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A machine planet, sending a machine to Earth, looking for its creator. It’s absolutely incredible.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
(1979)

(SPOILERS) Most of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek: The Motion Picture are legitimate. It puts spectacle above plot, one that’s so derivative it might be classed as the clichéd Star Trek plot. It’s bloated and slow moving. For every superior redesign of the original series’ visuals and concepts, there’s an inferior example. But… it’s also endlessly fascinating. It stands alone among the big screen chapters of series as an attempted reimagining of the TV show as a grand adult, serious-minded “experience”, taking its cues more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the success of which got The Motion Picture (TMP) a green light, execs sufficiently convinced that Lucas’ hit wasn’t a one-off). It’s a film (a motion picture, not a mere movie) that recognises the passage of time (albeit clumsily at points) and gives a firm sense of space and place to its characters universe. It’s hugely flawed, but it both fully understands the mythologising elements of a show that had expired a decade earlier and yet isn’t content to rest on the laurels of a built-in audience.



It’s been suggested that, had Phase II, the proposed TV sequel show, entered production in 1977/8 it might not have lasted more than one innings. It wasn’t sufficiently distinct enough. That might well have been the case, since TMP’s screenplay (credited to Harold Livingstone, with story by Alan Dean Foster) is a reworking of In Thy Image, the Phase II pilot script. It was rapidly retooled for the cinema arena in order to capitalise on the big screen sci-fi boom. As has been widely noted, TMP’s basic plotline is very similar to the original series episode Changeling (one of the affectionately mocking fan titles for the movie is Where Nomad Has Gone Before, referencing the probe in Changeling).



The merits of flawed, emotional humanity over unfeeling logic were a lynchpin of the TV show, and at times in TMP are so overworked there’s a danger of descent into self-parody. Conversely, there’s an admirable reliance on wordy philosophical interplay that would be unthinkable in the current era (it was going against the flow even then). There was absolutely no danger that Star Trek Into Darkness would derive inspiration (if that’s what you’d want to call it; it goes a bit beyond, really) from TMP’s major plot points rather than The Wrath of Khan’s. There isn’t even a proper villain in TMP, for a start. Certainly no one you could throw at a good action sequence (it’s even a bit of a cruel trick, to open on redesigned Klingons and a dramatic scene in which they’re pulverised, and then have no personified, meat-and-potatoes antagonists during the next two hours plus).



And yet, The Original Series (TOS)crew were able to deliver an unlikely box office success again, when The Voyage Home pretty much repeated the premise (alien probe comes to Earth wreaking havoc, looking for a signal locked into Earth history). Positioned as a culture clash comedy (see also the same year’s Crocodile Dundee), it also managed to sidestep the need for classic villains. Looking at the way in which future features repeatedly tried and failed to muster Khan-like antagonists – Picard, Nero, er, Khan – the seemingly anti-intuitive approach might have something to it.



It’s moot how well the previously developed big screen Trek would have turned out (nixed prior to Star Wars release, showing how on-the-ball Paramount was about these things – and presumably still isn’t, given how they continue to making baffling choices in respect of the franchise). Roddenberry’s The God Thing featured one of the show’s staple incursions of Godlike but not God antagonists (a super computer!), and then there was Planet of the Titans (from the screenwriters of Don’t Look Now). This featured the Titans (shades of Who Mourned for Adonis? and perhaps the Chariots of the Gods concept that appeared in a Harlan Ellison reject script) and time travel (now the essential Trek trope, it seems).



The most intriguing part of this development was Philip Kaufman signing on as director. His late ‘70s period saw a number of disappointments (most frustrating being Clint getting shot of him on Outlaw Josey Wales). Kaufman wasn’t a Trekkie, and knocked heads with Roddenberry. But he got on very well with Leonard Nimoy; when Titans collapsed there was a brief spell were he had a story featuring Captain Spock butting intellects with a Klingon antagonist (in terms of classical conflict, this sounds closer to The Wrath of Khan). The vacillating heads of Paramount then opted to go down the TV route, before once again reconsidering. The upside of all this saw Kaufman going off and remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which feature Nimoy on great form as a self-help guru playing off Spock conceptions.



