Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Attack of William Shatner, A Vulcan Televangelist, and Christopher Plummer With An Eyepatch; or, Farewell to TOS

The year was 1989, and Star Trek: the Next Generation was finishing its second dismal season.  The new spinoff, born of the unprecedented success of Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home (aka "the one with the whales") three years before, was now foundering in deep waters.  The new cast, crew, and setting, hampered by behind-the-scenes stress and Gene Roddenberry's titanic ego, had resoundingly failed to catch on with the general public, even as Trek fans continued to watch and wince.  In the summer of 1989, these loyal fans were dealt their worst blow yet: for positioned in the coveted season finale slot, the culmination of two years worth of storytelling, was Shades of Gray, a budget-saving clip-show in which an unconscious Riker is forced by an alien parasite to relive scenes from the first two seasons of The Next Generation.  Star Trek had officially hit rock bottom.

For watchers both devoted and cynical, there was, really, only one conclusion to be drawn: the attempt to recreate the success of the original Star Trek from the ground up, without the original cast and crew, was clearly a failure.

On the other hand, fans and critics alike were no doubt delighted to learn that, for all the failure and misery of Star Trek on television, Star Trek the film franchise was poised to continue.  The original cast and crew, beloved icons of American popular culture, with nearly a half-century of unprecedented success behind them, were once again poised to storm American cineplexes.  On June 9th, 1989, while the TNG creative team were desperately bailing water out of their sinking ship and trying to find someone--anyone--to steer it, the time-tested cast and creative team of the Star Trek film franchise launched proudly out of the harbor, headed for glory once again.

And promptly sank like a stone.

As it turned out, Star Trek V: the Final Frontier, as it was called, ended up a complete failure on just about every level.  Not only was it savaged by critics--not only was it a box-office bomb, making a measly 63 million dollars on a 33 million dollar budget--but even the fans universally reviled it, and revile it still.

Most importantly, though, The Final Frontier was, and is, a really, really, really bad movie.

How did this happen?

Well, for that, we have no choice but to look to the top, to the name at the very end of the opening-credits sequence:

If TWOK owes its existence to Nicholas Meyer's creative stroke of genius, if TSFS is Harve Bennett's concept of Star Trek, if TVH is Nimoy's baby--then even more so The Final Frontier is, from beginning to end, the work of William Shatner.

The mega-success of TVH had any number of positive effects for Star Trek and those involved in it.  It delivered a sizeable paycheck to its cast and crew--it launched TNG--it multiplied Star Trek fans like rabbits throughout America.  It also, however, delivered one more, rather unexpected result: it gave William Shatner, for the first time, almost total creative power over the franchise.

At the height of the original series' modest success, its two paramount stars, Shatner and Nimoy--two good Jewish immigrant boys who had spent similar years fruitlessly working their way up the acting ladder--got together with their lawyers and hatched a very, very devious plan; using their combined clout, they got a a so-called "favored-nations clause" inserted into both their contracts, establishing one ironclad principle now and for the future: whatever Nimoy got, Shatner would get, and vice versa.

This was in truth a very shrewd move, and certainly typical of these two men, who had first feuded over status and then bonded to become fast friends.  To begin with, as the two principal stars of the Star Trek property, their power together was immeasurably greater than either separately.  Divided, competing for perks and attention, the studio (not to mention Roddenberry, who for the privilege of leaving set early for an event tried to extort money out of Nimoy with the immortal words "You're just going to have to learn to bow down and say master") would have a decided advantage--but working together, Star Trek's twin stars could neither be bought off nor ignored.  Likewise, in the long run, the favored-nation clauses laid the groundwork for even more devious tactics.  By the time of the Star Trek films, Nimoy and Shatner had mutually agreed to a plan by which they would take turns raising a mighty fuss during contract and salary negotiations, with one of the two stridently demanding more, please while the other played the role of good cop, not making waves but benignly urging the studio to make the other actor happy.  With this simple but effective strategy, a sizeable amount of money was made for both men.

Salary, however, was one thing--directing a film was quite another.  Still, the favored-nations contract was there, for all to see, in the contracts for both TSFS and TVH.  Leonard Nimoy had gotten to direct a Star Trek movie--therefore, Shatner would as well.

The idea of using the favored-nations clause for this purpose was, apparently, Leonard Nimoy's.   Shatner, though, took to the idea like a duck to water, quickly and excitedly coming up with a plot idea for what he dreamed would soon be his property.

Still, favored-nations clause or no favored-nations clause, directing a film is no ordinary perk.  Years earlier, it is doubtful if the studio would ever have been so generous.

After The Voyage Home, though, the studio was, quite simply, in a good mood.  Star Trek had been a hit multiple times, and was now universally beloved throughout the nation.  It was a safe bet, and a little risk in the directing department was hardly the end of the world.  After all, Nimoy had been both an actor and a first-time film director as well--and everyone knew how that had turned out.  What did they have to lose?

Well, as it turns out, quite a bit.

William Shatner (may he live forever!) is a very odd man in certain ways.  If you've never read his books, watched his documentaries, or listened to his music, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.  For most of America today, Shatner is predominantly a comic figure, a grand old man for the Internet age--but there is another, and far more serious, side to the man as well.

Shatner, you see, is a man of ideas--or at least, he wishes very much to be.  There is, manifest throughout his personal work, an intensely reflective side to the man, a side that wants very much to inquire into and understand what is going on with the world, God, and himself.

There is, however, one very large problem with this, if you've ever had the chance to see Shatner the philosopher at work; for while Shatner aspires to wisdom, what he comes up with is often...well, rather odd.

Like many modern people, cut off from any substantive philosophical or religious tradition, Shatner's ruminant ponderings on life, death, the afterlife, Star Trek, and himself are, generally speaking, pretty damn bad.

