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Friday, 22 March 2013

Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- A costume design nightmare.

Previous Star Trek posts. 

I came to Star Trek: The Motion Picture pre-warned. Kind of. It's famous for being The Worst Star Trek (a title for which there is already some stiff competition) and I'd already heard the various nicknames: The Motionless Picture, The Motion Sickness, etc. But even that didn't prepare me for what was in store. I mean, what were they even thinking?

In fact, watching The Motion Picture, it's pretty clear what they were thinking. They were thinking, "Let's make 2001: A Space Odyssey!" Except it turns out that if you give Gene Roddenberry a quadrillion dollars and too much creative leeway, what you actually end up with is a three-hour screensaver interspersed with shots of William Shatner emoting into the middle distance. Plus music. There are whole sequences where nothing happens except kaleidoscope space-travel effects and an impressive orchestral score for minutes at a time. Come to think of it, it's probably a great movie to watch while high. Thanks, 1979.

In all seriousness, this scene lasts for about 100 years in real time.

The many faults of this movie will surely be evident to anyone who watches it. It goes on for far too long. It's humourless. It lacks the emotional depth that made the original Star Trek series so compelling. The camera spends way too much time panning over William Shatner's increasingly luxuriant middle-aged arm hair. And then there's that whole situation going on with the costumes.

We need to talk about this.

Star Trek's original series ran on a budget of $3.75 per episode and regularly featured guest stars wearing bikinis made out of curtains and tinsel. Yet somehow its costumes still managed to look more plausible than the unsettling fleshbags we see in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Starfleet's oldschool "red shirt/blue shirt" uniforms are iconic for a reason. They're extremely simple by sci-fi costume standards (which is why the 2009 reboot movie barely had to update the uniform at all), and make it easy to differentiate between characters when they're running around.

The Motion Picture's uniforms, on the other hand, are distractingly terrible in every regard. The palette runs from beige to pale blue -- a selection of colours usually restricted to hospital scrubs and control underwear. Worse still, they're actually less practical than the original series uniforms, which in 1979 were seen as frivolous and outdated.

The original intention of The Motion Picture's Starfleet uniforms was to depict a futuristic society where people wore egalitarian, recyclable, organic clothes. Sadly, the eventual result was the creation of some of the worst outfits in science-fiction history. While 1960s Star Trek revelled in tinfoil armour and various other accoutrements of classic sci-fi ridiculousness, its cartoonish atmosphere allowed for a certain suspension of disbelief that The Motion Picture never quite managed. Supposedly designed by the best minds in the galaxy, Starfleet's new uniform was a nightmare in every regard:
  1. Physical impracticality. Catsuits with shoes attached to the legs are pointless and stupid. This is a prime example of what I think of as "idiot futurism". It's perfectly acceptable to design a stupid costume if it's for, like, Barbarella or Flash Gordon, but if you're trying to conceptualise a functional future society, then your costumes should make sense. If your cast is threatening to go on strike because they can't go to the bathroom without an assistant, then chances are your costumes aren't as great as you think they are. 
  2. Visual impracticality. From the perspective of the viewer, the new uniforms were downright confusing. The colour-coded science/communications/command uniforms of the original series provided a useful visual shorthand as to the positions of each crewmember, while the new uniforms had a near-incomprehensible internal logic. In an attempt to make Starfleet seem less militaristic, everyone had the same three uniforms: the dress uniform (the belted tunic thing Shatner wears in the picture above), plus two more casual outfits, which were (maybe?) interchangeable. The end result was that everyone on the bridge was wearing different outfits, all of which looked terrible.
  3. Eye-boggling hideousness. This is already a problem from the perspective of someone watching the movie, but it's also pretty terrible as a worldbuilding detail. If Starfleet is meant to be so utilitarian and clever, then the uniforms wouldn't be so goddamn ugly

There are so many contributing factors to the ugliness of the 1979 Starfleet uniforms that it's kind of miraculous. They're like the holy grail of bad fashion. In terms of colour, the problem is immediately obvious the first time you get distracted by a background extra who looks naked because they're wearing a skin-coloured body suit. Although of course, wearing flesh-tone clothes is already kind of an aesthetic disaster. For those of you who always feel guiltily puzzled when someone describes two colours as "clashing": it's similar to the Uncanny Valley. The closer two colours get to each other, the more uncomfortable they are to look at. This is doubly true for skin-tone clothes, because one of the colours that looks gross is you.

