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What Does God Need With A Starship?: A Look Back on Star Trek V
When discussing the goods and bads, ins and outs of Star Trek inevitably two things tend to come up: 1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an amazing piece of cinematic storytelling and 2. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an amazing piece of feldercarb that fails on every level. Star Trek V is, by most fans of the series, regarded with such malice and hatred that to some it is considered non-existent. Some fans refuse to even believe it exists and that in the Trek universe the number 4 is immediately followed by the number 6. My question is, in a universe where we have things like "Spock's Brain" and "Spectre of the Gun", is it really worthy of the absolute disgust most fans give to it? Or is it simply that we have, through the years, been conditioned to think it sucks and have never really given it a fair shake?
The story begins with a very Trek-like pre-credits sequence in which we are introduced to a rather sickly looking man on a third world (third star system?) planet called Nimbus III, which we are told is in the Neutral Zone. It isn't established, though, if this is the Klingon or Romulan Neutral Zone, though I don't think that really matters. Soon, a rather ominous character on horseback comes riding up, in what is really an iconic piece of cinematography (it just isn't original to this film). He approaches the frail looking fellow who pulls a homemade rifle on the intruder, protecting the holes he is so fiercely digging in the desert. We soon learn, he is willing to kill for this "field of empty holes" because it is all he has. The stranger then psycho-analyzes his new friend, making him face his pain so that he can grow strength from it. The teaser ends with the stranger removing his hood, revealing to one and all that he is a Vulcan (though why he's automatically recognized as a Vulcan instead of a Romulan is beyond me). Our Vulcan stranger then laughs, maniacally, against the sunset, which is another fine piece of cinematography. Fade to titles.
Yosemite National Park. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are on shore leave. Kirk is free-climbing El Capitan, Spock is annoying his Captain to no end, and McCoy is watching via digital binoculars and swearing profusely under his breath. After a near fatal fall from El Capitan (Kirk is caught by Spock, who is wearing anti-gravity boots), it is off to the campfire where McCoy is serving up a bowl of home cooked beans with a bit of Jack Daniels for that good ol' down home flavor, followed by the ritualistic roasting of the marsh-melons and a rousing sing-along of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", the lyrics of which Spock can't understand because life is not a dream.
Also on Earth in the great Yosemite are Chekov and Sulu, who got lost while hiking. As funny as the Kirk, Spock, McCoy scenes are, nothing is as priceless as the pilot and navigator of the Enterprise wandering around lost in the woods. The best part, though, is when they try to convince Uhura that they can't find the way to the beam back coordinates because they'd been caught in a blizzard. Apparently they forgot that the Enterprise's sensors can assess the weather of a given planet, but Uhura has no problem using this to call them out.
Everyone on shore leave is quickly recalled and we learn that our Vulcan stranger has taken over the dirtball planet of Nimbus III and, even though she's brand new and already falling apart (now which ship is the bucket of bolts, Mr. Scott?), the Enterprise is the only ship that can take this mission. No, not because she's the only ship in range (at least not this time, she is orbiting Earth, after all), but because "We need Jim Kirk."
Suffice it to say, a grand adventure ensues and it ends with our Vulcan stranger having taken control of the Enterprise (so, what did we need Jim Kirk for then?). And not only that, we soon discover our emotional Vulcan heavy, Sybok, is none other than Spock's own long-lost older brother (well, half brother), having been chastised and disowned long ago for embracing emotion. And it is here that Sybok tells us of his evil plot. He is commandeering the Enterprise to take her to the center of the galaxy where they will find God. However, unbeknownst to our fearless crew but knownst to us, a Klingon battlecruiser captained by Klaa, a rather young Captain with delusions of grandeur, is on an intercept course, hoping to murder the renegade Kirk in honorable battle and have one of those fine Klingon operas Worf will later become so fond of written about him.