This was director Robert Wise’s penultimate big screen venture. Very much a product of old Hollywood, Wise started out as an editor with RKO in the thirties. Yet wasn’t a journeyman director in the sense of reliable plodder getting the job done and moving on. One might almost call him a chameleon, proficient at any given material with an intrinsic understanding of the needs of the individual script and how to translate that visually. This was a director who could hop genres flawlessly; the man who delivered the heavily stylised West Side Story also completed the spooky The Haunting, and also gave us documentary immediacy of The Andromeda Strain (yes, he was also responsible for The Hindenburg).



One technical characteristic of his work is readily identifiable, however, Striking use of deep focus, which he latched on to from working with Orson Welles, makes its way into TMP by way of split diopter lens (most elaborately found in De Palma’s movies, such as Blow Out); two objects at different distances from the camera remain in focus while the space between them is out of focus objects.



Until TMP came out (I’d have been seven at the time), I wasn’t even aware of the historicity of TOS. The original had been a regular feature of BBC1 primetime since the early ‘70s (this would carry on into the ‘80s, before eventually docking on BBC2), and I had little sense of when it had been made, or even that anyone had stopped making it. So TMP ice-lollies, with cards showing a refitted Enterprise, and an aging but readily recognisable crew, came as something of a surprise. If none of the preview materials carried the same excitement factor as Star Wars, or even pretenders such as Battlestar Galactica (the pilot released at cinemas in the UK) or The Black Hole, it still convincingly announced the continuation and viability of the franchise.



Perhaps the most mercilessly appropriate dig at TMP was relabeling it The Motionless Picture. The film occupies an almost perversely reactionary position to the easy thrills of the Lucas-verse; one might consider it bloody-minded in testing the goodwill of its prospective audience. The same year’s Alien showed that different approaches were more than possible for successful science fiction (it took its time to present its world, all the better to scare you with), but TMP suffered from a lack of finessing. It was never going to be a dynamic affair, but it got bogged down in overlong effects sequences and an inability to cut to the, if not chase, then amble.



That said, I’ll admit, I don’t mind most of the longueurs. The first half really takes its time, but ladles out a succession of entrances that pay off through the sheer satisfaction of a crew reunited, or old favourites revisited. The Klingons come first, and with them attention to treating this as a plausible galaxy. Besides the ridged foreheads there are subtitles, the latter repeated for the atmospheric cut to Spock’s home world.



This Vulcan takes its cues from Amok Time, but can spread its canvas beyond a TV studio set and painted backdrop. The a volcanic, primordial place steeped in rites and medieval rituals (there’s a curious dichotomy going on there; austere logic versus the flourish of occult incantations). The effect is straight from the cover of a pulp SF novel, with planets and moons orbiting in the near distance; it’s closer to something one might see in the following year’s Flash Gordon than the technological lustre elsewhere.



It’s significant that we see Spock first, recognising that Nimoy (who wasn’t going to be in Phase II) plays the most iconic character, even if he isn’t the nominal lead. While the sighting of Spock before eht the others makes sense thematically and structurally, arguably it is slightly superfluous in terms of character; it reminds us of Spock’s nature, and sets up his connection to the threat, but its importance is mostly one of underpinning the picture. With the Klingon sequence, it serves to establish an expansive universe with a promise of scale of adventure that is ultimately unrealised. This Trek mostly takes place on the bridge of the Enterprise.



In terms of Spock’s arc, though, those who (justifiably) complain about STID starting as if the 2009 movie had didn’t end where it did might be given pause. Should Spock still be fretting over his human qualities all this time later? Shouldn’t he have made peace, as he does here in a flash of revelation that serves 2-hour shorthand rather than an on-going journey? On the one hand, this introduces the idea that the principals have been off doing their own thing and leading their own paths in the intervening period. On the other it smacks a little of character subplots for the sake of star powered input. Nimoy absolutely sells it, however, and the scene where Spock realises his own shortsightedness through recognising the limitations of V’ger’s perception is quite lovely. Other choices designed to beef up his purpose and narrative conflict aren’t so surefooted.



