In all of the best films, there are a great many layers to the story. On the surface, there is a very straightforward meaning to the events of the story, one that does not require any analysis. Beneath the surface however, some films have a deeper meaning, which will only be understood by the select few viewers who choose to see it. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of these films. On the surface, the plot of the first Star Trek in over a decade was a deceptively simple one. An artificial intruder begins attacking Earth in search of something, so it’s the Enterprise to the rescue! Once this artificial life form obtains humanity, it stops attacking Earth and all is right with the Universe. It is simply inconceivable that the creator of such an intelligent series would let its first foray onto the big screen be such a trite science fiction story. But the true story that lies at the heart of The Motion Picture is in fact absolutely worthy of the brave and controversial series that preceded it. The Motion Picture is, above all else, about love. It is so obviously there, and yet it is very carefully tiptoed around.
The center of Star trek has always been the bond shared between Captain (now Admiral) James T Kirk and Commander Spock, his Vulcan science officer. What could be a more fitting theme for when Star Trek hit the big screen than the passionate, romantic, powerful and all-encompassing love between these two men? In true Star Trek fashion, The Motion Picture boldly went where no film had gone before.
Star Trek has a long-standing history of exploring controversial issues using subtext. An alien race represents a particular country, or a particular political stance. Gene Roddenberry skilfully weaved this tale of homosexual love using the same subtext, but with a much lighter touch, so much so that it went right over the heads of many of the viewers. Not this viewer, and I will attempt to explain through this essay why Star Trek: The Motion Picture is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made.
~ Kirk, And His Pain
Although Star Trek has always been an ensemble TV show, The Motion Picture is quite clearly Kirk’s story, and it is intended that we, the audience, identify with him. But it must be mentioned that this is not the Kirk we know from the series. There is something inexplicably off about him. Gone is his charismatic smile, and he speaks as though each word, each breath that he draws in and out, is forced.
In his first scene, Kirk expresses his desperation to be on the Enterprise, understandably so since it has been mentioned several times in the series that she is the only woman in his life. And yet the very next scene, which sees him finally reunited with his ship, is an enormous letdown. We see many beautiful shots of the Enterprise in all her shiny-new splendour, but Kirk’s smiles are winces at best. A scene that should be captivating, is, instead, excruciating to watch, drawn out to the point of unbearable monotony. But at this moment we truly feel like we are identifying with Kirk, because he looks like he is in pain himself. An unbearable pain to which the Enterprise is nothing more than a band-aid, and we are left to wonder, if she cannot bring him out of the agony that he so clearly suffers, what is there in the universe that can?
Once aboard the Enterprise, things do not improve. There is a scene of Kirk alone in the turbo lift, and although he takes a moment to enjoy her smooth walls and the look of her new graphics, he also takes another moment to steel himself, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. One again, we cannot escape the fact that we are seeing a man who is in unbearable pain, and we still, frustratingly, do not know its cause. Even being reunited with his old crew fails to put a genuine smile on Kirks face.
Kirk is given a small reprieve from his pain when a very grouchy Dr Leonard (Bones) McCoy reluctantly beams aboard. And how delightful it is for we, the audience, to have the light-hearted relief that only he could bring! Bones is characteristically incredulous when he learns that it was Kirk, himself, who had him drafted, but he falls most uncharacteristically silent when Kirk utters the unmistakably anguished line: “Damnit, Bones! I need you. Badly.” He holds his hand out desperately to McCoy, who takes it, offering his friend what little comfort he can. Unfortunately, this is one kind of pain that even the good Doctor can’t cure.
Despite the fact that there are already at least nine regular characters from the series who must be given their due air time in this movie, two additional characters are introduced. Captain Will Decker and Lieutenant Ilia. The first character we meet is Decker, who was to be Captain of the Enterprise before Admiral Kirk stepped in to take over.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this movie involved some kind of body-swap plot, because Captain Decker is everything that Admiral Kirk should be from what we know of the series. The light blonde-brown hair, the smile, the cockiness, the humour. The similarities between these two men are endless, and they fall instantly into a hostile competitiveness, with Kirk lashing out in pain at the person who most closely resembles that which he used to be.
Bones is the only one who can bring to Kirk’s attention just how much his command ability is being affected by whatever it is that has him in such pain. Kirk is belligerent, intrusive, and makes bad decisions that endanger the crew. When a faulty warp drive means that the Enterprise won’t make it to the intruder in time, Kirk orders the Enterprise to warp speed anyway, an almost catastrophic choice. It is Captain Decker, representative of the old Kirk we all know and love, who steps in and saves the day. Kirk later tells Decker to stop competing with him, but as Bones later mentions, it is clear that it is Kirk who is doing the competing, and his obsession with getting his old life back is blinding him to his responsibilities.
