TrekMovie.com now continues our look back at Trek films past…
In the movie Little Big Man, the elderly Cheyenne medicine man called Old Lodge Skins decides it’s time for him to die. He goes to the top of the mountain, performs his rituals, reclines on the ground and closes his eyes. For a few moments nothing happens, except for some distant thunder. Then a raindrop falls on his face, startling him into opening his eyes. He stands up and prepares to go back home. “Sometimes the magic works,” he explains, “and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Every original cast Star Trek movie made missteps and experienced chaos on its way to the screen. Coming off their biggest success in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the Star Trek movie team was confident. They’d successfully added humor to the mix, and it seemed they knew just how to make the magic, in spite of any obstacle. But this time it didn’t quite work.
In hindsight, it’s possible to see ways in which the stars did not align this time. Beginning serious work on the script and the filming was delayed, by among other things, something familiar from today: a Writers Guild strike. The delay would put the film in competition with several blockbusters, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dead Poets Society, Ghostbusters II, and Batman. These would become important to the moviemaking process as well as the box office, because they kept the usual visual effects houses busy—especially Industrial Light and Magic. Trek would have to look elsewhere, with near- disastrous results. A Teamsters strike also hampered location shooting.
Star Trek V’s June 9 release sandwiched between four top 10 movies
After initial rave reviews, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier came under critical fire and had less than stellar box office. Theatre owners in that very competitive summer of 1989 shortened the run to make way for the next blockbuster. Today among Trek fans this is the least popular of the original cast movies. When it was next in line for a special edition DVD, director William Shatner begged Paramount to fix visual effects problems with today’s CGI magic, especially in the last part of the film, even promising to foot half the bill himself. Paramount refused.
Everyone who has seen this movie (and some who haven’t) know what they don’t like about it. The visual effects are clearly a problem. Not only are they especially inadequate at a couple of key moments, but in some relatively routine scenes—the Enterprise shuttle in flight, for instance—the effects are obviously unfinished, lacking the subtle details and shading that makes them look dimensional and “real.” These are perhaps more damaging, because they take viewers out of the world of the movie, and can shake their confidence in the moviemakers.
Not the finest moment in Star Trek Movie effects
Then there’s the story: Sybok, a charismatic Vulcan renegade, captures the Enterprise to take him to the fabled planet beyond the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy to meet God. In interviews and their books, the actors, producers etc. involved in this film attribute its problems to the movie’s premise. (Gene Roddenberry had tried a similar exploration in his first script for the first Star Trek movie, called “The God Thing,” but the studio rejected it.)
Almost alone, William Shatner (who came up with the story) disagrees: he believes the problem was that he compromised on his core ideas, and robbed the film of it’s dramatic energy. In various ways, they’re probably all right.
On the one hand, dealing with such a subject in any meaningful or even credible way in a big studio feature film would be very hard to do. Plus anything touching upon religious beliefs is going to offend some part of the audience. That was true then (when Shatner was inspired, or provoked, by the phenomenon of popular tele-evangelists then saturating TV screens) and it is even truer now, when Star Trek fans—especially on the Internet– seem split according to their political and religious loyalties and orientation, and any reference to religion brings charges of prejudice and worse.
On the other hand, going in search of God and finding the Devil is a repeated sci-fi premise but if done well, it is often relevant to contemporary times—especially, as in this case, when the seeker (Sybok) confident in his righteousness, ends up face to face with the devil in himself. But compromises and continued tweaking which left their residues in the final script probably did rob the movie of some internal coherence.
There are smaller issues that some find particularly irksome: the introduction of Sybok as Spock’s long-lost half brother, the humor at the apparent expense of some regular characters (especially Scotty) the suggestion of a Scotty-Uhura romance, etc. All these may be remnants of the original story that had the Enterprise crew, including Spock and McCoy, side with Sybok against Kirk— Shatner’s tone-deaf proposal, even if it was more dramatic. Both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley insisted their characters couldn’t betray Kirk, and so they didn’t.
The elements for a successful movie were there in “The Final Frontier”: action, visual sweep, drama, character moment, important issues of contemporary life, plus the humor that worked within the story of “The Voyage Home.” But due in part to various missteps and in part to the story development, it can be argued that in the first part of the movie, for all its flashiness and memorable scenes of action and camaraderie, and for all the provocative ideas given physical form, the narrative didn’t engage our emotions and involvement with a strong sense of why we should care about what happens.
STV went in search for God but found trouble
Viewing and Re-viewing
I saw this movie in a theatre when it opened, and I’ve seen it on TV, on tape and several times on DVD. A film’s flaws are acute at first because of disappointment that it isn’t better than it might have been. But after all this time, a movie on DVD is what it is, and its flaws become part of its nature. Most importantly, this is one of only six movies with the whole original cast, and there aren’t going to be any more. It’s worth honoring what’s good about it and what’s good in it.
