no one can accuse the man -- Mr. Chekov -- of not knowing his Star Trek lore.  

This episode features call backs to “Space Seed,” with the Augment nature of the villain from Earth’s past, as well as to “Is There in Truth No Beauty,” the episode that introduced the Vulcan IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations). 

The episode also remembers Mr. Sulu’s love of botany, and gives the Japanese helmsman more to do than simply sit at the helm and press buttons.

And, the resolution to the crisis involves a well-established Star Trek concept: the Vulcan mind-touch (or mind-meld), but this time applied by Spock's clone.  


Despite these terrific Star Trek details, “The Infinite Vulcan” is not one of the more highly-regarded episodes of the program, and that may be because of two prime factors. 

The first is that there is no reason why an army of Spock clones needs to be twenty-five feet tall.  How will they board spaceships, for one thing?   It’s a very juvenile concept: a “giant” version of Mr. Spock.  And Star Trek: The Animated Series was already battling the perception that it was made primarily for children, so this doesn’t help.

Secondly, “The Infinite Vulcan” never explains why, precisely, Dr. Keniclus considers Mr. Spock genetically perfect, and therefore superior to a man that he could create, using genetic engineering.
Come to think of it, Keniclus doesn’t even create or engineer any life at all in this episode.  He merely clones it and renders it gigantic. 



Furthermore, Spock is a mix of human and Vulcan DNA, but “The Infinite Vulcan” doesn’t explain why this genetic make-up is desirable or perfect.  What makes him ideal compared to Khan?  Is it his application of logic to every situation?  If so, that’s a learned behavior, not a genetic trait.

In other words, it feels totally random or arbitrary that Keniclus would capture Spock and determine him “perfect,” especially by his 21st century human standards.

These not inconsiderable problems of believability make “The Infinite Vulcan” less enjoyable, perhaps, than it could be. 

Yet the episode’s denouement -- which sees Keniclus re-directing his energy to saving the peaceful, intelligent and highly-advanced Phylosian race -- is absolutely Star Trek at its best.  The Enterprise doesn’t punish or kill Keniclus for his hostile actions. 

Instead, he is given a second chance, and therefore the opportunity for redemption…

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "The Survivor"



Stardate 5143.3: The Enterprise is near the Romulan Neutral Zone when it assists a damaged one-man vessel.  One crew person is recovered from the ship: the long-missing philanthropist and “living legend,” Carter Winston.  Winston has been missing for five years, and presumed dead, but his fiancé Anne serves aboard the Enterprise as a security officer.  She is thrilled to learn he is still alive.

Not long after Carter Winston boards the Enterprise, however, he breaks up with Anne, and sabotages the ship.

In truth, he is an alien known as a Vendorian, a shape-shifter who can “re-arrange his molecular structure” and who practices “deceit as a way of life.”  This particular Vendorian is also a Romulan spy, but by taking on Carter Winston’s form, he has also begun to take on some of the philanthropist’s emotions and personality…



This episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974) is so good, so mature in terms of its storyline and characterizations that you almost forget it is a cartoon.   Indeed, this installment looks, feels and plays like “real” Star Trek. 

In particular, “The Survivor” asks the viewer to reckon with the grown-up idea that “form isn’t terribly important” when it comes to love.  Today, our culture is still learning in this idea, in terms of the type of partnerships it finds acceptable, but as usual, Star Trek – in episodes such as “The Survivor” and “Metamorphosis” -- proves itself ahead of the curve.  Here, Anne (voiced by Nichelle Nichols) realizes that something of the man she loves survives in the Vendorian, and decides that she can love him despite his alien origin and nature. 



The alien also arrives at an interesting conclusion about his life.  On his world, he says, he was a “non-producer” and “useless.”  He undertook espionage work for the Romulans so he could do “something of value.”  After experiencing human emotions towards Anne – after knowing what it means to actually live as a human -- he realizes that producing or doing something of value may not be as important as honoring love, and feelings.  Again, that’s an incredibly Star Trek-kian message.


I should also add, this episode follows up brilliantly on “The Lorelei Signal” by featuring a female security guard as a central character.  Science fiction television, in particular, has often been slow to allow its female characters to operate outside the traditional “caretaker” role.   But Star Trek: The Animated Series blazes trails in this regard, noting that women can function, and function well in dangerous assignments.  One could make the argument that this episode is really about Anne: about her conflict between duty and personal life, and her decision to love a man who embodies all she misses so deeply in Carter.

“The Survivor” is such a strong episode in terms of its themes and characters that the sequence involving the Romulans and their attempt to capture the Enterprise hardly seems entirely necessary.  One wonders why the Romulans would violate a peace treaty and use a Vendorian when it is so easy to prove his involvement.  

It also stretches believability, just a bit, that the Vendorian could change himself into “energy” by becoming a deflector shield.  It’s established early in the story that the being must change to a person or object (like a sick bay table) of relative size. Is a deflector shield around the Enterprise of relative size?



Beyond these minor problems, “The Survivor” proves how ably Star Trek: The Animated Series dramatizes adult stories about important qualities of life.  In this episode, an alien hiding in human form finds that humanity isn’t a disguise, but a way of being.  It’s a really good, really original show, especially after the unnecessary tribble re-hash.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "More Tribbles, More Troubles"


It's Stardate 5392.4, and the U.S.S.Enterprise leads a convoy of robot ships and their grain shipment to Sherman's Planet, a developing world where both the United Federation of Planets and Klingon Empire have staked a claim.

The Enterprise must divert course, however, to rescue a single-man spaceship under attack by a Klingon battle-cruiser. Aboard that tiny ship is Cyrano Jones, "intergalactic trader and general nuisance."  

The Klingons, lead by Commander Koloth, accuse Jones of being an "environmental saboteur" and will stop at nothing to secure his capture, including invade Federation space and utilize a new weapon, a "projected stasis field."

While Kirk contends with the Klingons, he must also tussle with Jones, who has "genetically altered" his multitudinous tribbles so that they don't reproduce.  Instead, they merely grow to colossal size...

Cyrano has also brought aboard another animal, a genetically-engineered tribble predator called a "glommer..."


I enjoy tribbles as much as the next Trekker, but the Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973) sequel "More Tribbles, More Troubles" reminds me of a great line from the classic, live-action tribble episode: 

"Too much of anything, even love, is not necessarily a good thing."

