This was the first Star Trek movie I saw, so maybe I have a soft spot for it.
For the record, I don’t think Bill Shatner is the problem here. I’ll defend that man till death. The problem with this film is the poor special effects (mixed in with what I presume to be budgetary constraints) and some of the strange science that flies in the face of the grounded science of Star Trek.
I don’t think the script is the problem either. Sure there were some strange decisions. The romance between Scotty and Uhura was odd, especially since it was never hinted before (or after). Trek fans hate the idea of Sybok, Spock’s half-brother…which was also never mentioned before in Trek canon… but Sybok is actually an interesting character. However, the heart of Star Trek, particularly with the original cast, was the trifecta of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and this film contains some of the best scenes of them together.
The “antagonist”, the aforementioned Sybok, was originally intended to be played by Sean Connery. If that had managed to work out, I’m sure this film would be looked at more favorably. That being said, Laurence Luckinbill does a stellar job making this religious charlatan both sympathetic and charismatic, enough for you to believe that he could rip apart the friendship between the trifecta. I’d say he’s the second best villain in Trek film (behind, of course, Ricardo Montalban’s Khan).
But I applaud Shatner’s ambition here. Harve Bennet, then the head of Star Trek films, hated the idea of “the Enterprise searching for God, but finds the devil instead,” which may be a controversial concept within Star Trek, but it is an interesting idea in-itself.
Did it work?
Could it have worked?
Yes. Which is why it’s a shame that Shatner never got a chance to do a proper Director’s Cut, especially given advancements in CGI technology.
They gave Robert Wise that opportunity with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and its reputation has greatly improved.
But there is an interesting fan theory floating around the internet: the main plot of the film is Kirk’s dream while camping with Spock and McCoy in Yosemite. You watch the movie, and you can definitely draw that conclusion.
That’s how I watch it. And it becomes the greatest Star Trek movie ever made.
Maybe the internet isn’t such a bad place after all.