To take one very obvious example of this, there is a famous video shot during the filming of The Final Frontier, in which Shatner reflects on why it is that he (as director and script-writer) decided to have Captain Kirk, at the opening of his film, climb the mountain El Capitan.  The question of why people choose to climb mountains, reaching upwards towards the sky, overcoming danger and gravity and their own physical limitations, is, in fact, potentially a rather profound one.  Unfortunately, Shatner's answer is not.
If for some reason I can't imagine, you didn't make it all the way through that, allow me to recap.  Shatner suggests that the reason people climb mountains is because "there is reason to believe granite is alive," and therefore climbers are possessed by an overwhelming desire to "hug," "envelop," and "make love" to the "living body" of the mountain, so that "there is a passionate love affair going on between the climber and the mountain."


Unfortunately, that's about the level at which The Final Frontier operates.

The idea for the film, in fact, was entirely Shatner's own, and was based, as he himself describes it, on his growing fascination with televangelists.  If this sounds like a bad idea for a film, then, well, congratulations, man.

Watching televangelist after televangelist claim the privilege of direct contact with and benevolent and highly enriching intervention from God, Shatner, who was raised an Orthodox Jew but had quickly abandoned his religion as a young man, found himself both repulsed and attracted.  What could these people possibly be thinking?  Could it be true?  What was God, anyway?

On the basis of this fascination, Shatner quickly came up with a plot for his movie.  A televangelist stand-in, the rogue Vulcan holy man Sybock, would rise up and take over the Enterprise, "converting" all of the Enterprise's crew except for Kirk, and taking the ship on a journey to meet God.  In the end, though, the God worshiped by the televangelist would be revealed to actually be Satan, with Kirk ultimately forced to rescue a chastened Spock and McCoy from the depths of Hell itself.  With the televangelist thoroughly shown up, Kirk and co would ultimately conclude that, since Satan clearly existed, God must exist as well...most tangibly, as Shatner was later to put it, in the human heart itself.

Armed with this...um...interesting story idea, Shatner quickly reached out to many of the past creative lights of Star Trek.  Nicholas Meyer, approached by Shatner to write the script, was utterly confounded, and refused to have anything to do with it.  Harve Bennett, though, knew quite well that the story idea was bad--and got on board anyway.

Why?  Well, the answer, put simply, is Leonard Nimoy.  On TSFS, while Nimoy had directed, the experienced Bennett had very much run the show, guiding the film's scripting and directing alike with a sure hand--on TVH, though, as Nimoy took more and more direct control over the film, the relationship between the two men rapidly deteriorated.  Nimoy, during this time, was a high-functioning alcoholic, working all day but drinking himself to sleep every night--and as he took on more and more power, his treatment of Bennett quickly became quite harsh, to say the least.  Over the course of TVH's filming and production, Bennett was subjected to any number of savagings from Nimoy, and finally barred from the set altogether--and he walked away, ultimately, deeply scarred by the experience.  Bennett was a very gentle man, by all accounts, and probably a little insecure as well--and this was not something he was used to dealing with.

Thus, when Shatner approached him to help with the script and production of TFF, Bennett was at first frightened, and then sorely tempted.  For unlike Nimoy, Shatner in person was charming, friendly, and affectionate--and also very eager to listen to him and his ideas.  This was a very flattering position for Bennett to find himself in--and in the end, faced with a constant barrage of enthusiasm and affection, Bennett gave in, and agreed to make the movie.

As he later put it, as an old television hand, he knew very well going in that the story was bad, an unsatisfying ramble towards an inevitable anti-climax.  After all, the thrust of the story would only work if it promised some kind of transcendent revelation of God as the basis of the televangelist's appeal--and this was, effectively, impossible to deliver onscreen, at least within the strictures of Star Trek's action-adventure format.  No matter how many flying gargoyles you added in, people would inevitably walk away disappointed--if, indeed, they ever bought into the premise at all.

Bennett, of course, tried to communicate all this to Shatner; but on this, his baby, Shatner was entirely immovable.  He would not compromise on the central thrust of his story; and Shatner possessed an inborn charisma and passion that made it very hard for anyone to resist him for long.  Those who worked on the film describe themselves as borne along by the wave of Shatner's enthusiasm, his passionate conversation, his flattering attention.  It was against their better judgments, yes; but who knows?  Maybe it could work.

This was, effectively, Bennett's decision.  As he later described it, he decided in the end that even if there was no salvaging the climax, at least they could make the journey to it as fun and exciting as possible.  Maybe, just maybe, that would be enough.

Unfortunately, at this point, the studio intervened, imposing one massive mandate on all involved: Star Trek V had to be funny.

This was, by studio logic, very good sense.  After all, Star Trek IV had been the most popular and profitable Star Trek movie yet, as well as the funniest by a long mile.  Clearly, humor was the way to go to make Star Trek popular with the general public.

This mandate, however, did not sit particularly well with Shatner's brooding idea for his film, featuring evil televangelists, betrayal most foul, and also literally the devil.  Still, Shatner was nothing if not determined; and towards this end, he and Bennett set out to find a funny writer to turn their story into a script--and hired David Loughery.

Loughery was, at the time, a fairly young and fairly hot talent.  Since Star Trek V, he has gone on to write a small number of thrillers and similar movies; though imdb informs me that his latest movie, released in 2013, is entitled "Nurses 3D," and is an "erotic horror film" which was no doubt showered with all kinds of critical affection and respect upon its release.

Still, it is not fair to blame Loughery for Star Trek V; hired, as Shatner describes it, in part on the strength of the jokes he told to Shatner and Bennett during his interview, he was given, effectively, an impossible task: write, in conjunction with both Shatner and Bennett, a theological action-adventure film about man's search for God and the evils of televangelism that also happens to be laugh-out-loud funny.

This was, to say the least, a difficult job: and to say that Loughery, Shatner, and Bennett all failed on it is really a dramatic understatement.

In its finished form, Star Trek V is so awful it's difficult to even fully describe.  This is not just a spectacularly misconceived story--this is not just a story with a poor ending--it's a film whose basic nuts-and-bolts of plot, story, and character are entirely bizarre and out of whack.

