This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
William Shatner fights God. That’s about all anyone remembers from the infamous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Over the years, the tale has grown in the telling. Some called it one of the worst films of all time, others call it a box office catastrophe. It killed the careers of the director, producer, the entire special effects company, and nearly ended the entire Star Trek franchise right there and then. It is remembered merely as a vanity project gone horribly wrong.
But ask yourself this. What does God need with a starship? Can you answer it? Can you understand the question? To dismiss it out of hand is to dismiss the opportunity to think. Do not turn your brain off.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the ultimate question. What does God need with a starship? To answer it, we need religion, politics, philosophy, and the human condition. It is an exploration not of space, but of existence. These goals are accomplished, although how well accomplished is left as an exercise for the viewer. Superficially, Star Trek V is a mess. But then again, if you’re watching superficially, perhaps you’re already missing the point. This is not an adventure story. This is a biting, vicious allegory of religious extremism. Relevant now perhaps more than ever, as it shows startling parallels to the current war against Islamic State.
What started out as an exploration of televangelism mutated into something else via the notoriously troubled production, and some of the allegory was lost. But now, in the modern world, Star Trek V finally makes sense. This is not the film you were warned about. This is not a film where the Enterprise literally goes looking for God. This is one worth seeing for what it is, what it was meant to be, or at least what it has become.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a scathing commentary on radicalization, and the rise of Islamic terrorism. It is right wing. Dark. Subversive. Brilliant. When watched in the light that it was intended, it ceases to be a muddling and bizarre action/adventure film and instead transcends those boundaries. If you like your sci-fi to shine a light on the real world, to engage your brain and challenge your preconceptions, there is the argument to be made that Star Trek V is not only a worthy film, it is one of the most interesting science fiction films ever made.
Stop laughing. I’m serious.
The undulating success of Star Trek means the franchise is hard to predict, even retrospectively. The late ’80s should have seen a continuing strengthening of the franchise on the back of four consecutive hit movies, three consecutive critical hits, and a brand new television series. In actuality, the late ’80s nearly saw the death of the franchise. The Next Generation didn’t hit the ground running. A mixture of rehashes and downright awful episodes punctuated its first season, and even the good episodes didn’t manage to lift it out of the shadow of its predecessor. After Star Trek stock had been so high in 1986, 1987 saw it crashing back to Earth. So what better than to wheel out the original crew for another film? That should fix everything, right?
Well, problems emerged from the start.
A oneupmanship clause in the contracts of Nimoy and Shatner, broadly speaking, stated that whatever Nimoy got, Shatner would get as well (and vice versa). Thus, with Nimoy being awarded the director’s chair to entice him back to the franchise and Spock back from the dead (Nimoy directed Star Trek III and IV), Shatner now had the right to direct Star Trek V, and have creative control over the story. Unfortunately for him, this freedom coincided with the 1988 writers’ strike, and the resulting backlog of films meant Industrial Light and Magic were busy with Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Add into that producer Harve Bennett’s reluctance to join, Paramount’s disdain for the very premise of the film, and you have a first time director trying desperately to control a production with no script, no special effects, and constant interference from the studio.
The special effects problems were notorious. ILM reportedly demanded an extortionate amount of money, and Shatner was forced to look elsewhere. Without much budget, he sought out unknown artists and was wowed by Bran Ferren’s company, which had previously been Oscar nominated for the visual effects work in Little Shop Of Horrors. Shatner was taken in by a practical yet ultimately mundane display of reflected lights in a cloud chamber and immediately hired Ferren, only for Associates and Ferren to collapse under the difficulty of such a big production.
That Shatner demanded previews of the effects before commissioning them only added to the workload, and ultimately most of what they made was unusable. The effects that did remain were either of exceedingly poor quality (motion control work was shot at a reduced frame rate to save time), reused from previous films, or redone by others. The climax had to be butchered to account for the million-dollar rockman suit simply not working at all. The disaster killed Associates and Ferren (it was later acquired by Disney and repurposed for imagineering) and Ferren himself left the movie business. Interestingly, he later invented multi-touch gesture interfaces, something which Samsung used as a defense against one of Apple’s myriad of lawsuits.
For anyone to pull together this mess would have been close to godliness, but I’m not sure William Shatner can be blamed for why the film, at least on the surface, turned out to be such a mishmash. He was an accomplished TV director in his own right, if not quite the student of the art that Nimoy had been. He thoroughly knew the actors and characters and allowed them to get the best performance out of themselves, and he had quite the eye for set pieces. This film is full of interesting and occasionally brilliant shots, although it should be noted they sometimes work better as still images rather than in motion.
