“‘Why are they putting seatbelts in theatres this summer?’ To keep the audience from leaving!” – a critic, dissing Star Trek V‘s tagline
Star Trek‘s popularity has waxed and waned over its five decades of existence (!), but one indisputable zenith was late 1986/early 1987, when it was the reigning king of filmed sci-fi entertainment, with rival franchise Star Wars in the midst of a long coma. Not only had The Voyage Home been a critical and box office success, drawing in new fans who previously couldn’t have told you the difference between tribbles and Triskelion, but appetites were further whetted by the announcement of Star Trek‘s return to weekly series television in the form of The Next Generation, scheduled to premiere in September with an all-new cast aboard an all-new U.S.S. Enterprise. The film series was certain to continue as well, to capitalize on this new, warp speed momentum. However, there would be a shuffling of creative personnel behind the scenes first. On the strength of both The Voyage Home and the massive comedy hit Three Men and a Baby, Leonard Nimoy had become one of the hottest, most in-demand directors in Hollywood, and his schedule didn’t permit assuming the reins for the long production process that a new Star Trek movie would entail. Not only that, someone else was champing at the bit to step behind the camera.
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s respective contracts with Paramount Pictures included what Shatner called “favored nations” clauses, where whatever one received, be it in terms of salary or specific privileges, so would the other. Since Nimoy had now directed two Star Trek movies in a row, Shatner exercised the clause to secure himself the director’s chair for Star Trek V. Freed of the story constraints of the concluded “Genesis Trilogy,” his pitch for a fresh adventure was based on a very 80’s phenomenon: the rise of the televangelist. Though it’s hard to imagine now when a vast majority of us recognize them as money-swindling charlatans, there was a time when the likes of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell were ubiquitous on the airwaves and exerted tremendous influence on the course of world events, with politicians eager to cozy up to them and the ranks of voters they commanded. Shatner had in mind an alien holy man named “Zar” who would be such a powerful, persuasive presence that he would even be able to turn the crew of the Enterprise against each other, with only Kirk able to resist his influence. Zar would engineer a hostage-taking in order to commandeer the ship and set it on a course for the center of the universe to find God – who would turn out to be the Devil in disguise, and Kirk would have to descend into the depths of Hell to rescue Spock and McCoy. Star Trek had employed subtle Christian allegories before, but this was going full-tilt Old Testament, and while Shatner’s story was accepted by the studio higher-ups, it was abundantly clear that elements would have be toned down to satisfy the broadest possible audience. Especially since Paramount was more or less insisting on another movie in the light, airy and funny mode of The Voyage Home – hard to reconcile with Shatner’s operatic vision of winged cherubs transforming into monstrous demons.
Favorite son Nicholas Meyer was unavailable, so Shatner and returning producer Harve Bennett, after approaching acclaimed fantasy novelist Eric van Lustbader (who allegedly wanted an unaffordable $1 million for his services), hired David Loughery (Dreamscape, Flashback) to write the script. The three began extensive revisions on Shatner’s initial treatment to soften the potentially offensive religious tones and inject the laughs deemed critical to retaining the crossover fans who had embraced The Voyage Home. Zar was made less overtly villainous to avoid duplicating elements of Khan, and the revelation of the object of his quest was moved to later in the movie to address Bennett’s caveat that the concept might come off like “Tonight on Star Trek: Captain Kirk meets God!” At one point God was removed entirely, as Bennett and Loughery did a rewrite without Shatner’s participation that had Zar looking for the galactic equivalent of Shangri-La instead, a place they named Sha Ka Ree (a takeoff of the name of Sean Connery, who was Shatner’s first choice to play Zar.) In an echo of Zar’s ability to sway people to his cause, a determined Shatner turned his collaborators one by one back toward his original vision, and they compromised by having Sha Ka Ree become the name of the mythical planet at the center of the galaxy (since there is no scientifically identifiable center of the universe) where God was fabled to reside.
One obstacle the charismatic actor-director couldn’t overcome was his old friend Nimoy. As originally scripted, Spock and McCoy would betray Kirk to aid Zar, and only by healing the rift in their friendship would the three be able to escape Hell in the movie’s climax. Nimoy said there was simply no way Spock would ever betray Kirk, and no matter how much Shatner argued for the potential dramatic impact of the twist, Nimoy was firm. Even changing Zar to Sybok and making him Spock’s half-brother couldn’t persuade Nimoy otherwise – in his view, the bond between Kirk and Spock could not be broken by anything or anyone. DeForest Kelley was equally adamant about McCoy, and so the script was changed again to have Kirk, Spock and McCoy braving the unknown together as always.
