Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Is it time for a reappraisal?

The original bringing of the classic series
to the big screen was originally greatly welcomed
but then seen as rather overblown.
However, with the new Ultra High Definition and upgraded
re-mastered release, Mark Yon wonders if we should reconsider
this cinematic offering's merit…


To paraphrase Rod Serling, imagine the scene, if you will.  It is 1979. 14-year-old me is very excited because one of his favourite television shows, Star Trek (opening credits here) watched since about the age of 5 or 6, is about to have something new to see, at long last.

What was unusual is that it shouldn’t have happened. The show itself was cancelled a decade earlier in the USA, although one of the quirks of global television transmissions was that it wasn’t first shown here in Britain until 1969, with the series already cancelled (though Star Trek strips appeared in the Joe 90: Top Secret comic six months earlier).  To add to the complication, it also didn’t help that when showing it the BBC originally jumbled up episodes from across the three seasons. Some were even not shown at all, for fear of controversy.

So how was it that a cancelled television series, first shown on British television about ten years previously, had got me so excited?  Well, in 1979 I was developing an interest in that thing known as science fiction. What I liked about Star Trek was that it fed my interest by travelling amongst the stars, letting me see strange new worlds and meet strange aliens. It was an American television series, an idea to me that made the series faintly exotic by not being British yet was being shown on British television.  I loved Kirk, Spock and 'Bones' McCoy.

Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

More than that, my interest in television series such as Star Trek, Doctor Who (opening credits here) and Thunderbirds (opening credits here) had also helped, admittedly) had led to me looking for new sources of information and meant that I was just starting to get to grips with reading science fiction – Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury – although the selection of material in my little Northern industrial town was limited to what I could pick up second-hand (which in itself was limited by my family’s limited finances) or more usually what I could find in the local library.

For those not old enough to remember, these were the days when we were just getting colour televisions in Britain – or at least my family was. Colour transmissions did not start until November 1969, and so many of the episodes I’d seen had been seen in black and white. It was a surprise to see them in colour, years later! Not only that, but you usually only got one chance to see a programme. There were no recordings easily available to buy, and so watching an episode meant watching it live and then keeping an eye out for occasional repeat showings in the schedules. You could not record them yourself. It was illegal, though I had been known to surreptitiously record the audio of some of my favourite programmes by putting a cassette recorder next to the television speaker and taping the audio. The main thing was that if you missed it, you missed it – and who knew when or if it would be shown again?

So, the news that there was to be a movie of the television series was quite exciting. Admittedly Star Wars (trailer here) seemed to have generated an optimism for new, exciting and visually impressive SF films, and hopefully this meant that everything I was enjoying on television and in books would be shown in the film. I was spending some of my hard-earned pocket money on the US magazine Starlog when copies could be found – not always easy – but it was showing me how exciting some of the developments in the US were. As we got nearer to release date, I got more and more excited. Asimov had been a Science advisor! Surely this would mean great science fiction – which, as much as I loved it, this was something of which Star Wars could never be accused. (Ah, the naivety of youth!)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture trailer.


When the day finally came, my younger brother and I went to our local three-screen cinema to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture (trailer here). Although it was a very small cinema, the room seemed full of people, all waiting for the revelation of a new Star Trek story!  In colour, with more money in its budget and much longer than a television episode!  Robert Wise was not only the director of this new film but also The Day the Earth Stood Still (trailer here), one of my favourite ‘old’ films.  How could it fail?

Well, of course it did.

After a promising start, I struggled to keep interest until the end, and found myself looking at my watch – a lot. I never leave a film early – a habit that still I stick to, even today – but it was close.

The humour of the series, the interaction of the characters all seemed missing, or at least subdued. Most annoyingly of all, the pace was glacially slow. Where was Kirk attacking the bad guys, outwitting the Klingons and saving the universe? The old Enterprise had been upgraded, but why did we spend SO LONG travelling around the outside of the new Enterprise? Why didn’t they just get on with it? The visuals were pretty but just nice-looking lights in the main, and often looked a little fuzzy. And that ending was just nonsense.

The new Enterprise (1979)

After such a build-up and with such high expectations we both felt very, very let down. We couldn’t recommend this movie to anyone, even science fiction fans. If this was the future of Star Trek, then to our young heads there was no future for Star Trek. This was also confirmed by the juvenile Disneyfication of science fiction seen a few weeks later by The Black Hole (trailer here), but that’s a story for another time.

Bitterly disappointed, I began to look at the reviews, which I had avoided up to that point. Of course, the only immediate reviews were those in the national papers – magazines had a lag time between viewing and publication, often of months.

Some of those reviews you can read today, thanks to the internet. There were some positives. The Los Angeles Times said “(Compared with Star Wars)…Star Trek is closer to Space Odyssey and Close Encounters, though without Kubrick’s special mix of high energy and mysticism or Spielberg’s lively confrontation of Earth and Other.”  Baird Searles, in the June 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, spoke quite positively and said that “it was a grand experience…. Certainly a cut above Star Wars; let’s simply say it didn’t insult my intelligence, as did The Black Hole.”

Bill Warren, in the August 1980 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine wrote an apologetic article entitled “It’s Okay to Like the Star Trek Movie” and gave a fairly balanced analysis, saying “Almost everyone I know who has seen Star Trek: TMP has been disappointed in it.” but later explaining “While it is not a great movie by any standards other than technical, it is far better than its detractors want it to be.

However, most of the reviews I remember were generally bad. Harlan Ellison skewered it, referring to it as “Star Trek the Motionless Picture”, although admittedly he may have had his own issues with the series. (His entire review, now available in Harlan Ellison’s Watching, is worth reading as a master class in how to dissect a film.) This lack of action was a common theme, amongst other wincingly bad comments.  In short, many of the reviews felt like how my brother and I did – it was long, it was boring, it was too cerebral.  It was a rehashed television episode ('The Changeling') stretched out to 132 minutes.

