'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' is surreal, barely finished, and oddly fun
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise — and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: The one where Kirk meets God, and He is Us. Last week: Leonard Nimoy’s beautiful and joyful time-travel comedy. Next week: The end of an era — and the return of the great Nicholas Meyer.
Come to the campfire, listen to the old story.
Great space hero Kirk relaxes with funny man McCoy and funny man Spock. Spock has funny flying boots. Hero Kirk needs no such boots. Hero Kirk climbs great mountain, hands so strong, no equipment required, such skills has Kirk.
See him from far away, with Hero head turned toward the mountain. See him, in forgiving silhouette. See how Hero Kirk looks suspiciously like a much younger man.
How appropriate, this: Hero Kirk, Space Captain of the Galaxy, climbing a mountain called El Capitan. In a better world, we would call this movie Star Trek: El Capitan Rises.
He falls off — but only because of distraction, by funny man Spock and those funny flying boots! Fortunately, Hero Kirk saved by funny man Spock.
They start a fire together with funny man McCoy, sing old songs as old men do. Old men all, heroes all, families none.
Was Hero Kirk scared when he climbed El Capitan? “I’ve always known I’ll die alone,” says Hero Kirk, a hero.
Meanwhile, in space, trouble in Paradise City. Romulans, Klingons, humans, all taken prisoner in strip club by Vulcan Jesus and his bad dummies.
Meanwhile, in space, tough Klingon announces, “I want to fight a great hero, like Great Hero Kirk.”
Meanwhile, in space, Starfleet calls beloved Hero Kirk back to beloved ship Enterprise.
“Hero Kirk, we need a hero,” says Starfleet.
“There must be other ships in the quadrant,” says Hero Kirk.
“None so heroic as you, El Capitan,” says Starfleet.
“I am El Capitan!” says Hero Kirk, ascender of peaks, conqueror of night. Fly, Kirk, fly!
He does, to Paradise City. Hero Kirk takes funny man McCoy and funny man Spock and trusty pal Sulu and trusty pal Uhura down to planet. They need horses: What to do? Trusty pal Uhura distracts with feminine wiles, performs fan dance for bad dummies. To her prisoners, she declares: “I’ve always wanted to play to a captive audience.” Trusty pal Uhura!
(Fiftysomething Nichelle Nichols fan-dancing in space: Curious, you say? Real-life fan-dancer Sally Rand much older when she fan-danced for Future President Johnson and the American astronauts in 1962. Movies are ridiculous, history just so.)
Hero Kirk and funny pals ride horses into town. Bad dummies see them, so Hero Kirk punches and shoots and throws and kicks. Bang bang! Punch punch! Slap slap! Kickpunch! Funny man Spock squeezes neck of horse. “Whinny!” whines the horse, unconscious. Great success!
Into strip club strolls Hero Kirk — but he is attacked! By an exotic dancer! Who is a cat-lady, with three breasts, and a tail!
Hero Kirk throws her, tail and three breasts and all, onto a pool table made of water. (Get it? Playing pool in a pool?) “I am dead!” shrieks the cat-lady, dead. “I am a hero!” announces Hero Kirk.
Another great success for great successful hero Kirk, climber of mountains, captain of space! But oh, betrayed. Humans and Romulans and Klingons, all working with Vulcan Jesus. Doubly betrayed, for Vulcan Jesus is friend of funny man Spock. Not just friend: Spock and Vulcan Jesus are brothers. (Hero Kirk thought Spock’s only brother was Hero Kirk.)
Vulcan Jesus takes over Enterprise. All Enterprise crew now devoted to Vulcan Jesus. Pal Sulu smiling and Pal Uhura smiling and Pal Chekov smiling. “Why are you afraid of me?” says Vulcan Jesus. “I’m afraid of nothing,” says Hero Kirk.
(Elsewhere in space, Tough Klingon follows Enterprise. “I can’t wait to fight Great Space Hero Kirk,” he says. “I’m gonna fight Hero Kirk so hard!”)
