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Non-Review Review: Star Trek V – The Final Frontier

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not a good movie. There’s really nothing that can be excavated from the film that might redeem it. It isn’t a misunderstood masterpiece. It isn’t an insightful diamond in the rough. It’s just a bad film, the one which forms the cornerstone of the “odd-numbered Star Trek films” curse. It’s indulgent, pretentious and narrow-minded. It tries to blend a world-weary cynicism with an ill-judged and mean-spirited sense of humour.

Despite being shorter than Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it feels remarkably longer. It feels like a rather halfhearted attempt to recapture the spirit of the television show – oblivious to the fact that the franchise has spent the past decade moving onwards. It confuses ponderous pretension for intelligent insight.

Feeling blue...

Feeling blue…

The Final Frontier is a William Shatner project, through and through. A lot of its problems have nothing to do with that. The shoot was rushed, the budget was tight, and it seems like the studio was more preoccupied with Star Trek: The Next Generation than with the original crew’s fifth big-screen outing. At the same time, a lot of the flaws in The Final Frontier are rooted in its director.

Although he isn’t credited on the script, Shatner conceived of the story for The Final Frontier, and he directed the finished product. Shatner had directed several episodes of his television show TJ Hooker, and Leonard Nimoy had directed the previous two well-received Star Trek films, so it’s easy to see how the studio might have been comfortable handing the reins over to another member of the cast to make their mark and tell their story.

Shatner's standing on Nimoy's shoulders...

Shatner’s standing on Nimoy’s shoulders…

The obvious problem here is that William Shatner is not Leonard Nimoy. While nobody seems to have a bad word to say about Nimoy, it seems like a significant number of cast members from the original Stat Trek hated Shatner. And it’s not too difficult to imagine why. Shatner tended to assert himself as the lead in the series, insisting that he should be the focus. He had a tendency to steal lines from his cast mates, or to insist that the director shoot his reaction to a colleague’s line-reading rather than delivery of the line itself.

Writing to Isaac Asimov early in the show’s fun, creator Gene Roddenberry admitted that Shatner could feel “drowned out” by the attention given to Nimoy and how “one can’t help feeling unappreciated.” If Shatner had a tendency to do that as a member of the cast, it’s easy to see why it might have been a risky gambit to put him behind the camera and give him complete control of the film.

Looking up...

Looking up…

It’s hard not to read a lot of The Final Frontier as William Shatner power fantasy. Indeed, even when the Enterprise receives its mission briefing, Kirk is reassured of his own importance. When Kirk points out that there must be other ships that can help (thus avoiding the bizarre scenario from Star Trek: The Motion Picture), the admiral cuts him off. “Other ships, yes, but no experienced commanders. Captain… I need Jim Kirk.” He doesn’t need the Enterprise. He doesn’t need its crew.

You get a sense – that if he could have got away with it – Shatner would have included the line “I need Bill Shatner.” It gets worse from there. While The Voyage Home featured no larger-than-life adversary, it seems like there’s only one opponent big enough to take on Captain James T. Kirk. The Final Frontier sees Kirk taking on God. Or – rather – a being claiming to be God.

... on a horse with no name...

… on a horse with no name…

Playing into the “Bill Shatner power fantasy reading”, we also get a sense that The Final Frontier is “James Kirk vs. the Universe.” A key plot point of the film has most of the cast turning against Shatner Kirk. Given how Shatner has dismissed criticisms from his fellow stars, deriding them as petty jealousies (“there was nothing to nick”), it’s not too difficult to buy into this. Indeed, one section of the commentary has Shatner passive-aggressively blame his co-stars for the movie’s dodgy appearance:

So the budget on a Star Trek film is overloaded on salary. A disproportionate amount of money is spent on talent as against production. And then you also have the problem of people’s own estimations of their worth, which increases as the years go by. It’s not like you’re in a first-time movie and they say, ‘Here’s this small part. You’ve got five lines and you’re in three scenes.’ It’s, ‘You’ve got five lines and three scenes, but you’ve been on board this thing for years.’ And your sense of self-worth has increased that much more.