This is most evident in the suspicion over Spock’s motives, and that he may not have the interests of the Enterprise foremost in his Vulcan mind (As Kirk comments, “I could never believe that”). It’s never more than aside, fortunately (if it had been, Spock would need considerably more justification than presented here). It also entitles, in a story without villains, Spock to give an unsuspecting crewmember a Vulcan grip. Occasionally, the Spock signatures feel like greatest hits moments (“I sense… puzzlement”; while this feeds into the Spock’s emotions /V’ger’s emotions theme, it is never much more than reheated beans), most obviously when he attempts to mind meld with a nebulous cloud during his spacewalk.



Yet in spite of that griping about motivation, it feels justified, on his return, when he uses “Jim” for the first time, accepting his human side. It’s a recognition of connection and friendship we’ve been waiting for. There are those who suggest TMP is a rather austere, chilly vision of Trek, which in terms of visuals it is (the clinical rigour of Kubrick). However, it’s also features liberal doses of humour, mostly deriving from the interplay between the holy triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.



Kirk’s entrance is decidedly less flashy than his once and soon to be once more science officer, but it takes a similar opportunity to establish the scope of this widescreen vision of Trek. A look at 23rd century Earth, complete with shuttles zipping by the Golden Gate Bridge, is the sort of economical scene setter TMP could have done with more of; certainly, that’s the case a scene or two later when Kirk and Scotty enjoy an interminable shuttle approach to the refitted Enterprise. Although, even that isn’t that much of a chore. It does look very nice, after all. Perhaps its just nice to revisit a movie that isn’t rushing to the next explosion. Or perhaps it’s that visuals are so distinctive, so handcrafted and demonstrably pre-CGI and not touched up in a computer, that there’s a real pleasure in seeing it all there on screen. The aimed for wonder of 2001 is never achieved, but at points it really does dazzle.



It may be a result of the Shat’s star wattage and input (various of the supporting cast attested to his claiming priority on rewrites, and certainly a moment such as the tableau where McCoy and Spock “hold him back” from stopping Decker from merging with V’ger seems like his particular style), or it may just be his eccentric delivery, the most arresting of any star this side of Christopher Walken, but Kirk is a delight throughout TMP. It helps that his character is given the only real interactive conflict in the piece, butting heads with Stephen Collins’ Commander Decker. I’m a big fan of the Shat’s hamming, and his tickled moments, but additionally Kirk’s sincerity throughout this is very winning; his pleasure on seeing Spock for the first time, and his restraint when continually provoked by Commander Decker. Some of which is deserved, of course.


Decker: I’m sorry I embarrassed you.
Kirk: Stop… competing with me, Decker.

There’s a reiteration throughout that Kirk has been less than scrupulous in assuming command of the Enterprise. If Decker wasn’t such a self-righteous tool, we might be more likely to side with him against the captain. Even Bones accuses Kirk (“You’ve used this emergency to get the Enterprise back”). It’s a smart move, such that TMP embraces both past glories, running a wave of nostalgia, and suggests that out heroes may be a little past it. As such, there’s also a meta-level to the narrative; reviewers would increasingly pick up on the aging crew aspect during the next decade, much of it waistline and hairpiece based. Kirk is an ill-at-ease Admiral, without a single space hour in two and a half years. He is no longer in his element. Future films will go further in depicting Kirk as the flawed hero. It’s a persona he readily Shatner takes to and can carry through by dint of charisma.


Kirk: I trust you will nursemaid me through these difficulties, Mister?

Its fun to see Kirk holding in (not his gut) his more combustible side in the face of a younger imp who is more cocksure and experienced with the new improved ship. Kirk doesn’t deny self-interests, even though he is armed with justifiable justification (“My experience, five years out there, dealing with unknowns, like this”). He isn’t simply noble; he has very ego-driven desires (as Decker says of his return to captain’s chair, “I don’t think you’re sorry, one bit”).