With the script – interrupted briefly by the 1988 Writers’ Guild strike – finally taking something resembling shootable shape, the next challenge was the movie’s budget. Like many first-time directors, Shatner was awash in dreams of grand, sweeping camera moves and thousands of extras swarming massive DeMille-inspired sets, a wave which soon broke against the unyielding wall of the studio bottom line. With a relatively modest total of $32 million allocated for Star Trek V, and $12 million of that split by the two lead actors, Shatner had only $20 million for everything else – the rest of the regular cast, any guest stars, and the entirety of the production. Quashed immediately were any illusions of casting the pricey Sean Connery, or Max von Sydow (Shatner’s second choice) as Sybok. Armies of extras were reduced to handfuls. Sprawling sets and scenic vistas would have to be replaced by matte paintings and camera cheats. And in a crippling blow, the visual effects would have to be provided by someone other than the reliable, gold-standard Industrial Light & Magic. Bran Ferren and his Hoboken, New Jersey-based company Associates & Ferren, best known for the trippy visuals in the weird Ken Russell movie Altered States, were hired instead after impressing Shatner and Bennett with a lower-cost, “in the camera” approach where effects could be shot live on stage instead of being added in later. Concerns lingered at how the Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque finale would be pulled off, but time was growing short and shooting had to commence in order to make the movie’s June 1989 release date. In late 1988 Shatner finally got to call action on the movie’s first scheduled scene: unlikely for Star Trek, it was a commercial featuring a skeezy, Herb Tarlek alien type selling worthless plots of land on an alien planet.
Perhaps it was a harbinger of how audiences would eventually receive the movie.
A cold open places us on Tatooine… er, sorry, Nimbus III, the “Planet of Galactic Peace,” a dried out wasteland of a world in the Neutral Zone between the three dominant galactic powers: the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Empire, who have agreed to develop it together but have instead let it fall into disarray. A mysterious Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill, the son-in-law of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), arrives and begins gathering followers, converting them by using his mental abilities to free them of their innermost pain. Sybok and his army storm Paradise City, the capital of Nimbus III, take hostage the Federation, Klingon and Romulan ambassadors, and demand that a starship be sent to negotiate their release. On Earth, Captain Kirk is enjoying a vacation in California’s Yosemite National Park with Spock and McCoy, while Sulu and Chekov are getting lost exploring Mount Rushmore and Scotty and Uhura are left to patch up an Enterprise which has revealed itself to be a lemon following its shakedown cruise. While free-climbing the forbidding face of El Capitan, Kirk loses his grip and falls to a certain death… until he is saved by Spock with the aid of some rocket boots. Kirk ruminates later by the fireside that he knew he wouldn’t die because Spock and McCoy were with him, and that he’s always known he’ll die alone. A round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” whose lyrics Spock struggles to understand, is interrupted by Uhura, who brings word of the hostage crisis on Nimbus III. Despite its mechanical issues, the Enterprise is chosen for the rescue mission because it has the most experienced commander. The starship warps to Nimbus III, while Spock is haunted by the familiar face he sees in the hostage video but is elusive in explaining who it is. Meanwhile, Klaa, a young Klingon captain craving glory in the possibility of defeating the legendary Captain Kirk is ordered to take his ship to Nimbus III as well, and if all else fails, to destroy the planet.
With the transporters out of service thanks to them still running Windows Vista, one supposes, Kirk leaves Chekov to masquerade as the Enterprise‘s captain and stall for time while he leads an “old-fashioned” commando raid aboard the shuttle Galileo down to Paradise City to rescue the hostages. Kirk’s marines attack the compound on (alien) horseback, but swiftly lose the battle with Sybok’s army when the three captive ambassadors reveal themselves to be in league with the renegade Vulcan – who is excited to see Spock again, hinting at a deeper connection between the two. As the Galileo, now under Sybok’s command, returns to the Enterprise, Klaa’s ship arrives, and Kirk orders Sulu to execute a risky maneuver to rocket the shuttle manually into the hangar bay while dodging a Klingon torpedo. In the aftermath of the crash, Spock grabs a weapon, aims it at Sybok and orders him to surrender. Sybok refuses, and despite Kirk’s direct order, Spock cannot bring himself to shoot. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are thrown in the brig, and Sybok takes his followers to the bridge to seize control of the starship, seduce the crew to his cause, and set them on a course to the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and the fabled planet of Sha Ka Ree rumored to lie beyond it. Behind bars, a furious Kirk cannot believe that Spock would betray him, and Spock finally admits the truth: he and Sybok are brothers. They have the same father, but different mothers; Sybok’s mother was Sarek’s first wife, a Vulcan princess. Sybok has rejected the Vulcan way of logic and embraced emotions, for which he was banished from the planet. While the three heroes sulk, a Morse code message tapped on the wall advises them to stand back, and an explosion set off by Scotty sets them free. Spock suggests sending a distress signal using the emergency equipment in the forward observation room, but that’s several dozen decks above them, and the crew, including Sulu, Uhura and Chekov, is now entirely under Sybok’s influence. Spock’s handy-dandy rocket boots prove the solution, and the signal is sent – only to be intercepted by the Klingons and their excitable captain who is determined to have Kirk’s head.
