A Trifecta Of Trek: The Three Versions of Star Trek - The Motion Picture Compared

The Movie Sleuth compares the three different versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Legendary director Robert Wise’s attempt to bring the world of Star Trek to the big screen in 1979 understandably remains the most divisive and troubled entry in the canon for numerous reasons.  To begin with, its creator Gene Roddenberry lobbied Paramount Pictures to continue the series through film, only to have them flip flop on the idea by planning what would have become a reboot of the television series with a new cast called Star Trek: Phase II.  Many of the cast members, most notably Stephen Collins as Decker and Persis Khambatta as Ilia would have helmed the series as its main stars.  But then after the unexpected success of science fiction ventures like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Paramount changed their minds and cancelled Phase II in lieu of making a $15 million Star Trek film with the Academy Award winning director of such science fiction classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain behind it. 

Original versus Director's Edition
In a move that would spell doom for countless films throughout history, most notably Alien 3, Paramount issued a release date for the film well before the cameras began rolling, producing a rushed film that was completed just days before the premiere.  Between endless script revisions that took place during the production as well as the brazen move to fire the film’s entire original special effects team in favor of Close Encounters’ effects technician Douglas Trumbull, it’s kind of amazing that a watchable Star Trek film emerged from the chaos at all.  Not unlike Close Encounters of the Third Kind, its director admitted what went to theaters was more or less a rough cut with many areas left unfinished or hastily assembled to meet the studio’s deadline.  

As a result of the scheduling impositions on both Close Encounters and what became Star Trek: The Motion Picture, home video soon saw the release of alternate versions of the films offering a unique look at what came to be and what might have been had their respective creators had more time to finish them as they saw fit.  While that’s not to say Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have emerged as a flawless venture, it’s interesting to consider the possibility of a better version of the same story being told to viewers.  With that, the Movie Sleuth takes a unique gander at the three distinctly different releases of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in an effort to determine which of the three represents the best possible version of this still deeply flawed but beautiful epic that brought Star Trek back into cultural consciousness.

1979 Theatrical Version (132 Minutes)
Early into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Scotty (James Doohan) remarks to Captain Kirk (William Shatner), ‘she’ll launch on time sir, and she’ll be ready’.  Thinking about this particular line of dialogue can’t help but beg the question, was Star Trek: The Motion Picture ever really ready before it was unleashed on the first audiences who saw it?  Completed days before the premiere with post-production visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull working overtime to meet the deadline, this is the version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture first seen by audiences on December 7th, 1979.  While a fully functioning film with breathtaking vistas, ornate production design and a sense of awe and wonder missing somewhat from the other following Star Trek pictures, the 1979 version clearly suffers from the tight schedule imposed on the filmmakers.  Outside of attempting to capture the realism of space travel with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as pondering thought provoking questions concerning the inextricable link between extraterrestrial and human life The Motion Picture doesn’t really feel like a Star Trek film.  

It’s a feast for the eyes on every front but it moves at a pace unbecoming of the series.  The opening introduction of the redesigned Enterprise goes on far too long in all three cuts of the film and the premise is closer to mid-70s science fiction interested in ideas instead of action.  When the Enterprise happens upon the alien cloud careening slowly towards Earth, it goes on and on and on.  One has to wonder how much of the sluggish pacing is due to pleasing the numerous Trekkies glimpsed in the staff meeting who were overjoyed to see their favorite television show get such a lavish treatment.  For some that’s been the accusation for years.  Others complained whether rushed or not, the characters and story take a backseat to the visual effects.  Whatever the case, Robert Wise has gone on to say his film would have been tighter and more balanced if he had more time to tie up loose ends.

1983 Television Version (144 Minutes)
Produced for network television by Paramount Pictures without Robert Wise’s involvement or permission, what became known as the Special Longer Version added approximately twelve minutes of footage to the film and premiered in 1983.  Soon all the Betamax, VHS and laserdisc editions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture conformed to this longer version and the original theatrical release of the film wasn’t seen again for years until the widescreen laserdisc release of the film in the early 1990s.  In the early tradition of reformatting the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio down to a heavily cropped 1.33:1 television ratio, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had half of the picture information cut off with dreadful pan-and-scan and occasional stretched images.  As for the extra scenes themselves, most of the moments feel like snippets scattered throughout the film.  Some of it is relevant, including a moment where Spock weeps for VGer and Ilia uses telekinesis to ease Chekov’s pain from his third degree burnt hand.  

