STTMP, Part 5: Cast
Continuing in my long-on-hiatus series of essays about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I’d like to discuss the cast very briefly before I go on to interpretation.
As I pointed out last time, there are major problems with the script. To their credit, the cast make the best of what they’re given. I can’t really single out one bad performance. The returning supporting members of the original TV cast–Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, James Doohan as Scotty, Walter Koenig as Chekov, George Takei as Sulu, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry as Nurse (now Doctor) Chapel–are all good, turning in professional performances in character, as if it had been only the previous season and not a decade previously that they’d last played their roles. It is most unfortunate that they were given so little to do. Doohan gets the most screen time, given the long sequence where he ferries Kirk to the refurbished Enterprise, and he makes the most of every second. Star Trek lore has it that Doohan was particularly resentful of William Shatner for his supposed jockeying for screen time at the expense of everyone else. Indeed, Doohan is said to have nursed a grudge against Shatner until shortly before Doohan’s death. I can’t help but think that Doohan was getting a kick out of upstaging Shatner in this sequence! None of the other supporting cast is given more than a line or two, but they do what they can with them. At least Uhura doesn’t have to say, “Captain, I’m frightened!”
As to the Triumvirate, I’ve said before that DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy is scandalously underused. What lines he does have are mostly crotchety griping, a sort of caricature of the Bones we know and love. The second half of the movie tones this down; and in all cases, Kelley manages to make the best of what he’s given. Still, I wish he’d been given more. As it is, the bulk of the lines and screen time are reserved for Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock and William Shatner as Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
Nimoy gives one of his best performances as Spock in this movie. At the beginning, he speaks in an almost toneless croak. His body language is stiff and his face is a mask. He conveys the remaining effects of Spock’s failed Kolinahr, for though he has not extirpated all his emotions, they have been deeply buried. Spock seems to show no emotion even when first reuniting with Kirk and McCoy. Gradually, he subtly implies an increasing desperation to find out just what V’Ger is. Interestingly, though he is obsessed to the point that McCoy voices concerns about his trustworthiness, Nimoy still displays Spock’s decency when, preparing to steal a spacesuit to go to V’Ger, he gently lowers to the ground the ensign he’s just nerve-pinched. Finally, after his encounter with V’Ger’s mind, Spock’s tears and laughter are not forced, but fit perfectly in with his final realization that integration, not repression, is the proper way to deal with his emotions after all. As the movie ends, Nimoy displays the old Spock, stiffness and emotional shell gone, and even gives the barest hint that Spock is finally at home in his own skin. All in all, Nimoy puts in a remarkable performance.
Shatner is a surprise. It’s not that one expected him to put in a bad performance, by any means. However, Shatner did have quite a reputation (not completely deserved, but certainly not undeserved) for overacting and histrionics. According to Shanter himself, he developed this tendency when he was doing dinner theater early in his career. He said that suddenly shouting, putting strange stresses and tones on unexpected words of dialogue, and emphasizing broad physical gestures was a way of getting the attention of the often-bored dinner theater crowd, making them wonder, if nothing else, what he was going to do next. Given the low budget, sometimes cheesy production values, and often execrable scripts of TOS, I don’t doubt that these same mannerisms were often conscious attempts by Shatner back in the day to try to breathe at least a little life into particularly bad episodes. One can hardly blame him. Certainly, as a blogger I read noted once, at least you never knew what to expect with Shatner, by contrast with the bland Jeffrey Hunter, who, as Captain Christopher Pike, was originally to have been the lead.
In STTMP, Shatner is amazingly low-key and subtle. He has taken to heart, it seems, the notion that this is an older, wiser, more seasoned Kirk. Make no mistake, Shatner is back in form as Captain Kirk; but this is a Kirk who bellows less, who listens more, and who is quieter when he does speak. In the long sequence where Scotty returns him to the Enterprise, Shatner has almost no dialogue. Rather, he manages to convey with wistful glances the joy of the old spaceman returning to his beloved ship. In fandom, Kirk is often characterized as having a shoot-first-ask-questions later attitude, as parodied in the comic song “Star Trekkin’“: “We come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill, shoot to kill!” Here, Kirk is cautious, refusing to put up screens, return scan, or go to battle stations until he knows more about what he’s up against. There is one great scene where Decker takes him to task for this, and Kirk snaps back at him. He takes a breath and raises his index finger to stab in the air, and right before he can speak, Decker says, “Captain, as your exec, it’s my duty to point out alternatives.” Shatner pauses, mouth open, finger in the air, with an almost quizzical look on his face; then he relaxes and the surly curl of his lips breaks into a slightly sheepish grin as he says, “Yes–it is. I stand corrected!” A more mature and collaborative Kirk!
Finally, a bit on the two new cast members: Stephen Collins as Captain Willard Decker, and Persis Khambatta as Lieutenant Ilia. Poor Khambatta is given a truly thankless task. She has a slight accent (though her English is excellent, and better than Walter Koenig’s fake Russian accent!), but that’s OK. Her character is hairless, so she had to shave her head. Also OK, as she has a pixie-like prettiness that allows her to pull it off and actually rock baldness. The main problem is that for two-thirds of her time onscreen she’s the V’Ger probe, a replica of Ilia. As such, she has to deliver her lines tonelessly with even less affect than Spock, and has to walk around stiffly with a vacant, zombie-like look on her face. Zombie-level affect, baldness on a woman, and an exotic accent. Any one of these could have worked by itself. Put them all together, though, and you have a character that is almost a cipher. Khambatta does what she can, but the script has three strikes against her. I think she could still have been interesting if there had been more time to establish her personality before she gets assimilated (wait, that’s the Borg–V’Ger patterns). The script doesn’t even give her that. All in all, a waste of a potentially interesting character and a decent, if not great, actress.
Finally, Stephen Collins is also betrayed by the script. Collins is one of the most likable actors around, and has a long career in movies and TV of playing likable characters. The archetypal Collins character, in fact, is the minister father on the late 90’s, early 00’s series 7th Heaven. The problem is that the Williard Decker character, as originally conceived, was supposed to be the young, brash, cocky, borderline insubordinate counterpoint to the older, seasoned Kirk. In short, Decker was the Kirk of the 60’s. The problem is that first, according to the backstory, Decker is one of the “new humans” who are more interested in spirituality and group consciousness than in exploration or exterior things. This contradicts the nature of the character, though it is not explicitly referenced in the movie (though it is prominent in the novelization). More importantly, Collins is just–well, nice. The script doesn’t give enough meat for a badass, in-your-face Decker, but even in the occasional scene in which that’s a possible reading of the script, Collins is just too likable. Decker is supposed to be the rebellious, half-punk teen to the serene Kirk father-figure. As Collins plays him, Decker is more like a Richie Cunningham in space who, however frustrated he may get, never forgets that Dad is a good guy deep down and so calms himself and goes along for the ride. Once more, that’s pretty much the opposite of the theoretical reason for even having the Decker character to begin with. It’s not Collins’s fault–he was just miscast for the role. Someone with more of a bad-boy vibe would have been preferable. In an alternate universe where Star Wars was never made, perhaps Harrison Ford would have been a better Decker.
Next up: costumes (alas!).