Omega 13 “In defence of…”- A weekly treatise in which we analyze publicly derided Box Office Failures using granular convection to piece out the good that might lie beneath.
With the internet taking great pleasure casting an askance view on even the minute of failures in all manner of creative endeavour I thought it might be nice to look at those famously bad films of the past and revealing all the moments where they made the right choice. All movies have them, and they are even easier to see in a bad movie than in a good movie (since good movies are brimming with goodness). Kind of a Devil’s Advocate, but with a Pollyanna attitude; This is Omega 13…
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Release Date: June 9, 1989
Budget: 27.8 Million
1st Weekend Total: 17.3 Million
After the great trilogy that was Wrath of Kahn, Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home, the series was about to hit its most famous dip, yet. The story was, that when Leonard Nimoy had asked to direct Star Trek III, William Shatner threw a fit that might have had something to do with him not wanting his co-worker to direct him… or make more than him. The behind-closed-doors solution involved Shatner getting almost carte blanche for Star Trek V, and an apparent animal-like revulsion to script notes. Whatever the true story was, Star Trek V came out to an almost unanimous dislike by critics and fans alike. As a close friend once said, You can’t have Kirk, Spock, and Bones sing “Row your boat”, it undermines them.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and with a revisionist’s kinder eye, I was quite surprised at how enjoyable the film is. A film that had quite a lot to live up to after the crowd-pleaser that was IV, and the perfect II, it must have seemed that the only way to combat the unrealistic expectations was to not try to. Final Frontier plays more like a filler story akin to the episode “Shore Leave”, in that you just get to hang out with the crew and see them in their off hours. This, of course, was not what the adoring public expected, with the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and jerky stop motion, plus adding in a charismatic antagonist that actually turns out to be a pretty great guy, and you have the reasons fans walked out feeling cheated.
But there is so much fun to be had, so many comments on human nature and the need for God, that the film plays less like canon and more like a monster of the week. We actually have a delightful movie here. Let’s explore…
What helps Star Trek V: The Final Frontier stand out from the other films is the languid pre-credit sequence taking place on Nimbus III in the Neutral Zone. J’onn, an almost post-apocalyptic dust devil of a man, replete with goggles and rags, is using an auger to dig a hole in the dry, cracked desert. Off in the distance, the darkened shape of someone riding a horse through the blizzard of sand mars the landscape. J’onn, fearful, grabs his make-shift rifle and takes aim at the stranger, but his clumsy hands are not fast enough to fire as the man approaches, hands raised in a sign of peace. When he removes the fabric covering his face he reveals kind eyes, and he speaks to the man,
I thought weapons were forbidden on this planet. Besides, I can’t believe you’d kill me for a field of empty holes.
It’s all I have.
This is our first introduction to the would-be antagonist of the film, the man who will be revealed as Spock’s half-brother Sybok, who would then hijack the newly commissioned Starship Enterprise, fly it to the centre of the galaxy, in hopes to meet The Maker. This opening screams B-movie, sci-fi, end of the world stuff, and most Trek fans find that fantasy take on sci-fi to be out of place. It was a scene that would fit perfectly in a Mad Max film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; quirky, fun, peculiar. When J’onn speaks his line, “It’s all I have,” you understand right there that Shatner is a good director, he was just not making the fan’s Stark Trek film, he was making his own.
So as far as antagonists go, Sybok is far from the norm. Very quickly we learn that he is not out to cause violence to anyone, he is, in a literal sense, “On a Mission from God.” He uses his Vulcan mind meld to help young J’onn with something in his past that has been plaguing him. It frees J’onn, he is ready to follow Sybok to the ends of time. Then Sybok heads to the local settlement, Paradise, and with many wanderers he also met and helped throughout the desert, he enters the city and stages a kidnapping of sorts. Three Federation Consuls, for the soul purpose to have the Federation send an experienced Commander, and in turn that person would bring a Constitution class Starship which Sybok would commandeer. But he does all this without violence, and when Kirk, et al, sneak in to the city and start a fight, Sybok emotionally states, “It was not bloodshed I wanted.”
Off putting to some, but a remarkable change of pace in retrospect, to have a storyline not be propelled by the old hat Antagonist wants something, Protagonists try to stop, cat and mouse game ensue, and ultimately, the final battle. Here we have a man whose belief is so strong that he would stop at nothing to fulfill his mission; the true story of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In a world of science -science being “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” (thank you Google)- can there be any room left for God?
The practical mind of Kirk is brought to mental and figurative blows with Faith. Kirk reluctantly, and still willingly, joins Sybok on his Holy quest to the centre of the universe because Sybok received a vision from “God” that told him to come to him beyond the barrier, where Heaven is (The point is not lost on us that the placement of God would also be the position of the Big Bang). This leaves us with the remainder of the film to have wonderful philosophical conversations regarding faith vs. scientific proof, which reaches its zenith when the crew do meet a God-like being and Kirk is attacked when he asks this God to explain himself.
What does God need with a starship?
