And it was all going so well.
I must admit, when I first saw Star Trek V: The Final Frontier on opening night, June 9, 1989, I enjoyed it. It was exactly what I needed at the time.
The day before, I had lost my summer job, which was going to help me pay for my next semester of college. I was pretty distraught, feeling lost and uncertain about my future. (I didn’t know at the time that I’d soon land another summer gig that actually paid a lot better!) So it was a blessing to be able to go out the next night with my friends Nick Guarracino and Mike Marshall, and lose myself in the latest cinematic adventure of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and the rest of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
The hype for Star Trek V began in 1986, just as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was being released. During interviews in which he was supposed to be promoting Star Trek IV, William Shatner proudly proclaimed that he was set to direct the next one—much to the chagrin, reportedly, of Paramount execs, who quite understandably wanted the focus to be on the movie that was actually coming out at the time. Shatner scored the directing gig thanks to a “favored nations” clause in his contract—any perk that Leonard Nimoy got, Shatner would get, and vice versa. So when Nimoy was given the opportunity to direct, Shatner felt that he should get the same. To keep the star of the franchise happy (especially since he had already threatened not to come back for The Voyage Home), Paramount relented and agreed to let Shatner run the show on movie number five.
I had high hopes for the film all along. Harve Bennett was still onboard as producer and co-writer, so how bad it could it turn out? But even moreso, I felt that William Shatner had to know that he had a lot to prove. For one thing, he was a first-time director. For another, his longtime co-star/rival Nimoy had just directed the previous two films, the most recent of which had become the most successful one in the series. The bar was set pretty high. And there was another thing to take into account: Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite a pretty lousy first season, actually proved to have staying power, and was entering its second year. A whole new cast of characters was starting to win over audiences and enter the public consciousness. The classic Star Trek crew now had some serious competition. It was up to Shatner to give audiences a good reason to go out to the movie theaters and fork over their money to see the old gang in action again.
And apparently, audiences did want to see them again. An important fact that’s been forgotten over the years is that Star Trek V had the biggest opening weekend in the history of the series up to that point. Audience attendance dropped significantly the following weekend, once word of mouth got around, and it never bounced back. So yeah, it’s pretty clear that there was still interest in the original crew—but only if they were in a really good movie.
I felt my faith in Shatner was justified when, six months before Star Trek V came out, I saw the trailer for it when I went to see Major League with some of my college friends. Based on that trailer, the film seemed like it was going to be a sweeping, fast-paced, exciting adventure, with a dynamic, mysterious, formidable antagonist and a journey into some genuinely new territory. I was absolutely convinced that Star Trek V would be one of the very best in the series. I've since made it a point to never get too excited or enthusiastic about any movie based on the trailer.
But like I said, I did enjoy Star Trek V the first time I saw it. It made me forget my troubles for a couple of hours, and it was like a pleasant visit with some old and dear friends. But even back then, I also felt it had some major shortcomings. First and foremost, there was a distinct lack of drama, or any real sense of jeopardy. Not once did I ever worry about the fate of any of the regular cast members. Plus, it was never clear exactly what was at stake in the story. Sybok, the main antagonist, wasn’t an insane murderer like Khan, or a nihilistic warrior like Kruge. So the crew never seemed like they were in any real danger. And the Klingons? They were pretty much a joke this time around, their appearance obligatory at best. I distinctly remember walking out of the theater after it was over and Nick commenting, “It was a skeleton of a movie. The script needed a few more drafts.” At the time, I was more forgiving.
But upon subsequent viewings, the film’s weaknesses, flaws, mistakes, etc., just became more and more obvious, far more difficult for me to ignore and excuse. (The Enterprise has how many decks? What about the other brother Kirk lost—namely, his real one?)
Having just now watched the film again for the first time in a long time, I can report that I don’t think it’s a complete disaster. It’s certainly watchable, and not nearly as awful as its reputation suggests. But I don’t think it’s particularly good. It’s basically the movie equivalent of one of the weaker, sloppier third-season episodes of the original TV series. The bottom line is that it’s a deeply flawed movie made by an ambitious but inexperienced director who tried hard to do something special and different and to make a relevant statement, but he didn’t quite have the tools or the abilities to pull off what he set out to accomplish.