His storycrafting, too, was not at fault. His idea was dark, subversive, but literal. The Enterprise encounters a hostage situation in the desert, engineered by a televangelist who believes God is speaking directly to him. They travel to Eden, only to find it resembles Hell. The God they find is actually Satan (the real Satan), who drags Kirk, Spock, and McCoy into Hell itself, from where they must escape.
As you can see, much of the original story found its way into the final film, but with less a focus on the religious extremism and the inherent hypocrisy of religious violence and more of a focus on action and slapstick.
To say Paramount hated the idea was an understatement. Everyone aside from Shatner despised the idea. It was too dark, not enough like Trek, and focused more on big ideas (which didn’t work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and less on character (which worked in all the others). Harve Bennett, who returned to Trek despite his misgivings, clearly had a diametrically opposed vision to William Shatner’s, and the two reportedly fought on nearly every point. They clashed in writing and in editing, with many of the film’s weaker moments coming from the two different directions in which they pulled the film.
Creative differences don’t have to be a bad thing though, do they? Very often the creative process relies on such conflict, and somehow the good ideas bubble up to the surface. None of the ideas presented by anyone were inherently bad, after all, but ultimately the good ideas didn’t have time to gel. Unfortunately, the creative process was stalled by consecutive setbacks, the first being the failure to secure novelist Eric Van Lustbader (he of the other Bourne novels) as the writer, the second being the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, and the third being Leonard Nimoy’s commitments to directing The Good Mother which stopped production just as it was starting again.
It seems, therefore, that the filming script for Star Trek V was basically the first draft.
The comedy is probably the one aspect that stands out for its inappropriateness. The Final Frontier is easily the darkest of the six original films in its premise, yet the first third is basically a comedy. Not all of the comedy was a misfire. Nimoy plays Spock back at his deadpan best, even if not all the lines quite hit the mark, and his comedy moments are better than, say, Scottie hitting his head.
But there is a purpose to these scenes that is important. By showing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy enjoying some time off we see that they’re closer to their series selves than their movie selves. Spock is not cold and logical as in The Motion Picture, nor as wise as in Khan or as clueless as Voyage, but something approaching curious. Kirk isn’t suffering from a mid-life crisis at all and seems to be galavanting around like a 20 year old. McCoy is… well, McCoy. Deliberately done so. It’s telling that the comedy almost disappears after the initial setup, and that much of the irrelevant hijinks were left on the cutting room floor (notably McCoy’s prank on Spock that leads to the infamously incongruous “marshmellons”). It’s a symptom of the lack of rewrites, but considering the studio’s demands it’s likely there would have been even more inappropriate comedy. Still, by the time the story reaches Nimbus III the comedy all but vanishes, save for a fan or two.
Nimbus III is an odd setting unless you consider the film as an allegory. It is an inhospitable, unwanted desert, the lives of the inhabitants kept miserable due to a string of poor foreign policy decisions by the major superpowers. Considering that the Federation, Klingon Empire, and Romulan Star Empire were originally space America, space Russia, and space China respectively, and that at the time of writing the Russia-Afghanistan war was about to end with a defeat of the Russians, it should have been obvious that Nimbus III was meant to be an allegory of the Middle East.
So what of Sybok? Sybok was always written as unhinged, but at the behest of the studio his character was softened and made more ambiguous. At least, in a way. Originally meant to be a Jimmy Swaggart type of fraudulent televangelist, the character became less overtly allegorical and more sympathetic.
However, over time this change actually has benefited the film enormously. As an extension of the Afghanistan allegory, Sybok is the wealthy and privileged benefactor of the desert people, who uses his warped and “forbidden” religious beliefs to radicalize others to his cause. That he is played by the wonderful Laurence Luckinbill (accomplished stage actor and uncle of the Wachowskis) is a blessing, because at least Luckinbill commits, both in Sybok’s mania and in Sybok’s frequent moments of doubt. Look behind the eyes when Sybok is reconsidering his options, and you can see him strengthening his resolve. One could even claim he is radicalizing himself.
With the political situation in the toilet, the Federation must act. It must at least be seen to act more than the Klingons and the Romulans, despite the fact that no one cares what happens to the people who live there, even the ambassadors.
So, while the Romulans do nothing at all and focus on building their empire (focusing on cheap and nasty exports like Romulan Ale and poorly built PADDs, probably), and the Klingons send someone by accident, the Federation send a big name as a show of force without committing the best of what they can offer. That the Admiral who sends the poorly equipped Enterprise-A on this unwanted mission is played by Harve Bennett is telling. The failure of the mission to Nimbus III, the film itself and America’s foreign policy in the Middle East all caused by the powers that be and their unwillingness to commit proper equipment and funding.
