24 May 2013

THESE ARE THE VOYAGES: WHAT DOES GOD NEED WITH A STARSHIP?

You know what I think is probably the single most galling thing about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? It's the only time in a dozen Star Trek movies where "to seek out new life, and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before" is an active, driving element of the plot. The Enterprise is the only ship in range to stop an immediate threat to the planet Earth? They love that one, it was used three times (I, IV, VIII). Stop a Bondian madman who's trying to wreak smaller-scale havoc, possibly involving personal revenge? They love that one even more, used it five times (II, VII, X, XI, XII)? Some bullshit nonsense with a fountain of youth planet? Once, and that's at least twice more than they had to (IX).

But flying out into the depths of space, to see what you find there? Only shows up the once, and it would have to be in the absolute fucking nadir of the series, a movie so bad in so many ways that the second-worst has to squint and use binoculars to see that far down. I'm frankly at a loss to explain how things could go this far off the rails, and the old adage about failure being an orphan applies especially to this film: producer Harve Bennett, director William Shatner, and screenwriter David Loughery (all three of them credited with the story) have all piped up over the years with horror stories about budget this, studio brass that, scheduling the other thing.

All of which adds up to a giddy disaster, Star Trek's only cinematic venture into "so bad it's good" territory (the series had made it there once or twice itself - "Spock's Brain", anybody?), though only in the hypnotically dumb climax; most of the film is so bad it's bad, in a way that studio tentpoles aren't supposed to be, especially tentpoles from History's Biggest Summer in 1989, when pretty much every big movie you could think of was coming out. In a rare example of box office returns representing absolute justice, The Final Frontier was one of the summer's most prominent financial losers. As I was saying, though, such a thing really shouldn't have been possible; there's supposed to be more studio oversight of brand-name franchises, of which Star Trek most certainly was one at the time; this was a little less than two years after Star Trek: The Next Generation had premiered on TV to a good deal of acclaim and unheard-of ratings for a show that bypassed the networks entirely, to have its initial run in syndication. But the, The Final Frontier is the series' only vanity project, in which Shatner presented the most Shatnerriffic exercise in Shatner-worship of the franchise. Where, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Leonard Nimoy's direction went almost too far in the direction of giving freedom to his castmates and lots of opportunities to showcase their various characters, Shatner's handling of The Final Frontier is single-minded in its elevation of Captain James T. Kirk above all others, with particularly loving attention to how great Kirk is in a fight, demanding the most of his unstoppable virility.

For the first time in the series, there's a pre-title sequence that sets the scene on the wind-blasted desert planet Nimbus III, where the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan Empire have established the "Planet of Galactic Peace", a name milked for maximum irony, natch. Here, in the dismal capital Paradise City, where the grass is brown and the girls are kitties, a rogue Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) manages to use either personal charisma, mind-control techniques, or the revelation of the divine to bloodlessly take over the planet, making hostages of the three ambassadors from each political power (David Warner, Charles Cooper, and Cynthia Gouw). Light-years away, the Klingon Bird of Prey captain Klaa (Todd Bryant) hears the planet's distress call, and realises that the Federation will send a ship of the line to rescue their ambassador, and this thrills him, as he has never had an opportunity to fight a starship in open combat before.

As for the starship that the Federation will be sending: well, obviously, it's the U.S.S. Enterprise-A, because the Star Trek movies have an unerring ability to make sure that all of the other ships in the fleet are on the wrong side of the universe just the second that a crisis hits. This time, though, there's a wrinkle; it's not that there are no ships, it's that there are no captains up to the illustrious Kirk who can get to Nimbus III in time. Because nobody is remotely as wonderful as Kirk, of course. That the Enterprise is barely holding together after something as simple as a shakedown cruise doesn't bother Starfleet at all, never pausing to think that they could perhaps send Kirk out to a hostile corner of the galaxy in anything that's more than 20% functional.

This comes as frustrating news to Kirk, who along with most of his crew is vacationing in Yosemite: he and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are introducing the very dubious Spock (the very dubious Leonard Nimoy, whose resistance to aspects of the script keeps cropping up throughout) to the joys of camping, while Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) are out in the woods, hiking, and not getting interesting plots of their own. Up on the Enterprise, Scotty (James Doohan) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) are engaging in flirty banter that exists nowhere in the franchise besides Shatner's overheated imagination.

All reassembled, the crew jets off to the ass-end of space, breaking into Sybok's compound only to find that he's even brought the ambassadors over to his cause; seems that all along, he just wanted to steal whatever ship Starfleet sent to rescue, and the fabled Enterprise will fit the bill very nicely. The full depth of his madness isn't revealed until he's taken over the ship and brainwashed most of the crew: he wants to plunge through the electromagnetic barrier at the center of the universe, to find the legendary Sha Ka Ree, in Vulcan mysticism the place from which God began the creation of life. Also, he's Spock's half-brother, a plot development that Nimoy is visibly miserable to play, and Gene Roddenberry detested so much that he declared it, and by extension the rest of The Final Frontier, to be non-canonical.

