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Star Trek Movies I-X Discuss the first ten big screen outings in this forum!

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Old February 15 2014, 09:09 AM   #1
Brutal Strudel
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Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

"It knows only that it needs, Commander. But, like so many of us, it does not know what."
--Mr. Spock

Much has been made of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's debt to the second season Star Trek episode "The Changeling." The basic outline is all but identical: earth space probe encounters advanced alien technology, merges with it and develops, along with sentience, a single-minded and destructive mission, along with the firepower to make it all but unstoppable. Both monomaniacal probes also have a monomaniacal fixation on the idea and importance of their creators and both are revealed to be fundamentally mistaken about the essential nature of said creators. In each instance, the revelation of the creator's true nature results in the neutralization of the probe as a threat. The parallels were obvious to me when I was a child and yet they never diminished my appreciation of the film. Because, as strong as the parallels are, TMP manages to use the elements of "The Changeling" to tell a much different--and much more optimistic and thought-provoking--story.

In short, TMP takes what had been a mere "monster-of-the-week" (and some of TOS's best episodes were of the "monster-of-the-week" variety: "The Doomsday Machine" is the episode type in its purest form and it is easily one of Trek's best episodes--perhaps the best episode, if one were forced to choose) and made it into the story's true hero, with a journey that is echoed in the films other three protagonists: Kirk, Spock and Decker.

TMP inverts much of "The Changeling," even going so far as to have the Enterprise enter and fly around inside the kilometers-long Vejur much as Nomad, itself little over a meter long, had previously entered and flown around inside the comparatively huge Enterprise in "The Changeling." The most notable thing TMP does, however, is make the method Vejur uses to "destroy" its targets so nuanced and ambiguous that we can never be sure it truly is destruction. Unlike Nomad, who simply blows things up, Vejur scans them so completely that they are translated into data patterns--and TMP has the wisdom to leave the exact nature of such a translation a mystery. Ilia's memories--her personality--are replicated in the probe Vejur uses as its liaison. It's never clear if Ilia is actually "alive" in the probe, if she still exists elsewhere, filed away in Vejur's mind like someone stored in a transporter (and TMP is the first time we see a transporter malfunction that doesn't give us some exotic, fantastical result--the splitting of an organism into two duplicates of polarly oppositional temperment or the opening of a portal into an mirror universe--but a terrifying, stomach-churning mess of a death) or if Ilia is dead, with Vejur only approximating her.

In "The Changeling," Nomad blindly accepts Kirk as his creator and is only defeated when Kirk reveals that Nomad has made a mere factual error, one of mistaken identity. For Vejur, the issue of who the creator is a more basic and philosophical one. As a machine, built-up and magnified to an unimaginable degree by other machines so ancient and advanced they have forgotten their organic progenitors, Vejur is incapable of consciously conceiving of a creator that is not also a machine and cannot understand the minds of the carbon units it initially dismisses as not being true life forms. Vejur's actions, however, indicate a subconcious suspicion of its true origins, as well as a conscious--practically neurotic--inability to accept it until it is presented with incontrovertible evidence. (And this is, in itself, a very sophisticated point, one which the film only suggests: Vejur is a sentient being not so much because it is conscious but because it posssesses an unconscious as well and, ultimately, it is this unconscious mind that drives its desperation.) In this way, it most mirrors the other three protagonists, who are also caught between the desire to run from and the need to run toward that which they unconsciously know they need to fulfill them.

For Kirk, that thing is the Enterprise. He no doubt originally took command of the Enterprise expecting it to lead, should he survive, to a greater rank and greater responsibilities, not reailzing until it's too late that those things will cost him the one thing that truly made him feel most himself: command of the Enterprise as a thing in itself. That Kirk's motives are unclear to himself but perfectly clear to both Decker and McCoy is telling; on a conscious level, Kirk believes he muscled his way back onto the bridge because he is simply the best man available for a mission of such importance. And he's right--his experience and instincts do make him a better choice to lead this mission than Decker. However, that does nothing to alter the fact that he is obsessed with getting back his ship--"Never lose you," he had told her in "The Naked Time," an episode from early in the tv show's first season that, perhaps more than any other episode, established just who Kirk and Spock really are.* The Vejur threat is his only chance to keep that promise.

