You Don't Know Shat?! Birthday Edition! : Star Trek: The Misunderstood Picture
Today friends, William Shatner turns 80 years old. The year Shatner was born The Star Spangled Banner was just adopted as our National Anthem, construction of the Empire State Building was being completed, and Dick Tracy had only made his first appearance in newspapers. In the intervening years, Shatner has become one of the most recognizable actors in the world, and Star Trek, the series that made him famous, has gone from being the stuff of fiction to feeling like it could be just around the corner. (Or perhaps that’s just how I feel every time I hold an iPad.) I thought about looking into many corners of Shatner’s catalog to find something special for his birthday, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew which film I wanted to talk about. After the cancellation of the Star Trek series, William Shatner was adrift. He faded in and out as a regular on several series and appearing in an ungodly number of made for TV films. As the ‘70’s drew to a close, Paramount, who held the rights to Star Trek, was looking into starting a new television station with Star Trek: Phase II as its marquee show.
As the project continued to develop, Paramount ended up with cold feet about getting into mass broadcasting, and plans for Star Trek to lead the charge of a new network were shelved. Instead, thanks to the success of some other movie with “Star” in the title, science fiction in the theaters was hot, and so it wasn’t such a leap for Paramount to change their focus from the small screen back to the big. In a nutshell, that’s how we ended up with the much derided film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (often referred to as "The Motionless Picture" by Trekkies who only believe in the existence of even numbers.) There’s much more to the story, and anyone interested can find several expansive books on the subject. I should know as I’ve read them. However, for our purposes today, it doesn’t matter how it happened as much as that it did. Because Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not only the movie that gave Star Trek a second chance, it also is the movie that saved the career of one William Alan Shatner.
Before I talk about that, let me talk a little bit about the picture itself. In a way Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the genesis (weapon?) that would spawn so much throughout the movie series. The crew of the Enterprise is thrown back together (Treks I, V, VI) because a strange space object is closing in on Earth (Trek IV) seeking a higher power to give its life meaning (Treks IV, VI). At first, Admiral Kirk (Shatner. Is it necessary to specify now in a post J.J. Abrams world?) is supposed to be merely visiting the newly outfitted U.S.S. Enterprise before a shakedown run, but with the threat to Earth, he convinces Starfleet to give him command of the ship presumably to save the world one last time. Of course, he would save the “world” a.k.a Starfleet (or ultimately the universe), four more times before his appearances in the series were done (II, IV, VI, Generations). The Motion Picture also began the plot thread that Kirk is past his prime, useless, washed-up, and outmoded. This idea (despite the fact that he continues to save the world), began when Shatner (and presumably Kirk) was 48 years old in 1979, and carried on though all six of Kirk’s continued cinematic adventures.
Think about William Shatner’s career this way. Nathan Fillion starred in the short lived series Firefly, which faded for a short time before it got the movie treatment. Fillion now stars in a TV series, and he has occasionally appeared in films. Now imagine that over the next 10 years his star fades while Firefly steadily builds its cult following. Then in 2021, when Nathan would be at the half centennial mark, Firefly somehow comes back to the big screen. His career, whose course had been all but written, changes paths, and Fillion becomes a visible, hugely recognizable face for the next 30 plus years. This little tale has warmed the hearts of Browncoats everywhere, but the chances that Nathan will have the same luck as William, seem pretty slim. One of the reason’s Shatner’s career reignited post Star Trek: The Motion Picture is Shatner’s acting was rarely better.
Seriously, from the affable, charming off the cuff remarks of lines like, “Bones, there’s a thing out there.” to the ability to make Star Trek psychobabble such as,” What it needs in order to evolve... is a human quality. Our capacity to leap beyond logic. “ sound compelling. Shatner’s line delivery is on point from end to end in this film. Sure there are plenty of instances of Shatner’s pausing delivery, but at this point shouldn’t we all have to suspend our disbelief and just assume that Kirk talks that way. The dynamic of Star Trek’s three main characters, Kirk, Spock and McCoy, has long been the linchpin of the series. McCoy is guided by pure emotion. Spock (especially in this film) is pure logic. James T. Kirk should be nestled somewhere night in the middle, and Shatner hits that sweet spot giving Kirk the perfect division of idea and feeling. The problem really comes down to this. William Shatner wasn’t the only thing going on in this film.
When I say going on, I mean going on… and on… and on. Every time I sit down to my DVD of the director’s cut, I forget that Robert Wise brought Star Trek: The Motion Picture in at a bloated two hours and fifteen minutes. While I like trippy visions of particle clouds or whatever V’Ger was full of, the lengthy shots bring to mind more thoughts of Kubrick’s 2001 channeled though The Filmore West than Star Wars. It wouldn’t be until Trek II: Wrath of Kahn that the writers got out of their head, got some action going, and figured out that if you’re writing a space opera you better have a space battle somewhere along the line. The whole V’Ger plotline even feels like a holdover from the proposed television show. It has a Twilight Zone-ish ending (ooh, V’Ger is Voyager) that should have been able to be wrapped up in less than an hour. Still, I find this first outing of the Star Trek movies to be enjoyable for its faults. From the maddening uniforms (everyone seems to be wearing something different, and most have belt buckles but no belt) to the pop philosophy to the new, bald female lieutenant whose sex is just way too good and way to strong for Earthlings to resist (talk about a milkshake bringing all the boys to the yard), it is impossible not to watch The Motion Picture and not crack a smile.
So the popular opinion (or perhaps legend) is that Star Trek films are only good on the even numbers. Well, I know quite a few who like III: The Search for Spock and even one or two who like Generations (the 7th and final appearance of the original cast on film). Admittedly, I doubt I can find anyone to champion V: The Final Frontier, but I’m sure I’m not the only one with a soft spot for The Motion Picture. (Possibly because my wife also likes it.) If for nothing else, fans of William Shatner should thank their lucky stars that the future star of T.J. Hooker and Boston Legal, future singer behind Has Been, and future paintball maniac behind Splatt Attack got a chance to make this film. Otherwise, there is severe doubt that today I would be writing about a man who starred in a series that went off the air eight years before I was born. Instead, here I am, and wherever you are Mr. Shatner, I want to wish you a happy birthday. I hope you’re around for many, many more.