But Vulcan Jesus has such power. He takes away your pain. In this universe, all pain somehow father-focused. He shows funny man McCoy dying old father. He shows funny man Spock the moment of his birth. “I killed my dad!” says funny man McCoy. “My dad never loved me,” mumbles funny man Spock.
Hero Kirk, no time for such silliness. “I don’t want my pain taken away,” he tells Vulcan Jesus. “I need my pain.” Hero Kirk not just strong; Hero Kirk so strong and also so weak. Kirk is strongest and the weakest! Kirk is all, all is Kirk! “I am a hero!” says Hero Kirk. “You are!” all agree.
But even Hero Kirk nervous, when Vulcan Jesus reveals plan. The Great Barrier at the Center of the Galaxy: Good ship Enterprise will go through it. “No ship has ever gone into the Great Barrier!” says Hero Kirk, repeating what we of course all know, everyone knows about the Great Barrier, it was in the memo, famous Great Barrier, famous Center of the Galaxy. “We’ll never make it through the Great Barrier,” says Hero Kirk. But Vulcan Jesus has a response to that: “Yuh huh!”
Yuh huh, indeed. And beyond the Great Barrier lies Planet Heaven, not to be confused with Paradise City. “Hmm, Heaven,” says Hero Kirk. “Better check it out.” Down to the planet with funny man Spock and funny man McCoy and Vulcan Jesus. The planet so empty, all mountains, fun to climb, no God around.
“Where are you, God!” says Vulcan Jesus.
“I am God!” says God, appearing.
God so happy. God wants a starship. Funny man Spock intrigued. Funny man McCoy declares himself born again. Hero Kirk skeptical. Hero Kirk has a question.
Hero Kirk would hold up hand to a hurricane, would tap grizzly bear on the back, would demand lava flow uphill. Hero Kirk asks God, “What does God need with a starship?”
“I am undone!” says God. “I’ll show you I’m God!” Then God fires God energy at Hero Kirk, bazzap!
Twist: God was the Devil all along! Or perhaps the Devil left eons ago, and God went crazy! God reached beyond Great Barrier using God powers, fooled Vulcan Jesus into bringing him a starship, now will take Enterprise. “Bring the ship closer,” says God, “That I might… join with it!”
Hero Kirk not having that, no no. Enterprise is his baby. No one’s joining with his baby, doesn’t matter who the boy is, doesn’t matter if he comes from a nice family, doesn’t matter if he’s God Himself. Vulcan Jesus punches God. “I am dead!” shrieks Vulcan Jesus, dead. Hero Kirk calls the Enterprise. “Rescue the funny pals!” says Hero Kirk. They beam away.
(Elsewhere in space, the tough Klingon says, “Hero Kirk, here I come! We’re gonna fight so hard! I’m a tough Klingon! Growl!”)
Down on Planet Heaven, Hero Kirk climbs mountains, his abilities at climbing mountains thankfully well-established in prologue. But God chases, firing God-rays out of eyes. Then there’s a Klingon ship, oh no! Klingons fire Klingon Rays at God. “I am dead!” declares God, dead.
Hero Kirk turns to Klingon ship. “So it’s me you want, you Klingon bastards!” says Hero Kirk. “Take me! I’m a hero!”
He chooses own death, dying alone, waving fists at oblivion. God needs a starship; Kirk needs only Kirk.
A transporter sound, and he is onboard the Klingon ship. Tough Klingon says, “Hero Kirk, you’re cool by me.” And look at that: Funny man Spock is on the Klingon Ship!
Funny man Spock says, “Hello, Hero Kirk, you are my Captain and a hero!” Spock’s brother is dead, but he doesn’t mind, because Kirk with him. Years earlier, Hero Kirk’s son died, but he didn’t mind, because funny man Spock with him.
Hero Kirk tries to hug his Spock.
“Not in front of the Klingons,” says funny man Spock, implying perhaps that there is something that will happen in private, with no peeping Klingons.
Another adventure complete, for Great Space Hero Kirk, Captain of Galaxy, Inquisitor of God, Man of Universe, Singer of Songs, Seriously So Good At Riding Horses! They throw a party for Hero Kirk and all his pals, old and new.