Jim, what are you doing?
I’m asking a question.
Who is this creature?
Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?
He has his doubts.
You doubt me?
I seek proof.
Jim! You don’t ask the Almighty for his ID!
Then here is the proof you seek.
[Shoots Kirk with lightning]
Why is God angry?
Why? Why have you done this to my friend?
He doubts me.
And by choosing to have “God” strike Kirk with lightning, we see what position the writer and director have taken. The Vengeful Old Testament God is not acceptable anymore when so many things in the universe can be explained through the faith of Science, and more everyday. David Loughery, and the Captain James T. Kirk, are saying that we have evolved beyond the stagnant, and childish mind of a supposed creator that would, metaphorically, “Take its ball back” if you didn’t agree with it. Which is why, Kirk has Sulu fire upon the being and obliterate its very existence from the world it may, or may not, have created. All children, as they say, must tear down their own parents before they can truly grow.
Despite all of this, It is my belief that Shatner and scriptwriter David Loughery had the intention of creating a film that was a light-hearted, Roger Corman-esque, Saturday matinee, family fair. A film that was meant to systematically tick all the boxes of a Summer Blockbuster spectacle… their biggest fault was they unfortunately forgot to tell their adoring fans it was never supposed to be any more than that. This movie that was perhaps created to stave off a wounded ego is also revealing what Shatner, and what most working actors, feel about a show they are working: that it really is a job to them. A job they can get bored doing just like us nine-to-fivers.
It is an interesting note that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home came out in November of 1986, and the following month Shatner hosted Saturday Night Live delivering this famous line in the “Get a Life” skit,
“You turned an enjoyable little job I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time.”
So it comes as no surprise that, with his own outing as helmer of the franchise, he creates a film that is lousy with the self-deprecation that Shatner has come to embody. Coupled with a joy-filled whimsy, and delightfully crude effects, you can see this was all just to have a little fun. And if it happens to be trying to make a statement about where the human race is in regards to our evolution then all the power to him.
The Final Frontier is almost like what DC comics calls an Elseworlds. This is not a hard-science sci-fi Star Trek film, but a chance to throw the characters in a film whose sole purpose is to play with the already established archetypes. To watch Scotty fumble and fuss over the ship, to give Uhura the sexy scene she deserves; to give Sulu and Chekov their comedy relief moments they were known for (well certainly Chekov was). To watch Bones bark his disbelief in whatever Kirk haphazardly ploughs himself in to, and have Spock question his long-fought fight with his Human side. Remember! this is the film where Spock performs the Vulcan neck pinch on a Horse.
Now, it would be remiss of me to not mention that this is not the first Star Trek film to be more comedy than drama. Part IV, The Voyage Home, was not even a great movie, nor was the odd storyline of transporting whales from the past to the future so they can sing for future “whales,” and also have Scotty give himself the formula for transparent aluminum in the past because, well he invented it. Or the Vulcan neck pinch of the stereotyped punk rocker, or the “Everyone remember where we parked” line. Star Trek, the films and the series, worked best when they balanced the drama with the comedy, and didn’t bend in one direction more than the other. This is, of course, why The Motion Picture failed, because it was trying to be 2001 and not more like “City on the Edge of Forever.”
A film that deserves to have more Trek fans come back for a look with fresh, less critical eyes as a perfect Star Trek film to put on when you want to introduce a less discerning newbie to the enjoyment of the characters, then show them Star Trek V: The Final Frontier… and finally, throw on Wrath of Kahn, and The Search for Spock.
For sure the endless chase by the rogue Klingons is out of place and was probably inserted after the Producers felt that Sybok was not evil enough to count as the antagonist, but in true Star Trek V fashion, the outcome of that does not end in a fight but in a scene that would have best fit in a Leave it to Beaver episode, where Talbot scolds the troublesome Klingon and makes him apologize like he stole a 5-cent candy.
The film ends with a dinner party where two of the Federation consuls make what seems like small talk about the journey of the film, but is clearly a metaphor for the underlying statement Star Trek V: The Final Frontier makes about human evolution:
We were just saying how far we’ve come in such a short space of time.
We certainly have.
A film that begins with Kirk trying to convince Spock, and Bones to sing “Row Your Boat” as they commune with nature, ends, after all of that, with the three uproariously singing said song not! on some metal mechanical man-made marvel, but among the natural wonders of the world. Fitting bookends on a film that on the surface seems a comedic one-off episode, yet also is trying to say that, okay, maybe we don’t need God anymore, if he indeed did exist, but we will not soon forget what He, or Mother Nature, or well organized space organisms, created on this swirling, blue, oblate spheroid, are wondrously majestic and beautiful. That regardless of what faith you follow, life is pretty damn great.
End Episode 10
Omega 13 will be taking a hiatus for a month before the next 10 episodes are created. Thanks for reading. When we get back on June 11th with Episode 11, where we will dig into 1999’s Baby Geniuses. If anyone has suggestions for movies that would fit nicely in the Omega 13 list leave a message in the comments.