For Spock, who had dedicated himself to a complete abandonment of his human and emotional natures, it turns out those things--as reified in his friendship with Kirk--are precisely what he requires to find peace and purpose. "This: simple feeling," the very thing Spock sought to subjugate and eliminate with pure, cold, barren logic, becomes the key to his own completion and to Vejur's. Vejur reaches out to Spock because it knows it needs to understand humans--even if it does not know why--that humans are somehow essential to its quest. Vejur betrays an understanding of this when it choses Ilia, the most carnal and sensual of the bridge crew, to model his probe after. During its traumatic scan of her, Vejur notably leaves the "true" life form--the tricorder in her hand--behind, to clatter to the deck in the film's most chillingly dramatic moment.

(These character arcs--Kirk's and Spock's both--remind us that, at their best and paradoxically worst, they are more than mere heroic spaceman archetypes but complex characters with serious flaws and blind spots. For many viewers, it rendered them fundamentally unlikable and is one of the many reasons the film is so widely villified; to me, this is a strength rather than a weakness. By having each one spend so much of the movie fundamentally lost and behaving in ways that, while seemingly uncharcteristic, actually draw on traits that had, almost by accident, been established over the course of the series--Kirk's tendency toward obsession, Spock's distrust and discomfort with any admission of emotion--the movie reveals that the motives behind heroism are not always so clearly distinguished from those behind villainy. By revealing that there ultimately is no villain--unless one chooses to view the lack of self-knowledge, and the seemingly selfish desperation such a lack inspires, as a villain--the movie subverts expectations at almost every turn.)

The importance of Ilia brings us to Decker.** Like Kirk, Decker has set out on a path defined by an ambition that proves inorganic: become a starship captain at all costs. When his fascination with and attachment to Ilia while he was stationed on Delta IV threatened his single-minded focus on that goal, he ran from her without saying goodbye. It was only the death of the original navigator in the transporter accident that brings her onto the Enterprise and it is watching her "die" and then subsequently interacting with--seducing--her replica that compels him to merge with Vejur to become a higher order of being, completing both their journeys as they begin a new one while leaving Kirk and Spock at the end and beginning of their own unconscious quests.

The ending is thus where TMP completely discards any resemblance to "The Changeling." Once Nomad is informed it is in error regarding Kirk as its literal creator, it simply--to borrow a phrase form Billy Saul Hurok and Big Jim McBob of The Farm Film Report--blows up good; it blows up real good. Nomad is ultimately, for all its power and apparent sophistication, just a machine, lacking the capacity to go beyond its corrupted and deadly programming, unable to conceive of itself as anything other than an instrument to carry that program out. When faced with the destruction of its paradigm, it self-destructs. Vejur, by contrast, upon facing a similar blow to its idea of itself, quickly adapts and attains its apotheosis. It is in its acceptance of the very carbon units it had previously regarded as an infestation as the very creator it had been seeking and in its subsequent merging with Decker in order to transcend this plane of existence, that it (and Decker) begins the human adventure of the film's tag-line.***

If you've read thus far, it should be clear that TMP is my personal pick for the best of the Trek films. It's become somewhat fashionable to dismiss any claims Star Trek has to being "cerebral" science fiction rather than compartively mindless comic book adventure. TMP, however, never got that memo and, in suggesting so much more than it says and eschewing space battles and Bond villainy, is the one film I find most truly compelling, despite its slow pace. It isn't perfect but it is a reminder of a time when cinematic science fiction--not just Star Trek--dared tell big-budget stories that hinged on more than just revenge and explosions.

*As much as The Motion Picture takes its plot from "The Changeling," the cues for Kirk's and Spock's personal arcs are taken from "The Naked Time," where, in addition Kirk's line quoted above, Spock says, "Jim, when I feel friendship for you, I'm ashamed."

**It is also, perhaps, the film's greatest flaw, as it threatens to make Ilia into an object--a sort of Grail, like the Enterprise--rather than a character in her own right. This itself is a carry-over from the tv show, which often had a difficult time treating women as more than types. It is interesting to note that Ilia becomes more poignant a character after she is re-created as, essentially, an android.