Given the possibilities of Star Trek in animation, this is a story that might have gazed at tribbles from almost any viewpoint, or in any environment.  

What if they -- cute little parasites -- got loose on a Federation world and were causing starvation and famine? 

What if the Enterprise found the tribble home-world?  

What if we saw an episode from the Klingon perspective, in which the tribbles represented an environmental threat?

Those are just a few story-telling possibilities that would have extended audience understanding and enjoyment of those delightful, purring little fur-balls.

But instead, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" is content to rehash all the funny scenes from "The Trouble with Tribbles" and hope that the audience will find them funny on witnessing them a second time.  

Some specific examples:

A tribble decides to make a nest of Captain Kirk's command chair, much like one did in the live-action show.  

In this animated episode, the tribbles get into the all-important grain and eat it, just like they did on K-7.  

Here, a put-upon Captain Kirk gets buried in a pile of tribbles, just as he did near the storage compartments of that space station. 

And, in the end, the answer is to beam the tribbles over to a Klingon ship, just as it was before.

Both episodes even end with a play on words from Scotty, replacing "trouble" with "tribble."




I'm mindful that this story was designed for children, to air on Saturday mornings, but Star Trek, even at its lightest ought to be more than play time with tribbles, and most other episodes of this Saturday morning series certainly are.   

There will no doubt be people who note in defense that this episode is supposed to be fun, or just plain funny,  and I agree that this was no doubt the intention.  But the massive, wholesale repetition of concepts and ideas does a lot to mitigate any sense of fun the episode hopes to engender.  

Deep Space Nine's "meta" tribble episode, "Trials and Tribble-ations" is a lot more fun and original than this particular episode of the animated series is.  Overall, there's a self-congratulatory feel underlying "More Tribbles, More Troubles."  It feels like a victory lap instead of an original, self-contained story.

I know the budgets were low on this series, but it's also a shame that the tribbles are portrayed here as identical....and pink. In the original episode, the tribbles showed individuality in size, shape, color and movement. Here, not so, and since they are the focus of the story, their uniform presentation is disappointing.


Also, "More Troubles, More Tribbles" doesn't really examine any of the moral implications of its narrative. 

Kirk stands by and watches as a glommer devours a living tribble, and doesn't say a word, or complain about it being, well, inhumane.  I know tribbles are "just' animals, but for a series that had recently presented a moving story in "Yesteryear" about the bond between human and pet, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" feels like a big step backwards.    

Also, I've never been really happy with the idea of beaming tribbles onto a Klingon ship as the solution of the week.  It got a pass on the live action show because the resolution was funny and unexpected.    But by using it again, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" gives audiences time to think about the implications. 

Essentially, Scotty is sending those tribbles over to the Klingons to die.  

Does anyone believe that the Klingons won't start murdering the tribbles --  creatures they consider vermin -- to clean up their battle ship?

Star Trek isn't often about passing your problems on to someone else -- passing the buck, as it were -- so I find it doubly disappointing that this episode repeats all the plot-points of "The Trouble with Tribbles," and then re-asserts a resolution that was borderline questionable in the first place.   

All those tribbles may be a nuisance, and they may be a threat.  But do they deserve to be exterminated by Klingons, when they weren't even responsible for leaving their natural environment in the first place?



Yep, too much of anything, even tribbles, isn't necessarily a good thing...

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "The Lorelei Signal"


The fourth episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974) is "The Lorelei Signal" by Margaret Armen, author of "Gamesters of Triskelion," and "The Paradise Syndrome" on the original series.

In this story, the U.S.S. Enterprise explores the Taurean solar system and hopes to investigate a long-standing mystery.  Specifically, every 27 years, a starship disappears near this section of the galaxy...never to be heard from again.

Soon, the Enterprise falls into the same trap.


The lovely women of planet Taurus II transmit a signal that hypnotizes all the males aboard the Starfleet vessel.  When Kirk, Spock, Bones and a landing party of men beam down, they are immediately drugged by the beautiful, technologically-advanced sirens of this world, and then forced to wear head-bands which cause rapid aging, and which drain their life-forces.  The women of this world thrive on that life force, and need it to survive...

On board the Enterprise, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) assumes command of the Enterprise and promotes Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) to the role of chief medical officer.  Then, Uhura leads a landing party of female security officers to the planet to rescue the helpless males...


"The Lorelei Signal" utilizes as its source material the Greek myth about sirens who call to passing sailors, and then lead them to their doom.  The sirens appear in Homer's The Odyssey, but a variation of these beautiful (but deadly) creatures also appears in German folklore, which accounts for the title of this Star Trek episode.  In Germany, "Lorelei" (or sometimes Loreley) is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine.  It is also the name in folklore of a "feminine water spirit" associated with that rock.

The myth of the siren has been a near constant in science fiction television circles.  Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) -- which shot in 1973 -- featured a great variation called "The Guardian of Piri," in which the Siren was a computer, and its call was heard by all on Alpha, save for Commander Koenig (Martin Landau).

Star Trek featured another, perhaps-less memorable variation of the idea in the 1997 Voyager tale: "Favorite Son," involving Harry Kim (Garrett Wang).

Some folks have complained, vis-a-vis "The Lorelei Signal" that the alien sirens might have just asked for help from Starleet, rather than abduct and drain male passers-by.

Although this is true, it isn't a particularly strong criticism in terms of the Star Trek universe.  Alien races in "Wink of an Eye," "Mark of Gideon," "The Corbomite Maneuver" and many, many other installments might also have just asked for help, rather than act in what might be interpreted in hostile fashion. That's not the point.

The point is that alien races think differently than we do, as human beings.  The arc of every Star Trek is to begin with distrust, hostility and confusion, and end with rapprochement and understanding.  "The Lorelei Signal" conforms well to this outline, and it seems silly to slam it on the basis of a criticism one could apply to probably fifty Star Trek episodes over six TV series.


I've always appreciated this episode for the opportunity it presents regarding Lt. Uhura. As I child, I remember reading that she was fourth-in-command of the Enterprise after Scotty, although I suppose Lt. Sulu could make an equal claim. Still, I would have very much enjoyed seeing Uhura take command in an Original Series episode or three, though it was not to be.  I do find it unfortunate that the only opportunity she gets in the center seat arises because ALL the men are incapacitated.  That's a bit insulting.  Uhura should command because she is a highly-qualified officer, plain and simple.


