Re-watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Screenplay by: David Loughery
Story by: William Shatner & Harve Bennett & David Loughery
Produced by: Harve Bennett
Directed by: William Shatner

Release date: June 9, 1989
Stardate: 8454.1

Mission Summary

Shore leave at Yosemite Park is cut short by a hostage situation on the planet Nimbus III, where a Vulcan named Sybok has taken three ambassadors hostage. The Enterprise is dispatched to resolve the situation, and they find that Sybok is Spock’s fully Vulcan half-brother. He has a unique ability to purge a person’s pain, a neat trick that both Spock and McCoy take him up on (Kirk refuses, saying his pain makes him human). Unfortunately, Sybok also happens to be a raving cultist in search of god at the planet Sha Ka Ree in the center of the universe. Meanwhile, a Klingon named Klaa is in pursuit of Kirk, for personal glory and because the movie needed explosions.

The Enterprise, followed by Klaa’s ship, makes it to the center of the universe and the mythical Sha Ka Ree. On the surface Sybok calls out to his god, who seems much more interested in procuring himself a ship than offering spiritual experiences. Kirk is suspicious, and when he refuses to bring the ship closer the god-alien attacks them all. Chases ensue, Sybok sacrifices himself to stop the god-alien, some transporter hijinks ensue, and in the end Starfleet and the Klingons make friends and let murder-crazed bygones be bygones.

Also god is dead.

Analysis

If you use your imagination, this is a good movie.

So many elements have potential. Any one aspect of the film could have been enough: an emotional Vulcan. Spock’s half-brother. The supporting cast falling for a non-Kirk charismatic leader. God. But no, Star Trek V had to have it all, and the result is a singularly odious mélange cobbled together by ambitious hacks.

It doesn’t even have the charm of workman-like mediocrity. The script is awful: stiff dialogue that tells instead of shows, ludicrously out-of-character laugh lines, and puns not even worthy of a superhero movie. I’m used to bad puns–Eugene is one of the worst offenders–but my god, people. Every time one of those lines comes out, I feel like the writers are drunk at dinner, poking me and everyone else in the audience in the ribs with a fork. “Get it?? Gravity of the situation? Drop in for dinner?” Then they guffaw loudly at their own brilliance before passing out in a pool of their own shame. (At least, that’s how it plays out in my hopeful imagination. In reality they all got fat paychecks, I’m sure.) To make matters worse, all of this is propped up by atrocious special effects, incongruous sound effects, and weirdly inappropriate music. I know they were broke, but the original series looks better than this, in no small part because of competent directors and designers. Everything about TFF looks and feels cheap, especially the new bridge.

But you don’t even know what you’re in for when the movie begins. I have always liked the opening, with the ringwraith and the hillbilly meeting in the desert. (But what kind of ringwraith rides a unicorn?) It’s intriguing and mysterious! The concept of Nimus III isn’t without merit, either. The “Planet of Galactic Peace” is a great setting for any war movie. Unfortunately, it winds up going into an extended bar joke. (A Romulan, a Klingon, and a Human walk into a bar. A cat-woman pole-dances. The Romulan says, “It appears I’ve arrived just in time!”) I wish I could say you can’t make this shit up, but someone actually did and that makes me immeasurably sad. Eventually you realize that the entire planet’s existence was conceived not to make use of its political possibilities, but so that Sybok can easily kidnap three utterly irrelevant dignitaries without making more than one stop.

The plot is utter nonsense, and I think even Shatner probably would’ve owned up to that. There are no experienced commanders around? Really? Much of what happens is determined by the transporters not working. And ye gods, the fan dance. They are the brightest and most daring group of Starfleet officers the Federation has ever seen–and that’s the best they can do? I don’t even have to get into how squicky it is that they’re baiting a bunch of desert barbarians with sex for it to be degrading to everyone involved. These characters are idiots and they deserve to be captured when they are.

And those idiots are the real focus of the movie.  I think Shatner was trying to push the characters in a new direction: to give depth and context to these people we’ve known for twenty years. A peek into each of their private lives was probably long overdue. Unfortunately, in Shatner’s hands, their private lives were pretty much exactly like their public ones (except for Scotty and Uhura, which the less said about, the better). On shore leave, the holy trinity don’t seem to mingle with their subordinates. Sulu and Chekov are best friends, which I guess makes sense since they never really interact with anyone else onscreen. It reinforces what we’ve seen a hundred times without actually teaching us anything interesting or new about these people. So what’s the point?

