Shortly after the end of The Voyage Home, recently demoted Captain Kirk is on shore leave with McCoy and Spock while a new Enterprise is kitted out. Then there’s a standard Star Trek ‘ship not ready, crew not ready, urgent distress signal’ sequence to get things moving.
The plot centres on a mysterious Vulcan, Sybok, who has rejected kolinahr (look it up, non-Trekkies) and chosen to follow his passions rather than cold logic. Using his mind-meld powers he wins the colonists of a primative planet over to his cause to fly into the barrier at the centre of the galaxy and come face-to-face with God. Meanwhile, a rogue Klingon captain pursues the Enterprise, intent on getting the ultimate war trophy: Kirk’s head.
This is the point in the franchise where the implausibility of these well-fed 60-somethings being the most elite ship crew in the galaxy becomes too much to ignore. In the opening, Kirk is seen free-climbing up a rock face with apparent ease, but later, when Shatner’s face is visible, he seems to be struggling walking up a slope.
The film is an odd mixture of elements. The first half delivers Star Warsy action and the comedy of The Voyage Home, with the latter half adopting the wonder of exploration and lack of desire for conflict that are the series’ hallmark. And the first half really is Star Warsy. It has a cantina scene that could have been lifted straight from A New Hope, on a rough and lawless desert planet just like Tatooine. Then once it gets going it dispenses with this in pursuit of a conclusion which is happy just to explore the galaxy, as all conflict is set aside.
To discuss the ending I will need to use some spoilers, so watch out. They shoot God in the face. Star Trek has historically been a very secular affair, so it’s good so see them tackle religion literally head on, with a massive head of a powerful space-being claiming to be the god of humans, Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans alike. What this being really is is never explained, possibly the film’s biggest weakness, but the fact it is able to communicate with Sybok from beyond the barrier suggests it may indeed be the entity claiming to be God in earth’s religions. This makes it especially interesting when Kirk challenges it.
After summoning Sybok and the crew of the Enterprise beyond the barrier it demands the use of their ship to escape. ‘What would God want with a space ship?’ Kirk demands. If you replace ‘space ship’ with churches, animal sacrifices (endorsed repeatedly in the Old Testament), head covering, not eating pork, prayers, hymns, money, or any number of other customs and sacrifices the world’s religions demand us to make for the omnipotent creator, it clearly points out the absurdity of it all. If Kirk were a proponent of any of the world’s current major religions he would have offered up the ship without question.
What’s more, for daring to question ‘God’ the being blasts them with rays of electricity as punishment, again akin to the jealous god of the Judeo-Christian religions that likes nothing more than punishing unbelievers, inciting his followers to do the same. ‘Why would we want to worship something that is prepared to kill people just for daring to question it?’ Kirk demands, again neatly dispatching the major religions.
So there’s still lots of good, meaty sci-fi to get your teeth into, but the plot is weaker than some of its predecessors and it feels under-explained. The special effects also seem to have taken a hit under the direction of Wiliam Shatner meaning that altogether it’s one of the weakest films in the franchise – a silly but fairly enjoyable hodge-podge.