Star Trek Re-Freshers: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
People seem to give The Final Frontier a lot of grief. I’ll give them that it has its goofy parts, but I don’t understand how people can call it a “mess” (which someone actually said to me) or groan when I mention it (also happened).  The movie deals with some important, philosophical issues, and while the occasional bad humor rears its head from time to time, I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of substantive faults.  As far as I’m concerned, William Shatner’s feature film directorial debut is up there with the best of the series.
The plot is simple, really: Spock’s long-lost brother, Sybok, has returned years later a religious zealot, and he basically commandeers the Enterprise along with its crew as a means of uniting himself and his followers with God. Kirk et al. are forced to go along for the ride as Sybok takes them into the center of the galaxy, where he believes God is waiting for them.

The relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones is one of my favorite aspects of The Final Frontier. It opens with the three of them on shore leave, camping out at Yosemite National Park. When night comes, they gather around the campfire and, to Kirk and Bones’ amazement, Spock busts out some marshmallows to roast. Next, they try to do a sing-a-long, which Spock is horrible at, and they end up calling it a night as Spock attempts to discern the meaning of the lyrics to “Row, Row, Row your Boat. “ Oddly enough, there’s enough meaning in them to be brought up much later as Sybok has them flying across the galaxy. But while they’re still around the campfire, Bones is able to get off some great one-liners to Spock, including my favorite, “I liked him better before he died.” More seriously, though, Kirk tells them that he knew he wasn’t going to die earlier when he fell off of a mountain because they were with him, and that he always knew he would die alone. That’s some somber stuff, but it also shows the trust Kirk puts in his friends to believe himself safe from fatality as long as they’re around. On the other hand, the beginning of the movie also introduces Spock’s rocket boots, which make me never want to look at a piece of foot technology ever again. Shoes that turn into in-line skates, rocket boots, hover boards, whatever—if that’s how horrendous they are in the future, just don’t bother inventing them.

Throughout the movie, the bond between the three of them is seen, tested, and verified as Sybok tempts them with spiritual claims and apparent evidence of divinity. In this context, nothing of what Sybok does matters, though, because they’ve been through too much together to throw it away on the whim of an apparent madman (no, not Dennis Hopper).

Sybok’s claims, however, aren’t totally void of substance. He has some kind of ability that allows him to see into people’s minds and uncover any mental anguish they’re living with. He then tells them that he can alleviate their pain, and through what I assume is telepathy of a sort, he makes the pain go away. This ability is used to amass a small, devoted following of people “cleansed” of their suffering and who are willing to follow Sybok unquestioningly. He tries this ability or technique on Spock and Bones, which proves useless. Bones almost succumbs, but due to the bond I mentioned between the three of them, he’s able to withstand Sybok’s assault on his senses. Kirk’s most famous line from this movie is probably “What does God need with a starship?” But to me, his finest moment comes when Sybok wants to take Kirk’s pain away. This is the exchange between Kirk and Bones after Sybok took away Bones’ pain and wants to do the same for Kirk:

Bones: “Jim, try to be open about this.”

Kirk: “About what? I’ve made the wrong choices in my life? I turned left when I should have turned right? I know what my weaknesses are; I don’t need Sybok to take me on a tour of them.”

Bones: “If you’d just unbend and allow yourself…”

Kirk: “And what, be brainwashed by this con man?”

Bones: “I was wrong. This con man took away my pain.”

Kirk: “Dammit, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!”

Kirk’s words speak for themselves, but I’ll just add that while the people under Sybok’s influence swear up and down that their pain is gone, I don’t think it really is; it’s only being masked by whatever Sybok is doing to them. Religious experiences such as the one offered by Sybok only work in the long-run on those who are weak-minded or people searching for something in their lives. When the same thing is attempted on someone who knows who he is Spock, for exampleit has no effect. Spock tells Sybok exactly that when he says that he is not the same young man trying to find himself that Sybok remembers.

Whether or not you believe the movie is cautioning against cults and fundamentalism or religion in general is up to you. I think it’s both, but no matter how you see that aspect, I’m reasonably sure everyone would agree that the pain and struggles in life and—more importantly—overcoming them plays a huge part in who we are as individuals. To pretend that you can have a good cry and everything in your past is rainbows and kittens is naïve and potentially destructive. Even Sybok comes to understand this fact when his plans (spoiler!) don’t work out.