The dialogue, to begin with, is atrocious, a constant barrage of unfunny puns and laboriously-constructed jokes that make no sense in context and go nowhere.  If TVH worked because its comedy came entirely out of the characters themselves and their delight in living life, the majority of the jokes in TFF don't make any sense except on the assumption that they have been forcibly inserted into the characters' mouths by extradimensional beings who feed off of bad humor.  At one point, Spock, riding a blue alien horse with one horn, tells Kirk, riding a similar equine, to "hold your horse" and wait for him to scan.  Compared to most of the humor in the film, though, this is comedic gold.

Likewise, whereas TVH was driven by a profound sense of delight in the beauty and personality of each one of its crewmembers, TFF deliberately turns its supporting cast into a bunch of cartoonish morons.  In an opening scene, Chekov and Sulu have gotten lost in the woods while on vacation together, and try to cover it up ("We'll never live it down!" hisses Chekov) by claiming to be in a blizzard, with Chekov blowing ardently into his communicator for effect.  Later on, in the film's most infamous joke, Scotty claims to "know this ship like the back of my hand," then immediately turns around and bumps his head on a wall, knocking himself unconscious.   Ha ha, the funny Scottish guy is stupid!

Not only does TFF ruthlessly exploit its minor characters for all manner of petty humor--not only does it force them into all manner of out-of-character action (exhibit A is the Scotty-Uhura relationship that randomly appears here and is thankfully never seen again), it also has them betray Kirk and co offscreen to Sybock at the drop of a hat, with no later consequences or regrets whatsoever.  For a sizeable chunk of the movie, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu and co are all fanatical Sybock-followers, even attempting to chase down and capture the big three--and nothing is ever made of this.  Spock and McCoy, in contrast, do not betray Kirk--though this was only because the two actors flatly refused to go along with Shatner's ardent pleading to the contrary.  The supporting cast, though, had no such clout, and so find themselves systematically reduced to roughly the status and dignity of Granny in Tweety Bird.

In a very real sense, The Final Frontier is neither Star Trek as utopian parable, nor Star Trek as Western--it is Star Trek as cartoon.  It is the Space Jam of the Star Trek franchise.

Honestly, I'm barely exaggerating.  In the film's opening scene, Kirk is climbing El Capitan in Yosemite with only his hands and feet, without any ropes, harnesses, or safety gear whatsoever.  He is then visited by a flying Spock, who is wearing rocket boots and tells him to "be one with the rock."  Kirk responds by telling Spock not to distract him or he'll fa--

--upon which Kirk, still screaming "FAAAAAALLLLLLL" tumbles cartoonishly down the mountain, to be caught at the last second by the rocket-boot-wearing Spock.  Unruffled, Kirk smiles at the approaching Doctor McCoy and declaims: "Hey Bones, mind if we drop in for dinner?"  This scene is, effectively, Shatner's filmmaking style in a nutshell.

Still, if this is a cartoon, it's a pretty damn nasty one.  One of the film's central conceits is "Paradise City" on the "Planet of Galactic Peace"--originally created by the Klingons, Romulans, and Federation as a mutual project to promote peace, but quickly descended into a vague "Western town" filled with ugly, dirty degenerates who make threatening noises and are easily outwitted in the best Saturday-morning-cartoon-villain fashion.  Behind the cheese, though, there is some genuine cynicism on display here--and it runs deep.

There are worse things than this, though.  "Paradise City" ("Paradise Lost" is rather unsubtly written in graffiti over the entrance to the city) features prominently a seedy bar with a three-breasted, Cat-Woman stripper dancing listlessly on the bar--thus providing William Shatner with the rather dubious accolade of succeeding in creating a three-breasted character where even Gene Roddenberry failed.  In her initial scene, someone steps on her tail and she meows angrily.  Later on, when Kirk enters the bar searching for hostages, the stripper jumps on him for no particular reason, hissing like a cat and biting his neck, upon which Kirk throws her into a pool of water, where she floats on the surface facedown, either dead or unconscious and on the verge of drowning.  Neither Kirk nor Spock, though, spare even a moment of concern for her.

This is, really, pretty sick if you think about it.

Sick in a similar, but slightly different way is the (naked?) Uhura's striptease dance in the desert, which is used to distract the slobbering degenerates mentioned earlier long enough for Kirk and co to get the jump on them with phasers.  Nichelle Nichols was 57 at the time, which makes it strange on more than one level--but you know, whatever.  I suppose female officers on the Enterprise are used to this sort of thing.

Also remarkably cynical is the presentation of the new Enterprise (presented in glowing beauty at the end of Star Trek IV) as a walking deathtrap, shoddily put together by a degenerate Starfleet that then sends Kirk off with a skeleton crew and a broken ship to save the day once again.

This, though, brings us to what is by far the most cynical and nasty thing about this movie: its central plot.

Begun as a means for Shatner to get back at televangelists by portraying them as unwitting servants of the Devil, the film's plot gradually morphed over the course of its production into a rather uncanny combination of the awful TOS episode "The Way to Eden" (crazy religious group takes over Enterprise in order to get to "the mythic planet Eden") and Gene Roddenberry's even more awful proposed-movie "The God Thing" (alien entity pretends to be God, gets blown up by directed-energy weapons).

Over the course of the film, though, something happens that it is doubtful William Shatner had in mind: Sybock, our renegade prophet, becomes the hero of the story.

This, actually, shouldn't be too surprising, for a number of reasons.  First, Larry Luckinbill delivers by far the best performance in the film, coming off as joyful, mysterious, and genuinely compelling despite being given almost nothing to work with.  Sybock's complexity, his charisma, and his faith consistently shine through far more clearly than any purported heroism in our heroes.

Secondly, on a basic plot level, Sybock simply is the protagonist--that is, he is the character whose actions, at every step of the way, drive the plot towards its conclusion.  Unless he succeeds in taking over the Enterprise and taking it to the center of the Galaxy, the film has no plot at all--and nothing remotely interesting going on onscreen.  Inasmuch as we are invested in the story and its events, we are almost forced to root for him.

Thirdly, Sybock comes off as a genuinely good and caring person--far more so than Kirk and company.  Sybock's means of gaining followers is using his Vulcan telepathy to get them to confront and share their hidden pain, thus setting them on a path towards healing.  This is, I must assume, a pretty nice thing to do, even if it's not particularly clear in its depiction onscreen.

