Following the ‘Spock Trilogy’ of movies (beginning with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, continuing with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and ending with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), the status quo of Star Trek had been reset somewhat, story-wise. With Kirk demoted to Captain, back in charge of the Enterprise with his regular crew, it’s hard to see where the story would go next without it feeling like a backwards step, at least from a narrative point of view.
To add to this difficulty, we have the fact that parts II-IV had been both critical and commercial successes – and Leonard Nimoy, Spock himself, had directed both III and IV to great acclaim. Though this doesn’t sound like a problem in itself, the legendarily large ego of William Shatner unfortunately got in the way – during the protracted pay disputes that plagued initial negotiations for Shatner’s appearance in The Voyage Home, Shatner was promised that he could direct the next movie in the franchise.
Unfortunately, as a director, Shatner is clearly no Nimoy. To make matters worse, Shatner also pitched the story idea himself, in which the crew of the Enterprise are drawn into the search for God at the centre of the galaxy. It’s not that it’s a bad idea per se (though it does sound eye-rolling when reduced to ‘the Enterprise crew search for God’) but the execution, including Shatner’s very noticeable shifts in tone – with some very awkward attempts at comedy – leaves a lot to be desired.
The film itself sees renegade Vulcan Sybok – who is unnecessarily explained to be Spock’s never previously mentioned half-brother – taking over an outpost on neutral planet Nimbus III. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are drawn away from shore leave and soon discover that the hostage crisis on Nimbus III is a ruse, devised by Sybok to hijack a starship – in order to reach Sha Ka Ree, the origin of all creation in the universe. Meanwhile, a Bird of Prey – captained by a Klingon named Klaa – learns of the mission and sets off to take down Kirk and the Enterprise.
Along with the aforementioned, awkward shifts in tone, there’s just so much here that doesn’t seem to add much at all to the overall story – or scenes that just come out of nowhere. There’s an extended sequence of Kirk climbing a mountain at the beginning of the film, which drags on interminably and is so clearly performed by a stunt double except in close ups – it’s immediately clear from this scene that Shatner was looking to get himself some prime screen time and look like a capable, strong hero (the fact that it’s obviously not him on the climb just makes it ridiculous, however). This leads into a fall and a rescue by Spock (with some absolutely atrocious special effects, it has to be said), followed by a campfire scene which sees Kirk, Spock and McCoy singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. It’s even worse than it sounds.
Sybok (played by Laurence Luckinbill – who does actually give a decent performance) has an ability to mind-meld with people and release them of their deepest fear, which somehow gives them an unshakable faith in him (quite why this works, especially on members of the Enterprise who abruptly switch sides, is never particularly clear). Nor is it clear where Uhura and Scotty suddenly develop a passion for each other; it’s introduced as a big event and then quickly forgotten about entirely.
Speaking of Uhura, the events of the film treat her particularly shoddily, with her being used as a distraction on Nimbus III – via an embarrassingly undignified naked fan dance. I can’t imagine that the then-57 year old Nichelle Nichols was thrilled with this sequence; it’s horrendously misjudged and completely unnecessary.
Klingon Captain Klaa’s subplot feels especially shoehorned in, never quite feels like it belongs alongside the main storyline and is resolved far too cleanly, with very little consequence (there’s a very odd part here, where it’s revealed that Spock is onboard the Klingon vessel – either shoddy editing or a deleted scene or two must be responsible for how weirdly this is handled).
The jarringly bad comedic moments really stick out like a sore thumb too; after the well handled comedy in The Voyage Home – which, it must be said, had the potential to be disastrous – it’s particularly disappointing to see Shatner try his hand at comedy and have it all be so groanworthy. It’s just awful, juvenile stuff – not helped by oddly cartoony, over the top sound effects – a triple-breasted cat-like stripper in a bar on Nimbus III is a particular standout in this respect – not in a good way. There’s even a very unsubtle dig at The Motion Picture’s V’Ger, again played for comedy, that’s particularly jarring.
Very little of the effects work is up to scratch, either. There’s some utterly dreadful blue screen/projection work and the prosthetic effects on aliens – including the prominently featured Klingons – just don’t look right at all, being very plasticky in appearance. Sha Ka Ree is not the amazing paradise that all of the characters seem to see, either – it just looks like a rocky landscape with a coloured filter. The space-based models – featuring the Enterprise and other starships – do at least hold their own somewhat, but nothing sticks out as particularly impressive.
The potential for commentary on religion – and those who use it to manipulate and mislead others – is generally squandered; you get the sense that a more experienced director would have been able to get this subtext into the film without too much trouble. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere to be found, with a messy, disjointed plot and rushed anti-climax of a showdown – though there’s a great line and moment in the finale that I need to give the writers some credit for: ‘What does God need with a starship?’
So overall, a huge disappointment and a film that nearly killed the Star Trek movie franchise; however, with hindsight we know that the series did continue – with Nicholas Meyer (director of the most highly regarded Star Trek movie – The Wrath of Khan) returning to direct the sixth film: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in 1991.
I will, of course, be back with my review of The Undiscovered Country as soon as soon as I’ve had a chance to rewatch it. See you soon!
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