Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a 1979 American science fiction film released by Paramount Pictures. It is the first film based on the Star Trek television series. The plot of the film is set in the twenty-third century, when a mysterious and immensely powerful alien cloud called V"Ger approaches the Earth, destroying everything in its path. Admiral James T Kirk (William Shatner) assumes command of his old starship—the USS Enterprise—to lead it on a mission to save the planet and determine V'Ger's origins.
When the original television series was cancelled in 1969, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry lobbied Paramount to continue the franchise through a film. The success of the series in syndication convinced the studio to begin work on a feature film in 1975. A series of writers attempted to craft a suitably epic script, but the attempts did not satisfy Paramount, so the studio scrapped the project in 1977. Paramount instead planned on returning the franchise to its roots with a new television series, Star Trek: Phase 2. The box office success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind convinced Paramount that science fiction films other than Star Wars could do well at the box office, so the studio cancelled production of Phase II and resumed its attempts at making a Star Trek film. In 1978, Paramount assembled the largest press conference held at the studio since the 1950s to announce that double Accademy Award–winning director Robert Wise would helm a $15 million film adaptation of the television series.
With the cancellation of the new television series, the writers rushed to adapt the planned pilot episode of Phase II, "In Thy Image," into a film script. Constant revisions to the story and shooting script continued, to the extent of hourly script updates on shooting dates. The Enterprise was modified inside and out; costume designer Robert Fletcher provided new uniforms and production designer Harold Michelson fabricated new sets. Jerry Goldsmith composed the score, beginning an association with Star Trek that would continue until 2002. When the original contractors for the optical effects proved unable to complete their tasks in time, effects supervisor Douglas Trunbull was given carte blanche to meet the December 1979 release date. The film came together only days before the premiere; Wise took the just-completed film to its Washington, D.C., opening, but always felt that the theatrical version was a rough cut of the film he wanted to make.
A Starfleet monitoring station detects an alien force, hidden in a massive cloud of energy, moving through space towards Earth. The cloud destroys three Klingon warships and the monitoring station en route. On Earth, the starship Enterprise is undergoing a major refit; its former commander, James T. Kirk, has been promoted to Admiral and works in San Fransisco as Chief of Starfleet Operations. Starfleet dispatches Enterprise to investigate the cloud entity as the ship is the only one in intercept range, requiring its new systems to be tested in transit.
Kirk takes command of the ship citing his experience, angering Captain Willard Decker, who had been overseeing the refit as its new commanding officer. Testing of Enterprise's new systems goes poorly; two officers, including the science officer, are killed by a malfunctioning transporter, and improperly calibrated engines almost destroy the ship. The tension between Kirk and Decker increases when the admiral demonstrates his unfamiliarity with Enterprise. Spock arrives as replacement science officer, explaining that while on his home world undergoing a ritual to purge all emotion, he felt a consciousness that he believes emanates from the cloud.
The Enterprise intercepts the energy cloud and is attacked by an alien vessel within. A probe appears on the bridge, attacks Spock and abducts the navigator, Llia. She is replaced by a robotic doppelgänger, a probe sent by "V'Ger" to study the crew. Decker is distraught over the loss of Ilia, with whom he had a romantic history. He becomes troubled as he attempts to extract information from the doppelgänger, which has Ilia's memories and feelings buried within. Spock takes a spacewalk to the alien vessel's surface and attempts a telepathic mind meld with it. In doing so, he learns that the vessel is V'Ger itself, a living machine.
At the heart of the massive ship, V'Ger is revealed to be Voyager 6, a 20th-century Earth space probe believed lost. The damaged probe was found by an alien race of living machines that interpreted its programming as instructions to learn all that can be learned, and return that information to its creator. The machines upgraded the probe to fulfill its mission, and on its journey the probe gathered so much knowledge that it achieved consciousness. Spock realizes that V'Ger lacks the ability to give itself a focus other than its original mission; having learned what it could on its journey home, it finds its existence empty and without purpose. Before transmitting all its information, V'Ger insists that the Creator come in person to finish the sequence. Realizing that the machine wants to merge with its creator, Decker offers himself to V'Ger; he merges with the Ilia probe and V'Ger, creating a new form of life that disappears into another dimension. With Earth saved, Kirk directs Enterprise out to space for future missions.
