So my recent obsession with Star Trek has found me re-watching all the movies, and of course I knew that at some point I’d have to confront this one. And I looked forward to it with relish! Because I LOVE FAILURE! And let’s face it—failure is usually much more interesting than success. Which is why I have such an INTERESTING life. Anyway, this one is without doubt the worst of the original cast movies—by a LONG shot—and we’re going to go into an inordinate amount of detail about why! So let’s do it!
We open with this bald goon with horrible teeth in the middle of a desert. A title tells us that this is Nimbus III, in the neutral zone, also known as “the planet of galactic peace.” Probably because it’s a shithole and no one would want it. Anyway, in the distance, appears this silhouetted horseman riding in, Lawrence of Arabia fashion. Only, we have no idea who either the goon or the horseman are, so the whole SLOW arrival has no impact. The horseman gets off and soon is telling the goon that he’s filled with pain, and to share his pain. The goon starts crying [did we hear about his pain? Did I miss that part?] and says that he wants to serve and follow the amazing guy who took his pain away. The guy, a New Agey-lookin’ bearded guy, pulls down his cloak and reveals—pointy ears! He’s a Vulcan! This, by the way, is the only pre-credit sequence of the Trek films.
So now we start our credits, with the typical starfield background of most Trek films, but they soon deviate from the norm in that they begin the action of the film and let the end of the credits play over them. Now before we go on, we have to discuss the fact that this film is directed by William Shatner, and Shatner thought up the basis of the story. So I’m kind of interested in what Shatner decided to do with the film, and how he wanted to deviate from the established norms of the series, etc. I have also, in my geekery, bought Shatner’s “Star Trek Movie Memories” book, so I’ll also have some behind the scenes stuff to divulge. Anyway, so we are at Yosemite, labeled Planet Earth, and Kirk is rock climbing. They made this fake cliff face and placed it safely on the ground with the other cliff faces in the background, so it fairly convincingly looks like he’s thousands of feet up. IF you don’t know this. If you do, the cliff face looks totally fake. Spock shows up in these jet boots and starts yakking at Kirk, making awful puns like he’s not sure if Kirk “understands the gravity of the situation.” Bones, on the ground, watches, saying aloud that if he’s not careful “he’ll end up talking to himself.” Spock tells Kirk to “be one with the rock,” and then Kirk falls—accomplished through an awful, awful effect—and Spock saves him just in time, inches from having his brains bashed out, and Kirk says “Mind if we drop in for dinner?” It’s Star Trek PUN FUN! Now, it is well known that after the crossover success of the jokey Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, Paramount insisted that they shoehorn some goofy humor in here—the studio apparently didn’t want to go back to serious stories at all. And you know what? I’m going to give Shatner the benefit of the doubt and believe this MORONIC “comedy” was studio mandated.
Meanwhile, in Paradise City, on that desert planet from the beginning, there’s a Klingon and a Romulan and a human, and they’re all reasonably important dignitaries sent there for some reason or other I didn’t catch, and while they’re there, Sybok’s army stages a raid. Only thing is, one mention at the very beginning was our only clue that he even HAS an army, so the effect is to leave you saying “WHO are these people?” At least I didn’t get it, and I don’t even have ADHD. And poor Shatner isn’t confident enough to really give Sybok an impressive shot as he rides into his newly-conquered city. In fact, we don’t even know enough about this city or what the whole story is to have much of any idea what’s happening. Meanwhile, on our NEW Enterprise—would it be a Star Trek film if it didn’t have recycled footage from a previous film?—Scotty is all a’twitter because apparently it’s a giant heap of junk. Although this will have practically no impact on the story. Uhura is there, too, looking HIDEOUS in this massive hair-thing that looks like a silver-flecked black pumpkin sitting atop her head. The poor woman. There are also rather strong hints that Scotty and Uhura are having some sort of affair, which I don’t want to see—how about you? Anyway, they get the message that these three dignitaries have been taken hostage, and to gather the crew up and take off to figure it out.
