Wednesday, February 25, 2004

In their different ways, both Nimoy and Shatner had tried to distance themselves from the Star Trek universe for a time. By the time of Star Trek V, both had accepted and embraced it more fully than ever. Shatner was writing books about Star Trek and its fans, and (with the help of veteran writers, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens) authoring novels set in the Star Trek fictional universe. So by this time, Shatner not only felt comfortable playing Captain Kirk but making his contribution to the Star Trek story universe.

In '>Star Trek Movie Memories, Shatner describes the inspiration for his Star Trek V story: the televangelists like Jim and Tammy Fae Baker who were extremely popular at the time, and whose credibility seemed to depend on the claim that God (Shatner wrote) "was now speaking directly into their heavily hairsprayed heads." "Was this the ultimate narcissism? A sure-fire money-grabbing scheme? Psychosis?"

In true Star Trek fashion, Shatner conceived of such a character in cosmic proportions: a self-proclaimed holy man who believed God was speaking to him, and he would be the instrument to spread God's word throughout the universe, if he could only get the use of a starship.

According to Shatner, the first half of Star Trek V adheres pretty closely to the story he originally outlined: the Kirk-Spock-McCoy shore leave at Yosemite to the action at Paradise City. "However, from midpoint to finish my original storyline bears almost no relation to that of the actual theatrical release."

At this stage there were two major problems. The one-sentence "high concept" of the story was: "The Enterprise goes to find God and meets the Devil." Shatner was deadly serious about this, and when the premise was changed, he felt it detracted from the movie's power. But even Leonard Nimoy, even Gene Roddenberry (who had toyed with a similar story for the first movie) didn't think it could work. But instead of scrapping the idea and starting with a fresh premise, Shatner accepted various tweaks and compromises.

As odd as it seems that Shatner would not have seen the pitfalls of this premise, the second problem was even more inexplicable. Shatner's story had every member of the crew fall under the holy man's spell, except Kirk. The entire crew, including Spock and McCoy, essentially abandon and betray him. In the climactic scene, everyone is captured or wounded except Kirk, who instead of escaping, and despite the attacks of frightening satanic figures, decides to go back to rescue his friends.

Even considering Shatner's strong convictions about how the hero protagonist carries a drama, this story is breathtaking in its singular concentration on Kirk and its apparent cluelessness about the other characters. Asked in an interview on the set of a previous film--- Star Trek IV I think- how the character of Kirk had changed over the years, Shatner said something to the effect that he was perhaps more cynical, due to his experiences in Hollywood. If movie stories are always eventually about Hollywood, here is a story about someone betrayed by everyone he trusts, as they are swayed by fake prophet of a false god. The possible interpretations of this as psychodrama are themselves breathtaking.

But even with Kirk at the helm, Nimoy and Kelley had the same power to protect their characters as they did with any other director. They both refused to have their characters betray Kirk, as it was entirely inconsistent with everything that came before.

Shatner was also hearing from the studio, delightfully surprised by the success of Star Trek IV and convinced it was because the tone was lighter and the character byplay more humorous. Shatner couldn't disagree,especially since (as he said in Mind Meld) Shatner's first observation about Star Trek's first pilot was that everyone took themselves too seriously and the show lacked humor.

There were a couple of other factors that eventually came into play. With an inexperienced director, and with the previous movie having done so well, the spending wasn't as well controlled and utilized. There wasn't vast overspending; Trek films were always so tightly budgeted that it took substantial creativity to make them work. This time there wasn't enough left over by the time they got near the end of the film.

And there was a crucial error, though not a new one: using the wrong visual effects house. It had happened at the beginning of the original series, but they were able to change in time. It happened during the first movie, but Paramount spent enough money to get the effects more or less done. This time, perhaps believing that Star Trek movies were now automatic winners, Paramount didn't fix what became an evident problem on the screen. Not only were planned special effects for the film's climax scrapped, but ordinary visual effects were allowed on the screen in an unfinished state.

When it came time to do the new DVD, Shatner asked Paramount to put up a relatively modest amount for CGI effects that weren't available when the film was made. This had been done extensively for the DVD of the first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and in his brief appearance in a short documentary on the Director's Cut DVD of that film, Shatner praises Paramount for allocating the funds to allow director Robert Wise to improve and essentially to finish the movie. Unfortunately, this pointed remark didn't reap the desired dividends, when Paramount refused to give Shatner the chance to make changes on V for its DVD release, even when he proposed to match their investment out of his own pocket.

The previous three Star Trek films---the accidental trilogy-- had benefited from an amazing serendipity. But on Star Trek V, a lot of that kind of luck ran out. Harve Bennett's judgment failed him. The ideas that seemed daring but doable fell flat.

Still, we can see today that Star Trek V has many virtues, and they are enough to make this a credible contribution to the Star Trek saga.

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