Sybok is supposed to come in and change all that. We learn that McCoy is this tortured soul who feels extreme guilt for his father’s death. This still doesn’t work for me. I’ve always gotten the sense that McCoy carries a bitterness with him. He’s not uncaring or unkind, but he has very resolute ideas of right and wrong, and I get the sense that he’s been wronged more times than he’s been righted. The backstory he gets doesn’t fit–I can’t even figure out what it’s trying to show about him.  Was he supposed to be unmerciful and let his father suffer? Is that really the regret he has? Being a doctor means making the best decision you can given all the information you have, and he did that. Or is it just supposed to show that life is unfair and McCoy (of all people!) has never managed to live with that? It’s arbitrary and confusing, and time after time I feel nothing at this so-called pain.

The line that bothers me most is Sybok’s statement to Kirk that “this is who [your friends] are. Didn’t you know that?” Kirk should know this. They are best friends. And McCoy should know himself, as Spock knows himself. Spock knows who he is and what’s important to him, and has made the decision to let those things go that need to be let go. If McCoy doesn’t confess his guilt in the dead of night to these people, chances are he doesn’t harbor much of it. The rest of the crew that’s so easily swayed should all be fired. Out of a cannon. Into the sun. I mean what’s Uhura’s regret? Agreeing to go on a date with Scotty?

As for Shatner, well, I forgive him: this movie isn’t his fault, not entirely. Sure he gave Kirk a supernatural resist against brainwashing attacks, but that’s nothing new: Kirk is always the One Guy Who Can Take It. Kirk’s the hero but he’s always the hero, and Shatner actually pays more lip service to the other characters than he needed to for the story to work. The fact that it doesn’t work isn’t because Kirk is the ego-maniacal focus–it’s because there is no focus. The film tries too hard at too many different things and manages to do all of them poorly. It’s easy to dismiss this movie as an ego trip, but Shatner was thinking bigger than himself, and even bigger than Kirk. I don’t begrudge him that and his reputation as the maligned franchise-killer isn’t deserved. With a good script, or even a good editor, I think Shatner could have made a good movie.

The real soul of this film, if there is one at all, is Kirk’s remark that he needs his pain. This is classic Star Trek, a recurring theme from “This Side of Paradise” to “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” Pain makes us human, and humanity is essential. What good are the highs without the lows? What makes joy or happiness meaningful but the absence of it? But it’s an idea too nuanced for such hamfisted writing and directing, and they would have been better off not mucking about with it at all.

Instead, we get a fake god that makes whale noises and shoots lightning from his eyes. That’s a pain I definitely don’t need.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 1

Eugene Myers: Though there is some debate over the merits of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, few fans will claim that The Final Frontier is a good film. It isn’t. But for a while, I flirted with the idea of defending it as such, at least until I re-watched it; I had this strange impulse not because I had forgotten how bad the movie is, but because I remember its better aspects more–clinging to them like a shipwrecked sailor holds fast to driftwood. And TFF does have its good moments.

“The hell it does,” you say.

The high points of TFF are frontloaded in the film, then appear few and far between, but they exist as surely as God does at the center of the universe. Almost all of these moments are character-oriented scenes, or brief exchanges between the main cast, and often they work because of the history of the show, the skills of the actors, and their chemistry together. In other words, they succeed despite the script, which is generally poor. Okay, it’s awful, with most of the dialogue relying on punnish superhero quips that even I couldn’t enjoy.

The dialogue is so bad, I had attributed one of my favorite lines to a different movie, somehow forgetting that Klingons are in TFF, though they certainly have no reason to be. (They’re a weak and misguided attempt to present a danger to Enterprise, before becoming a convenient deus ex machina at the conclusion—again. And annoyingly, the Starfleet crew’s favorable reaction to their new allies directly, all in the name of humor, contradicts their prejudiced interactions in the next film.)

“Please, sir, not in front of the Klingons” is one of the better lines because of the familiarity forged between Kirk and Spock over nearly twenty-five years of history together. Similarly, the Chekov and Sulu scene where they’re lost in Yosemite is classic in every sense of the word. In fact, most of the characters are fairly faithful to the ones we’ve seen in the past three films…until the mind control. But even Sybok’s weird influence is no explanation for the forced romantic interest between Uhura and Scotty, which had never been hinted at before—and thankfully never again since.

