I wouldn’t say I dislike ST:TMP exactly. The movie came out when I was eight, and I do remember that I fell asleep watching it at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. I watched it several times afterwards. I thought the extended cut, released for ABC television in the 1980s was better. (ABC used to show extended cuts of lots of movies, including Star Trek II and Superman II, that improved on the originals. It was one of the network’s happier habits.) I think the Robert Wise director’s cut improves the pace of the film markedly.
I like that ST:TMP, really alone among the Star Trek features, shows the crew as astronauts and explorers, and I like that the makers didn’t try to turn it into Star Wars, despite what I gather was enormous pressure from Paramount to emulate Fox’s blockbuster.
William Goldman once wrote that every movie is essentially a race between the good and bad version of itself. Sometimes the good or bad version wins by a mile. Other times, it’s a close call. For ST:TMP bad wins, but not by much, and I think a few changes could tip it the other way.
The movie starts out great. Big mysterious energy cloud almost casually rubs out three Klingon warships and is on precise heading for Earth. Meanwhile, Spock, on Vulcan undergoing the final stage of Kohlinahr, senses the consciousness of this cloud (never mind how), and it stirs emotions in him that make it impossible to purge his emotions and achieve pure logic. Always good to start a character off with a problem. What’s next?
After a nice setup, ST:TMP occupies the next half hour getting the band back together. Kirk needs to finagle his way back into the captain’s chair after promotion to a desk job, and the Enterprise, though nice looking, has to sit in drydock waiting for circuitry to be installed and for crew members to show up. The movie needs to explain, you see, where everybody’s been all this time and why they’re back…
There’s the movie’s problem. It thinks it has to explain, that the fans need to know. It doesn’t, and they don’t.
ST:TMP could have opened so much faster if, instead of letting the Enterprise sit in dock, the Enterprise were instead on its shakedown cruise. Maybe Admiral Kirk is taking it around for a last run before handing it over to Captain Decker, sort of a ceremonial/PR thing, when the call comes in from Epsilon 9 that the Big-Ass Cloud is coming, and Kirk immediately assumes command of the ship for real for the duration of the crisis. Maybe we can also have a scene where Captain Decker, off duty, complains to Lt. Ilia, his ex-lover and the only member of the command crew who’ll listen, about having to step aside and how his hot shot Starfleet career is turning to shit before his eyes because Kirk won’t let go. And maybe she says that this could be a signal that Starfleet isn’t really for either of them, that they should look elsewhere for their happiness. The Enterprise warp off. Spock catches them along the way, and biff-bam-boom, we’re at the cloud ready to check out V’ger, all needs established dramatically, all arcs ready to bend.
Working it this way would also solve another of the movie’s problems, figuring out who Decker and Ilia are as people. They’re featured prominently in the cast and the movie wants us to think they’re important, but it spends enough time with them that we can figure out what motivates them. Since the theme of ST:TMP is Attainment–Spock attains psychological balance, Kirk attains The Enterprise, V’Ger joins with its Creator. Some of these are harder won than others, but y’know–we need a stronger sense of what Decker and Ilia hope to get out of the story. Otherwise, their characters come off as flat and shallow. Signaling Decker’s dissatisfaction with his career trajectory and Ilia’s feeling that they should pursue something else together sets us up nicely for the end, when they join V’Ger to explore the universe (or whatever).
It wouldn’t have taken much to get Star Trek: The Motion Picture where it needed to be, in dramatic terms. The necessary materials were already in the script. Who knows? Harold Livingston might well have written scenes much like the ones I describe. Sadly, Roddenberry interfered a lot with the writers on this picture, and it seems–given how much energy his pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation expends on getting its band together–that Roddenberry had a penchant for long scenes where characters do little but introduce themselves in static situations.
There’s a reason Paramount didn’t let Roddenberry produce Star Trek movies after TMP, and there’s a reason why fans of the show should be grateful for D.C. Fontana, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Gene Coon, John D.F. Black, and Robert Bloch. (Particularly Coon and Fontana.) Roddenberry may have thought up Star Trek, but those writers made it something people still watch fifty years later.