I did not come here to bury Shatner, but to honor him.
Well, that might be overstating it a bit, but the sentiment is sound. In the years since the original Star Trek film series, William Shatner reinvented himself as “Bill” — a genial celebrity who not only owned up to a public persona on self-absorption, but owned it. The ill-will with his “Star Trek” castmates, the stilted impression people love to do of his line readings, even the very nature of his most famous role all came to serve Bill’s new status. He moves about the media worlds as an eel of charisma; teaching the world how to say “sab-a-taj.”
But back in 1989, he made Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the folly that allowed Bill to emerge from crippling bouts of hubris and vanity. Make no mistake, the fifth Star Trek film is a work of unbridled narcissism. It is a creation of profound self-aggrandizement that still wounds the actor/writer/director, making it difficult for him to truly appreciate what it is and what it did for him.
In its humble beginnings, the film was the only guarantee the franchise ever enjoyed up to that point. Prior to the release of the fourth film, every season and every film was a possibility not assured until accountants saw the final spreadsheet. That previous film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, defied all expectations to become the highest grossing and highest regarded outing of the Enterprise crew. It removed all the barriers to entry for film-goers by bringing the characters to a contemporary landscape and letting their natural warmth, dynamics, and personalities come to the fore. Untethered, for the most part, from their starships and techno-babble, the familial aspect of the series shined through and audiences awarded the film for its courage.
As explained in his book, Star Trek Movie Memories, Shatner and his co-star Leonard Nimoy enjoyed a sort of collective bargaining agreement with Paramount Pictures regarding their salaries and fringe benefits for agreeing to make Star Trek features. Simply put, “whatever Shatner gets, Nimoy gets” and vice-versa. Nimoy directed both the third and fourth films, growing as an accomplished maker of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Shatner, meanwhile, had branched out into directing on his hit television show, “T.J. Hooker.” He even claims Nimoy attended a sort of film-school on the set of that program, but Bill could just as easily be joking around. In any event, Shatner and his representation used the Shatner/Nimoy parity clause to gain the directorial seat of the subsequent film and had an idea that couldn’t be further away from crowd-pleasing if it had been performed entirely in Esperanto.
His vision saw the core of the film series, the Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic, shattered by a 23rd century televangelist and his quest for nothing less than the Source of All Creation. With the captain isolated from his friends and crew, he would meet “God” only to find the Devil. The warmth, charm, and subtle power of The Voyage Home‘s ecological threat was replaced with a crass con-man that Shatner, as a writer, never really seemed to have a grip on. This is much is obvious from the character’s ultimate manifestation as Sybok, the passionate Vulcan.
Before we get to him, though, Shatner’s bold, but flawed, concept would go through a few rounds of development, harming his plot in the process. First, Nimoy and DeForest Kelley — the actors who gave Spock and McCoy life — refused the notion of their friendship being torn asunder by an intergalactic con-man. Shatner, as he freely admits, backed away from that aspect of the script as both actors were able to give him a convincing counter-argument against it.
Personally, I could see the storyline working as an episode of the original series, at a time when the characters were not as close to one another and the imperiling of their dynamic was a fresh idea. By the time of the fifth film, however, we saw their bond was stronger than death itself and any further testing would be treading water. In the final film, this notion appears in one scene, with Spock and McCoy quickly turned back to Kirk’s side.
Shatner also buckled when Paramount became uneasy with the story’s religious aspects. After a few rewrites, “God” became an enigmatic and unexplained alien lifeform and the televangelist an emotional Vulcan with a terrorist bent and some half-thought out mind-control ability. The studio also noticed people liked Star Trek IV because it was funny and asked him to inject more humor into the tale.
In Movie Memories, Shatner admits to these incidents and tries to paint them as a lack of conviction. If he could have convinced the actors and Paramount to take his unfiltered ideas on board, Star Trek V would’ve been a better picture. Sadly for the director (and writer of the much maligned TekWar series), I don’t think he’s willing to admit how half-formed and incongruous these elements are with the established format. The original film series — fourth entry not withstanding — were dependable, modest money-makers for Paramount. Not really blockbusters per se, but pleasing enough on the ledger for them to order another adventure. Well … with one more caveat: don’t rock the boat.
Star Trek‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry, ran afoul of this edict during the making of the first film (his initial story also had the crew meeting God) and saw his proposal for a time traveling sequel in which the crew prevents — and ultimately perpetrates — the Kennedy Assassination rejected time and again.
Now modified to downplay to two elements Shatner loved most, Star Trek V sees the Enterprise hijacked by Sybok, who sets course for Sha Ka Ree, the legendary planet of God from Vulcan fables, while Kirk, Spock, and McCoy feebly attempt to regain control of the ship and contact Starfleet, all the while chased by some biker Klingons in a Bird of Prey.