That’s the biggest flaw in this film: how forced it all is. Characters do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do and the hand of the screenwriters is felt manipulating the thin plot just as Sybok manipulates his cult of followers. The action sequences are contrived; almost all of them result because the most brilliant engineer in Starfleet can’t get the damn transporters to work, or even navigate an access corridor without knocking himself out.

Spock acts even more out of character, threatening to undo all the hard work of the previous movie to reestablish his usual awesomeness. There seems to be a constant struggle over whose movie this is—Kirk’s or Spock’s—which leads to an entire lack of investment in any of the coherent character development and makes it all seem rather aimless and pointless.

TFF and TMP share more than just a great soundtrack—TFF seems to suffer from some of the same flaws as TMP, primarily an overdone idea that never really worked all that well in the original series. (A whole host of derivative ideas, actually: another “paradise” that is really not, a “great barrier” in space, and an inexplicable electrical storm in space.) No wonder Kirk questions God—he’s seen all this before. After an engaging opening that sets up some political intrigue, the story becomes a slow march toward a twist ending that surprises no one. The plot and conflicts that crop up are as artificial as the alien being on Sha Ka Ree—which is itself a big joke.

Once again, why Kirk needs to be involved is never clear. Depressing as it is to accept, he’s the most experienced captain in the Fleet, which makes him uniquely qualified to… What? Blunder into a trap? Get ridden by an angry catwoman? Allow his ship to be taken over for the umpteenth time by a Vulcan mystic and malnourished rabble armed with Supersoakers?

Kirk does manage to bluff “God” at the end, so that’s at least an improvement over his ineffectual contributions to the V’Ger debacle. I wish I knew what Sybok accomplished by using his power on the being, though, other than committing suicide. (Incidentally, his final scene reminded me of one of my most painful Star Trek memories: “The Alternative Factor.”)

Add in some unusually bad special effects, and TFF is just a mess of a movie. If I had to pick the worst moment in the film, it may have to be Sybok’s lecturing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy—space explorers, for crying out loud—about fearing the unknown. If someone had just read the script over once, they should have been able to pick that out as utterly ludicrous.

Personally, I never minded the flashbacks to McCoy’s and Spock’s most painful memories (let’s not entertain the logistics of the latter even being possible). I like expanding their history onscreen and adding some emotional depth, if you could call it that, but the fact that Spock and McCoy are able to shake off mind control out of loyalty to their captain undermines Sybok’s entire schtick. And it’s insulting to assume that any one moment, any single memory, can so define them.

However, it is interesting that we don’t get to see Kirk’s most painful moment. What would it be? (Other than this movie, of course.) It could be something deep in his past that we’ve never seen or heard of before, but it also might have been skipped over because we’ve seen him face his worst moments already: the death of Spock, the loss of his ship, his dead son. Edith Keeler, perhaps?

I have no idea what we’re supposed to get out of this movie, and I’m not sure the filmmakers did either. It’s tough to say if it’s better for a film to have no plot or a bad plot—talk about a no-win scenario—but I think I would still take TFF over TMP, if only because stuff happens and there’s more characterization, even if some of it is wildly off the mark and there are scenes that make me groan. They’re both bad movies, but I can at least enjoy parts of TFF and I like some of the jokes. Plus, it’s shorter. Star Trek V suffers additionally from being sandwiched between parts IV and VI, but there’s some small comfort in knowing that the best is yet to come.

Maybe it’s better to just avoid TFF altogether, but as Kirk said, “I need my pain,” if only to appreciate the heights of the series even more. When you see how easy it is for a film to go wrong, even with promising material, it’s practically a miracle when they get it right.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3

Background Information

Star Trek V is pretty much universally acknowledged as the nadir of the franchise. Not only was it the absolute worst piece of garbage to ever bear the Star Trek logo, but it debuted right after the first season of TNG, which many fans already felt disillusioned and disappointed by. Even Roddenberry lamented its place in the canon, and the movie was both a financial and critical failure.

The stars sort of aligned to create this masterpiece of dreck. For one, it was in development during the 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike, so both pre-production and shooting wound up severely curtailed and the budget was extremely tight. Scenes often had only minutes instead of hours to set up. Extras were reused, so that the same guys run through the gates of Paradise  over and over again. Entire setpieces, like the corridors, were recycled from TNG, which was filming at the next door Paramount lot.