Of course, Starfleet are in a bind. If they recognize the government on Nimbus III as falling to Sybok’s terrorists then they must surely recognise the terrorists themselves as the new government, something they clearly would not want. There are plenty of such occurrences in history – North Korea and North Vietnam were contemporaneous ones – but the modern equivalent would arguably be IS. As such, it is treated as a hostage situation rather than a coup, something Sybok clearly is happy to play along with. At this stage his motivations are unclear, but it is obvious he wants to engineer a conflict in the region, and that he has the home advantage with guerilla fighters. That space America is heading into the conflict, drastically misunderstanding it and drastically underprepared simply to save international face could quite easily be interpreted a commentary on Vietnam, although comparisons to either Iraq War make sense nowadays.
We can be certain that The Final Frontier was not written as an allegory on the rise of Islamic State, or indeed any of the events of the last 25 years. Contemporaneous events were the inspiration, some of which I have mentioned, but that a quarter of a century later a film can be politically relevant is startling. It is what separates the very good from the timeless. Animal Farm may be a fine story, but it will forever be an allegory of the Russian Revolution. 1984 may have been a warning about the rise of totalitarianism following the Second World War, but tapped into paranoia about surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties that have always, and will always persist.
Am I saying that Star Trek V should be treated in the same way as 1984? No. But perhaps if I had more courage I would say yes.
The plan, as presented, does not work. Sybok is gambling that the Federation will show up, and won’t simply beam the ‘hostages’ off the surface. If the Klingons or Romulans show up, it’s likely they’ll just glass the whole planet from orbit. It’s not like anyone even cares about the so-called Planet of Intergalactic Peace. Also, in a delicious take that to international organizations and their increasingly unwieldy and specific names, “intergalactic” means between galaxies. It should be “intragalactic” or “interstellar.” I’m not entirely sure that wasn’t deliberate. Anyway, the point is, Sybok’s plan is idiotic, but that’s what happens when your script is a first draft. A single line about a magnetic shield would solve all problems.
Personally, I take it that this was Sybok’s plan B. His plan A was to radicalize the ambassadors and have them take over the Enterprise. Seeing as how he left them unguarded and armed in their office just waiting to be beamed out, it’s more than plausible. A finished script would have made it explicit. In any case, since we only focus on the Federation’s reaction rather than Sybok’s thoughts, it’s impossible to tell what his plan was. In this case, I choose the interpretation where the film makes sense, because that one is certainly there if you go looking for it.
On Nimbus III a battle erupts. What is interesting about the battle is that Sybok’s reaction is “it wasn’t bloodshed I wanted!” An interesting protestation for the leader of a terrorist organization who has armed his followers and staged a coup in the hopes of stealing a battleship. Actual guns too, not phasers. One of them even has a minigun.
Is Sybok deluded? Yes, but it is important to note that he believes what he says. He believes he is a peaceful man and all others are violent, as all extremists do. This non-violent man then parades the captured crew through the street, forces the Enterprise crew at gunpoint to take him to their ship, and then begs defense against the Klingons who are about to kill everything in sight. I’ll just mention again that the Klingons are space Russia, that Russian airstrikes on Syria currently aren’t going down too well, and let you draw your own conclusions.
Safely aboard, Sybok begins radicalizing everyone in sight. His poisonous ideology spreads quickly due to offering easy answers, a way into paradise, self-confirmation of belief, absolution of past misdeeds, and a gun in the face. Sybok releases “pain.” Using his telepathy and standard cold-reading techniques, he conjures up a fantasy whereby a past misdeed or injustice is presented as the source of all the subject’s problems, then forces a confrontation and false epiphany. His techniques are the same used by any religious fanatic hoping to draw people to their cause. There’s an appeal to ego in casting the person as the hero of their own struggle, the easy answers to difficult questions of existence and purpose, and the new pride of being part of the “in” group. That the Enterprise senior staff fall so quickly and so completely under this spell is alarming, although in truth only Chekov, Sulu and Uhura do, which is less than half. For Sybok’s own brand of religion to seem so seductive, the stars had to fall, or at least nearly do so.
Meanwhile, our three heroes are put in prison and escape, which is perhaps not the best scene of this more serious half of the film. Tighter editing probably would have removed this part, although at least we do finally get to see Star Trek’s first toilet. They are shortly captured after their escape (which sees them randomly fly past different decks of the Enterprise), thus rendering the entire thing pointless.
