Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 12 of 15)

12. A Spiritual Quest, or: How to Win Friends and Influence People.

"...human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.”

--E.B. White, Charlotte's Web 

Lourdes. 108 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Fatima. 49 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Roswell. 19 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

To believe, or not to believe, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler for the soul to suffer the slings and arrows of mindless ritual, soporific sermonizing, strained genuflection, costly tithing, sexual repression, and self-righteous nitpicking, or to take arms against a sea of charlatanism, hypocrisy, and unanswered prayers, and by opposing resign ourselves to moral relativism, a chaotic universe devoid of any meaning, and that life's a bitch and then we die. To no longer kid ourselves into thinking some old man in the sky is going to make a happy ending exception in our case and spare us the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks everybody else's flesh is inevitably heir to. 'Tis a consummation nihilistically to be wished, or turned into a punk rock anthem. To die, to die on the operating table, perchance to be revived a short time later. Aye, there's the rub. For in that catnap of near-death, what out-of-body experiences may come when we've temporarily shuffled off this mortal coil, just like that little boy in that best-selling book that was turned into a high-grossing movie, must give us pause. That kid's now a millionaire!

 (I believe that will be the last time I attempt to paraphrase Shakespeare.)

Religion pops up with some regularity in the Star Trek universe, right down to some of the characters names. As others have noted, you have a Nurse Chapel, and Kirk is the Scottish word for "church" (something I'm sure my own mother was completely unaware of; she just happened to see a movie with that Douglas fellow, and said, hey, that's different, if it's a boy I'll call him that.) Beyond names, religion, faith, whatever you want to call it, is bandied about, commented on, acknowledged, or at least given lip service. Even by potential enemies. In "The Cobermite Maneuver", the mysterious alien, immediately after sentencing the Enterprise to death, adds "We make assumption you have a deity or deities or some such beliefs which comfort you. We therefore grant you ten Earth time periods known as minutes to make preparations." How nice of him. In "The City on the Edge of Forever", Edith Keeler (called Sister Edith in an early version of the script) runs the 21st Street Mission, a la The Salvation Army. An Earth book about Chicago gangsters of the 1920s left on an alien planet, and thus influencing that planet's culture,  is compared to the Bible in "A Piece of The Action".  When Spock finds it necessary to beam down to a potentially alien planet in "The Gamesters of Triskelion", McCoy offers to go with him to what he refers to as a "lion's den", to which the Vulcan replies, "Daniel, as I recall, had only his faith. But I welcome your company, Doctor." An outlawed religion on a Roman Empire-like planet that worships a sun god confuses Kirk and co. until they realize it's the Son [of] God they're talking about. A long-lived fellow named Flint was both the title Biblical character in "Requiem for Methuselah" as well as Solomon. The Enterprise takes a slew of alien diplomats on a "Journey to Babel", the name of a tower found it the Book of Genesis.  However, it's the Adam and Eve part of the Book of Genesis that's most often alluded to.  In fact, some bodiless aliens, hypothesizing that they may have been progenitors of the human race, compare themselves to Adam and Eve in "Return to Tomorrow". There's a hippie Adam in "The Way to Eden". "A Private Little War" ends with Kirk asking Scotty to beam down weapons so as to equalize a primitive planet's arms race, referring to them as "serpents for the Garden of Eden".  After departing a planet in which the crew had been subjected to euphoria-inducing spores, McCoy remarks, "Well, that's the second time man's been thrown out of paradise [Eden]." Spock references the same story at the end of an episode not coincidentally called "The Apple". Aside from biblical references, religion's raison d'être--the search for a Creator--is explored in "The Changeling" and its multimillion-dollar feature film remake Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Both feature machines looking for creators, both hoping to find answers once they find them. In the former, the machine mistakes Kirk for its God (I wonder if it was built in Scotland.) It's a costly mistake that eventually leads to the robot's destruction. Kirk is only trying to save his crew, but what of others who presume to speak for a Creator?