Not only are the characters inside the film betraying Kirk, the actors appearing in the film are actively sabotaging Shatner. It’s worth noting that his original outline for the film had both Spock and McCoy turning against Kirk – which would have left Kirk the only hero of the film – but both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley steadfastly refused to play along.

Let there be light...

Let there be light…

Which brings up something rather interesting about The Final Frontier. When Leonard Nimoy took the director’s chair, he was fairly generous to the supporting ensemble. Perhaps because he had very little to do in front of the camera in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, everybody in the ensemble got a little moment. Even in The Voyage Home, where Spock has the strongest character arc, the script found time to give memorable moments to McCoy, Scotty and Chekov. (And arguably Sulu, even if Uhura was shortchanged.)

The Final Frontier tries to reverse this trend, with a conscious decision to sideline the supporting cast. Chekov gets to play captain of the Enterprise, while Sulu and Uhura help out on the rescue mission, but none of the characters get “big” or insightful moments. (Compare Chekov’s time in the chair here to Sulu’s stint in Star Trek: Into Darkness.) Even the scenes at the start of the film – Sulu and Chekov get lost, Uhura and Scotty flirt – seem perfunctory and shallow.

Looking for God...

Looking for God…

The most memorable moments for characters outside the big three in The Final Frontier seem somewhat mean-spirited. Scotty – the trustworthy engineer who just busted the gang out of jail – walks around a corner and bangs his head on a pipe. This is the one crew member who has spent the most time on the new Enterprise. Uhura gets a “fan dance”, which is a really weird way to treat the one female member of the ensemble.

Given that the movies had taken the radical step of allowing women to wear trousers, you’d imagine that they might start to see women as more than just sex objects. Instead, Uhura’s big moment here is dancing naked to distract some men, and her character arc seems to concern her becoming Scotty’s girlfriend. Which is a rather weird combination that is never really alluded to again.

New heights?

New heights?

The only other major female characters are the chirpy “I’m going to hook up with David Warner and let him have the final line while I stand there a look pretty” Romulan Ambassador and the Klingon officer Vixis. Vixis’ defining attributes (beyond providing exposition) is – according to Shatner on the commentary – her unspoken love of her commanding officer and – according to Chekov and Sulu – her derriere. While none of the early Star Trek films have exceptionally strong female characters, The Final Frontier feels like a relic.

Which is strangely appropriate, because there’s a clear sense that The Final Frontier is a throwback. It’s an attempt – by Shatner – to recapture the glory days of the television show. After all, it’s the only film in these six films which treats Kirk as an action hero. Even the structure of the film – a pre-credits teaser sequence establishing the stakes – harks back to television. The movie even throws Kirk into conflict with a god-like being, evoking comparisons to The Apple or The Return of the Archons or other such adventures.

Even Scotty can't fix it...

Even Scotty can’t fix it…

The focus on the leading trio is perhaps the most obvious example of this, as the movie tries to pretend that the franchise is essentially about these three characters. “The bond between these three is strong,” Sybok observes. “Difficult to penetrate. This will be quite a challenge.” The film opens and closes with the three characters camping together, enjoying each other’s company – roasting marshmallows and singing. It’s clear the use of the trio is intended to be nostalgic.

That said, McCoy seems to be included somewhat grudgingly. “You stay out of this,” Kirk tells McCoy during his argument with Spock. While The Final Frontier arguably develops McCoy further than any other piece of Star Trek ever filmed, his sequences and character arc are distinct from that of Kirk and Spock. (That said, the scene with McCoy’s father is one of the highlights of the film, and it’s nice to see McCoy as more than a grouchy stereotype.)

A soul survivor...