Sybok tries to sway McCoy and Spock by showing them visions of their innermost pain: McCoy’s decision to euthanize his dying father, and Spock’s rejection by his own father for his human half. He then tries to do the same for Kirk, who refuses by insisting that pain isn’t something to be taken away, it’s what makes us who we are. Spock also tells Sybok that he has long since resolved his inner conflict about his heritage and found his place, and McCoy realizes that he too belongs with his friends. Kirk insists that the ship will not survive the passage through the Great Barrier, while Sybok believes otherwise because of a vision he has received from God, who awaits them there. Sybok’s faith proves the winner as the Enterprise breaches the Barrier with only a mild bit of shaky-cam turbulence and arrives in safe orbit of the glowing blue world of Sha Ka Ree. Sybok permits Kirk, Spock and McCoy to accompany him by shuttle to the surface, which appears at first to be an abandoned, rocky landscape until the sky suddenly darkens, stone pillars shoot up from the ground and a shaft of light bursts into space, inside which appears a figure seemingly drawn from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel itself.
Is this God? An enraptured Sybok seems to think so. God asks how the foursome came to find him, and declares his intention to make use of the Enterprise to carry his “wisdom” beyond the Barrier to the rest of the galaxy. An abruptly skeptical Kirk asks the pertinent question, “what does God need with a starship?” God responds with a blast of Force lightning into Kirk’s gut. It becomes clear that this is no god, but rather a malevolent alien who has been imprisoned on the planet behind the Great Barrier and wants to use the starship to escape. A remorseful Sybok takes responsibility and challenges “God” to share his pain, sacrificing himself to allow the others to escape as the Enterprise fires on the entity. The transporter is only partly functional (only upgraded to Windows 7), and Kirk orders Scotty to beam up Spock and McCoy first, leaving him alone on the planet with the alien who has been weakened by the torpedo strike but is still very much alive. Before Scotty can beam Kirk up, the Klingon ship commanded by Klaa arrives and attacks the Enterprise, destroying the transporter. Spock tries to persuade the Klingon ambassador, who outranks Klaa, to order his subordinate to stand down. Down on Sha Ka Ree, Kirk runs from the angry “God” alien right into the hovering Klingon vessel, which delivers a crippling blow to the entity before beaming Kirk aboard. Kirk is shocked to receive a formal apology from Captain Klaa, and to see Spock in the gunner’s chair. Kirk says he thought he was going to die, and Spock assures him that he was never alone. Back aboard the Enterprise at a friendly reception, Kirk, Spock and McCoy contemplate notions of friendship, family, and whether God is really out there among the stars. Kirk offers the moral of the movie by opining that maybe the true location of God is within the human heart. A reprise of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around the campfire, this time with Spock leading the refrain on his Vulcan harp, sends us up into the stars and into the strains of the end credits march.
Good storytelling should always raise questions, but when the answers aren’t forthcoming, or they are answered by way of cop-out, the storyteller should be well prepared to dodge the incoming barrage of rotten vegetables. Accordingly, Star Trek V was a voyage of the damned. Gene Roddenberry’s initial concept for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The God Thing, involved the crew’s encounter with an alien intelligence that would be revealed to have inspired the entire concept of religion on Earth and taken many forms throughout the centuries, including that of Jesus Christ. Captain Kirk would then destroy the alien, thereby “killing God” and establishing that humanity had outgrown the need for religion and the belief in supreme beings. No studio was going to try to sell an atheist treatise in the most evangelical market on the planet, and so when William Shatner tried telling his variation on the same story in Star Trek V with the full intent of having Kirk encounter the real God (who would turn out to be the Devil), he too had to water it down to the idea of a mere alien impersonator instead. When Sybok announces that his vision was “given to me by God. He waits for us on the other side,” we’re as skeptical as Kirk, not because we’re siding with the hero but because our suspension of disbelief has suddenly been shattered. There’s no way they’re going to meet the actual God, we say to ourselves. This is a Star Trek movie, not The Passion of the Christ. They don’t have the balls to go there, not for real. For Shatner and his storytelling partners, it’s lose-lose. Depicting the Judeo-Christian God just upsets everyone who isn’t Judeo-Christian. Depicting God at all upsets humanists. Not depicting Him/Her/Them when you announce you’re going to smacks of cowardice, even if the assertion that God is to be found in the heart is a worthy observation. There’s simply no way for this story to end in a satisfactory manner, and so the entire journey to The Final Frontier has ultimately been a wasted trip. You can’t fault William Shatner for his ambition, indeed, there is a certain amount of admirable daring in the choice to pursue these sorts of questions in a popular studio franchise film. But the execution just isn’t there; flawed, weak writing (and dodgy special effects compounding its sins) undermines the best efforts of the rest of the cast and crew.