Oddly enough, though, given Shatner's direction, our hero Captain James T. Kirk does not come off well at all--indeed, it can safely be said that he is never so unlikeable as he is in The Final Frontier.  In Shatner's and Loughery's script, Kirk is set in direct opposition to Sybock, purported hero to purported villain--and the comparison only makes him look worse on every count.

To begin with, Kirk is clearly the antagonist in plot terms--the guy constantly scheming and foot-dragging to stop the plot from moving forward.  Not only that, but he's a pretty weak and ineffective antagonist at that.  Over the course of the film, Kirk fails at pretty much every effort he makes to stop or even slow down Sybock; he tries to take the hostages by force, Sybock captures him; he tries to fight Sybock in hand to hand combat, Sybock takes him down with ease; he tries to contact Starfleet, his transmission is intercepted and Sybock immediately catches him.  By the end of the story, after Sybock has easily commandeered the Enterprise, gained the unswerving loyalty of its entire crew, successfully reached his "God-planet" by traveling through a barrier previously thought impenetrable, and foiled every effort of Kirk's to oppose him and prevent these things from happening, he finally and rather condescendingly hands back command of the Enterprise to Kirk--upon which Kirk pettily insists that, if they are going to explore the planet below as Sybock wants, they are at least going to do it "by the book."  Whoop-de-doo, hero.

It does seem rather odd that Shatner, after years of insisting on his character's absolute importance, would have put him in a plot in which he, quite literally, has nothing to do except fail.

Far worse than this, though, is the characterization of Kirk.  Our outer-space hero has never, ever seemed more of a proud, petty little man than he does here--TWOK's vision of the unregenerate Kirk with none of Meyer's humanizing touches.  Foolhardy and irresponsible (he comes within a few feet of getting himself killed climbing a mountain without safety equipment for no particular reason); obsessed with maintaining control over everything (the aforementioned carefully-controlled shuttle ride); petty and cruel towards his friends (Sybock is revealed to be Spock's half-brother, a fact which Kirk could care less about; instead, Kirk angrily attacks and baits Spock for failing to kill his brother when ordered to do so); et cetera.

The film does try, in a very half-hearted fashion, to set up Kirk as the philosophical answer to Sybock's charismatic man of faith.  When Sybock asks Kirk what he is afraid of, Kirk replies, ham-fistedly, "I fear nothing."  A few minutes later, after having forced both Spock and McCoy to face their buried pain (in what is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the film's best scene), Kirk angrily refuses to reveal his.  Our mistakes, our sins, and our pain, Kirk insists, are not something to be faced and overcome; they are what makes us who we are, so that "if we lose them, we lose ourselves": "I need my pain!" he angrily finishes.  This is, apparently, supposed to be profound--but in reality, it is some combination of meaningless and vaguely nasty.  Unlike the Kirk of TWOK, this Kirk has no interest in confronting his flaws, in changing his behavior, or in facing his own limitations.  He, quite simply, will not bend.

At the end of this scene, Sybock announces to Kirk that the reason for all of his actions up to this point in the story is that he has received a vision from God; and Kirk, his face contorted, angrily insists, "You're mad!"

Then, in one of the film's best moments, Sybock's eyes turn briefly inward, and for a moment genuine questioning appears on his face: "Am I?"  Then, after a beat, he smiles, not brashly confident but full of faith nonetheless: "We'll see."

If the film is setting up a contrast between Sybock and Kirk, Kirk comes off in every way worse.  Sybock is compassionate, brave, and resourceful; Kirk is, basically, some combination of cynical, petty, and proud.

Of course in the end Kirk wins.

By the time we finally arrive at the "mythical planet Eden" (a rather disappointing generic desert scenery), the film's and audience's sympathies are fully with Sybock in his mounting wonder and joy at what is taking place; and Larry Luckinbill's performance never lets up, drawing us into every nuance of Sybock's emotions at finally achieving his goal.  Kirk, in contrast, looks like he's been sucking lemons.

Then, at last, "God" appears, in a piece of awful cheesy special effects, praises Sybock's efforts to reach him, and pleadingly asks Sybock to "bring the ship closer" so that he can merge with it and use it to escape the planet.

Kirk, though, is having none of this: after all (in the film's most famous line), "What does God need with a starship?"

This "God," it quickly turns out, is far from the omniscient and omnipotent ipsum esse subsistens Sybock was looking for.  He is, it turns out, some kind of ancient, powerful entity who has been imprisoned (by whom?) on this planet for "eternity," and wants to use Sybock and the Enterprise to escape it.  Also, he shoots laser beams out of his eyes at people who ask questions.

Sybock, naturally, is crushed; but even here, moments after his religious quest has been revealed as a cruel deception by a nonsensical super-being, he still comes off far better than the main cast.  Even after having accepted the reality that he has been completely duped by an evil entity, Sybock still has some modicum of faith; and after apologizing to everyone for his "arrogance" and "vanity," he--in what is by anyone's standards a crowning moment of awesome--sacrifices himself to save Kirk, Spock, and McCoy by offering to help the entity deal with its deeply rooted pain.  He then jumps into the entity and engages it in combat.

Of course, then Kirk, jerk that he is, has the Enterprise fire a torpedo at the thing, killing Sybock but leaving the creature alive and angry.  Once again, the petty tyrant Kirk has failed to accomplish anything--and the most compelling and likeable character in the film is now dead, apparently at Kirk's hands, his last moments spent with the realization that his life's work was a meaningless sham.

Is this supposed to be profound?

Kirk, though, has learned nothing from all this.  Unable to do anything at all useful, Kirk is chased up a hill by the angry God Thing--and then suddenly rescued by a Klingon Bird of Prey, which blows up the entity with one blast of its disruptor cannons.  God is dead, everyone!

Even then, though, face to face with a Bird of Prey that has been trying to kill him for the whole movie, Kirk spends his last breath not in acceptance or humility, but in proud and unswerving defiance: "So it's me you want, you Klingon bastards! Come and get me!"

