I’ve been a Star Trek fan for almost as long as I can remember, and one thing I’ve seen over the years is that there is rarely consensus on what constitutes good Star Trek. Even the best episodes & movies have their detractors, and the worst always have their champions.
I myself have quite a bit of affection for some of the less-loved entries in the Trek movie canon, particularly “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979 and “Star Trek: Generations” (1994). That said, I thought I’d attempt a Star Trek hat trick and take a sentimental look at a third unpopular Trek movie, “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989).
I’d seen STV with a group of friends theatrically on opening night 29 years ago. We were all disappointed afterward, but as I rode home on my motorcycle that night, I felt like I needed to see it again just….well, because. So I went back a few weeks later and saw it again. Then I rented the laserdisc….eventually I bought the DVD. I’m still trying to get a handle on this odd little duck of a movie, 29 years later.
Each time I watch the film, I keep wondering if it’ll be the time when I’ll soften my stances on the movie’s most nagging issues.
Well, after the most recent rewatch (this week), I’m sorry to say that the movie’s biggest issues are still very much there. But there are some things about it that are compelling…and a few of those things are actually quite good.
Yes, I still believe STV is one of the weakest of the Star Trek movie canon, but… well, it’s complicated.
****GREAT BARRIER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!****
The movie begins on the desert world of “Nimbus III,” the only planet in the galaxy where Federation, Klingon and Romulan colonists ‘peacefully’ coexist. A banished, renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) rallies dissidents into his newly formed ‘army.’ Their plan is to use the hostages to capture the rescue starship, which, in this case, winds up being the USS Enterprise-A under the command of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner).
Starfleet Command orders Kirk and the crew to cut short their shore leave at Yosemite National Park on Earth. They take a shuttle back to their temperamental new starship, which doesn’t quite work as advertised. Once reunited with her command crew, the ship warps out to Nimbus III.
After narrowly eluding bloodthirsty Klingons, the Enterprise rescues the ‘hostages,’ who are now followers of Sybok. Together, the renegades hijack the Enterprise. Mind-melding with key members of the crew, Sybok forces them to set a course ‘beyond the great barrier’ at the center of the galaxy in an attempt to find “God.” Sybok then throws Kirk, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and his own half-brother Spock (Leonard Nimoy) into the brig.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy escape from the brig with help from Scotty (James Doohan). The three then attempt to retake their ship, when they are captured and forced to ‘face their pain’ through Sybok’s mind-melds (which seem to work more like hypnosis in this film). McCoy sees the terminally ill father (Bill Quinn) he was forced to euthanize. Spock sees his Vulcan father Sarek (Jonathan Simpson) reject him shortly after his birth by his human mother.
Kirk however, refuses to face his pain, which would allow Sybok to control him. It’s at this point that the ship arrives at the galactic center.
The Great Barrier turns out to be little more than a nasty little lightning storm, and the Enterprise soon arrives at the ‘God planet.’ Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Sybok take a shuttlecraft to the surface and meet a seemingly omniscient energy being (George Murdock) claiming to be the Almighty. When “God” asks them to ‘bring the ship closer’ so that it might ‘join with it’, Kirk asks, “What does God need with a starship?”
“God” doesn’t take Kirk’s insolent tone well, and it reacts by zapping members of the landing party with lightning bolts from its eyes. Sybok is mortified; he can’t believe “God” would treat its own creations this way. Turns out, the being isn’t really God (duh, right?); it’s just another run-of-the-mill evil energy creature that was exiled to the Galactic Center (by what/whom, and for whatever reasons, we’re never quite sure). Sybok sacrifices himself by attacking the creature, and the Enterprise manages to fire a torpedo at it, but it survives…and it’s pissed.
Kirk tries to beam them out, but the Enterprise-A’s transporter is only semi-functional, so he elects Spock and McCoy go on without him. The captain then faces the wrathful would-be God by himself.
The Klingons, in their singleminded pursuit of Kirk, have followed the Enterprise-A into the barrier. With a bit of arm-twisting from Sybok’s Klingon cohort General Koord (Charles Cooper), the two renegade Klingons (Todd Bryant, Spice Williams) join forces with the Enterprise-A’s crew. Together, they defeat the energy being, rescue the stranded Captain Kirk, and leave the galactic center together.