39 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

14 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Now, all those biblical allusions doesn't necessarily mean that Star Trek was a faith-based show. Several episodes seem rather critical of religion. Not Christian, Jewish, or Islamic religions, but fictional alien religions. Safer that way, easier to get past NBC's Standards and Practices. Still, these episodes offered lessons that could be applied to real-world creeds. In "The Return of the Archons" the Enterprise visits a planet that looks like it's still in the 19th century (19th century Atlanta, to be exact; the episode was filmed on the same set as Gone with the Wind.) The smiling, wide-eyed citizens, however, look more like 1950s Jehovah Witnesses who have run out of doors to knock. They considers themselves part of "the Body" (the wafers they serve at a Catholic Mass?), and worship a seldom-seen deity named Landru (God comes to mind.) These grinning zombies are kept in line by the Lawgivers, who dress like monks. Despite the looks of delight, the citizens aren't allowed to think for themselves, or engage in any pursuit of happiness that doesn't involve kissing Landru's absent ass. Except during the Festival, the only time of the year that they're allowed to let their hair down and raise a little hell (Mardi Gras, or...dare I say...Christmas?) It's later revealed that it's actually a millenniums-old computer to which the populace has subjugated its free will (a step up, I suppose, from subjugating one's free will to a millenniums-old book.) "The Return of the Archons" would serve as a template for two similar episodes.  There's a tithe in the form of explosive rocks to a computer-God named Vaal in the aforementioned "The Apple"  (be very careful when putting them on the collection plate.) "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" has a woman praying to an "oracle", which zaps her with an electronic implant if she disobeys (a step up, I suppose, from the more low-tech but equally implantable sense of guilt.) What makes these episodes different from the cautionary tales of Sinclair Lewis and E.B. White (actually, I'm not so sure the latter is meant to be all that cautionary as the heavenly hoax perpetrated is done for the worthy cause of saving a porker's life) is the role of technology, a somewhat ironic difference. After all, technology is a product of science, and science and religion are generally thought to be at odds with one another. But they can be brought together, especially if you want to pull a fast one on somebody. Christopher Columbus, knowing in advance of an impending lunar eclipse, told a group of natives apparently not all that versed in astronomy that it was a sign that the gods were mad at them for not providing the Genoan explorer and his crews with supplies. Other explorers pulled off similar ruses with natives. Captain James Cook (from whom the name "James Kirk" is derived) was mistaken for a god by a bunch of Hawaiians, and, rather than gently disabuse them of this notion, shot off a bunch of fireworks to prove he indeed was the right deity. Now there was no such religious ruses on Starfleet's behalf in Star Trek, thanks to the Prime Directive, which disallowed it, something that McCoy once bitched about: "Once, just once, I'd like to be able to land someplace and say, 'Behold, I am the Archangel Gabriel!'" Now, in the fifth Star Trek feature film, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew would find themselves in the same predicament as those gullible Hawaiians, minus the palm trees.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) As the new Enterprise undergoes a shakedown cruise--testing to make sure everything works OK--Captain James T. Kirk (he's been demoted, remember?), Captain Spock (as far as I know, he hasn't been demoted, though throughout this film he continues to defer to Kirk as "Captain"), and Dr. Leonard McCoy take a little vacation to Yosemite (question: as it's referred onscreen as a "National Park" does that mean in the 23rd century, the United States is still a "nation"?) Kirk decides he'd like to climb the 7000 feet-and-counting El Capitán. I don't know if screenwriters David Loughery, Harve Bennett, and William Shatner were ignorant about rock climbing or what, and I'll admit I don't know that much about the subject myself, but I do think you need a rope and harness and a pick-like thing to do it right, none of which Kirk has. Despite this, the Starfleet officer looks to have made it about halfway up when he's visited by a levitation boots-wearing Spock. "Captain [deference, what did I tell you?] I do not think you realize the gravity of your situation." Kirk disagrees, then promptly falls off the humongous rock formation. He's about to plunge to his death when Spock grabs a hold of his feet about a foot from the ground. Later in the night over a campfire, McCoy scolds a nonchalant Kirk for his carelessness, and I personally don't think the Kirk of the original series would have been that foolish, either, but here he simply replies that he wouldn't have died because he knows when the time comes, he'll "die alone", at least not in the presence of his two comrades, whom he considers brothers. Spock considers that illogical, and, frankly, I don't blame him. Spock also considers the song "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to be illogical, telling Kirk and McCoy, after he hears them sing it around the campfire, that "Life is not a dream." However, it's about to turn into something of a nightmare for the three of them. There's trouble brewing in the Neutral Zone on Nimbus 3, also known as The Planet of Galactic Peace, jointly owned by the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan Empire, in the hopes of fostering cooperation and understanding. Or lip service to cooperation and understanding. In fact, it's a desert planet that all three galactic organizations have foisted upon the undesirables and misfits in their respective societies. Nevertheless, they have to keep up diplomatic appearances and so the Federation, Klingon, and Romulan ambassadors arrive at Paradise City for a summit of some sort. Unfortunately, the summit never comes off as the town is invaded by a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) and his ragtime army. The Federation calls an end to Kirk's, Spock's, and McCoy's vacation, as well as that of Sulu's and Chekov's (who are lost in the forest surrounding Mt. Rushmore--which now has the head of an African-American woman carved into it--before they're rescued by another African-American woman, Uhura.) Unfortunately, this new Enterprise isn't up to par yet. Or maybe the crew's just haven't gotten used to it yet. "I miss my old chair," Kirk remarks. Meanwhile, a Klingon named Klaa finds out about the hostage situation and, after first destroying the real life 1972 Pioneer 10 probe that he happened to come across, takes a course to Nimbus 3 himself, not so much to rescue his own planet's ambassador (General Korrd, a famous warrior whose military strategies are even taught at the Starfleet Academy, but who has since fallen out of favor with his own government) but to engage in battle with James Kirk, a famous warrior in his own right. The Enterprise arrives at Nimbus 3 first, and, as the transporter is still inoperable, Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and several others take a shuttlecraft far outside Paradise City to avoid detection. But it's a couple hours to town if they walk. So Kirk and co. become horse thieves, a crime greatly mitigated due to that they're stealing from the planet's rebels. To pull this off, Uhura does a kind of fan dance/striptease to distract the insurgents (which the then-55-years-old Nichelle Nichols manages pull off thanks to a combination of heavy shadows and dim, purplish lighting.) They arrive in Paradise City and engage in a very low-tech battle with some more rebels (Spock nerve-pinches a horse.) Eventually, they come to the saloon where the three ambassadors are being held hostage. After throwing a three-breasted cat-faced exotic dancer into a fountain (religious theme notwithstanding, this may be the kinkiest Star Trek movie ever), Kirk is surprised to find that the hostages want nothing to do with him, and have in fact pledged their loyalties to Sybok.  Furthermore, the renegade Vulcan is now planning to take over the Enterprise, and isn't going to let a little thing like other people's free will get in his way.