A soul survivor…

While Kirk and Spock both learn over the course of the mission that their true family is the one on this ship – even when they all betray Kirk – McCoy’s revelation feels somewhat isolated. His arc is relatively truncated compared to that of Kirk and Spock, and he feels relatively extraneous at the climax. The movie’s third act hinges on Kirk confronting God on the planet and Spock dealing with the Klingons in space. McCoy is just sort of there.

There are other aspects of The Final Frontier which seem intended to make it feel like a throwback to an earlier and simpler version of Star Trek. While the film series has been developing its own continuity and allowing threads to build from one film to the next (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan through to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home effectively amounts to a single story), The Final Frontier seems more casual about such things.

It was only a matter of time before the authorities caught up with Shatner...

It was only a matter of time before the authorities caught up with Shatner…

There are references to Spock’s recent death peppered throughout the script. “I liked him better before he died,” McCoy muses at one point. At the end, as if to sum up the important lesson everybody has learned, Kirk explains, “I lost a brother once. But I was lucky, I got him back.” Somewhere, his nephew from Operation — Annihilate! is crying himself to sleep. However, there’s no real indication that Spock’s death has changed too much.

“How’dya like it?” McCoy muses at one point, of Spock. “This guy never changes.” The last four films have been all about Spock changing and growing, coming to terms with his humanity in a way that he never really attempted on the television show. However, it feels like such a clear progression might get in the way of the story that Shatner wanted to tell. Shatner seems to think of the characters as they were in the television show – static and iconic, and unchanging.

... where the grass is green and the girls are pretty...

… where the grass is green and the girls are pretty…

Even though Kirk repeats his “Klingon bastards” line from The Search for Spock, there’s no indication that he lends any serious thought to his son’s death while dealing with Klingons. The Klingons here are just a nice episodic threat, with no real weight behind them. They’re introduced blowing up space debris, because apparently that’s what Klingons do in their spare time – they shoot stuff.

The sum total of Klaa’s motivation is “he likes blowing stuff up.” When he discovers the Enterprise is mounting a rescue mission to Nimus III, he muses, “Enterprise? That’s Kirk’s ship. If I could defeat Kirk…” Vixis completes his thought process, “…you would be the greatest warrior in the galaxy.” It’s incredibly generic. Even Kruge’s paranoid preemptive strike in The Search for Spock offered a more compelling motivation and sense of character. Of course, Klaa’s motivation demonstrates how it all revolves around Shatner Kirk.

A periscope. On a space ship.

A periscope. On a space ship.

This is really an indication of how episodic The Final Frontier feels, to the point where it could easily have been a cheesy episode of the classic show. Trimmed down to forty minutes and filmed with the show’s camp aesthetic, it would probably look a lot more interesting than what we actually got. Indeed, Shatner even introduces an evil brother for Spock, a decidedly out-of-left field twist which fits with nothing that we know about Spock’s family or Sarek. It’s the kind of twist the show could have pulled off, but feels lazy here.

Sybok is a pretty terrible character. Laurence Luckinbill does the best that he can do with the role, but Sybok feels like a dodgy twist from a bad soap opera. The notion of a Vulcan revolutionary isn’t a bad one. Indeed, Vulcan has already become so steeped in mysticism – thanks to Amok Time and The Search for Spock – that the race’s fascination with logic borders on the religious. As such, the idea of a heretical Vulcan founding his own cult is compelling. However, making him Spock’s brother feels like a cheap plot hook.

Highly illogical...

Highly illogical…

Again, Sybok feels like a relic of the sixties. On the commentary, Shatner and his daughter discuss the influences which inspired the character. They keep coming back to Timothy Leary, a high-profile sixties social figure who had faded from view by the eighties:

I think, as I recall, you kind of likened the Sybok character to Timothy Leary a lot. He was kinda…

… charistmatic?

… misguided, but well meaning in the end.

