Part of the enduring popularity of Star Trek The Original Series is in the characters. It is hard to imagine TOS without the triad of Spock (reason), McCoy (emotion), and Kirk (mediation between the two). Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in particular brought in a lot of fans. This dialog structure would, in turn, be used to flesh out the ‘science fiction as allegory’ plots of many episodes. Like Rod Serling in Twilight Zone before him, Roddenberry would discuss real cultural and political issues in his episodes, cloaking them in ‘science fiction’ so as to keep the censors from going all atwitter. For example, the third season episode ‘Let this be your Last Battlefield’ gives a particularly unflinching portrait of racial conflict.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been criticized for dispensing with this tried and true formula. The film abandons the Kirk/Spock/McCoy trio, replacing it with a duality between Kirk and the one shot character Captain Decker (Stephen Collins). The duality is noticeable weaker than the old trio format. Also, Leonard Nimoy generally played Spock rather differently in the Star Trek films than he did in The Original Series. The traditional Kirk and McCoy are still there, but they don’t react off each other the same way they did in TOS.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t use ‘science fiction as allegory’ the same way either. Instead of discussing human issues such as race, war etc, the movie deals with much more esoteric ideas like the nature of consciousness, alternative forms of intelligence, and communication with said intelligences. In this respect, ST:TMP is much closer to so-called ‘hard science fiction’. Hard sci-fi is science fiction where transmitting ideas, often science or technology related, are primary, with characterization and everything else secondary. Not that the characters and story are automatically bad in hard sci-fi, it’s just that the concepts and/or the science take up a much higher percentage of the available space than in, say, space opera. Examples of hard science fiction include 2001: a Space Odyssey, much of the first season of Seaquest DSV and many of the novels of Greg Bear and Stephen Baxter.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is arguably the farthest Trek ever went into hard science fiction. This is precisely where ST:TMP shines. Sure the characters are de-emphasized. Sure the ideas are less human and more arcane. But these arcane ideas are fascinating in themselves and more that fill the gap. Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t a bad Star Trek, or even a bad movie. It’s just a rather different one.
The following libraries in the Columbus area show DVD copies of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in their catalogues: Bexley Public Library, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Grandview Heights Public Library, Southwest Public Libraries, Worthington Public Library, and Westerville Public Library. Most local Blockbusters carry this title (here for more info.)