If one was going to cut a narratively superfluous scene, it would be easy to lose the wormhole sequence, but it’s about the only dramatic moment for the first hour (following the opening scene). And it’s useful for the insight it provides into Kirk’s self-moderation, recognising the limits of his power/knowledge and that it’s a good leader who can admit when he’s wrong. The screenplay overplays its hand at points (Deckard’s parting shot, “As much as you wanted the Enterprise, I want this” could be left unsaid).



Perhaps my favourite slice of Shatness is the transmission sequence, where Kirk urges his science officer to respond to V’Ger and so forestall destruction. His repeated pleas (“Spock… Mr Spock… Spock”) ensure a scene that is both tense and funny, and illustrative of Shat’s immaculate and idiosyncratic timing (witness also his desire to speak to Spock normally; “Will you… please… sit down”).


Kirk: Bones, there’s something out there.
McCoy: Why is an object we don’t understand always called a thing?

DeForest Kelly, according to his place in the series’ central trio, arrives a distant third. That’s after we’ve seen everyone else in the crew, including the newbies. Kelly is an irascible joy, contrary entirely for the sake of it (just take a position, any position, Doctor).  It’s only the extent of Kirk’s earnestness towards his shipmate that wins over the old grouch (“I need you, badly”). Maybe I’m not the most discerning Trek watcher (I like Trek, rather than love it, and that’s pretty much based on the original line-up), but it seems to me they have the interplay between Kirk, Spock and Bones pitch-perfect.



Occasionally, there’s a sense that the (re-) writers are trying too hard, but that mostly comes from overworking the conclusion to give it sufficient cosmic gravitas and ensure sure the trio are furnished with their traditional philosophical rumination and a bit of Spock-Bones snarking. Bones love-hate for the green-blooded Vulcan is evident from the off, his initial inability to disguise his filial feelings (“Well, so help me, I’m actually pleased to see you!”) quickly giving way to more typical antagonism (“You haven’t changed a bit. You’re just as warm and sociable as ever”). That combustibleness, met by Spock’s neutral tones, is one of the great pleasures of their relationship.



McCoy doesn’t actually get to do a great deal of note. He examines Ilia, tends to Spock, but his role has generally been that of reactor/commentator while his co-leads take the lead. And what he generally does well, he does well here.



The rest of the regulars are well known for moaning about the size of their movie roles, although it isn’t as if they had great parts in the series week in week out. Scotty does what he always does (“If we don’t break free in 15 seconds she’ll break up!”), but now James Doohan has something disturbing attached to his upper lip and a pie shop adjacent to the engine room set.



Uhura, Chekov and Sulu barely get a look in. Out of the three, only Chekov really had notable scenes in the movies (yes, I’m aware of Uhura doing a fan dance and Sulu getting the Excelsior), and all of them involve injury.



Small as his showing is here, he gets a few scraps; his grin when Ilia comes aboard indicates what a randy little Russian he is, while later he really maxes out the agony face as V’ger burns his ickle hand. He also make the most of the line “Absolutely I will not interfere” in earnestly deadpan fashion when Decker tells him not interfere with the probe.


Decker: Captain, as your executive, its my duty to point out alternatives.
Kirk: … Yes it is. I stand corrected.

TMP would probably not have featured any newbies at all, had it been planned from the outset as a simple reunion pic, but it’s the better for not remaining static. Sure, the status quo is conveniently returned to by the time of the last scene, but it would beggar belief that all these characters were doing exactly the same thing in the interim, while getting older and more seasoned at their jobs.



Where alteration from Phase II is necessary, it even provides an interesting diversion (even as shearable bloat). So the Phase II Klingon science officer is conveniently disposed of in an extremely icky transporter malfunction (it comes over as a cross between Brundlefly and Altered States).


I never liked Decker very much, but that appears to be at least partly the intent of the filmmakers. He might have been more of a contender in the face of Kirk’s challenge if he was less self-assured, more modest, and didn’t act like a petulant teenager (taking the Enterprise away from him is so unfair!)