The coda sees Kirk, Spock and McCoy resume their shore leave at Yosemite.
“Your pain runs deep…”
Like the Enterprise-A herself, the movie is a massive pile of malfunctions.
Directed by William Shatner himself (exercising the favored nations clause he shared with two-time Trek movie director Nimoy), the movie was also co-written by Shatner, along with David Loughery (“Flashback”), with an assist from producer Have Bennett (Star Treks II-V).
The result of their labors is a story that is essentially a $30 million remake of TOS’ “The Way to Eden” (the one with the space hippies). In fact, the story is astonishingly similar. A group of rag-tag cultists, led by a controlling charismatic leader, hijack the Enterprise and force the ship to a ‘forbidden’ planet on a quasi-religious quest to find Eden/God. Both stories end with some of the ‘hippies’ dying and/or making their peace with the Enterprise crew. Eden/God isn’t what they think, and everyone moves on. Substitute Klingons for the original’s Romulan threat, and it’s pretty much a one-for-one remake.
The Klingons in this film, Captain Klaa (Todd Bryant, an extra in TWOK) and Vixis (played by bodybuilder Spice Williams) are utterly without motive. When we meet them, they’re blasting ancient Earth spacecraft for fun (the victim in this case is Pioneer 10, which flew by Jupiter and Saturn in the early 1970s).
Why they doggedly pursue Kirk across the galaxy is never satisfactorily explained, other than Klaa thinks it’d be really cool if he tangoed with Captain Kirk. I realize it’s a cliche, but maybe Klaa could’ve been the son of Captain Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), whom Kirk killed in “The Search for Spock” and perhaps Klaa is seeking revenge (?). I mean, anything would’ve been better than the nothing we see in STV.
We also have two characters who get big introductions, St. John Talbot (David Warner, of”Time After Time,” “TRON”, “Time Bandits”) and Romulan representative Caithlin Dar (Cynthia Gouw). After their lengthy introduction scenes, the characters are largely kept in the background. Warner is an excellent actor, and his underuse is a shame that is later rectified with a far more important roles in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and TNG’s “Chain of Command.”
Cynthia Gouw’s voice for her Dar character seems to change during the film as well. Early on, her voice is sultry and breathy. Later, on the hostage tape, she sounds completely different. It sounds as if she were dubbed over by another actress in her introduction scene, but I have no evidence to support that.
Another of the movie’s greatest issues for me is that the crew are not the protagonists of their own movie. Luckinbill’s Sybok is the character who almost singlehandedly drives the entire story. Yes, there are some solid character moments with the lead characters here and there (the campfire scenes at Yosemite, the mind-melds, etc), but the core Trek family doesn’t really have strong roles to play in the story. There is action for action’s sake (Sulu crash-landing a shuttle, the trio escaping the brig, etc) but these moments feel more like time-fillers than crucial steps to the story. Laurence Luckinbill (“The Boys in the Band”) is excellent as Sybok, but a Star Trek movie should be about the Star Trek family first, and not all about some interloper’s quest. Our ‘heroes’ are reduced to mere passengers.
There is also some odd duck humor shoehorned into the movie that just feels tonally wrong for a story about a quest for God. I can imagine that following on the heels of the somewhat breezy “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986) there was studio pressure to make STV a ‘light’ adventure as well, but it simply doesn’t work nearly as well here. The humor in STIV came from their ‘fish out of water’ situation and was organic to the story. In STV it’s just odd and awkward. We have Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) faking snowstorm sounds into their communicator in an effort to save face when they’re lost in the woods (hardee-har-har).
Spock says to an El Capitan-climbing Kirk, “I do not believe you are aware of the gravity of your situation.” After falling from his climb, and being rescued by Spock shortly before impact, Kirk quips, “Hi Bones! Mind if we drop in for dinner?” This is the kind of dialogue one would expect from a bad “Three’s Company” episode.
