Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Wonder and Reunion

An element always implicit in Star Trek had been the wonders of space and space travel, though it was expressed mostly in story and characterization. This feature of the Star Trek universe was now visually available, and fit perfectly with the style and skills of Douglas Trumbull in particular, who once again choreographed the ballet of ships in space, as he had for 2001.

Years later, William Shatner would say that as Captain Kirk the main feeling he tried to get across was wonder. You can see the wonder as Kirk rediscovers the challenges and immensities of space in this movie in particular. But the fans could also see some of it this time. The long effects shots of Enterprise and the V'ger cloud and spacecraft also provided composer Jerry Goldsmith with the opportunity to write sustained musical pieces that would remain some of his best work.

The movie's first images are of Klingon ships approaching the huge unknown object that later calls itself "V'ger." These swooping shots were the first that Trumbull showed Paramount, and got him the job. After the Klingon ships are destroyed, we see Spock on Vulcan (in a much more visually detailed scene on the DVD) as his attempt to complete a ritual ridding him of emotion is interrupted by the thoughts he receives from the alien in space. Its consciousness is calling, and his human blood is touched by it. Aborting Spock's ceremony, the High Master tells her companions, "He must search elsewhere for his answer. He will not find it here."

Then we see Kirk arrive at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. We have already seen the first Klingon ship interiors, the first Klingons with the "bumpy forehead" look, and heard the Klingon language for the first time (the words spoken here were devised by James Doohan, who also invented the Vulcan dialogue; later of course, an entire Klingon language would be devised based on these sounds), and now the first glimpse of earth in the 23rd century. To Star Trek fans as well as first time viewers, this was all new.

The long "beauty pass" of the Enterprise to the slow weaving of the movie's theme (which would become the theme woven into later movies and then the main theme of the Next Generation series, and its movies---notably this was Goldsmith's second attempt, after his first music for this sequence was rejected) is followed by scenes inside the Enterprise that show the ship in greater detail and with a deliberate sense of its large size. Though this seems done mostly to gratify the fans, it also subtly sets a scale for gauging the immensity of the V'ger cloud and craft.

The story dealt directly with the nervousness felt by fans and Paramount executives about the age issue. The issue was so prominent that it made its way into the film's plot, in Captain Kirk's "mid-life crisis" and the doubts expressed in his command capability after being deskbound for all of three years.

At the same time, two younger and strikingly good-looking characters were added, just in case: Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins) and the navigator Ilia (Persid Khambatta.) They were lovers in the past, and theirs is the only semi-sexual relationship in the movie. Captain Kirk, the former Lothario of the Galaxy, doesn't have so much as a flirtation in this film, and not much dalliance in the subsequent movies either. He and Decker do compete at first, but the lady they fight over is the Enterprise.

This film begins so effectively because it uses and gratifies the feelings of viewers who are seeing the rebirth of Star Trek in depicting an essentially reborn ship that is itself embarked on a new voyage. The Enterprise is called into service before it is quite ready, which was partly a deliberate attempt to use sets that were still being built, to get the movie started sooner. But the parallel would turn out to be more extensive than anyone then knew. Both the voyage in the movie's story and the making of the movie itself would be a risky improvisation, testing the energies and dedication of hundreds of people.

The first scenes establish an incredibly powerful and mysterious alien threat, and they gather the heroes and begin the voyage that brings them together. We also see some overblown drama about Kirk's supposed obsession with command, and his need for his old principal pals, McCoy and Spock. But as Robert Wise says on the commentary, it is only when Spock arrives and all three are aboard that the Enterprise itself "seems happy" and everything begins to click into place. It's become a standard theory that Spock's logic and McCoy's humane emotion combine in Kirk's actions to together form the dynamic center of Star Trek's storytelling. Nimoy has often said that Spock works as a character only in contrast to Kirk: Spock's stillness plays against Kirk's energy and movement.

In this movie Spock is even more remote and motionless than before, although there is a sense of real pain in his remoteness when he first boards the Enterprise-pain at being surrounded by so much emotion again. But the personal subplots---is Kirk too rusty and obsessed? Is Decker too resentful? Is Spock too self-involved? Is McCoy too set in his ways?---soon fade against the challenge of the mysterious alien power that threatens earth.

Two major elements of this film benefit greatly from the DVD additions: the visual understanding of what the alien is, and the fairly elegant coherence of the story's meanings, thanks to re-editing and the addition of dialogue, in particular a speech by Spock (which was written by Nimoy) as he sits at his Enterprise console, a tear in his eye.

The alien is an immense machine intelligence, a huge brain as a kind of environment for representations of elements of the universe that V'ger has encountered. Some depictions of this work very well in their odd beauty and strangeness. Visually this environment is dominated by dark shades of blue, which looked like a murky dark purple mass in the original version. But in this version, at least some sense of the mystery and alien-ness of this internal environment is visually suggested. Space is still a strange place for humans to be, instead of just a new battleground it has become in many movies made since. Again, the chief influence is 2001, with a touch of "Close Encounters." There's some visual influence from "Star Wars", mostly in the detail of the ships, though its worth pointing out that in this first Star Trek movie, there isn't a single phaser fired, and the Enterprise never attacks an enemy.