 72 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

 46 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

 Seven years before Star Trek first went on the air.

 Four years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Mind control. Comes up often in Star Trek. You could say it's right there in the pilot "The Cage" when the Talosians, through the use of illusion, make Captain Pike think that a disfigured woman is a beautiful Rigellian princess, a pretty girl-next-door type on the farm he grew up on, and a sexy, green-skinned Orion. "The Man Trap" and "Spectre of the Gun" also have Enterprise crew members trapped in hallucinations orchestrated by others. However, in these episodes the characters seem to retain their critical thinking skills, which eventually allow them to see through the deceptions. Still, there's plenty of other instances where they do bend to the will of others. In "Charlie X" the title character compels Spock to recite Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven". In "The Return of the Archons" both Sulu and McCoy become senselessly simpering followers of Landru. An alien entity turns Scotty into Jack the Ripper in "Wolf in the Fold". In "Day of the Dove",  another alien entity convinces Chekov that the Klingons killed his brother--despite him being an only child! Scotty has a crush on non-regular cast member Mira Romaine in "The Lights of Zetar" and takes it hard when her mind is taken over by an outer space energy storm. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Chekov's mind is taken over by an...eel (eww!) However, it's James Kirk whose free will takes the most beating throughout the series run. In "Dagger of the Mind", he's brainwashed into believing he's madly in love with the starship's psychiatrist. In "A Private Little War",  he's brainwashed into falling in love with a female witch doctor. Kirk wipes an aphrodisiacish tear off the face of the title character in "Elaan of Troyius" and, you guessed it, falls madly in love with her. (As for all the women he madly fell in love with in episodes not involving mind control, well, that was just Kirk being Kirk.) Now there are instances where the Enterprise crew members are the mind controllers rather than the mind controllees. Well, one crew member: Spock. When on the verge of being executed in "The Omega Glory", the Enterprise First Officer compels a woman to turn on a communicator, allowing help to beam down. In "Requiem for Methuselah" he makes a grieving Kirk forget a lost love. Spock's able to do both of those things through his "mind-melding" abilities, the same mind-melding abilities that Sybok in The Final Frontier possesses, which he has used on the three ambassadors, and other nominally independent minded folk he's come across.