I just have to go on record and say that even though I really love how the ending plays out, (another spoiler!) that Klingon Bird of Prey shooting God in the face was pretty unnecessary. Subtlety, thy name is not The Final Frontier. Still, just about everything else about the movie rings true to me, and it puts front-and-center a topic that’s always in the periphery of every Star Trek episode or movie: belief in God. And even though its conclusions about that topic might rub some people the wrong way, we should all come together with the thought that while we’re all more than the sum of our parts, their construction matters. To alter or take away pieces that shaped us is to take away vital parts of our humanity. Rocket boots be damned, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a great piece of science fiction.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
It’s no coincidence that Nicholas Meyer directed two of the best Star Trek movies—The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country—to date. He has focus and a clear vision that manages to explore the themes that made Star Trek what it is while still bringing excitement and tension to the screen. To that end, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a damn fine send-off for the original cast, and a movie that’s not afraid to look at what makes prejudices so hard to let go of.

While dining aboard the Enterprise, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner, who played the Terran representative in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) calls the future “the undiscovered country.” That’s an optimistic outlook for anyone, but for a Klingon, it’s almost unbelievable. To put it into context, the movie centers around diplomatic pressures surrounding The Federation and the Klingon Empire, which is about to be wiped out due to a mining accident on the moon Praxis. Praxis explodes and leaves the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, in a debilitating state that won’t be able to support life much longer. The entire Klingon species is in danger of extinction, so their only recourse is to finally offer peace between them and the Federation. To further that goal, peace talks are set up and the chancellor is invited aboard the Enterprise for diplomatic relations. A very awkward dinner ensues, and once the chancellor and his entourage are back aboard their own ship, the Enterprise seemingly fires on them and kills the chancellor. Kirk and Bones are put on trial and found guilty of his murder, and the rest of the movie’s events are set into place.

I don’t think anyone will accuse The Undiscovered Country of being subtle in its dealing with prejudice, but in a rare movie instance, tackling it head-on turned out to be the best choice. When Kirk is first made aware of the plan to make peace with the Klingons, he comes out firmly in the camp against it. After all, his son was killed by a Klingon in The Search for Spock, and Kirk still holds a lot of that pain and resentment inside him. As he says in his personal log, “I’ll never forgive them for the death of my boy.” But as Spock tries to reason with him about the negotiations, he wonders “. . .how on earth can history get past people like me?” which is an admission of his unwillingness to let go of the past.  He’ll have to confront those feelings if he’s to be an arbiter of peace, and the movie doesn’t make it as easy as other, lesser ones have.

For one, it’s not just about understanding equality and how important it is to societies. Underneath that is something of a more personal note—something that can be hard to see or at least acknowledge about ourselves. Kirk comes to see himself as a relic, and when talking to Spock, he notes that “We’re both extremists. Reality is probably somewhere in-between.” If he’s able to have that kind of introspection, then he’s also able to re-evaluate his stance on the entirety of the Klingon species. He knows they didn’t all kill his son, and his prejudice blinded him by making him irrational. Although, if you want to know just how obnoxious Klingons can be, while dining aboard the Enterprise, Gorkon’s chief of staff, Chang (an always-awesome Christopher Plummer), actually says that you haven’t heard Shakespeare until you’ve heard it in the original Klingon. Riiiight. Maybe Kirk was on to something after all.

I do have a couple of nitpicks that don’t allow The Undiscovered Country to escape blemish-free, but they really are nitpicks. For instance, when everyone on the Enterprise is looking for the assassins who killed Gorkon, it turns into a little game of who-done-it. That’s fine, but unless you have absolutely no idea who any of the bridge crew are, it’s pretty obvious who done it. If a few more new crew members were introduced, it would have kept it more of a genuine mystery. That being said, it’s not that big of a deal to me, only because it’s not a central plot point. If the whole movie was about finding the assassins, then yea, the obviousness would be a problem. The only other gripe that comes to mind is when Kirk and Bones are at the penal colony, Rura Penthe (trivia time: the name Rura Penthe comes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Even though their escape isn’t entirely of their own doing, it was still too easy for me to fully buy into it. I’m also not a fan of the giant alien dude whose crotch is conveniently placed where his knee should be. I mean, really? If my crotch was on my knee, I wouldn’t fight other people in a stance as if it was just a normal knee, and I certainly wouldn’t walk around with giant holes in my pants where the knees usually go. I guess if I was some kind of bizarre nudist and/or masochist, I might. It’s all a bit daffy, but, thankfully, they cut that crap out once Kirk and Bones are rescued.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country marks (mostly) the end of Kirk, Spock, and Bones’ story, and it does so in the most fitting way possible: Kirk disobeys Starfleet’s order to go back to space dock and be decommissioned. Instead, he picks a random star and says to keep that heading until morning. His decision shows how the crew of the Enterprise has been through a lot together, and while there were some down times (some of The Search for Spock, and every single awful thing to do with The Voyage Home), The Undiscovered Country brings an era to a fantastic close. As for Kirk, he’ll have one more battle to fight, but since I’ll be discussing Generations in my next post, I won’t get ahead of myself. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to chop wood and make eggs for the rest of eternity (and neither does he).

–George Bell
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