Of course, then, Kirk is beamed up by the Klingons, who are working for Spock, and yadda yadda yadda, it's the end of the movie, and all our awful, insufferable characters are having a big party on the Enterprise, apparently caring not a whit that the person most of them unswervingly believed in a few minutes ago is lying dead on the planet below, his dreams dead, and then Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are standing around and talking about whether God exists, and Kirk says "Maybe God's not out there; maybe he's right here" and points at his own chest and oh dear Waru make it stop.

Of course, he then goes on to say "The human heart" but what in the name of Colney Hatch does that even mean, anyway?

In essence, then, the plot of TFF is, as a statement, almost precisely the opposite of TWOK's.  In TWOK, Kirk was confronted with the reality of death and transcendent love, and was humbled enough to confront the results of his past actions and admit he'd been wrong; in TFF, Kirk angrily refuses to bend to anyone or anything or admit to any fault or limitation whatsoever, and in the end, he's magically vindicated and affirmed in everything.  In TWOK, Kirk realized that he could die, and that he had to die in love, like Spock, rather than vainly trying to resist death to the end in pride and defiance; in TFF, he suddenly has no fear of death whatsoever, since he has a magical death-condition ("Even as I fell, I knew I wouldn't die. I've always known I'll die alone.") which the film in the end explicitly affirms ("Spock, I thought I was going to die." "Not possible. You were never alone."), and spends the entire film, from beginning to end, refusing to face death in pettiness and hatred.  Really, Kirk in TFF has far more in common with Khan in TWOK than anyone else: the rigid inflexibility, the self-destructive tendencies, the petty rage, and the final gesture of spitting out what he thinks is his last breath in defiance at his enemies.  This is the mad, self-destructive Kirk we've all been waiting for--but luckily, God (or at least William Shatner) is on his side.

Anyway, this awful, awful movie does, admittedly have some redeeming features, though they mostly have to do with Sybock.

McCoy, for his part, does actually comes off better here than just about any other character, and this for a number of reasons.  Since he is by trade a relaxed and humorous character, he doesn't suffer as much as, say, Spock from the script's insistence that everyone randomly fire off jokes every five lines, and his scene with Sybock gives him more real human drama to perform than pretty much anything else in the entire franchise.  The film is almost worth watching simply for that scene, as well as for Luckinbill's excellent performance as Sybock.

Still, all told, TFF is a catastrophe--a bizarre, deeply nasty comedy-cartoon that seems to exist mainly to affirm our petty-bastard-weakling hero in his petty-bastard-weakling heroism and show up completely its only likeable character.

There's no particular need to go on.  Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is, really and truly, rotten to the core--a bad premise, badly executed, on every level.  It is difficult, really, to see how the film could possibly have been salvaged--though David Loughery was later to have a rather interesting idea on the subject.  In his opinion (well after the fact), the only way the film could have worked was if it were Kirk himself who had the vision and was driven to take over the Enterprise and take it to see God.  For whatever that's worth.

In any event, TFF took the cultural and critical goodwill that Star Treks II, III IV had garnered over the course of ten years, and squandered it entirely in a single summer.  Star Trek the film franchise was now a critical laughingstock, a box-office bomb, and--let's be real--a failure every bit as awful as Star Trek The Next Generation's first two seasons.

Star Trek the franchise had fallen flat on its face, and was now a joke in every sphere; a miserable, failed television show, and a miserable, failed film series.

Still, God (the real God) was not done with Star Trek quite yet.  Even as TFF was being critically shellacked in every newspaper in the country, one Michael Piller was sitting down to write Evolution, and preparing to inaugurate a quiet revolution in television.

And in the world of big-screen cinema, Star Trek was not quite done yet.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

While The Final Frontier was finding its place in the annals of filmmaking infamy, Nicholas Meyer, our Jewish wunderkind writer-director of The Wrath of Kahn and most of the funny parts of The Voyage Home, was having some problems of his own.  Put simply, he had signed up to direct and write a film, Company Business, about the Cold War, and quickly found himself rushed into production without what he thought of as a remotely decent script, almost losing his sanity in constant, nerve-wracking conflicts with his film's ostensible star, Gene Hackman.  Maybe there was just something in the water that year.

Anyway, ultimately Meyer would finish his disastrous film experience just in time to be approached by Paramount to direct and write one, final film for the original Star Trek franchise.

This, though, is getting ahead of ourselves a little--for from the release of TFF, in 1989, to Meyer's invitation to work on the film, close to two years had gone by.  In that time, Paramount studios had lost a lot of money, while its upper echelons were gradually engulfed by titanic power struggles.  Also in that time, a creative struggle had been fought over the direction of the Star Trek franchise.  In the end, that struggle ended with no clear winner, but one, very clear loser: Harve Bennett.

Faced with the unprecedented failure of TFF, Bennett, as an old television hand, was disappointed, but far from defeated.  After all, he had never liked the plot of TFF anyway--and in any event, in his opinion, the failure of the film had just as much to do with external conditions (the presence of TNG, the film's short theatrical run, the numerous blockbuster films that summer) as it did with the film itself.  There was no reason to feel defeated, and every reason to look towards the future.  On TSFS, Bennett had tried his best to set up a playing field, a creative team, and a formula that could continue making Star Trek films almost indefinitely--a situation that would replicate, as much as possible, the easy familiarity of the world of television on the big screen.  Ultimately, though, Nimoy and Shatner had foiled that plan with their outsized egos, crazy ideas, and indispensable clout--but now, Shatner was thoroughly gone (there was no way in hell any studio would ever give him a film to direct again),  Nimoy was a distant presence at best, and Bennett was still around.  This time, he could do it right--without the original stars who had proved to be his bane.

Thus, Bennett came up with the ingenious idea of Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, a coming-of-age story with an all-new cast of young, attractive, and cheap faces playing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy for a new generation.  This solved many problems all at once--not only did it remove at a blow the old cast, with their troublesome opinions and their enormous paychecks, but it also provided the potential for sequel after sequel after sequel, for decades to come.  TNG, after all, was now beginning to come into its own on television, proving that Star Trek could succeed without the original cast's faces onscreen--and Starfleet Academy would replicate that success for the big screen, offering up a newer, fresher version of heroes universally beloved by Americans.