Sybok, as presented in the film, is not only an emotional Vulcan … not only a terrorist with vague mind-control powers … not only convinced that he has been contacted by God … but is also Spock’s heretofore unrevealed brother(!) Trekkers of a harder-core can debate the continuity-wrench this creates far better than I, but I think this aspect of the character speaks to Shatner’s original intention to divide the characters. The only thing he could think of that could possibly break the bond between Kirk and Spock was blood. In fact, the entire film has a nasty habit of trying to break Star Trek, generally for the sake of mean-spirited comedy. The Enterprise itself barely functions, much to Mr. Scott’s dismay. Commander Uhura is forced to do a strip-tease for a bunch of Sybok’s terrorists. Dr. McCoy is revealed to have euthanized his own father a mere week before a cure to his ailment was discovered. Sulu and Chekov get lost in a forest. Spock is unable to shoot Sybok. And Scotty …. oh, poor Scotty …
But does Kirk have such a moment? No. He’s is presented as a rock of conviction throughout the scripts various moments of character degradation. The closest he comes to fallibility is the scene in which he learns how Sybok and Spock are related. His anger revealed, the Captain is seen to be momentarily irrational. Other than that, he is always heroic, even when he refuses to be absolved of his guilt. In one of the film’s two defining lines, Shatner shouts “I need my pain!” in the face of Sybok’s dubious powers.
As a director, he states his intent by starting the film with the character climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan peak. It’s a none-to-subtle illustration of how Shatner the writer viewed Kirk at the moment. As Justin pointed out to me recently, the actor is peak physical shape for this outing, losing much of the secondary hull he’d put on previous years. Though Kirk questions his own mortality, he is once again the fearless leader of a TV series long in syndication. All the pieces start to add up to a Mary Sue adventure written and devised by the star.
Kirk’s other great line comes when he is the first to doubt “God” and asks the most important theological question of our age: “What does God need with a starship?”
You’ll notice I glossed over the actual summary of the film. That’s because the actual storyline is paper-thin. Both Sybok and the biker Klingons, led by one Captain Kaa, are non-starter antagonists. With little in the way of traditional summer movie conflict, the bulk of the runtime is filled with Shatner’s attempts to tear down the other characters and lift Kirk to the heights of reverse-prophet. He realizes this mostly in the form of short character scenes. That part makes some sense as Shatner approaches all stories from that angle. He is a performer after all, and he was looking to create the best situations in which to perform as Kirk.
And assault Scotty with his own ship.
As a director, Shatner hired a competent crew to shore-up any limitations he might have on his first feature. Production designer Herman Zimmerman, fresh from the first few seasons of “The Next Generation” reinvents the Enterprise bridge as a cross between its original design and a big-screen TV shop, but the results are surprisingly satisfying. The lighting of Andrew Laszlo is adequate with one or two scenes that are quite good in their use of shadow and in-camera light-sources. Composer Jerry Goldsmith returns after a three-film hiatus and updates many of his Motion Picture themes, adding a new piece that plays over Kirk’s mountain climb during the opening credits, but also serves as a nice chord of brotherhood for the three principle characters. Despite a good behind-the-scenes stable of talent, Shatner’s television training comes through in generally uninspired compositions and the complete failure of the film’s special effects.
In that last regard, he defends himself by stating the A-team at special effects house Industrial Light and Magic were unavailable. Where a more seasoned director might conjure up convincing workarounds for his effects problem, Shatner accepted what material he could get. The results are … unbecoming for an important studio franchise.
This issue also directly relates to the nigh-incomprehensible climax. In the film, Kirk is isolated on the “God” planet, fleeing from the voice of the creature as it repeatedly, but slowly, shouts “Damn you!” In a moment hastily put together from test-footage scraps, “God” is defeated by a couple of phaser bolts from the nearby Bird of Prey. Originally, “God” was going to manifest as creatures of living rock to chase Kirk. The budget could not contain this grand vision and many became one. This one to be exact:
Being completely unacceptable, Shatner cut the creature entirely and edited around it. I think, in this one instance, you can feel for the guy. His ending buckled under this lack of ingenuity and it was, for once, utterly out of his hands. Sure, asking for a rock monster might be a tall order … but what he received makes more sense in an Italian sword-and-sandal flick, not a Hollywood franchise picture.
Of course, back in his original vision for the film, the rock monsters where meant to be traditional Catholic demons who torment Kirk, Spock and McCoy, so perhaps all of the compromises he had to make were for the best. What’s really more surprising is that Paramount let it happen at all. I suppose with the success Nimoy brought them, they thought lightning could strike twice, but so much of Shatner’s premise is ill-conceived and antiquated that you’d think someone would’ve said, “Uh, yeah, Bill, how bout we bring in another writer to help you out with this?” Or was Shatner’s ego just that powerful at the time?
In the end, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a curiosity; more of a farcical chapter in the life of William Shatner than a riveting tale of the 23rd Century. As “Shatner’s Folly,” it offers a certain charm and its conviction to itself makes it the sort of misguided passion project I like to watch when the day has me down. It also served as a catalyst in Bill’s ultimate manifestation in autobiographies, TV shows, movies, and the talk-show circuit. It was the pie in the face he so desperately needed in order to relax and let the stiff posture of Jim Kirk and T.J. Hooker subside.
And, really, since he seems to have more fun and we have more fun with him this way, wasn’t it worth Scotty getting hit in the face?