The best, though is yet to come.
In the interrogation, we have possibly the greatest scene in the entire franchise, where Sybok radicalizes McCoy, and attempts to do so with Spock. McCoy is plagued with guilt about the death of his father, or rather the euthanasia of his father. To make matters worse, soon after a cure was found. A doctor put in the position of doing the right thing yet causing a needless death? Yeah, that’ll screw you up. The acting in this scene is incredible as DeForest Kelley sells McCoy as a man truly hiding a secret pain that he has yet to overcome, his face showing a mixture of abject horror at confronting it, despair at the death of his father and uncontrollable mania before Sybok finally grants him a release.
The undoing of Sybok is not with his methods, but with his targets. His next attempt is with Spock, who he believes hides the pain of his dual heritage. In fact, he is utterly wrong – Spock carries the old pain but has long since dealt with it. Sybok’s superficial savior undone by his brother, who sees through the illusion.
Kirk too sees through it, but in a different way. He may not have come to terms with his pain (implied, but not stated, to be the death of his son, or perhaps the death of his brother, which he alludes to later), but he understands its purpose and how it drives him to be better. He needs his pain, as do we all. Radicalization preys on the weak, whether that means intellectually, socio-economically, or emotionally.
In Kirk and Spock we see the failure, whether it be due to strength, wisdom or simply one brother knowing another. In McCoy we see weakness, but an understandable one. That he is not utterly converted is because his ties to Kirk and Spock are stronger. He is not in control of his actions after his ordeal with Sybok, as none are after being preyed on by radicals, but having a support network was a greater anchor than the cool new leader with the easy answers. I’ve been to anti-radicalization training (twice, actually), and this is exactly the strategy that works.
Finally, the encounter. We learn that Sybok’s plan was to steal a starship and take it to God. He has constructed a narrative whereby he is God’s messenger and will deliver all to paradise, literally. The location of God is a problem, however. Firstly, it is beyond The Great Barrier, secondly, it is at the center of the galaxy. The first one evokes the second pilot to the series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and the barrier around the edge of the galaxy that caused Gary Mitchell to develop godlike powers and try to kill everyone. There’s got to be a fan theory in there somewhere (and there are several non-canon novels). The second problem is more difficult to overcome. The novelization mentions Sybok using knowledge from God to modify the Enterprise’s engines, but nothing like that exists in the film (there’s that “first draft” problem again).
Eden itself is another desert. Kirk is not impressed, but Sybok is enraptured by the vista. Sybok is of course quite mad, but that he is impressed by somewhere that is identical to his home is telling. Man creates God in his own image, does man create heaven to look like his home? What an intriguing thought.
Jerry Goldsmith didn’t agree. The beautiful and epic “A Busy Man” suggests lush vistas of a Hollywood epic, but juxtaposed against the purple-tinted desert the music almost comes across as sarcastic. The miniature epiphanies, however, invoke the methods of Sybok’s radicalization, in the seat of his power. Yet all the evocations are quite intentional. His score is in equal parts brash and beautiful (this is Goldsmith, after all), but there is a sense of unity that enters the metaphysical. The four note “friendship” motif punctuates the moodier and more epic passages, such as “A Busy Man” and “An Angry God,” as if to remind us that this is not just a battle of ideologies but a battle of social groups. Sybok’s army and the Enterprise’s triumvirate are separated by their views but also their relationships – they are both each other’s “out groups.” The implication presented by these four notes is that the conflict of allegiance is ultimately as important to the characters as the conflict of ideologies.
Considering the cooperation with the Klingons to bring about the conclusion, the music is stating “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But why metaphysical? Because by recycling his Motion Picture score, which was also doubling duty as The Next Generation’s theme, Goldsmith is promoting unity between the two halves of the franchise. That he would later reuse the same four note motif in his score for First Contact for a similar purpose suggests this was his intention, and that I’m not just being a pretentious ass.
Then there is God himself. Yes, we see God. A kindly white man with a beard who asks an awful lot of questions for someone supposedly omniscient. While Sybok grovels and swoons, Kirk asks the question that has plagued mankind: “What does God need with a starship?”
What does God need with a starship? What does God need with anything? What does an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient entity need with his own, mundane creation? Why do we exist, if God is all existence.
“What does God need with a starship?”