Bennett was sure this was the way to go--and along with the creative possibilities, he also saw the potential to keep working on films for a long time to come.  For Starfleet Academy would not only be his story, his baby, but also his own big-screen directing debut.  The stars were aligning, and he was home free.

Until, of course, he wasn't.  In the end, after paying preproduction costs for the film for almost a year, including significant work on the script and location scouting, the studio suddenly reversed course entirely and demanded that Bennett produce one, final original cast feature film in time for Star Trek's 25th anniversary in 1991.  Then (maybe) he could go on to make his own movie.

This did not sit well with Bennett at all, for obvious reasons: not only was it a rejection of all his efforts over the past year, but the task of creating a new original cast film, from blank page to release, would have to take place in an incredibly short amount of time (around 11 months), and Bennett, occupied as he had been both intellectually and emotionally with preparing his new take on Star Trek, had no ideas.

Infuriated at what he saw as a personal betrayal, Bennett left the studio entirely.  As he later recounted, so devastated was he by this sudden loss of place and community that he even took up drinking heavily for a time as a way of dealing with it.  Bennett, as everyone involved in Star Trek attested, was an exceedingly kind, gentle man, a brilliant problem-solver, and a consummate professional--but he was also a human being, with feelings and insecurities of his own.  Ten years earlier, he had been offered Star Trek out of the blue as his very own--now, five movies later, that relationship was over for good.

Still, the show must go on.  The studio, in their inestimable wisdom, was now thoroughly committed to rushing out one last original-cast film in time for the 25th anniversary in barely a year's time--and to that end, they separately approached the two remaining luminaries of Star Trek's '80s success: Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer.

Meyer, as I said, had just gone through a bitter filmmaking experience of his own, and by his own admission was longing for the comfortable family atmosphere of the Star Trek films.  Nimoy, of course, was still as invested in Star Trek as ever--and very quickly, the two men got together, and, in a single afternoon, worked out the basic plot of the film.  Nimoy provided the creative germ: the Berlin Wall coming down in outer space, the prospect of peace with the Klingon Empire paralleling the ongoing fall of the Soviet Union.  Meyer provided the plotting: the peace-seeking Chancellor of the Klingon Empire assassinated by a conspiracy of Klingon and Federation officers, framing Kirk and getting him exiled to a prison planet, from which he must escape in time to prevent another assassination.

These men both knew Star Trek and filmmaking--and they were in perfect agreement.  They would make this movie together, with Meyer writing and directing and Nimoy producing (the prospect of Nimoy directing was nixed, reportedly, so as to avoid offending William Shatner).  It was a done deal.

Then, of course, the studio again intervened, mandating that the two use, not Nicholas Meyer the twelve-day-wonder, but two new writers who were on contract with an executive: Konner and Rosenthal.  This was, apparently, simply a matter of money: Nicholas Meyer would be paid for his script only if he actually wrote it, whereas Konner and Rosenthal would be paid whether they worked on a script or not.

Konner and Rosenthal were reasonably competent writers, but they had no experience with Star Trek at all--and so, fruitless months elapsed while Nimoy and Meyer tried desperately to get them to write something, anything, to get the ball rolling.  This film had to be done fast, after all--and by the time the studio finally fired Konner and Rosenthal and gave the scriptwriting duties back to Meyer and his assistant Denny Martin Flynn, months of precious time had slipped away, never to return.

That was problem number one.  The second problem, such as it is, was this: the budget was too high.  Meyer, in his usual fashion, wrote the film quickly and effectively--but his script budgeted more than Paramount was willing to pay.  They wanted the film done for 25 million dollars--eight million less than Star Trek The Final Frontier a few years before.  Meyer pointed out that this was, quite simply, impossible: after five films worth of highly successful contract negotiations, it would take around 14 million dollars just to pay the film's main cast.  Once editing and special effects and post-production were added in, a 25-million-dollar budget left only four million dollars to spend on the film's actual production.  TWOK had been cheap, to be sure, but not that cheap.  He needed at least 30 million, minimum, or he couldn't do his job.

After explaining this to various studio executives over and over again, Meyer at last managed to get a firm commitment out of them: the film was cancelled.

Yes, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was officially dead, the victim of a few million dollars of studio money.  Meyer took the news hard, to say the least; by his account, he ended up literally crumpled on the floor of a friend's office, crying.  Star Trek had, once again, had hit a brick wall.

Then, of course, a miracle happened.

If there's anything you should be getting from these series of posts, it's that life, and especially creative enterprise, does not work in anything resembling a logical or scientific fashion.  Star Trek is neither the simple result of one man's genius, nor a corporate product produced with stunning efficiency by highly-trained professionals working systematically--it is the providential result of a bunch of crazy people fighting each other, time, and space in a desperate effort to make something somehow, a runaway enterprise created by coincidences and again and again rescued from total destruction by enormously improbable happenstance.  As I said before, God is a Star Trek fan.

Still, of all the bizarrely providential events I've recounted, this one might just take the cake.

The very day after Star Trek VI had been officially consigned to the dust-heap of failed-film history, Nicholas Meyer returned to the Paramount lot to regretfully pack his things--and wandered over to his doomed film's sets, a forlorn figure, to say one last goodbye.

Then, bizarrely, the stage phone rang on the otherwise empty set.  Confused, Meyer answered it, and was suddenly confronted with the enormously improbable information that the head of Paramount Studios had just lost his job, and been replaced by Stanley Jaffe, an old friend of Meyer's.

"I hear you have problems."  Said Jaffe.

"Yeah, I need two and a half million dollars or I can't make this movie."

"You got it."

And that's how Star Trek VI got made.

Still, even so, it barely happened.  TUC was, if anything, even more harried by its budget than TWOK was.  TWOK, after all, had been for the most part simply a stage play filmed on a few studio sets, with a few good actors and a good script, and almost no expectations.  TUC was the highly-awaited culmination of ten years worth of storytelling--and its plot consequently featured a massive show trial, the President of the Federation, an intergalactic peace conference, an interstellar prison planet, and also a whole bunch of aliens with makeup to match.  None of this was cheap.