There is at least one scene in The Motion Picture where a male character ends up in an unfortunate moose-knuckle situation thanks to those flesh-coloured body suits. It's just not a good idea, is what I'm saying. The best type of uniform is one that's comfortable and practical enough that you can forget that you're wearing it, and it's difficult to forget about what you're wearing if you look really terrible in it.

An argument could be made that 300 years in the future, people just don't care as much about appearances as we do in the 21st century, but this is plainly untrue because characters in The Motion Picture have a wide variety of hairstyles, makeup and jewellery. Anyhow, it's difficult to take your coworkers seriously if they're wearing beige catsuits that lovingly cling to every bra strap and roll of paunch, just like it's difficult to take Captain Kirk seriously when he's dressed like someone who works in a health spa onboard a luxury cruise liner:

The one breath of fresh air in this nightmare of taupe taupe onesies and weird Teletubbie belt-buckles is... Spock. Beautiful, beautiful Spock. When we first see him, he's on one of the most painted-on alien planet sets I've ever seen in a legitimate blockbuster movie. There's a giant glowing red foot statue that's probably meant to be made of volcanic rock but looks more like Lego, and a bunch of Vulcan notables wearing a selection of A+ robes. That's more like it.

Then once Spock inevitably decides to go back to the Enterprise, he's dressed in a cool hipster-goth cape and trousers. Not only would I happily wear this outfit myself, in real life, but it looks equally practical to the terrible Starfleet uniforms. Hell, take the poncho-cape off and he'll just be wearing a shirt and trousers, which is better than what Kirk and McCoy have to wear for 90% of the movie.

You can tell everyone on the bridge agrees with me, because they're all, "Holy shit! Someone wearing clothes that let him move around without getting a wedgie!" Spock is the fashion messiah. Which is kind of intriguing when you consider the fact that Vulcans are supposed to be ultra-rational and unconcerned with material things. I always found Vulcan fashion to be a particularly clever element of the visuals of Star Trek, because it's this blindingly obvious visual clue that Vulcans are nowhere near as logical as they claim. The intricacies of Vulcan style are completely in keeping with their love of tradition, ritual, and symbolism.

The weirdest thing about the costumes in Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that the same costume designer, Robert Fletcher, worked on the next three Star Trek films as well. In hindsight, this movie was an experiment that went embarrassingly wrong, and even the most intense Trekkies are hard-pressed to say much in its favour. I tend to assume that the costumes were another indicator of Gene Roddenberry going mad with power, and that Fletcher fared better when working with other directors.

Coming soon: The costumes of The Wrath of Khan.

Previous Star Trek posts.


  1. When I had only seen that big cast photo, I assumed it was a shot of a new Star Trek movie and everyone was in motion capture suits.

  2. laughingacademy22 March 2013 at 11:38

    Dear lord, I had managed to forget just how terrible the uniforms were in this one. Especially Kirk's dress uniform, AKA "the penguin suit."

    Is it just me, or does Spock's outfit when he arrives on the bridge evoke Olivier's Hamlet?

  3. My nerd-completist parents made me watch this movie as a kid, despite being quite open about its not-very-goodness, and this post heals that poor traumatised child.

  4. I do kind of like the thing the bald lady is wearing, which makes her look like she wandered in from a more entertaining sci-fi movie.