***That Vejur is revealed to be Voyager 6, fictional sister probe to the very real and very current Voyagers 1 & 2, is not a trivial point. The Voyager probes were in the process of exploring the outermost planets of our Solar System in 1979, expanding scientific knowledge exponentially in the process and making the case that the very human adventure of stepping off the earth and out of ourselves in order to better grasp our place in creation did not necessarily require a literal human presence. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the few times Star Trek would present a machine (other than the Enterprise) in a positive light--and it only does that after setting Vejur up as one of he greatest threats earth had faced up to that point. For examples of the opposite, see "The Return of the Archons," "What Are Little Girls Made Of?," "The Ultimate Computer," "The Apple," the aforementioned "The Doomsday Machine" and, of course, "The Changeling."
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Old February 15 2014, 05:50 PM   #2
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Excellent thoughts!
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Old February 15 2014, 05:51 PM   #3
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Thanks!
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Old February 16 2014, 02:49 AM   #4
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

I love your analysis. It is very similar to how I see the movie today. When I first say it as a kid I was fascinated by the Enterprise. The unknown (Vejur) and being in space. I actually liked it better than Star Wars, which I was a great fan of when I was 8-9 years old.

Today I can also see it as a religious journey for some. I'm Christian so that is the perspective I approach it. We are taught that we need God (our Creator) to be fulfilled. Some people rejected that, some search for it but expect something else (we all create God in our own image). For many that are searching and discover that God is not what they expected either reject that as well or accept it and are reunited with God.

That is how I see view the movie today. I also understand that was not the intention but it still how I see it. With that said, I'm still more fascinated with the Enterprise and its technology though. It felt very real to me when I first saw it.
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Old February 16 2014, 05:06 AM   #5
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

There is a strong theistic streak in TMP, transformen into a humanistic one. The God Vejur seeks is, after all, fallible, easily killed us.
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Old February 16 2014, 06:18 AM   #6
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Wow. You are very articulate and your love of the movie shines in this post. I share your longing for stories in Star Trek that challenge the viewer to see the world as more than a clash between good and evil in space. The effects hold up today as well.

I have never given the depth of thought to the arcs or V'Ger and how it relates to Kirk, Spock, and Decker. I know the movie is about finding fulfillment and each character is struggling with it. But that is as far as my analysis went. I have considered the similarities to TMP and "Changeling." However, you refute those points so clearly, drawing a contrast that is interesting and thought-provoking. I will be stealing some of your analysis the next time someone draws the comparison.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains my second favorite movie of the Trek films, behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. How Kirk and Spock approach the problem of the Kobiashi Maru--how they deal with the threat of death--is beautiful to me and it re-treads on this theme when we look at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (And Star Trek Into Darkness), which is Kirk's "cheating" again on display. The movie clearly states that scientific achievement must be measured against our ability to handle the creation of our genius. The knowledge that led to Genesis and gene manipulation gave us a Galactic nuclear weapon that could destroy life in an instant and the superman, a superior race (something stated over and over again in the movie), that ultimately led to war. We have to be careful with our creations because they will fall into the hands of the military if that is splitting the atom that led to the nuclear bomb or Moore's law that led to unmanned drones. The writing is of a quality that we cannot touch today. It is wildly popular for different reasons, but Star Trek II will always be the movie about death and military technology, for this fan.

Now, I want to go watch TMP again.
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Old February 16 2014, 08:02 PM   #7
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

TWoK is my second favorite and my preference for TMP in no way slights it--it's a tight film, without TMP's ragged edges, and it feels like TOS did when it hit is stride.
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Old February 16 2014, 08:25 PM   #8
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

I have always been suspicious of Nomad, for one reason:

Supposedly it became the planet-killer we saw in TOS when it crashed into an alien probe (Tan Ru). But how exactly the hell does something like this happen, out in open space? The likelihood of two probes just happening to run into each other - literally - is so absurdly remote that this cannot have been the whole story. Something must have MADE those two probes crash into each other.

I suppose Tan Ru could have been the guilty party - after all, it was alien in origin, and we know absolutely nothing about who sent it. Then again, we don't know much about Jackson Roykirk* either, or why HE built Nomad...

*I also suspect that Jack, the teenage kid from ENT's "Carbon Creek", is a young Roykirk.
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Old February 16 2014, 09:44 PM   #9
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

I admit that I have a real soft spot for TMP. Unpopular though the pyjama uniforms are, the ships and the overall constitution of the crew has never looked better. If they had gone as far as ST09 and given each of the supporting cast a couple of character moments to shine, spread throughout the movie instead of concentrated, such as they are, in the very early part, I think it would be my favourite too.
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Old February 17 2014, 12:29 AM   #10
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Mr. Laser Beam wrote: View Post
I have always been suspicious of Nomad, for one reason:

Supposedly it became the planet-killer we saw in TOS when it crashed into an alien probe (Tan Ru). But how exactly the hell does something like this happen, out in open space?
It didn't. You're misremembering the episode.

