Okay, here’s the thing: when Star Trek Into Darkness came out, fans were pretty critical across the board. I do know a few people who liked it. I know more who thought it was pretty terrible, and others who consider it the worst Star Trek film of all time. And I had problems with Into Darkness myself, mostly because the script was lazy as shit, but for anyone who thinks it’s the absolute worst Trek movie in all existence . . . I’m sorry, but have you seen Star Trek V: The Final Frontier?
Because, as of last week, I have. And right now I’m calling winner for Worst Trek Film EVER.
All the SPOILERS today. Sorry, folks, but it did come out nearly 30 years ago.
A human, a Klingon, and a Romulan walk into a bar and get taken hostage by Spock’s previously unheard of emotional anarchist of a half-brother, who then leads them and the crew of the Enterprise on the quest to find God. Like, literally.
1. Let’s begin with Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), who sounds like he should be a cyborg in a Mortal Kombat game but is actually Spock’s totally random half-bro.
Can we all just agree here and now that it’s probably not the best idea to spontaneously create a brother for one of your main characters who, mysteriously, no one’s ever bothered to mention after three seasons, four movies, and 23 years of storytelling? Even if you hang that lampshade like no one’s business, like you are the godamn master of lampshade hanging . . . it’s probably just better not to do it at all, right?
Seriously, I’m not even a little bit invested in the dynamic between these two. And why should I be? The movie spends, what? Two minutes on Sybok’s backstory and his relationship with Spock? Why is he the antagonist for this story anyway? Would it really have hurt the film if the Enterprise was taken hostage by a religious zealot who wasn’t biologically related to anyone in the main crew? Admittedly, good brother vs. evil brother is pretty classic storytelling, but it’s somewhat less effective when it feels like director William Shatner pulled Sybok out of his ass.
Whether it’s due to crappy writing or a lackluster performance (or both), Sybok is an incredibly uncharismatic antagonist . . . which is kind of a problem, because that’s pretty literally his whole deal: Sybok heals people of their physical and emotional pain, which allows him to brainwash them (more or less) into following him on his quest for some Vulcan god. How he heals and brainwashes them remains beyond me, because while I’m aware that Vulcans are touch telepaths, I’ve never seen anyone else do anything like this on Trek, and no real explanation is ever given. Consistency is also something of an issue, since it seems easy enough for Spock and McCoy to shake off Sybok’s holy conditioning and stand by Kirk’s side as soon as the moment calls for it, while everyone else in the main cast appears to be cool with full-fledged mutiny.
2. Then again, everyone else but The Big Three (Kirk, Spock, and Bones) somehow feel even more sidelined than normal.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the geek poly love story that’s clearly happening in this picture, but it’s pretty ridiculous how little Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty have to do in this movie, like, we couldn’t have spent more than seven seconds with Chekov and Sulu being lost? And . . . are we supposed to be shipping Scotty and Uhura now? I’ve watched very little of TOS, so I’m asking honestly here: is that even a thing? If it’s going to be a thing now, five movies in, maybe we should, I don’t know, build it up some? Do something with it?
While I’m on the subject of Uhura, though . . . okay, what the shit is up with her fan dance? Her whole role in this movie seems kind of sketch to me. She only appears to be around to a) possibly flirt with Scotty while in her right mind, b) definitely flirt with Scotty while under Sybok’s villainous influence, and c) do a seductive dance to lure some bad guys away from their post.
Mind you, I wouldn’t necessarily mind that last one, as Hollywood allowing a female character in her 50’s to be sexy is actually pretty progressive (well, for them) . . . but since you never really get to see Uhura up close (and since she’s dubbed with these horribly fake vocals from a presumably younger woman), the whole thing feels like a joke, like, “Ha ha, you thought you were getting a sex goddess and instead you got an old woman! FOOLED YOU!” It didn’t sit right with me.
And briefly switching to her not-quite-paramour, Scotty: I’m aware it’s supposed to be funny that this guy immediately walks into a beam after saying he knows the ship like the back of his hand . . . but . . . but he knocks himself out doing this. That’s how Scotty’s captured. That’s how he becomes one of the brainwashed horde, and no. No. Outside of outright parody, you cannot lose one of your four non-brainwashed heroes by having one dude walk into something so hard that he knocks himself out. That’s just lousy writing.
3. Also, while I try to be reasonable about the use of cost cutting measures in filmmaking, using TNG’s sets to double as TOS’s Enterprise was super jarring. I’m watching someone run down a hall, and I’m like, “Wait! That’s the wrong ship! That’s the wrong show! What the hell is happening right here? Dude, where are you?” It’s like watching someone crawl from the backseat of a 1967 Chevy Impala into the fronts seat of a 2016 Chevy Impala. Yeah, sure, they have the same name, but pretty obviously they’re not the same car.