There's so much that's bad, and then there's so much that's weird, and I don't know which bothers me more. In the "bad" column, we have things like the film's absolutely heinous visual effects, done on the cheap and for the first time by a different company than Industrial Light & Magic (discounting Star Trek: The Motion Picture, made when ILM was still a LucasArts exclusive), including a shot of the Enterprise going to warp speed in order to dodge a Klingon beam that's so unfathomably shitty-looking that I swear you'd think it was from a flash-animated parody if you saw it divorced from context. Or we have Shatner's Razzie-winning performance (to go with his Razzie-winning direction of a Razzie-winning film), in which we see just what it looks like when William Shatner has no direction at all, and is permitted just to do whatever the almighty fuck he feels like: the resultant "I'M TELLING A JOKE NOW!" calibration of the quips, and the heaving sincerity of the dramatic moments - emphasis on "heave" - are truly humiliating to watch, and you get the feeling from his colleague's dialed-down and somewhat blinkered performances (only Doohan escapes mostly unscathed) that it was humiliating to stand near, as well.

The weird stuff is absolutely what lingers, though, be it Uhura's sexy fan dance to distract a bunch of armed guards - easily the low point in that frequently misused character's entire career - or Luckinbill's chummy performance that evokes neither "radical Vulcan" nor "oily televangelist" nor "religious zealot", but "whoosa puppy dog! Sybok's a puppy dog!" There is the strange fight sequence at Paradise City, with a Gatling gun - not even, like, a space Gatling gun, just a normal one - and Spock nerve-pinching a horse, a hectic and violent but not very interesting or action-packed sequence whose limp choreography benefits nobody but Kirk, and I can only imagine what the peaceable Roddenberry must have thought when it was all wrapped up by a scene in which Kirk kills a three-breasted catwoman alien - because that says Star Trek - by throwing her into a pool of water; I bet I can guess what kind of shocked and vaguely disgusted look was on his face at the time, though, because it was on mine as well.

And of course, the finally, in which Kirk squares off with an omnipotent alien pretending to be the Christian God (in a series where the non-existence of Christianity in anything resembling its contemporary form had been resolutely strongly implied, though not, as I recall, explicitly stated to this point), which is a lot better than in Shatner's original conception, when it was actually God. Part of me desperately wants to see that movie: in which Kirk beats God.

I cannot decide whether The Final Frontier is the worse because it so thoroughly violates the spirit and much of the established rules of Star Trek, or simply because it's such a dreadfully unwatchable movie in its own right: mangled action scenes, a helpless screenplay with plot points that pay off other plot points with grim mechanical inefficiency (rocket shoes and "Row Your Boat" are among the most painfully on-the-nose callbacks), out-to-sea actors, and quite possibly the worst visual effects in any major release of the year that bore witness to The Abyss, Batman, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

What's especially painful is that, in the abstract, this is Star Trek at is very purest, a huge and decisive course-correction amidst so many films that are much more action-oriented and popcorn-movie than any of the television series were. It plays much like an inverse of the original series' second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before"; it openly engages with topics of psychological, social, and spiritual import. But it does these things badly - worse than the show ever managed to be at its cheapest, most rushed, and least insightful. Worse than the singing space hippies episode, in fact, and when you have found a way to make Star Trek worse than the space hippies, you have done a wicked thing indeed.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)

9 comments:

Chris D said...

I have only two things to say about this:

At least it led to a couple of the very best gags in the Futurama cast reunion episode, and holy shit that poster.

Smorb and Friends said...

I'm not sure there's any other franchise that can go from "amazingly great" to "utterly unwatchable" so quickly and so often.

This review has made me more excited than ever to hear your opinions about Insurrection. I wonder if you've read scriptwriter Michael Pillar's book about the making of Insurrection? It's a fantastic account of how much thought, effort, and creativity went into creating something so dull and uninteresting. Fun fact: Insurrection was originally supposed to be based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Yeah.

Thrash Til' Death said...

"Paradise City, where the grass is brown and the girls are kitties"

I'm honestly not sure if this is the best or worst pun I've ever read.

Not Fenimore said...

@Thrash: BEST.

@Tim: Also, if you stretch the point a little, you could shove III under "Some bullshit nonsense with a fountain of youth planet" too, thereby divvying up the entire cinematic series into four categories.

Tim said...

Chris- To be fair to the movie, I went out of my way to pick the single worst poster in the campaign. To be fair to me, they approved that poster.

Smorb- I have not read that book, but it sounds amazingly hubristic. I haven't seen the movie in years, but I'm 99% sure that it ended up containing no traces of Conrad whatsoever.

Thrash- WORST.

Not Fenimore- Well, there's still The Undiscovered Country, which could be smuggled into "Bondian madman", but it's so much more of a political thriller and roman à clef than anything else in the Star Trek universe...

KingKubrick said...

This movie....yeesh. That's all I got to say.

Regular GeoX said...

I remember my dad took my friend and I to see this movie, but when we got there, the two of us decided that there was another movie we would rather see. So my dad saw Star Trek V, and we saw...The Karate Kid Part III. I remember nothing whatsoever about The Karate Kid Part III, but then, I also remember very little about Star Trek V from when I finally saw it, on video. I certainly couldn't make any judgments as to which was "better."

Smorb and Friends said...

The book is actually a pretty sober account of the realities of getting a high-profile movie made when so many people (too many people) have a creative stake in the production. It's available as a PDF for free (Paramount wouldn't consent to have it be officially published) and it's worth checking out.

Among the highlights are letters Patrick Stewart wrote giving incredibly thoughtful (and surprisingly Trek-literate) critiques of script drafts. Various proposed treatments are also reproduced, and you can see how an interesting idea eventually degenerated into... whatever Insurrection ended up being.

Plus, you can read the script for a scene where Quark visited the Enterprise.

javi75 said...

This one wasn't released theatrically in Spain, it went straight to video, so it must have been considered a huge disaster by the company too.