To make a long summary short (is it too late for that?), Sybok brainwashes the crew, puts Kirk, Spock and McCoy in the brig, they escape (but just barely, because they ate too many marsh-melons) and they make it to the Bridge just as the Enterprise breaches the Great Barrier and reaches the planet Shakaree (sp?) where God lives. They beam to the surface, Kirk asks to see God's I.D., God gets pissed and shoots Kirk with the heat-vision (or something similar). As it turns out, "God" is really a malevolent being and he hopes to use the Enterprise to escape the prison he's been incarcerated in on the planet. Sybok, in an act of redeeming grace, sacrifices himself to defeat their seemingly omnipotent foe and Kirk sends Spock and Bones back to the Enterprise without him, because the transporters have just enough juice for two (and would we really have it any other way?). God returns, really pissed, and chases Kirk just as the Klingons show up in low planet orbit. They train their guns on Kirk (seemingly) but destroy God with two torpedoes and beam Kirk aboard. Here we see Klaa's CO force him to apologize to Kirk for being a massive jerk and we meet the Klingons' new gunner, Spock. There's a party in Ten-Forward (well, it was Ten-Forward before the set decorators took all the furniture out and told us it's part of the older ship, but we ain't buying it) and everyone lives happily ever after. Well, almost. There is still one more movie, after all.
OK, let's talk a bit about where this movie's bad rap comes from. One of the main grievances I've heard is that the movie has horrible special effects. This is just absurd on its face. The special effects are certainly consistent with those of the other pre-TNG Trek movies, and really on par with anything else being done in the latter half of the 1980s. Let's be honest, the SFX aren't anything to really gripe about (at least, not in context of the times). So the SFX issue has just been tossed out the window. Leave it there.
Another gripe I've heard is that the story lacks the scope to make it sufficiently cinematic for a major motion picture. OK, I agree. It watches like a two hour, extremely expensive (in context) episode of the original series. That point can't be argued. However, I submit that this can be said of Star Trek IV as well. Fifty percent of that movie takes place in 20th Century San Francisco! It's not cinematic at all. So what does IV have in the story department that V doesn't have? Humor? V is loaded with it. I can personally point out probably 20 funny lines, just off the top of my head. Star Trek V isn't the blatant comedy Star Trek IV is, but Trek as a whole isn't comedy. It's funny as hell, and so is Trek V, but it isn't comedy. So I ask again, what does God need with a starship? Um, I mean, what does IV have in the story department that V doesn't have. And don't say a coherent, logical story. At its core, Star Trek IV is nothing more than a hug a tree and save a whale parable, and Star Trek V has a logical coherent beginning middle and end. The story is fine. Maybe not as grand as it could have been, but certainly better than some episodes of the series.
Another big gripe about Star Trek V is the direction (or lack thereof) of William Shatner. Alright, let's just say this now, Martin Scorcesse the Shat certainly is not. He uses maybe a few too many homages to other movies and borrows maybe a few too many techniques from other directors, but who really knows Trek better than William Shatner? OK, so maybe he was jealous that Spock got to direct two movies and he wanted his turn. Isn't he owed that much? He's the Captain of the friggin' ship! He's the star of the show! Let the man have his day in the real big chair. Because of these points alone I think the direction deserves a bit of a pass. That said, not everything wrong technical wise was Shatner's fault. He had a grander vision than the studio was willing to pay for. He was hampered almost every step of the way by budget issues, and quite a bit of bad luck too. You have to understand, every Trek movie since the first was supposed to be the last. Paramount wasn't trying to turn Trek into a huge money making franchise. They were just trying to milk it for its last dollar, and were not willing to pour too many new dollars into it. I think with a better budget, a bit more time, and some better luck Shatner could have made a much better movie. He had at least that much talent in him, it just wasn't able to come out. So please, let's place the blame where it belongs, in the laps of the bean counters, and leave Mr. Shatner alone.
Well, there you have it, my thoughts on Star Trek V. I hope I've gotten at least some people to revisit The Final Frontier and maybe realize, while it may not be the greatest film of the Trek cinematic franchise, it certainly isn't the worst, and it is quite a bit better than some episodes from all five series. In fact, if you ask me (and you haven't), I think it's a bit of alright.