On the other hand, this Star Trek episode is extremely forward-looking because it portrays female security officers in action.  The original series never hinted at the existence of female security officers, though by the time of The Next Generation, Tasha Yar commanded the Security Division on Enterprise-D.  Still, as late as the 1990s, women in Star Trek were still seen smashing crockery over the head of the bad guy, rather then engaging in fisticuffs ("Q-Who") or phaser play, a fact which makes this episode all the more important.

One other negative observation about this particular installment: the purse strings are showing.

I love Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett as much as any Trekker, but they not only voice their regular characters here, but the computer, the female security teams, and the alien sirens.  There's no attempt to disguise these voices (save for in the case of the ship's computer), and so throughout the whole episode, it sounds like only two women are talking.  Maybe one other actress could have been hired to play a role?

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "One of Our Planets is Missing"



“One of Our Planets is Missing” by original series director Marc Daniels is another superb early episode of Filmation’s Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974).  The episode is not only true to Star Trek’s spirit of adventure and decency in the face of dangerous alien contact, but forward-looking in its approach to its subject matter.  The episode also maintains remarkable continuity with the established Trek universe.

In “One of Our Planets is Missing” a “huge cosmic cloud” moves into the "outer fringe of the galaxy.”  This cloud is a “strange combination of matter and energy” and quickly consumes an uninhabited planet.  Worse, it is on a direct course for a world of eighty million colonists: Mantilles.


Captain Kirk (William Shatner) orders the Enterprise to investigate, and takes the ship inside the strange cloud.  Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) soon realize that the cloud is alive, and possibly intelligent.  Spock likens the space-going organism to a “bull grazing in the pasture of the universe,” a bull who may be unaware that it is harming other life-forms.

With only hours remaining before Mantilles is consumed by the cloud, Captain Kirk must consider destroying the organism’s brain, but Spock attempts a Vulcan “mind-touch” and contacts the alien being in hopes of reaching some kind of agreement.  He allows the cloud entity to see life through his eyes, and recognize that it is destroying life-forms with its basic, biological behavior.  The alien understands Spock’s message of peace and cooperation, and pledges to return to its “origin place” outside the galaxy.


“One of Our Planets is Missing” charts the Enterprise’s encounter with a mysterious space cloud, a sort of scintillating alien rendezvous that would recur, with some variation, in films such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and episodes such as Star Trek: Voyager’s “The Cloud.”  Here, the cloud is not cloaking a vast life-form (as is the case in the first movie), but is an actual life-form unaware that its behavior may be interpreted as hostile.

In the best tradition of Star Trek stories, this alien -- once it learns of its behavior – seeks a peaceful end to the crisis.  No phasers are fired. No punches are thrown.  With its female voice (provided by the late Majel Roddenberry), the Cloud here also evokes memories of another benevolent cloud being, the Companion from the episode “Metamorphosis.”

In "One of Our Planets is Missing," Spock uses the Vulcan mind-touch to give the cloud a sense of humanoid life, a development which recalls not only “Metamorphosis” (and Commissioner Hedford) but some moments in the third season Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”   Here, however, the entity in Spock’s body not only gets to “feel” and “touch” human life, but through a video presentation on a view screen, gazes at human life on Earth. It sees cities, children playing and other aspects of our existence.


In terms of continuity, “One of Our Planets is Missing” is rather amazing, especially for a Saturday morning production in 1973.  Kirk contacts the governor of Mantilles, Bob Wesley, a character seen in live-action in the second season episode “The Ultimate Computer.”  We learn that Wesley left Starfleet for politics, and now lives on Mantilles with his eleven-year old daughter, Katie.  This is a great character touch that connects the animated series to its live-action predecessor, and not in a gimmicky or exploitative way.

Also in “One of Our Planets is Missing,” Kirk grapples with the necessity of killing the cloud to save the population of Mantilles, and verbally references his speech from “A Taste of Armageddon” about deciding “not to kill…today.”  It’s a deliberate call-back to a great (and under-appreciated episode), and also a good re-assertion of Kirk’s essential humanity.


Scotty also gets a significant role in this episode, proving his worth once more as a “miracle worker.”  Here, the engineer is able to capture one of the cloud’s villi (made of anti-matter) to regenerate the Enterprise’s failing engines.  This seems strangely plausible in terms of previously established Trek tech.

I haven’t watched “One of Our Planets is Missing” in many years, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching it this week, and felt that it honored the finest tradition of Star Trek.  It’s the tale of a misunderstanding between alien races, and suggests that peace and friendship are possible once a dialogue begins, and if everyone -- over the odds, and without panic -- embraces good intentions.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "Yesteryear"


The blockbuster J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film (2009) is not the first (or only...) Trek installment over the years to alter the franchise time line in some fashion (or, more accurately, create a separate or alternate time line). 

In fact, this kind of temporal tweaking was occurring in the series as early as 1973. September 15, 1973, to be precise.

That's the air date of story-editor D.C. Fontana's heart-felt episode, "Yesteryear." 

It's the second episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series broadcast on CBS in most U.S. cities, and -- not entirely unlike the popular Abrams' film - it was heavily Spock-centric in nature.

"My ideas were these," Fontana told me in an interview for Filmfax in 2001: "Can we see Vulcan? What kind of story can I tell there? And can I involve Spock?" 


In answering those questions, Fontana created what is undeniably the most popular episode of the animated series, and one that is also regarded as "canon" by most Star Trek fans.

"Yesteryear" opens at the planet of the Guardian of Forever (as seen in "City on the Edge of Forever.") A group of Federation scientists stand watch at the mysterious time portal as Kirk and Spock return from a visit to Orion's past.

However, something strange has occurred in their absence. The scientists don't appear to remember Spock at all. A baffled Captain Kirk hails the Enterprise, and Scotty has no memory of the half-Vulcan science-officer either. "Something appears to have changed in the time line as we know it," Spock suggests.

Indeed, this is an accurate supposition, and the first officer of the starship Enterprise in this "new" time line is now an Andorian, Mr. Thelin. Upon returning to the starship, Spock also learns that in this universe, he died at age seven, during a dangerous Vulcan rite of "maturity" called the Kahs-wan. 


Equally as troubling, Spock's death at a young age caused the dissolution of Sarek and Amanda's marriage, and Amanda was subsequently killed in a shuttle accident on her way home to Earth.

Again, I thought reflexively of the new Star Trek film, which also makes Amanda a casualty in an alternate time line.

Kirk and Spock soon realize that, in their original timeline, Spock must have actually traveled back in Vulcan history and saved his younger self from dying on Vulcan's Forge during the Kahs-wan, a ritual involving 10 days in the desert without food, water, or weapons. However, when the Federation scientists "replayed" that part of Vulcan history (some twenty-to-thirty years prior...), Spock was unavailable -- in Orion's past with Kirk -- and therefore unable to return to Vulcan and save his younger self.


In hopes of restoring himself and the timeline, Spock masquerades as Sarek's (Mark Lenard's) cousin "Selik," and returns to Vulcan in the past, near the city of ShiKahr.

There, he comes to the assistance of his younger self as the seven-year old Spock and his pet sehlat, I-Chaya, are attacked by a Vulcan dragon called a le-matya. Fans of Godzilla will recognize the roar of the le-matya as being that of their favorite Toho monster...

Unfortunately, I-Chaya is poisoned by the dragon and young Spock seeks help from a local healer, braving Vulcan's Forge and thereby passing the Vulcan rite of adulthood. For his beloved pet, however, it is too late, and the healer offers Spock a choice. The sehlat's life can be prolonged for a time -- but the animal will feel terrible pain, or the healer can release the beloved pet from all his suffering...and end his life now.

Young Spock makes the decision to end his pet's suffering, and in doing so decides that the path of his own life will follow in the Vulcan way: logic and the total repression of all emotion.

When elder Spock returns to the present on the Planet of the Guardian of Forever, he informs a waiting Kirk that the timeline has indeed been altered (or a new one created...). "One small thing was changed...a pet died," Spock informs his Captain. "Times change..." he concludes later, and in a way, that could be a tag-line for the new Star Trek too.

"Yesteryear" has always been one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, in part because of the difficult but valuable message about pets, and caring for pets. When young Spock asks whether it is right to mourn the loss of his pet, his older self notes with compassion that "every life comes to an end when the time demands it," and thus there is no need to be sad about it. 


What is sad, Spock insists, is a life that has not been lived well.

Frankly, I'm amazed that a pet's (on-screen...) death made it past the censors and onto network television, on Saturday mornings, no less, in the 1970s. Filmation's Lou Scheimer, producer of the Star Trek cartoon, told me in an interview in 2001 that "a pet's death had never been done on a children's program, and it was touching and provocative. Dorothy was instrumental in making it so creative."

When I interviewed Fontana, she told me that there was indeed a "worry about the death of the sehlat," but that "Gene Roddenberry told the networks" that she -- Fontana -- would "take care of it," in a way that acceptable. It was a story, that Fontana put "so much" of herself into...and it certainly shows, even today. If you've ever lost a beloved pet, or worse, had to make the choice of life for death for a beloved pet, you will find yourself quite moved by the last act of "Yesteryear."

Watching this episode again last night brought me right back to a terrible Thursday in April 2003, and the death of my first cat, Lulu. Our doctor offered us a similar choice: a short-term respite (through a difficult blood transfusion), or a merciful "passing" right there...and thus an end to suffering. We chose the latter option and it was -- and remains -- devastating, but I've always believed we made the right choice for her; the same choice Spock makes for his pet in this Star Trek episode. Perhaps Vulcans and humans are quite alike after all...

Another intriguing aspect of "Yesteryear," especially in light of the 2009 film, is a scene involving young Spock being bullied by other Vulcan children about his human half. Although in the cartoon (again, a Saturday morning show...) nobody calls Amanda "a whore," the insults are still pretty harsh. 

One child tells Spock that Sarek brought shame to Vulcan by marrying a human. Another informs Spock that he can never be a "real Vulcan." This scene -- with different costumes and sets -- is played out almost exactly in the Abrams film. (And indeed, it was a moment mentioned in passing by Amanda as early as the Fontana live-action episode "Journey to Babel.")

Another reason to admire "Yesteryear" is the scope of the story. Before Abrams' film, this cartoon segment probably represented the best view of Vulcan we were afforded in Trek history. In "Yesteryear," we see the interior of Sarek and Amanda's home, the deserts of Vulcan's Forge, and a futuristic metropolis (not to mention some hover cars). These things were possible only because of animation...a live-action series of 1973 could simply never have afforded so many varied sets, props or locations.

In light of the 2009 chapter of the Star Trek story, "Yesteryear" looks even more fascinating than ever. In it, we see how a time line is changed permanently (if only in regards to a pet's destiny...), get more than a passing glimpse of modern Vulcan, and once more delve into the difficult choices Spock made in childhood: the selection between Vulcan or human philosophy. 


All in all, this may be Star Trek: The Animated Series' finest hour.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "Beyond the Farthest Star."


In 1973, Filmation presented Star Trek: The Animated Series, one of the lesser-celebrated but no less worthwhile jewels in the Star Trek crown.

Filmation's Lou Scheimer had Gene Roddenberry on board as an executive consultant, and Dorothy Fontana served as the series story editor. The entire cast, save for Walter Koenig (Chekov), returned to provide the voices for their characters, the crew of the original starship Enterprise.

The first episode, "Beyond the Farthest Star" (by Samuel A. Peeples; directed by Hal Sutherland), starts routinely with the opening credits, a nice, if rough approximation or re-creation of the live-action series credits. Only with "starring the voices of" as the legend, rather than simply "starring." 




As the half-hour opening installment begins, the Enterprise is cruising on the "outer fringe" of the galaxy en route to "Quasar M-17," when a strange "radio emission" is intercepted by the crew. A sudden increase of gravity (or "hyper-gravity") drags the Federation starship off course, and it promptly falls into the gravity well of a dead star. The Enterprise manages an orbital insertion in the nick of time, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) soon detects a strange alien starship also trapped in orbit. He determines that it has been locked there, trapped, on the magnitude of "300 million years."

An investigation of the ship (which boasts a biological, organic design; presaging many 1970s productions such as Alien [1979]), reveals that aliens destroyed their own vessel because they had accidentally taken on a malevolent, formless life form who was seeking escape...into the heart of the galaxy. This creature, a "magnetic organism without mass," makes it back to the Enterprise with the landing party, and begins to run wild there. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) seemingly chooses suicide and certain destruction rather than freeing this evil life form from its ages-old captivity...


As you can tell from this brief synopsis, there are many familiar elements here; or rather, some elements that would one day become familiar to Trek-dom. 


From the original series, we have an age-old, formless entity of pure evil, like Redjac in "The Wolf in the Fold." And future Treks, including Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, would also involve an alien entity hoping to escape a planetary prison via a starship. 


Like Star Trek efforts including "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Next Gen's "The Nth Degree," a definable landmark in the galaxy is visited by the Federation in this story; here the outer rim; (in other cases, it's the edge of the galaxy or the center of the galaxy). 



So, generally, how does Star Trek: The Animated Series compare to original Trek? It is clearly designed for children (it is a Saturday morning series, after all), but to utilize a common phrase, it is "light years" ahead of other Saturday morning fare from the same decade. On Star Trek -- as early as this first episode -- one detects the ideas at work. The Animated Series is not so much simplified as streamlined. And, it's immensely entertaining.

But anyway, Filmation has done a remarkable job of recreating the original Enterprise interiors, costumes and production design. In this episode, there are several nice insert shots of classic Federation hardware such as tricorders and communicators...and they look just right. The transporter console is familiar too, and the bridge looks great. The level of fidelity is more than respectable...it's astonishing.


What's different? Well, interestingly, you can already detect how Gene Roddenberry was incorporating new and fascinating ideas into the franchise; updating the Trek universe. For instance, a pan across the bridge of the Enterprise reveals a second turbo lift (to the left of the view screen; to the right of Engineering). We would next see a second turbo lift on the bridge next in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Satisfying the curiosity of many, this episode also reveals for the first time some of the details of what specifically Spock sees inside the "blue glow" of his library computer viewer. At one point it's just a sine wave, signifying the "heart beat" of the alien, but it's still a neat glimpse. .

What's changed? Well, first and foremost, there's an alien navigator, the three-armed Mr. Arex, sitting in Mr. Chekov's spot. He's a little bit gimmicky for my taste (three arms; three legs), but at least he isn't designed and executed to be a joke.





More genuinely fascinating, Federation technology has been updated. It now includes "life support belts" which eliminate the need for space suits in inhospitable environments. I like this idea a great deal, and think it's both inventive and keeping in the spirit of the original Trek's vision of the future. It seems that personal force fields generated by small belts is not only a nice cheap expedient (like the transporter...) for getting into and out of weird environments, but I kind of think the belts tart up the uniforms nicely. To me, Star Trek isn't truly about the hard days of early space travel (leave that to another favorite, Space:1999, please...), but rather the era wherein man has tamed technology and it is easy, simple-to-use and -- again -- streamlined. 

Perhaps life support belts aren't inherently dramatic (like space suits); but then again neither is the transporter. A shuttle launching and landing is much more interesting, isn't it? That's okay, though, belts and transporters feel "Trekkish," and get us into environments where otherwise it would be hard to go.



Uniquely, the bridge is now equipped with an "automatic bridge defense system," a turret that lowers from the bridge ceiling in times of danger and can target any object in the room with a phaser array. Although this turret is hijacked by the evil alien in "Beyond the Farthest Star," it perhaps should have stayed in the live-action franchise. I got tired in The Next Generation (in episodes like "The High Ground" and "Best of Both Worlds") of watching Lt. Worf leap over a furniture barrier between his station and Captain Picard when confronted with unfriendly interlopers on the command deck. Any alien could apparently just beam onto the bridge and punch crewmen or hijack them off the ship.  An automatic defense system might have actually come in handy. An intruder beams in - zap 'em! It's easier on the legs than jumping hurdles.

Another change: We see Engineering, and it looks familiar enough, save for the new "engineering core." That's different terminology than we've been accustomed to on Star Trek. It's really just a giant glowing hatch in the Engineering deck floor, ostensibly leading down into the anti-matter/matter reactor.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" is a colorful episode, and an advantage of animation is that alien spaceship designs and planets are not restricted by live-action budgetary constraints. Here, the alien ship is organic in design, consisting of individual cells or pods that have been "burst open," (again, think Alien...). The scale of this alien ship is something that couldn't be accomplished back in the day of the original Trek; and the landing party's tour of the derelict reminded me a little of the Krell tour in Forbidden Planet.



"Beyond the Farthest Star" isn't a favorite fan installment of the animated series, but it gets the job done, and is overall very impressive. Watching this episode now, it's clear that future Star Treks would have benefited from incorporating more, not less, of this series.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


"Why is any object we don't understand always called a thing?"

- Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.


The Star Trek franchise has re-invented itself on more than one occasion.  J.J. Abram's Star Trek (2009) wasn't the first instance of it.  Indeed, the expensive and highly-profitable film that first did so arrived in American movie theaters more than thirty years ago, on December 7, 1979, and was titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]), Run Silent, Run Deep [1958], The Haunting [1963], Audrey Rose [1977]) and produced by TV series creator and "Great Bird of the Galaxy" Gene Roddenberry, this forty-five million dollar voyage of the starship Enterprise launched a film series that has endured a whopping three decades.



Despite proving a box-office bonanza and the father to ten cinematic successors of varying quality, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains today one of the most polarizing of the film series entries.

The received wisdom on the Robert Wise film is that it is dull, over-long, and entirely lacking in the sparkling character relationships and dimensions that made the 1960s series such a beloved success with fans worldwide.


It is likely you've heard all the derogatory titles for the film too, from The Motionless Picture, to Spockalypse Now, to Where Nomad Has Gone Before (a reference to the episode "The Changeling.")

Conventional wisdom, however, isn't always right. Among its many fine and enduring qualities, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is undeniably the most cinematic of the Trek movie series in scope and visualization.

And, on closer examination, the films features two very important elements that many critics insist it lacks: a deliberate, symbolic character arc (particularly in the case of Mr. Spock) and a valuable commentary on the co-existence/symbiosis of man with his technology.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture also re-invents the visual texture of the franchise, fully and authoritatively, transforming what Roddenberry himself once derided as "the Des Moines Holiday Inn" look of the sixties TV series for a post-Space:1999, post-Star Wars world.

The central narrative of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is clever and fascinating (and, as some may rightly insist, highly reminiscent of various episodes of the TV series). Sometime in the 23rd century, a massive, mysterious space cloud passes through the boundaries of Klingon territory and destroys three battle-cruisers while assuming a direct heading to Earth.

The only starship within interception range is the U.S.S. Enterprise, a Constitution class starship just completing an eighteen month re-fit and re-design. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Chief of Starfleet Operations, pulls strings and calls in favors to be re-assigned as captain of the Enterprise, arrogantly displacing the young, "untried" Captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins).

After departure from dry dock, the Enterprise faces severe engine design difficulties of near-catastrophic proportion, but the timely arrival of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) resolves the problem. In the intervening years since the series, however, the inscrutable Spock has become even more stoic and unemotional, having attempted to purge all his remaining emotions in the Vulcan ritual called Kolinahr.

Upon intercepting the vast space cloud, known also as "the intruder," the Enterprise crew learns, following a series of clues, that the colossal space vessel sheathed within the cloud/power-field is actually an artificial intelligence, a living machine called V'ger. And at the "heart" of V'Ger is a NASA Voyager probe from the 20th century -- re-purposed by an advanced society of living machines on the other side of the galaxy -- sent back to Earth to find God, it's "Creator." In V'ger's quest to touch the Divine, Kirk, Spock and Decker each find personal enlightenment, resolving their personal dilemmas and also saving Earth from destruction.

All Our Scans Are Being Reflected Back...


The creative team of producer Gene Roddenberry (1921 - 1991) and director Robert Wise (1914 - 2005) consisted of two individuals who had very distinct philosophical views about technology, and the destination technology was driving mankind.

In Roddenberry's case, we must countenance his progressive concept of "Technology Unchained," the notion of technology becoming both beautiful (rather than clunky and mechanical...) and benign.



Man's machines, Roddenberry believed, would come to serve all the needs of the species, thus freeing humanity from the age-old dilemmas of poverty, dwindling resources, racial prejudice, hunger, territorial gain and war. This was an optimistic vision of man and machine in harmony, one given even fuller voice almost a decade later in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).

By contrast, Robert Wise directed the technological thriller, The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on the best-selling Michael Crichton (1942-2008) novel about an alien organism (or germ...) threatening all human life on Earth. Wise once stated that The Andromeda Strain concerned "the first crisis of the space age," a descriptor which permits us to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a further meditation on a similar theme, only representing a (much) later planetary crisis, only in the 23rd century.

Wise also stated that technology, particularly that on hand in the subterranean Wildfire Laboratory, was the "star" of The Andromeda Strain.

In keeping with that motif, The Andromeda Strain's opening credits consisted of a space-age montage of technological symbols, from blueprints to graphs, to top secret communiques. Think of it as Dot Matrix as Jackson Pollock.

In the same vein, the characters in the film spoke in protean techno-babble on arcane subjects such as "Nutrient 24-5," "Red Kappa Phoenix Status," the "Odd Man Hypothesis," "Sterile Conveyor Systems" and the like. In all, Wise's 1970s sci-fi film represented a dedicated documentary-style approach, one that never easily accommodated a "lay" audience. Instead, you felt you were actually inside that underground complex alongside the Wildfire team.

Most uniquely, however, the The Andromeda Strain's climax concerned the pitfalls of technology: a teletype/printer experienced an unnoticed paper jam at a very inopportune moment. Some critics and film scholars have interpreted this malfunction as Wise's explicit warning about relying too heavily on technology, but the opposite was true. Had the printer worked as planned, one of the scientists would have transmitted orders for a nuclear bomb detonation at an infected site, a course of action that would have catalyzed and spread the Andromeda germ.

The machine's paper jam gave the flawed human being time to learn more, and re-consider the course of action. Given this analysis, one can detect that Wise was, perhaps, agnostic on the subject of man and technology, seeing both how it could prove a great tool, but also a great danger.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture serves, in several ways, as an unofficial "sequel" or heir to Wise's Andromeda Strain in terms of both approach and philosophy. Of all the Star Trek films, The Motion Picture is the only series installment to feature so many lingering insert shots of technological read-outs and schematics. For example we see a medical visualization of the Ilia Probe's physiology, a representation of "a simple binary code" (radio waves), "photic-sonar readings"(!) and several tacticals revealing Enterprise's approach and entrance into the cloud.

These multitudinous close-ups of computer graphics and read-outs not only enhance the notion of Enterprise as working starship -- with several interfaces directly at our disposal (fostering the documentary feel), -- but go a long way towards establishing the vital link between technology and crew, a symbiosis, if you will.



A great deal of time is spent in the Motion Picture on views of the crew gazing through the Enterprise's "technological" eye or window on the universe, the view screen. In a film about the combining of man and machine into a "new life-form," these moments carry resonance and significance: they reveal man already traveling down that road to symbiosis, relying on technology as his eyes, ears and (in the case of the ship's computer...) key interpreter of data or external stimuli.

In Star Trek, the TV series, Spock often gazed into a hooded library computer and we were denied access to what data he saw recorded inside (save for the reflected blue illumination on his face). In later Treks, stellar cartography played a role, but the high-tech, colorful displays it produced for crew members were not filmed as inserts. In other words, we saw Picard and Data interpreting the data, and the data itself. It's important, I believe, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that the data read-outs and view screen images are primarily brought directly to our eyes without dramatis personae coming between projector and percipient. For one thing, we feel as though we're actually aboard a ship in space. For another, we're taking part in that symbiosis of man and machine, we're interpreting the runes ourselves.

The underlying philosophy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture seems to consist of an admonition that man and machine work best together integrated, not when separated. V'Ger is a living machine who has "amassed" all the knowledge of the universe, but is without the human capacity of "faith," to "leap beyond logic," The machine (without human input or touch...) is cold, and barren, and incapable of believing in other realities (like the after-life) or other dimensions. Thus it is incomplete. Only by joining with a human (Commander Decker), does V'Ger find a sense of wholeness, of completion.



Kirk's journey is not entirely different. He views the Enterprise -- a machine itself -- as almost a physical lover in this film. When Scotty takes Admiral Kirk via a shuttle pod to inspect the Enterprise's re-designed exterior, Kirk has the unmistakable look of a man sizing up a sexual conquest, not a starship captain merely reporting to his new assignment. He avariciously sizes up the "woman" in his life (and ships are always "she" aren't they?). Like V'Ger after the union with Decker, Kirk ultimately finds a sense of completion once he has "joined" with the starship Enterprise, both metaphorically and literally. Once he is her captain again, Kirk is complete.

Consider for a moment just how many times Star Trek: The Motion Picture lingers upon the important act of a man entering -- or connecting to -- a machine. We watch Kirk's shuttle pod "dock" with Enterprise after a long, lingering examination of the ship. We see Spock, in a thruster suit, "penetrate" -- in his words, "the orifice" leading to the next interior "chamber" of V'Ger. This terminology sounds very biological, doesn't it? Consider that Spock next mentally-joins with V'Ger, utilizing a Vulcan mind-meld, yet another form of symbiosis.

And finally, we see Decker and Ilia physically join with the V'ger Entity during the film's climax. And make no mistake, that final act is equated with physical reproduction explicitly in the film's text. "Well, it's been a long time since I delivered a baby," McCoy notes happily in the film's epilogue, and Kirk remarks on "the birth" of a new life-form. They're talking about sex, about the union of two-life forms creating a third, unique life form.

Similarly, the journey of the Enterprise inside the giant V'Ger cloud replicates the details of the human reproductive process, with the final result proving identical: the birth of new life. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, man and machine mate. They join in symbiosis to create something new, perhaps even as Spock notes, "the next step in our own evolution."

While Star Trek films have traded explicitly in both allegory (particularly The Undiscovered Country and the Cold War "bringing down the Berlin Wall in Space" idea) and social commentary (consider the environmental message of The Voyage Home), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is decidedly symbolic. That's an important distinction.

The central images in the film all symbolize the reproductive, joining process. Spock penetrates the V'Ger "orifice," to mentally join with a living machine. Decker and Ilia (V'ger's surrogate) are mated in a light show that some Paramount studio executives allegedly termed a "40 million dollar fuck." And even the journey of the Enterprise (essentially the male "sperm") through the fallopian tube-type interior of V'Ger -- carrying its creative material (the human spirit in this case) to the V'ger complex (ovum) -- reflects the overriding theme of mating/joining/symbiosis.


So is technology a help or a hindrance? For the Klingons, destroyed in the film's first act, technology doesn't seem to help much. All their elaborate technical read-outs and tracking sensors (again, shown in dramatic insert shots) only permit them to watch the progress of their annihilation down to the last detail; down to the last second.

On the Enterprise, technological attempts to understand V'ger are constantly stymied by the living machine. "All scans are being reflected back," Uhura notes in the film on more than one occasion, meaning that V'Ger is re-directing the Enterprise's investigative entreaties back at itself. This is a subtle indicator that the answers Kirk and the others seek are held within themselves; in the gifts, contradictions and essential nature of "carbon based life forms." They begin to key in on this fact when Kirk and Spock assign Decker to awaken the human (er, Deltan...) memory patterns of the Ilia Probe (a mechanism). The answer, they come to understand, rests in the human equation, not in a technological assessment of V'ger.

It's interesting to tally the scoreboard here. V'Ger (a machine) finds "God" and evolves with the help of a human (Decker). Kirk finds his peace with a machine (The Enterprise). Spock finds his answer from a machine, and that answer is an acceptance of humanity. Even Decker finds his "peace" with a machine that replicates (down to the last detail) the memory patterns of his lost beloved. Each of these main characters (Kirk, Spock, V'Ger and Decker) are intricately involved with the story's main conceit: the mating of man and machine; of "cold" knowledge and "warm" human emotions.


Our Own Human Weaknesses...and the Drive That Compels Us to Overcome Them...



Despite protestations to the contrary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a movie intrinsically,  organically, about character, and character development. In simple terms, the film's main characters (Kirk, Spock and Decker) serve as the deliverer of human ideals to the cold, empty V'Ger child so that it may "evolve." But in doing so, they also bring along a lot of "foolish human emotions," as Dr. McCoy asserts at the film's conclusion.

Captain Kirk begins the film, for instance, as a ruthless, single-minded "my way or the highway" obsessive. We see his determination to reclaim the "center seat" when he tells Commander Sonak at a space port that he intends to be aboard the Enterprise following a meeting with Admiral Nogura, Starfleet's top brass. We see it again when he rationalizes displacing Decker, off-handedly noting that his "experience...five years out there, facing unknowns like this one," make him the superior commanding officer. The contradiction in that argument should be obvious. Are different "unknowns" actually capable of being categorized? How does Kirk know that Decker's history and experience won't prove superior in dealing with this threat, the alien cloud? He doesn't: he just wants what he wants.

And to some extent, the Enterprise (Kirk's other half, or perhaps a representation of his id...) rebels against this egomaniac version of Kirk. Consider how much goes wrong on Enterprise when Kirk is acting in this selfish mode. The transporters break down, killing two new crewmembers. Kirk gets lost on his own ship and is discovered (in an embarrassing moment) by Decker, the very man he replaced. Kirk "pushes" his people too hard, forcing the Enterprise into warp speed before it is ready, and in the process nearly destroys the ship in a wormhole. He does so over the objections of Mr. Scott, Captain Decker and even Dr. McCoy. This Kirk is all ego and selfishness, until he remembers the key to commanding the Enterprise: listening to all viewpoints and making informed decisions. This also happens to be the key in any male/female relationship. Just treat her like a lady, Jim, and she'll always bring you home. This first Kirk is too hungry, too grasping, too desperate to "re-connect" with the Enterprise in anything but a physical way. Bones puts Kirk in his place, but all the malfunctions of the Enterprise subtly (and symbolically) perform the same function.


About half-way through the film, Kirk is still learning this lesson in humility, as Decker notes that as the vessel's executive officer, it's his responsibility to "provide alternative" view points. Kirk accepts that argument, but hasn't internalized it. By the end of the film, he is actively listening to others again, heeding Decker's request to join a landing party, and allowing Spock to proceed when the curious half-Vulcan overrides his orders and steals a thruster suit.