Forty-odd years later on, some of the reasons behind the film’s difficulties are now well known – possibly even legendary.  They sort of make up a list of what not to do when making a film.  Firstly, making the film to a pre-set deadline to be in the cinemas, near-impossible to reach even if things had gone without a hitch.  Add to this that the crew were working without a practical script from the start, with changes being made sometimes on a daily basis and without an ending.

Similarly, with such a tight turn-around there was no time to show the early cut to test audiences, the film being worked on until the very last minute – one of the stories is that the film print for the world premiere was produced so close to the deadline that it was still wet from its manufacture as it was put in the projector!

Thirdly, although experienced and with a proven track record of films, some have said that the director having no real idea of the television series was a weakness.  Wise was also hampered by certain actor’s egos and constant interference from the creator of the series. I understand that Robert Wise has said that working on ST:TMP in 1979 was one of the most unpleasant experiences of his career.

Money was wasted to simply get the film finished by the deadline, to the point where its tripled to about US$43 million.  It was generally felt that the special effects team were overstretched by the project’s size and were out of their depth, with extra help being brought in from ILM to finish it.

With some distance over time, it is now clear that the film that ended up in the cinema was not the one Wise wanted to make, instead being a film put out there because it had to be there rather than the one the director wanted.  Attempts were made to remedy this a little. A longer television cut was also made in 1983, although this seemed to do little but exacerbate the issues seen in the original. 'A Directors Cut' was released in 2001, with upgraded effects and scenes cut, trimmed and added to, which generally received more praise than the original.

Today I think that the film is generally regarded as “movie Marmite”, with many liking it but Star Trek fans feeling it to be the worst of all the movies to date - even worse than Star Trek V (trailer here). It does have its fans, admittedly, and it did make US$139 million at the time, but generally it is usually regarded as a false start to the film franchise – the next film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (trailer here) is MUCH better say most of the fans, which has much more of that entertainment feel that I think I was hoping for back in 1979.

So: why revisit it today?

With the release of the first six offerings in Ultra High Definition, Star Trek the Motion Picture has been given an upgrade as well.  The film negative has been re-graded, the special effects cleaned up digitally to 4K standard and given in Dolby Vision with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.  More importantly here, the Director’s Edition has been given a limited release back into the cinemas in as a 4K version.

So here was an opportunity to see it once again on a big screen. For all of the reasons given above, I was unsure, but I went back to the cinema to try it again.

In its new version, I now see what I should have seen the first time around. The look is remarkably good, even if the uniforms are odd and the colours on board the Enterprise are generally quite muted. Most of all the sound is magnificent, with an overture at the beginning that gives us the Star Trek theme in all of its glory.  Yes, some scenes are still too long (although I understand the reason for it, that trip around the Enterprise in space dock is still longer than it should be), but compared with the 3-4 hour epics we now see today, the two-and-a-bit hour version doesn’t seem too bad.  The new cleaner, crisper effects of travelling through the energy fields of V’GER are impressive and even seem to have been reined in a little. They didn’t seem quite so dull!  Not all of the effects are perfect – for example, there are still lines around some of the Klingon battle cruisers at the start but they are nothing like as glaringly obvious as before.

The attempt to emulate the 'Stargate sequence' in 2001: A Space Odyssey (trailer here) was more noticeable this time around, if still a little too long. In fact, generally I now realised more than ever before, that this was a film with the lofty ambition of wanting to be 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I am surprised that I didn’t get that the first time around, even though I knew Douglas Trumbull from 2001 was involved in the effects, I should have.

So, is this new improved view because I’m now older, or because my expectations have been lowered?  With its theme of evolution and talk of artificial machines becoming sentient, this is grown-up Star Trek, for adults. As such I was surprised to realise that this means that the film has not dated as much as some of the other Star Trek films – I look forward to re-watching them soon in their new 4K versions.

Wrath of Khan

I’ll not get too carried away here, and sadly, many of those other challenges mentioned means that, whilst ambitious, ST:TMP doesn’t quite reach where it (boldly) wants to go.  The characterisation is still not what it should be, some of the dialogue still cringingly clunky (“My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain.” Ugh.)  I’ll also say that it’ll never be my favourite Star Trek film – that’ll probably forever be The Wrath of Khan, even with its own faults – but this new version is far from being the disaster I thought it was in 1979.  It might even be worth a watch by those who disliked it first time around, as I did – you might just change your mind.  It is not ‘a road to Damascus moment’, with me finally seeing the light, so to speak – but it is a more favourable reappraisal.  I would see it again in a cinema.

In summary, there’s enough here to credit the film as a respectable first effort, and with hindsight one that will be improved on later when Paramount learn from their mistakes – although they did not learn from all of them, as I found out later by watching the excellent TV documentary series The Centre Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek about the franchise.

Like Blade Runner (trailer here) – another of my first hated, now loved films – I now think that it may be time to reassess my view of this Star Trek: the Motion Picture in its latest incarnation.

One last point. As big as my television at home is, this is one of those offerings that works best on a large cinema screen.  For this film is best seen on an epic scale – and whatever ST:TMP’s faults are, it is perhaps the most epic of all of the films to date.  It is worth finding a cinema showing if you can.

Mark Yon


Mark Yon is a member of the SF² Concatenation book review panel. He is also a lifetime member of the BSFA. He writes about the British SF magazines of the 1960s over at the Hugo-short-listed Galactic Journey, and is also a reviewer and administrator at, one of the oldest genre websites that has been running since 1997.



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