My eight-year-old daughter Maddie didn’t know any of this going in, of course, and she was very much looking forward to seeing Star Trek V. And who could blame her? After The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home, it’s understandable that Maddie would be expecting something in the same league. Boy, was I ever interested in getting her opinions on this one!
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
The new U.S.S. Enterprise—NCC-1701-A—has turned out to be a lemon. As it undergoes extensive repairs in the spacedock orbiting Earth, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy are on shore leave together in Yosemite National Park, where Kirk tries to free-climb El Capitan and nearly dies from a fall. Meanwhile, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok appears on the planet Nimbus III, located in the Romulan Neutral Zone and established years ago as a world that the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans would try to develop together in the spirit of peace and cooperation. Sybok and his ragtag band of followers seize the main city. They take the Federation, Klingon, and Romulan representatives hostage as a means to aid Sybok in his mysterious quest—for which he needs a starship. Starfleet orders the Enterprise back into service, with a skeleton crew aboard, to deal with the situation. Arriving at Nimbus III, Kirk and a landing party try to free the hostages, only to discover that they’ve gone over to Sybok’s side. Sybok then manages to take control of the Enterprise, with Spock refusing to lift a finger against him—in direct defiance of Kirk’s orders. Kirk and McCoy soon discover why: Sybok is actually Spock’s long-lost, never-before-discussed half-brother. With his unprecedented mental powers, Sybok manipulates most of the crew to join him in his quest. Elsewhere, a Klingon bird-of-prey commanded by Klaa, a young and ambitious officer looking to make a name for himself, discovers the location of the Enterprise and sets out to intercept the Federation vessel. Klaa believes that if he can defeat the infamous James Kirk, the Klingon Empire’s longtime nemesis, he would be considered the greatest warrior in the galaxy. Meanwhile, Sybok puts the Enterprise on a direct course to the center of the galaxy, beyond the Great Barrier—a vast, immensely powerful energy field that is believed to be impenetrable. There, based on visions he’s had for most of his life, Sybok is convinced that he will find the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree. And that God awaits his arrival…
Well, that’s certainly a departure from the previous films. In fact, The Final Frontier is the first completely self-contained, stand-alone Star Trek movie since The Motion Picture. Looking over the synopsis above, you can see just how much Shatner and company tried to cram into this movie. There are a lot of ideas with potential, a lot of interesting elements, but overall, they don’t mesh together cohesively.
For one thing, the Klingon subplot feels completely tacked on, and the film would have suffered not one bit from its exclusion. It completely fails to live up to the promise of the plot thread introduced in The Voyage Home—the position of the Klingon Empire that there will be no peace as long as James T. Kirk remains alive. But really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The overall concept for the movie—a literal quest to find God—was certainly daring, but it was also doomed from the start, because it could be never resolved in a satisfying manner. If the Enterprise crew did indeed find “God,” how would this entity be presented without significant portions of the audience being offended because their beliefs (or lack thereof) weren’t being taken into account?
In fact, they were never really going to find God at all. In Shatner’s original story outline, Kirk and crew were going to encounter an entity who at first seemed to be God, but turned out to be none other than Satan. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would find themselves having to escape from Hell itself. In the end, they would acknowledge that the existence of Satan implies that God is indeed out there somewhere, and that finding Him (or Her) would be the true final frontier.
But even featuring Satan was deemed out-of-bounds for Star Trek—particularly by Gene Roddenberry, who wanted the series to steer clear of religion and vehemently opposed this story. Roddenberry used his official position as Executive Consultant to ensure that substantial changes would be made. Both he and Harve Bennett felt strongly that the film should not try to present the actual Satan—and both men urged Shatner to have the entity turn out to be an alien creature trying to pass itself off as both God and the Devil. Shatner complied.
