Sunday, January 11, 2015
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river”: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
If there's one aspect of Star Trek's media artefact wing that demonstrates how incestuous Star Trek fandom is, it's unquestionably the Original Series and its associated characters, as, no matter what the generation, Trekkers are frustratingly unwilling (or unable) to move beyond them. This has to be something stronger than fealty to the original work or simple nostalgia, because this is a phenomenon that spans several different age groups and, more to the point, *doesn't* happen with any other franchise of comparable scope. Nobody privileges the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who above all else, for example, and while the original three Star Wars movies are considered the best, that's only because Star Wars fans are far more critical of their own franchise and will readily admit the original films hold that position merely by virtue of being slightly less shit than the others.
I'm not entirely certain what the reason for this is myself, but, either due to someone's deliberate intent or purely through a particularly horrific example of the fan-industrial complex, Star Trek: The Next Generation and its ilk have utterly failed to take substantial root in the pop consciousness such that it's the Original Star Trek, and *only* the Original Star Trek, that remains universally beloved, embraced and affectionately quoted and memified. This will be an unending sore spot for those of us (like, oh I don't know, me, for example) for whom Star Trek actually does mean Star Trek: The Next Generation, because we'll forever feel like our memories and feelings will never be considered legitimate by an *overwhelming majority* of the contemporary discourse.
The reason why this is relevant to the topic du jour is, aside from the obvious “I really, really don't want to be writing about the Original Series at the moment”, is because Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a movie that very plainly would not exist if not for the curious gravity the Original Star Trek exerts over the rest of the franchise. It was put into production essentially as a favour to William Shatner thanking him for bothering to show up for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, because he almost didn't given he was A. getting too big for Paramount to afford and B. understandably dissatisfied with the anemic and fannish Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. To entice him back, the studio promised Shatner he could direct the next movie (remember, at the time the feeling was that Star Trek had become a kind of modern-day film serial that would run in perpetuity), which wasn't actually much of a promise as Shatner already had something called a contractual “favoured nations” clause with Leonard Nimoy dating back to the Original Series. This was basically a legal endorsement of their joint leading man status, promising that whatever Shatner received, Nimoy would too. So long as Star Trek remained a film serial that Leonard Nimoy was going to be directing installments of, Paramount was legally obligated to allow William Shatner to direct some movies too.
And in this regard, in spite of my immediate profound lack of enthusiasm, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a movie I've been meaning to do a redemptive reading of for quite some time. This is by far the most hated of all the Star Trek films (which is saying something considering Star Trek Nemesis and Star Trek Into Darkness exist), and completely unjustifiably, I feel: It is unquestionably an *unnecessary* film, and it's definitely crippled by a lot of mitigating circumstances, namely a stupefying amount of executive meddling and the writer's guild strike, which seemingly ruined everything for everyone for the entirety of 1989. But this doesn't mean the entire project was a total write-off or misguided from the start, and furthermore, one of those mitigating circumstances was most assuredly *not* the one named William Shatner. For one, this was not Shatner's first directorial gig (he'd directed a number of theatrical plays and even television episodes beforehand), and given the favoured nations clause, it's not like Shatner was throwing his weight around and muscling his way into places he didn't belong or didn't have the required experience to deal with. And I don't think we want to say that actors, as a general rule, can't make the transition to directing, given what we're going to see very shortly with Jonathan Frakes.
So this means the question at hand is actually once again what *kind* of creator William Shatner is, and anyone who's followed this blog for awhile is already going to know the answer to that. Shatner delights in knowing artifice, in particular as a way of exploring different positionalities and everyday feelings. Shatner is also deeply inspired by both music and theatre and how the two creative forms compliment each other, and he's also fascinated by how different people conceptualize the divine and the transcendent. This is made most abundantly clear in The Transformed Man, which is sort of his signature work, as well as his most recent release as of this writing, Ponder the Mystery, which uses the background of prog-rock to take a tongue-in-cheek, yet earnest, look at the “big questions” everyone tends to think about every now and then. Knowing this, the impetus behind Star Trek V: The Final Frontier becomes very, very easy to explain: Shatner is quite obviously intending this to be the Star Trek version of The Transformed Man: A rumination on the connection between performativity, everyday experience and divinity with a great big fuck-off space battle with angel and demon beings and an evil alien televangelist to tick the requisite action sci-fi summer blockbuster boxes (Shatner has said he was fascinated by the charisma of televangelists and the power they wield to persuade and mislead people).