There’s even a silly fart joke involving beans and bourbon (it’s almost regrettable that they didn’t go full “Blazing Saddles” with that gag, because that would’ve been completely hilarious).
I certainly don’t mind humor in Star Trek, but I prefer humor that comes organically from the characters and situations, not from bad puns and one-liners. There are moments where dialogue consists of one bad pun after another (the Starfleet assault on Nimbus III, for example). The constant barrage of puns are more suited to an Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie. The Star Trek characters rarely, if ever, speak like that.
There’s also an unexplained, out-of-nowhere ‘romance’ between Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Scotty (James Doohan) that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Based on their occasional mutual teasings in TOS (“Charlie X” “Man Trap” “Who Mourns for Adonais?”), I would far more easily expect Uhura to pair up with Spock (as she later does in the Bad Robot movies), but her flirtations with Scotty in STV feel forced and artificial. I would also say the same for Uhura’s nude fan dance on Nimbus III (during a rescue mission no less!). I mean, that was Uhura’s first idea for a distraction? Really?
It’s a bit of slapstick that serves to delay Scotty’s repairs to the ship, but it also makes the ship’s beloved ‘miracle worker’ look buffoonish and incompetent. A real disservice to the late James Doohan. None of the characters come off particularly well in STV, unlike the previous film (“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”) which showcased their working as a creative, cohesive team.
There are also basic logistical mistakes that are simply too bizarre to ignore.
We see the Enterprise-A fly from Earth orbit to Nimbus III in practically no time at all. She then reaches the galactic center in about two hours. Just to give a sense of scale, our galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across. A voyage from our sun (Sol) to the galactic center is about 27,000 light years. Even if the Enterprise had “Spaceballs”-ludicrous speed, that would be one hell of a journey. We see the USS Voyager (of the same-named “Star Trek: Voyager”) facing a 75 year trip back to Earth when it thrown across space into the Delta quadrant a century later.
That’s like a Ferrari being outrun by a covered wagon.
We also have a strange little bit of business where Kirk, Spock and McCoy are laboriously climbing a closed-for-repair elevator shaft following their escape from the brig. Spock, realizing their time is precious, fetches the anti-gravity boots he used to rescue a falling Kirk at Yosemite’s El Capitan. Spock activates the boots’ rockets to shoot the three of them up to the higher decks of the ship. We see the three of them shoot past deck 78 (!). Since when the hell does the ship have 78 decks?
“Doesn’t anything work on this ship?”
Normally this is not an unimportant point for me, especially for a film that’s nearly 30 years old, but on the heels of the solid optical FX work of the previous Star Trek movies, director William Shatner farmed out the FX of STV to Bran Ferren and Associates, who really dropped the ball on this film. The miniatures are flatly lit. The opticals are jarringly amateurish (even for 1989 standards). There are some innovative looking experiments done with cloud tanks for the ‘great barrier’ shots, but they don’t really feel menacing or even particularly dangerous.
The ominous ‘galactic barrier’ from TOS’ “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, a solid hot-pink band, was far more effective…and that was done with television optical work of the mid-1960s.
Some of the matte paintings, including an establishing shot of Yosemite, are about as convincing as Thomas Kinkade cottage paintings.
After being spoiled by the handsome FX work of the previous Trek films (even the dated stuff still works), the truly subpar opticals and miniature work of STV call undue attention to themselves for their stark amateurishness.
The God Thing.
My biggest issue with the film then and now is its central premise; the search for God. It has nothing to do with my own atheism either, because I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief to accept “the force” of Star Wars, or appreciate the religious underpinnings of Ron Moore’s reimagined “Battlestar Galactica.” Movies don’t necessarily have to align with my personal view of the universe for me to lose myself in them.
Star Trek however, has long been decidedly secular in its viewpoint. In fact, debunking various alien ‘gods’ has become a cliche associated with the series.
