Another installment in the Fresh Perspectives line, reviews written for the Genesis Basingstoke sci-fi club magazine.
Spock: Please, Captain. Not in front of the Klingons.
This is the latest in the series looking at classic film franchises and examining them with a fresh pair of eyes. We’re up to the fifth Trek film (even though I didn’t start writing the reviews until ST IV), and this is the one that gets all the dark mutterings, particularly about lack of budget and writers’ strikes and a certain professional …rivalry between William Shatner and James Doohan, culminating in Scotty being made to look a right fool. Galaxy Quest satirised the lack of a rock monster attacking Kirk in the end scenes, but in a sense paid homage to the film, which in my opinion is a profound exploration of the human condition …IN SPAAAAACE :D.
Not to be too clichéd, it’s a film of two halves. The first half is space fantasy, looking like a desperate need to attract Star Wars fans with the desert planet of Nimbus III and a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ known as Paradise City, where even the Federation consul has gone native with apathy and exhaustion. The second half centres around the Enterprise’s odyssey to the centre of the galaxy (which I’ll excoriate in a moment), and the Vulcan Sybok’s takeover of the Enterprise and journey to the Promised Land of Sha-Ka-Ree at the centre of the galaxy. (OK, I’ll excoriate the bad science and bad continuity now. Star Trek lore has it that the centre of the galaxy is inaccessible even with FTL travel. I personally thought it was a metaphor for heaven and Sybok a suicide bomber trying to get his 72 virgins in attempting the impossible, so let it pass. But the second bit of bad science in it is…a planet at the centre of the galaxy. Think about it. No. Just no.)
The premise is, unlike the science, watertight. The execution is gorgeous, considering the limitations on the budget. Sybok is a convincing villain, pulling out all the stops to get on board the Enterprise, and actually saving them from the Klingons, still with a grudge against Kirk from a couple of films ago, only to end up with the crew at his mercy. Somehow, he manages to get Sulu and Uhura hypnotised and overcomes Chekov by some method we don’t know quite yet. Kirk, Spock and Bones are flung into the brig. Cue banter between Kirk and Spock, who couldn’t kill Sybok because they miraculously share the same father (despite twenty years of not knowing this, another convenient ass-pull for the writers, and I see how it could infuriate some fans) and an explosive entrance from Scotty, who has escaped Sybok’s slow takeover of the ship.
Let’s stop there and go back a bit. Firstly, the dusty desert of Nimbus III are balanced well with the stunning backdrop of Yosemite, where Kirk and co are relaxing on ‘shore’ leave. The tone of the film is set well by their discussion of the theme of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, an odd choice of song to revolve a plot around, but the more we get into the film, the more the idea of rationality versus irrationality takes over. This film, despite its reputation, was beloved of Sheldon Cooper, him off The Big Bang Theory who makes Spock look positively warm and empathetic and everyone laughed at him for saying so. It seems superficially obvious why – Sybok’s main tool of manipulation is of the emotions and inner pain of the Enterprise’s crew. It could be seen as antipathetic to the notion of human warmth and the need for the assertion of control over the instinct and emotion within us – a very Sheldonian notion. However, the message is actually embodied by Kirk: that inner pain is not a source of shame to be exploited – Sybok is turning uncomfortable memories against the crew, even targeting Spock’s soft half-human underbelly – but an integral part of one’s identity. Confront this, and like Kirk you gain mastery over the self, such that other people cannot wield it as a weapon against you.
This is a message that runs deeper than keeping a cold, unemotional front up as a shield against the world. I’ve always felt that some fandoms don’t quite get that message – one example being the brouhaha over a My Little Pony episode (Feeling Pinkie Keen from Season One, if you wish to look it up) which seemed to tick skeptics off for not being able to make leaps of faith reverberates around fandom to this day. Many disgusted bronies feared allowing their kids to watch that episode, lest they fall into an anti-logical trap designed for them by people of an anti-intellectual bent. At the other end of the continuum, It’s like the evangelicals who fulminate against Harry Potter because he uses magic, but don’t see J K Rowling’s real message about the nature of good fighting evil. Both sides, etc. But I think that MLP episode had a similar message to this one: that not everything is a battle solely between reason and unreason. Sometimes those who are too dependent on reason forget the inner senses and refuse to put their trust in things they can’t immediately see. Friendship and family ties are some of those magical properties where a leap of faith is sometimes required to create a bond between two people. After all, Spock is the one who refuses to kill Sybok, something Kirk might not have hesitated to do. He, the stony-faced high priest of Reason, takes a leap of faith that Sybok will not destroy them all.
In confronting what is really there on Sha-Ka-Ree, Sybok is mistaken. The arch-manipulator has been hoisted by his own petard; he was manipulated himself by an entity he thought to be God, but turned out to be an evil entity that needed a starship to escape his prison. Just as Kirk looks like he is ridiculing and rejecting God, however, the end of the film sends the message home that God isn’t ‘out there’. He’s ‘in here’. Warning people about pursuing false Gods – whether in the pursuit of power, money or other selfish concerns – is a message Christianity shares with Trek philosophy and other humanist doctrines.
I think I can safely give this one 5 Plutos out of 5. As you know from previous reviews, I have a low threshold for verisimilitude, and I don’t think I could find a single major fault with the film. It was engaging from the start, the last battle which Jeremy thought all a bit simple for the Klingons to destroy the evil entity wasn’t really that bad (to prolong it at that point would have cost money the crew didn’t have, and actually might have made the film a bit too long), and the comic bookends have some genuine warmth and emotion in them rather than just being a bit silly and trite.
Watch this film again. I dare you.