I can find nothing wrong with the underlying premise here whatsoever-In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it sounds awesome and could very will have been the greatest Star Trek movie of all time with a brief like that. And I'll defend Shatner to the hilt here because, as far as I've been able to discern, everything that went wrong with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (and let's not beat around the bush any longer, no-one is saying Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was actually executed effectively or that Paramount was able to pull it off without a hitch) was due to things that were entirely out of Shatner's control. The much-maligned humour was not his idea as Shatner intended Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to be a serious drama, but the studio wanted another comedy because Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had been so successful and was a comedy. And when you tell William Shatner to do comedy, he's going to do it in the most broad-strokes and Vaudevillian way possible because that's what he knows (see, for example, “I, Mudd”) The blatant Star Wars references that take up the whole first part of the movie before the actual plot gets going were also a studio request, because Paramount once again felt they needed to be competing with Lucasfilm. It also couldn't have helped matters that the guy they got to tweak the screenplay stopped working halfway through pre-production due to the writer's strike.
But the biggest thing that sunk this movie before it got going has got to be an egregious philosophical disagreement about what a blockbuster science fiction movie ought to be allowed to do. When William Shatner asked Harve Bennett to look over his script, the producer took issue with the entire tone and structure of the project, saying it wasn't enough of an adventure story and didn't even feel like much of a movie. Bennett said Shatner's pitch “had the feeling of a tone poem” instead of a sci-fi blockbuster, convincing Shatner to start a lengthy (and ultimately unfinished) editing and revision process. This right here is the most revealing aspect of this movie's tortured production history: A tone poem, or symphonic poem, is a piece of (typically classical) music specifically meant to evoke some exterior work of art, like a landscape painting, a novel, or indeed a poem. Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss are the most famous composers of tone poems, though a notable modern example would be Paul McCartney's album Standing Stone. Now we get at the root of the problem with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: William Shatner approached it the same way he does all his other artistic ventures, as a hybrid fusion of music and spoken-word theatre that attempts to reach some higher form of artistic expression, and Paramount either didn't understand what he was actually trying to do or flatly didn't think it was translatable to a Hollywood blockbuster.
And this really is a uniquely Hollywood impasse because it is uniquely Western. Other artistic traditions don't see the same disconnect between narrative and other sorts of creative expression, and all we need to do is look across the pond at Japan and its proud tradition of stylized music and dance theatre, such as Kabuki and Takarazuka. Just relatively recently we've seen how contemporary Japanese creators were pushing the boundaries of their medium by completely redefining what science fiction could (and really should) be. Just take a look at the MTV-spectacle-as-transcendent-experience Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture was grasping at, or the multi-layered performativity linking back to pro wrestling that defines Dirty Pair in general. I'd suggest Shatner take a trip to Tokyo and meet with someone like Kōji Morimoto, Kōichi Mashimo or Mamoru Oshii who probably would get him a little better, except I wonder if Shatner's innovations might come across as obvious to people that radical and visionary. William Shatner's constant problem is that he's pretty much always in the wrong place at the wrong time: He's shaped by the Western theatrical tradition, but he's constantly up against its limitations. His peers are incapable of taking him seriously, not just because of his connection to Star Trek, but because they really don't understand what the hell he's actually trying to say. Furthermore, the people who probably *should* be his peers might be beyond even him.
