Star Trek V - The Final Frontier (1989)

Director: William Shatner

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner

In addition to acting as a metaphor for current events, “Star Trek” has always been about the exploration of the unknown, or the impossible. After saving the Earth (twice), engaging in life-altering battles with the Klingons and superhumans, and traveling through time, a very literal search for God as the Enterprise crew’s next adventure could not be considered out of the question. Contrary to what the late Gene Roddenberry would have you believe, the TV show had on multiple occasions dealt with the theme of religion, often with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard for the fraud he/it is. Even “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” had handled this subject before, with a Voyager space probe returning to Earth in search of its “Creator.” The impossibility of making this kind of story work in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” did not come about because “Star Trek” hadn’t boldly gone there before; it came as the result of failures in just about every technical and literary detail imaginable.

Most of the crew of the Enterprise is on shore leave, while a skeleton crew remains to affect repairs. Barely anything is working at 100% onboard the ship: the turbolifts, the main computer and the transporter among them. On Earth, Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are camping out. Kirk has a brush with death, falling off of El Capitan while free climbing, but is rescued by Spock at the last instant. He later declares to his friends that he knew he would not die because the two of them were there with him.

What is a great moment is soon sabotaged by one of the more embarrassing moments in “Star Trek” history. Kirk and McCoy, drunk on Tennessee whiskey, start in on a rendition on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It doesn’t last very long, as the two of them stop when Spock (trying to understand the lyrics) doesn’t join in, but it feels like it lasts an eternity. This scene is only the first of many signs that “Star Trek V” was going to be a self-contradictory movie, as it would be tackling a profound topic in a less-than-serious manner.

What passes for the movie’s conflict arises when three ambassadors (from the Terran, Klingon and Romulan governments) are taken hostages on the planet Nimbus III by a group of losers led by a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckenbill), whom we later learn is Spock’s half-brother. Sybok had been cast out by his people when he chose faith over logic, and has been searching for the Vulcan equivalent of Eden ever since. Sybok persuades others to join his cause by using his Vulcan mental powers to bring that person’s darkest memory into the light, the effect being that this will make them stronger. Taking hostages was merely a ploy to get a starship to come to Nimbus III so that he might use it to travel to the center of the galaxy, where the very real heavenly planet is allegedly located.

The idea that this ragtag group with primitive weaponry can not only overpower the Enterprise crew, but also convince them to fly their shuttlecraft up to the Enterprise so that they can steal it would seem ludicrous if it weren’t for the fact that this same trick had been pulled a few times on the TV series. That’s not what’s wrong with “Star Trek V.” What’s wrong with “Star Trek V” is a long list indeed:

– Infusing the script with scenes of baffling, unfunny comedy (at one point, Scotty hits his head and knocks himself out after proclaiming his familiarity with the layout of the ship) was clearly a decision made in the wake of the intentionally humorous “Star Trek IV”‘s success, but it serves as a terrible counterpoint to the action.

– The Klingons shouldn’t even be in this movie, and their presence does come off as horribly forced. Whose fault that is exactly I’m not sure.

– Actor David Warner hopefully was well-paid for his part. Warner, a fantastic performer who is great either as good guy or villain, plays the Terran ambassador to Nimbus III. The thing is that he’s got absolutely NOTHING to do once we’re back on the Enterprise, which is barely halfway through the film… if that!

– Uhura’s fan dance. Whoever thought it was a good idea for the ship’s communications officer to do a (dimly lit) naked fan dance should have thought of it thirty years earlier. ‘Nuff said.

– The Writers Guild strike of 1988 is to blame for the movie’s low budget and use of a different special effects company, but it does not excuse the atrocious editing. All through the movie, there is fodder for nitpickers when it comes to goofs that the editors apparently missed. My favorite of these comes when Kirk, Spock and McCoy need to get up to the top level of the ship using Spock’s rocket boots (or whatever the hell you call them). As the three make their ascent, no attempt is made to hide the fact that the actors have been replaced with stunt doubles. The deck numbers themselves run in a very odd sequence (35, 36, 52, 63, 64, 52, 77, 78 and 78 again!). There shouldn’t be more than 23 decks on the ship, and Deck 1 should be the highest level instead of the lowest.

– Even Jerry Goldsmith’s score is not immune. The Klingon theme is ruined by just three notes from an oboe that sound like the dying gasps of a castrated duck. Goldsmith almost makes up for it with the track “A Busy Man.” Almost.

*Interesting side note: The role of Sybok was reportedly originally intended for Sean Connery, but he had already committed to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Evidence of this is still present in the final film: the Vulcan translation for “Eden” is “Sha Ka Ree.”

That William Shatner has never directed another movie since, or that Harve Bennett never produced another “Star Trek” movie is hardly surprising. And yet, here’s the kicker… For all of its failings, I cannot dislike this movie. Part of it would have to be nostalgia, as this was my first “Star Trek” theatrical experience when I went with my father to see it in the summer of 1989. It is also because this one, out of the original cast’s six films, feels the most like an episode of the original TV series. A third season episode, I’ll grant you, but a TV episode nonetheless. Kirk is very much like 1960’s Kirk… and why not since the director is decidedly very familiar with the character… remaining defiant when all others around him are giving in to Sybok. The Big Three (Kirk, Spock & McCoy) never had as much time onscreen together in a movie as they did in this one and, despite the weak story, they demonstrate almost as well as they do in movies II & III what their friendship means to each other. It is their rapport that really helps me through what would otherwise be an embarrassingly awful movie.


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