The crew of the newly commissioned Enterprise are on shore-leave after the shakedown cruise. At Yosemite National Park, James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is camping with First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Doctor Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley). But shore-leave is interrupted when the Enterprise is ordered to rescue the Human, Klingon, and Romulan diplomats held hostage on Nimbus III, a neutral ground for interplanetary dialogue.
On Nimbus III, they discover that the renegade Vulcan Sybok (Lawrence Luckinbill), Spock’s half-brother, is behind it all. His goal was to lure a starship to Nimbus III, which he can seize to travel to the mystical planet Sha Ka Ree, where creation began, somewhere behind the seemingly impenetrable Great Barrier hiding the centre of the galaxy. A heretical Vulcan who believes in emotion, he uses his mind-meld powers to heal the innermost pain of his patients (or victims). Only Spock and Kirk can resist his powers. Spock is too highly evolved, and Kirk wants to keep his pain to stay sharp.
The ship breaches the barrier, pursued by a Klingon called Klaa (Todd Bryant), and they find an uninhabited planet. They shuttle to the surface and Sybok calls on God. A huge human face appears and demands the starship. Kirk asks why God needs a starship and is attacked by a powerful force. They discover that this being is an ancient prisoner and the Great Barrier is its prison. Photon torpedoes have no effect. Sybok sacrifices himself to allow the others to escape. Spock and McCoy beam back to the ship, but Klaa attacks. The entity reappears and tries to kill Kirk until the Klingons destroy it with disruptor fire. Kirk is beamed aboard the Klingon ship, Spock and the Klingon general Korrd (Charles Cooper) force the renegade Klaa to stand down.
The movie was directed by William Shatner, inspired by televangelist conmen. It was controversial to say the least and was revised heavily to please Paramount Pictures. Herman Zimmerman was the Production Designer, Nilo Rodis the Art Director, and Jerry Goldsmith scored the soundtrack. By all accounts, the set under Shatner’s direction was a pleasant one. Even George Takei found it so. He hadn’t wanted to appear in the film because of his long-time difficulties with Bill Shatner, but Shatner convinced him he was needed, and he came away admiring the creative and enthusiastic atmosphere on set. But learning to ride a horse was difficult. Shatner insisted on instructing Leonard Nimoy in horse-riding, even though Nimoy had ridden bareback many times playing Indians in the Republic Pictures Serials. Wil Wheaton of Next Generation visited the set and was treated brusquely by Shatner, hurting the idolizing young man’s feelings, but Shatner apologized later.
Long-time Trek actor David Warner was the captured Federation Ambassador, Charles Cooper the drunken Klingon Korrd, and Cynthia Gouw the Romulan babe. Sean Connery was originally supposed to play Sybok, but he was busy with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Still, the planet Sha Ka Ree was named after him. Max Von Sydow was also considered. Lawrence Luckinbill impressed William Shatner, and I can see why. His smile and laugh and energy fill the screen. You can see why Sybok gathers converts everywhere, including on the bridge of the Enterprise. Luckinbill is the son-in-law of Lucy and Desi of Desilu, who produced the Star Trek original series, and the uncle of the Waschowskis, who created The Matrix movies. The Yeoman to whom Kirk hands his coat on the bridge is Shatner’s daughter Melanie.
Todd Bryant, who plays Klaa, and Spice Williams as Vixis are a couple of cool Klingons. The space probe that was destroyed by them for target practice was Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, which lost contact with Earth in 2003. It should be near Aldebaran in two million years if it is not shot down by Klingons. The Bird of Prey was called Okrona in honor of Marc Okrand, documenter of the Klingon language. The growling of the felinoid exotic dancer who attacks Kirk was taken from James Brown’s I Feel Good. Stuntwoman Linda Fetters Howard spent six hours in makeup for 53 seconds on screen. Nichelle Nichols, an accomplished dancer and singer, did her own fan-dance on the dunes, but was incensed when her voice was dubbed. A deleted scene on the planet Sha Ka Ree featured rock monsters but was scrapped because of a lack of credibility. They later showed up in Galaxy Quest. Sets and models from Star Trek: The Next Generation were used to save money, but it was thought by many that the popularity of that series was partly to blame for the movie’s poor showing, as fans could get their Trek fix every week and didn’t need to see the movie eight times. It is the only Star Trek film to win a Golden Raspberry Award, and the only Star Trek film not to get a Hugo nomination. Even Shatner called it a failed but glorious attempt at a thought-provoking film that did not come together. Gene Roddenberry’s later derision of the Star Trek films is largely due to this one. Roddenberry had proposed half a dozen stories about the Enterprise crew meeting God, but all had been rejected by Paramount.
It is still considered the worst of the Star Trek Films, but I think the main culprit was the special effects budget, which undercut what should have been a mind-boggling meeting with an entity powerful enough to be mistaken for God. As a Doctor Who fan, I sympathize.