~ Decker and Ilia
Then we meet Ilia, the second of the two new characters who are introduced in The Motion Picture. It is clear from their interactions that Ilia and Decker are, at the very least, interested in each other. When Ilia first appears, Decker positively lights up. Again, though, for some unfathomable reason, there is competition and challenge between Decker and Kirk. And not in a way that suggests Kirk has any romantic interest in Ilia, although she reminds Kirk of her vow of celibacy anyway. But Kirk seems to be grasping for something else that Decker has.
The romantic music that plays in a later scene suggests that the two were probably once lovers. They mention how difficult it was to say goodbye on Delta 4, Ilia’s home planet, for it is clear that they are both still very much in love. An obvious question now comes to mind. If Decker is supposed to represent Kirk, who then does Ilia represent? Is there another exotic alien who Kirk once knew but is now separated from?
In his first scene, at the beginning of the movie, we learn that Spock is undergoing the Kolinahr, a Vulcan ritual “through which all emotion is finally shed.” It is made clear that he has spent several years on Vulcan embarking on the Kolinahr. But just as Spock is about to receive the symbol of pure logic, he stops the ritual. A consciousness calling to him from space touches his human blood. The leader of the ritual tells Spock that answer lies elsewhere, and that his goal cannot be achieved on Vulcan.
Fast forward a few scenes, and now we come to the turning point in the movie. The Enterprise is contacted by a shuttle that wishes to lock on. The person in the shuttle is Spock! When he comes onto the bridge, everyone is glad to see him. But no reaction comes close to that of Kirk. He leaps out of his command chair and stands against the railing, clinging to it as though it’s the only thing holding him back. This is the reaction that he should have given the Enterprise. But as he watches Spock, his expression is a perfect mirror of the one he had when he saw his ship. Then, he smiled, but his eyes showed only pain. Now, he barely smiles, but his eyes positively sparkle. When Spock, due to the Kolinahr, shows no emotion at seeing his old friend, Kirk looks down. But, in an astonishing twist, he shows no pain. This man, who has been sleepwalking through the first 48 minutes of this so far laborious film, is almost giddy as he instructs Checkov to reactivate Spock’s Starfleet commission. Commander Spock, the absence of whom had Kirk’s soul practically at death’s door, has now completely revived him, simply by being present. So much for The Enterprise being the love of Kirk’s life!
There is also an interesting parallel in the way that Spock stands right where Ilia did when she was first introduced, and in the way that both Decker and Kirk glowed in Ilea and Spock’s presence respectively. The similarities between Decker/Ilia and Kirk/Spock are so numerous throughout the entire movie that it cannot simply be coincidence. There is a very strong indication that Decker and Ilia are vessels through which aspects of Kirk and Spock’s relationship can safely be explored without alerting the censors.
This does not mean that all of Kirk and Spock’s relationship is represented through Decker and Ilia. In the very next scene, Kirk notes in his log that it is due to Spock’s assistance in Engineering that they will now be able to intercept the intruder in time, the very problem that was causing Kirk such difficulties earlier. As they enter warp drive, Kirk looks capable and in control; he even manages to give Checkov – and the audience - a wink. It could not be more explicit that Spock’s presence has enabled Kirk to be the Captain – and the man – he is supposed to be. With Spock aboard, he is now complete, whole, as though Spock was that integral part of him that made him Jim Kirk.
~ V’Ger, and the Ilia probe
Now we must finally come to focus on the surface plot of the story, that of the intruder, which threatens to destroy Earth. This is the overall mission of the Enterprise for this movie; “to intercept, investigate, and take whatever action is necessary and possible.” As the Enterprise finally approaches the intruder, a probe takes Ilia. Suddenly, alarms sound, announcing that there is an intruder on the Enterprise. In the sonic showers, we find Ilia, although her voice sounds robotic, and she calls Kirk “Kirk unit”. She says that she has been programmed by something called V’Ger. We learn that this is not the real Ilia, but a mechanical life form given Ilia’s appearance in order to communicate with the “carbon based units” on board the Enterprise. She says that V’Ger is travelling to Earth in order to find “The Creator.”