While Leary had been a radical counter-culture figure in the late sixties and early seventies, age had defanged him somewhat. By the eighties, he was touring the country giving lectures with G. Gordon Liddy. While the issue of cults and religious fundamentalism was undoubtedly relevant to America in 1989, using the movie’s main supporting character as a stand-in for a cultural icon over a decade past his prime dates the movie heavily.

Oh his God!

Oh his God!

The movie’s infamously dodgy special effects, the result of a decision not to get Industrial Light and Magic to work on the movie. There are points where the space ships look like 2D cardboard cutouts drifting against a particular back drop. In a way, this is arguably another way the movie feels like a spiritual continuation of the television show, although these effects lack the charm of the show’s Doomsday Machine or nebulous evil alien cloud of the week.

Indeed, Shatner’s original climax might have pushed that comparison even further. The film’s scripted finalé featured a confrontation between Kirk and several rock men, who would have been men in rubber suits, with crew breathing second hand smoke into the suit to create the impression of smoke oozing from the monsters. It was dropped because – to quote Shatner – “our guy in the silly rubber suit ultimately just looked like … well, a guy in a silly rubber suit.” The whole story can’t help but recall Shatner’s tussle with the Gorn in Arena.

To think, the movie could have ended 100 minutes earlier...

To think, the movie could have ended 100 minutes earlier…

Shatner is quick to argue that the film got the short end of the stick from Paramount, and that he had neither the time nor the money to fully realise his vision. While he cites rising salaries, it’s hard to be entirely convinced by his logic. Producer Ralph Winter has argued:

I don’t agree that Paramount short-changed the movie. They didn’t give [Shatner] as much money for the story that he wanted to tell, but remember Star Trek II was done for $12 Million, and III was done for just under $16 Million, and IV came in a million under budget at $21 Million – I have a letter at home from the president of the studio that shows that. And I think we did the fifth movie at around or just under $30 Million, so it was more. But what he wanted to do was a big grander thing. But I don’t think more money would have made the movie better.

While the fact that the movie looks so shoddy doesn’t do it any favours, the biggest problems aren’t with the money afforded the production.

If he'd tricked me into starring in this, I'd want to do that too...

If he’d tricked me into starring in this, I’d want to do that too…

In many ways, The Final Frontier feels like a story that might have been passable in the sixties, a hold-over from the show’s televised run.  However, it’s completely out of place in the franchise that has been growing and changing and evolving in film. Each of the previous films can trace their roots back to an episode of the show. The Motion Picture is nicknamed “Where Nomad Has Gone Before”, The Wrath of Khan is a sequel to Space Seed, The Search for Spock feels like a counterpoint to The Menagerie and The Voyage Home evokes Tomorrow is Yesterday, and yet The Final Frontier feels most obviously like a bloated and over-extended episode of the show.

To be fair, not all of the movie’s problems are rooted in Shatner. The studio rushed the movie into production, fearing that the goodwill from The Voyage Home might be dwindling. The writers’ strike of 1988 limited work on a screenplay that was creaking at the edges, and the tightened schedule limited the capacity for rehearsals and reshoots. “It made shooting for the television show seem like a long vacation,” Shatner muses on the commentary. “I’ve never been on such a tight schedule.”

Corridors of power...

Corridors of power…

The studio – proud of the success of The Voyage Home – insisted on more comedy. The problem is that Shatner’s sense of humour wasn’t quite as charming as Nimoy’s. There’s a sense he’s laughing at his cast mates, rather than with them. Even if the comedy had worked (and that’s a big if), it feels very strange in a movie that is surprisingly dark for a piece of classic Star Trek. After all, McCoy kills his own father here, and we get the most cynical glimpse at Gene Roddenberry’s future utopia to date.

The planet of Nimbus III is a hellhole. It’s a failed world, and the movie portrays it as a project run by the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans to help keep the peace. It’s an intriguing premise, and it’s a shame that it’s tarred by association to The Final Frontier. The only reference to “the planet of galactic peace” in the rest of the on-screen franchise comes in a deleted scene from Family. Even the tie-in materials seem reluctant to play with the idea.

