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Movie Trek 5: We're On a Mission From God

by Daniel Tessier 5 months ago in star trek

Is The Final Frontier really so bad?

"Did I direct that?"

Back on the Star Trek movie watch-a-thon (or, at least, back to having time to write it up), we reach Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, popularly considered the worst of the Trek films. To be fair, in most technical respects, it's terribly weak. William Shatner, taking his contractually-guaranteed turn as director, is not as dynamic as Leonard Nimoy or Nicholas Meyer. The effects are below the standards of any of the films that came before; the second to fourth film had Industrial Light and Magic doing the effects, but everyone at the effects house were busy working on Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Bran Ferren came in to do the effects, on a ridiculously short turnaround, and it's not like his work is bad – he and his people had previously done Little Shop of Horrors and Altered States – it does mean the fifth film looks like it was older than the previous three. The Enterprise model had been damaged from overuse and touring.

Some fans elect to ignore The Final Frontier because Gene Roddenberry declared it “apocryphal.” He even tried to sue Shatner for making the thing, which got nowhere. By this stage, Roddenberry had long been kicked off the Trek films, receiving an Executive Consultant credit as a courtesy, so it frankly didn't matter whether he thought the film counted or not. Of course, he might have been angry about the apparent lift of his own script, The God Thing, which he proposed as the first Trek film way back in 1975. Even then, Shatner's script owes just as much to “The Way to Eden,” by Michael Richards and Arthur Heinemann. This is, frankly, one of the very worst episodes of the original Star Trek, indeed of the franchise as a whole. Hardly the most auspicious storyline to lift from.

To make things worse on the script front, the film was hit by the infamous Writers' Guild Strike that also threatened to scupper Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season. The script is pretty muddled as a result, and the climactic finale scenes were cut down due to budgetary concerns. The film was released during “the Summer of Sequels,” up against the two films that had poached the ILM team, plus Tim Burton's Batman, and couldn't compete with them. Being the first Trek film to release while the franchise was on TV probably didn't help either. Although TNG's second season had a lot of duff episodes, “Q, Who” had aired just a month earlier and blown everyone away with the introduction of the Borg, and viewers were enthusiastically getting behind the new crew. Critics savaged the film, and it's gone down in history as the biggest clunker of the franchise.

"I liked him better before he died."

So, yes. It's a crap film. But it's one of my favourite crap films (tied only with that undisputed 1993 classic, Super Mario Bros). I find The Final Frontier endlessly entertaining, a lovely slice of comfort Trek. And there are some honestly good things to say about it. Shatner's direction might not have the flare of his predecessors, but one thing he can do is vistas. The camera drinks in Yosemite in the early scenes, the desert of Nimbus Three is truly desolate, and one thing Shatner has understood is that this is now the video age: he films scenes with both the wide and small screen in mind, with central elements it's easy to focus on. The film has a grubby realism that's missing from the other Trek movies, particularly on Nimbus, the rundown and abandoned “Planet of Galactic Peace.” It's the Tatooine of Star Trek, where emaciated locals drill for water and the ambassadors of the three great galactic powers drink their days away in a seedy dive bar. Ferren's effects, being less flashy than ILM's, actually play into this. When the Enterprise finally reaches the mysterious planet at the centre of the galaxy, it looks suitably otherworldly and unlike anything we've seen before.

As for the script: who could fail to love this story? Shatner focuses on the idea of the crew as a family more so than any of the other films, and expands that to explore the characters' actual families, building on the revelation of Kirk's son in The Wrath of Khan. Spock, of course, is revealed to have a half-brother we've never heard of before (which is why I have no trouble believing he also has a foster sister he's never mentioned either). They wanted Sean Connery in to play Sybok, and yes, that would have given the film something else, but Laurence Luckinbill gives the character a likeability and charm that sells why he picks up so many followers. The idea of Spock's brother being fully Vulcan, yet abandoning logic in favour of emotion, is a subversive inversion of Spock's character. On top of this, we have McCoy's heartbreaking revelation about his father's death, adding a whole new layer to the character.

Sybok recruits a bunch of followers to help him steal a starship, so he can take it to the centre of the galaxy and find Sha-Ka-Ree, the planet where God is supposed to reside. Aside from naming the planet after the guy they originally wanted, which is a bit harsh on Luckinbill, this is frankly amazing. What could be more Star Trek than actually finding God in the depths of space? Well, discovering that it's not really God, but a malevolent cosmic entity who wants to escape and exact his wrath on the universe, that's what. Kirk is amazing in this film. He refuses to let Sybok meld with him and remove his pain – his recruitment method – insisting that he needs his pain, it makes him who he is. He stands up to the false God and demands he explain himself. “What does God need with a starship?” delivered in the ever-imitable Shatner style, is a classic line.

Yes, there's a lot of rubbish in this film. The Uhura fan dance is notoriously awful and embarrassing. The subplot of a young Klingon captain pursuing Kirk is entirely pointless. Chekov and Sulu are criminally underused. Scotty's humorous moments fail to be funny, and god knows where the romance between him and Uhura came from or went to. They could at least have spelled Uhura's name right on the credits. But you've got Jerry Goldsmith back for the score, some of the best moments between the Kirk-Spock-McCoy friendship circle, a genuinely cosmic central plot, Spock attacking God with a ruddy Bird-of-Prey and an alien dancer with three tits. I mean, what more do you want from your sci-fi?

I do wish they'd kept the rock monster in, though.

THE FACTS:

STAR TREK V : THE FINAL FRONTIER

Directed by William Shatner

Written by David Loughery

with William Shatner and Harve Bennett

Released: 9th June, 1989

Set: c.2287

Starships featured: USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A,

Klingon Battle Cruiser

Planets visited: Earth, Nimbus III, Sha Ka Ree

star trek

Daniel Tessier

I'm a terrible geek living in sunny Brighton on the Sussex coast in England. I enjoy writing about TV, comics, movies, LGBTQ issues and science.

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Read next: The Return

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