“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and the Incarnation

December 31, 2010

In the following post, forgive me for being a geek and living up to some of the stereotypes of us Georgia Tech graduates.

One of my favorite gifts that I received this Christmas was the boxed set of the original-series Star Trek movies, Parts I-VI. (Thank you, Lisa-Unit.) I was eager to re-watch the first movie, the much maligned Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is often called the “Slow-Motion Picture” because of its pacing. Can it really be all that bad? Even as a nine-year-old kid I liked it, at least before all of my Star Wars-loving friends told me how boring it was. (I can’t imagine that I understood much of what was going on, but I liked it.)

The Enterprise crew discover the truth about "V'Ger."

After re-watching it by itself and then with the commentary track, I’m here to say that, no, it is not that bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.

In case you don’t know or remember, the story in a nutshell is this (SPOILER ALERT): The Enterprise is called upon to investigate and repel some kind of massive, unidentified alien space ship called V’Ger, which will easily destroy Earth unless Kirk and his crew figure out how to stop it.

It turns out that the “brain” of this giant space craft, mistakenly calling itself V’Ger because the letters “O-Y-A” were smudged, is the Voyager VI, a (fictitious) unmanned space probe launched by NASA in the ’90s to collect as much information about the universe as possible and send it back to NASA. To that end, the Voyager was more successful than its creators could have imagined.

Over the course of 300 years Voyager VI went to the other end of the universe and encountered a mechanical planet run by machines, which took the Voyager’s program (to collect information and send it back home) very literally. These machines outfitted V’Ger with a giant space craft and all the tools it needed to fulfill its mission. The problem is that at some time during the course of its journey V’Ger acquires self-consciousness—i.e., transitions from being merely a machine to becoming a living thing—a living thing that longs for its source, “The Creator.”

V’Ger doesn’t know that its creator in this case was a group of human beings who lived and died hundreds of years earlier. It assumes that its creator is, like itself, a machine, and that the carbon-based units are an infection preventing V’Ger from communicating with its creator. Thus, the humans must be destroyed.

V’Ger is unfulfilled apart from its creator. Spock, who attempts to mind-meld with it, says, “It knows that it needs, but like so many of us, it doesn’t know what.” Through Spock, V’Ger asks, “Is this all there is?” I couldn’t help but think of St. Augustine’s famous prayer, “You have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

What’s the solution? V’Ger’s “Creator”—as represented by a human being, Captain Decker—agrees to unite with the machine (O.K., I have no idea how this is done, but the special effects are very pretty) thus making V’Ger whole, averting the crisis, and creating new life out of a formerly sterile one.

I don’t know whether this message was intentional or not, but it’s nothing less than Christ’s Incarnation in science fiction form: our Creator’s gift of himself, becoming one with humanity, saving us, and giving us new life.

If I were a preacher in 1979, I’m pretty sure it would have been a sermon illustration.

I was a writer and editor for Georgia Tech’s student newspaper The Technique. A signed photo of James Doohan, chief engineer Scotty on Star Trek, hung on a wall of the Technique‘s office. He signed it, “To my fellow engineers.” 🙂

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