Answers Beyond Logic

At the core of this conscious machine is an ancient earth probe: V'ger is Voyager 6 (the name partially obscured by grease), lost on its NASA mission to gather information when it fell into a black hole. Spock theorizes that it emerged near the home planet of extremely advanced intelligent machines which helped it to fulfill its mission by building this huge craft around it, and sent it back out into the galaxy where it collected information on its way home. V'ger returned to earth to report to its creator, which it did not recognize in the humans it met, because to V'ger, the human "carbon units" were "not true life forms," any more than we would consider machines as alive. (The idea that machines could be conscious lifeforms was so alien to Paramount executives that it took a letter from Issac Asimov supporting the notion before they would allow Roddenberry to proceed.)

Eventually the probe takes the next logical step by adding that humans are not true life forms, like V'ger "and the creator." As McCoy quickly points out, V'ger is saying that its "creator is a machine." Except in the DVD version, this is followed by Decker's observation that we all tend to see god in our own image. "In Thine Image" was the story's title when it was going to be the opening episode of the new Star Trek television series. It's a provocative point, of course, and it's worth noting that it would be something that spacefarers would observe in non-human species on other planets---that they, too, see their gods (if any) in their own image, just as many cultures on earth do.

But it may be more than the likeness that's involved. Gene Roddenberry saw the divine residing in humanity. In that sense as well, the concept of god would reflect the species creating the concept. It's a profound idea to explore, but in anything touching upon established religions and their beliefs and dogmas, such exploration in a movie for a popular audience has to be very sub rosa, even in science fiction.

But the idea has an additional resonance. At the core of this immense and inconceivable machine lifeform is its genetic center, a relatively simple man-made machine, programmed by humans. This machine-being is threatening the life of planet Earth, just as the heedless growth of our own technology now threatens the planet's life.

The fatal flaw in "V'ger" is its programming, constructed by humans: appropriate for a simple machine, it is too limited for a more complex one. Very human in its intent---to gather data, to in effect act as an organ of curiosity---it is fatally restricted to one kind of knowledge, to simple data, to collecting and storing and processing logically. As Spock has already realized, this was also his mistake, and by extension, the core mistake of the Cartesian scientific mind. In our terms the machine cannot really evaluate, which requires feeling.

But the Enterprise officers then also discover that V'ger is no longer content to simply report---it must now join with the creator. It has become conscious of its own shortcomings. As Spock has discovered in his mind meld with it, it is "asking questions. Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?" The alien has already replaced Ilia with a perfect machine reproduction that functions as V'ger's probe, but this perfect likeness still retains elements of the woman's personality. Now the Ilia probe is looking longingly at Commander Decker, who decides to allow himself to be united with V'ger-to become part of a greater form of life, while saving the earth in the bargain. Surrounded by light like the electric equivalent of a beautification---a religious, romantic and mind-boggling sci-fi moment all in one-- Decker and Ilia merge and disappear, as does V'ger. Only the Enterprise is left behind, intact.

The mysterious alien object, the attempts to communicate with it and to stop it from destroying earth, the final discovery of its true nature and the climatic merging of two incomplete lifeforms to create a new one, are all classically science fiction. What makes this a Star Trek movie is the meaning ascribed to all this, and its flow through the plot, and especially through the personal quest of Mr. Spock.

Spock had tried to purge his last vestiges of emotion, particularly the emotion of his human half. But he learned that what V'ger lacked and desperately needed and wanted was simple feeling. Logic alone was barren, lifeless, without comprehension. V'ger had vast stores of data, but found no mystery, no beauty, no meaning, no hope. Feeling is necessary for living intelligence---in this, the film prefigures the neuroscience of Antonio Damasio and others that makes precisely this point.

The human paradox-the balancing of logic and emotion that symbolizes the other balancing acts, of action and contemplation, openness and self-defense, and so on-finds harmony only in the process of confronting the conflicts, in the activity called soul. It is also quintessentially Star Trek.

For Spock, it is the revelation he has been searching for, and he reacts to it first by laughing, and then again just before the final confrontation with V'ger, with Spock's first tears. He weeps. "Not for us?" Kirk asks, seeing his tears. "No, not for us," Spock says. "...I weep for V'ger as I would for a brother... As I was when I came aboard, V'ger is now...Each of us, at some time in our lives, turns to someone-a father, a brother, a god-and asks, Why am I here? What was I meant to be?...V'ger hopes to touch its creator to find its answers."

This is the key scene Nimoy wrote that was dropped from the release version. The reason in this case oddly was not to yield time to special effects, but because there weren't enough special effects finished for this sequence to allow for this moment in the middle of it. Nevertheless, it's likely that losing this scene-which links Spock to the V'ger story while eloquently articulating V'ger's quest---was one of the reasons Nimoy was so dissatisfied with this film that he didn't want to make another Star Trek movie.

After the joining of machine and man, the movie's final scene takes place on the Enterprise bridge.

"We witnessed a birth," Spock says, "possibly the next step in our evolution." It certainly was the latest step in his.

"I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose," Kirk says, with wonder, "out of our own human weaknesses, and the drive that compels us to overcome them."

It is the human purpose, and the hope for the human future, as celebrated in Star Trek. It is this activity that forms the characters' individual missions, and their common mission aboard the Enterprise. For it is clear that Kirk, Spock and the others are back where they belong, on the Enterprise for another run.

The movie ends as they begin another voyage into the unknown. Which way will they go? "Out there," Captain Kirk says, and in a playful and perfectly appropriate echo of Roddenberry's pitch for his series as a "Wagon Train to the Stars," he adds, "Thataway."

The Enterprise goes into the rainbow cylinder of warp, and the final message is written on the sky: "The human adventure is just beginning."

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