Has there ever been a more piercing question in cinema? Can you answer it? What does God need with a starship? You don’t know, do you? You can’t, it’s one of those questions like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” except without the obvious sound one can make by flapping their hand that sounds a bit like a fist in a jar of mayonnaise. It’s one of those questions like “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” except without the obvious “how do you know it fell?”, “why selectively apply the laws of gravity but not sound?” and “where do you get off thinking sound only exists because you can hear it?” In short, a piercing philosophical question, but with enough intelligence to promote thought rather than flippancy.
What does God need with a starship? Not just an unknown unknown, but an unknowable unknown. Donald Rumsfeld would be impressed.
Of course, this isn’t God. This is “God” at least as listed in the credits. A malevolent being of incomprehensible power, eternal, timeless, and in desperate need of attention from his followers, “God” is separated from God by only the inversion of commas, at least in the sights of this film. Considering all that has gone before, the allegory, the allusion and the satire, the original intention clearly was that “God” actually be the Abrahamic God. Outright brazen in its attack on the beliefs of billions, it is unsurprising that God was changed to be a mere alien pretending to be God.
Yet the changes are too few and too subtle to render the original intention obsolete. This is an attack on religion. Specifically on the Abrahamic ones. The original intention was for this to be the Christian God, but with modern events it’s hard not to see it skewing towards other religions again. This is a vengeful God in the desert, commanding that his followers spread his word and his essence through violence. Uncomfortable, but intentional. Of course, had Shatner had his way and written “God” as being the actual Satan, the message would have been perhaps even more unpalatable to those that would take offence.
Still, this is not an attack on any one religion. In fact, this is not just an attack on theism in general. It is also an attack on atheism too.
I’ll ask you again, what does God need with a starship?
The piercing question that skewers the nature of belief also begs another question… is there an answer God could give that would satisfy you? If you want proof of God, what proof would be acceptable to you? Of course, there is no proof of God, not that it matters. There is no experiment that could prove or disprove the nature of God, nor would we understand such an experiment even if it could be designed. God defies proof and defies the scientific method. One can no more prove the existence of God than disprove the existence of God. Yet the nature of the scientific method is that only disproof exists. God is beyond the realm of science; to apply the scientific method to God shows a misunderstanding of both.
“What does God need with a starship?” A question so profound, one wonders if the answer is not 42.
But “God” is not God. When confronted with the truth, that Sybok’s peaceful God is angry, and smites his enemies with lightning bolts, he is temporarily taken aback. He seeks solace and forgiveness in the arms of his former enemies. And thus the divisions are shown once again.
Sybok strengthens his resolve. That the God he knew from belief is not the God of reality is no problem. God defies proof. God requires belief. Sybok believes his God is the true one. Therefore, it is only logical that he should radicalize God. One cannot kill an ideology so easily as to point out the hypocrisy involved. Asking what God needs with a starship only gets you so far. Eventually, man must create God in his own image, or appropriate the existing one and twist it to his own fancy. Sybok radicalizes God, the delusion of extremism is complete, and the real God has another reason to throw us out of paradise.
Kirk, on the other hand, has a different plan. He nukes “God.” One cannot kill an ideology, but a precision strike can accomplish enough for now. Sybok explodes as the Enterprise uses its relativistic weaponry, not quite taking God with it but at least slowing down the spreading of his influence. But, as Sybok’s ideology continues, interstellar cooperation ensues. The Klingons finally kill God with an airstrike.
International unity, superior air power, and commitment to the cause are the way to defeat an ideology. Well, that and wiping out the leaders. For a notoriously left wing franchise, the idea that it supports air strikes against Islamic state is alarmingly right wing. Still, we all know, Kirk got shit done. Is there a real life Kirk to draw parallels to? As it is, we’re done.
At its heart, Star Trek V is a glorious and powerful tale of extremism and the lengths we can go to combat it. Friendship is the ultimate triumph, as bookended by the campfire scenes, and the four note leitmotif in Goldsmith’s heartbreaking score. Friendship builds resolve, exposes darkness and defeats evil. True friendship means acceptance, not change. Catharsis, not salvation. Resolve, but without violence. Trek ideals to the core, but perhaps not the most important.
Superficiality is a sin. Sybok’s undoing was taking the superficial as something more. A superficial understanding of God without considering the underlying motives. A superficial understanding of the human condition, without the contradiction. Kirk needed his pain, Spock’s pain was accepted, and perhaps God needing a starship was not such a bad thing after all. To concentrate on the superficial without examining the essence of the moment is to fail.
That is why you must not dismiss this film out of hand, unless you wish to make those same mistakes yourself. The worst science fiction film of all time? No, far from it. In fact, this, for me, might just be one of the greatest.