Friday, January 03, 2014

#661. Faith and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Whatever people are currently saying about Star Trek Into Darkness, it's not really in contention for the title of worst movie in the franchise.  There's one perennial contender almost no one will ever question, and that's 1989's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

The thing is, I'm a fan of that one.  I will never argue that it's the best or even a leading contender for that title, but there are too many fascinating elements in Final Frontier for me to even consider dismissing it.  For one, it's a great movie for old school Kirk/Bones/Spock, and for another, it's another strong Spock appearance in a movie series filled with them.

And there's the matter of its subject matter.  In a lot of ways, Final Frontier is a rephrasing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in less abstract terms.  In the first movie, an old Earth probe returns home in a quest to meet its creator.  In the fifth, a Vulcan is on a quest to meet God.  Let's just get this out of the way: one of the controversies of Final Frontier is its depiction of a laughing Vulcan, who contradicts just about everything fans expect from Vulcans.  That same argument was one of the reasons fans had such a hard time with Star Trek: Enterprise.  But Final Frontier itself also calls to mind the two most famous Vulcans in the whole franchise, and the nature of their contentious relationship: Spock and his father Sarek.  It doesn't make sense to argue that Vulcans have to be stoic adherents to logic who never have anything to do with emotion when such a famous father and son relationship is presented from the beginning to be so complicated.  The 2009 Star Trek update might have even closed the book on that when it presented Sarek coming to terms with why he married the human Amanda.  And by the way, I like that Spock/Sarek dynamic far better, and it would open the door to a Sarek who has the traditional relationship with a different son, Sybok.

Gene Roddenberry himself wanted Sybok expunged from canon.  This was well before fans themselves started arguing for inclusion/exclusion from canon, even though for years The Animated Series has been on that very bubble (it should be included, by the way).  I can think of nothing more foolhardy or pointless than trying to deny that Sybok exists in franchise lore, because he represents the necessary human element of a very alien species.  He's the one Vulcan we've met who didn't reject his people's traditions but still looked beyond them.  He went in search of something bigger than logic, the very beginnings of logic, by means of a very logical route.  He listened to a vision, and the central tenet of any vision is to see it fulfilled.  He saw God.  He went to see if he could find him.  Simple as that.  That's the whole story of Final Frontier.

Part of the reason the movie has such a hard time finding anyone who will admit to liking it is its production values.  The rock creature from Galaxy Quest is actually the realization of something that was supposed to appear in Final Frontier, something that was possible ten years after the fact, but still out of the realm of feasible possibility in the budding age of CGI cinema.  Director and star William Shatner also bit into the trend at the end of the '80s that saw many films try to ape the epic feel of the original Star Wars trilogy, something that proved almost universally to be a very bad idea, because at that time, no one was capable of reproducing the George Lucas magic, not even Lucas himself (Howard the Duck, for instance).  Previous Star Trek films had taken cracks at it, but the gears of the Hollywood development process had really only caught up with projects specifically aimed at rather than films greenlit to compete with the Star Wars phenomenon ten years after A New Hope debuted in theaters.  Superman and The Motion Picture, for instance, became a reality because studios realized they could do those films because they wanted to compete.  Final Frontier and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, meanwhile, happened because studios wanted Star Wars, but had no idea how to do it themselves.

Final Frontier is a very Star Trek approach to Star Wars, to be sure.  There's the obligatory cantina-aping scene in Paradise City (worse than the effort in Search for Spock, with an alien I'd love to replace with a Ferengi in some future special edition), for instance.  But the fact that the Big Idea of the Force is replaced with the Big Idea of God, it's exactly what Star Trek always tried to do, tackle real world issues as directly as possible in a fictional setting.

The subject of divine beings came up regularly in the original series.  Most of the time, it was an occasion for Kirk to smugly assert his own cleverness and moral superiority.  The fact that Final Frontier still reached that point ("What does God need with a starship?") but only after real soul searching (he's the only one who resists Sybok's purging of emotional baggage) calls to mind, actually, another Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan.

No, really.

It's at the end of Khan, a movie that posits around the same central issue as its predecessor, The Motion Picture, the question of an aging Kirk.  (The first movie does not receive near enough credit for all the ways it continued to affect both the film series and the TV efforts that followed it.  People say that one was boring and leave it at that.  The whole franchise would not exist without it, and I'm not just speaking of how it revived Star Trek in the literal sense.)  At the end of Khan, after Spock has died, Kirk is reflecting once again on his feelings about growing older.  "It's a far, far better better thing I do than I have ever done before, a far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known," Kirk quotes, from A Tale of Two Cities, the book Spock gave him at the start of the movie.  And I admit, I've never read Two Cities, so I never knew the significance of that line, only that it always felt like the most poetic and best moment of the movie.  "I feel young," Kirk concludes, when reflecting on how the recent events have affected him.  Two Cities is the less famous of the two books referenced in Khan, the other being Moby Dick (which First Contact later echoes to much better effect).  Possibly there is far more significance in its inclusion than I can properly address here without having read it, but apparently Charles Dickens knowingly reflected Christian theology in it, the way Lewis and Tolkien would in fantasy contexts a century later.