In the special longer edition,
Spock is a cry-baby.
There’s also more time spent with Decker and Ilia than previously.  Other scenes however, notably a scene where Captain Kirk is seen leaving the ship’s atmosphere in an attempt to retrieve Spock from penetrating VGer’s central core, stick out like a sore thumb.  Besides the spacesuit design Kirk wears changing inexplicably when it cuts back to the theatrical footage, a wide shot of Kirk leaving the airlock reveals flags and elements of the set piece intended to be matted away by the visual effects department.  Reportedly this was part of an unused sequence which became known as the Memory Wall scene.  Why this scene which was never completed properly in the first place returned to the longer version of the film still makes no sense, particularly for the jarring break with continuity its inclusion creates.  The Special Longer Version also makes the early mistake often made with director’s cuts or expanded versions of films in that whatever was left on the cutting room floor gets jammed back into the picture whether it throws the pacing off balance or not.  Understandably, Robert Wise disapproved of this version and soon would be granted permission to finish up his own finalized Director’s Edition version of the film in 2001.

2001 DVD Version (136 Minutes)
When news broke out in the post Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition era that Robert Wise was going back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture to not only recut the film but revise many of the film’s visual effects including returning to unused conceptual art and the original script, people were understandably skeptical.  Not to worry though, because the newly created CGI visual effects shots took great care to conform to the look of the original models and optical effects work of the 1979 picture.  The most noticeable changes in this area involve the look of Spock’s planet Vulcan, which went from a volcanic moon to the Tattooine look of The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home.  While I still prefer the 1979 look of Vulcan versus the revised and reimagined look, it’s subdued and doesn’t stray too far from the original footage.  Another notable standout involves a special effect that was never shot where rocks form a bridge between the Enterprise and VGer as opposed to the bridge already being there.  It’s a minor effect but cool to see.  More than anything, what became known as The Director’s Edition is easily the most well-paced of all three versions currently available, adding some of the moments of the Special Longer Version while cutting out most of the rest.  Shots of the Enterprise traveling inside VGer that seemed to go on forever have now been abbreviated by trimming a few seconds out of every shot and the whole scene, while still lengthy, moves along much faster than before.  

Bridge to V'Ger:
Original versus Director's Edition
The film’s sound design was also almost completely re-recorded with modern sound mixing technology, a move that will aggravate some purists including the removal of vocal recordings that blare ‘Intruder Alert!’ over the loudspeakers.  I could have done without the addition of the Wilhelm Scream in the scene where Chekov’s hand is burned, but it’s a minor grievance.  Unfortunately for this version, which was originally intended for theatrical re-release before going to DVD, the newly created CGI visual effects were mastered in 480 interlaced resolution and thus would have to be entirely re-rendered for Blu-Ray, making this cut of the film a DVD exclusive for the moment.  Maybe one day it’ll make the transition to Blu-Ray but for now the recently released Blu-Ray boxed set only uses the 1979 theatrical version of the film.

The Outcome

While I’m a purist and won’t deny all three versions still represent an imperfect film whose problems stem far beyond the editing room, The Movie Sleuth has to go with the Director’s Edition for the simple fact that it’s the tightest version and moves the fastest.  It’s still slow and drawn out, but many of the films longest scenes now move at a brisker pace and some of the re-rendered visual effects make for smoother transitions as well as correcting jarring limitations of the technology at the time.  Yes its slightly longer than the already overlong 1979 version released in theaters, but not by much and the complete overhaul of the entire picture makes the experience feel closer to being a finished package than before.  While I do miss the original look of Vulcan, the change isn’t anywhere near the alteration of the City of Clouds in The Empire Strikes Back and the film still looks like it did when it first came out.  Blu-Ray owners will likely wind up watching the original 1979 version due to its increased resolution and enhanced sound design over the DVD, but if I were to show the film to someone who has never seen it before, I’d show them the 2001 Director’s Edition without the slightest hesitation.  For a movie that was never really finished in the first place before being unleashed upon audiences, this is the closest Star Trek: The Motion Picture has come to finally being finished.  

-Andrew Kotwicki