In order to stay within its restrictive budget, the film was, quite literally, cut down to the bone.  An extensive prologue to the film, featuring looks at all the main cast's lives post-Starfleet (including a happily-ever-after for Kirk with Carol Marcus), was cut completely before filming even started.  Everything else was done as cheaply as possible. The Federation President's office in Paris is a bare redress of the Ten-Forward bar from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The intergalactic peace conference features rented office furniture.  And so on.

In his autobiography, Meyer recounts what was, for him, the moment when the ridiculous budget of TUC became most apparent to him.  During the film's climax, Scotty bursts through a glass door just in time to surprise a dastardly Presidential assassin, dispatching him with a single phaser blast.  After filming this once, Meyer asked for another take--and was informed that he would have to call a recess on set while the propmasters put their one glass door back together.

In any event, in the end, the door was rebuilt, and the film completed--though in the process, Meyer and co had to get through one more, rather more formidable, obstacle: Gene Roddenberry.

Roddenberry was now dying, a grand old man with prestige and a failing body and no desire to play nice.  Moreover, he was now the honored creator of a bona fides television hit in Star Trek: The Next Generation (even if by this time Berman and Piller were firmly running the show).  At the time of TWOK, his influence had been at its lowest peak, and Meyer had had free reign to do as he wished.  This time, though, things were different--Roddenberry had more prestige than ever, and was desperate to protect and preserve his own legacy by any means necessary.

This time around, though, Meyer was, if anything, even less ready to negotiate than Roddenberry.  Hurt and angry over the ongoing budgetary fiascos and the constant pressure put on him by the studio, Meyer came to deal with Roddenberry, by his own account, with a sizeable chip on his shoulder.  The result was explosive.  Over the course of two meetings, the two men's interactions quickly descended to a state of total war.  Roddenberry furiously objected to the script, its premise, and its portrayal of the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the main cast; none of these things, he insisted, were at all correct, or remotely consistent with his vision of Star Trek.  Meyer, for his part, objected right back; so far as he was concerned, Roddenberry's utopianism was specious nonsense, with no philosophical or historical validity at all, and as long as he was in charge, the people in his film were going to continue to act like human beings, bigotry and prejudice included.  These two men, creators, respectively, of Star Trek's most beloved episodes and its most acclaimed film, argued philosophy and the nature of humanity in the bitterest of terms and then parted, never to meet again.

Once the film was completed, it was screened for Roddenberry.  By William Shatner's account, Roddenberry watched the movie, said he liked it, congratulated everyone heartily on their good work, and then promptly returned to his office, phoned his lawyer, and demanded that a full fifteen minutes be edited out of the film.  The next day, he died.

So passed Gene Roddenberry.  Requiescat in pace.

With Roddenberry dead, and Meyer now feeling rather guilty, by his own admission, about his earlier interactions with the man, the film was dedicated to his memory.  There is, in fact, a considerable amount of irony in this; for no other Trek film so directly and constantly contradicts the older Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek as a utopian parable about a perfect future than The Undiscovered Country.

Star Trek VI is a story about the Berlin Wall coming down in outer space.  This is not something Nicholas Meyer takes any pains to disguise.  If Star Trek II was Horatio Hornblower with photon torpedos instead of cannon broadsides, Star Trek VI is a Cold War political thriller where Gorbachev has a rubber forehead.

This makes it by far the darkest, both in tone and execution, of any of the original Star Trek films.  This is a movie that begins with a cataclysmic accident, and ends with an assassination attempt; where our kindly, civilized Klingon Gorbachev is murdered in cold blood half-way through the film by Federation assassins, tumbling head over heels in zero gravity as blood spurts from his wounds; where our charming hero Kirk, reminded by Spock that the Klingon people are dying, angrily spits back "LET them die!"

The plot of the film, then, centers around Kirk, positioned as a Reagan-esque Cold Warrior, and his struggles to deal with the looming prospect of peace with the Klingon Empire. The Klingons, of course had served as the primary adversary for Kirk and co since way back in TOS Season One; and worse, in TSFS, they actually killed Kirk's ill-fated son, David. In TUC, Kirk is, to say the least, extremely prejudiced against these bastards.

In Nicholas Meyer's very un-Roddenberry-esque conception, then, Kirk is no utopian hero. As in TWOK, he is a flawed man; but here, his flaws are painted more in political than personal terms. Kirk is Horatio Hornblower; that is, he is an officer of the line, a heroic soldier with all the prejudices and rigidities of a man who has spent a lifetime in combat with the enemy. Kirk does not trust the Klingons, and however much he may understand or sympathize with the desire for peace, he cannot go along with it. His guts, and every instinct in his body, tell him otherwise.

Spock, in contrast, is set up as the champion for peace, set, as always, on the path of duty and obsessed with bridging different cultures. He has, too, a new protege to carry on his vision: Valeris, another young, female Vulcan who looks to Spock as her mentor and teacher. Spock has little understanding, and little sympathy for Kirk's plight; for him, the way forward is clear, and he volunteers Kirk for his mission without so much as asking him about it first.

The genius of the film, and what makes it a cut above an ordinary political thriller, is the way in which the film, while in essence a political thriller, ultimately shapes itself into an incisive critique of these two men, not merely as political figures, but as persons.

Kirk, naturally, is hit pretty hard; after seeing the Klingon Chancellor assassinated on his watch, he is framed for murder, sentenced to a Klingon detention colony, and eventually brought to fight for the peace process he had resisted against a conspiracy of Federation and Klingon officers bent on war. As circumstances unfold, Kirk meets trustworthy Klingons, is betrayed by Federation officers, and gradually learns to overcome his prejudices and his fear of the future; and he ultimately discovers that, if the future is uncertain and threatening, it is still, in a sense, no different than the past. It requires heroism, sacrifice, and courage; but its challenges can, in fact, be met.

