Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly critique of one of the movies in my DVD library.  Back in the late-spring/early-summer of 2013, I decided to watch every Star Trek movie to prepare myself for Into Darkness.  That brings us to Part 5 of my series on every Star Trek movie, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  This is originally dated in my notes at April 12, 2013.

Star Trek V Movie Poster

Here we are, once again, getting back to watching every Star Trek movie before Into Darkness comes along. And really, we get to the one that's the first case for the mania I'm going through now, in anticipation of a new Star Trek movie. For tonight, we do Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Or as I called it back then, "Evif Kert Rats." (That's "Star Trek Five" backwards. I don't know why I thought it was fitfully clever to refer to the film as that, but for a month before the film's release, that's what I called. Yeah...this is when I started becoming the weird kid.)

The back story...Star Trek IV came along, and was a gigantic hit, so of course, a fifth film was inevitable. And this time, the main creative force behind it was going to be...William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself. The legend always was that he demanded to do #5 because Leonard Nimoy got to do #4. That's partially true. It turns out Shatner and Nimoy had something in their contracts called "favoured nations clauses," which meant that whatever one got, the other got as well. When making The Voyage Home, Nimoy pointed out to Shatner that this could be interpreted as Shatner getting to direct a film, as Nimoy just did one. Shatner pointed this out to the Paramount brass, and Shatner got the gig.

But this first time director had a tough row to hoe. Star Trek V wound up being plagued with problems. As outlined in the DVD bonus features, Shatner's original outline for Star Trek V was quite simple: The Enterprise goes looking for God. But rather than Heaven, they find Hell. Since the Devil exists, then by extension, God must exist as well. Religion is always something they tried to shy away from in Star Trek. I mean, with so many different religions in the world, Gene Roddenberry and the rest of Star Trek's creators never wanted to risk offending someone by pointing to one religion as being THE religion. So concepts of God were initially met with some...resistance. Besides, Roddenberry described himself as a secular humanist, and they say if you know what to look for, then Star Trek is pretty preachy for secular humanism.

But that wasn't all. Since Star Trek IV was the biggest Star Trek movie of all time, and because it was largely comedic in tone, Paramount wanted a comedy. They wanted another funny Star Trek. Now see, in The Voyage Home, the comedy grew organically. The Enterprise crew were fish out of water as they experienced the culture shock of leaving the refined 23rd century for the excess of the 1980s. It just happened naturally with the script. So in Star Trek V, a lot of the comedy seems forced and out of place. Honestly, watching it again tonight, it reminded me of the comedy in the much-loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy that does come up is so stupid and out of place, that you just can't help but shake your head.

And the special effects. Again, this one has the worst special effects in the history of the Star Trek franchise. When it came time to roll cameras, the legendary Industrial Light and Magic was unavailable, as for the summer of 1989, they were already hard at work doing the effects for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Abyss, and Ghostbusters II. So the special effects were done by a little outfit in New Jersey called Farrin and Associates. And the work they put out...meh. Was it because they weren't up to the task? Was it because they started slashing the budget? All we know is the models look very much like models. When the special edition DVD came out, as one home theatre website said, you know the special effects are bad when the cheap CGI used to make the DVD menus is significantly better.

All in all, the cards were stacked against Star Trek V. They tried their best, but darn it, it just wasn't going to come together. You know, I first heard Star Treks 2, 3, and 4 referred to as "The Star Trek Trilogy" during the promotional blitz for Star Trek V, and they're right. 2, 3 and 4 dovetail together quite nicely, each one tying up the loose ends of the last film and continuing forward. But Star Trek IV pretty much finished things off. There were no loose ends or logical starting points. So they decided to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Watching this again tonight, definitely the word to describe it is ambitious. There are so many concepts and new characters that are introduced. But, in a recent online review I watched of Star Trek V, they posited a proper question: how can a movie with so much in it have so little going on?

And with so much, so many characters are introduced. There's a great concept with the planet of Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. A planet in the Neutral Zone, so rich in natural resources, that rather then go to war over it, the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans attempted to develop it together. And the project wound up being a miserable failure as the settlers soon began warring among themselves. The three rulers of the planet: St. John Talbot, the Federation ambassador, who's been there since the beginning and watched the whole thing go to Hell. General Korrd, a once legendary but now disgraced Klingon general who spends his days getting drunk with Talbot. And then, one day, in walks Caitlin Dar, the new Romulan ambassador, who's young and idealistic and still believes in the promise of this planet.

And then we have our B-villains, the Klingon Captain Klaa and his first officer and (hinted at in the movie, but confirmed in all the expanded universe materials) lover Vixis. Bored that he has yet to be in a battle to show off his warrior spirit, Klaa gleefully and obsessively tracks down Kirk so he can face the Enterprise in battle.

