I was tempted to buy the two-disc special-edition DVD of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier because I was interested in hearing the commentary track by William Shatner. I'd imagine a commentary track on this failed film would be illuminating, or at the very least interesting.
Ultimately, though, I decided against the DVD purchase (I already have a copy on VHS). In a capitalist society, we vote for consumer products by using our wallets, and Star Trek V is a movie that I must strongly vote against. Instead, I recently pulled out my VHS copy to revisit this film for the first time in many years. I can say with renewed confidence that this will indeed be the only Trek film that won't be making its way on to my DVD shelf. (After having just watched it, I won't need to watch it again for many more years, if ever. Besides, how can you face the clerk at the checkout line at Best Buy when you're buying Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? Kidding, kidding.)
Let me begin by saying that I like William Shatner. As an actor, I think he sometimes gets a bad rap. Yes, his acting choices are occasionally odd or campy or overshooting the mark, and you can point to it in places in the original series' run. But that's why we love the guy. Even when he's doing camp, he's doing camp entertainingly. Everybody remembers "KHAAAAAAAN!" from Star Trek II. It's a laughable moment, yes, but great. It seems, however, that many people are slower to recall that otherwise in Trek II Shatner delivered possibly his best performance, with grace and nuance. He is not a bad actor. He's just an actor who sometimes employs stylized acting.
But was he a competent director? I'm not sure I have enough information to say. I can say that in Star Trek V he made a pretty awful film, a failure on nearly every level, although a sizable percentage of the blame must also go to screenwriter David Loughery. This is easily the worst of the Trek films. It's a mess.
(Truth in criticism requires me to point out that my VHS edition is a 4:3 pan-and-scan presentation of what was a 2.35:1 widescreen film. I would typically call this a butchering of the film, but that would be overstatement in this case since The Final Frontier was ground chuck to begin with.)
Where to begin? How about the first hour of the movie? It's mostly just extended setup material — far too extended and aimless, if you ask me.
It opens on Nimbus III — a backward hellhole of a desert world that's perhaps too ironically dubbed "the planet of galactic peace" — where a Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill, reasonably cast) takes hostage the human, Klingon, and Romulan diplomats assigned there. But even the setup has its own setup; we first meet Sybok in a pre-title scene where he laughs, and the plot takes its time moving along to the point where Sybok takes his hostages.
The diplomats are cast in such a way they initially seem to be legitimate supporting characters. We have a human named John Talbot (David Warner); an obsolete Klingon general named Korrd (Charles Cooper); and the newly arrived Romulan representative, Caithlin Dar (Cynthia Gouw). Given the amount of dialog these characters have in the pre-crisis prelude, one would think they'd be developed significantly into the storyline. They aren't. Their purpose in the film is merely as a worthless scrap of plotting, as bait to lure a Federation rescue ship to Nimbus III, which Sybok intends to steal. The plot's goal of stealing a starship could've been accomplished in any number of vastly more time-economical and interesting ways than is done here.
To insert David Warner as this superfluous throwaway is unforgivable (and fortunately his role in Star Trek VI helps right this wrong). Charles Cooper is serviceable in an almost equally unnecessary part, while Cynthia Gouw is awful in a completely pointless role. These characters should've been either written as necessary pieces of the story, or cut completely. As it stands they are simply inexplicable afterthoughts, and exist as an indicator of the script's clunkiness.