Not a fan...

Not a fan…

The notion of a neutral planet where these galactic powers can nominally discuss peace while their empires wage cold war is a fascinating concept, and one which suggests a lot more cynicism than we’re used to in Star Trek. The capital of Nimbus III – “Paradise City”, complete with graffiti reading “LOST” (subtlety!) – is a wretched hive. It’s full of exotic dancers and badly-staged bar brawls and oppressive infomercials. It’s a failed world.

“Twenty years ago, our three governments agreed to develop this planet together,” the optimistic new arrival from Romulus explains. “A new age was born.” The Federation ambassador replies, “Our new age died a quick death. And the settlers we conned into coming here, they were the dregs of the galaxy. They immediately took to fighting amongst themselves. We forbade them weapons, but they soon began to fashion their own.”

No (para)dise...

No (para)dise…

It’s hard to imagine this planet fitting any conception of the Federation that Gene Roddenberry had established. Star Trek featured its fair share of failed colonies (most notably Tasha Yar originates from one in The Next Generation), but this is a wider failure. It’s a cold and cynical move made by the Federation government, a world without hope, filled with violence and fear while being advertised as a bold new direction. Even Talbot concedes the Federation had to “con” people to move here.

There’s nothing wrong with adding a little nuance and cynicism to the Star Trek universe – it’s fun to be subversive and cheeky from time to time. However, the problems with the approach of The Final Frontier are obvious. For one thing, the cynicism feels rather cheap and underdeveloped. There’s no exploration of what Nimbus III represents and no indication that it exists as anything other than a plot device for the film. The movie’s idea of wit is scrawling the word “LOST” on a wall as an allusion to Milton.

The holy trinity...

The holy trinity…

It also stands at odds with the weird broad comedy of the film. The Final Frontier would work slightly better either as a moody cynical piece or a slapstick comedy, and trying to be both just makes it seem even more muddled and less well-constructed. There are some good ideas here – but it’s clear that the film really has no idea of how it wants to approach them.

It’s easy enough to gloss over plot holes if the film is enjoyable. After all The Voyage Home features some very gratuitous time travel. However, the plot holes here grate, suggesting there’s no real thought put into the film past the basic ideas. How does the Enterprise get to the centre of the galaxy so fast? If it’s so easy that the Klingons can sneak in, why hasn’t anybody bothered to explore before? When Kirk comes back to the Enterprise as a hostage, you’d imagine there’d be medical and security teams on standby to take care of potentially wounded ambassadors.

Pale rider...

Pale rider…

It’s a shame, because there are some nice moments here. I love the opening scene, with Sybok recruiting a follower. Shatner allegedly only included horses so that he might get to ride one (“be one with the horse”), but it lends the movie a nice western quality. Sybok wandering through the desert on a horse evokes comparisons to a hermit preacher. Given that Star Trek has been described as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, it’s a surprisingly powerful image.

Given the increased profile of religious cults in the America of the late eighties, the notion of a religious figure recruiting disillusioned followers is a striking one. Sybok’s philosophy of simply expelling pain and trauma (rather than working through them and reconciling them) and using that to bind himself to his followers seems similar to the practice of auditing in Scientology.

Holy full of crap!

Holy full of crap!

Unfortunately, the film never really follows through on any of these elements. Indeed, Shatner originally proposed that the horses on Nimbus III would receive prosthetic to make them look like unicorns – perhaps suggesting that the western imagery was incidental, and it was all part of a failed attempt to provide us with a shot of James T. Kirk riding a unicorn. There are, I suppose, worse reasons to make a film.

And, to be fair to The Final Frontier, it has moments of brilliance. The initial encounter with the being calling itself God is one of the finest moments in the franchise. The line “what does God need with a starship?” has become a classic, generally accepted as the one unequivocally fantastic thing about The Final Frontier. However, the entire lead-up to the line is great as well, with Kirk timidly raising his hand and asking “excuse me” politely during what is supposed to be a profoundly religious sequence.