Kirk and his retinue, including Spock (who seems to know Sybok) are now hostages themselves, and are taken back to the Enterprise. At least Kirk's given the opportunity to warp-evade Klaa's Klingon Bird-of-Prey. Once that crises passes, Kirk manages to knock the phaser out of Sybok's hands. Spock grabs it but refuses to use it on Sybok. Afterwards, locked up in the brig, Spock explains to fellow prisoners Kirk and McCoy that Sybok is family, his long-lost half-brother. Or more like long-exiled, as he was kicked off of Vulcan for his illogical pursuit of emotion. Having taken over everybody's minds but Kirk's, Spock's, McCoy's, and--I'm not sure why he was also skipped over--Scotty's, Sybok explains his grand plan, to take the Enterprise to Sha Ka Ree, the Vulcan version of Heaven, where he hopes to be granted an audience with God himself. Unfortunately, this particular Heaven is in the radiation-prohibitive Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy, from which no being has ever returned, at least not with their hair follicles intact. Kirk thinks he's crazy but there's not much he or Spock or McCoy can do about it, locked away as they are. Scotty, who apparently is still able to move about freely on the ship, blows a hole in their cell, and the three are able to escape. Scotty, for some reason, doesn't go with them, walking in the opposite direction before getting knocked unconscious by a low-hanging beam. Flying up an elevator (or in 23rd centuryese, turbo) shaft by way of Spock's levitation boots, Kirk and McCoy make it to an emergency transmitter, from which they send out a distress signal to Starfleet Command. Unfortunately, it's intercepted by Klaa, who now knows how to track the Enterprise. Sybok and his lackeys (which by now includes a brainwashed Sulu) show up, and, instead of immediately re-arresting Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, tries to talk some reason into them--by way of mind control. It works on McCoy but Spock is able to resist. Before Sybok can go to work on Kirk, McCoy snaps out of it. Sybok doesn't seem to mind. To Kirk's amazement, the Enterprise does indeed make it through the Great Barrier in one piece. Sybok now gives command of the ship back to Kirk, knowing that he's now too curious about this Sha Ka Ree/Heaven to turn back. From orbit it looks like a blue disco ball. Well, that's some people's idea of Heaven, though many a fundamentalist preacher (or Classic Rock fan) might consider it the opposite. Whatever it is, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sybok take a shuttle down to this strobe light of a planet, and, sure enough, a giant head claiming to be God Almighty shows up. Sybok naturally feels vindicated. It's when God starts issuing his commands that things go awry.

GOD: And how did you breach the Barrier?
SYBOK: With a starship!
GOD: This starship...Could it carry my wisdom beyond the Barrier?
SYBOK: It could. Yes!
GOD: Then I shall make use of this starship.
SYBOK: It will be your chariot!
KIRK: Excuse me.
GOD: It will carry my power to every corner of creation.
KIRK: Excuse me...I'd just like to ask a question...What does God need with a starship?
GOD: Bring the ship closer.
KIRK: I said...What does God need with a starship?
MCCOY: Jim, what are you doing?
KIRK: I'm asking a question.
GOD: Who is this creature?
KIRK: Who am I? Don't you know? Aren't you God?
GOD: You doubt me?
KIRK: I seek proof.
MCCOY: Jim, you don't ask the Almighty for his I.D!
GOD: Here is the proof you seek!