See Pal Uhura and Pal Scotty, getting cozy!
See Pal Sulu and Pal Chekov, chasing Strong Hot Klingon Lady. “She has vunderful muscles!” declares Pal Chekov, while Pal Sulu smiles at him, a smile that speaks volumes to deaf ears.
At window, seeing space, Hero Kirk talks to funny man Spock and funny man McCoy. “Cosmic thoughts, gentlemen?” he inquires.
“We were speculating,” admits funny man McCoy. “Is God really out there?”
Pause for moment to imagine speculation, to imagine funny man McCoy and funny man Spock at this cocktail party at the Center of the Galaxy, having just met God or something like Her, wondering if Trelane was God or will Q be God or were the Greek Gods born from some True God or did God build the Guardian on the Edge of Forever or were the Organians God or is God a whale. (“We were speculating,” funny man McCoy should’ve said, “How many Gods are there??”)
“Maybe,” says Hero Kirk, space hero. “Maybe He’s not out there, Bones….
And, for a frozen moment, Hero Kirk points at himself.
And, for a frozen moment in the greatest movie he ever directed, William Shatner admits that He is God.
Oh, Hero Kirk only kidding. Thought half-finished. He’s pointing at heart, because perhaps God is in the human heart, beat beat, punch punch.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps Hero Kirk the real God all along. Perhaps whole great adventure to Center of the Galaxy just handy way to prove no one — not Vulcan Jesus, not Klingons, not Romulans, not Spock, not God himself — can stop El Capitan.
What a day it’s been. Hero Kirk and funny pals, back to camp in time for campfire. Sing songs all night. “Merrily, merrily merrily, merrily,” they sing. “Life is but a dream.”
In dreams, we are hero and creator. In dreams, we act and direct. In dreams, we are Kirk and Shatner, both. We want to believe our dreams are grand things. Perhaps, just perhaps, our dreams look an awful lot like The Final Frontier.
To be clear: This fifth Star Trek film? A mess. The shoddy Big Ideas aren’t even half-baked. Shatner wanted this to be a movie where Kirk goes to Hell to save his friends from the Devil, but also a movie about the evil of televangelists. So, in the abstract, a movie that would deconstruct religion but also hyperbolize it past absurdity, arguing against false prophets while profiting off false prophecy. (“Don’t believe in organized religion!” says a movie about God existing.)
The film backs away from that, and from everything. Fake God is just an alien, imprisoned by ???? because ???? using his powers of ????? to ?????? Nominal villain Sybok — almost played by Sean Connery, barely played by Laurence Luckinbill — has a vaguely Hubbardian ability to flashback you into cultist serenity, and the movie winds up taking his false transcendence as absolute fact.
Gone is the grandeur of Wrath of Khan; gone, also, the whimsy of Voyage Home. If we’re talking the franchise, Final Frontier bears the strongest visual resemblance to Search for Spock; both Nimoy and Shatner clearly saw Star Wars and figured that cantinas were the thing for space movies, although only Shatner took the extra step of putting two desert planets into one movie.
Tone? Who knows? In directorial terms, William Shatner goes for John Ford and Ingmar Bergman and Harold Lloyd. (Key phrase being: “goes for.”) He loves mountains and rock formations. Onscreen they look flat, maybe less grand than they should. At the risk of getting psychological, this movie begins with Kirk conquering nature. And Shatner films nature like a man who owns a lot of it.
But with the Enterprise segments, Shatner doesn’t have a particularly coherent vision. There are a lot of shots like this, with nothing particularly in focus. “Leonard,” you imagine Bill saying, “Stand slightly behind that souvenir helm!”
But there are also shadowy visuals, shot almost like confessionals, with characters lurking. The lighting in this movie feels off, and the colors get mulchy, but it gives the Enterprise a haunted feel — a throwback to Search for Spock, with the added curiosity that there are actual ghosts on this ship.
Things get even stranger when Messianic sorta-villain Sybok announces his intentions — to find Heaven or Eden or God or whatever — and in the middle of his speech, he stares straight out at the camera.