A lesser film, though, would have stopped simply at critiquing Kirk, the '80s American Cold Warrior; Meyer, though, hits Spock, the logical champion of peace, just as hard. In no time at all, Spock's carefully-orchestrated peace process has blown up in his face, with Kirk himself captured and sentenced to life imprisonment in a Klingon show trial; and, it is eventually revealed, it was Valeris, Spock's bright hope for the future, who helped arrange all this. In an early scene, Valeris broaches her concerns about the peace process to Spock: and Spock responds by admonishing her to "have faith that history will unfold as it should." This is all well and good, but it hardly helps Valeris in her plight.

Ultimately, the film suggests, Spock is just as rigid and uncompromising as Kirk himself. His logical conclusions have made no allowances for other people, with their all-too-human fears and flaws and prejudices. Like Roddenberry, Spock is a utopian, planning for a bright and shiny future without bothering to take human nature into account; and he suffers for it.

In the end, then, Kirk and Spock are both put to the test, and brought ultimately to an acknowledgement of their own flaws. Then, of course, they save the day, together as before, and bring peace to the Galaxy.

This is Meyer's vision of Star Trek, then, at its most forceful; an amalgam of intellectual vision and military force, bright optimism and knowing realism. Kirk is Horatio Hornblower, the hard-edged military hero of a world of politics and conflicts; Spock is the humanist intellectual, of a world of logic and wisdom and culture. Over the course of the film, both men are critiqued; but both are also affirmed. Spock is right that peace is the correct choice, the morally right thing to do; Kirk is right that this is a much bigger and more dangerous step than Spock has conceived. Kirk needs Spock's vision and adherence to duty to get him to acknowledge the possibility of peace and ultimately embrace it; but equally, Spock needs Kirk on hand to remind him of the universe's complexities and harsh realities, to forge that peace in combat and preserve it against its enemies.

Star Trek TUC is, in truth, an almost perfect portrait of American culture at the end of the Cold War, divided between militants and progressives, full of conflict and fear of the future; and its answer for this era is characteristically Meyerian, not particularly Roddenberryian: the end of the Cold War is not "the End of History" (Meyer critiquing Fukuyama and Roddenberry via Kirk), but simply another stage of history, not fundamentally different from the ones before it. It is full of genuine promise--it must be accepted and adapted to--but it also presents its own new problems and conflicts, and must be dealt with like any other time. The message, then, is not utopian certainty, but a realistic, but ultimately hopeful, uncertainty in the face of history.

Of course, central themes apart, this movie is also a showcase for Meyer's informed, witty, and rather cynical sense of humor. Our villain here is not the passionate Milton-reading Kahn, but a quiet, chuckling, eye-patch-wearing Klingon Christopher Plummer, who barely speaks except to quote Shakespeare--prompting Dr. McCoy to finally snap and insist "I'd give good money if he'd shut up!" The sublime dinner scene, where the Klingons and our main cast trade barbs about racism, Shakespeare, the future, cultural Imperialism, and Adolf Hitler over a dinner of blue squid and Romulan ale is also an all-time highlight of the series. Really, of all the Star Trek films, none so constantly delights in its own intelligence and wit as this one. Even Kirk's purported love-interest turns out to be a shapeshifting beast-thing who ends up getting into a fist fight with him...while transformed into Kirk himself. "I can't believe I kissed you!" Kirk wryly admits. "Must have been your life-long ambition!" faux-Kirk quips back. Meyer is, clearly, having fun here.

The film is also, of course, the last voyage for the original Star Trek cast; and Meyer chooses to close it off in a similarly understated, hopeful fashion. Our cast of heroes--old men and women all--gather for one last time on the bridge of the Enterprise; and they are ordered to stand down. For this crew, for this generation, it is the end; but Kirk and co defy their orders, holding on to their family and their life for just one moment longer, one last journey. Chekov asks for the course heading: Kirk points and smiles: "Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning."

For this crew, then, it is the end; but for the world, and for Star Trek, history goes on.

The Undiscovered Country can make a strong claim to be among the best Star Trek films, and indeed a great film in its own right. In my book, though, it falls very far short compared to TWOK: its political preoccupations paling besides TWOK's personal journey of salvation, its wittiness and intelligence no match for TWOK's passion and crushing reality, its historical realism and hope a poor substitute for TWOK's sacrificial death and transcendent love. It is also nowhere near as fun to watch as TVH. Yet in truth, TUC quite deliberately stands apart from both of these films, making its own mark on the world of cinema and Star Trek. It is not Star Trek as transcendent statement, or Star Trek as character comedy: it is Star Trek as political thriller, managing both effective character drama and insightful political commentary while taking us on a suspenseful, witty ride through alien prison planets, intergalactic peace conferences, and the Enterprise Dining Room.  This is no small accomplishment, to say the least, and few other films, Star Trek or not, have ever managed it.

In the end, then, TUC is a worthy send-off for the original Enterprise cast, and a great movie in its own right. It can take its place alongside the other great films of the series, TWOK and TVH, without any shame at all.

In the world of American cinema, too, TUC was acknowledged and respected, garnering critical attention and box office numbers. Somehow, against all odds, against budgets and failed creative projects and time and space and failure and William Shatner's ego, Star Trek had made it again.

With that, though, Star Trek as it had been, the creation of Roddenberry and Meyer and Bennett and seven remarkable actors and innumerable others, was officially wrapped up; but there was now a new generation of Star Trek heroes, writers, and producers at hand, ready to carry things onward. When The Final Frontier was released, TNG was a miserable failure on every level; by the time TUC came out, TNG was one of the most popular shows of all time, taking American television by storm week after week after week and constantly reaching ever higher heights of popularity. As if to cement the franchise's bright future, Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy chose this time to finally guest star on TNG in the middling but interesting Unification two-parter. The torch was now officially passed.

By the time TUC came out, the '80s had officially passed as well. It was the '90s now; the Berlin Wall was fallen, the Cold War was over, and Star Trek was poised to dominate a new generation of entertainment.

When we return (graduate school permitting), we will take a moment to examine some of TNG's finest (and worst) hours; and then, we will move on to the very first TNG "spin-off," and (in my humble opinion), Star Trek's finest creation: Deep Space Nine.

Live long and prosper!

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