Personally, I would have gone even further and suggested to Shatner that the alien turn out to be the original inspiration for the popular concept of Satan. It would be a powerful, malevolent, seemingly supernatural being that had perhaps been on Earth long ago and exerted some negative influence on humankind for a time, but ultimately became imprisoned at the center of the galaxy by a Higher Power. This would have kept the story close to Shatner’s original vision, but also addressed the valid concerns of Roddenberry and Bennett. Hell, Star Trek had covered this sort of ground before—and in The Animated Series, of all places! In the episode “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” Kirk and crew meet Lucien, a half-man, half-goat creature with seemingly magical powers, who was apparently the source of Earth’s myths and legends about Lucifer.
Sure, to play this card again would have been derivative (particularly to anyone who remembered that animated episode), but it would have been in keeping with the history of the series (which had also included an encounter with the actual Greek god Apollo), and it certainly would have given the entity of Sha Ka Ree a bit more oomph and characterization.
Speaking of derivative, I mentioned in a previous blog entry that The Final Frontier is basically a remake of—and not much of an improvement upon—one of the very worst episodes of the original series, “The Way to Eden.” I wonder if Shatner, Bennett, Roddenberry, etc., ever picked up on that.
What do I address next? Well, there’s the humor in the film—or, more accurately, the attempts at humor.
Given the great success of Star Trek IV, and the recognition that its more comedic nature was probably a major reason for that success, Paramount wanted Star Trek V to follow suit and be as lighthearted and as funny as possible. Either Shatner and Bennett should have resisted, or they should have found more appropriate places in the script for the funny parts. By shoehorning in goofy comedy bits, they undercut the tone they were trying to establish. As I recall, Shatner admitted as much shortly after the film came out. Maybe Shatner, as a first-time director, didn’t have the clout to stand up to the studio execs, but Bennett, having just produced three consecutive hit movies for the studio, presumably did.
And if you’re going to do humor, make sure it’s funny! It’s bad enough that Sulu and Chekov, the helmsman and navigator, respectively, of a galaxy-spanning starship, get lost in the woods on Earth. But to have them pretend to be caught in a snowstorm in order to fool Uhura—who’s able to pinpoint their exact location and determine the weather conditions there—is just plain weak.
And then there’s the infamous scene with Scotty banging his head on a low-hanging bulkhead and knocking himself out. Just before that, Scotty had broken Kirk, Spock, and McCoy out of the brig. In a secluded corridor, Kirk tells Scotty, “You’re amazing!” and takes off with Spock and McCoy to find a way to defeat Sybok. Scotty starts walking the other way and mutters to himself, “Nothing amazing about it. I know this ship like the back of my hand.” And then he proceeds to bang his head right into the bulkhead and go down like a sack of potatoes. Cheap laugh. Very cheap.
As the director, Shatner should have been trying to serve all of the characters well, not just the one he was playing. And Harve Bennett, who had a crucial role in scripting all three of the previous movies and having acquitted himself quite well—what was he thinking?
The thing is, with just a little more thought and effort, this moment actually could have worked. Remember, Kirk and crew are on a new Enterprise—much like the original, but not exactly. When Kirk says, “Mr. Scott, you’re amazing!” and rushes off, Scotty could have started walking forward, but kept looking behind him, calling out after the captain, “Nothing amazing about it, sir! I already know this new Enterprise like the back of my hand!” Then he finally starts to turn his head forward, but too late to avoid the bulkhead and then we still get the bonk and the whump. (I’m ashamed to admit how many times something like this has happened to me.) It still doesn’t show Scotty in a particularly flattering light, but it at least makes the bit more palatable.
And this problem isn’t just with the supporting characters. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”—need I say any more? And since when are Spock and McCoy two eccentric goofballs who keep trying Kirk’s patience and screwing things up for him? For example, it’s Spock’s fault that Kirk falls off the side of El Capitan. Later, when Spock and McCoy re-enact the “goodnight, John-Boy” bit that used to end each episode of The Waltons, Kirk mutters to himself, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” And then there’s the scene in the brig, when Kirk describes Spock as someone with “an unerring capacity for getting his shipmates into trouble.” That just doesn’t sound like an accurate description of Spock to me. Nor can I see Kirk ever describing Spock that way.