Coincidentally or not, this is right before another fourth wall gets broken, when Scotty blows his Captain out of the brig, a scene rendered with all the blistering detail of a Keystone Cops comedy:
Speaking of which: Almost as an aside, this movie makes a coherent argument that Scotty and Uhura have almost certainly been sleeping together, maybe all along.
But for Shatner, maybe that’s just a gag: Haha, see funny old Scotty and wacky Uhura making eyes at each other! Shatner loves gags, and gags, and gags. Scotty says, “I know this ship like I know the back of my hand,” and then…
Spock tries to carry Kirk and McCoy on his rocket boots, and then…
Where did Uhura even get those plants?
Spock and McCoy are interchangeable straight men for the comedy stylings of Captain Kirk. (Director Shatner advised Actor Shatner to go big, huge, enormous.) At one point, they go Full Three Stooges, and Kirk stands on Spock’s shoulders. This is simultaneously one of the dumbest and most stunningly revelatory moments in Star Trek history. See Nimoy, looking up at Shatner, annoyed. See Shatner, standing on somebody else’s shoulders.
There were big plans for the final conflict on the God Planet. Shatner wanted angels, demons, rock-monsters. Actually, his plans sound a little bit like everything that happens in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. I mean it as a huge compliment to two very strange and unloved films that The Final Frontier feels an awful lot like Noah.
None of Shatner’s big plans didn’t come to naught. The Final Frontier cost much more than The Voyage Home, more than any Trek film since The Motion Picture, and the final act looks shot on sandpaper. They meet God, he isn’t God, they shoot Fake Alien God, the end!
God help me — Fake Alien God help me — but I enjoy The Final Frontier. It helps to remember just how goofy Star Trek always could be. We hail the great episodes of the original series, which tend to be serious or tribble-coded as “silly.” But Trek could also be half-baked, horny, macho, gruff; before “mythology” was a thing, Trek could disobey its own past, could reinvent its galaxy every week for an hour.
The franchise trended a little prudish from Final Frontier on — with Deep Space Nine a thought-provoking (and Seven of Nine a somewhat embarrassing) exception. This was necessary; Kirkian machismo was never as openly sexist as, like, James Bond, but it was problematic. Actually, though, worth pointing out that at no point in the torrid development process of Final Frontier did Shatner even conceive of giving Kirk a love interest; lonely man, lonely road. Wait, I take that back. Worth putting this in bold type just to make explicit the utter wrongness: The Final Frontier is the only Star Trek movie where Captain Kirk kills a stripper.
Today, all major movie franchises in general are sexless. It comes with the PG-13. Oh, there’s the occasional proving-the-rule exception of trailer-ready shots where Young Uhura or Dudes Named Chris or Young Carol Marcus or Henry Cavill take their clothes off. (Deadpool has about as much sex as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)
And with sexlessness comes a rabbinical self-seriousness. Motion pictures are sensual experiences, but today, we helplessly reduce franchises into nodes of content. In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers kisses his dead first love’s great niece, a moment rendered with all the sexual excitement of a box being checked on a shipping manifest.
Trek got there first, the way it got everywhere first. I love Memory Alpha, and I love the poignantly serious manner in which Memory Alpha strives to explain every inexplicable thing about The Final Frontier. Example: In the entry for The Great Barrier, Memory Alpha declares that there “presumably was no Great Barrier back in 2269,” since the Enterprise went to the Center of the Galaxy in an episode of The Animated Series, and in that episode, there was no Great Barrier, and no planet with Fake God.
(Memory Alpha has also calculated the length of time it takes to warp between Paradise City and the Great Barrier — a completely insane endeavor. But the most hardcore fanbase of another God claim to have calculated the age of the Earth based on a close reading of The Book of Genesis, which has more plotholes than The Final Frontier.)