Back on Earth, the crew of the Enterprise is on shore leave while the new Enterprise-A, still in space dock, provides Scotty with one example after another (far too many for those of us in the audience) of how Starfleet's assembly line must've been asleep at the controls when the ship was built. What we get here are a lot of pointless vignettes that try to offer up lightweight characterization but succeed only in being some of the worst so-called "comedy" moments in the history of the franchise.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are on a camping trip at Yosemite National Park, where Kirk fancies himself a free climber as he attempts to scale El Capitan Mountain. The rock-climbing bit strikes me as an especially implausible conceit. After the three previous Trek films that showed older and wiser characters as aging people, the message here seems to be that Star Trek V is a return to glib episodic immortality. Yes, there are a couple palatable ideas that counter this notion, like Kirk's line that he has always known "I'll die alone," and the issue of these career Starfleet guys who have no families. But then the payoff is the infamous "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" scene, which tries with all its misguided might to bring these guys down to earth but succeeds only in looking completely ridiculous. Only the fact that these actors have inhabited these roles for so long does this scene maintain the slightest trace of dignity, because this is simply poorly written, dead-end material.
The problem with most of the lame comedy in Star Trek V is its forced nature. The movie is like the anti-Star Trek IV. Where Trek IV was about well-oiled nuance where humor grew naturally from situations and character, the early scenes of Trek V are about painfully labored, in-your-face Three Stooges gags that clunk and clang to the floor. Among the most cringe-worthy is the awkward Scotty/Uhura innuendo, which seems to hint at a relationship in such a way the audience is left to decide for itself. It's such a needless and poorly played detour that the only possible response is one of befuddlement.
That's not to say there aren't a few good lines. Some of them work because they don't insist on themselves. For example, Kirk says, "I could use a shower." Spock replies, simply, "Yes." And I sort of got a kick out of Spock's line near the end: "Please, captain — not in front of the Klingons." But for every moment like this there are two like the one where Scotty hits his head on the bulkhead, har har.
The plot slowly tries getting off the ground when Starfleet orders Kirk to take the disaster-prone Enterprise — where nothing is working — to Nimbus III to rescue the hostages. The amount of illogic in Starfleet's decision is beyond comprehension; apparently there's no one so qualified as the Great Jim Kirk, so Starfleet dispatches a starship that's not only almost nonfunctional, but docked in orbit at Earth. (Surely there's someone closer than a ship docked at Earth.) This contrived situation is of course something we must grant to get our characters into the action, but considering the only reason to have the Enterprise docked at Earth in the first place is for the sake of the lame setup material — well, what's the point?
Adding to the mess of the choppy storyline is a thread involving a Klingon Bird of Prey commanded by Captain Klaa (Todd Byrant), which immediately signals itself as being on an obvious collision course with the Enterprise. The Klingons are naturally the TOS era's default villains, but here they're mostly extraneous. It doesn't help that Klaa is a boring young hothead with so little believable motivation. His only purpose in life is apparently to go into battle against Kirk. His shallow immaturity only weakens the character to that of an obviously lesser opponent. There's no teeth to the part, and no point.
When the Enterprise reaches Nimbus III to rescue the hostages, we get some blandly routine action sequences in a production that's envisioned as a Western. The visual effects throughout the film are easily the worst in the entire feature series. Many of the other Trek films' visuals were produced by Lucasfilm's ILM. Not this one, which was supervised by Bran Ferren, who, based on the results here, apparently had no grasp of motion-control photography of miniatures. Few of the visual effects are convincing, and many are laughable.
Still, none of that compares to the film's worst character indignity, which is to put poor Uhura on center stage in a partially nude dance routine that's a jaw-dropping embarrassment. Do we really want to see our vaunted Starfleet officers reduced to this sort of wretched punch line?
Finally we get to a point where the movie should've arrived much sooner, when Kirk & Co. are captured by Sybok. There's the revelation that Sybok is Spock's half brother, but that's ultimately of so little consequence that I'm only devoting this one sentence to the matter. Sybok announces his intention to take the Enterprise through the Great Barrier, which surrounds the center of the galaxy. According to myth, the planet Sha Ka Ree (that's the Vulcan name for it) lies beyond the Barrier. No ship has ever breached the Barrier, and no probe has ever returned. Sha Ka Ree is alleged by some as the origin of all life, where God Himself may exist. We'll get to the God question in a moment.
