Audiobook Review: Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” Novelization Gets a Randy Reading For Its 40th Birthday

Audiobook Review: Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” Novelization Gets a Randy Reading For Its 40th Birthday

When J.J. Abrams, after leading the Star Trek reboot, signed on to helm a Star Wars sequel, some fans saw it as an unholy allegiance. The two Star streams, twin pillars of science fiction fan culture in the latter half of the 20th century, were coming under the influence of a single individual. It seemed as dangerous as crossing the streams in Ghostbusters…but that turned out okay, right?

In fact, Star Trek and Star Wars have been cinematically linked for decades. It was the blockbuster success of Star Wars (1977) that finally cleared the way for the long-planned jump of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the small screen to the big screen. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry acknowledged as much while talking with the New York Times on the set of his franchise’s first film, but insisted, “My picture will not be a rip‐off of Star Wars or Close Encounters. Star Trek has a life of its own.”

It sure does. 40 years ago, the dramatically-titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture landed in movie theaters across a country reeling from an energy crisis, wondering about Bob Dylan’s born-again Christianity, and lusting over Bo Derek in “10.” To celebrate the anniversary, Simon & Schuster has published the vintage novelization, for the first time, in audiobook form.

With the Star Wars effect going strong in 1979, even James Bond was in orbit for Moonraker — but the film that loomed largest over the new Star Trek epic was the 11-year-old 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whereas Star Wars famously opened with a serial-style story crawl and a seat-rattling space battle, Star Trek: The Motion Picture began with…a three-minute overture.

Once that was done, you had to sit through the opening credits, and then, finally, you got an action scene. If you start Star Wars and Star Trek simultaneously, by the time the Klingons are finally firing at an ambiguously menacing space cloud in Star Trek, Darth Vader’s already captured the Tantive IV, Stormtroopers have laid waste to a platoon of Rebels, and Princess Leia’s hidden the Death Star plans before being stunned in a shoot-out.

Nor were you going to get much more action in the rest of the Motion Picture. After rejecting an earlier “script by committee,” Roddenberry and Paramount landed on an Alan Dean Foster story with Harold Livingston as the credited screenwriter. It’s a quintessential Star Trek story, with the mysterious cloud visiting the Enterprise in the form of a beautiful but disposable new crew member, Ilia (Persis Khambatta, who subsequently became the first Indian citizen to present an Oscar).

Much of the narrative around the film upon its release involved the special effects; Hollywood loves a behind-the-scenes popcorn drama, and it had not gone unnoticed that original effects director Robert Abel had been canned in favor of the more experienced Douglas Trumbull. The effects won praise, but they’re used to very different effect than in the famously “used universe” of Star Wars. Instead, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a landmark in the lineage of alien light shows stretching through the proto-digital era from 2001 to Close Encounters to Tron.

The entire structure of director Robert Wise’s film loosely recapitulates 2001. There’s the setup opening sequence, with Klingons in place of confused apes. There’s the bureaucratic space-station sequence, complete with an extended Enterprise fly-by clearly inspired by 2001’s docking waltz.

(Creators in the Star Wars universe did not fail to notice the difference in pacing, and the corresponding pressure Star Trek put on its own special effects. “We would never congratulate ourselves on having done a great special effect,” said director Irvin Kershner, whose Empire Strikes Back was in postproduction when Star Trek hit theaters. “In Star Trek, they do a ten-minute sequence in which they’re looking around going, ‘Ooh, aaah, isn’t the ship beautiful?’ We’ll literally throw away those shots. As a result, the story becomes paramount.”)

Instead of Strauss, the corresponding Star Trek sequence has endless variations on the new theme by Jerry Goldsmith. Later movies and especially the Next Generation TV series would establish that theme as more recognizably Star Trek than Alexander Courage’s groovy TV theme. The Courage composition did make cameos in The Motion Picture, during Kirk’s log entries; Courage returned to supply arrangements.

Then, the Enterprise is off on its voyage to the cloud; although it’s much abbreviated compared to the sedate 2001 interplanetary cruise, our heroes still have to match wits with an alien pseudo-mechanical intelligence — this time embodied by Khambatta, inexplicably re-costumed in a short dress and space heels for her turn as “the probe.”

Finally, the crew fly boldly into the cloud and beyond infinity through the film’s showcase effects, including an EVA with Spock wincing at the cosmic mindfuck that dances beyond his visor. This section culminates not in an enigmatic tableau a la Kubrick, but rather with an ironic twist that could have come out of The Twilight Zone.

From a franchise standpoint, this all felt like marmalade on the crusty toast of the film’s most important content: the big-screen debut of the full Star Trek cast and their snazzy new ship. Compared to the Abrams-era reimagining of the Enterprise, the Motion Picture redesign now looks like a glorified paint job: the original Enterprise, but on dark mode. Like the music, the ship anticipated the look and feel of The Next Generation, which would debut on TV eight years and three movies later.

The returning stars are slightly stockier, and Kirk’s sideburns are a little more aggressive, but otherwise they look pretty much the same as they did on TV, a fact that was widely acknowledged with a varying mix of enthusiasm and resignation. The movie’s best visual joke (which isn’t saying much) comes when Bones is yanked out of retirement, appearing in full swinging ’70s style with a golden medallion hanging over an exposed triangle of hairy chest.

Despite its production cost ballooning from an already generous $15 million to $46 million ($162 million in 2019 dollars, just slightly less than the cost of Tim Burton’s Dumbo), The Motion Picture turned a profit with worldwide gross of $139 million, selling more tickets than any Star Trek movie until Abrams’s 2009 reboot.

The studio green-lit a sequel, but pushed Roddenberry out of creative control. The follow-up, 1982’s Wrath of Khan, became the best-reviewed film in the original run. Rotten Tomatoes tips one film from each subsequent series above Khan: the 1996 Next Gen movie First Contact, then Abrams’s 2009 reboot reigning as the most widely (if not intensely) appreciated Star Trek movie to date.

The Star Wars franchise has gone through its own cinematic iterations — the controversial prequels and then the Disney-era rebirth — but for better or for worse, that world has always felt at home on the big screen. Looking back on the original Star Trek motion picture, it’s apparent that from the beginning, the Enterprise was always kind of an awkward fit in movie theaters.

The best Star Trek movies in the pre-Abrams era are the carefully plotted adventures that unfold like double-length TV episodes with greater stakes, rather than trying to borrow from other cinematic tropes. None, though, are as good as the Next Generation or Deep Space Nine TV series, the truest descendants of the original Star Trek. The past decade’s Star Trek films have succeeded, in part, by rejecting the entire aesthetic of the original series, justifying the move by invoking the concept of parallel timelines.

If you’re a fan of the movie, with all its high-flown aspirations and nostalgic callbacks, you’ll love the book — and now, the audiobook. The novel has been treasured by Trekkers for years, since it was actually written by Roddenberry, contrary to understandable but false assumptions that Foster ghostwrote it as he did the Star Wars novelization that’s officially credited to Lucas.

Nope, we have the Star Trek creator himself to thank for the novelization, which fills out the characters’ conflicts, notably Kirk’s internal doubts over his motives for usurping Enterprise command from the young Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) and Spock’s disappointment over not having achieved “Kolinahr” and purging the irrational emotions associated with his human side.

Roddenberry even stuffs the book with “editor’s notes” commenting on what’s putatively a record of an actual voyage rendered “as an old-style printed book,” in the words of James T. Kirk himself — who pens a preface (complete with signature) that accompanies an author’s note in which Roddenberry describes himself as “somewhat a key figure among those who chronicled his original five-year mission.”

Narrator Robert Petkoff is pitch-perfect in his rendering of Roddenberry’s extremely self-serious prose, and he recreates the famously diverse accents of the cast with appropriately loving care. There’s the emotionless Spock, the Russian Chekov (yes, he still says “wessel”), and of course the urgent Kirk. You can almost see William Shatner leaning forward in his captain’s chair when Petkoff breathlessly reads lines like, “Spock! Are you sensing anything?!”

The most ear-opening, if not necessarily surprising, thing about the book for the newly initiated is just how unremittingly horny it is. The G-rated movie leaves little doubt that everyone’s hot for the statuesque Ilia (Khambatta), but the novel explains in detail what effect the Deltan’s literal chemistry has on her crew members. Kirk “could feel the pheromones working on him” when Ilia steps onto the bridge, writes Roddenberry, implying an erection his space-pants couldn’t hide. “He decided not to rise. He was, after all, the ship’s captain.”

When the navigator is abducted and reconstituted as the aptly-named “probe” of a seemingly alien intelligence, Roddenberry writes the scene the way Khambatta refused to film it: with the probe emerging nude from Ilia’s shower stall. Kirk gawks at the “impossibly lovely hard-tipped breasts, which were at this moment swinging around to point directly at him…damn!

Even the Enterprise herself can’t escape Kirk’s boundless lust. “While the love of man for a vessel and the love for a woman will rarely bear more than poetic comparison,” the captain reflects, “they do both share a similar passion for possession.” If that makes you wonder what exceptions apply in those “rare” cases, Scotty goes further when he sees Kirk arrive to oust young Decker from the captain’s chair: the engineer is “reminded of the herd bull returning to find a young usurper rutting there.”

The scent of space musk reaches its apotheosis when the crew have to decide who should serve as the probe’s tour guide. Kirk decides to task Decker, who dated Ilia in her previous life as, well, herself. Then the captain entertains a moment of doubt: if understanding this strange space cloud comes down to a most intimate form of interface, shouldn’t the probe be with the man who can really fuck her right? No, Kirk tells himself. “It must be Decker for the simple reason that the real Ilia had loved this young man — sexual technique always came out a poor runner-up in any race with love.”

Although this interplanetary herd bull only ruts on women, the novel is also notable for Roddenberry’s acknowledgement of the already-rampant fanfic positing the quintessential slash pairing. “I was never aware of this lovers rumor,” Roddenberry quotes Kirk as saying to himself, the author, in a footnote. (Do you see now why this book is so great?) “Although I have no moral or other objections to physical love in any of its many Earthly, alien, and mixed forms,” says Kirk, “I would dislike being thought of as so foolish that I would select a love partner who came into sexual heat only once every seven years.”

Today, The Motion Picture sits at 42% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the only original-cast film besides the execrable Star Trek V to bear a green splat icon. It’s not for the uninitiated, but if you’re a Star Trek fan and you can catch it on the big screen at a revival house, it remains enjoyable for the purity of its vision and its sheer swagger.

It’s Star Trek for the supergraphics era, with shagadelic space stations (is that wall-to-wall carpeting on the tram platform?) and prism effects when the Enterprise went to warp speed. Illustrator Bob Peak, the man behind the Apocalypse Now poster, contributed one of his most iconic designs to plaster theater lobbies around the world.

“The human adventure,” read the tagline, “is just beginning.” Let’s hope that’s still true.

Jay Gabler