Exploring the history of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ on its 40th anniversary

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

Related Posts

There is something to be said about film and television’s cultural impact. Beyond the groundbreaking cinematography, the brilliant directing and the awards, film and television have the power to influence our perception of the world. Look at “Jaws,” one of Steven Spielberg’s many famous works. “Jaws” may be known for its famous score or infamous shark attack scenes, but a large reason it has made its mark in pop culture history is because it was the movie that introduced the summer blockbuster. When it came out in 1975, it shattered box office records and reshaped the way films are marketed and released. The entire distribution crux of Marvel Cinematic Universe and the idea of tentpole films have this shark to thank. The same goes with “Crazy Rich Asians” — objectively, it is a decent rom-com, but taking into account how groundbreaking it was for Asian-American representation in cinema, the movie’s legacy will last longer than any Kate Hudson or Hugh Grant film.

There are few pieces of media that have legacies spanning generations, and fewer still in which the story has been extended through multiple mediums. But one of the few that has done both is “Star Trek.” An acclaimed cult phenomenon, the transmedia franchise started with its original television series in 1966 and since then has gone on to spawn more than seven spin-off shows, 13 movies and countless books, comics and merchandise. And with four more “Star Trek” shows currently in development, it shows no signs of slowing down. 

What’s ironic is that when the original series first came out, it was a ratings flop. NBC canceled the series after three seasons of low ratings, but through reruns, the show began to cultivate a following. This lasting popularity is what launched “Star Trek: The Animated Series” a few years after the original show was canceled. For the animated series’ two seasons, ratings were high with older audiences, and the “Star Trek” legacy lived on. 

Yet it wasn’t until “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” that the franchise began cementing itself as a multiplatform cinematic universe. Recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, the first “Star Trek” film is what finally showed industry executives that there was a huge (and lucrative) fan following of the franchise. The film’s success paved the way for the “Star Trek” legacy we have today.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry expressed his interest in putting Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew on the big screen back when the original series was still airing, but after countless scripts and story proposals, the idea of a “Star Trek” film was put on the backburner at Paramount Pictures. It wasn’t until the overwhelming success of “Star Wars” in 1977 that the studio looked back at its IP portfolio, wondering if it had anything that could compete with George Lucas’s box office behemoth. With space adventures suddenly becoming the hot new trend, Paramount started to redevelop a “Star Trek” film and finally landed on a script that would become “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

Directed by the four-time Oscar winner Robert Wise, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” reunited Kirk, now an admiral, with his old crew for one more mission. Chasing an alien threat that is making its way to Earth, the Enterprise gang goes on an adventure that, in classic “Star Trek” fashion, explores themes of consciousness and omnipotence. 

According to Walter Koenig — who played the meme-able Russian, Pavel Chekov — when the cast and crew watched the rough cut of the film, no one was optimistic about its premiere. Koenig actually bet a friend that they would never make another “Star Trek” film. But, despite everyone’s reservations, when “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” opened, it was a box office hit, showing that the years of the former television series’ syndication had gradually built up a loyal following. 

The critics were not as impressed, which is fair considering the film’s slow pace and occasionally campy scenes. But the film’s financial success launched five more sequels and convinced studio executives of its cultural longevity. Soon after the third film in the “Star Trek” franchise, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” began airing as the next iteration in the television series, introducing Patrick Stewart — who played Captain Picard — into the science fiction “hall of fame.”

Today, younger viewers are probably most exposed to the current CBS series, “Star Trek: Discovery,” and the modern reboot films starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. But the enduring legacy of “Star Trek” is largely thanks to the success of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which breathed new life into a series that had been canceled nearly a decade before. An integral part of nerd culture, famous “Trekkies” range from Angelina Jolie to Martin Luther King Jr. Even Quentin Tarantino has been sniffing around directing the next potential “Star Trek” movie. The cultural influence of “Star Trek” is immeasurable and, much like the franchise’s catchphrase, is still boldly going where no man has gone before. 

Julie Lim covers film. Contact her at [email protected].