I think back to how mature and dignified all of the regular characters came off in the previous movies, especially in The Wrath of Khan, and it’s hard to reconcile that with how they’re portrayed in The Final Frontier. They’re goofy in Star Trek V. They’re silly. They’re screw-ups. They come dangerously close to being cartoonish.
Incidentally, I wasn’t offended by Uhura’s naked fan dance, something that’s also gotten a lot of criticism. Sure, it came about 20 years too late, but given the context of the scene, I felt it worked well enough. The dance was meant to distract Sybok’s followers in the middle of the night. None of those guys seemed like they had been near a woman in a long time, and I can’t imagine that they would be too picky when it came to checking out a naked lady dancing in the middle of nowhere. And with Uhura being the only female in the landing party, well…
As for the strongly implied romance between Uhura and Scotty—why not? Sure, it seemed to come out of nowhere, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Another problem is that the film lacks a strong central antagonist. Sybok is intense and misguided, but his motives are not really evil or malevolent and he proves to be not a true threat—or even a particularly challenging opponent. In fact, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is really about Sybok’s quest to find the Ultimate Knowledge, with the crewmembers of the Enterprise just along for the ride. The final outcome of the quest has no real impact on our heroes personally, or their lives going forward. And that even goes for Spock, Sybok’s half-brother, which just goes to show you how ill-conceived a character Sybok is. In fact, Sybok was not originally created to be Spock’s long-lost half-brother. He was retrofitted into that because Shatner, Bennett, and their screenwriter, David Loughery, couldn’t come up with another plausible reason for why Spock wouldn’t shoot Sybok when Kirk ordered him to.
While there’s nothing in the canon specifically stating that Ambassador Sarek could not have been married before Amanda and fathered a child with this first wife, it’s really a stretch to shoehorn all this backstory in, out of the blue. It isn’t convincing, and it comes off as nothing more than the convenient plot point that it is.
Still, it must be noted that Laurence Luckinbill turns in a damn fine performance as Sybok and is one of the film’s real strengths. The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for the role, but he was already committed to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Instead of going for another big-name actor, they chose to cast someone who was simply right for the part, and on that front, I’d say they chose wisely. Luckinbill seemed to relish playing the character. I was impressed by his performance the first time I saw it and I remain so to this day.
Which brings me to the rest of the cast.
Leonard Nimoy is certainly in there trying, and making a valiant effort to deliver for director Shatner. But the script just doesn’t give him strong material to work with. Spock is downright ineffective in this movie. He’s used as little more than a prop. You’d think that having the main antagonist turn out to be a long-lost member of Spock’s immediate family would mean plenty of character stuff for him, and some deeper exploration of his rich background. But that’s not the case. The details surrounding this big revelation are glossed over, rushed through, and woefully underdeveloped.
What I found—and continue to find—particularly appalling is that there is not one single scene in which Spock and Sybok are alone, just the two of them, interacting with each other, trying to relate to one another again after so many decades apart. The entire time that Sybok is in control of the Enterprise, it never occurs to him to separate Spock from Kirk and McCoy and try to appeal to Spock by playing upon their shared history, their familial bond, whatever emotional connection they once had as half-brothers? What would be the character dynamics between them in such a scene? What would they say to each other privately, how would they try to win each other over? What more could we learn about them through this conversation? But we never get to see any of that. Was Shatner so insecure that he couldn’t stand the thought of a big, dramatic, powerful scene that didn’t include face time for him? Or was it just lazy, thoughtless screenwriting? It’s more than 20 years later, and I’m still wondering.
If anyone comes close to being well served by the screenplay, it’s DeForest Kelley. We actually learn something new and intriguing about McCoy’s background, and it gives Kelley a chance to stretch his acting muscles more than usual and to show a more vulnerable and tragic side of his character. However, the big revelation about McCoy’s past doesn’t really go anywhere—it doesn’t play in to any major character arc for him, it’s just kind of dropped into the story and once the moment has passed, he moves on. Needless to say, Kelley performs the material wonderfully. He manages to maintain his dignity throughout the entire movie.
