That Moment In Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): Kirk’s Obsession

REVIEW: In the far reaches of space, a strange blueish geometric cloud on immense size is on a destructive path to planet Earth. Ships and space stations are seemingly swallowed in the collective. On Earth, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) assumes command of the newly refitted Starship Enterprise, creating a contentious relationship with the previous commander, Willard Decker. Joining the crew are familiar faces, including Dr. McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and one new on, Ilia, a female Deltan officer who, as her race is highly sexual, had swear to an oath of celibacy to join Starfleet. Her specie is known for their bald heads, and it is implied she and Deckar were once intimate. Their mission is to intercept the cloud, uncover its intentions and if need be, find a way to destroy it.

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Once near the entity, a probe is launched by the and materializes on the ship’s bridge where it assaults Spock and abducts Ilia, replacing her with a kind of robotic doppelgänger. This new Ilia is considered by Kirk and the crew to be an attempt by the cloud to communicate and Decker is assigned to stay with it but tries to find the memories of he woman he loved. He learns that the could is called “V’ger” and is studying them. Driven by the a calling from within the entity, Spock takes a space walk and performs a mind-meld, learning that the enormous creatures is a giant, living machine.

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Directed by Robert Wise, best known for his Academy Ward winning musical epics West Side Story and The Sound of Music, brought Star Trek into its first foray into cinema. The film is by no means a masterpiece, but also not the disaster as some suggest. While it suffers from some long, bloated moments that attempt to be ambitious spectacle it still remains a remarkable achievement and a very insightful and clever story. Made before the word “action” was an obligation in movies, the special effects-driven film is for thinkers and takes pleasure in its steady pace and contemplative themes. Trapped in its 70s sensibilities though, it lacks the timelessness of some of the other entries in the Star Trek canon, but remains a quality viewing experience that has a surprising amount of depth . . . and humanity. With some imaginative direction and Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable and genre-defining score, this is well worth a look.


That Moment In: Star Trek: The Motion Picture


Scene Setup: As the Enterprise leaves space dock and Kirk pushes engineering to engage the warp drive before it’s been thoroughly tested, the unstable core creates a wormhole that traps the ship, putting it on a direct course with a large asteroid. With the ship in an imbalanced propulsion, time seems to slow and the crew are facing a life or death situation. Kirk calls for Chekov to arm and lock phasers but Decker belays the order and commands Chekov to instead load photon torpedoes, undermining Kirk. The new orders destroys the asteroid and saves the ship. Kirk, relived the ship out of danger, is angered at Decker’s insubordination and parts the bridge telling Decker to follow him to his quarters. Bones tags along.

The Scene: (Time stamp 0:43:00)  The three men enter Kirk’s room and Kirk and Decker are immediately confrontational. Kirk wants to know straight away why his order was countermanded. Decker explains that the refit Enterprise increases phaser power by channeling it from the main engines, and when the engines went into anti-matter imbalance the phasers were automatically cut off. There was no way to fire at the asteroid. The torpedoes were their only option. What’s more, Decker notes that Kirk has not logged a single star hour in over two and half years, and coupled with his unfamiliarity with the new Enterprise seriously jeopardizes the mission. Kirk begrudgingly, and with a hint of sarcasm, accepts this appraisal but dismisses the junior officer, telling him to stop competing with him. There is some bad blood here.

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Decker leaves, satisfied that he stood his ground properly and fulfilling his duty as second in command. Kirk however is shaken. He’s not used to talkback from the crew and worse, the commander has a valid point. Dr. McCoy, having witnessed the conflicting orders on the bridge and the confrontation in the captain’s quarters has remained stoic to this point, allowing the two leaders to voice their opinions openly. “Bones” as the doctor is affectionately known, waits for Decker to leave before speaking. Surprisingly, Kirk’s oldest friend takes Decker’s side, telling Kirk the man is right.

From there, Bones lays it out, telling Kirk that in fact it is he who is competing, not Decker; that he abused his power to influence Starfleet and used this crisis to take back the Enterprise. Worse, if they survive the crisis, Kirk will not give up control of the ship and  will remain as its captain. He calls it an obsession that blinds him to more critical issues. The criticism is sharp but on target and Kirk knows it.

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The scene is deceptively simple but works on many levels, starting with the angular arrangement of the men and their movement throughout. It starts in a classic triangle Mexican standoff with Kirk retreating farthest into his room, most assuredly calling the meeting here because it, by design, establishes him as the strongest, as least in stature and rank. Simply walking into the room puts a junior crew member at a disadvantage. Kirk puts himself at its heart and creates the apex of the triangle with Bones and Decker at the farther end near the exit. The camera angle has Kirk in the foreground, his back to us, his authority obvious. But that changes quickly as Decker makes his case. The camera moves in tight and Decker steps closer, making it even a little uncomfortable, which is exactly the point. Captain Kirk is a long admired character, even in 1979, and we’ve come to trust his leadership, no matter how absurd his predicament. He’s led his crew (and by extension, us) out of dozens of missions and we the faithful fans of the original series are not just comfortable in this tradition, we have grown complacent with it. But in this wonderful moment, that trust is fractured. Our hero has made a critical mistake, and Decker puts it right in his face. And ours.

But it becomes all the more pronounced with Bones. Forrest DeKelley was a great actor, arguably the most gifted of the original cast. With a seasoned face and powerful dramatic timing, Kelley was always one that made any scene feel more grounded. He does the same here, and his criticism of Kirk’s actions are especially effective. He doesn’t let the ranks between them discourage his scathing assessment. Kirk is his friend and he recognizes the lust for power that has admittedly been necessary in the past, but has corrupted him now. Bones is a man of few words, and he says much with nary a word, but when he does speak, they carry tremendous weight.

The moment is decidedly the most important in the film as it dramatically shifts the once seemingly concrete role of Captain James T. Kirk from infallible to human. Kirk is a man now, and we see the burden more clearly as he brings his crew closer to what might be certain death. That insecurity is two-fold in that we too are on edge, wondering if he has more mistakes in him. Shatner does a very fine job portraying that weight. Watch his face in this particular scene as Bones diagnoses his behavior. There is fear, confusion, resentment, anxiety and more in the lines around his eyes. Kirk is a man of action and until this moment, has been nothing but confident of his every order. This single exchange as profound and permanent effect that ripples throughout the film and even the sequels that follow.

The scene ends in perhaps the most perfect moment in Star Trek. As McCoy departs, telling his friend that what happens next depends on him, the camera moves back from Kirk as he stands alone in his quarters. A darkened sliding partition separating the two rooms slowly, silently closes, casting the Captain in a heavy shade of gray. In a moment of personal ambiguity, nothing could be more clear.

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MPW-39696CREDITS

Director: Robert Wise

Writers: Gene Roddenberry, Harold Livingston

Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

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