It's just a bit camp...

It’s just a bit camp…

There’s also something surprisingly sweet about the sight of the three leading actors sitting around the camp fire, even if it led to one of the franchise’s earlier moments of product placement and the series’ first fart joke. Indeed, part of me is tempted to imagine the entirety of the film as a weird shared nightmare between Kirk, Spock and McCoy while camping, down to Bones’ special beans.

The Final Frontier feels like a massive let-down after the previous three films, and it represents a low for the franchise. While there are mitigating factors that make it easy to forgive some of the movie’s flaws, the most troubling and pressing problems are fundamental. The Final Frontier feels like an attempt by Shatner to recapture an earlier point in the franchise’s history, when he was unquestionably the star of the show and the centre of attention.

Like many a viewer, Bones just can't look away...

Like many a viewer, Bones just can’t look away…

It fails miserably, because it doesn’t account for how things have changed. In a way, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country would learn a lot from The Final Frontier, accepting that part of the thrill of the films is watching the cast grow up and evolve – rather than treating them as static figures who haven’t really adjusted in the past twenty-odd years. Things change, and The Final Frontier is frustrating in its inability to accept that fact of life.

Again, the strangely powerful opening scene feels somewhat more insightful than it might otherwise be. Like J’onn, The Final Frontier is digging around in an empty field, attempting to excavate gold buried by the sand of time. What we end up with is “a field of empty holes.”

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

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6 Responses

  1. Go climb a rock!

    Every re-viewing starts with, “It can’t be as bad as I remember.” Then I discover some new evidence of the film’s crapulence. It’s worse!

    Shatner’s ego is a powerful force. It can be used for good, and I would argue that some of the franchise’s greatest successes are due to Shatner’s ego/over-acting/screen presence. It just needs to be tempered. You wouldn’t drop a Tribble in a kitchen and say, “Eat up.” Tribbles are only useful if they have stern masters. Otherwise, they will indulge and quickly drag every living thing around them down into chaos.

    By the way, I love your comparison of this movie with the old show. Some other guy had the same idea and he actually re-editing this film into an episode of the aborted “Phase Two.” It is THE way to watch this movie…if you think you could ever stomach another viewing.

    • I might give that edit a go. I reckon there is some interesting stuff in here, but all of it is so tightly woven into the crap that it gets dragged to the bottom.

      I can be harsh on Shatner – in fact, I think I’m particularly harsh on film Shatner – but the man has presence and charm. It’s hard to hate Kirk even when he’s showboating, and a lot of that is down to Shatner’s raw charisma. Many people tend to forget that, but he was a pretty promising young actor when first cast, and he can be phenomenal with the right material. In particular, The City on the Edge of Forever and Balance of Terror come to mind as two episodes that wouldn’t work without his screen presence.

  2. Reblogged this on Geeks of Christ and commented:
    I meant to write during my free time today. Instead, I caught up on Mr Mooney’s excellent Star Trek reviews.
    This guy’s a one-man blogging army. You know that one movie you saw? He’s reviewed it. Comics, TV, franchise retrospectives…I can’t recommend his blog enough! Big fan here.
    His reviews of the Trek movies are especially good.

  3. I don’t thing The Final Frontier is really that bad, I agree it seems more of a throwback to the original series but Laurence Luckinbill was excellent as Sybok – no Khan or Kruge but I doubt he was meant to be. I think, as you’ve cited, the rushed production and weak special effects (compared to the stellar work by ILM on the other films) and lack of polish on the script are the main issues I have with it but I’m so fond of the original trio that it’s hard not enjoy it on some level.

    • I can see that. And I do think there’s a half-decent TOS episode in there somewhere. Mickey alludes to a fan edit that turns it into a Phase II episode, and I suspect that might work a bit better that what we got.

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