At which point, God zaps Kirk with a blue laser-like beam, knocking him backwards (something like that actually happened to me at a dance club, but I think I just had one jello shot too many.) While Kirk recovers from this divine intervention, Spock decides to take up where his superior officer left off, asking the same question, and so HE gets zapped, too. This is too much for the formerly devout Sybok and the formerly panic-stricken McCoy, who are now themselves wondering just what is it with this deity already. They begin expressing doubts as well. Now thoroughly pissed off, the so-called Supreme Being lets the truth slip out: "An eternity I've been imprisoned in this place! The ship! I must have the ship!" Realizing he's been conned, Syboks attempts to mind-meld with the phony Jehovah, thus giving Kirk, Spock, and McCoy time to escape. And escape they do to the shuttle that brought them there. Except it won't blast off. Seems to be a mechanical problem. As well as a plot mechanism. They ask Scotty to beam them up, but thanks to more bugs in the system, he can only bring up two at a time. So Kirk lets the other two go first. As if all this wasn't bad enough, Klaa--remember him? I did, but just barely--shows up in his Bird-of-Prey ready to do battle with the Enterprise. And the fake God, having, I don't know, eaten Sybok or something, is ready to do likewise to Kirk. Except the Bird-of-Prey fires a missile at the Almighty scam artist, apparently blowing it to smithereens, while at the same time beaming the Enterprise captain to safety. Aboard the Bird-of-Prey, he finds out how his rescue came about. General Korrd, the Klingon ambassador abducted by Sybok, reasserted his authority over Klaa, ordering him to assist, rather than attack, the Enterprise. Furthermore, Korrd let Spock ("Now may I present our new gunner?") deliver the fatal blow to the heavenly fraud, thus saving Kirk's life. Kirk hugs Spock in gratitude ("Please, Captain, not in front of the Klingons.") The movie ends with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy again sitting around a campfire in Yosemite. And this time, even Spock joins in singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat".

The general consensus among Star Trek fans is that The Final Frontier is something of a dud, especially when compared to the three films that precede it. I agree. Where I disagree, as I did with the first Star Trek film to make it to the big screen, is the exact size of this dud. I grade the film as close but no cigar, whereas most of the reviewers on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes grade it as a cigar that blew up in their faces.

The Final Frontier was directed by William Shatner, exercising a "Whatever Nimoy gets to do, I get to do, too" clause in his contract. Obviously, he knows the Star Trek franchise well, and thus this film has more the feel of a weekly TV episode than a major movie event. Since I happen to have liked many of the weekly TV episodes, I don't see that as much of a problem. Besides, major movie events tend to end up on TV anyway; this one just happens to be better prepared than most for that eventuality.

The acting: Laurence Luckenbill is fine as Sybok, and George Murdock is a decent God Almighty (though I think I found the latter more threatening when he played Lt. Scanlon, the internal affairs officer on Barney Miller.) But director Shatner gets his best performances from the regular Star Trek crew, which must have taken some doing as most of the regular Star Trek crew has gone on record as saying they don't like Shatner very much. But they liked him this time, however briefly. Even George Takei (Sulu), perhaps the most vocal in his disdain for Shatner, had to admit, "despite our sometimes strained personal history, I found working with Bill as a director to be surprisingly pleasant." Good that he feels that way, since his character actually screws Kirk over in this movie. Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), meanwhile, gives the film some sex appeal. That's not too surprising. On the original series there was always something a bit coquettish about Uhura, though she had to suppress it quite a bit so as not to appear unprofessional. Brainwashed by Sybok in this film, she then proceeds to flirtatiously do the same to a hilariously flabbergasted Scotty (James Doohan). Had they gone any further, the MPAA might have given this flick an R rating, as in, for mature audiences only. Performed here by mature thespians.

Still, Uhura's and Scotty's antics in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are basically peripheral to the action, and that's true, too, of Sulu and Chekov (Walter Koening). I can't really give any of them the Best Actor Award. Instead, it goes to...well, it's a three-way tie: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, respectively. Of all the feature films, The Final Frontier is the one that makes the best use of them as a trio, and it's a joy, as it was in the television series, to watch these three actors play off each other, in set-pieces both comic and dramatic (and sometimes both at once!) In just about every scene in this film in which Kirk appears--and that's a lot of scenes seeing as he's the main character--you can bet that Spock and McCoy won't be far behind. When doing the TV version of Star Trek, Shatner had a reputation for being an attention hog (probably the main reason some of his castmates didn't like him very much; more about that in the next post) but as both the director and co-screenwriter here, he generously allows his star actor to share the limelight with Nimoy and Kelley, reportedly the two members of the cast who actually liked him.

