Defending ‘Star Trek V, The Final Frontier’
“Of all of the Star Trek movies, this is the worst.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
One of the most reviled Star Trek movies is part V or part 5, hated even more than the original Star Trek Movie with the bald-headed lady. I’ve been trying to figure out why because Star Trek V is one of my favorites. Reading reviews on it by Netflix customers or by critics it seems to come down to either bad special effects, corny dialogue or the nerve of director William Shatner (his first outing directing a Star Trek movie after Nimoy did the last two) to go after “God.”
The interpretation itself of whether God is the “thing” found at the end of the film is in dispute even though I would say it is obvious given the influence of atheist Gene Roddenberry and that Shatner, who helped write the script, was influenced by watching the fraud of televangelism. Wikipedia seems biased in stating: “Shatner also developed the initial storyline in which the alien mystic Sybok searches for God, and instead finds Satan.” But maybe that’s what Shatner has stated was the storyline elsewhere? I’m not Trekkie enough to know. It seems a very odd way to put it by Wiki. I don’t recall ever hearing Satan referred to in the movie, if anything it would be a “false god” because the very term “god” is subjective. There are all kinds of clues that lead up to an examination of ourselves as placing our own image on God and therefore God is our imagination. What is behind God is all of our selfish ambitions, cruelty, stupidity and limitations–similar to the Bible when God has humans carry out his dirty work.
If you haven’t seen Star Trek V I would see it first before reading this article as this is more of a discussion than a review. I do recommend the film to both Christians and Freethinkers who like the Star Trek series so they can do their own examination of the film and why it is despised. And real Trekkies, which I do not claim to be as I know the dedication involved, should feel free to point out my mistakes in Trek lore and behind the scenes. I simply love this film and don’t think it deserves the bad reputation.
I want to first rule out bad special effects as a cause for hate because it seems like an invalid argument. The effects are certainly not superb for the time, but they seem to be standard for a movie budget of that size in 1989. This was before Jurassic Park forced everyone to convert over to CGI and therefore you do notice the shuttlecraft looks animated in certain scenes or when Captain Kirk is falling in Yosemite Park it looks fake because he was superimposed onto a background. I think this is to be expected and I’m sure we can come up with other films from that time period with the same flaws, but yet they are not as vilified as this sequel.
As for corny dialogue–this is the original Star Trek cast! Shatner hams it up along with Nimoy. It sparks laughs among those familiar with the characters and their history. I found myself laughing at the clever lines, the expressions by Spock, and Doc McCoy getting upset as usual. The camping scene singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” was definitely corny, but amusing. As someone who saw the film in highschool I know the audience had a good time. This corny behavior is present throughout the series.
If you want more realism, better special effects and better dialogue then look no further than the recent Star Trek reboot, but even mild Star Trek fans like myself recognize that the first set of movies has the same flaws as a lot of eighties films which are also the reason we watch them–we like the eighties. And if you don’t like the dialogue between the original cast then why are you watching this movie in the first place? Did you see the TV series–that’s who they are. Let’s dispense with this argument for hating Star Trek V also.
What I think really bothered people is that Star Trek V tried to make a metaphysical statement about the ultimate search for God. When they do find God, they blast him with a shot from a Klingon Bird of Prey. It’s funny and blasphemous as all hell. Imagine if they had tried to do that on the TV series? As a Christian you may not like this ending or you may reinterpret the being in the end as Satan. But it should still make you uncomfortable as certain questions are asked, ones that could be asked of a supposedly real god. So being that the about 80 percent of Americans believe in God on some level, this final scene was probably not enjoyed even if the moments leading up to it were.
But I say, as an atheist, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing God shot in the face!
Now, let’s not pretend that this alien thing imprisoned behind the great barrier is actually the unproven god as described by Christian or Muslim theology. It has limitations. That seems to be the point. It is an idea of god that proves to be both ridiculous and dangerous and this thing should be imprisoned. During a Cecil B. DeMille-like moment of awe at God’s presence, Sybok, the Vulcan god-seeker, is joyously reeling in the moment as he tells God how he found him. God asks, “This starship? Could it carry my wisdom beyond the barrier?” The musical score is gloriously spiritual and we’re all supposed to be in rapture of meeting the ultimate creator of life when Kirk butts in and asks, “Excuse me. What does God need with a starship?” I believe it is one of the funniest scenes in the film because it interrupts what believing viewers are expecting to be a beautiful moment reaffirming the existence of a supreme being (even if fictional or not in accord with their theology) and there you have the doubter saying , excuse me, you’re not making sense.
