Director: William Shatner
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Laurence Luckinbill
Runtime: 106 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Following in the footsteps of Leonard Nimoy, who directed The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home with surprising depth and narrative finesse, William Shatner placed his bid on the fifth film in the Star Trek franchise, insisting on a story of his own just as his costar had done. Beyond some episodes of his hero cop series T.J. Hooker, Shatner was entirely inexperienced behind the camera, and production reports claim he played the “appease the star” card to earn his director’s chair. Working from his own scenario, Shatner captained the worst film in the ongoing series.
The basic concept for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has merits, so no one can accuse Paramount executives of knowing far in advance that Shatner’s efforts would bring the franchise close to ruin. The studio is guilty, however, of rushing the sequel into production, so as not to lose momentum after the previous picture, released three years prior. But then there’s the sloppy script, the unrelentingly hammy dialogue, and the aimless conflict that should have been resolved in the writing phase.
The story begins with the Enterprise crew on shore leave in Yosemite National Park, where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy camp their space troubles away. There’s nothing more un-Star Trek than Spock eating baked beans and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Unending chummy conversation propels the first twenty minutes, until the crew is called to save some hostages on the desert planet of Nimbus III, held captive by—gulp!—an emotion-crazed Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill).
Questions: Why is the Enterprise always the nearest starship to these galactic troubles? There’s never another ship in the quadrant to help out, which leads me to believe that whoever oversees space coverage at Starfleet isn’t doing their job. And the Enterprise never seems ready for space travel; it’s always running in a state of disrepair with only a skeleton crew, giving Scotty a mild heart attack in the process. And we always hear about the second-tier planets like Nimbus III or Daled IV. Whatever happened to just plain-old Nimbus? Why doesn’t anyone visit that planet? Spanning countless languages across the galaxy, there must be enough proper and improper nouns to make sure planets don’t get stuck with a numerical signifier, even if we have to start naming planets after random objects like Kitten or Snowshoe.
Anyway, Sybok kidnaps a group of dignitaries and demands the ransom of a starship. Once onboard, he brainwashes the Enterprise crew, making them “believers” by taking away their psychic pain. He reduces everyone to sappy joy drones except Kirk and Spock (who else?), who ignore or rely on their pain for strength. McCoy stays with them because that’s what the audience wants. With Kirk and Spock and McCoy thrown in the brig, Sybok’s plan is to fly the Enterprise into The Great Barrier, the edge of the known galaxy where no one has gone before. Meanwhile, a Kirk-hating Klingon ship hunting the Enterprise plots an attack.
Five minutes later they’ve reached The Great Barrier. There they find an entity on a rocky planet posing as various gods throughout the universe. Sybok believes it to be the Vulcan god of emotions; McCoy believes it’s Yahweh. The being demands a ride out of The Great Barrier on the Enterprise, but Kirk rightfully questions why God would need a starship. This angers God, who zaps Kirk with electro-eye-rays. So Kirk beams onto an approaching Klingon ship and blasts God into oblivion. End of story.
More questions: The center of the galaxy doesn’t sound very impressive, not when considering the hundreds of billions of galaxies out there, each unique, across a much larger universe. So why, if The Great Barrier is such an unexplored frontier, does it only take the Enterprise five minutes of screen time on warp drive to reach there? This certainly wasn’t the space equivalent to the Oregon Trail—it was hardly a challenge. Also, are the filmmakers suggesting that God is just an alien being, a now photon-torpedoed alien being? How did this ersatz god-being put himself into the mind of Sybok without leaving The Great Barrier? And Kirk killed God... Are you kidding me?
Beyond the stupidity of how the story plays out, finding God at the edge of the universe (ahem, galaxy) has been a reoccurring science-fiction narrative, explored in material best left not to Shatner but authors like Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke. Indeed, The Motion Picture dealt with similar themes, where the Enterprise crew investigates a wondrous unknown only to discover the answer is something simple and sorta unimpressive. Any sense of philosophical examination to elevate the subject is forgone for special effects, and shoddy ones at that.
There’s no conflict here. No stakes set. Sure, the Klingons pose a minor concern, but what Klingon has ever gotten the jump on James Tiberius Kirk? And then there’s the religious nut who takes hostages to prove his faith. Shatner said he wanted Sybok to encompass a cultist or televangelist, healing through the power of his quack-like skill, driven by his own conviction. But with Sybok at the center of the film’s conflict, the story delves into theoretical territory more suited for a so-so episode of the television series than a feature film.
The Final Frontier was the second lowest box-office earner for the franchise to date, making a trifle more than 2002’s disappointing Nemesis. Being a prime example of a studio so desperate to retain its money-making product that it rushes, the production was clearly more about getting the film out than its quality. Certainly the worst film to come from the Star Trek-verse, even Gene Roddenberry panned the end result. At least upon the film’s release in 1989, Trekkies could fall back on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But revisiting the series in sequence, the promise of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country lightens the empty feeling left by Shatner’s misdirected little disaster.
More from this series:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)