Shatner was also the co-screenwriter. So what of that screenplay? Ultimately, it's what sinks this movie, but not right away. I very much like the mind control subplot, and that's usually not my favorite narrative device. I just have a hard time relating to the idea of brainwashing in any meaningful way, as when a familiar character suddenly goes glassy-eyed and starts chanting "I hear Master and I obey!" I just don't buy it. I can't imagine what's going on in his or her head. I can't really feel sorry for them because, you know, there's no "them" to feel sorry for. And why in the world would anyone allow themselves to be brainwashed? They're brainwashed against their will, you say? Now wait one dad-blasted  second there, I thought you're only supposed to lose your free will after you've been brainwashed, not before. On top of everything else, mind control is self-contradictory!

What makes the mind control in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier so different, and for me much more intriguing, is how it eschews the quasi-magical approach of hypnotism (as it's so often depicted in pop culture) for something far more psychologically concrete. Sybok doesn't walk up to someone with a swinging pocket watch and say "You are getting sleepy..."  as if the person can't just turn their head in another direction. No, his come-on is much more beguiling, an empathetic "I can't help but notice your pain. It runs deep. Share it with me." Sybok is just trying to help you! Why would you turn him down? With his mind-meld abilities, he then locates that pain buried deep within your heart, lets you experience it one more time, and tells you to free yourself from it forever, as when he dredges up McCoy's torturous memory of having to euthanize his seriously ill father only for a cure to be found not long after. It's not magic but a catharsis McCoy has just experienced. So liberating! So freeing! And he, and everyone else who receives similar counseling from Sybok, are so grateful! Now, gratitude is hardly a good reason to blindly follow someone, but emotional release doesn't really lend itself to rational thought. If you subtract the mind-meld part, Sybok's form of mind-control is quite realistic. Exploiting a person's pain, their heartbreak, their shame, and their fears, so as to get them to do what you want, is an all too common form of mind control in this world. It's how the Lothario got the troubled young woman to go to bed with him. It's how Madison Avenue got the troubled consumer to buy the latest product. It's how the politician got the troubled citizen to vote for him. It's how the preacher got the troubled convert to open up his wallet. It's how Charles Manson got the troubled teenage runaway to kill for him.

Yet such mind control is hardly foolproof. When it's Kirk's turn to be brainwashed, he simply declines the request by stating: "...That I've made wrong choices in my life? That 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 [...] Pain and guilt can't be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They're 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!" For Spock's part, he allows Sybok to go ahead with the mind-meld. His pain is his very birth--some memory he has!--when his father appeared to express disappointment at his newborn son's human qualities (well, Sarek, when you married an Earth woman, what the hell did you think was going to pop out of her womb, a thoroughbred?) Yet Spock knows what Sybok is up to, and besides, it's an issue he resolved a long time ago. He stays by Kirk's side. McCoy, or course, succumbs to the mind control, but only briefly. Now, he doesn't snap out of a trance or anything like that. He doesn't necessarily think Sybok is wrong, but he has a history with Kirk and Spock, a history that trumps any cathartic experience. In real life, it may take us all a tad longer to reclaim our own free will than it did for McCoy, but eventually we do. The young woman dumps the Lothario after she finds he's been seeing other young women behind her back. The consumer stops buying the product when it doesn't work as advertised. The citizens votes for someone else when the politician can't keep his promise. The convert closes his wallet and attends some other church when the preacher gets arrested by the vice squad. And once they're before the parole board, even former Manson family members have to admit that listening to Charlie wasn't the smartest thing they've ever done. The old adage, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," is as good an antidote for mind control as any.  