As a result, we know long before we arrive at the galactic center that we’re not really going to see God in this movie. Much in the same way we knew that we wouldn’t really find Eden in “The Way to Eden.” God is not just some plot device you throw into a 105 minute sci-fi popcorn movie. Religion is a deeply personal thing, and to use it in such a way feels a bit tacky. Granted, we’ve seen godlike (emphasis on ‘like’) creatures on the show before (Trelane, Apollo, Thasians, the Q continuum, etc) but their omnipotence is usually seen as a metaphor of the dangers in unchecked power. TNG’s “Who Watches the Watchers?” offers a great example of bringing ‘gods’ down to earth when Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is mistaken for a deity by the inhabitants of a primitive planet.
Star Trek explains away gods; it doesn’t really worship them. Thus, we know going into STV that we’re not going to see The God. It’s a cheat. So with that expectation deflated, there’s not much left to enjoy but action and character moments designed to divert attention from what is essentially a hollow story. Unfortunately, the action in STV is simply not compelling enough to take our minds off of this glaring central issue.
Even when the god imposter is exposed as yet another evil energy being, we don’t learn anything else about it. It’s just an imprisoned monster seeking escape from exile, which is also similar to a Star Trek: The Next Generation story, “Skin of Evil” (which aired a year earlier). Who (or what) imprisoned this alien, and why? Was it exiled by the real God? Is this being, in fact, the Devil? Who knows? It’s never explored in any depth.
William Shatner has gone on record as saying that he originally intended for the creature to be the actual Devil himself, but I’m not sure this would’ve helped the movie, as it would straightjacket the universe of Star Trek into a very specific Judeo-Christian outlook. Such an approach would’ve arguably alienated ST fans from all over the world (Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc) who have many different religious and philosophical beliefs. Such an approach is the very opposite of ST’s legendary inclusivity, which is also one of the keys to its ongoing popularity.
Star Trek’s legendary creator Gene Roddenberry reportedly dismissed STV at the time of its release as non-canonical, even though Roddenberry himself tried for years to push a story which would’ve dealt with the Enterprise crew encountering “God.” In Roddenberry’s “The God Thing”, the being calling itself God would be revealed as a malfunctioning computer. This premise eventually evolved in V’ger and formed the basis of what would eventually be the story for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
Shatner has also gone on record (both in print and in the audio commentary of the DVD) that he wanted a more epic, spectacular ending with Kirk, Spock and McCoy fleeing the Devil creature as they’re being chased by armies of smoking rock creatures with hordes of gargoyles flying at them. One rock creature suit was completed, but on camera tests of it simply didn’t work and the idea was scrapped on location. Without his rock creatures, director Shatner was forced in post-production to reedit the ending with shots of a rock-climbing Kirk dodging laser beams from the angry ‘God’ creature, which periodically yells, “Yooouuuuu” at the insolent captain.
It’s quite possibly the single lamest finale in a Star Trek movie.
While the somewhat anemic finale of STV is indeed one of the movie’s many faults, I don’t believe that hordes of gargoyles and rock men were the answers to that problem either. Special FX and rock suits don’t address the fundamental problems with the deeply flawed central premise of the story, which was a nonstarter to begin with.
Some elements of the film work surprisingly well.
The campfire scene in Yosemite with Kirk, Spock and McCoy reinforces this troika of characters by showing them in a situation we’ve never seen before; the three of them just hanging out together in their off-time. Not for a birthday, nor stranded on an alien planet together… just enjoying each other’s company. They really are a family. Yes, it’s a point that’s hammered home a bit unsubtly in the film, but it works largely because it’s true.
Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (“Streets of Fire” “Innerspace”) does some terrific work as well. The desertscapes of Nimbus III and the God planet are beautifully shot on location in the high deserts of California (specifically Trona Pinnacles, and Owens Dry Lake in Mojave). Laszlo’s desert footage has an almost “Lawrence of Arabia”-in-space grandeur about it. The Yosemite National Park footage is also quite spectacular, and gives a nice feel for the place. The generous use of outdoor location work gives the movie a sense of scope missing from a few of the more claustrophobic indoor set-bound entries of the previous movies.
Production designer Herman Zimmerman (who also worked on TNG and Deep Space Nine) creates a bridge set that is an interesting design link between the functional look of the original series and the more graceful, artful curves of Picard’s Enterprise-D. His bridge set also features fully functioning monitors as well as ‘working’ main viewer that used live on-set video feeds instead of images superimposed (or ‘burned in’) during post-production.
