We are now deep into the point in the Star Trek film series when the principle actors started getting behind the camera. The move from starring to directing inevitably led to self-indulgence. We saw the first glaring signs of this trend in Star Trek IV. Today, we examine the series entry with the worst rep for autoethnographic vanity, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
Let’s clear the air up front. This installment was my least favorite back in the day. While I always found The Voyage Home kind of cringe, The Final Frontier came off as downright offensive – the epitome of the “Space travel disproves religion” zombie meme.
A surface-level viewing lends weight to that take. The Enterprise gets hijacked again, this time by Spock’s leftover hippie brother. His aim? To fly through an ad hoc plot device called the Great Barrier so he and his cult can meet God.
Never mind that the sorts of dudes who used to pass out leaflets at airports in the 70s are shown successfully stealing a Federation starship. Or the blatant reuse of sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation. What made me nauseous back when I fist saw this movie was that the god they find turns out to be evil, and they kill him with a torpedo.
Physicists often complain about the scientific inaccuracy of Star Trek. But trust me, theologians have it a hundred times worse.
So when I started this review series, I expected to come in here and shred TFF.
But when I re-watched it for the first time in decades, something curious happened …
I didn’t hate it.
Because while Nimoy’s vanity project is an unadulterated paean to 1980s Gaia worship, Shatner’s at least tackles the serious subject of man’s relationship with God.
Put it this way: The whales are no longer endangered. Meanwhile, every soul remains in danger of eternal damnation absent God’s grace.
So which Trek is more relevant now?
“But isn’t TFF blasphemous?”
Upon close review, not so much.
Being more knowledgeable, and paying closer attention this time, it’s my conclusion that the being the Enterprise crew finds isn’t supposed to be God.
He’s a shapeshifting alien who feigns divinity to lure in a ship so he can escape the barrier, which is his prison.
As evidence of this interpretation, other aliens heavily implied to be of the same species show up in TNG.
Kirk’s notorious line from this movie “What does God need with a starship?” pretty much seals the deal.
It’s sound theology on Kirk’s part. God is by definition self-necessary and infinite in perfection. If He needed any created thing, He would be contingent, not necessary, and therefore not God.
So Kirk’s implied denial of the being’s divinity is right. Omnipresence follows from infinite perfection by logical necessity. So not only does God not need a starship to travel anywhere (He’s already everywhere), He can’t be restricted to any one location.
That’s why Kirk’s other line to the effect of “Maybe God’s not ‘out there.’ Maybe He’s *strikes breast* in here” isn’t the nod to pantheistic self-worship I first took it for.
Kirk is not saying, “We are all God/part of God.”
It’s more like:
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)
And the fact that characters of myriad races, including Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans in addition to humans, are all stated to have beliefs about God and Heaven – a stinging rebuke to Roddenberry’s “We’ve evolved beyond that” agnosticism – echoes Romans 11:17:
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root …
So TFF is neither atheistic nor pantheistic, but has Old Testament and even New Covenant subtext.
The problem being that arriving at those theological insights means enduring a weird, goofy slog.
No matter how wholesome the message, a movie has got to be entertaining first.
And pound for pound, Star Trek V is less fun than Star Trek IV.
Not that either film covers itself in glory.
So it’s with great relief that I announce we’re over the hump.
Next up: the final original cast-only film, and one of the best in the whole franchise.
Star Trek meets Macross
Originally published here.