I should note that with rabbinical self-seriousness comes a rebellious urge to tease buried sexuality out of sexless friendships: Decades before #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend, Kirk’s barely repressed passion for Spock simmers like the orgasmic lava on Planet Genesis:
You don’t need to be a scholar or a prude to hate The Final Frontier, and you don’t need to be a K/S ‘shipper or a snarkbot to vaguely enjoy it. But if you are a person of good humor and wild spirit…if you are the sort of person who enjoys loopy images that feel beamed right off from the cover of ‘50s pulp novels:
If you ever wanted to know, badly, what it would look like for Spock to get born…
…and as weird as that scene is, maybe you notice the odd juxtaposition there. Thanks to Sybok’s telepathic auditing, we see McCoy mercy-kill his own father, and then we see Spock — moments after his birth! — disappointing his father. You can feel how badly this movie wants to capture the whole sweep of human experience — birth/death/father/son — and it fails entirely. BUT: I can’t quite get over the image of DeForest Kelley, almost 70, playing eternally grizzled McCoy, suddenly status-switching into playing somebody’s son. And I can’t get over how, after he lets his father die, he reaches in close for a farewell — and his shadow covers the dead man’s face.
Minutes later, another shadow: Spock, born unto this galaxy, a scene rendered via Vulcan cave aesthetic to look like the Dawn of Man.
Nimoy loved these characters for their humanity. To Shatner, they are become archetypes: Shadows on the walls of half-remembered caves, old men crying over fathers long dead.
Maybe, in the end, you can appreciate the intrinsic paradox of this movie. Filmed as a vanity project, it seems to constantly undercut its star’s vanity. Here is a movie about how awesome Captain Kirk is — he’s a mountaineer! he’s a rhetorical mastermind! he’s afraid of nothing! his weakness is his strength! — but the actor playing Kirk keeps on reaching for the goofiest moves in his arsenal, keeps on undercutting any attempt at seriousness with silent-movie clowning.
You can say that this is an ego movie, an attempt to make Kirk look bigger than ever. But explain this, Memory Alpha: In the two continuity years between the end of Search for Spock and the end of Final Frontier, James T. Kirk shrank four inches.
A QUICK POSTSCRIPT:
William Shatner starred in two more Star Trek films, about which more next week and the following. Kirk dies in Generations, but Shatner wasn’t finished with the character. He created a series of novels, set after Generations, where Kirk gets resurrected. Shatner co-wrote the novels with Trek Expanded Universe lifers Judth and Garfield Reeves-Stevens – so I have no accurate idea how much Shatner actually contributed to any of these books.
But the books feel very Final Frontier-y. Like, if Final Frontier is the Hobbit, the nine books that comprise the so-called Shatner-verse form the freaking Silmarillion. The first book, The Ashes of Eden, has a key plot point that rhymes backwards to Shatner’s film: An “Eden”-ish planet, with a Paradise City-ish combination of Klingons and Romulans.
On that planet, Kirk falls in pure love with an eternally young babe named Teilani. Later, after coming back to life, Kirk gets brainwashed by a Romulan-Borg alliance, then becomes pals with Captain Picard. He tries to retire, but he keeps getting called back into action.
First, he has to fight his own alternate-universe self. In these books, the alternate-universe Kirk from Mirror, Mirror has become Emperor Tiberius, the ruler of his whole galaxy – and now he’s trying to conquer even more. Kirk and Emperor Tiberius sort of team up, and they chase down evidence of an intergalactic Creator Race called the Preservers.
Having cycled through most extant alien nemeses, Shatner introduces the Totality, a collectivist God of Gods that has conquered most of the universe and often appears to Kirk as an attractive female. The Totality is only vanquished when Kirk’s Romulan-Klingon-human-hybrid son, a hermaphrodite with four fingers on each hand, transforms into a being of pure energy. (He actually seems to transform INTO “The Great Barrier” – another Final Frontier callback.) In Shatner’s vision, Kirk outlasts everyone: Another son dead, another lover left behind.
Maybe Kirk only dies alone because there’s nobody left. Maybe that’s how God will go out, too. Maybe, when the universe is empty of life, God will finally have a moment to read Shatner’s books.
Maybe God will watch The Final Frontier. I think She’ll like it.
THE WHOLE MOVIE IN A NUTSHELL: