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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (DC Comics, 1989) (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

In many respects, the late eighties represented a changing of the guard when it came to Star Trek. The feature films had been relatively serialised. The events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan led into the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which itself led directly into the events of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. At the same time, the expanded universe was generally left free to its own devices. Novelists and writers were given the freedom to do whatever they wanted.

In the late eighties, things changed. Directed by William Shatner, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier stood quite clearly apart from the events of the last three Star Trek films. At the same time, the franchise had found its way back to weekly television in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whereas comic books and novels had served to fill a gap when there was a scarcity of “official” Star Trek material, they were now very clearly of secondary importance to the “real” (or simply “live action”) versions of Star Trek.

Oh your God...

Oh your God…

There was a rather seismic shift in the nature and tone of tie-ins and adaptations. Rather notably, the creators who had adapted the last couple of films into prose and comic book form did not return to translate The Final Frontier across different media. Vonda McIntyre had written the novelisations of the last three Star Trek films, but was replaced by J.M. Dillard. Mike W. Barr and Tom Sutton had produced the comic book adaptations of the last two Star Trek films, but were replaced by Peter David and James W. Fry. Both Dillard and David would find themselves tasked with adaptation of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Peter David and James W. Fry’s adaptation of The Final Frontier is clearly intended as a launchpad for their new on-going Star Trek series that would debut only a few months later. Indeed, the final page of The Final Frontier includes an advertisement for that new series. In many respects, this adaptation of The Final Frontier seems to serve as a pilot for a new comic book series, a starting point for a bold new beginning to DC’s Star Trek line. Opening with the The Final Frontier, you might be forgiven for assuming it was doomed from the outset.

Here there be rock monsters...

Here there be rock monsters…

There is a lot wrong with The Final Frontier. Indeed, there is so much wrong with The Final Frontier that J.M. Dillard’s adaptation often reads more as an extended collection of apologies and rationalisations rather than a cohesive narrative in its own right. The comic book adaptation of The Final Frontier actually seems a few pages shorter than the adaptation of The Voyage Home, so Peter David really doesn’t have the luxury of trying to fix a narrative that is so thoroughly and fundamentally broken.

Instead, David’s script fixes a few minor details here and there while trying to get the story over with as quickly as possible. Much like the Marvel Comics adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the DC Comics adaptation of Star Trek: The Final Frontier finds itself struggling with an indulgent and bloated narrative. Much like Marv Wolfman did when working on The Motion Picture, Peter David tries to move the plot along through prose.

Again with the Klingons!

Again with the Klingons!

There are quite a few sequences where expositional narration captions are written in a decidedly poetic and lyrical manner, accompanying images of major events. Sybok’s siege of Paradise City is captured in snapshots with a few descriptive lines of prose explaining his strategy and his objective. It is as if the script is trying to cover as much ground as possible in the absolute minimum amount of time. It gives the story a larger-than-life quality, even if Peter David doesn’t quite share Marv Wolfman’s talent for lyrical exposition.

David also attempts all manner of little continuity tweaks. He doesn’t have the freedom or the space to fix any of the absolute clunker ideas in the story, but he does try to smooth over the more glaring issues. William Shatner’s version of The Final Frontier tended to play fast and loose with continuity, glossing over and ignoring much of what came before in order to fit Shatner’s personal vision of what the franchise should be.

Fan service...

Fan service…

So the comic bo0k adaptation touches on the fact that political relations between the Klingons and the Federation really should be hanging by a thread. Escorted to the bridge of a Klingon Bird of Prey, Kirk sarcastically observes, “No peace until I’m dead, isn’t that it?” He is quoting a line from the Klingon Ambassador at the start of The Voyage Home, one largely ignored in subsequent films. It would become a recurring motif during Peter David’s short run on the contemporaneous Star Trek monthly comic.

Similarly, David seems to take issue with a line from the climax of the film, Kirk’s infamous “I lost a brother once…” moment. It’s a line intended to underscore the depth of the relationship between Kirk and Spock, but one that ignores the events of Operation — Annihilate!, where Kirk’s biological brother was killed by the threat-of-the-week in order to lazily drum up some solid dramatic tension.

Do-do-doo-do-do-do-do-do-do... Rock monster!

Do-do-doo-do-do-do-do-do-do… Rock monster!

Here, David takes it upon himself to tweak the line. “I’ve lost two brothers in my time, but I was lucky,” Kirk remarks. “I got one of them back again.” As if to underscore the sense that they knows more about Star Trek continuity than anybody actually working on the script to The Final Frontier, Peter David and James W. Fry include a brief flash of Kirk’s brother – lovingly and accurately rendered as William Shatner with a dodgy moustache.

(The script also incorporates all manner of other endearing continuity references. Most notably, Uhura sets her infamous fan dance to the tune of the song she sang in Charlie X. As ever, Peter David skirts the line between endearing distracting with these continuity references. Still, given that The Final Frontier is distracting in its unwillingness to acknowledge anything about the history of these characters, it makes for a welcome inclusion.)

A comedy roast...

A comedy roast…

What is particularly interesting about this adaptation of The Final Frontier is that it seems to have been written relatively early in the production cycle. There are a number of deviations between the adaptation of The Final Frontier and the finished version of the script. For example, the comic book includes the attack by a gigantic rock monster, something included in the original screenplay, but eventually omitted due to budgetary and special effects issues.

As such, the comic book adaptation offers a glimpse of a version of the story that existed before the film itself was complete – giving us an indication of what changed at a late stage in the cycle. Most obviously, the comic places a much higher emphasis on the betrayal of Kirk by McCoy and Spock than the final cut of the film does. In particular, Spock’s temptation feels a lot more genuine in the comic than it does in the film, perhaps reflecting Leonard Nimoy’s concerns about Shatner’s early drafts of the script.

Given his attitudes towards Klingons, Kirk probably should spend less times on the bridge of Klingon Birds of Prey...

Given his attitudes towards Klingons, Kirk probably should spend less times on the bridge of Klingon Birds of Prey…

It is quite clear that DC Comics and Peter David wanted to use The Final Frontier as a lead-in to the new monthly Star Trek comic book series. After all, this is the first adventure of Kirk’s shiny new Enterprise, so it would seem to be the perfect place to start an entirely new batch of adventures, as mandated by Richard Arnold and Gene Roddenberry, who wanted to get away from the somewhat looser continuity that had defined the first of DC’s monthly Star Trek comic.

Indeed, Klaa and Vixis would become recurring characters during Peter David’s run on the monthly Star Trek comic. Kirk’s reference to the boast made by the Klingon Ambassador sets up the first year-long mega-arc of the monthly comic book. Peter David even sets up what would become a recurring gag over the first few issues of his run – the idea that new Enterprise is so prone to malfunction that Kirk can’t even properly record his log.

God: the only opponent capable of defeating William Shat-- er, I mean, Captain Kirk...

God: the only opponent capable of challenging William Shat– er, I mean, Captain Kirk…

This feels like something of a tragedy. The Final Frontier is an absolutely terrible film, but it’s hardly the best pilot for an on-going series. In many respects, this set the tone for Peter David’s brief tenure on the monthly series. Not only was he launching off the back of the weakest Star Trek film to date, but he would also find himself facing major conflicts with Richard Arnold and Gene Roddenberry. The second volume of DC’s Star Trek comic seemed almost doomed from the outset.

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