Despite the fact that little thought or care seems to have been given to their characters, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols all do they best they can with what they’re given.
Which brings me to William Shatner. Looking over his career as a whole, it’s clear that Shatner needs a strong director to reign him in. William Shatner is not that director. Nicholas Meyer was. Leonard Nimoy was. When he’s reigned in, when his performances are guided and managed by a good director who can exert some control over him and not simply allow him to run wild, Shatner can be brilliant. He did some of his best acting work ever in the previous three Star Trek films. But when he’s not reigned in, his performances tend to be hammy—overblown, overdramatic, and overly stylized. He ends up providing fodder for everyone who lampoons him. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier features Shatner’s least effective performance as Kirk in any of the movies, because with himself as director, he’s off the leash as an actor. It’s not a terrible performance, but it hardly ranks among his best. He looks great though—he really got himself into shape for this one.
Speaking of looking great, how about those special effects? Oh wait—they’re not up to snuff either. In fact, they’re a shocking comedown from what we’d seen in the previous four movies. My understanding is that Industrial Light and Magic, which had done the effects for the Star Trek movies starting with The Wrath of Khan, already had solid commitments to other projects. ILM’s A-level guys were busy working on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II, and Star Trek V would have been assigned to their B-or-C-level guys. Shatner and Bennett chose to go elsewhere, and ended up giving the job to Bran Ferren. But I have to imagine that even ILM’S B-or-C-level guys would have done a better job than what Ferren turned in. And Ferren was no slouch, either! He had an impressive track record even by 1989 and went on to an even more successful career and an executive position at Disney. He was either in over his head on Star Trek V, or he was hacking.
Shatner does deserve some praise, though. First and foremost, he brought back composer Jerry Goldsmith to create the music. It put a big smile on my face to hear the main theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture associated with the original crew again, along with a new arrangement of the iconic Klingon theme. (The main theme had actually been adopted by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and had become so associated with that show by 1989 that a lot of people who went to see The Final Frontier were confused when that music played under its opening credits. In fact, I remember one movie reviewer stating that Star Trek V was so creatively bankrupt that it even stole the theme music from The Next Generation in a desperate attempt to somehow attach itself to its far better younger sibling and therefore latch on to its growing success. I felt like writing to this reviewer, “If you’re going to make an accusation like that, at least know what you’re talking about.”) Goldsmith’s score, from start to finish, is absolutely great, and it’s probably the very best thing about the film.
It should also be acknowledged that Shatner’s film goes the farthest in terms of focusing on and exploring the strong bond between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, recalling such original-series episodes as “Amok Time,” “The Empath,” “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” and “All Our Yesterdays.” In doing so, Shatner occasionally veers into dopiness and lame humor, but there are also some genuinely warm and touching moments.
And as I noted above, and as I’ve felt since I saw the film on opening night, Shatner deserves credit for trying to avoid simply continuing in the same direction of the previous three films. He tried to break some new ground and to touch upon some of the big, substantial issues of our world, as Star Trek had done many times during the TV series. He tried to establish a different tone, a different look, and bring back some of the adventure and the get-dirt-under-your-fingernails action. But he and his team were simply not up to the task.
The Final Frontier nearly killed the movie series and it marked the end of Harve Bennett’s long association with Star Trek. An unfazed Shatner reportedly lobbied to direct Star Trek VI, using the rationale that Nimoy got to direct two films. But Paramount wouldn’t hear of it after the box-office performance of the fifth movie. My understanding is that Shatner also put forth a pitch for Star Trek VII (before it became a Next Generation film). He was once again rebuffed by Paramount, after which he apparently took his story idea and turned it into the truly excellent 1995 Star Trek novel The Ashes of Eden, which he co-wrote with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. It’s really a shame that Shatner didn’t have the story for The Ashes of Eden in his head when he was developing Star Trek V—I think it would have been a terrific movie, one of the very best in the series, and a big success that probably would have kept the original cast’s big-screen adventures going for a little while longer.
