When it came out, I went to see “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” five times in the cinema. Five. It wasn’t because I loved it so much, it was because it niggled at me. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I should and I was convinced I’d missed something. After the breezy good humour and box office success of “Star Trek IV”, “The Final Frontier” landed at the box office with a decidedly leaden thud – despite my heroic individual efforts to boost its grosses.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun to re-evaluate the movie and learned a lot more about its troubled production. And ultimately, I’ve come to really enjoy it. Oh, it’s no masterpiece and it has a few glaring flaws, but most have a reasonable explanation and, more importantly, there’s a lot of Star Trek goodness that gets unfairly overlooked due to its undeserved reputation.
When a renegade Vulcan takes the Klingon, Romulan and Federation Ambassadors hostage, the Enterprise is sent to rescue them despite its undergoing significant repairs. When they arrive at the planet, they discover the hostage situation is a ruse designed to lure them there. The renegade Vulcan has other plans: to find the fabled lost planet of ShaKaRee and meet with God himself. Unfortunately, an ambitious and reckless young Klingon captain has responded to the hostage crisis – and he sees an opportunity to test himself against the legendary Starfleet officer. A prisoner aboard his own hijacked ship, Captain Kirk must find a way to outwit his captor and save the ship from the Klingons.
This is the only “Star Trek” film to date to have a cold open, and it’s impressively shot. There’s a mythic quality to the gradual reveal of Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) riding out of the dust storm. We first encounter our heroes during shore leave on Earth, in scenes involving mountain climbing, camping and campfire sing-alongs. Frequently derided as being too light-hearted and silly for a “Star Trek” film, tonally it’s picking up exactly where “The Voyage Home” left off and feels like a good fit for the characters. After the angst and drama of the Genesis trilogy, it’s nice to see Kirk, Spock and McCoy’s friendship come to the fore again in a relaxed setting.
In fact, of all the original cast “Star Trek” movies, it’s “The Final Frontier” that comes the closest to replicating the tone, attitude and storytelling of the original TV series episodes. The trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are central to the story, there’s a celebrity guest star and the central story is a heady mix of action and high concept philosophy, peppered with a little comedy every now and again, that ends with our heroes confronting an evil alien entity posing as a false God. Even the special effects are a little bit shaky.
Impacted by the 1988 Writer’s Guild Of America strike, the story sets up a number of interesting ideas which aren’t fully paid off due to the inability to rewrite and fine-tune the script. A key example of this is throughout the first half of the film, a lot is made of ‘the great barrier’ which lies at the centre of the galaxy and has never been breached by any craft, probe or sensor beam. When the Enterprise reaches this barrier, it’s simply able to fly through without any problem. The addition of a couple of scenes (or even a montage – it was still the 80’s) showing some cleverness, discovery or idea on how they breach the barrier would have added a lot of credibility and drama to the barrier sequence or at least lessened the anti-climax in the first place.
Partially due to the writer’s strike and partially due to the increasing salary demands of the franchise’s stars, Paramount started to get a little bit frugal with “Star Trek”. Since the lavish approach to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, Paramount had increasingly reigned in the budgets of the sequels. Although they saw the franchise as a dependable cash cow (each picture had reliably earned back about 500% of its production budget at the box office), they were also aware there was a ceiling to the box office receipts. The effect this penny pinching had on “Star Trek V” would ultimately gut the film’s original ending and force director William Shatner to deliver a compromised, underwhelming ending that betrays the ideas and direction of the earlier story. I imagine Shatner, if he’s seen it, watched much of “Noah” through gritted teeth. There are scenes in the film which are strongly reminiscent of his original vision for “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” and the rocky Watchers will definitely remind him of the ending “The Final Frontier” could and should have had, if Paramount hadn’t kept slashing the budget.
1989 was a busy year for sequels and with the special effects wizards of Industrial Light & Magic busy on “Ghostbusters II” and “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade”, Shatner was forced to use cheaper and less accomplished effects houses and the results are patchy at best. Of course, the great Trek tradition of reusing effects footage is honoured by reusing the shots of Spacedock and the Enterprise from the end of “The Voyage Home” and, wherever possible, using the existing sets from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” which was shooting at the same time.
It’s a shame that bad luck, bad timing and some bad studio decisions undermined this film to the extent it did. Shatner proves himself a competent director, with an eye for some beautiful visuals, such as the beam of light shooting up from ShaKaRee with the Enterprise in the foreground, the landscapes of ShaKaRee or the opening shot of Sybok in the sandstorm. The production design is wonderful, the newly designed bridge looking bright and modern without resembling an Apple Store and the Observation Deck with its old fashioned ship’s wheel and engraved plaque bearing the motto “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Yes, there are some Shatnerisms here and there – the triple breasted woman dancing in the bar (predating “Total Recall” by a year) and the preponderance of horses and it could be argued that the whole Nimbus III section brings a “Star Wars” aesthetic to “Star Trek” long before J J Abrams got his hands on the franchise. The magnificent score, by returning composer Jerry Goldsmith, also helps to elevate the film, and the heavy Klingon presence allows him to make full use of the Klingon theme he had composed and used briefly in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”.
The main cast are reasonably well served by the script, with Scotty getting the bulk of the comic relief but the main focus if firmly on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy troika. Laurence Luckinbill really commits to the role of Sybok, imbuing the character with a charisma and presence that makes up for the script’s shortcomings and George Murdock does well as the false God in his limited screen time. Todd Bryant as Klingon Captain Klaa and Spice Williams-Crosby as his lieutenant Vixis are memorable additions to the pantheon of Klingon baddies but again the script problems come to the fore as they never really feel fully integrated into the story, occasionally feeling superfluous to the main story. Unfortunately, a number of great character actors are wasted by the same script, with the writer’s strike preventing any changes to beef up their roles. As a result, David Warner and Charles Cooper largely just stand around watching events unfold.
Unfairly maligned as the weakest of the Star Trek films, “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” is easily as good as “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” but lacks that film’s marquee moment when the Enterprise is destroyed. Saddled with more than its fair share of bad luck during production, it deserves a sympathetic reappraisal. It has some standout visuals and some great Trek moments, but its muddled execution lets it down. It’s still an entertaining and enjoyable Star Trek movie though and its final scenes of a partial rapprochement between the Federation and the Klingons foreshadows the original cast’s swansong to come.