So Kirk. Spock and Bones are now relaxing around the campfire, making banter. Kirk says he knew he was never in danger [from the fall] because those two were with him. He says “I’ve always known—I’ll die alone.” At this point Spock says “Oh God, will you spare us the Lone Ranger bullshit?” Actually he doesn’t. He does say to Bones “As you know doctor, I’m half human,” and you, the Star Trek fan in the audience, say YES, WE FUCKING KNOW. And so does Bones! Christ, how many times do you need to keep telling him! I should make a compilation of all the Star Trek expository lines. Then they try to get Spock to join in a round of “Row, row, row your boat,” which proves a little too human for him. Anyway, the reason I mention all this is that—although I haven’t watched all of the original series yet—I suspect that this may be the first time we’ve actually seen all three just ON VACATION together, completely relaxed in a non-work environment, and again I have to hand it to Shatner for trying to broaden and show us a different aspect of these characters. Although I must confess I never really needed to see Kirk on the bridge in a flannel shirt and “Go climb a rock” sweatshirt, as we do a moment later, after Uhura has recalled them to duty. Soon after, some Starfleet guy is saying that sure, there are any number of more convenient starships out there, but “I need Jim Kirk!”
Meanwhile some Klingon out there named Klaa is out randomly blowing shit up because… well, just because. Because he wants to be the baddest badass in the galaxy. He gets wind that Kirk is headed to headed to Nimbus III and heads there himself, hoping to prove himself the ultimate warrior by killing Kirk. In the meantime, he takes target practice on some well-known NASA satellite, and you’ll notice he uses a kind of submarine periscope thing which seems pretty inefficient for his purposes, but is there for effect. Here’s where we first notice that the special effects are far, FAR below the already not-stellar standards of the other films. In fact, they’re pretty much on par with the Next Generation television show, which was in its second season by this time. The story is that ILM, who had done the effects for the other films [except for Search for Spock] just had too much on their plate that year, and so they ended up with some guy’s shop in Hackensack, New Jersey. The effects are quite, quite dreadful. Adding to the injury is the use of rear-projected footage for the viewscreen, resulting in a wan, washed-out image, as opposed to the crisp image one can get with a green screen. You may also notice that the sets are the same sets from the Next Generation, slightly redressed. And they look like it.
SPOILERS > > >
So the crew beam down to the planet. Now comes what I think must be the most embarrassing moment of any Star Trek film. The guards outside Paradise City hear a silken voice singing in the night! Who, or what, could it be? There! Look! Some heavily silhouetted female form, dancing nude on the sands with large feather fans in her hands? Who cares, right? Let’s just leave our posts and get a better look! Of course it’s Uhurha, and Kirk, Spock and Bones all pop up with guns to take the guards prisoners. Now, apparently these guards [there are about six or so] are a bunch of MILF-lovin’ dudes who are so dumb that it seems PERFECTLY PLAUSIBLE to them that a sexy near-septuagenarian [Nichols was 57 when this was filmed] would be singing and dancing nude on the sands in hopes that some horny goon guards would come over and give her some lovin’! It’s… well, it’s tragic. You shed a tear for Nichols, the Star Trek series, yourself, and mankind. Although I must say I LOVE the implication that the Enterprise apparently carries a set of large feather fans aboard.
Okay, so our heroic trio dress as bandits and enter Paradise City! This leads into perhaps the only large-scale laser gun battle in the series. Great! Only you’ll notice that Shatner once more casts himself as the EXTRA-special case in that he alone brawls with his bare fists! And Spock [weep for Nimoy] has to Vulcan-pinch a horse. Come on, that’s just embarrassing! Anyway, they get in to free the three hostages, and find the hostages have converted to Sybok, and now THEY’RE the hostages! This is a pretty good twist. Sybok is pretty gung-ho about defeating them in this way, and he seems to recognize Spock. Gee, I wonder why?
So they take the shuttle [the transporter’s not working] back to the Enterprise—but the Klingon is there, too! And the shuttle can’t land while the Enterprise’s shields are up! So they lower their shields for a split-second and the shuttle lands. Here, not only do you have TV-level ship flight effects, and a really SAD-looking crash on the Next Generation shuttle bay set with a bunch of SPARKS! But the thing that really puts a nail in my heart is the model of the Enterprise’s exterior shuttle bay that was apparently the result of a contest to let a class of disabled kids make a model for a major motion picture. It looks like it’s made of posterboard, and is supposedly just slightly wider than the shuttlecraft, meaning that the ENTIRE main cylinder of the Enterprise is MAYBE twenty-five feet across. Which would mean that the dish is MAYBE fifty feet across, which means that the entire ship can MAYBE hold what, 40 people? But you know what, I’m sure Star Trek fans won’t even notice or think about anything like that.