Probably my biggest surprise on re-viewing it was noticing the visual sense director William Shatner brought to it. He used extreme outdoor settings to give some visual dimension in those pre-CGI days, but where he excells is in moving the camera inside the Enterprise and other enclosures, and especially in framing small groups of characters– the kind of elegant two and three shots that became the visual signature of the original series.
Shatner had to overcome Dee Kelley’s resistance to doing the of McCoy at his father’s bedside, struggling with his duty as a doctor to preserve life against his duty as a son to end suffering and preserve his father’s dignity. But now this is perhaps Kelley’s most dramatic scene in any of the films.
William Shatner directs a scene in uniform on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
While some humorous scenes are questionable, others are classic moments that reveal the crew’s camaraderie. (The screenplay is by David Loughery, who Shatner credits with much of the humor.) They range from brief gags (Kirk saying wistfully that he misses his old command chair, followed by Spock’s tilting his head in sympathy; Scotty bursting through the brig wall shouting, “Dinna you know a jailbreak when you see one!”) to longer scenes, such as the brig scene itself. And while the early scene of Kirk, Spock and McCoy around the campfire has its awkwardness, it also has moments of convincing informality unmatched elsewhere in Star Trek. The reprise of this scene at the end is one of the most intimate moments involving the Trek trinity—and one of the great gifts we’ll always have from these movies.
Even some of the more eccentric elements (Kirk’s mountain climbing and Spock’s jet-pack, Uhura’s dance) are now unforgettable elements in the Trek legend.
There are other considerable virtues: the quality of the acting (especially Laurence Luckinbill’s brilliant performance as Sybok), and a film score that is considered one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best, for example. But I would also argue that the last part of the film—including the part that Shatner called “horrendous”—constitutes solid, meaningful and provocative storytelling in the best Trek movie tradition. To explain what I mean, we go back to the movie’s theme.
Luckinbill’s Sybok feels your pain
The God Thing
From one point of view, Sybok fails as a character in this film because he is not simple enough: he is not clearly a powerful, malevolent villain. But because he is complex and human, his character succeeds in other ways.
Sybok is on the one hand a religious zealot, certain God has spoken to him, and called him to pierce the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and find the fabled Sha Ka Ree. (You might wonder what combination of mystical words from various religions were chosen to name this heavenly planet. The answer is a little more Hollywood than holy: it’s a play on “Sean Con-ner-y,” the movie god that Shatner hoped would play Sybok.)
On the one hand, Sybok is a Vulcan renegade, convinced that the path to ultimate knowledge is through emotion, not logic—a perennial Star Trek tension that Spock himself has explored.
On the other hand, Sybok seems to have an inexplicable (and at times unbelievable) power over people, but on the other hand, his psychological skills are pretty sophisticated. After Sybok extracts McCoy’s agony over his father in a kind of psychic holodeck, Sybok urges him to release his pain over it. "You have taken the first step. The rest we will take together." Counselor Troi would recognize the basic approach of exploring a person’s pain, and after its initial release and revelation, going into it more deeply.
When Spock says he has already acknowledged and dealt with the pain of his father’s rejection of his human side, he has attained the therapeutic goal, which is also the goal of other soul paths: self-knowledge.
Kirk provides yet another point of view. Sybok tells him that he’s seen essential elements of his close friends—“This is who they are. Didn’t you know that?” Kirk has to admit that he didn’t. But he refuses to go through the process to release his own pain. Sybok suggests he is afraid. “I’m afraid of nothing,” Kirk says (a line since repeated by Denny Crain.) Kirk wants to keep his pain, because its essential to who he is. As someone who has literally been split into the Good Kirk and Bad Kirk, he understands the mutual dependence of that duality within him.
Kirk likes his pain
This scene, which takes place in the magnificent new observation lounge, ends as the Enterprise approaches the Great Barrier. Kirk warns Sybok that it’s never been breached. Sybok says that if we do it, will that convince you that my vision is true? It’s then he reveals it’s a vision from God “who waits for us on the other side.” “You’re mad!” Kirk exclaims. “Am I?” Sybok shows some doubt, and then recovers his sunny transcendence: “We’ll see.”
As a visual effect, The Great Barrier is pretty underwhelming. But immediately after it is breached, some of the best scenes in the movie begin. From the observation lounge, Kirk, Spock and McCoy see the planet Sha Ka Ree before them. “Are we dreaming?” McCoy asks. “If we are, then life IS a dream,” Kirk replies. The reference is to the campfire song they sang early in the movie (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) when Spock considered the lyrics and later announced, “Life is not a dream.”