And now it’s time for Maddie to weigh in…
MADDIE: “I thought it was good, I liked it. You get to find out that Spock has a half-brother!
“At the beginning, I thought Sybok was really weird and freaky. I liked how everyone in the movie thought that Sybok was a weird person. But then he started to be proven right about everything, because they could make it through the Great Barrier and there was a planet there. I figured Sybok would find something on the planet, but I never thought it was going to be God. (NOTE FROM GLENN: When Sybok revealed his vision that God awaited him on the planet, Maddie responded with, “Yeah, right!”)
“It would be lame for God to really be there on that planet. God’s not a person—you can’t just go out and find him. You can’t just go visit him! Maybe it’s like what Kirk says at the end—God’s in the human heart.
“I didn’t really like Sybok. If he wanted something, he just had to get it. He almost beat up Kirk and then he put him in the brig. He would let nothing block him from getting what he wants. Stealing a starship is wrong.
“It was very weird that Sybok was Spock’s half-brother—they look nothing alike! And Spock never mentioned him before! This is the first time he’s telling his two best friends that he has a half-brother? They knew each other for like 30 years and all that time, he never told them?
“I thought the movie was hard to follow at times. It wasn’t very well balanced. Things weren’t always explained that well—like how Sybok got all those people to follow him. But it was never boring—there was always something going on. There was a lot of action.
“Kirk was funnier in this one than any of the others. I thought it was very funny when he was in the brig and Spock told him who Sybok was and Kirk said, ‘I gotta sit down’ and the little seat slid out of the wall.
“I thought Spock was a little funny in this one. He was just sitting there when Kirk and McCoy were singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ and I liked when he was talking about what to do when you’re camping out, like toasting marshmallows and singalongs. But Spock didn’t do the right thing when he didn’t pull the trigger on Sybok. He ignored an order from Kirk! But I understand—he’d be killing his half-brother. But his half-brother’s a madman!
“I thought it was depressing to see Spock’s birth. Sarek is handed baby Spock and he says, ‘So human.’ The baby had pointed ears, what more did Sarek want?
“I thought it was weird when Kirk said to Spock that he lost a brother once but got him back, because we saw Kirk lose his brother Sam in one of the TV episodes. I didn’t really understand what he meant.
“As usual, McCoy was the funniest. I definitely got enough McCoy in this one—he’s like in every single scene! In this movie in particular, whenever I saw McCoy it put a smile on my face. He was closer to Kirk and Spock in this one—he was with them in like every scene and I liked how he had his own personal little scene with his father. It was very touching to see McCoy with his father and the act of him being with his father and telling his father that he was there for him and wanting to stop the pain.
“When Scotty banged his head, I thought it was kind of awkward. He was going the right way, just walking, and then all of a sudden, he bangs his head and knocks himself out!
“Are Uhura and Scotty together now? I found it weird. Scotty is way older than Uhura. And what happened to Uhura’s hair? It was so different—all swiveled up and gray! I don’t like it.
“It was funny when Sybok’s men came out to see Uhura dancing. At first, I thought it was going to turn out to be Spock dancing!
“There definitely wasn’t enough Sulu and Chekov in this one. I liked when Chekov pretended to be the captain of the Enterprise, but Sulu didn’t have much to do.
“I liked the new Enterprise. I liked how it looked. The new bridge looked very nice. It was very funny that everything on the ship was broken. And I liked when Kirk said, ‘I miss my old chair.’
“I really liked how the Klingons were used in this one. It was definitely a good way to pick up on the line from Star Trek IV about there being no peace while Kirk lives. I liked how the Klingon captain wanted action, and he went after Kirk to defeat him in battle. I liked how the old Klingon guy had the Klingon captain apologize to Kirk! And I like the Klingon language.
“The Romulans weren’t really in this. There was just that one woman and she only had like two lines!
“I thought the special effects were very good, very well done.
“They brought back the music from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I really liked the music in that one, so I really liked the music here.
“This one ties with The Voyage Home. I don’t think it’s better than The Wrath of Khan or The Search for Spock, but it’s better than The Motion Picture.”
COMING SOON: The end of an era…
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2011.