Shouldn’t this be the question we ask of God on a regular basis? What did God need with an army in the Old Testament to wipe out his enemies? What does God need with human worship? Is he that vain and petty? What does God need with two planes to fly into the World Trade Center? Couldn’t he have done that on his own? Why is God so weak that he needs humans to kill for him, heal for him, speak for him? It’s almost as if God doesn’t exist at all? ….hmmm.
Sybok, the Vulcan who embraces emotion, is also an offense to religion–he is originally viewed as a terrorist and then a charismatic cult leader who can tap into the pain of others, literally showing it in dream-like flashbacks and therapeutically seeking to let people forgive themselves. It is almost Christ-like except Christ wasn’t about getting rid of guilt, he was about instilling it and then having us bow to him for forgiveness due to his temporary sacrifice on the cross. Vulcans are suppose to deny emotions in favor of logic, in fact, they go too far in this process as it becomes dogmatic and ritualistic. When Sybok rejects logic and welcomes emotion, he also welcomes the superstition of Sha Ka Ree, a place which we humans call “Eden.” This is the offensive part–superstitious religion feeds on emotion.
If you don’t think Christians paid attention to Sybok, I was well aware of Captain Kirk spouting, “I need my pain!” because the sound clip was included in the release Lusis by Christian industrial band Mortal (this is when I was a Christian and listened regularly to Christian music). You can hear it on the song “Painkiller.” Mortal didn’t seem to either get it or they disagreed with Kirk wanting to keep his pain because the pain made him who he was. Mortal seems to side with Sybok only they replace the creature at the end with their version of God. It’s almost eerie to see that they too would have been part of the cult and blindly ignore the lesson Sybok learned. Per their lyrics:
He has taken away my pain
I don’t object to emotions as Vulcans are extreme (though I do envy their intelligence), but I do have to say that emotion seems to be religion’s best friend and Christians, especially, are aware of this. They seem to want vindication from logic and science and wrestle between their emotions and what their brains are telling them. Otherwise how do you reconcile three persons in one being? The Trinity? It’s not logical, therefore it must be embraced by emotion. How do you reconcile a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Not logical, but it must be true. Emotion!
Scientists are guilty of emotion as well, but the scientific method and the scientific community eventually weed out emotion-based theories. Recently I watched The Universe series and astronomer Fred Hoyle, who creationists love to quote, stayed true to his belief in an old, but static universe until his death denying any concept of a big bang despite the incoming evidence for an expanding galaxy all throughout his life. He was emotionally attached to his theory even as his theory became outdated. But science ruled him out. With religion, that would not happen. There are no checks and balances for beliefs written in stone when new evidence contradicts what was written thousands of years ago. All that happens is that the dogma is given a new twist, a new explanation of why it must be true–an awkward and embarrassing process.
So I defend Star Trek V as being a solid entry into the series. No, it is not deep theology or philosophy on our origins, it is pop culture with observations on what should be obvious and, yes, somewhat dumbed down for the masses. A massively distributed satire on the belief in God. If you prefer Satan, fine, but how would you recognize God in the first place if you can’t question God with an actual set of absolutes apart from God? Maybe it is time to ask this God why he needs your prayers to do what is obvious and right.
At the end of the film Captain Kirk tries to give believers an “out” to relieve them of the pain of seeing God blasted in the face. He says that God may be found in the human heart–or if you listen closely, he is probably saying that God is us. We can surmise that this is true because when Sybok is confronting God’s anger after Kirk questions him with , “Why does God need a starship?” God shows Sybok another face–his own. Sybok sees God as Sybok, an image he created and the terrible creature behind it knows that it is a lie imagined by humans, Vulcans and any other race.
If you are a freethinker, give Star Trek V another viewing. Make a family night of it with your kids as there are key elements in it that have atheism, agnosticism and skepticism in mind. Because you may not see a Star Trek film do this again. I would guess that the reboot of Star Trek may not carry the vision of Roddenberry which essentially was one of putting religious bickering and petty human needs behind us as we pursued scientific discovery. Even campy movies can point us in the right direction of overcoming superstition. And at the very least, where are you going to see a spaceship blast God in the face?
SIDENOTE: For the first time, last night, while watching Star Trek V on my new widescreen I saw an inside joke I didn’t realize was there before. The Klingons shoot at what they consider to be space junk. When you look closer, it is a satellite with Carl Sagan’s communication to alien life in the form of the Pioneer Plaque. You have to be quick to catch it, but once I saw it I laughed. The Klingons have no respect for humans.
To be fair, other notable intellectuals were involved in the design of the plaques too such as Frank Drake and ex-Sagan wife Linda Salzman Sagan. According to Wiki, “The first plaque was launched with Pioneer 10 on March 2, 1972, and the second followed with Pioneer 11 on April 5, 1973.”
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