  5. You do know about Fashion It So, right?


  7. ...Bit of historical info for you on the uniform appearance that relates to the Enterprise interiors as well: The decision to go all "muted" or "color-blind" was director Robert Wise's. The original plan was to use the same color choices that had been selected for the aborted "Phase II" series, and that would have been the same ones used for the Original Series. When Gene Roddenberry had Wise sit through several of TOS' major episodes, Wise noted that the hypersaturation of colors that NBC demanded for their TV shows - remember, RCA owned NBC, and RCA sold the most color TV sets *and* had designed the NTSC broadcast standard, so it was in their best interests not just to have NBC be the first "Full-Color" network, but to have the widest *and* brightest range of color saturation - caused both the uniforms and especially the turbolift doors to stand out like sore thumbs. So, not only did the red "barn doors" go, so did the uniforms, which were replaced by the "pajamas" we know and loathe 34 years later.

    ...If you note, there's actually *four* colors of uniform: white, light tan, dark tan, and a slate blue. About the only real *colors* are in the shoulderboards, of which there were like six or seven different colors denoting various sections. Susan Sackett's Making of TMP book has a list of those colors, but IIRC had they been used for actual tunic colors, they'd have *REALLY* stood out as garish! Spock in a bright orange tunic would have made him look plain ridiculous, although such a sight would have probably cured him of any negativity that still remained towards his ears :P

    ...I used to have a version of the cast portrait above where I'd gone back and recolored the uniforms to the same scheme as those used on TOS - gold/blue/red tunics, black pants, and I *think* I put McCoy in a more medical green just for frack's sake - and if the red tunics are brought down about 25% darker than the TOS redshirts - more of a dark blood color - then they don't stand out anywhere near as bad as Wise claimed they did. I may grab another higher-res copy of that image and redo my tweaked test image again if time permits, Would give me a chance to quit being lazy and reinstall Photoshop on this new Graphics Workmonster I'm assembling.

    ...On the subject of those "one-piece" boot-pants, Nichelle Nichols has usually been the one who's denounced them the loudest, although all of the cast freely admit they hated them. Nichelle's problem was that for some reason the costuming department kept fitting her pants with shoes that were the wrong size. She actually doesn't recall ever having a pair that fit, and most of them were anywhere from a half-size to a full size too small, Luckily for her, most of her scenes are seated :)

    ...Anyway, good stab at those uniforms in any case!

  8. TheMichaelMoran8 April 2013 at 04:24

    Excellent bit of writing. I'm keen to see your followups — is there a Twitter feed or anything? The demise of Google Reader marks the end of my romance with RSS

  9. thanks! :) my twitter is @hello_tailor, and i definitely link through to all of my blog posts on there (as well as on my tumblr, hellotailor). however, both do have a lot of content unrelated to my blog.

  10. accurate description. sadly her character is even less interesting than most of the others ://

  11. hahaha, amazing.

  12. cool, thanks for all this info! :) oh god, poor nichelle nichols. that sounds like a nightmare.

  13. I stopped reading after the first paragraph at the top of the page. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was Gene Roddenberry's noble effort at making something akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than Star Wars. It has its faults, but this page's blogger is being completely unfair and, I think, simplistic. In fact, it can be argued that this first Trek film is actually one of the best.

    1. I agree completely. It was all ST is supposed to be about, journey into unknown in optimistic view of future, not an action movie. Also I love the uniforms, because they don't try to be military-like (like those introduced in the Wrath of Khan), but more NASA-like (meaning that in the future even a army could have more civilian and scientific character) and not a copy of what we've seen previously, but something fresh.

    2. It's easy to sit here 35 years in the future and act all supreme. In fact this was a marvelous movie for stirring the imagination and creating an epic feeling of space travel. The music alone was worth the price of admission. While I would have liked more natural acting performances similar to the TV show and what we saw later in the Wrath of Khan, the special effects and movie sets were very impressive in 1979, and significantly raised the bar for Trek. If you want a bad Star Trek film, look no further than STV: The Final Frontier. Please at least respect this film for breaking Trek out of the confines of the TV Screen and creating a new universe for us to day dream in.

    3. Agreed. It has its faults, but overall it is still a fantastic piece of 70's science fiction film making, and still holds up to anyone with an actual attention span and more than two brain cells to rub together.

      And honestly, anyone who claims, or propagates the myth that this is in any way the worst Star Trek movie isn't worth listening to about anything. Nor, judging by the utter bollocks I read in this post, worth reading either.

