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In defense Of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted May 18, 2009

The fifth Star Trek movie is the one the fans don't have much liking for, but I believe that it's underrated. Although it'll never be a four-star, in large part because of a few discontinuity glitches, it nevertheless has a plot that touches on a theme well worth pondering over.

Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock and Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock and Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the kind of movie that religious Christians would likely avoid, because William Shatner based the troublemaker Sybok on a televangelist. Given this anchoring, it's not surprising that word floated around to the effect that the film attacked Christianity. Without drifting into spoil-the-ending territory, I'll confine myself to claiming that Sybok had gone through some changes before filming. About a third of the way through the movie, Spock says that Sybok had the potential to become one of Vulcan's great scholars. Instead, Sybok embraced a return to the primitive, rejected Vulcan's emotion-suppressing norms, and exhorted others to follow him. This disruptiveness got him banned from Vulcan.

This bio doesn't sound much like a televangelist. It sounds more like an Anglican priest, earmarked for a lord bishopric, which took up paganism and consequently got defrocked and banned from the realm. Perhaps Mr. Shatner erred with his disclosure, as the 'crazy televangelist' label leads the audience to expect another Elmer Gantry remake. Had the movie been more formulaic in this regard, it would have not only done better but also would have been better received. I'm quite sure that an Elmer Gantry knock-off would have rated no Razzie nominations whatsoever.

Unfortunately (in a certain sense), Sybok was no greedy hypocrite or fraudster. His faith-healing technique did work, and he didn't use his gift to acquire money or even a mass following. All he wanted was enough of a band to make possible his crusade to reach the centre of the galaxy. From his studies, he induced that a mystery planet beyond the Great Barrier in that locale was the location of God. I'll only touch on this point, because I don't want to add any spoilers, but I will say that the climax points to the hazards of inductive reasoning. Suffice it to say that Sybok doesn't come across as a corrupt fraud: he seems very much the self-deluded fool.

In fact, he sounds a lot like a kind of fellow that American conservatives find close to insufferable…the archetypical do-gooder. Just before the capsule bio paraphrased above, Spock also identified Sybok (unapprovingly) as a "revolutionary."

Star Trek is science fiction, and as such doesn't exactly treat religious matter with great reverence. Few works of science fiction do, though. I know of one only, A Canticle For Leibowitz, which is explicitly Roman Catholic. If there's any anti-religious element in Star Trek V, it would be an unintended consequence of the plot properly understood. I'll have to confine myself to saying that the potential sore point is an idea that science fiction (to my knowledge) has never explored fully, although a Twilight Zone episode broached it.

Sybok isn't the only villain, if he can be unambiguously pegged as one. There's a Klingon that serves as a foil for the renegade Vulcan, whose motive dovetails with Sybok's own but whose character and goals are quite different. Suffice it to say that they're quite Klingon.  

Although this movie might disturb the truly pious, it's not the standard Hollywood-centric faith-bashing that many religious conservatives have resigned themselves to receiving. (Some may be off-put by the humor, which sometimes veers into the corny.) I can't call Star Trek V a flawless picture, but I can say that its premise and plot have been underrated. People of the conservative persuasion might very well gain grist for reflection from the events therein. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.





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