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It was...it was damaged in deep space. Undoubtedly, the meteor collision. Its memory banks were destroyed, or most of them. It wandered without purpose, and then it met the other. The other was an alien probe of great power. Somehow they merged, repaired each other, became one.
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Old February 17 2014, 03:00 AM   #11
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Maurice wrote: View Post
Mr. Laser Beam wrote: View Post
I have always been suspicious of Nomad, for one reason:

Supposedly it became the planet-killer we saw in TOS when it crashed into an alien probe (Tan Ru). But how exactly the hell does something like this happen, out in open space?
It didn't. You're misremembering the episode.

SPOCK
It was...it was damaged in deep space. Undoubtedly, the meteor collision. Its memory banks were destroyed, or most of them. It wandered without purpose, and then it met the other. The other was an alien probe of great power. Somehow they merged, repaired each other, became one.
I hate the idea of there being a connection between Vejur (I use the spelling from Roddenberry's novelization) and the Borg but I can accept one between Nomad and the Borg, that Tan Ru was an unmannned Borg probe, itself damaged but capable, lke all Borg tech, of assimilating alien tech.

Nomad made no meaningful distinction between machines and biological units--perhaps a blend of a Borg outlook, which renders fluid the barrier between meat and machine, and the original Nomad's dim, damaged memories of Jackson Roykirk, who may have had a relationship with the original Nomad similar to that of Dr. Daystrom with the M-5 or that of Dr. Chandra with the Hal and Sal 9000s in 2010. Nomad, when launched, was already a full-fledged AI. The Voyager probes, by contrast, had computers so crude that the Machine Planet probably deduced most of Voyager 6's "programming" from its design. Vejur thus has no real memory of its creator, just an instinct buried about as deep into its being as certain instincts that are buried in our DNA.
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Old February 17 2014, 03:04 AM   #12
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

^ I can buy Tan Ru being a Borg probe, except they wouldn't give it a name. They give things designations, not names.
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Old February 17 2014, 03:05 AM   #13
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

To be honest, although the comparisons to TOS's The Changeling are too obvious to ignore completely, I gotta be real here and say I honestly think TMP was more like the animated series episode One Of Our Planets Is Missing in a lot of ways.

To break it down: in One Of My Planets Is Missing, the Enterprise encounters a massive cloud-like entity which seems to devour things, and which is on a direct course towards some inhabited Federation colonies. In a double-mission to discover more about it and maybe find some peaceful way of stopping it, the Enterprise pilots into the 'cloud' and makes her way further and further into it, ultimately discovering that it has consciousness. Once this has been established, an Enterprise crewmember then makes direct contact with the creature, and convinces it not to eat any more inhabited planets.

I'm surprised more hasn't been made of these comparisons over the years, really. Perhaps it would be accurate to say The Motion Picture is a blending of The Changeling and One Of Our Planets Is Missing, but I honestly feel the *plot* has got a great deal more in common with the animated episode than it does with The Changeling.
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Old February 17 2014, 05:13 AM   #14
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Mr. Laser Beam wrote: View Post
^ I can buy Tan Ru being a Borg probe, except they wouldn't give it a name. They give things designations, not names.
That occured to me, too. But "Tan Ru" might merely be highly compressed Borg alphanumeric, which would translate to "Designation: Advanced Exo-Biological Miicrobial Assimilation and Alignment Unit 972 of 120000" had Nomad or the Enterprise posession of a universal translator sophisticated enough to translate it (maybe the Borg language was too alien for 23rd Century translators to handle).
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Old February 17 2014, 05:25 AM   #15
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Re: Where Nomad Has Gone Before? Not exactly...

Lance, that is fascinating. I've only seen a handful of TAS episides but that does sound a lot like TMP. And there is a bit of "Metamorphosis" with Ilia echoing Commissioner Hedford in some ways, and Decker--intended as Matt Decker's son, established as such in the novel which, though non-canon, still merits special consideration since it was written by Gene Roddenberry--suggests a parallel, not quite so strong, to "The Doomsday Machine."
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