Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Up Until The First Mention Of God, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier Is Pure Star Trek!

The Good: Not a bad concept, Fine acting, Good enough special effects, DVD Bonuses
The Bad: Terrible character development, Poor execution of concept, Forced humor
The Basics: Utilizing the elements that made The Voyage Home so popular, Star Trek V The Final Frontier tries to tell a story with more audacious themes and fails to execute it well.

With the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (click here for that review!), the Star Trek franchise resurrected the idea of comedic interplay between the principle characters and when it came time to make the next outing, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the writers and director William Shatner simply took the concept a bit too far. What sinks Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not that the film is lame by concept, but the execution of the concept is terrible and relies almost entirely on some of the worst humor in the Star Trek franchise to sell the concept. The irony of most objective analysis' of The Final Frontier is that they neglect that up until a moment in the brig when Sybok first actually says the word "god," the film is very much within the mold of Star Trek.

On a distant planet where humans, Romulans and Klingons are working - or at least, failing - together, a cult leader rises up to liberate the lower elements of society and he takes the ambassadors from the three major powers hostage. His plan, actually a pretty good one, is to lure a starship to Nimbus III to hijack it. The poorly constructed U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A is one of two starships racing toward Nimbus III, the other is a Klingon Bird of Prey commanded by Captain Klaa, a warrior eager to test his skills against Captain James T. Kirk.

The problem is, the cult-leader on Nimbus III, Sybok, is not just a random nut. Sybok is a Vulcan who disdains logic and happens to be the half-brother of . . . wait for it . . . first officer Spock. The Enterprise, not in prime condition, arrives at Nimbus III to rescue the hostages and it falls right into Sybok's plan. As a result, the crew of the Enterprise soon finds itself at Sybok's mercy, heading for the center of the galaxy in search of . . . here comes the groan . . . god and Eden.

The thing is, this is not - despite all of the pressure to disavow this as a Star Trek outing - atypical of Star Trek. Forgetting all of the spin-offs, Star Trek dealt heavily with the search for god and the nature of the divine. The second pilot for Star Trek, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," begged the question "What makes a man into a god?" In the first season of Star Trek, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise encountered two and a half godlike creatures in the forms of Charles Evans in "Charlie X," Trelane in "The Squire of Gothos" and Landru (the 1/2) the cult-leader computer god in "Return Of The Archons." As the series progressed, the Enterprise encountered the god Apollo in "Who Mournes For Adonais?" and even went searching for Eden in "The Way To Eden." So, if anything, the problem with The Final Frontier is not that it is so out of place in the Star Trek pantheon, it's that it is so overdone in the Star Trek pantheon.

Arguably, the worst of the Star Trek movies have been such because they have taken elements from the worst Star Trek episodes. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is essentially an extended version of the original episode "The Changeling.” If all of these various names of Star Trek episodes are unfamiliar to you, it's not either surprising or a loss; these are some of the least popular Star Trek episodes in the franchise. The problem with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is that it is borrowing elements from one of the widest acknowledged worst episodes in the history of the franchise, "The Way To Eden."

The thing is, up until the moment where Sybok lays out his plan for what he actually wants, the movie is fine, if average. Sybok is a fine villain who can almost be excused for being a Vulcan dissident because he's not defined as a Vulcan until Spock relates to him (up until then, he could just be a crazy Romulan). My point with this is that for all of the forced humor (like Chekov and Sulu - the helmsman and navigator of the Enterprise - getting lost, Kirk wearing a shirt with a snappy slogan while on the bridge, and Spock's ignorance over campfire etiquette) the plot is very much that of a typical Star Trek experience and it even feels that way.

Sybok's plan is a good one, Klaa's ambitions - especially following the events of the prior two Star Trek films - are realistic, and even the newly added theme of Captain Kirk being certain of his immortality is fine. Kirk, it seems, knows he is going to die alone and as a result feels no fear about dying when plunging off a cliff because he knows Spock is with him. This does more to reinforce his character than undercut anything that has come before in the series. And up until Sybok lays out his grand plan while the Captain, McCoy and Spock are in the brig, this is a very typical Star Trek experience.

In fact, the beginning of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier seems to borrow heavily from a decent episode of the original series entitled "By Any Other Name.” In that episode, the Enterprise is lured to a remote planet where it is taken over by powerful aliens. Perhaps what makes this film so offensive is that the aliens here are not superpowered. "The Way To Eden" suffered because the people who thwart the Enterprise crew are space hippies (I kid you not). Star Trek fans are rightly offended by the idea of their heroes being thwarted by a bunch of losers and the space hippies and Sybok and his followers are.

But the thing about The Final Frontier is that the Enterprise is not up to snuff. The U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A is a wreck in space. It's a ship that is falling apart, that was never completely up to snuff, that is simply poorly put together. The writers and producers give a perfectly valid reason why Sybok and his starved, pathetic band of brainwashed idiots can take over the Enterprise; the ship is falling apart and is understaffed. If ever the Emaciated Brainwashed Cultists were to take the flagship of the Federation, this would be a good reason.

