Scene Anatomy 101: Star Trek – The Motion Picture
On September 2 1969, millions of fans were crushed when NBC aired what would be the final episode of one of their most beloved – and one of their most misunderstood – television programs, Star Trek. The episode called “Turnabout Intruder” showed Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) being robbed of his own body, his lifeforce switched with an old and bitter adversary.
For several years, while fans were deprived of original Star Trek episodes, adoration for the series grew with fan-made conventions, the series going into syndication, and a Filmation animated series, creator Gene Roddenberry was working behind the scenes to get something new going. After several unsuccessful attempts to come up with a different series, Roddenberry went back to what worked and started writing a little project he called “Star Trek: The Movie.”
It was a big and extravagant epic story that dealt with the Enterprise crew reuniting and saving the universe from a galactic threat, and even had the crew sacrificing themselves to get the job done. (Apparently, Gene had just one movie in mind.) As time passed, plans changed and Paramount decided to create a fourth network with “Star Trek: Phase II” as its flagship show. The crew was to reunite for this new show, except for Spock since Leonard Nimoy was feuding with Roddenberry.
But then that plan fell through when Star Wars hit the big screen on May 25, 1977. The Paramount executives believed at that moment, that the Star Trek franchise was destined to be on the big screen, and before long, everyone began a journey that would culminate in the 1979 Robert Wise film…
Just like Roddenberry’s original draft implied, this film was a big, sprawling epic that dealt with the Enterprise crew reuniting and attempting to save the universe from a galactic threat. But there was another factor that writers Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston were able to add that was further explored in the subsequent sequels.
There was an 800-pound gorilla in the room that needed to be confronted, and that was the fact that these actors last portrayed these characters ten years ago, and to avoid the issue of time passing would be a ridiculous mistake. Plus, it was very obvious that as time passed, the Enterprise herself would need a full re-fit to make it look better than it ever had before for the big screen. And the uniforms would have to be altered as well. Hell, everything that fans knew and loved had to be updated.
The main storyline deals with Captain James T. Kirk assuming command of the Enterprise for the first time in over two years. He had been working at Starfleet Headquarters on Earth during this time, and the Enterprise had been under the command of Captain William Decker (Stephen Collins). Once Kirk takes over, however, Decker is moved over to the position of science officer, despite his protests, and bumps his rank temporarily down to Commander.
Fortunately for Kirk, Decker is onboard when the Enterprise takes off to pursue a destructive alien cloud that is on its way to Earth. As soon as the Enterprise leaves Earth’s orbit, it finds itself in a wormhole when the engines go into an anti-matter imbalance. When Kirk sees an asteroid heading right for them in the wormhole, he orders phasers to be fired, but Decker quickly cancels the order and instructs photon torpedoes instead.
Decker’s call proves correct, and the torpedoes destroy the asteroid and before long, the engines adjust and the ship comes out of the wormhole. Once everyone is safe and sound, Kirk instructs Decker to join him in his ready room. Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) joins them. As soon as the door is shut, Kirk immediately starts to interrogate Decker.
KIRK: All right, explanation. Why was my phaser order countermanded?
Decker is quick with a response. No matter what rank he is, he still knows this ship better than anyone else, especially more than the man standing in front of him.
DECKER: Sir, the Enterprise redesign increases phaser power by channeling it through the main engines. When they went into anti-matter imbalance, the phasers were automatically cut off.
Kirk is stymied. He didn’t think of that, and there was no way he could. He hesitates for a moment, then speaks.
KIRK: Then you acted properly, of course.
DECKER: Thank you, sir. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.
Kirk waves off the apology.
KIRK: You saved the ship.
Once again, Decker is quick with a response.
DECKER: I’m aware of that, sir.
Kirk can sense Decker is still angry with the demotion and he believes this was a way for Decker to show him up.
KIRK: Stop… competing with me, Decker!
Now that cooler heads have somewhat prevailed, Decker seizes the opportunity to say what’s been on his mind ever since his command was usurped.
DECKER: Permission to speak freely, sir.
DECKER: Sir, you haven’t logged a single star hour in two-and-a-half years. That, plus your unfamiliarity with the ship’s design in my opinion, sir, seriously jeopardizes this mission.
There’s really nothing that Kirk can say to respond to that, since Kirk already showed his unfamiliarity with the ship’s design when they dealt with the wormhole and the asteroid. So Kirk chooses this one, very rare time to show a little humility.
KIRK: I trust you will… nursemaid me through these difficulties, Mister?
DECKER: Yes, sir. I’ll do that.
This works as a compromise for Decker. Yes, his rank has been reduced and he’s not going to be in the captain’s chair for this mission, but he knows that Kirk is going to be asking for his advice when dealing with various elements of the ship.
KIRK: Then I won’t keep you from your duties any longer, Commander.
Kirk turns towards McCoy, signaling the end of this conversation.
KIRK: Yes, Doctor?
DECKER: Aye, sir.
Decker leaves, allowing the two old comrades to be alone.
MCCOY: He may be right, Jim.
Kirk is a little unnerved that McCoy would be taking Decker’s side in this situation.
KIRK: Make your point, Doctor.
But McCoy knows Kirk for too long to let this kind of behavior go by unnoticed.
MCCOY: The point, Captain, is that it’s you who is competing. You rammed getting this command down Starfleet’s throat. You’ve used this emergency to get the Enterprise back.
KIRK: And I intend to keep her, is that what you’re saying?
MCCOY: Yes. It’s an obsession. An obsession that can blind you to far more immediate and critical responsibilities. Your reaction to Decker is an example, Jim.
Before Kirk can respond to this prognosis, Uhura interrupts with a message from the bridge.
UHURA: Bridge to Captain.
KIRK: Viewer on.
UHURA: Signal from a Federation registered long-range shuttle, sir. She wishes to come alongside and lock on.
KIRK: For what purpose?
CHEKOV: My security scan shows it has a grade-one priority, Captain. Nonbelligerency confirmed. I suspect it is a courier of some kind.
KIRK: Very well, Mr. Chekov. See to it. Viewer off.
What none of them obviously know is that the ship that will be locking onto the Enterprise is carrying a very valuable piece of cargo: Spock (Leonard Nimoy). One of the big success stories of the series was the chemistry between the main characters Kirk, Spock and McCoy. When faced with difficult situations, Spock would present one opinion, McCoy would present another, and Kirk would make his decision with both in mind. Now that Spock is coming onboard, that can only be a benefit to Kirk’s decision making.
Kirk turns back towards McCoy.
KIRK: Your opinion has been noted. Anything further?
MCCOY: That depends on you.
And with that, McCoy exits the room, leaving Kirk alone with his thoughts.
Even though the final film was less than stellar, director Robert Wise, producer Roddenberry and writers Foster and Livingston kept their eye on the ball when it came to these characters. They all knew that this was going to be much more than an average episode blown up to a two-plus-hour-long feature film. And they knew the audience would be expecting their years since “Turnabout Intruder” to be addressed. This scene shows that, even though Kirk had moved on to becoming an Admiral at Starfleet Headquarters, he was not only anxious to take back command of the Enterprise, but that he did it without knowing all of the ins-and-outs of the refitted ship.
Fortunately for him, and for the rest of his crew, he had someone there who did know the ins-and-outs. Now that they’ve had this talk, Commander Decker is going to be more willing to help Kirk through the difficult times, and Kirk is going to be more willing to let him know he needs help.
Next week, we’ll jump ahead several decades and take a look at a scene that is one of the definitive Star Trek moments.
Until then, Class Dismissed!
— George H. Sirois