So it's a nifty metaphor that Shatner and fellow screenwriters Harve Bennett and David Lourgery came up with, one that arguably marks The Final Frontier as a science fiction satire of the machinations and manipulations of the false prophet. Elmer Gantry Conquers the Universe, so to speak (except that, unlike Sinclair Lewis' charlatan, Sybok proves to be even more deluded than those he deluded in the first place.) Good work so far. The problem lies with the con job. Supposedly the big revelation in this film is that God is not God at all but just another weirdo alien. Anyone familiar with the original TV version of Star Trek could have seen this plot twist coming from a light-year away. That show gave us a galaxy populated by aliens with godlike powers or godlike technology. In "Where No Man Has Gone Before" Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner develop godlike ESP after passing through the Great Barrier (a different Great Barrier than seen in The Final Frontier--there's roadblocks all over the Milky Way.) The bratty title character in "Charlie X" raises all kinds of Almighty hell, including turning a young woman into a lizard. The bratty title character in "The Squire of Gothos" raises all kinds of Almighty flamboyance, including turning a barren planet into 18th century England, thanks to an simply divine mirror with divine-like powers. An androgynous young man in a gold lame gown uses his godlike powers to send Kirk to a planet to duke it out with a man-sized lizard in "Arena". Three medieval-looking gods prevent the Federation and the Klingon Empire from going to war in "Errand of Mercy". Two insect-like aliens with a matter-transmuting (the next best thing to omnipotence) scepter trap Kirk and Spock and a few others in what looks like a 1960s Hammer horror movie, complete with witches, in "Catspaw." The title characters in "The Gamesters of Triskelon" turn their godlike abilities toward gambling (amazingly, they lose a bet to Kirk.) Godlike rockmen raise Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan from the dead in "The Savage Curtain". Some godlike aliens plays head games with a young woman and torture McCoy to boot in "The Empath". The godlike alien in "Who Mourns for Adonis" insists he is a god, a famous Greek one by the name of Apollo. Compared to all the omnipotence on display in the original series, the god of "The Final Frontier" is a ninety-pound weakling.

Suppose, however, that someone wasn't familiar with the TV show, and thus watched The Final Frontier with a fresh set of eyes and no preconceptions. Would they not be truly surprised by the God-as-alien revelation, and thus better able to appreciate the film's satiric intent? Well, if you're one of those people and happen to be reading this, let me ask you: when Kirk asked what God would need with a starship, did you say to yourself--A) "Yeah, I was wondering the same thing!" or B) "Gosh, that question wouldn't have occurred to me in a hundred years!" If you chose B), you deserve to be struck by lightening.

Besides, when it comes to giant heads of immense power...

...it'd been done before.

After dissing religion for nearly an hour and three quarters, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier does manage to end on a positive note regarding matters of faith, even if that note is positively banal:

MCCOY: We were speculating...Is God really out there?
KIRK: Maybe he's not out there, Bones. Maybe He's right here, in the human heart. 

So, does that make the human heart omnipotent? The divorce rate must have really plummeted in the 23rd century.

Meanwhile, in the latter part of the 20th century, specifically the 1980s, it may have seemed that it was the Star Trek franchise itself that was truly omnipotent, a pop culture phenomenon like no other. How else to explain allowing two actors who at the time were pushing 60 (Shatner, Nimoy) and another actor pushing 70 (Kelley) to carry a summer blockbuster that multiplex chain owners hoped would sell unprecedented amounts of overpriced popcorn in air conditioned theaters across the land?

Clearly, a fall from grace was overdue. After a strong first week in which Star Trek V: The Final Frontier grossed over $17.4 million, there was a somewhat hesitant second week in which it just grossed $7.1 million, and a truly decrepit third week in which it grossed a measly $3.7 million. It did end up being the 10th highest grossing movie of 1989, but, as with the first Trek film, expectations are everything, no matter how overly optimistic, and the creative team behind The Final Frontier did not meet theirs. Certainly not enough for Paramount to immediately and automatically green light a sixth film, especially not with the same bunch of aging actors. Yet the Trek brand was in no real danger, as a new hope (to borrow a phrase from a competing sci-fi franchise) had emerged from the phenomenon's very birthplace: television. Star Trek: The Next Generation was now up and running. After a shaky first season, it had improved in both the quality of the scripts, and the number of viewers watching. In fact, it was soon the highest rated show in syndication. That, the studio execs must have thought, was where the future of the futuristic franchise lie, and not with three old farts sitting around the campfire getting drunk on whiskey-infused baked beans. For a while there it looked like there might not be another feature film with the original Trek cast.

Until someone at Paramount looked at the calender and saw that an anniversary was coming up.

NEXT: Twilight of the Pop Phenomenon Gods