Sunday, January 03, 2021

Star Trek V: The Flimsy Frontier

Just before the climax of William Shatner's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner again) asks a powerful noncorporeal being "What does god need with a starship?" When I attended the sneak preview in Edmonton back in 1989, the line got a good laugh; a deserved laugh, I think, thanks to Shatner's delivery and the point the line arrives in the story. It's a line that captures Kirk's justified skepticism, a line in keeping with the man's characterization through nearly 25 years of history to that point. On the other hand, the line is also a bit campy, appearing as it does in the rather ridiculous circumstances of this widely-panned Trek; maybe that's the true reason my audience laughed. Still, the original television series often veered into camp, and that never stopped it from asking insightful questions about the human condition. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," a painfully on-the-nose allegory about the tragedy of racism from Star Trek's third season, had its own share of camp--and yet, even today, the episode's message resonates despite the limitations of the production. Can the same be said for Star Trek V, over thirty years since its premiere? 

A Reach That Exceeded Its Grasp
Prior to the production of Star Trek V, Shatner's longtime costar Leonard Nimoy (who plays Kirk's old friend and first officer Spock), directed Star Trek III and IV; both were successful, and IV in particular was a true critical and box office hit. Shatner's contract included a clause guaranteeing him the chance to direct should that privilege be granted to Nimoy, so the fifth Star Trek film was destined to be directed by its primary star. Shatner must have felt intense pressure to craft a film even more successful than IV, and the story he conceived was ambitious enough to to the trick: Captain Kirk would take his ship, the Enterprise, to the centre of the galaxy in a search for the Divine itself. 

With the right screenplay and direction, such a story could have been quite interesting. Unfortunately, the screenplay is uneven; there are a couple of bright spots and a few moments of cringe, while the rest is simply bland. Shatner's direction is workmanlike and nowhere near the level of skill and creativity needed to match the scope of his intended story. Worse yet, for the first time in the Trek film series, the production design and special effects are seriously below par, enough to seriously distract from a story that absolutely demanded striking visuals. Even the normally excellent main cast perform below their true capabilities here; only guest player Laurence Luckinbill, playing Spock's half-brother Sybok, seems to be having any fun in this picture. In fact, the only aspect of this production that could reasonably be called "good" is the superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, a score that surely deserves a far better film. 

Star Trek V begins with a reasonably effective cold opening. A cloaked man on horseback gallops across a barren world and encounters an ancient farmer toiling at the unforgiving land. The rider promises the farmer an end to pain, and indeed he seems to lift the farmer's cares away with a telepathic touch. The rider laughs in delight at the farmer's tears of joy, and his hood falls back, revealing pointed Vulcan ears. "A laughing Vulcan?" gasps the farmer in wonder, for in the world of Star Trek, Vulcans are renowned for their suppression of emotion. Here we cut to the opening credit sequence, and after that we transition to Captain Kirk climbing the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It turns out that several members of the Enterprise crew are on Earth for shore leave; Kirk, Spock, and Doctor McCoy are camping in the park. In more capable hands, it might have been refreshing to see our heroes relaxing, but instead we're subjected to the kind of "light comedy" that produces groans instead of guffaws; there are fart jokes, misunderstandings of pop culture references, and a badly-executed moment of peril that's impossible to take seriously for two reasons: truly terrible special effects and the fact that Spock is wearing rocket boots, which he uses to effect a rescue. 

Thankfully an emergency recalls the crew back to the Enterprise, but we then discover that our proud ship is experiencing a torrent of wacky malfunctions, again played for comedic effect. But instead of being funny, the problems just make Starfleet, the Federation, and the Enterprise crew look incompetent, a perception cemented by Starfleet Command's decision to send the ship out on a dangerous mission despite Kirk's protests over the state of the ship. 

The mission? It seems that Sybok, the cloaked fellow from the cold open, has taken possession of the only city on Nimbus III, the "so-called 'Planet of Galactic Peace'" jointly governed by the Federation and its Cold-ish-War enemies, the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Empire. Spock reveals that Sybok is his (never before mentioned) half-brother, and that unlike other Vulcans, Sybok embraces emotions, making him a heretic in Vulcan society. 

The Enterprise arrives at Nimbus III. Keep in mind that the Enterprise, with a crew of over 500 that includes a large, well-armed, and very capable security team, is up against Sybok and a crew of ragtag, poorly-armed bandits. While it's true that Sybok has three important hostages (the diplomats from each government assigned to Nimbus III), which could perhaps hamper rescue operations, you'd think that this mission would still be pretty straightforward for Kirk and company. Except that they can't use the transporters because, of course, they're part of the malfunctions we saw earlier in the picture. So Kirk, Spock, Sulu, McCoy, Uhura, and a few security officers fly a shuttle down to Nimbus III to effect rescue. Poor Uhura gets to perform a striptease to distract the guards, an insulting character beat that I'm sure Nichelle Nichols couldn't have enjoyed much. (Though if she did, more power to her, but it's telling that none of the guys were asked for striptease duty.) 

Alas, despite all logic and reason, Sybok emerges victorious, capturing the landing party and commandeering their shuttle. He reveals his insidious plan: he took hostages on Nimbus III only to lure a starship to the planet so that he could hijack said starship and take it in search of Sha Ka Ree, which he believes is the centre of creation of the universe and the home of God. 