4. The best thing I can say about The Final Frontier is that it has a handful of pretty funny lines and the occasional good idea. Unfortunately, the humor clearly didn’t always work for me, and the execution of those Big Ideas somehow managed to feel both convoluted and half-assed.
Take pain, for example. Thematically, it’s really important, or should be. It absolutely should be tying the whole narrative together, but somehow, it never quite manages to, perhaps because the whole story is so lopsided. We spend too long on a red herring beginning before finally moving into the story proper. Then we could spend some time reflecting on the different types of pain that each of our various seven crew members have, allowing them some meaningful or even minimal character arc stuff . . . but instead we focus on the only characters these movies ever focus on, ignoring Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov in favor of glimpsing McCoy’s and Spock’s hidden pain.
Now to be fair, the scene with McCoy is pretty good. It turns out that Bones’s father suffered from some kind of agonizing and incurable disease, and eventually, Pop McCoy asked his son to help end his life. Bones did, and soon after a cure for the disease was found, which, ouch. I mean, damn. It’s sad, but it’s well done and works well in the story.
But after a quick glimpse into Spock’s memories, we immediately turn to Kirk, who gives this speech: “You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”
And seriously, that’s a great speech. I’ll probably quote the hell out of it, especially those last two sentences. But this is an epiphany moment, or should be, something you’re supposed to build to. It ought to be a revelation that comes at the end of the story. Instead, Spock and Bones immediately are like, “Dude, Federation-bros before blood-bros. We’ll keep our pain after all, I guess.” And that’s kind of the end of it. Pain, whether you’re trying to be released from it or holding onto it as hard as you can, is no longer thematically relevant after this scene.
5. Instead, we move onto the Quest for God, which apparently means going to check out the very center of the galaxy, like, come on, REALLY?
Please, someone tell me that this Great Impenetrable Barrier in the Stars has at least been referenced before on TOS? Pretty please?
I’ve read that The Final Frontier was intended to be a take on televangelism, which I know was particularly big in the 80’s, and that’s fine. (Although if you really want to watch a satisfying takedown about televangelism, you should watch Last Week Tonight’s piece on it.) This is hardly the only story to link absence of pain with absence of identity, or faith healers with charlatans, lost lambs, and false gods. (For whatever other faults it’s dealing with right now, The 100 is doing a pretty good job with similar themes this year.) But so many of these ideas are muddled here. I have so many questions after watching The Final Frontier that I sincerely doubt any of the writers bothered to take into consideration.
Is Sybok intentionally brainwashing people, figuring he’s ultimately doing them a greater good than a greater evil at the end of the day? Or does he honestly believe that everyone has genuinely seen the Light and have chosen to follow him of their own free will?
How much free will do Sybok’s disciples/minions have? It seems unlikely that the incredibly loyal crew of the Enterprise would mutiny unless they were under Sybok’s complete control. Their actions are ridiculously OOC, not to mention that if they were wholly themselves, wouldn’t somebody on board get healed and still find themselves skeptical of Sybok’s holy mission?
On the other hand, if free will isn’t involved, seriously, how do Spock and Bones break their brainwashing so easily? And what happens to everybody who was brainwashed after God is proven false? Does that simultaneously break their faith in Sybok as well? Why doesn’t anyone just assume that their god is another castle? And what about their pain; does that ever return to them? Gradually? Suddenly? Does it happen with Sybok’s death, and if so, does that mean they would have lived pain-free if Sybok hadn’t made the sacrifice play?
Also, why are we talking like each species has only one god and one afterlife anyway? Cause, uh, that’s not how culture works. Humans? We have so many gods. We have gods falling out of our butts, people. It’s hard to imagine that aliens would be any different, so this whole one god per planet thing seems incredibly ridiculous.
And I know, I get it: ethnocentricity happens to everyone, including SF writers . . . but that becomes a different kind of problem in stories like this. It’s all well and good to say that Earth Heaven and Vulcan Heaven are the same place, but, uh, what about all the billions and billions of humans who aren’t Christian? Is Nirvana the same thing as Eden and Sha Ka Ree? The Summerland? Valhalla? And seriously, I have no idea how many gods are currently being worshipped on Earth (much less how many have been worshipped since the dawn of time) but are we really saying that every single one of them is the same? Are they all supposed to be manifestations of one true divine force? Or are we just saying that most of them don’t matter and that the Christian God is Earth’s representative deity?