Zimmerman’s observation lounge set for the Enterprise-A is just gorgeous, too. It uses both futuristic elements combined with old-style nautical flourishes such as a gas lamp and an old wooden steering wheel. There is also a bronze plaque below the wheel with the show’s split-infinitive motto: “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Soft-focus stars out of the windows add an almost dreamlike feel to the set. The lounge’s design echoes Zimmerman’s own work with the ‘Ten-Forward’ bar set in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
The full-sized shuttlecraft used in the film are also well realized (they were later shortened in length and reused in The Next Generation).
I also have plenty of good things to say about the late Jerry Goldsmith‘s gorgeous soundtrack. Goldsmith’s score for TMP is my personal favorite of the Trek movies, but his music for STV is no slouch, either. The arrival on the God planet hits the perfect balance of eerie and ethereal. The rhythmic “Sybok March” (aka ‘the Sybok shuffle’) is also quite compelling. I also appreciated the slightly more energized riff on the main title music (the transition into it literally sounds like a warp engine revving up). That opening theme (previously used in TMP) arguably became more widely recognized as the main title music for TNG. Much of the incidental music of STV is wonderfully introspective, and represents some of Goldsmith’s finest work for Star Trek.
Nichelle Nichols’ lovely singing voice is a highlight of “The Moon is a Window to Heaven”, which is the song Uhura sings during her ‘distracting’ nude fan dance (a wholly unnecessary scene somewhat redeemed by Nichols’ talent). Nichols’ singing talent was used at various times during the original series (“Charlie X” “Conscience of the King” “The Changeling”) and it’s nice to hear her belt out a tune once again. The song is available on the expanded version of the soundtrack from Intrada Records, and can be found on Amazon.com.
“Life is but a dream…”
I once read an interesting online fan theory that perhaps STV is (to use the metaphor of the movie’s “Row Row Row Your Boat”) nothing but Kirk’s dream. Maybe the characters went to sleep during their shore leave at Yosemite, and Kirk simply dreamt the entire movie. That would certainly explain the Enterprise suddenly having 78 decks, or its reaching the galactic center in a couple of hours. It would also very much explain Uhura spontaneously doing a nude fan dance as the only means of distracting a few guards… I mean, who else but Kirk would dream of something like that?
Perhaps that’s the best way to appreciate this odd-duck of a Star Trek movie; as an inconsequential, illogical (hehe) yet at-times enjoyable dream. Parts of the dream certainly work far better than the whole.
“I am sorry…were we having a good time?”
STV does have a greater exploration of both Spock and McCoy when we see their ‘pain’ realized during Sybok’s mind-melds with them. McCoy’s scene with his dying father (Bill Quinn) is a showstopper, and is arguably De Forest Kelley’s finest performance as McCoy in the ST movies.
Spock’s witnessing his birth as well as his father’s rejection of him is less successful simply because Spock and his father made their peace with each other. There was a cut scene during the meld (seen on the deleted scenes of the DVD) with a younger Spock wanting to go with his older brother Sybok as he is cast out from Vulcan, but even that doesn’t address Spock’s psychological makeup nearly as effectively as McCoy’s euthanizing of his own father does for that character.
As stated earlier, the campfire scene in Yosemite is one of the rare times where we, the audience, get to simply ‘hang out’ with these characters. While the scene has many silly jokes that don’t work so well, we truly feel the bond between the three as we’ve rarely experienced since TOS.
The gorgeous location photography and Jerry Goldsmith’s music (not to mention the Star Trek brand name) also earn this movie’s spot on my DVD shelf as well.
While Shatner’s god/devil premise was fundamentally flawed to begin with, I have to give him credit for his storytelling ambition. Yes, Shatner bit off a lot more than he was able to chew (both in story and in execution as a first-time feature film director), and the result is a movie that is far more enjoyable in moments than as a cohesive whole.
Star Trek V certainly earns its bad reputation, but it has some redeeming value, even if that value isn’t readily apparent on first viewing.
Or the second, or the third…
STV screencaps from Trekcore.com