STTMP, Part 4–Script

This story conference doesn't look like it's going to go well....

This story conference doesn’t look like it’s going to go well….

Previous installments are  here, here, and here.

Practically every name science fiction writer was suggested to write the script: Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison, to name a few (the latter two had written scripts for TOS, in fact).  Finally, the decision was made to go with a script that was originally to have been the pilot episode of Star Trek:  Phase II.  The script was “In Thy Image”, about a damaged and repaired space probe returning to Earth (personal quibble–it ought to be “In Thine Image”–the form with the euphonic “n” comes before vowels).  One could be charitable and say that if waste were recycled as much as this script, we’d live in a garbage-free utopia….

“In Thy Image” is essentially a remake of TOS epidose “The Changeling“.  Insofar as it features an Inexplicable Looming Menace From Space, the script is similar to the episodes of TOS  The Doomsday Machine” and  “The Immunity Syndrome” (this theme would be reused yet again in Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home).  In the theme of Kirk having to reason with or outfox an implacable computer, the script resembles “The Ultimate Computer“, “Return of the Archons“, and “The Changeling” once more.  At least re-writing its own episodes is a venerable Trek tradition!

In any case, fans immediately caught the derivative nature of the plot, and this has been much discussed and derided.  It is also a long-standing custom to beat up on the extremely long FX shots with the actors doing nothing more than giving silent reactions, while the movie drags ponderously along.  These are valid criticisms, but they have long been made and are a part of fan lore.  Moreover, even a derivative re-write could have been done well, and excessive length is as much a matter of editing as script.  What I want to do is look at other problems with the script that in my view have not been adequately discussed.

As longtime fans know, one of the most significant aspects of Star Trek‘s appeal is the Triumvirate–the friendship and interplay among the characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  Kirk and Spock come off well (the script underwent constant revision, often with rewrites arriving right before shooting, and it is rumored that William Shatner lobbied to get many changes in his character’s favor).  McCoy, though, is shockingly underused.  The rest of the original cast make barely token appearances, which is a great shame; but the series itself was often that way, too, so this is at least partially forgivable.  McCoy, though, is part of the beating heart of the series.  Here, though, he is given a couple of good quips, an aside or two, and a few reaction shots–that’s it.  I had not really realized until I re-watched the movie just how little screen time DeForrest Kelly gets.  As a seasoned trooper, Kelley makes the most of what he’s given; but he’s given all too little.  To some extent, this is amended in the third and fourth movies of the franchise, in which McCoy gets a lot of screen time and some of the best lines.  For the first Star Trek entry in a decade, though STTMP could–and should–have done much better.

A big reason for this is the second issue:  too much time is spent on Decker and Ilia.  This is both unfair to the established characters (Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and McCoy) and to the Decker and Ilia characters.  It is unfair to the first group because instead of giving us a class-reunion vibe where we get to catch up with them, they are there and that’s about it.  It’s unfair to Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta) in that they are tossed in with minimal development, only to be killed (or transcended the cosmos) off.  Originally, of course, their characters were to be series regulars in the aborted Phase II, and there would have been time to delve into their personalities, backstories, etc.  For a movie, though, there was nothing in the plot that necessitated new characters; and certainly if you’re going to introduce new characters you need to make some use of them.  At least Collins gets some good scenes.  Poor Khambatta has hardly any dialogue at all until she is zapped by V’ger, and after that does a faux machine drone that her slight accent makes even worse.

Worst of all, crucial elements of backstory are left out, making the finale a bit puzzling.  In “Captain Kirk’s” preface to the novelization of STTMP, he discusses how in the 23rd Century the most important social movement on Earth is the “new human” movement.  With poverty, war, and material needs done away with, humans had begun to cultivate a more spiritual approach to life, becoming increasingly interested in human potential, exploring the mind, and experimenting with telepathy and tentative exploration of group minds and communal existence.  This movement had gradually become a sizable minority–or possibly a majority–of people on Earth, and had begun to exert pressure on Starfleet, which was seen as promoting atavistic values.

In fact, Starfleet was a magnet for the old-style individualists, the unreconstructed “cowboys”.  This was because such people were able to keep better emotional distance from alien cultures and were more effective at assessing potential threats.  In short, the “new  humans” were nice but feckless hippies, whereas starship crews tended to be staffed by John Wayne–or James Kirk–types.

It is explained in the body of the novel that Will Decker, unusually for a starship captain, had strong sympathies with the new human movement.  It is implied, but not stated, that this was partly behind his interest in Deltan culture (they are a society of empaths with a communalistic society) and his relationship with Ilia.  Thus it is established that he is in a sense out of place on the Enterprise.

At the climax of the movie, when Decker goes to enter the code and unite with V’Ger/Ilia, he tells Kirk, “I’ve wanted this all my life!”  In the context of the backstory, this not only makes sense, but it is a culmination for the character.  Without it–and no part of it appears onscreen–Decker’s behavior is odd at least, if not suicidal.

Ilia is also ill-treated by the script.  The Deltans are a telepathic/empathic race (the degree and nature of this is never completely clarified).  They are supposed to be a “sexually advanced” race (Gene Roddenberry’s dirty mind again…) whose bodies produced pheromones that made them irresistible to males of most species.  For this reason, Deltans serving in Starfleet were obliged to take oaths of celibacy–in order to keep discipline and avoid “exploiting sexually immature races”.  As noted above, their telepathy/empathy would have been appealing to Decker.  In any case, without this backstory, Ilia’s noting to Kirk that  her oath of celibacy is “on record” is completely mystifying in the movie as shot.

Having looked at the numerous flaws, I will say some kind things about the script.  Up until the encounter with V’Ger, it’s not too bad, with the pacing being reasonable and the dialogue being OK (despite McCoy’s relative disuse).  The climax is more problematic, but still interesting.  If you ignore the interminable “flying into the V’Ger cloud” scenes of the middle, and the draggy sequences of Decker trying to reach Ilia in the probe, the movie is at least decent.  More importantly, the themes of STTMP are the most interesting of the franchise.  This post has become very long, though, so I’ll save that.  Next we’ll look at the acting; after that, we’ll discuss the themes, which are the strongest aspect of the film; finally I’ll go out on a limb and suggest how the script could have been improved.  The next installment is here.  Ahead Warp Factor six!


Posted on 27/01/2013, in Entertainment, movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hey Turmarion – remember the general rule for Star Trek movies, odd numbers bad, even numbers good.

    • In general, I agree! 😉 I’m also not trying to gloss over STTMP‘s many flaws. It did strike me very much differently in my 40’s than when I first saw it. There will be two or three more posts in the series, so stay tuned!

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