Revisiting Star Trek the Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek the Motion Picture should have been to “The Doomsday Machine” what Star Trek the Wrath of Khan was to “Space Seed”.

“The Doomsday Machine” in Star Trek: The Original Series was about a destructive spacecraft consuming whole planets in its path. Captain Willard Decker ended up sacrificing his crew and himself to stop the machine. Kirk stopped the machine by sacrificing Decker’s ship, the USS Constellation. Kirk barely made it off the ship alive. Here’s a picture of the Doomsday Machine in case you forgot. You might remember that the crew at that time opined that this device was a relic of a long-forgotten war.

Fast forward to the first Star Trek Movie. There we meet Captain Decker’s son, Matthew Decker, who has been to Starfleet Academy and become a Captain in his own right, now overseeing the refit and future mission of the Enterprise. But now comes another threat, another entity threatening earth with destruction. It turns out to be a very similar cylindrical vessel with a large opening on one end, just like the Doomsday Machine but with extra pieces. What a surprise. This is concept art for V’Ger.

If you remember how good the Wrath Of Khan was, then you might be able to imagine how good The Motion Picture should have been. The Wrath of Khan took one of the villains (and very capable actor, Ricardo Montalban) from the original series and made something of a sequel to the original’s story, bringing back the villain on a revenge story now that Kirk has become an admiral (and a father). Teh revenge plot was what kept the story moving, but as I’ve gotten older, I see more clearly the plot of Kirk dealing with middle age being the primary plot of the film, as in the one line (I may paraphrase a bit), “There’s a man out there that wants to kill that I haven’t seen in 30 years, and now I have a son that would be happy to help him.” If the movie was just about the revenge plot, it would still be action-packed, but it wouldn’t be as good. What makes the movie is the characters, their interactions, their empathy and their humanity. We feel like we’ve known these characters for thirty years. We pay attention when they go through the came life crises that we do, and we empathize with them more.

Not so with Star Trek the Motion Picture (STTMP). And here’s what the movie should have been.

STTMP should have been Decker’s story, but told from Kirk’s perspective. Kirk should have been the wiser, older man mentoring the next generation of Starship Captain. STTTMP should have been Decker’s redemption story, and I think he should have been more like the Kirk of the 2009 reboot. We should first have met Decker as a rebellious teen when Kirk goes to visit his home to deliver the news of the death of his father “in the line of duty.” I feel like Kirk, and we would see him dressed in a TOS dress uniform, would tell Decker’s wife the sad news and the younger Decker would come strolling in, pretending not to care. His father was always gone, always on duty. The younger would have grown up hating Starfleet. But when Kirk talks to him, man to man, Kirk would have reminded him that his father gave his life to save others, maybe even the whole galaxy. And then would come Pike’s iconic line from ST (2009). “I dare you to do better.” Somehow, this would get through to Decker, and the next time we see him is as Captain of the Enterprise. That little character bit would have done a lot to show us what kind of person this younger Decker was, and what Kirk’s relationship was to him. Kirk then moves into the role of mentor, and we might get some minor backstory, like how Kirk chose Decker to be the next Captain, and mentored him through the academy, because Kirk feels somehow responsible for the older Decker’s death.

And with that groundwork, we get a better characterization of both characters. V’Ger then becomes not just some alien probe, but a chance for the younger Decker to deal with the same problem his father had, and how he wrestles with the lives of his crew and how he solves the problem. The dynamic between Decker and Kirk would be more defined. We would understand Decker’s reluctance to hand the keys over the Kirk, because deep down, there may actually be resentment towards Kirk, especially once Decker learns the “true” story of the Doomsday Machine and his father’s grief-induced insanity and sacrifice. Decker may resent Kirk for not trying to do more to stop his father, and dialogue to that effect would have helped us see the dynamic between these two characters. I could see this as a plot twist after Spock takes his suit to do recon, to find a “recording” of the original battle (with updated special effects), and returns to tell Kirk that this ship is from the same culture that built the original machine. Suddenly the story takes on new meaning for both Kirk and Decker.

This story might tell us a bit more about the culture that launched this machine-entity, a common origin for both this one and the last one. And of course, the plot twist at the end is that both the Doomsday Machine and V-Ger are both long-lost probes from Earth, but sent back from wherever they came from. This one is improved and more powerful because the first one was lost. And they realize then that they cannot destroy this one with Starship. It also might illustrate the old saying, “sometimes when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back.” It might also have been a way to back-door introduce the Borg (and I think some actually understand this movie that way).

Then Decker’s sacrifice at the end, the “I want this” moment fits together with the rest of the movie. He knew his own father sacrificed himself to save others. Now he sees himself doing the same, as that becomes the solution. Kirk doesn’t become the hero at the end, but Decker. And Kirk takes time with his friends at the end to mourn both men.

Kirk: “You know I chose him, Matthew Decker, to be my replacement on the Enterprise.”

McCoy: “That kid always hated you. Why on earth did you choose him?”

Kirk: “Bones, you remember his father? I knew that if this boy was anything like his father, he would become a great starship captain, probably better than me.”

Spock: “If I recall correctly, Captain Willard Decker lost his crew and his own life, driven insane with his grief. That’s hardly starship captain material.”

Kirk: “But Spock, don’t you see? The man was passionate for his crew. That’s what drove him insane. They weren’t ‘just crew to him, but family. A good captain always looks after his crew as family. And even though his son didn’t see that, I saw it in Matthew. I saw his passion, even as a young man. I knew this was the kind of man who deserved to sit in the Captain’s chair.”

McCoy: “I wonder what kind of Captain he would have been like.”

Kirk: [looking out the window of his cabin] “I think we’ll find out one day, somewhere, out there among the stars. That’s where a captain belongs.”

end scene

Now to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded if throughout the whole movie, it looked like Kirk and his crew were going to be replaced by a new generation, as kind of a send-off to the old crew, only to have to resume their old duties at the end, like being on-hand as instructors or guests at the shakedown cruise of the refurbished vessel, only to be called back to action when the threat of V’Ger dropped. But each of the old crew would have to learn all the new controls, and it would take time for everything to be as efficient as it had been. Can you imagine Uhura perplexed at the new Communications Panel and asking, “Hailing frequencies? I don’t know which button opens them.” And then a helpful subordinate in the heat of the moment pushes it for her. You could have a lot of these little character moments that show you these older characters have a lot to learn about this new Enterprise, but gradually grow into these new roles, both as learners and as mentors. Really, only Scotty would know what he was doing as he was overseeing the refit.

In short, I would play up this movie’s connections with “The Doomsday Machine” as a way to revisit the mysteries of that show and reinforce the relationship between the otherwise unknown Decker and Kirk. I think that would have immensely improved the film and brought more story to bear, to make the impact of the sacrifices and people involved more meaningful.

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I've been in ministry in the Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ for 20+ years. Finished my doctorate in Biblical Studies in 2015. Serve today as a Hospital Chaplain.

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