Later, while McCoy and Dr Chapel are examining this Ilia probe, Decker comes into the sick bay to see her. Even though this is not the real Ilia, there is a tender moment between them, and the Ilia probe even utters the name “Decker.” Not “Decker unit”, as Spock observes. Kirk guides Decker out of the room after Spock. Spock explains to Decker that this Ilia is a probe, and then speculates that the Ilia probe also has Ilia’s memory patterns. Kirk continues the line of thought, surmising that probe also has the real Ilia’s feelings of loyalty, obedience and, with a meaningful glance at Decker, friendship. Kirk does not say love, although Spock reiterates that Decker had a relationship with Ilia. Kirk and Spock speak many times about their friendship and how important it is to them, both in the series and in the movies that will follow The Motion Picture. Kirk’s noteworthy use of the word friendship in this scene to describe Ilia’s feelings for Decker could be viewed as a simple oversight, or it could suggest that Kirk sees the words friendship and love as interchangeable. This would certainly shed a new and interesting light on many of Kirk and Spock’s future conversations.
Decker is outraged that the probe is what killed Ilia, but Kirk convinces him that the Ilia probe is their only hope, as they are now trapped within the intruder, and since the Ilia probe shares Ilia’s memories, she will likely be more sympathetic towards them if she can spend more time with Decker. At that moment, the Ilia probe breaks through the sickbay door and orders Kirk to assist her. Kirk suggests that Decker would be better able to offer assistance, and the Ilia probe’s expression becomes affectionate. Decker, despite his earlier outrage, also has a look of affection, and the two go off together.
As Decker spends time with the Ilia probe, he tries to elicit an emotional response. Finally, he shows her a game that they used to play. He places his hand on the table, and as the Ilia probe touches the table as well, she pauses and looks up at Decker, realization in her eyes. There is a moment where she looks sorrowful, but then it is gone, and she turns away, saying “this device serves no purpose” in a manner reminiscent of another well known character who has an emotional side which he tries to cover up with his logical side. Ilia’s similarities to Spock only become more obvious after she becomes the Ilia probe.
Later, in Ilia’s quarters, Chapel and McCoy attempt to help Decker to revive Ilia’s memory patterns in the Ilia probe. When Chapel gives the Ilia probe a headband that Ilia used to wear, it works. She recognises Dr Chapel, and then turns to Decker. “Will?” she utters, placing her fingers on Decker’s face. Decker is caught up in the moment, until McCoy reminds him that this is not the real Ilia, but a mechanism. Decker asks the Ilia probe to help them make contact with V’Ger, but she says that she can’t. He asks what The Creator is, and she tells him that V’Ger does not know. Then she turns around, completely devoid of emotion, and removes the headband.
Meanwhile, Spock sneaks into the cargo bay. Then we see him in a thruster suit, leaving the Enterprise. He records a message for Kirk, explaining that he intends to attempt contact with the aliens, the very thing that Decker asked the Ilia probe to do in the previous scene.
~ Kirk and Spock
The scene where Spock enters V’Ger is filled with much imagery, which I will leave to someone else to analyse. Spock ultimately decides that he must mind-meld with V’Ger, but during the mind meld, he cries out in pain. Next, we see Kirk, also in a thruster suit, going after Spock. Spock is expelled from V’Ger, aimed directly at Kirk, who catches him with little difficulty. Spock is unconscious.
The next thing we see, Spock is conscious and lying in a bed in sickbay, where Dr Chapel is examining him. McCoy explains that Spock suffered neurological trauma due to the power of the mind meld. Then we hear Spock laughing! But when Kirk and McCoy go over to Spock, we see that his laughter is mirthless, rueful. “Jim” he says, using Kirk’s first name for the first time in the movie, “I should’ve known.” He explains that V’Ger is a conscious, living machine. Kirk’s talk is all business, yet he scarcely takes his eyes off Spock for the entire scene. Spock explains that V’Ger’s knowledge spans the universe, and yet it is “barren. Cold. No mystery No beauty.” Spock is on the verge of tears as he utters another remorseful “I should’ve… known” before falling unconscious. Kirk then becomes desperate to find out what it is that Spock should have known, trying to shake him awake, as though this piece of information is somehow vital. As it turns out, the thing that Spock should have known is utterly inconsequential to the surface storyline about V’Ger and artificial life. However, it is of great importance to Kirk and Spock.
Spock’s eyes flutter open, and he looks at Kirk. He lifts his hand and places it on Kirk’s arm. “Jim,” he says, and Kirk takes Spock’s hand in his own with perfect ease. “This simple feeling,” he explains, “is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension.” Kirk looks back at Spock with an expression of overwhelming joy, and it’s clear that whatever it was he was missing before, he has it now. He is happy, complete, as they shares a tender, heartfelt moment together. He places his other hand over Spock’s and simply nods. Spock nods as well, and they share an unspoken understanding. Spock then goes on to explain that he found no answers from V’Ger as he had hoped, that in fact V’Ger itself had its own questions. “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?”