I know some people are going to feel like I’m being nitpicky, but I think these are important considerations in a Quest for the Universal God story. You can’t give me half an idea and then pretend to be deep, you know?
6. Also, a malevolent, false god as the Big Bad for your SF story could actually be pretty interesting . . . but man, that shit needs to be set up early.
You need to lay the thematic groundwork, not to mention it’d be nice if anyone in the audience actually believed that God was chilling on the hidden planet, waiting for the worthy to come find him. I mean, I guess it’s possible some people felt that way. I can’t speak for the whole world, obviously. (Though, sometimes, it’s fun to try.) But I’ll admit that I have a hard time imagining that the majority of fans watching The Final Frontier and thinking, Holy shit, what if Kirk and co. DID find God? Mind. BLOWN.
Well, of course they don’t. It’s just some evil alien who needs help escaping his prison, like the disembodied inmates in TNG’s “Power Play.” (Yes, I’m aware “Power Play” came after this movie.) And that’s a problem for me because the conclusion feels inevitable. There is no wonder or fear in the search for God, no emotional stakes, no dramatic tension. Hell, the only person who seems to feel any real sense of loss is Sybok, and, seriously, who even cares about him? Even his sacrifice play feels inevitable. After all, it’s entirely his fault they’re all there, right?
7. Finally, a few more random things:
7A. So, the human, the Klingon, and the Romulan in the beginning of the movie? They all get brainwashed and pretend to be hostages so that their various Federations/Empires will send someone to come rescue them. The Enterprise comes for the human. A Bird of Prey comes for the Klingon. The Romulan woman, meanwhile, is apparently not considered very valuable to the Empire, because I don’t remember anyone coming for her.
7B. For the love of every god imaginable, why the hell does Sybok know anything about Christopher Columbus? Why do you keep doing this to me, Star Trek? WHY? It is quite literally one of my least favorite things about you.
7C. That time when Spock completely surrenders rather than kill Sybok? Don’t buy it. Not that he should have killed his half-brother. I just don’t buy that those were the only two options in that scenario. Come on, man. Get creative!
7D. Finally, very little about Yosemite works for me.
The initial climb is fine. Leonard Nimoy, as always, makes me laugh. But weirdly, Bones’s anti-Vulcan shit was annoying me a lot more than normal. It gets better for me as time goes on, but normally Bones is kind of my favorite, and for the first twenty minutes, he was getting on my nerves. I was very sad about this.
Worse, while I liked the idea of the campfire scenes, I didn’t think they were executed all that well. And that line Kirk has, about how he’ll die alone? It’s great! It’s an interesting line! What the hell is it doing in this movie? I know they bring it back at the very end, but . . . that’s it. It’s not an actual idea seeded throughout the story itself. It’s not something Kirk’s been dealing with prior to or during this film. It doesn’t really feel like there’s any reason to say it in the first place, honestly, and while sometimes a cool line is just a cool line (like TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL), usually, we expect characters to have a reason to say the shit they say, you know?
Kirk: “You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”
McCoy: “I’ll tell you one thing, Spock: you never cease to amaze me.”
Spock: “Nor I, myself.”
Kirk: “You mean he’s your ‘brother’ brother? You made that up!”
(Kirk has slipped off the mountain he was climbing and only just saved by Spock.)
Spock: “Perhaps ‘because it is there’ is not sufficient reason for climbing a mountain.”
McCoy: “The words aren’t important. What’s important is that you have a good time singing it.”
Spock: “Oh, I am sorry, Doctor. Were we having a good time?”
McCoy: “God, I liked him better before he died.”
Kirk: “I could use a shower.”
Spock: “The designers tested it, using the most intelligent and resourceful person they could find. He failed to escape.”
Kirk: “This person, he didn’t by chance have pointed ears and an unerring capacity for getting his shipmates into trouble, did he?”
Spock: “He did have pointed ears.”
Bones: “Jim, if you ask me, and you haven’t, I think this is a terrible idea.”
It’s just not very good on really any level. The Final Frontier seems like it’s trying to tell maybe three different stories in one movie, and the whole thing is an incoherent mess as a result. And it’s not even an entertaining mess; it’s actually quite dull and drags on for some time. I couldn’t invest in it emotionally. I wasn’t satisfied by it cerebrally. It has ideas, I guess . . . but that doesn’t actually make it smart.
If God asks you for a spaceship, kill him, for he is not the real God.
Life is pain, Highness. Don’t buy what that one Vulcan dude is selling, because your pain is a part of who you are. You can’t be you without it.
Don’t climb mountains. Just don’t.