The familiar Kirk of Star Trek lore, the one who develops a strategy based on hearing all viewpoints, slowly re-asserts itself over the selfish one who wanted command and conquest of the Enterprise, and nothing else. A journey that began in selfishness, ends in his "unity" with the crew and ship, his acceptance and sense of joining with those around him, a reflection of V'Ger's joining with the human race. Kirk has, as he states, overcome human weakness.


Although Spock is half-human, he undertakes much the same journey as Kirk in the film. He returns to Starfleet because he has failed to purge himself of human emotion and believes that an understanding of V'Ger will lead him to that destination. McCoy fears that Spock -- like Kirk -- will put his own personal interests ahead of the ship's. What Spock ultimately learns from his encounter (mind-meld) with V'Ger is life changing for him. He discovers that V'Ger has achieved what he seeks, "total logic." But damningly, "total logic" doesn't make V'Ger happy. Thought patterns of "exactingly perfect order" don't leave room for belief (in the afterlife...), for the "simple feeling" of friendship Spock feels towards Kirk, or much else.

For all V'Ger's knowledge, Spock realizes that the alien is "barren" and "empty." Were Spock to pursue Kolinahr, he would end up the same way. Spock's "human flaw," if we can call it that, is also one of ego, his obsession with becoming the "perfect" Vulcan. In embracing friendship with Kirk, in feeling his emotions (and even weeping, in the film's extended version), Spock begins to embrace the emotions he has long denied...and provides Kirk with the key to understanding V'Ger's psychology. He would never have come to this epiphany had Spock not "joined" with V'Ger in a mind-meld. And that puts us right back at the theme of symbiosis.

Decker (Stephen Collins) undergoes an interesting character arc too. He is a young man who fears commitment and the responsibilities it brings. He left Delta IV, Ilia's home wold without even saying goodbye to the woman he loved, which is a pretty sleazy and avoidant thing to do. It might even be termed "cowardice." In the end, Decker overcomes this "human weakness" and joins with Ilia and V'Ger, saving the Earth, repairing his relationship with Ilia, and adding the human component to V'Ger that the machine life-form requires to "evolve."

When Kirk, Spock and McCoy return to the Enterprise, Kirk explicitly asks if they have just witnessed the "birth of a new life form." As I noted bove, Spock's answer is that perhaps they have seen "the next step" in their "own evolution." This is a statement that is linked to the characters themselves. Though Decker has physically evolved to another (higher...) dimension or plane of existence, Kirk and Spock have evolved too. Kirk is suddenly gracious and comfortable in his skin again instead of imperious and dictatorial. And Spock, for the first time in his life, understands that that his human emotions carry value, and augment his "whole" personhood.

To claim that there is little or no character development in Star Trek: the Motion Picture is wrong-headed in the extreme. In some fashion, this is surely the most important story of Mr. Spock's "life," his final recognition of his "human" half and the gifts it offers. When we cavalierly write off Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we are also writing off Spock's new enlightenment.


This is An Almost Totally New Enterprise...


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often termed the film that saved Star Trek, and there may indeed be truth to that argument. Certainly, I love and admire that Nicholas Meyer film. However, consider just how much material present in later Star Trek originates directly from the re-invention of the franchise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Most notably, the Enterprise re-design and update -- featured in the first six feature films -- is introduced in this Robert Wise film (exteriors and interiors). This was also the first Star Trek production to feature a "warp" distortion effect around the ship when it went beyond light speed.

Also, the modern iteration of Klingons -- so beloved by Trek fans today -- is introduced here, in The Motion Picture. Before the Wise film, Klingons were swarthy guys with beards who talked about Klingonese (in "The Trouble with Tribbles") but didn't actually speak it. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Klingons were menacing aliens with ridges on their foreheads (and boy would Next Gen go to town with THAT idea...), wearing convincing armor and speaking their own language.

We can't forget, either that Star Trek: The Next Generation's very theme song, as well as the Klingon theme featured in First Contact and elsewhere -- were re-purposed from Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant soundtrack for
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

There seems to be this weird belief among many fans that Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn't represent the best of Star Trek. While it is easy to see that the film doesn't accent the humorous side of the Star Trek equation, The Wise film does get so many things right. Most importantly, it captures the Kirk/Spock friendship in simple, poignant terms (in a scene set in sickbay). Imagine how easy it would have been for Gene Roddenberry -- just two years after Star Wars -- to cowtow to public opinion and make a huge, empty action film with laser blasts and spaceships performing barrel rolls. No one would have blamed him. I'll bet you a lot of fans would have liked that story better.

Instead, Roddenberry took a much more difficult route. He maintained the integrity of Star Trek and dramatized a story about mankind's future, and the direction we could be heading (with man and machine joined together, balancing weaknesses and sharing strengths). Some might declare that the film actually attempts and fails to reach the profound quality of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly, I would agree The Motion Picture is not an equal to that film. However, here's another point of view: in Roddenberry's vision of man's evolution, it isn't some mysterious, unknown alien who transforms us for the better. No, in the universe of Star Trek, it's mankind playing a critical part in his own evolution, taking the reigns of his own destiny himself. We aren't victims of an alien agenda unknown to us. We're standing tall, ready to face what the universe throws at us. Somehow, this is more...noble.

In considering (or perhaps, re-considering....) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, our mission ought to be the same as the Enterprise's: to "intercept" and "investigate" this fascinating movie and judge for ourselves if it is just the cosmic bore critics complained of, or perhaps something a bit deeper. Of all the Star Trek movies, this is the one that shows us the most of the universe at large (Klingon territory, Federation spaceships, Vulcan, Earth...), most closely follows the creed of "discovering new life forms" from the series, and most makes us feel like we're actually passengers aboard the Enterprise. Perhaps we wouldn't want Star Trek to exist on this elevated, cerebral plateau for long, since humor and action are indeed shorted. Yet there's something intensely admirable about the fact that this careful, somber, thematically-consistent, intelligent effort was Star Trek's opening salvo in the blockbuster sweepstakes of the post-Star Wars age. While others sought to imitate, Star Trek chose its own path.

And that's how a movie franchise was born.