FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, sociological*
I admire the wit of whoever summed up STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE as “Where Nomad Has Gone Before,” referring to the script’s clear indebtedness to John Meredyth Lucas’s script for the Classic Trek episode “The Changeling.” To be sure, though, Wikipedia relates many mutations of the STTMP script that was ultimately credited to Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston, though creator-producer Gene Roddenberry and others also did uncredited rewrites, and stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had some level of input as well. The final on-screen story—and here I should note that I’m reviewing the theatrical release—proved to be a partial inversion of “Changeling.” The TV episode told the story of Nomad, a radically empowered Earth space-probe that seeks out Earth with the notion of sterilizing all imperfection. The movie, however, is about a radically empowered Earth space-probe that seeks out Earth looking for its creator in order to obtain some sense of “meaning” about its existential status.
Partly because of some of the script’s dramatic limitations, the overall story is easier to break down into sheer plot-points than were many of Classic Trek’s more ambitious episodes. STTMP definitely borrows from “Changeling” the basic trope of “Planet Earth is in peril from an invading entity," in this case a gargantuan cloud moving through space toward the Federation homeworld, blasting through a few Klingon ships on its way. By this time, the Enterprise’s five-year mission has long ended, with most of its crew assigned to other duties. The former Captain Kirk (Shatner) is now an admiral, while Mister Spock (Nimoy) has apparently resigned his commission in order to undergo a ritual purification of his human emotions on barren Vulcan. The Enterprise itself has been refitted and put under the command of a new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins). But for reasons that don’t entirely hold up, the Federation insists on sending the Enterprise out to investigate the cloud-menace by re-assigning to the command of the ship to Kirk, who usurps Decker’s captaincy, and also bringing back all the usual suspects: McCoy Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, Chapel and Scotty. Along with Decker, some new (and younger) faces are also present, though the only one of significance is Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), with whom Decker shared some unspecified romantic experience.
The Federation does not reach out to Mister Spock, but Spock—whose mental powers sometimes reached improbable heights—somehow reaches out to whatever entity inhabits the cloud. Spock, feeling attuned to the entity in some way, drops his purity quest and volunteers his services to Kirk and his former co-workers. It’s a matter of some irony that Spock’s subplot becomes so integral to the plot of STTNG, for in one of its earliest forms the script was devised for an episode of a never-produced, Spock-less TREK teleseries.
The Old Gang soon find that Spock has become more dispassionate than ever before, not even rising to retort against barbs from his former sparring-partner McCoy. Spock has, in effect, become the “computer” McCoy often accused him of being, seemingly concerned more with making contact with the alien intelligence than with saving the Earth from an invader. In an episode of the Classic series, this situation would have occasioned a barnstorming moral debate, in which Kirk and McCoy would have sought to convince Spock of the value of human emotions. But the script can’t very well torpedo the very plot-point that justifies bringing Spock on board, for Kirk and Co. know that they may need Spock’s psychic attunement to discover what’s going on in the cloud. So Kirk and McCoy can do nothing more than express vague disquiet with the Vulcan’s behavior. The other members of the Old Guard get even less to do than this, and their presence never rises beyond the level of a nostalgia-fest.
Decker gets a little more linear treatment, even though the viewer really never knows much about him save that he’s an earnest young captain. Within a certain space-navy protocol, Decker butts heads with new commander Kirk, and at one point Decker shows that he simply knows more about the retooled Enterprise than does the man most associated with the vessel. Decker also supersedes a prerogative almost exclusively given to Kirk’s character, since he alone gets something akin to a romantic arc.
When the Enterprise comes into contact with the cloud-colossus, it’s immediately clear that they have no ability to challenge the entity’s power. Kirk sounds a bit like the later Captain Picard, refusing to scan the cloud for fear of seeming aggressive. However, the entity scans the Enterprise, and it beams Lieutenant Ilia off the ship. Ilia never comes back, for the alien uses her mortal body as a template for a lookalike robot, Robot-Ilia, who shows up on the Enterprise, using this faux human body to communicate with the “carbon units” on the ship—which the entity has mistaken for an independent mechanical intelligence. Robot-Ilia still possesses some of Ilia’s memories, and seems drawn to Decker. The young captain doesn’t seem especially broken up by losing his former lover, and he’s quite willing to instruct the lissome robot in the ways of “carbon units.” I suppose one can call this “taking one for the team.” In her dialogue with the humans, the robot reveals that the entity within the cloud is called “V’ger,” and it seeks its Creator, which it believes to be on Earth.
Spock then takes the bull by the horns, donning a personal spacesuit and jetpack to plunge into the cloud. Following Spock’s quasi-mystical contact with V’ger, Kirk pulls the rash Vulcan back to the Enterprise. Confined to sick bay, Spock tells his human friends that he was mistaken to hope for an entity of pure logic, that V’ger is some sort of intelligent machine, but one racked with a fierce desire for self-understanding, not that different from that of “carbon units.” Spock’s epiphany traduces his desire to become the embodiment of Vulcan logic and to expunge his humanity, though by the end of the film the character just defaults back to the status he held on the original teleseries.
The Enterprise can do nothing to keep the Cloud of V’ger from drawing closer to Earth, and to further exacerbate tensions, Robot-Ilia, having completed her study of the carbon-units, informs them that V’ger plans to expunge them both from the ship and from Planet Earth, believing that they somehow impede V’ger from contact with the Creator. Kirk, in his only standout character-moment, bluffs Robot-Ilia into granting the carbon-units an audience with the unstable entity. This audience leads to the Big Reveal, as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Decker all learn that V’ger is the space probe Voyager 6, which was radically rebuilt on the planet of machine intelligences. This clue gives Kirk the insight he needs to attempt using old NASA transmission-codes to set up a dialogue with the mechanical entity. However, V’ger wants more than just talk; he wants direct contact with the Creator. Kirk and Co. realize that the only solution to V’ger crisis is if it receives an infusion of the human “capacity to leap beyond logic,” so that in theory it will go off and investigate other dimensions and leave the Federation alone. Decker sacrifices himself by providing the infusion, allowing himself to merge with Robot-Ilia in a sort of *hieros gamos* of which the ancient Greeks would never have dreamed. Once the godlike robot has its pound of human flesh, so to speak, it vanishes and the Enterprise once more flies the friendly skies of Federation space, looking forward to its next adventure.
In my original theatrical viewing of STTMP, I was naturally disappointed that the dramatic aspects of the show were sacrificed for this Big Abstract Idea (not to mention being put off by all the ghastly uniforms worn by the crewpersons, which outfits were then squirreled away in someone’s stock closet, never again to see the light of day). Nevertheless, purely from a mythopoeic perspective the movie succeeds in putting across its inversion of God’s creation of man and His demand for “tendance.” Here, man makes a device that, thanks to some plot-convolutions, goes far beyond what humanity can achieve in the physical sense. However, this “machine-god” needs tendance in the form of instruction about what to do with all this immense power. Spock plays a role that inverts that of Paul on the road to Tarsus, where the “god” speaks to the erring postulant by telling him in essence, “Don’t be like me.” Decker and Ilia are the beautiful young couple sacrificed to sustain the god, more as food for thought than as actual food— which also has the extra added effect of getting that young upstart out of Kirk’s command chair for good. Later iterations of Movie-Trek would emphasize some of the elements left out of STTNG, such as physical adventure and dramatic conflict—though I don’t think even the best of the movies ever captured the best myth-aspects of Classic Trek.