The problem is, it's a terrible reason. The Final Frontier expects the viewer to believe that the engineers in StarFleet are either utterly incompetent (outside Scotty) or that for some unfathomable reason the new Enterprise is just a pathetic hunk of junk. It does not fit. Sybok's ability to take it over makes sense, the state the ship is in does not. But even here, there is Star Trek precedent; in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," the ship is debilitated by a computer overhaul that makes the computer a flirtatious seductress. Again, that is arguably the worst element of that episode.

So, again, the difficulty of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is that it's an odd combination of the best hostage taking/character revealing elements of Star Trek and the worst plot and humor episodes of the franchise. Even the idea of Sybok, Spock's half-brother from his father's first marriage, is a fine idea. We know from episodes like "Amok Time" that Vulcan's are betrothed at an early age. How did Sarek end up with a human woman then? Well, if he had a Vulcan wife who died and freed him up to be with a human woman, that makes perfect sense. In fact, given what a traditional Vulcan Sarek is established as, it makes the series make more sense than without that.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not a failure within the context of Star Trek, it's merely trapped within the worst nature of the series.

That said, what The Final Frontier lacks is genuine and interesting character development. Outside the addition of Kirk's articulation that he will die alone, the characters are utterly stagnant. Sure, McCoy swears more than he could on network television and Sulu, Chekov and Uhura are all reduced to punchlines, the characters may be slightly different, but they are not growing and they are not better.

So far, my review has been pretty insular; anyone who follows my reviews knows that I'm into Star Trek (I've reviewed all of the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, along with all of the DVD boxed sets and I'm currently working my way through each episode of Star Trek Voyager). If you're not into Star Trek, what is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to you? Following on the heels of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, you might have seen it and remember it as "The One With The Whales," The Final Frontier is an attempt to capitalize on what made The Voyage Home so popular and take on an equally important social message, in this case the influence of religion and the search for god.

On a thematic level, The Final Frontier is far riskier than The Voyage Home. After all, anyone can make a movie about saving the environment and rally people around it. The Final Frontier equates religions with cults and God with a criminal. In The Final Frontier, the all-powerful being is not benevolent, it is manipulative and dangerous. Outside the lame humor, the poor characterization and the insulting plot elements to execute the theme, this is what nags at so many people (though usually unconsciously). It's easy to rally around "save the whales," it's harder to get people to accept "your god is a jerk."

That's the crux of why Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a mainstream failure. Mainstream audiences sat through and celebrated the humor of watching a Russian ask around for "nuclear wessels" in 1986, which is certainly on par with the humor of Spock calling "marshmallows" "marsh melons" in Star Trek V. Mainstream audiences watch and thrill over the most banal, ridiculous, insulting and stupid humor every day in movie theaters. Mainstream audiences get their adrenalin pumping to the most predictable, obvious hostage and hijacking situation movies whenever they come out. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is no different than those. It is the combination of the most banal action-adventure and stupid comedy that mainstream audiences could ask for. So, if you like the average hijacking movie (say Air Force One) and the average mainstream comedy (let's go with The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier fits right in with what you're expecting from a movie.

The real problem for both mainstream audiences and fans of Star Trek is in suspension of disbelief over Sybok's methods. Sybok is essentially a cult leader who is influencing people by asking them to confront and surrender their emotional pain. This puts them in a state that they find themselves surrendering their will to Sybok's. This is a ridiculous concept that is contradictory to almost all known psychology. Healing ourselves of our pain leads one to greater control over our lives and usually makes people more assertive, not less. Sybok's influence is counterproductive to his methodology. Freeing people of their pain ought to make them more likely to pursue their own goals, dreams and ambitions unhindered by what is holding them back. Instead, people release their pain only to adopt Sybok's witless quest. That's insulting.

On the two-disc DVD set, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is actually well presented. William Shatner makes insightful commentary on the film with his daughter, Liz and he discusses quite candidly what the movie did right and wrong. Indeed, on the second disc, Shatner explores places where the movie could have been enhanced and talks about how the budget continued being cut on him. Certainly, this does not fix the script problems, but Shatner takes a lot of flak for things that were out of his control. Before this DVD set was released, Shatner lobbied heavily to have a budget to fix the movie (like Star Trek The Motion Picture was recut by director Robert Wise). He was denied that right and I'll go so far as to say "that bites." Shatner did not gut the Star Trek franchise with The Final Frontier, he merely directed it and played it the way it was written.

The problem, again, is that The Final Frontier tried to take elements from some of the worst episodes and make them into a mainstream movie. It failed on both the mainstream success avenue and to please the fans.

The Star Trek film library is reviewed in my blog here!  Enjoy!


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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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