So, still in the Next Generation’s very cheesy-lookin’ shuttle hangar, Sybok attacks Kirk, and while this happens, Spock picks up a rifle and has the opportunity to kill Sybok. Kirk shouts “Kill him!” but Spock does nothing, and ultimately lets Sybok take the rifle. The three of them then get thrown in the brig, where Kirk upbraids Spock for his disloyalty, but Spock reveals that: Sybok is HIS BROTHER! All this is discussed in some detail in Shatner’s Movie Memories. Spock’s refusing to shoot Sybok was supposed to precipitate the first serious break between Kirk and Spock, as the reason Spock gave for not shooting him was that he believes Sybok may actually BE the messiah. Nimoy of course refused, saying Spock would never desert Kirk—especially after he just saved him a few movies ago—although it also sounds a little suspect that Spock would think anyone is the messiah. So eventually someone had the idea to make Sybok Kirk’s half-brother, which is… well, it’s really cheesy, isn’t it? Meanwhile, upstairs, Sulu and Uhura fall right under Sybok’s control, which personally I found a little insulting to them. Look, in Wrath of Khan, it took a mind-control bug to turn Chekov against Kirk, and even then he was able to overcome the bug [somehow] rather than shoot Kirk. Sulu and Uhura, nope, they just toss him over. Anyway, back downstairs, Scotty breaks the main trio out of the brig, and they escape through the back hallways, which should be kind of cool, but isn’t because of the poorly-redressed Next Generation sets. Here is where the second bit of “humor” is forced in—you can tell it is a key “humor” element because it caps off both trailers—where Scotty says he “knows the ship like the back of his hand” then turns and knocks himself out on a low-hanging beam. Oh Boy, is that funny. I won’t go too much further into it, although if you’re a Trek fan and are unprepared for this, you may find yourself slowly jamming a sharp object into your neck. Anyway, we’ll discreetly slip past the reintroduction of the jet boots, as you’re just recovering from the Scotty debacle, and rejoin our trio once they make it up to the lounge with the ship’s wheel. There they send out a distress call [intercepted by the evil Klingon, who hot-foots it over], and Sybok comes in to lay out a little exposition and try to snap up Bones’ and Spock’s minds. He’s going to take them through the great barrier [which they encountered before in a season 1 episode of the original series, when it was on the outer edge of the galaxy. It has since been relocated to the center of the galaxy, apparently]. No ship or probe or snack cake has ever returned, and Kirk knows from experience that when you try to go through, your ship gets buffeted with extremely powerful radiation. Nevertheless, Sybok plans to go there, to this planet at the center called “Sha Ka Ree,” which is supposed to be some kind of eden or promised land, where he will meet God. By the way, the place was called Sha Ka Ree because it sounds like “Sean Connery,” who they wanted to get to play Sybok. You can just imagine the discreetly polite but extremely firm refusal. Anyway, then Sybok lays his mojo on Bones, saying “Share your pain,” and Bones tries to refuse, but in the back appears a rear-projection of his dying father, and after a FUCKING BORING scene in which he has anguish at the bedside, he finally decides to euthanize ol’ dad. He is now a Sybok convert, and urges Spock and Kirk to join up, ‘cause it feels fuckin’ GREAT. Sybok turns on Spock and shows him his own birth, which, frankly I don’t see how that’s the center of Spock’s pain, or even relevant in any way, but whatever—I guess my pain is that I was born AT ALL, too. So it seems like Spock’s in the pocket, and he turns on Kirk. But Kirk ain’t havin’ it, because, he says, “I need my pain.” Now recall in the original idea, which was Shatner’s, both Spock and McCoy desert Kirk. On the one hand, Shatner had the idea that the trio would fight through their first real break from each other. On the other, you’ll notice that this idea just HAPPENS to posit Kirk as the only one of the three with the mental fortitude to refuse Sybok, which is a little insulting to the other two. Anyway, it is revealed that Spock will not leave Kirk’s side, because he worked through his pain long ago—with the aid of Excedrin Extra Strength Time-Release Formula. This makes sense, and works within the story and Spock’s character. McCoy just says “Well, I guess I’ll stay here with them,” which seemed kind of lame to me, and totally negates the whole big scene we just went through with his father, not to mention makes Sybok’s power seem like no big deal. Anyway, now they must go through the great barrier! They’re going to enter THE FINAL FRONTIER! It’s gonna be a HUGE, HUGE deal!