There's a brief moment of excitement when a Klingon Bird-of-Prey shows up in response to the crisis on Nimbus III, but rather than rescuing hostages, Captain Klaa is focused on blowing up Kirk's shuttle thanks to his previous crimes against the Klingon Empire. Sulu's ingenuity and skill get the shuttle safely back aboard the Enterprise, and there's a moment where it looks like Spock can take control of the situation from Sybok and end the crisis. Alas, doing so would mean killing Sybok, and Spock can't do it. Sybok uses his powers to take away the pain of Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov, putting them under his thrall, a moment of triple character assassination that's still hard to forgive. He tries the same thing on McCoy, Spock, and Kirk, but the three of them manage to resist, of course, because they're the headliners in this story. 

Sybok sticks the three of them in a jail cell while he takes the Enterprise to the centre of the galaxy. The trip seems to take about fifteen minutes. Yes, the ships in Star Trek are fast, but they're not supposed to be fast enough to cross thousands of light years in mere minutes. There's a lot of hullabaloo about "no ship has ever survived crossing the Great Barrier!" that apparently surrounds the centre of the galaxy, but of course the Enterprise crosses it without any fanfare. Furthermore, the vengeful Captain Klaa is right on their tail. 

Allow me a moment to digress. When I first saw the first trailer for Star Trek V, I was pretty excited, because that "great barrier" line, taken out of context, makes it sound like a reference to the Great Barrier around the edge of the galaxy shown in Star Trek's second pilot episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." I thought we might be getting a sequel to that tremendous episode, akin to the way in which Star Trek II followed up on "Space Seed." 

Alas, I think what happened is simply that Shatner forgot the location of the Great Barrier, sticking it at the galaxy's centre instead of surrounding its perimeter. 

At some point during all this nonsense, Mr. Scott breaks Kirk, Spock, and McCoy out of their cell. He knocks himself out on a bulkhead, to not only the actor's embarrassment bu to that of the entire audience. There's a chase with rocket boots that ends in recapture, but that's fine, Kirk convinces Sybok that since we're all here at the centre of the galaxy, let's go meet God together. 

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sybok take a shuttle down to the planet (the transporters are still broken) and they meet God, who turns out to be a floating head with the stern countenance of an old, white-bearded white guy. Sybok is elated and asks God for the secrets of the universe, but "God" remains suspiciously focused on bringing the Enterprise closer to the planet. It's at this point that Kirk asks why God needs a starship, and then the whole thing goes south; turns out the Great Barrier isn't to keep people out, it's to keep "God" imprisoned. Mortified, Sybok sacrifices himself to get into a sort of psychic wrestling match with the God entity, the transporter works just long enough to get McCoy and Spock back to the ship, then breaks down again so that Kirk has to run away. Just as God is about to smite Kirk, Captain Klaa's Bird of Prey shows up and blasts God to oblivion. The Klingons beam Kirk aboard and discover that Spock served as the ship's gunner; turns out the Klingon hostage was grateful for the initial rescue and demanded Klaa return the favour. In a better film, this turn of events might have raised thoughtful questions about the subtext of Spock killing God, but...this is not that better film. 

The Klingons and the humans have a nice cocktail hour on the Enterprise where they discuss the nature of God, who, as it turns out, is right here in the human heart. They resume their shore leave on Earth and sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" over the closing credits. 

In short, Star Trek V is a mess, undermining beloved characters, filled with lacklustre action beats, laughs that don't land, story beats that make no sense given established Star Trek canon, and production values that simply don't stand up for their era, let alone today. 

Hey, It's Better than Into Darkness
That being said, there are a few moments I like. Chekov has a decent moment in command of the Enterprise before he gets brainwashed. Sulu shines as the pilot of the shuttle. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have some decent character beats together during their camping trip and their stay in the Enterprise brig. There are even a couple of camera moves that would have been impressive and really cinematic if William Shatner had had the resources to execute them properly. (I'm thinking in particular of the shot that ends with the antique ship's wheel in what appears to be the ship's lounge.) The score is lovely. Luckinbill is good. And at least there's some ambition here, something that got lost in some of the later Trek movies--Star Trek Into Darkness, Insurrection, I'm looking at you. 

1 comment:

Jeff Shyluk said...

At a convention (yes, a convention), I watched from a back row as William Shatner filled the room with details about his experiences as a director. He's had some time to spin his stories, but he seemed as frustrated as anyone with how the movie turned out. Several times as the picture went on, his budget was cut and key scenes needed rewrites. Some effects turned out disastrously. The Klingon actors were incredibly willing to perform, and their subsequent interviews are a hoot. Their scenes got cut as well.

Of course, Shatner managed to make the film somewhat more personal by adding several outdoor recreational scenes, including his beloved horses. Maybe it's too indulgent, maybe it could have worked. In those scenes, Shatner seems more confident. On the other hand, Shatner's own writing trends towards the bombastic. Thankfully cut was a scene where poor old Scotty parachutes from Starfleet Headquarters down into the Yosemite valley. He's dressed more or less as Super Chicken.

What if the film got a strong, stable budget and rational rewrites? Maybe it would be better. Maybe it would be Battlefield Earth, another vanity project that seems comparable to STV. If there was singing, then Hudson Hawk.