- William Shatner as James T. Kirk, the former captain of the USS Enterprise and an Admiral at Starfleet headquarters. When asked during a March 1978 press conference about what it would be like to reprise the role, Shatner said, "An actor brings to a role not only the concept of a character but his own basic personality, things that he is, and both [Leonard Nimoy] and myself have changed over the years, to a degree at any rate, and we will bring that degree of change inadvertently to the role we recreate."
- Leonard Nimoy as Spock, the Enterprise's half-Vulcan, half-human science officer. Nimoy had been dissatisfied with unpaid royalties from Star Trek and did not intend to reprise the role, so Spock was left out of the screenplay. Director Robert Wise, having been informed by his daughter and son-in-law that the film "would not be Star Trek" without Nimoy, sent Jeffrey Katzenberg to New York City to meet Nimoy. Katzenberg gave Nimoy a check to make up for his lost royalties, and the actor attended the March 1978 press conference with the rest of the returning cast. Nimoy was dissatisfied with the script, and his meeting with Katzenberg led to an agreement that the final script would need Nimoy's approval. Despite the financial issues, Nimoy said he was comfortable with being identified as Spock because it had a positive impact on his fame.
- Deforest Kelley as Leonard McCoy, the chief medical officer aboard the Enterprise. Kelley had reservations with the script, feeling that the characters and relationships from the series were not in place. Along with Shatner and Nimoy, Kelley lobbied for greater characterization, but their opinions were largely ignored.
- James Doohan as Montgomery Scott, the Enterprise's chief engineer. Doohan created the distinctive Klingon vocabulary heard in the film. Linguist Marc Ocrand later developed a fully realized Klingon language based on the actor's made-up words.
- Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekoy, the Enterprise's weapons officer. Koenig noted that the expected sense of camaraderie and euphoria at being assembled for screen tests at the start of the picture was nonexistent. "This may be Star Trek," he wrote, "but it isn't the old Star Trek." The actor was hopeful for the film, but admitted he was disappointed by his character's bit part.
- Nichelle Nicholls as Uhura, the communications officer aboard the Enterprise. Nichols noted in her autobiography that she was one of the actors most opposed to the new uniforms added for the film because the drab, unisex look "wasn't Uhura".
- George Takei as Hikaru Sulu, the Enterprise's helmsman. In his autobiography, Takei described the film's shooting schedule as "astonishingly luxurious", but noted that frequent script rewrites during production "usually favored Bill" [Shatner]
Filming of The Motion Picture's first scene began on August 7, 1978. A few ad-libbed ceremonies were performed before the cameras rolled; Roddenberry gave Wise his baseball cap, emblazoned with "Enterprise" in gold lettering (the cap was a gift from the captain of the nuclear carrier Enterprise.) Wise and Roddenberry then cracked a special breakaway bottle of champagne on the bridge set (there was no liquid inside, as flying champagne would have damaged the readied set.) The scene planned was the chaotic mess aboard the Enterprise bridge as the crew readies the ship for space travel; Wise directed 15 takes into the late afternoon before he was content with the scene. The first day's shots used 1,650 feet (500 m) of film; 420 feet (130 m) were considered "good", 1,070 feet (330 m) were judged "no good", and 160 feet (49 m) were wasted; only one and one-eighth pages had been shot.
Alex Weldon was hired to be supervisor of special effects for the film. Weldon was planning on retiring after 42 years of effects work, but his wife urged him to take on Star Trek because she thought he did not have enough to do. When Weldon was hired, many of the effects had already been started or completed by Rugg; it was up to Weldon to complete more complex and higher-budgeted effects for the motion picture. The first step of preparation involved analyzing the script in terms of the number, duration, and type of effects. Before costs could be determined and Weldon could shop for necessary items, he and the other members of the special effects team worked out all possibilities for pulling off the effects in a convincing manner.
Richard H. Kline served as the film's cinematographer. Working from sketch artist Maurice Zuberano's concepts, Wise would judge if they were on the right track. Kline and Michelson would then discuss the look they wanted (along with Weldon, if effects were involved.) Each sequence was then storyboarded and left to Kline to execute. The cinematographer called his function to "interpret [the] preplanning and make it indelible on film. It's a way of everybody being on the same wavelength." Kline would recall that there was not a single "easy" shot to produce for the picture, as each scene required special consideration. The bridge, for example, was lit with a low density of light to make the console monitors display better. It was hard to frame shots so that reflections of the crew in monitors or light spilling through floor grilles were not seen in the final print.
On returning to Paramount, the art department had to recreate parts of Yellowstone in a large "B tank", 110 by 150 feet (34 by 46 m) long. The tank was designed to be flooded with millions of gallons of water to represent large bodies of water. Minor set up miniatures on the tank's floor before construction and made sure that the shadows that fell on Spock at Yellowstone could be properly recreated. A plywood base was built on metal platforms to create stone silhouettes, reinforced with chicken wire. Polyurethane foam was sprayed over the framework under the supervision of the Los Angeles Fire Department. The bottom part of the statue miniature was represented by a 16-foot (4.9 m) high fiberglass foot. Weldon matched the effects filmed at Yellowstone using dry ice and steam machines. To recreate the appearance of the swirling eddies of water in the real Yellowstone, a combination of evaporated milk, white poster paint, and water was poured into the set's pools. The pressure of the steam channeled into the pools through hidden tubing causes enough movement in the whirlpools to duplicate the location footage. Due to the requirement that the sun be in a specific location for filming and that the environment be bright enough, production fell behind schedule when it was unseasonably cloudy for three days straight. Any further scenes to recreate Vulcan would be impossible, as the set was immediately torn down to serve as a parking lot for the remainder of the summer.
The computer console explosion that causes the transporter malfunction was simulated using brillo pads. Weldon hid steel wool inside the console and attached an arc welder to operate by remote control when the actor pulled a wire. The welder was designed to create a spark instead of actually welding, causing the steel wool to burn and make sparks; so effective was the setup that the cast members were continually startled by the flare-ups, resulting in additional takes. Various canisters and cargo containers appear to be suspended by Anti gravity throughout the film. These effects were executed by several of Weldon's assistants. The crew built a circular track that had the same shape as the corridor and suspended the antigravity prop on four very small wires that connected to the track. The wires were treated with a special acid which oxidized the metal; the reaction tarnished the wires to a dull gray that would not show up in the deep blue corridor lighting. Cargo boxes were made out of light balsa wood so that very fine wires could be used as support.
As August ended, production continued to slip farther behind schedule. Koenig learned that rather than being released in 14 days after his scenes were completed, his last day would be on October 26—eight weeks later than expected. The next bridge scenes to be filmed after the wormhole sequence, Enterprise's approach to V'Ger and the machine's resulting attack, were postponed for two weeks so that the special effects for the scene could be planned and implemented, and the engine room scenes could be shot. Chekov's burns sustained in V'Ger's attack were difficult to film; though the incident took only minutes on film, Weldon spent hours preparing the effect. A piece of aluminum foil was placed around Koenig's arm, covered by a protective pad and then hidden by the uniform sleeve. Weldon prepared an ammonia and acetic acid solution that was touched to Koenig's sleeve, causing it to smoke. Difficulties resulted in the scene being shot ten times; it was especially uncomfortable for the actor, whose arm was slightly burned when some of the solution leaked through to his arm.
The last week of production was fraught with issues. Red gel lights appeared orange upon reviewing the daily footage; the lights were faulty, and three people were nearly electrocuted. On January 26, 1979, the film finally wrapped after 125 days. The three leads (Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley) delivered their final lines at 4:50 pm. Before the crew could go home, a final shot had to be filmed—the climactic fusing of Decker and V'Ger. The script prescribed a heavy emphasis on lighting, with spiraling and blinding white lights. Collins was covered in tiny dabs of cotton glued to his jacket; these highlights were designed to create a body halo. Helicopter lights, 4000–watt lamps and wind machines were used to create the effect of Decker's fusion with the living machine. The first attempts at filming the scene became a nightmare for the crew. The extreme lighting caused normally invisible dust particles in the air to be illuminated, creating the appearance that the actors were caught in a blizzard. During the retakes throughout the week the crew mopped and dusted the set constantly, and it required later technical work to completely eliminate the dust in the final print.
Two weeks later, the entire cast and crew joined with studio executives for a traditional wrap party. Four hundred people attended the gathering, which spilled over into two restaurants in Beverly Hills. While much of the crew readied for post-production, Wise and Roddenberry were grateful for the opportunity to take a short vacation from the motion picture before returning to work.