    4. I actually quite like The Motion Picture too. I also like the uniforms because they are different and as a costume maker that appeals to me and a wanting to try recreate such. The idea that they were all wearing ' jumpsuits' just shows ignorance on the part of the reviewer and s ignorance on how cloth is cut or moves. Yes there was a jumpsuit version, but there was also s lot of two piece uniforms as well.....that going to the loo I'd not such an impossibility is it !!!

      I would say of our blogger here who of course is welcomed to his opineon that maybe when bring a critic on ' costume' he either needs to learn about construction of garments or involve s costume maker whose eyes are accustomed to picking up details that he has clearly missed on small additional colours and seams that make cloth move a certain way. His description of Spock's garment and its construction - clearly wrong, makes the blogger, look small and somewhat insignificant when he truly has something to say that is quite interesting even if I disagree with him.

      And, lastly when you are at a SF convention, as a costumer and the convention centre or hotel has got the thermostat turned up that your getting all hot and thirsty along with peanuts on the bar....that your endlessly buying a drink, Kirk's White T Shirt, slate grey trousers with built shoes like certain baby clothing has a certain practicality to it in design and in comfort. You can also then easily add The Motion Picture ' field Jacket to go over the top of the T shirt and have a complete new look which the reviewer has completely failed to mention

  14. ^ Yes, it is the only Trek film that aspires to be something more than a superficial action-adventure. It is much like the original Trek pilot "The Cage," which was the type of thing Gene Roddenberry actually wanted to do with Star Trek.

  15. The best Star Trek movie. The most thoughtful. I find these uniforms to be the most classy.

  16. Much obliged for the tip, it's truly useful for me since this Halloween i am wanting to be dress like Captain Krik, have done my practically shopping from Amazon store including wonderfully made star trek uhura costume. you may purchase this for cosplay or to blessing somebody.

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  19. I know nobody agrees with me on this, but Star Trek the Motion Picture is my favorite of all the films. I do agree with you though that the costumes were horrible. Also, was Spock supposed to be on Vulcan in that Kolinar scene? What's the deal with that planet in the sky so close? It's so big it makes Vulcan look like its said planet's moon.

  20. I will echo every positive thing that has been said about this movie in the comments above. It's one of a very few Star Trek movies with a Star Trek plot -- a space menace that our heroes treat as a person, work to understand, and rather than defeat, send it on its way with what it needs to grow.

    The costumes were a departure from what we were used to, showed evidence of a different world with different fabric and clothing technology (there's nothing wrong with having your shoes attached to your pants if you get dressed by having your uniform beamed onto you, like they actually went to the trouble of showing on-screen), and looked a little like what Space Shuttle astronauts were wearing. Clearly, they didn't resonate with a lot of viewers, but I maintain that they were an experiment that needed to be done. Eight years later, almost identical uniforms would be used on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in bolder colors.

    As to Kirk and Scotty's fly-around of the Enterprise: no one had ever had a chance to see the Enterprise like that ever before. I saw this movie in a cinema in 1979, and it was glorious.

  21. Thanks for this hilarious write-up ... if I may contribute my own two-penny opinion, I love ST:TMP, not without it's faults admittedly but far from the disaster it is alleged to be ... the only truly cinematic Trek movie? Astounding Jerry Goldsmith score - no variation on two themes endlessly - it's a dag-blazed Opera! Joking aside, the production design and costumes are amazing! Bold and distinctive - and credible in a way the TV show never was (like we never wanted it to be?) So it's about time we had a reappraisal of TMP. If it were a lesser known item - a one-off or a Japanese SF movie or something - I think cultists would be all over it. The ST brand hurts as well as helps. It's not about blowing things up, but exploration of the galaxy. And it's trippy!


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  24. I ran into this article after seeing the movie just recently and noticed quite a few buffalo shots/moose knuckles on the male characters that today would probably have censors change the rating. Anyone have any insight and stories behind this? Did they do it for the ladies in the audience?

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