Collins is very good; he more than holds his own opposite an all-devouring portion of Shat ham. Unfortunately, it’s now impossible to see the character in the quite the same way as before, informed by recent revelations regarding Collins. I presume it was Trek that led to him being cast in Tales of the Golden Monkey, but why anyone would watch this and think “He’d be perfect as a roguish Indiana Jones type” is anyone’s guess.



Ilia: My oath of celibacy is on record, captain. May I assume my duties?

Lieutenant Ilia couldn’t be more different to Decker in terms of characterisation. She’s defined by visual cues (bald female) and a one-line info dump that informs us of her race’s sexual bounty. Curiously, given that TMP makes an effort to wash away memories of the ‘60s sexy (and sexist) future, one of the two main new characters is overtly sexualised; she’s given an exotic costume that renders the space age miniskirts of TOS Trek positively discreet. One assumes that V’ger is either incredibly kinky, or he accessed Ilia’s memory for standard Deltan wardrobe ((I prefer the former, but I suspect that’s not the case, as this isn’t Demon Seed).



It’s unclear whether Ilia’s hyper-sexuality means her feelings for Decker are no more than for anyone else she might shag (taking an oath of celibacy suggests she gets around a bit, although Persis Khambatta suggested that sexual contact with a Deltan led to obsession and eventual madness on the part of the human partner); intentionally or not, her presence is an effective way of stating the free love drive of the ‘60s is over (next stop, cyber sex). Her presence is also significant for what it says about the aging Kirk. No longer is the Captain of the Enterprise shagging his way around the universe, and his mere presence doesn’t take the breath away of every hot young thing he encounters.



Ilia only really assumes a personality when V’ger, has cloned her, however, In that form, Khambatta’s performance is highly memorable. Really, there have been fairly few great original characters in the Star Trek movies (I mean in conception and design, rather than performance), but the probe version of Ilia is definitely one of them.



Because V’ger is an idea we’ve seen before, its effectiveness is almost entirely based upon its presentation. It isn’t so much that the idea is a bad one, but it’s so familiar. Even if you hadn’t seen Changeling, it’s unlikely that you wouldn’t have encountered a similar idea of sentient computers and the creator principle. It breaks down to that most versatile of Star Trek themes, most frequently reserved for machines, but also for godlike, aloof races (here it’s a combination of the two); if only they could perceive the wonders of fallible, fantastic, emotional humans (they’re bestest of all), they would be complete.



Spock: V’ger has knowledge that spans this universe, and yet, with all its pure logic, V’ger is barren, cold. No mystery, no beauty. I should’ve known. (Spock closes his eyes.)
Kirk: Spock! What should you have known?
Spock: (Roused, taking Kirk’s hand) Jim, this simple feeling is beyond V’ger’s comprehension. No mercy, no hope. And Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions. Is that all I am? Is there nothing more?

The plus side of this is that the conversations between the crew hearken back to the sometimes-trite ruminations found in the original series. This became something of a lost art as the big screen adventures continued, entirely understandably given the differing agendas of movies and TV. This approach is at is most vindicated during the above Spock scene, where he sums up the special bond between friends. On paper, it runs the danger of being corny, but as played between Nimoy and the Shat it reverberates with sincerity.


Kirk: A machine planet, sending a machine to Earth, looking for its creator. It’s absolutely incredible.

Why Kirk should find the notion of a machine planet etc. incredible, given all he has seen, is questionable. Perhaps he forgets easily. There are a few such moments where the one can hear standard lines being slotted into place (“energy of a type never before encountered” – why, of course it is), but there are also several lovely little exchanges of circular logic with the probe. There’s a stalemate between Kirk’s demands for her to remove the orbiting devices from Earth and hers for the answer to the question of why the creator doesn’t respond. She, who has a winning line in comparing humans to vermin (‘carbon based units infesting the Enterprise”) defines herself in purely relative terms (“The creator is that which created V’ger… V’ger is that which seeks the creator”).


Ilia: V’ger will comply if the carbon units will disclose the information.
McCoy: It learns fast, doesn’t it?