Either way, Bennett is wrong not just because we know the kind of thinker William Shatner is, but because even within Hollywood there's a precedent for what Shatner was trying to do with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Indeed, the Long 1980s are pretty much the perfect time for this movie: It's already been seven years since Blade Runner, which was nothing if not a first draft for the kind of cinema Shatner is trying to pioneer here, and then there's the small matter of the film that knocked Star Trek V: The Final Frontier from its number one spot at the box office (yes, in spite of its reputation, this film actually did pretty well in its first week): Batman, a decisive victory for aesthetic power within even the pulpiest of source material (indeed, Harve Bennett's probable fatal flaw as a creator is his unwavering commitment to painfully dated pulp tropes and structures and inability to see beyond them). There's also Miami Vice, of course, which has a leg-up on pretty much all of the other examples by also having an actually compelling plot, effortlessly demonstrating that it and groundbreaking visual design are not mutually exclusive.
And really, if there's one thing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier lacks its visual design, which is kind of a problem for a movie like this: Due to a dispute with ILM, Paramount hired “some guy in New York” (Brian Ferren, of tiny VFX firm Associates and Ferren) to do the effects, and the result is something that, perhaps appropriately, would not have looked out of place on the Original Series. Herman Zimmerman from Star Trek: The Next Generation stepped in to help, redesigning the bridge to provide continuity with that of the current Enterprise and gave the team some of Mike Okuda's trademark LCARS displays, but his heroic efforts sadly don't help much. Speaking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the rest of the interior sets are all reuses of those from that show, which the movie nicely does not make any attempt to disguise whatsoever. Similarly, *yet another* reuse of the overplayed theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the final straw that breaks the camel's back. That theme never, *ever* needs to be used again, and it even led to some confusion from new Star Trek fans (ahem) who thought the movie team was stealing the theme song to Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And that kind of returns us to our original point. The looming presence of Star Trek: The Next Generation is undeniable and unavoidable. Absolutely nobody was contesting where the present and future of Star Trek in 1989 lay, or at least nobody who should have been in the position of making decisions. Even within the movie itself, during in the infamous El Capitan scene Spock seems to be acting more like Data than the Spock of the original Star Trek. Although some fans are quick to point the finger at the show's floundering in its second season as a reason this movie turned out to be such a disappointment (believing that potential viewers took their frustration with Star Trek: The Next Generation out on it) that strikes me as nothing more than passing the blame onto an unpopular creative team. I don't know what the fan opinion of Star Trek: The Next Generation at the time was, but I do know what the popular opinion was: It was still one of the most watched and beloved shows on the air.
Star Trek: The Next Generation ended its first season as the number one show in syndication, and I don't believe it was hemorrhaging viewers throughout its second. So, if die-hard Trekkies weren't watching the show (perhaps out of some lingering suspicion of it or fear their childhood heroes were being replaced), the fact remains that normal people were still watching, and those were the people Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was aimed at. Well, at least I'm presuming it was, considering Paramount's constant meddling in Shatner's pitch basically amounted to asking him to dumb it down. The bottom line here is that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier did not “almost kill” Star Trek like everyone likes to hyperbolically claim: Star Trek: The Next Generation was *always* going to come back for a third season regardless of what this deeply confused and ultimately inconsequential movie did, it's just that nobody writing historical narratives wanted to admit that Star Trek: The Next Generation was the real future.
This botched, ham-fisted and yet paradoxically confrontational conflation of the two different Star Trek “generations” is a perfect encapsulation of the dangers this franchise keeps running up against: In its harried attempt to please both veteran fans and newcomers, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ends up crippled and unable to please anyone. Even Gene Roddenberry denounced it, which says something as it takes a lot to get Gene Roddenberry to speak out against Star Trek (although Roddenberry was likely just jealous because William Shatner had the same basic idea for this movie that he did for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, except Shatner actually has talent). D.C. Fontana was upset with the finished product too, for unrelated reasons, though let's be honest-Nobody at Paramount cared about what D.C. Fontana wanted by this point.
And this is the greatest tragedy of all, not just because William Shatner has been given the runaround yet again, but because this movie is concrete proof of how out-of-touch Star Trek actually is with its audience and with itself. This series has absolutely no idea what its real strengths actually are, reaches people in spite of rather than because of what it does and is totally incapable of seeing what it needs to become in order to evolve beyond what it is now.