Two, the unbelievable success of Star Trek IV made the studios think that success was all about comedy, and demanded another comic masterpiece. The writers were asked to shoehorn in humor wherever possible, and make scenes sillier.

Three, Industrial Light and Magic wasn’t available for the effects (they made a much smarter choice and worked on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II), and the replacement company did a dreadful job. Everything looks noticeably tackier and unpolished. With only three months to complete the effects instead of the usual six, compositing was replaced with rear projection, which was faster, cheaper, and uglier. In fact, the climactic chase scene at the end was intended to be much longer and more involved, but the whole thing had to be axed because the effects looked that bad. Also left on the cutting room floor was a battle sequence in which Kirk fights animated rock monsters. They couldn’t afford six, but even just the one they got looked so god-awful they didn’t include it in the final cut of the movie.

Lastly, and perhaps the most telling weakness, was that William Shatner was involved creatively. His first draft of the story was called “An Act of Love” and it was essentially an indictment of televangelists, represented by Sybok. In the first version, Spock and McCoy both join Sybok against Kirk.  Nimoy absolutely refused to allow it–he said Spock would never turn on Kirk, not after what Kirk did for him in Star Trek III, and ultimately Kelley agreed. (Funny that they both turned on Kirk, eh?) Shatner wanted them to meet Satan instead of god at the center of the universe, but Roddenberry was vehemently opposed to this idea. Then Shatner wanted Eric Van Lustbader to do the screenplay but negotiations fell through when Lustbader’s fee ($1 million) was too rich for Paramount’s blood. He was at least able to entice Harve Bennett back to the franchise, but Bennett felt the script wasn’t adventurous enough and worried that moviegoers would be offended by the anti-religious message. The Satan figure was turned into a greedy alien instead, and everyone was pleased but Roddenberry, who felt the whole god search was a bad idea about to be done poorly. (He further objected to god being the Western Judeo-Christian god, constantly referred to as “he.”)

Once filming began, Shatner’s stubbornness as a director lead to a ballooning budget, a series of minor catastrophes, and some embarrassing gaffes. Set pieces became monstrously expensive: the bridge alone cost $250,000, while the city of Paradise cost half a million dollars. The teamsters, who drove the trucks, went on strike and non-union drivers were hired. In retaliation one production van full of camera equipment exploded, and the scabs had be escorted by police in the dead of night. The desert scenes were filmed at the Mojave desert, but the 110 degree heat led to extreme exhaustion and at one point a park ranger had to rescue a stranded crew. In one mistake, Kirk, McCoy, and Spock fly up on the turboshaft on rocket boots and the decks go up in number to 78. (The Enterprise only has 23 decks and they’re numbered in reverse, which production designer Hermann Zimmerman pointed out to the Shat, to no avail.)

By the end, the movie was over budget, looked awful, and ran at least 15 minutes too long. Bennett was tasked with cutting the film down (which Shatner resented), but test audiences still thought the movie was too long, and more scenes were cut, giving it a disjointed feel. It premiered with higher opening weekend numbers than even Star Trek IV, but those numbers quickly tanked and the movie was only in theaters for ten weeks.

The franchise seemed to be at an end. Harve Bennett tried to develop a prequel, but the studios eventually nixed it and agreed to do one last movie with the original cast.


Best Line: KIRK: What does God need with a starship?

Other Favorite Quotes: MCCOY (on Spock): I liked him better before he died!

MCCOY: “You’ll have a great time, Bones.” “You’ll enjoy your shore leave.” “You’ll be able to relax.” You call this relaxing? I’m a nervous wreck. If I’m not careful I might end up talking to myself.

Worst Lines: ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT…

McCOY: We were speculating … “Is God really out there?”
KIRK: Maybe he’s not out there, Bones. Maybe he’s right here … in the human heart.

Trivia: The god-alien is named Sha Ka Ree because they had hoped Sean Connery would play the part of Sybok. Lucky for Connery, he was busy filming Indiana Jones and the  Last Crusade.

One deleted scene involves Sulu and Chekov visiting Mt. Rushmore, which has added a black woman.

Levi’s jeans get a credit at the end because the trio wears them in the opening hiking scenes.

Nichelle Nichols is an accomplished singer and dancer, but her vocals during the fan dance were overdubbed. She was, as you may have guessed, not pleased.


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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.