The point is, Final Frontier is almost a movie-length extrapolation of that epiphany, Kirk's exploration of issues concerning faith and the importance of being true to one's self.  That is the whole point of the Sybok character, who exists in rank contradiction to everything we ever knew about Spock and his father, at first.  But he's also an affirmation, and a vital link in a chain never fully explored.  The life and career of Spock exists in as many missing pieces as illuminated moments.  The way his successor Tuvok in Star Trek: Voyager surprised everyone in the episode "Flashback" by having a Starfleet service record that stretches all the way back to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (even his close friend Janeway) is kind of like the revelation of Spock's brother in Final Frontier.  There's everything to validate the relationship, including the way it's presented in the movie.  Spock is as conflicted about his brother as Sarek was of his son.  Or sons.  Vulcans are no doubt masters of passive aggression.

Yet I don't want to bog you down with too much reflection.  Final Frontier boils down to an effort on the franchise's part to finally confront the matter of faith in a forthright fashion.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, four years later, borrowed this legacy to considerable effect.  Sybok's quest is not invalidated by its results.  In fact, the moment the false god appears as Sybok himself is a more compelling exploration of the matter than the rest of the film, forcing the audience to question all over again what to believe.

And we are certainly at a crossroads of belief as a global civilization.  In 1989 that wasn't as much of an issue.  In 2014, it absolutely is.  We're deep in the heart of converting Christmas back to its pagan roots.  We have a new Catholic pope who is calling for dramatic reforms, but the majority of people still think of faith in the 21st century as an alternative to atheism.  It used to be the other way around, certainly in the years following WWII, when the whole world was struggling to make sense of so much devastation.  This is the inevitable result of increasing globalization.  More people are more aware of other cultures than ever before.  The more we struggle to reconcile new ideas the harder it is to process the old ones.  And in the effort to consider all these ideas at the same time, some of them will undergo a change of emphasis in popular thought.

Final Frontier was ahead of the curve.  It was ahead of its time.  It was as much a reflection of the end of the Cold War as its successor, Undiscovered Country, on the opposite side of the cultural spectrum.  It's still a film of questionable overall value, but it's far too resonant to outright dismiss.  It's one of the most important statements Star Trek has yet made.

Worst Star Trek movie?  It's a debate I'd rather not tackle, really.  They all have their merits, even The Final Frontier.


Pat Dilloway said...

When I rewatched all six movies a couple years ago I realized 5 got a bad rap. The idea of searching for God in the center of the galaxy wasn't any dumber than going back to the 80s to kidnap whales to appease a killer alien probe. (In fact it's probably a less idiotic idea than that.)

Production values were something I think the franchise always had a problem with until the 2009 reboot when Paramount actually spent some money to bring the production values up to summer blockbuster standards.

Incidentally whenever I see commercials for this "Christian Mingle" dating site I always say to myself, "What does God need with a dating service?" I can thank Bill for that one.

Remembering Grace said...

I forget which autobiography it was because they all said the same thing, but one of them, Takei/Koenig/Nichols/Doohan, said that it wasn't the storyline that bothered them so much as the humor that was taken at the expense of the the characters. Cheap slapstick stuff, like Scotty saying he knew the ship like the back of his hand, and then being knocked out by a beam.

The Tale of Two Cities quote comes from the very end of the book. The third character, Sidney, has taken the place on the guillotine of a man, Charles, who had been falsely charged with murder. Charles was unable to prove his innocence, and had a wife and baby on the way. Sidney, their estranged friend, found a way to switch places with Charles and get Charles and his family out of Paris. His unspoken thoughts as he takes his place on the guillotine are of his life and that he has never done anything worthy until this moment.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Sybok was a fascinating idea at least. Shatner is convinced off they hadn't run out of money for the ending it would have saved it.

Tony Laplume said...

Pat, we all thank Bill for something.

Grace, I assume it translates to Kirk finally releasing the burden of never having faced the no-win scenario from his psyche. Yes, he lost big time from Spock's sacrifice, but he no longer feels trapped by the concept of death. Having now faced it, he feels stronger for it.

As for which costar complained, it might as well have been any of them, except maybe Koenig. They all became pretty bitter concerning Shatner's habits. Although the Scotty gag still amuses me, and even has a callback in the 2009 movie...this time with Kirk doing it.

Maurice, it's not always about the money, but how you use it. Some questionable decisions were made. Hopefully he'll one day admit that to himself.

Stephanie said...

I've always appreciated Gene Rodenberry's humanist worldview. As a humanist myself, it's a nice alternative to sin, apocalypse, judgment, misogyny, and doom.

Tony Laplume said...

But doom is so fun! Doooom!

The Armchair Squid said...

I remember nothing about V. I do know that I decided after VI that the even numbers were better than the odds. They've been more consistent since then, I think.

Tony Laplume said...

The even number thing was a common perception among fans.

The Armchair Squid said...

Since VI, I've entirely lost track of the numbering, in fact. I think the TNG movies were generally better than the early ones - sacrilege, I'm sure.

Tony Laplume said...

VII: Generations
VIII: First Contact
IX: Insurrection
X: Nemesis
XI: Star Trek
XII: Into Darkness


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