On the one hand, V’ger wields the reductive language of scientific rationalisation, so furthering the theme of the conflict between emotion and logic. On the other, her quest for the creator invokes the limited terms open to many (organised) belief systems, whereby interrogation of precepts is discouraged. Trek emphasises humanist principles first and foremost. As such, those individuals or systems powered by faith in another force are generally seen to be misguided or corrupt, yet the quest for answers itself is considered profoundly noble.



As Spock says of V’Ger, comparing its development to that of a child, “It knows only that it needs, commander. But like so many of us, it does not know what”. Spock allows for “Other dimensions, higher levels of being, the existence of which cannot be proved logically”. A door is left open, which may be why Trek attracts those of apparently oppositional viewpoints. 



The only certain creators in the Trek universe are humans themselves, be it of sentient space probes or robot Pinocchios. But it’s a series careful not to rule out possibilities. Apart from anything else, it would be severely limiting on a basic storytelling front. The exposition during the final encounter with V’ger is often on the lumpy side, over-egging the dialogue when the ideas could have been expressed more succinctly, and rather clumsily having our heroes withdraw to a “corner” to chat about their next move while Ilia obligingly stands by the side-lines.



Ilia: When my examination is complete, all carbon units will be reduced to data patterns.

Bringing the romance element back round to AI erotica is quite tidy (it means Ilia and Decker can be cleared from the decks for “true crew” new adventures, but also ties in to the scripts themes). But having quite such a static end scene also draws attention to shortcomings in internal logic. If V’ger is so damn smart, why did it decide its moniker based on a bit of dirt obscuring the Voyager VI nameplate? It’s also very fortunate how well read this lot are concerning 20th century NASA expeditions (Decker particularly). And what do they call black holes in the 23rd century if it’s no longer black holes?


Kirk: You mean this machine wants to physically join with a human? Is that possible?
Decker: Lets find out.

It’s curious that Decker is so willing to pursue the facsimile of Ilia to her ultimate destination. Does that mean he’s incredibly shallow in his adoration for her? That he just wants some kinky robot sex? Or that he has trouble distinguishing “reality”? No one really tries to stop him, mostly probably because he’s a bit of a cock, but also because it gets them out of a tight spot. It’s certainly a novel take on Roy Neary going off with the aliens; Decker is sucked into a cosmic sex bubble, by way of Starman blowing glowing hair, such that he looks like he picked a bad week to stop sniffing glue,


Kirk: I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose out of our 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.

Kirk’s speculation on the nature of V’ger as a new life form is rather insufferable, so it’s a relief to have McCoy and Spock on hand to start bitching at each other. Indeed, McCoy’s best line comes when Spock first posits the idea that V’ger should be treated as a child; “Spock, this child is about to wipe out every living thing on Earth. Now what do you suggest we do? Spank it?” Presumably Bones read about spanking in history books, since there is surely no such thing in the 23rd century (well, maybe Deltans enjoy it).



Although the interaction of the characters is ultimately the reason everyone’s been gathered together again for TMP, the expense/spectacle is the most vaunted ingredient (certainly eclipsing the plot). And much of the expense is impressive. TMP achieves a tangible environment where you can quite believe the Enterprise is a vast star ship, not just a bridge, engine room, sickbay and a few corridors. In contrast, the Bird of Prey interior is all used-future chic. The filmmakers understand that evolution, raising the game, is necessary, even if the end result it’s undoubtedly too enamoured with its bag of tricks.



While TMP is generally seen as a bit of failure (it’s the next one that gets it right), and there’s a profound makeover come the sequel, a number of aspects are highly influential; the Klingons (and Vulcans), subtitled language, the warp speed visuals.



It discards TOS elements both good and bad (the communicators are missed). The general artistry on display simply hasn’t been repeated in terms of concept designs and visual effects. Much of that is down to having greats like Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra and Syd Mead on board.