So Sybok goes to the bridge! A few minutes later Kirk and co. come though—oh, I thought they were prisoners. Guess not. Anyway, they enter the barrier! The lightning flashes! The thunder sounds! And then—whaddya know, they’re through. I guess that whole final frontier thing was NO BIG DEAL. I guess all that stuff about no ship or probe has returned was—I don’t know, total bullshit? Because obviously anything can get in and out with impunity, not a trace of damage, not even a scratch. It’s like, come ON guys, can’t you at least shake the camera a little? Can we have an instrument panel emit a spark, or something? Some static electricity? Mild heartburn? Anything? This is also reminiscent of the ending of many a Next Generation episode, where there’d be all this build-up about “We have to fire a photon torpedo at just the right millisecond, and hit the target within 1/35468434th of an inch, with only 67.8654% of it’s power, and our chances of doing this are one to 38.6 billion, and—oh, well, I guess it worked then. Okay, anyone up for iced coffee?”
So Kirk convinces Sybok that the plot dictates that he, Spock and McCoy accompany him to the planet to meet God, and as you know, the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of the characters, or the sense. They land on the planet and spend minutes gaping in wonder at a fucking DULL desert landscape that looks a lot like Nevada. What are you guys looking at here? They don’t find anything, and the fellas are kindly suggesting that maybe Sybok is a misguided wingnut kook, when suddenly the day turns to night and these big stone ribs come out of the ground and form this shrine-thing. We see the ribs burst out of the ground with great bursts of displaced dirt, but when we have a long shot a second later there is no dirt pile around the base of the ribs, and we can see a very clear line where they are obviously sitting atop the flat ground. I blame Shatner for that one—dude, pay some attention and order some lackey to pile some dirt around the base of those rocks! That’s your JOB.
So then they meet God! They ask if he’s God and he says “I have many faces” and we then see a very multi-culti display of various religions—various EARTH religions, that is, although I think they do throw in one unknown deity that might be from a different planet—before we settle on the standard white man with curly hair and pasted-on beard. This guy was another MAJOR mistake, as he’s embarrassing—to the AUDIENCE—making them think to themselves “God, I really am the biggest geek, aren’t I? I mean—look at this idiotic SHIT I’m watching.” Regardless, Sybok tells the thing he brought him a starship, and the deity is pleased, and Kirk says “Excuse me? What does God need with a starship?” The head blasts him with its laser eyes, then blasts Spock and McCoy when they try to interfere, which causes Kirk to lay out some Philosophy 101 questions [“Why is God so angry?”], and Sybok to immediately question his entire course of life up until then—not likely. Soon it becomes apparent that this is no God, but just some entity that has been trapped in this planet and wants to use the starship to escape. That’s interesting, but… how did Sybok get word of any of this? Did this entity somehow get word out and it eventually got distorted into that he’s God, and reached Sybok that way? Or did Sybok just take a lucky guess and what we have here is a REALLY amazing coinkidink?
So the Enterprise transporter can only beam up two, so Kirk sends Spock and McCoy—awfully convenient for our little story, no? Especially with Kirk saying he would die alone? But Spock tells the Klingon ambassador that he has to order Klaa to save Kirk… Meanwhile, on the planet, Sybok somehow tries to sacrifice himself, but I don’t really even remember how, and in any case, it’s no use. Kirk has the Enterprise shoot a photon torpedo right down to where the entity is and… wow, I guess I thought a photon torpedo would be stronger than that. But this seems to have set the giant floating Oz-head free, and he chases Kirk around, until suddenly the Klingon ship arises above the rocks, and shoots the head, which explodes. That’s all it took! Which is a giant point of lameness, too, because we have all this guild-up to God, then get this Godlike thing, which is easily destroyed with a laser blast. Then Kirk gets beamed aboard, Klaa apologizes under duress, and he and Spock are beamed back to the Enterprise. By the way, apparently Sulu and Uhura and everyone else who feel under Sybok’s influence is now totally cured.
By the way, this was not the way the ending was planned. Shatner had an original ending, which we’ll go into later. Then the main scripted ending had our trio being attacked by men made of rock, which was supposed to have smoke issuing from it. They were going to have six, but could only afford one, so he was built. The smoke was going to be accomplished by—ready?—people blowing cigarette smoke INTO the costume, so it would issue out as he moved around. This of course would only work for a few minutes… and eventually the whole idea was scrapped. Apparently they had to throw the whole ending together with literally whatever footage they had available, and given the mess I am to understand it was, it’s amazing it turned out as comprehensible as it did.
