Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” debuting on CBS, kicking off a science fiction franchise that’s still going strong, even if it’s had a few dry spells and certainly, as many have recollected, wasn’t an unqualified cultural hit right out of the gate. Indeed, the franchise languished for 10 years between the time the series, now celebrated, was canceled and when it found new life on the big screen.
It’s so funny to put the situation surrounding Star Trek: The Motion Picture in today’s context. Transpose the entire situation a few decades and the movie would be one of a dozen TV adaptations hitting theaters. It would be entirely non-notable and be part of the white noise in the cultural world. As it stands, though, took the franchise into a whole new stratosphere, leading to a dozen movies, a number of TV shows and other iterations over the intervening 37 years since its release.
The story of the movie’s origin and production are varied and colorful. Gene Roddenberry initially intended to launch a new Star Trek TV series entitled “Phase II” but failing to get that off the ground turned one of the ideas from that into what would become the first big-screen outing for Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. The story involves what would become a trope of the movies, which is that an unknown vessel or probe is heading toward Earth and the ship has been sent to investigate and take action if needed. It’s been a while since Kirk and the others have been space-bound, though, so it was a reunion for the characters themselves as much as it is for the audience and the franchise.
That “reunion” aspect is exactly how the trailer starts. Actually, that’s not true. The trailer starts with an extended title card saying “The human adventure is just beginning” that drags out for almost 15 seconds, which is indicative of the movie it’s selling more than anything else in the trailer. That’s followed by some shots of the Enterprise and we meet the crew, both those returning to duty and the new additions to the bridge. There’s some inexplicable action that isn’t set up at all and comes out of nowhere before a few more character moments, some fancy (for the time) visual effects and then it all comes together in a recreation of the key art.
It’s not terrible but you can see the trailer team was struggling with what to do with a dry, exposition heavy movie they’d been tasked to sell. The few action sequences are entirely out of sync with the pace of the rest of the trailer while the character introductions and moments do a better job of setting the tone of the movie. There’s nothing wrong with it but the movie is much more like 2001 in its style, tone and pace while the studio wanted this marketed to the same crowd who had made Star Wars a hit two years prior.
What’s also not clear is how the studio intended for this to be attractive to the fans of the then-dormant TV show. Surely after 10 years they were chomping at the bit for new Star Trek adventures but this doesn’t include any overt plays in their direction. It almost seems as if the studio intentionally opted not to make the move, thinking they would show up anyway so let’s try to hood some other nerds. That means a movie that *is* similar to the series wasn’t marketed as such, at least not here.
Then there’s the poster. A bright beam of rainbow light shines down from the top, ending toward the bottom and showing the faces of Kirk, Spock and Ilya, one of the major new characters in the movie and one who figures prominently in the story. The Enterprise is also shown below her chin. Stars shine in the background and swoops are all around to show the Enterprise’s speed as well as the impact of the beam of light. “There is no comparison” is the copy on the one-sheet, a clear case of side-eye being thrown at Star Wars by casting Star Trek at the OG franchise.
These aren’t bad but they do kind of indicate a lot about the environment the movie was being released into. It was tasked, as many such movies are today, with relaunching a franchise that had lost at least some, if not most, of its cultural relevance over the better part of a decade. But instead of walking the line between attracting new fans and activating existing fans it leans heavily in the direction of the former for the most part.
It did, of course, pull off the trick of getting Star Trek back into the cultural conversation. But it’s notable that the film series would immediately shift tone and become much more action-oriented when it came time to make and market Wrath of Khan. It was good enough to kick things off but in order to maintain speed, a change was in order.