Sunday, December 07, 2014

Existential Angst Aboard the Starship Enterprise

James Kirk (William Shatner): Spock, did we just see the beginning of a new life form?

Spock (Leonard Nimoy): Yes, Captain. We witnessed a birth. Possibly a next step in our evolution.

Kirk: I wonder.

Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley): Well, it's been a long time since I delivered a baby. And I hope we got this one off to a good start.

Kirk: I hope so, too. I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose ... out of our own human weaknesses ... and the drive that compels us to overcome them.

McCoy: And a lot of foolish human emotions. Right, Mr. Spock?

Spock: Quite true, Doctor. Unfortunately, it will have to deal with them as well.

If you're under 40, you need to understand the status of the Star Trek franchise on this day in 1979.

Up to that time, there had been only one primetime Star Trek TV series — the original one that aired for three seasons in the 1960s and starred William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. There was an animated series that ran on Saturday mornings for a couple of years; otherwise, Star Trek's fan base had to content itself with reruns of the original primetime series, which were plentiful.

"Trekkies" — if that is what they were called — spent tons of money on the Star Trek promotional materials that were marketed in those days. Hard–core Trekkies could purchase a set of blueprints for the fictional Starship Enterprise. In hindsight, all the signs were there that Star Trek was about ready to take off — and it did. It became a cultural phenomenon.

There were also signs that many Trekkies suffered from undiagnosed mental disorders.

When "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" premiered 35 years ago today, it launched a movement. I've never been a Star Trek fan, but, by my count, there have been at least four TV series and five additional movies to date since the first movie's debut. Not all of the movies were good, but the first one, as even non–Trekkies such as myself had to admit, was pretty good.

The movie that premiered on this date in 1979 reunited the original cast and touched on all the running themes from the original series. It must have been everything that every Trekkie had dreamed about. It earned three times as much as it cost to make.

Interestingly, film critic Roger Ebert saw the reunion of the original cast as a negative.

"Epic science–fiction stories, with their cosmic themes and fast truths about the nature of mankind, somehow work best when the actors are unknown to us," Ebert wrote. "The presence of the Star Trek characters and actors who have become so familiar to us on television tends in a strange way to undermine this movie. The audience walks in with a possessive, even patronizing attitude toward Kirk and Spock and Bones, and that interferes with the creation of the 'sense of wonder' that science fiction is all about."

Maybe so. As I say, I was never a Trekkie, and I always have had a little trouble getting into Star Trek plotlines, whether they were on TV or the big screen. That was particularly true of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry produced the movie, and I think he felt liberated by the big screen because special effects were splashier than anything I had seen on TV. I think, to a certain extent, I was dazzled by that.

Consider, for a moment, what an achievement that was. The late '70s and early '80s probably produced more blockbuster sci–fi movies than at any other time in film history. Coming in the wake of such recent releases as "Star Wars," "Alien" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the special effects had to be impressive — and the special effects in "Star Trek" really were quite extraordinary.

Anyway, the plotline of the movie bewildered me just as the plotlines of the TV episodes bewildered me. My mind is not oriented toward science fiction.

But then at the end it all came together for me — just as it often did with the episodes in the TV series — in a kind of cosmic metaphysical twist.

Spock: Each of us ... at some time in our lives, turns to someone — a father, a brother, a god — and asks,"Why am I here? What was I meant to be?"

I'm not sure I ever really bought the movie's conclusion at the time — and if you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you.

But if you have seen any of the original Star Trek TV episodes, you can probably guess.

"The Star Trek movie is fairly predictable in its plot," Ebert wrote. "We more or less expected that two of the frequent ingredients in the television episodes would be here, and they are: a confrontation between Starship Enterprise and some sort of alien entity, and a conclusion in which basic human values are affirmed in a hostile universe."

Nevertheless, Ebert wrote, "There is, I suspect, a sense in which you can be too sophisticated for your own good when you see a movie like this. ... My inclination, as I slid down in my seat and the stereo sound surrounded me, was to relax and let the movie give me a good time. I did and it did."

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was nominated for three Oscars and lost all three.