And finally, our main villain of the piece, Sybok, a Vulcan revolutionary who decided to embrace his emotions rather than logic. He feels that such an act brings him closer to spiritual enlightenment and ultimately closer to God. Oh, and he's Spock's long-lost brother. We really don't get to know Sybok as a character or have his relationship with Spock explored much...he's just a man on a mission, and damn it, he needs to steal the Enterprise to achieve that mission.

This is the first Star Trek film I saw in the theatre. It was the summer of 1989, The Next Generation has just finished it's second season, I was about to star junior high, and I had fully become a Trekkie. When it came to my Star Trek fandom, it was very new and exciting to me. I was out loud and proud, baby! And as many a film historian has pointed out, when it comes to the phenomenon known as the summer blockbuster, the summer of 1989 is still regarded as one of the most overstuffed in recent memory. It brought us Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Abyss, and the one that ruled them all, Tim Burton's Batman. But there was 12-year old me, thinking, "Fuck all that noise. I'm off to The Final Frontier."

I was very much into the hype around this film. I had the official movie magazine, and read it cover-to-cover. I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I read the novelization. Ye gods, the novelization! So much better than the movie! All those introduced characters up above got such rich backstories that are only vaguely hinted at in the finished film. Yes, Klaa and Vixis are lovers, and we see that she's all Lady MacBeth like and eggs him on so he'll achieve greater glory. We see Korrd's disgrace, and he has his own subplot, so at the end, when he takes command of the Bird-of-Prey away from Klaa and uses it to rescue Kirk, it winds up being this huge act of redemption. And St. John Talbot and Caitlin Dar...her passion and youthful idealism re-ignites something inside him, and he too regains his passion for the Nimbus III project, and darn it, they even fall in love with each other.

Much like my friends 10 years later with Star Wars: Episode I, I absorbed every universe expanding piece of ancillary material that came along. All such awesome, awesome stuff that we never saw in the film. Damn it, I really wanted to re-read the novelization now, but my sister turfed all my Star Trek paperbacks in a cleaning fit a few years ago.

I love movies so much, that going to see a movie on my birthday has been my preferred of celebrating it since my 10th birthday. And for #12 in 1989, the movie I wanted to see for my birthday was Star Trek V. So the family went into the city but, fate was not with me. Mom had accidentally read the movie listings for a few days before, and it was no longer playing at the theatre we went to. So I had to choose something else. What was going to be my #2 choice? I had it narrowed down to either Batman or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. And, since you know I love Batman as much as I do, naturally I chose...Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. That's right, Tim Burton's Batman is the only Batman movie I've never seen in the theatre, and I willfully turned it down the one chance I got. But I digress.

Since my parents did promise me Star Trek V, I got to go see it a couple weeks later. I remember watching it in the theatre, and I remember loving it. I still love certain parts of it, and I do have a soft spot for it, generated mainly by nostalgia for that summer of 1989.

Seriously, some day, I'm going to write my epic coming-of-age tale, and it will be set in the summer of 1989. I don't know why, but that summer is monumental to me in my memory.

So the film opens on Nimbus III. We see a man prospecting in the desert, but coming up with nothing. A lone figure rides out of the dust cloud, and he and the man share some kind of mind meld, and in doing so, the man is finally able to let go of all his pain and regret and find inner peace. The mysterious figure reveals himself to be a Vulcan, and upon the man's astonishment, the Vulcan looks to the heavens and begins to laugh. Cue epic Jerry Goldsmith theme!

And, if you were like 12-year old me, you were wondering, "Why are they using the Star Trek The Next Generation theme?" Remember, at this point, I hadn't seen the Motion Picture yet, so I didn't know that theme's origins.

We catch up with Kirk, Spock, and Bones on shore leave on Earth, camping out in Yosemite National Park. Kirk is attempting to climb El Capitan, and despite everyone's misgivings about the film, when Spock pops in on Kirk's climb, it's still regarded as a classic Kirk/Spock moment.

Kirk eventually reveals that he knew he wouldn't die in that fall, because he always knew he'd die along.  Gee, I wonder if that will pay off later in the film?  Then, while camping out, they sing Row Row Row Your Boat around the campfire.  Yeah, it's part of the stupid comedy that fills the film, but damn it, I love that scene.  I ripped the audio and played it a lot on my college radio show back in the day.

But the shore leave is short-lived.  The Enterprise soon gets its orders.  Our mysterious laughing Vulcan has raised an army, taken control of Paradise City, the capital of the planet of Galactic Peace, and taken the ambassadors hostage.  The Enterprise is dispatched on a rescue mission.  But here's part of the stupid comedy that dominates the film.  The Enterprise-A is such a new ship, that nothing works right!  See, those famous automatically-opening doors don't open all the way!  Cue the laugh track!

The Klingons also dispatch a ship to rescue their ambassador, commanded by Captain Klaa.  He's thrilled when he learns the Enterprise is being dispatched, because he'll be able to face the great Captain Kirk in battle. 