Sybok returns control of the Enterprise to Kirk, knowing that he won’t leave without exploring the planet below. He accompanies the trinity aboard a shuttle. This sequence is the most magical in the movie: the dramatic quick cuts among the faces as they all wonder what they really will see, while bathed in the eerie violet light from the planet. They disembark in a strange landscape anxiously, sharp silhouettes against the alien haze. (All this was done with special effects at the site, rather than visual effects created in an effects house—a distinction I learned from a talk by Dan Curry.)
Kirk, Sybok, Spock and McCoy embark into the unknown
At first nothing happens. But soon some power builds walls of rock around them that might be a cathedral, or a prison. The power reveals itself as faces sacred to various religions, settling on one resembling familiar portraits of the Old Testament God. The voice flatters Sybok, but insists the Enterprise be brought closer, to transport him beyond the Barrier. Then Kirk utters his famous, very-Kirklike impudent question: “Excuse me, but what does God want with a starship?”
This is the very human challenge to those who claim higher authority: a question. This particular being answers by hurling a thunderbolt into Kirk’s chest, and then another into Spock when he repeats the question. Sybok is appalled, which is interesting, since the Old Testament God is often angry and smites wrongdoers. But it rattles Sybok’s faith, and he demands the being reveal itself. Which it does: with Sybok’s face, and its evil laugh.
Sybok immediately understands that he’s looking at his own shadow reflected by a powerful captive being—“my arrogance, my vanity,” and just as quickly, he sacrifices himself to save the others: his redemption.
Later, when McCoy and Spock are speculating on whether God could ever be found in the eternal reaches of outer space, Kirk replies: "Maybe he’s not out there. Maybe he’s in here—in the human heart." It’s a daring statement, though it comports with at least an aspect of many religions. And it is clearly a Star Trek statement.
But the full statement is also that if God is within the human heart, so is the Devil. There is a famous Cherokee story that relates to this: an elder tells his grandchildren that there are two wolves fighting inside everyone, one good and one bad. “Which one wins?” the children ask. The grandfather replies, “the one you feed.” That’s Star Trek’s view of the future in a nutshell.
The last part of the movie was supposed to have spectacular effects as the evil force pursues Kirk. They aren’t here, to Shatner’s anguish, but I for one don’t miss them. Maybe we could have seen more of Sybok’s struggle with the captive power, but Kirk’s escape passes quickly without damaging the story, because of his surprise rescue.
Sybok takes on ‘god’
I haven’t even mentioned two other elements of the story: the Federation, Romulan and Klingon representatives on the Planet of Galactic Peace—another failed Paradise—who Sybok kidnapped to lure the Enterprise, and the young punk Klingons who pursued the Enterprise beyond the Barrier. But the final scenes tie all the elements together in the best Trek storytelling tradition, with Kirk on the planet expecting to be killed by the decloaking Bird of Prey, but instead is rescued by it. The Klingon representative actually commits an act of galactic peace, and at a joint party later, Scotty exclaims, “I never thought I’d be drinking with a Klingon”—an unnoticed and unplanned preview of events in Star Trek VI. (The cultural combination also figures in another classic joke, when Kirk is about to embrace Spock in thanks for rescuing him, and Spock demurs: “Please, Captain, not in front of the Klingons.”)
The final scene back at Yosemite around a campfire, in probably the oldest setting for human interaction, reinforces the power that binds these three men together—the ones often called the trinity—which is expressed in camaraderie, but can also be described as love. They sing together, and this time Spock joins in, because in enacting journeys of the imagination, life is but a dream.
Trek’s core ‘trinity’ get back to basics
“The Final Frontier” certainly has its problems as a movie. Leonard Nimoy directed Star Trek III under tight supervision, and with a storyline that had to follow from the movie before. With the unique experience of directing a major feature film, he then made his Star Trek statement in “The Voyage Home.” William Shatner was given one film to learn from and to make his statement. Combined with some poor production decisions, this may have contributed to those problems.
But this movie should not be discarded or dismissed. It has classic moments, and there’s a classic Star Trek message somewhere within it. As the Enterprise approaches the mysterious planet, the camera fixes on the plaque at the base of the antique ship’s steering wheel in the observation lounge: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The search for a literal God outside becomes another exploration of dimensions of meaning and ultimate identity inside. In a different context, David Gerrold said it best: "Space is not the final frontier. The final frontier is the human soul."
More on Star Trek IV at Soul of Star Trek.
Bill Kowinski (aka Captain Future, William S. Kowinski) is an author and freelance writer living in Arcata, CA. Thanks to his Soul of Star Trek blog, he chaired a panel on that subject at the Trek 40th anniversary gala in Seattle last year. He’s been published in the New York Times, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle and other international, national and regional publications, as well as Internet sites.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures, screencaps by TrekCore.com