The space sequences are unparalleled, and in terms of V’Ger’s visuals (the cloud, its world), the designs are unusual and distinct, handcrafted rather than spawned through code (short of Darren Aronofsky making a Star Trek movie, there’s no chance of that now). V’ger’s realm is atmospheric and uncanny, and elements come together to suitably epic effect; the pinhead Enterprise as it sallies forth through V’ger’s structure; the crewmembers stepping out on the ship’s saucer, as if this is the hull of a vast submarine; the pervading rumbling sound effects and lightning. Then there’s the lens flare when the ship leaves V’ger’s realm; it would give JJ Abrams raptures.



Spock’s space walk is also quite marvellous. It may not turn quite as trippy as 2001, but its suitably unbound by the corporeal. Reflecting off his visor are images of planets, galaxies, moons; it’s a live action cover of a ‘70s concept album, in particular when we reach a giant representation of Ilia, her throat chakra blazing. Everything can’t match this; the arc light probe sequence doesn’t wholly work, but even there the luminescence carries a striking and visceral immediacy.



Generally speaking, the costume design stinks. Wise didn’t want the vibrant colours of the TV series, and Roddenberry, very unenvironmentally, was into the idea of disposable clothing. So everyone wears cheap-looking tat; muted and unflattering, it’s a style of spacewear even Space: 1999 would have consigned to the bargain bins. Robert Fletcher struck lucky second time, with his decidedly more militaristic uniforms for Khan.



Curious choices abound. It’s debatable whether Ilia had room for underwear beneath that sheer dress. If she left something to the imagination, Decker’s visible cock and balls most certainly did not. Then there are the guards with silly shoulder pads and football helmets. Ilia also sports a daft head band at one point and Spock is welcomed aboard in a cape – as we know from Seinfeld, it takes some stones to pull one of those off. When all-weather gear is required, the crew don painters’ smocks. Rugged old Kirk is also given to wearing a space t-shirt.



The other element to note on the production side is Jerry Goldsmith’s score. I’m aware a great many adore it, but I find it decidedly uninspiring. It’s a pompous, self-important, joyless dirge, proud of its achievements, and devoid of the sense of adventure and the unknown that defined the TV theme. All these reasons are probably why it ended up reworked for Star Trek: The Next Generation. In contrast, the driving predator-and-prey Klingon theme is quite masterful, as are the compositions accompanying the eerie influence of V’ger (occasionally referencing Goldsmith’s score for the same year’s Alien).



I’ve grown to like TMP more over the passing years. I’ve always appreciated its ambition, and the manner in which it picked up the show’s baton, but in retrospect it is even more impressive for its lost craftsmanship. I recall also favouring the tightened up (but paradoxically longer) Director’s Cut (only released on DVD, as the new effects aren’t in HD) but I haven’t seen it since it came out.



TMP was incredibly expensive, tripling its allotted budget. When it was released, in the last month of the ‘70s, it didn’t even come close to the success of Star Wars (or even Close Encounters). But then, the franchise would only be placed in the hands of a wunderkind (a nu-wunderkind?) with a mercurial touch 30 years later. It represented a similar sort of financial failure to 1998’s Godzilla; in and of itself quite successful, but so costly as to cause a rethink (or stall the property for another 18 years). Inflation adjusted, TMP is still the most successful of the franchise bar the reboot. It was the fifth most popular movie in the US of 1979, beating Alien but trailing Apocalypse Now. It also bagged three Oscar nominations effects, for Score (A Little Romance won), Art Direction (All that Jazz took the statuette) and Visual Effects (Alien scored). No nod for cinematography, though (The Black Hole was nominated).



Rightly or wrongly, TMP’s mixed reception dictated the shape of big screen Trek to come. From thence on action would dictate content. On the rare occasions it didn’t (Insurrection), it would be seen as a misstep, the only exception being the big screen equivalent of The Trouble with Tribbles (ie an all out comedy, The Voyage Home). But Star Trek: The Motion Picture deserves full credit as a reintroduction to the crew. It only flounders in that its big idea isn’t up to the effort put into translation said idea to the screen. Still, when all’s said and done, and Kirk gives his blithe instruction for where to head next (“Out there. Thataway”) we want to go there with him.








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My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …