Star Trek TMP: The Book Was Better

The geniuses over at have done it again. They’ve released their first full toupological analysis of a Star Trek movie. Beginning at the beginning, they review the the noble failure that is Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Everything they say in their review is right on the money. People who have seen this movie have rightfully complained about its lack of action, its flaccid characterization, and its endless, tedious special effects. Indeed, it often feels as if the entire movie consists of nothing but our beloved Star Trek characters staring out the window at muddy, kaleidoscopy 70s acid trips.

The toupological analysis reminded me of my own reaction to the movie in 1979, which I saw when I was only 11 years old at the now-defunct Topanga Theatre in Woodland Hills, California.

Surprisingly, I loved it. I wasn’t bored for an instant. It didn’t seem slow or tedious to me, and it’s only now that I fully understand why.

Several weeks before the movie came out, I had picked up a copy of Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of same. It was on sale at Alpha Beta, our local grocery store, and, while knowing that I was cheating a little bit, I wanted to get the jump on everybody else and know what I was going to be in for when I saw the movie on the big screen.

Novelizations, by and large, are cheap, tawdry affairs meant to capitalize on the success of a movie. They usually add no insight into what’s on the screen and are poorly, hastily written. I didn’t realize this myself at the age of 11, however, and I had a number of lousy novelizations in my prepubescent library. I remember wasting my parents’ cash at the Chaparral Elementary School Bookfair on written adaptations of old Happy Days episodes, which had all of the literary panache of stale meat locked in a sock drawer for three months.

But this novelization was different, and not just because it didn’t have anyone named Potsie in it.

The truth is that there is much, much more going on in the ST:TMP novel than showed up on the big screen. It begins with an introduction by none other than James Tiberius Kirk himself, likely ghostwritten by whoever was ghost writing for purported author Gene Roddenberry. He announces where his name came from and explains that in the 23rd Century, surnames have gone out of style, but the conservative elements of Starfleet tend to hold on to them as a tribute to the past. And instantly, the reader gets a taste of everyday life in the Star Trek future that can’t be found in any screen incarnation of the franchise.

We get more details about the original five-year mission that aren’t to be found anywhere else, too. Apparently, Captain Kirk was the only Starfleet captain who finished a five-year mission with his ship and crew more or less intact. (He apparently lost almost 100 crew members in those five years, though. That’s an awful lot of red shirts.) Kirk’s promotion to Admiral, then, is Starfleet’s way of preserving a living legend for veneration without pushing their luck on a second mission that might not end as well as the first one did.

Important character details that flesh out the characters are present in the book and not the movie. Spock’s rejection of Kolinahr, the complete purging of emotion, is the climax of a mental struggle that gets full play in the written word, whereas on camera, it’s almost a throwaway moment. It also includes a very funny reference to rumors that Kirk and Spock were more than friends, if you know what I mean. Can you find me a single genuine moment of humor in the movie? I think not.

Character details from the book that add significant complexity to the story are either left unfilmed and/or on the cutting room floor. For instance, one of the two people who die in the transporter accident is a woman Kirk has been dating seriously, and, as a surprise to her lover, she had pulled strings to get aboard the Enterprise and be there with him during his return to duty. In the novel, this is emotionally devastating to our good captain and exacerbates his own insecurities as he resumes command. In the movie, she goes unmentioned, unhallowed, and unsung – just another red shirt.

Kirk’s struggle to get the Enterprise back, including his confrontation with Admiral Nogura, gets a full hearing on the printed page. In the movie, this pivotal moment takes place before the film even begins. Ilia, the bald-chick character, actually makes some sense in the book – she’s from a sexually advanced species that emits super-pheremones that make her irrestistable to human males. Kirk’s internal struggle to keep his own hormones in check is really quite funny, but none of that shows up on screen. All we get in the movie is Ilia announcing to everyone that her “oath of celibacy is on record,” which seems like a non sequitur without sufficient backstory. If you haven’t read the book, you’re left asking yourself what the heck an oath of celibacy has to do with anything. Does everyone in Starfleet have to take one? Why would Sulu need one, for instance?

So, in the book, her line is funny. In the movie, her line is pointless.

All of the pacing problems in the movie disappear in the novel version. The ten-minute, interminable Enterprise flyby is less than a paragraph long. The flights into the bowels of V’Ger take place in far less time, because they don’t write down things like “and then they passed through a big blue wave of lights, which gave way to some other blue lights with patterns that look kind of like pyramids, and then everyone looked at the viewing screen with very serious looks on their faces as the blue pyramids turned into funky blue lines, yadda yadda yadda…”

So, with all that in mind, when I first saw ST:TMP, I mentally filled in all the blanks with everything I had read, and the result was a pretty good flick. It was like watching Harry Potter after reading the book – you notice what they did and didn’t include, and you always think the book is better, but you appreciate the choices made in the adaptation.

It wasn’t until years later, when I saw the movie on television and I had acquired considerable distance from the written version that I realized just how turgid the whole thing was.

Anyway, here’s the number one reason the book is better than the movie: Captain Kirk still looks like Captain Kirk in it, or, at least, he did in my own mental version.

In the movie, he has a new, ugly, dark toupee, substituting what the Shatner’s Toupee folks have dubbed the “Jim Kirk lace” with an early version of what would come to be known as the “TJ Curly.” The “Jim Kirk” lace is applied with latex to create the illusion of a natural hairline. The “TJ Curly” is just a hair hat, or, as the Shatner’s Toupee people call it, a “patty.” The patty would get darker, thicker and curlier in subsequent appearances. So either Shatner’s wearing a rug, or he went through a second puberty.

Yes, when all is said and done, this film is truly significant only in that it marks the first time that I began to suspect William Shatner’s hair was first grown on someone else’s head. Believe me, you never forget your first time.