Sybok is able to brainwash the crew of the Enterprise into following him on this mission by using his unique power to sense and release others' worst emotional pain. How this power works is unclear, and the manner in which he converts the crew to willing denizens is muddled and too convenient.
But I must also praise the film where praise is due. There is a good scene where Sybok uses his power to look into the souls of McCoy and Spock. McCoy in particular lives with an awful moment that has long haunted him (and relives it here in the film's single best-played dramatic scene). Spock's pain, somewhat less plausible as presented (Sarek seems awfully cold; would this Vulcan have married a human woman in the first place?), centers on his half-human nature and hearkens back to the core of the character. And Kirk's response to Sybok is very true to his character: "I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!" Vintage Kirk.
There's also a little bit of interest to find in the journey through the Great Barrier, which is presented as a landmark moment. Jerry Goldsmith's score sells it, and McCoy asks in disbelief, "Are we dreaming?" Kirk responds, "If we are, then life is a dream."
The moment loses its luster, though, when you consider the shoddy special effects. And more importantly the obvious question: If the Barrier is indeed only an illusion of danger, and yet has long been believed as a possible gateway to the answer to the ultimate cosmic question, why has no one tried going through it before? Planet Sha Ka Ree itself is a disappointment, looking roughly like the same desert locations used for Nimbus III, except as seen through a magenta image filter.
Finally comes the film's climactic moment when we meet "God." It seems to me that this moment is the very definition of an inescapable narrative catch-22 — particularly for Star Trek. You simply must ask yourself, how can Star Trek presume to actually find God? The answer is, simply, it can't, and deep down we know that. Star Trek is about exploring space and the human condition, and the moment the exploration of either of those things actually finds God in a tangible physical form is the moment when Star Trek has jumped the rails beyond the scope of its parameters and announced its journey as over.
The flip side of the coin is that if you don't find God here, what do you find instead? The answer is that you must find an inevitable disappointment, because there's virtually nothing you can do that will pay off that promise once you've set it up.
Given that catch-22, this film obviously opts to find the inevitable disappointment, and delivers it disappointingly. What we're dealing with is something masquerading as God, and in a hopelessly hokey and unimaginative way, to boot: "Brave souls — welcome!" rumbles the basso profundo voice. A face appears and I'm thinking of The Wizard of Oz. "God" is soon revealed as merely an aggressive entity that wants to use the Enterprise to escape its prison of a planet. ("What does God need with a starship?" Kirk asks, not unreasonably. Big mistake, 'cause you made it mad.)
The story gives no explanations for where this entity came from, why it is trapped here, how it knows certain things about the visitors that now stand before it, why it is surrounded by the Great Barrier, or why with all its powers it needs a starship to escape. The ensuing threats and showdowns, the silliness with the Klingons showing up and opening fire on the Enterprise, "God's" frankly pathetic pursuit of Kirk, etc. — it's appallingly weak. Only in this movie can a sequence begin by pretending to have found God, and end with a Klingon cannon blowing "God" up.
I welcome any intelligent attempt to consider questions of religion alongside science fiction. But The Final Frontier hopelessly bungles that attempt. Was its particular premise even workable? Probably not. The ending almost seems to acknowledge this, with Kirk saying that perhaps God isn't out there in space, but simply within the human heart.
If you want a superior film that tells a story with religion and sci-fi in a real-world setting, I highly recommend Contact (1997), which addressed these questions in probably the only truly plausible way possible — by saying that answers lie within personal beliefs that can't be proven. (As an agnostic, my own feeling is that the existence of God, or whatever made the universe and passage of time possible, is not something that can be comprehended in this lifetime.)
Regardless of theological background/belief (or lack thereof), it's hard to imagine anyone walking away satisfied with The Final Frontier. It employs labored storytelling, an inconsistent tone, half-sketched characters, and unfocused plotting to arrive at a thin conclusion to a misguided premise. Since William Shatner was the one sitting in the captain's chair when this ship hit the rocks, I suppose the blame lies with him.
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