Despite what general consensus would have you believe, this is not a movie without a solitary ounce of merit or virtue. There are a few standouts to appreciate herein and make it worthy of a rewatch or three on a rainy day. Some of the location shooting is quite lovely, and it’s always welcome in a franchise usually restricted to soundstages. Laurence Luckinbill, a veteran stage actor who was cast as Sybok after Shatner saw him on PBS in a one-man show about Lyndon Johnson, projects a great deal of charisma and surprising empathy as the ostensible villain. When Sybok is persuading others to share their pain, yes, he’s doing it to manipulate them into helping him, but you still get a strong sense that he genuinely cares about the people and wants to free them of their burdens. He is, in his Vulcan heart, a good man doing the wrong thing for noble reasons, and his recognition that he has erred and placed possibly the entire galaxy in jeopardy makes him not so much a villain but a tragic, misguided hero. This creates a rather paradoxical effect where Sybok becomes in fact the protagonist of the movie, as it is his arc pushing the plot forward, while Kirk, Spock and McCoy become the antagonists trying to stop him at every turn. This reversal of roles didn’t sit particularly well with the audiences of the day as it’s not the position we’re comfortable seeing our heroes in. We want them leading the adventure, not dragged along by somebody else. But if we have to be, then we’re at least glad to have the legendary Jerry Goldsmith scoring our journey. His music is more romantic and melodic here, with a few pops of ethnic percussion instruments for alien flavor, rather than the icy, electronic tones that backed the voyage of V’Ger in The Motion Picture, and Goldsmith, unlike his immediate predecessor Leonard Rosenman, knows when to stay the hell out of the way of the action and when it’s appropriate to strut boldly to the forefront. Goldsmith also provides some welcome musical continuity by reprising both the opening march and the Klingon theme from his first effort.
Ultimately though, and disappointingly, the virtues of the movie are too few to rate a final judgment in favor. Bran Ferren’s spare effects are no substitute for ILM’s mastery of the sci-fi genre, and his low-cost approach only makes the movie look patched together and small. This is particularly glaring once “God” enters the scene, and the final chase between “Him” and Kirk is a haphazard mess of flipped shots and half-finished effects that are substituting for an even worse effect that never made it to the screen – where “God” was to assume the form of a hulking, lumbering creature of living rock that would have embarrassed Ed Wood (photos of it do exist online – Google and beware). When the whole movie has been building to this point, and we’re still prepared to grant it some goodwill, to have it finish so crappily and cheaply is a huge letdown. The decision to include humor in the screenplay again wasn’t necessarily misguided, but the approach certainly is, with the warm character-based humor of The Voyage Home being usurped by lame wisecracks about “marsh melons” and slapstick gags that have us laughing at our heroes, not with them. I recall many guffaws seeing Scotty knock himself out on a pipe in the trailer, but in the movie the moment just seems sad, as does watching the noble and inspiring Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) reduced to doing a naked fan dance. This character inspired Martin Luther King, for God’s sake – she deserves so much better than what probably split sides in the all-male writers’ room but is a real embarrassment to Star Trek as a whole.
Audiences of the day agreed, and Star Trek V, released in the same summer slot as Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, took in less than half the box office of Star Trek IV, with critics panning it top to bottom and William Shatner earning the dubious honor of that year’s Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Actor and Director. Unlike Nimoy, Shatner would never get the chance to direct another major feature, and would turn his attention instead to television and documentaries. Piling on to The Final Frontier is easy – as I said it’s the go-to punch line for all that was ever terrible about Star Trek, but I certainly wouldn’t categorize it as the worst would-be blockbuster movie released in 1989 (Ghostbusters II was pretty phone-it-in abysmal); in the end the best that can be said of it is that it is something of a noble failure. You certainly get the sense that everyone involved (except maybe Ferren) is trying their absolute best to make a great movie that is telling a meaningful story. But the odd-number curse holds true here, and with The Next Generation slowly increasing in popularity it seemed for a time that The Final Frontier would be the final frontier for the original cast.
In summary: Points for ambition, Luckinbill, Goldsmith, location shooting and the best of intentions. Major demerits for making fun of our characters instead of embracing them, Ferren’s shoddy effects work, and a leaden premise with an unsolvable ending.
Next time: First inklings of an origin story for Kirk and Spock give way to an exciting whodunit that brings the original cast together for the last time, led by the redoubtable Nicholas Meyer in his (then) farewell to Star Trek.
Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.