This scene is the culmination of their entire relationship throughout the series. Spock is plainly expressing his love for Kirk, which Kirk accepts as though he’s known it all along. This is the scene where, if these two leads were of the opposite sex, they would kiss and leave no doubt in the audience’s mind that they had made their relationship official. The sheer love pouring out through both of these characters is as unmistakable as it is tacit. It is a relatively short scene, but it is nonetheless powerful in its implications.
~ The Ending
As the Intruder, with the Enterprise trapped inside, draws closer to Earth, the final crux of both the surface and sub textual stories are revealed. V’Ger sends communication to Earth, and when it receives no reply, it begins attacking. Spock has a hypothesis on the matter. He compares V’Ger to a child, “Evolving, learning, searching, instinctively needing.” He turns to Decker and explains “It knows only that it needs, Commander.” Then he looks directly and purposefully at Kirk as he continues “but, like so many of us, it does not know what.” Spock, himself, had a similar experience to what he is describing about V’Ger. We know that he sought answers in the Kolinahr, and in the total logic of V’Ger itself, but it is evident that he then found solace in the simple feeling that V’Ger couldn’t comprehend; the simple feeling that Kirk and Spock feel for each other.
It is eventually decided that the characters must communicate directly with V’Ger, since it is likely that this is the central brain complex that controls the intruder. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Decker all leave the Enterprise to follow the Ilia probe to V’Ger. What they discover is actually the Voyager 6, made on Earth by NASA in our own timeline. We learn that Voyager 6’s programming was to collect all data possible and transmit it back to Earth. “Learn all that is learnable; return that information to its creator.” But it amassed so much information that it actually achieved consciousness. Kirk orders Uhura to search the Enterprise’s computer for information about Voyager 6, and the NASA code signal that instructed it to transmit its data. But when Uhura sends the signal, this is not the end of the story.
“The creator must join with V’Ger” the Ilia probe says. Kirk instructs Uhura to repeat the code signal, but the Ilia probe turns to Decker and says again “the creator must join with V’Ger” as the music swells and they look at each other lovingly. V’Ger also turns pink. Spock discovers that V’Ger has melted its own antenna leads in order to prevent reception of the signal code. Decker realizes that V’Ger wants the creator to transmit the code in person. That it wants “to touch the creator.”
Decker goes to V’Ger intent on finding out more about the possibility of a human joining with it. He seems pretty excited by the idea. Kirk follows him, but the Ilia probe pushes him back. Decker and the Ilia probe exchange a glance, and then Decker begins tinkering with V’Ger’s controls. He says that he’s going to key the final sequence through the ground test computer. McCoy is alarmed as he shouts that Decker doesn’t know what that will do to him, but Decker says confidently that he does, and then returns his gaze to the Ilia probe. Kirk tries one more time to stop him, but Decker turns around and says “Jim, I want this. As much as you wanted the Enterprise, I want this.” We have already established that Kirk really, ultimately, did not want the Enterprise as much as we had thought, and that his desire to see Spock again was the one thing that affected him most. The Enterprise is therefore another device used to represent Kirk and Spock’s relationship, and ‘Spock’ should be substituted for ‘the Enterprise’ in this line just as clearly as ‘love’ should have been substituted for ‘friendship’ in Kirk’s earlier line. Kirk, Spock and McCoy watch on as Decker is joined to V’Ger, joined to Ilia, in a spectacle of bright, sparkly lights.
~ In Conclusion
Throughout this final scene, there are a variety of explanations offered as to what V’Ger it is searching for; A parent, God, knowledge of other dimensions, and many human qualities such as the ability to leap beyond logic, the ability to beget new life, human weaknesses and the drive to overcome these weaknesses. Bizarrely, though, there is absolutely no mention of that most precious human emotion, love. It is blindingly obvious that V’Ger, though experiencing Ilia’s memories, yearned for Decker’s love. The music, the lighting, the expressions on both Decker and the Ilia probe’s faces in the final scene all lend themselves to the obvious conclusion that V’Ger seeks love. This was the point of establishing Decker and Ilia’s prior relationship. Why would something so obvious be so warily avoided?
The answer, of course, is evident in all of the parallels to Kirk and Spock. It was Spock, after all, who first brought to the audience’s attention the fact that V’Ger was missing something. That there was a simple feeling that it couldn’t understand. If this simple feeling was revealed to be love, what would that say about our lead characters? Such a conclusion is simultaneously impossible to see for some, and impossible to ignore for others. Kirk and Spock are deeply in love, while still remaining the heroic and manly characters that pop culture has defined them as. Heroic and manly gay characters in 1979 – Star Trek was truly ahead of its time, and Gene Roddenberry was beyond doubt a master of subtext.