And the Romulans decide to do nothing and let their comely young ambassador fend for herself.  Stay classy, Romulus!

The Enterprise arrives first and launches their rescue mission. The transporter is still out of commission, so they land a distance aways in the shuttlecraft.  In order to get to their destination quicker, they have Uhura perform a naked fan dance to distract some of Sybok's men so they can steal their horses.  Stay classy, Starfleet! 

Big action sequence where Kirk and crew shoot up the city and rescue the ambassadors.  But, guess what?  Sybok did that "free you of your pain" thing to the ambassadors, and they're on Sybok's side now.  Sybok and Spock recognize each other, but their reunion is somewhat frosty.  With Kirk and crew hostage, Sybok and his gang commandeer the shuttlecraft and head for the Enterprise.  However, the Klingons are coming in to attack, and the Enterprise puts her shields up.  The shuttlecraft can't get in now!  So, in order to lower the shields, get the Enterprise in, and warp to safety, they decide to fly the shuttle into the landing bay manually, and it results in a spectacular crash landing.  The Enterprise goes to warp just in time and dodges the Klingon's torpedoes. 

In the wreckage of the shuttlecraft, Kirk and Sybok wake up first and throw down.  Their struggle eventually ends when Spock gets his hands on the gun, but refuses to kill Sybok.  Kirk, Spock and Bones are tossed in the brig, and Sybok starts using his "free you of your pain" trick to win over the entire crew.  While in the brig, Spock finally reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, and that's why he couldn't pull the trigger.  Now, in command of the Enterprise, Sybok reveals his mission.  He wants to take the Enterprise through the Great Barrier...an energy field at the centre of the galaxy.  Sybok believes that, on the other side of the barrier, is Sha Ka Re -- Vulcan heaven --  and there, he will find God. 

With Scotty's help (he hadn't been turned yet), Kirk, Spock and Bones escape the brig and manage to get an emergency message out...which is intercepted by Klaa and his crew, and they pursue.  Just when they think they're free, Sybok tracks them down and does his "free you from your pain" thing on Spock and Bones.  Even with these weights off their shoulders, their friendship and loyalty to each other and Kirk is too strong, and they still choose not to side with Sybok. 

They reach the Great Barrier, Sybok takes his leap of faith, and the Enterprise sails through it unscathed.  And there, they find a planet.  His mission fulfilled, Sybok returns the Enterprise to Kirk, but knowing Kirk's curiosity has been piqued, Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Sybok form an away team and take a shuttlecraft to the planet.  On the planet, a stone temple rises from the ground, and "God" appears.  Enthralled by this, God and Sybok begin planning taking the Enterprise to spread His message through the galaxy.  But then Kirk poses a very poignant question:  what does God need with a starship?  Shocked at this insolence, God asks who Kirk is, to which Kirk points out the the all-knowing, all-seeing God should know.  "God" attempts to vaporize Kirk and Spock, and everyone finally realizes that this is not God, just some very powerful entity claiming to be.  The entity takes the form of Sybok, and Sybok realizes that his arrogance and ego have brought them to this place.  Sybok says good-bye to his brother, and makes the ultimate sacrifice so Kirk, Spock and Bones can escape. 

Scotty's got the transporter working, and manages to Spock and Bones up to the ship.  But just as they're about to beam up Kirk, the Klingons attack and knock the transporters offline again.  Klaa demands Kirk, but Spock says they can't do it because Kirk is on the planet.  Spock implores General Korrd to take command and school these young Klingons.

Meanwhile, back on the planet, the entity is still alive, and Kirk, all alone, is running for his life.  Just as Kirk's prophecy that he'll die alone looks to come true, the Klingon Bird of Prey appears and blasts away the entity.  Kirk, knowing how the Klingons feel about him, prepares to be next, but is beamed aboard instead. 

(I remember reading the movie magazine, and they showed the concept art for this scene.  The concept art showed Kirk defiantly pointing a hand phaser up at the Bird of Prey.  It was a great shot.) 

On the Bird-of-Prey, we see Korrd has taken command and told Klaa to chill the fuck out and let it go.  Klaa apologizes to Kirk for his unprovoked attack, and we see that Spock was the one who pulled the trigger and saved Kirk. 

Back on the Enterprise, our heroes have a dinner party with the Klingons to celebrate the end of this adventure.  Our heroes finally get to finish their shore leave, and Kirk, Spock and Bones finally finish their song. 

And that brings us to the end of The Final Frontier.  Do I think it really is the worst of all the original crew films?  Well...worst is such a strong word.  It's definitely not the best.  But I've got a lot of childhood nostalgia tied up in this film and it kind of clouds my judgement.  Most of all, I remember the potential of the film.  I remember reading all that extra stuff throughout 1989 and thinking what might have been. 

Great potential.  Poor execution. 

From "definitely not the best" to, in my opinion, the best.  Next, we're doing the Undiscovered Country. 

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