Back aboard, we start pondering some cosmic questions, and Kirk says that maybe God is right here in our hearts! Awwwww. Then Spock says he knew Kirk wouldn’t die—because he was never alone! Then Kirk gives heavy indication that he considers Spock his brother! Come on guys—GROUP HUG! Then they’re back in the same spot at Yosemite, and this time even Spock joins in as they sing “Row, row, row your boat,” and everyone in the audience turns to their friend and says “Holy shit, man, that fucking SUCKED!”
< < < SPOILERS END
Okay, so obviously this is a terrible movie. Let’s start at the beginning and go into the many reasons why. First up is Sybok, and his methods. I really like the idea of a flat-out madman messing with the crew of the Enterprise, and I think a religious zealout is not that bad an idea. A lot of the problem is how he goes about it. First of all, if someone came up to you and, first thing, asked you to “Share your pain,” what would you do? You’d try to back away slowly, not making any sudden moves, and vow never to let your Earthy-granola friend drag you to the Robert Bly discussion group again. Right? No one is just going to pop out their carefully hidden pain to some stranger just because they ask—they’re going to RUN. So every time this question is asked throughout the film, it’s a little grating and unreal. It would be one thing if he had some sort of Dracula-like hypnotic power, but the film never really shows that. I would also be ready to accept this whole thing—and thought it was fairly cool—if he was an evil Vulcan who was using his mind-meld power against people. That would have also had the additional advantage of making sense. But alas!
The second problem are the piss-poor special effects. A great story or involving film could have gotten over them, but here they add to the general impression that the whole movie is just a throwaway. Sadly, I think the fact of Shatner directing this once actually worked against it, as most people perceived it as “Oh, Nimoy directed two, I’M going to direct one, too!” and when you follow it up with such obvious budgetary stinginess—especially given that the last film was the most successful ever—it looks like the studio had no confidence in Shatner and just wanted to get this over with as fast and cheaply as possible. So between the look and the story, it really seems like no one gave a crap about what was being put out here.
Also, the finished product just doesn’t form a cohesive story, and it’s too bad, because it’s ALMOST there. I think the problem is the low budget, yes, but also the many areas that had to be papered-over when the story changed. First, the studio insisted that more humor be injected here, but the thing is, The Voyage Home LENT itself to humor. This one doesn’t, and whoever’s writing the “humor” here is, uh, let’s say “not a comedy writer.” Then there’s the fact that Nimoy and Kelley refused to have their characters turn on Kirk, which resulted in the POOR solution of Sybok being Spock’s brother, which just comes off as a silly contrivance. It also resulted in the late scene where both Spock and Bones get converted… and then just inexplicably stay at Kirk’s side. There are also story elements, which one perceives as conceived by Shatner, which elevate him unfairly above his castmates—little things like having him be the only one who uses his fists while others use guns, and being the only one with the mental strength to resist Sybok. It just kind of rings as petty, and makes one resist the movie.
Finally, there’s the ending. Apparently Shatner’s original idea was that the main trio would go their separate ways, and would have LITERALLY met God, and would have LITERALLY gone to hell and had to fight real, literal demons. He blames himself for caving on this development, and sees this as the first step in the movie being compromised but—it kind of sounds awful, too, doesn’t it? One really needs to just STAY AWAY from literal heaven and hell in science [emphasis: SCIENCE] fiction. Look at what happened to The Black Hole. There’s a certain point in Shatner’s book where he says he went on vacation, and when he came back, Harve Bennett and their screenwriter had “stabbed him in the back” by changing the entire story—but you kind of wonder if they were trying to slip him a discreet hint. And then, in addition to basic silliness, the ending had to contend with micro-budgets and no overall concept, and we end up where we are.
It’s too bad, because I think a great, very interesting Star Trek film could have been made out of this. I like the whole idea of the religious zealout madman, and the crew having to face someone they can’t reason with at all. The idea of someone stealing the Enterprise is awesome. The idea of this guy turning Kirk’s crew against him is good—just do it better. I admire that Shatner is trying to show us the crew in new situations. The idea of a rogue, random Klingon out there who’s just war-happy is interesting as well—but it goes nowhere. The idea that this thing which is regarded as God is just an imprisoned thing trying to escape, that’s good, too. It’s just that every element resolutely fails to come together here.
So there you go, the series’ biggest flop. Worse even, although in a different way than The Motion Picture, which was just boring and nonsensical, while this one is misguided and poorly-made. Both suffer from budget cheapness. Oh well, the series would be redeemed and seen off in decent-enough light in The Undiscovered Country. And nevertheless, I still love me some Shatner!
If you’re the hugest Star Trek fan ever, or you love bad sci-fi. Otherwise, steer well clear.