Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) (part 1 of 13)
Star Trek V: Oh God Shatner’s Directing may be one of the most fan-bashed science fiction movies this side of the Star Wars prequels. Upon its release 20 years ago this month, Trek-lovers emerged reeling from the theaters in a depressed, confused, and conflicted state, unsure whether to give in to anger, nausea, or hilarious incredulity.
Even Three Strikes Repeat Offender William Shatner, who won the directing gig as a perk during salary negations over his participation in the previous film, more or less admitted that the subsequent resurrection of the franchise after Star Trek V was nothing short of a miracle.
The fans’ love-hate relationship with the Shat is a complex and beautiful thing, but embedded deep inside it, like a festering cyst, is the grudge we bear against him for foisting upon us the strangely bastardized take on the Star Trek ethos known as The Final Frontier. That Captain Kirk himself was responsible for risking the relapse of Star Trek from serious sci-fi back into the joke it had been in the early ‘70s seemed like an especially galling form of betrayal.
The general loathing directed at this movie naturally begs the question: Is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as truly god-awful as its reputation makes it out to be? In other words, does it deserve to be ruthlessly mocked in a lengthy, detailed recap?
Oh yeah. Hell yeah.
Want proof? Just for starters, here are just a few of the events that occur within this film:
- Kirk, Spock, and McCoy banter around a campfire, make jokes about bodily emissions, and sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for what seems like two or three hours.
- Every single member of the crew (except for the three leads) betrays their ship and captain and becomes completely devoted to the bad guy, all because he dispenses free psychotherapy. (Serving under Kirk must have left them all with some serious issues.)
- A triple-breasted cat-woman dances listlessly on a barroom table.
- Uhura performs the first and last ever senior citizen naked fan dance in science fiction history.
- Kirk, despite the presence of a dozen Space Marines, walks right into an obvious trap and is captured by idiots.
- Spock turns out to have a brother, unashamedly contradicting everything we know about the character, and retroactively reaming one of the best episodes of the original series.
- Uhura and Scotty paw each other’s faces like geriatric puppies.
- The audience witnesses special effects so subpar that they can be excused for thinking they accidentally walked into the theater showing Electra Woman and Dyna Girl: The Movie.
- Every character, with perhaps one exception, is shown to be constructed of purest cardboard, with no motivation other than just getting through the damn movie.
- And just when you think you might get out of the theater alive, there’s a painful reprise of the campfire scene, complete with another rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, this time played on a Vulcan lute.
Lots and lots of factors doomed this movie before it even started filming. First and foremost was Paramount’s desire to repeat the huge blockbuster success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, still one of the franchise’s highest grossing films. And to the suits, that meant blatantly imitating the movie’s light comic tone.
Of course, what they failed to realize is that, despite a few forced gags, the humor in Star Trek IV was a natural outgrowth of Kirk and Crew being fish out of water in 20th Century America. On top of that, the comedic tone was a welcome change of pace from all the angst and destruction and death and resurrection of the previous two Star Trek films.
One of the immutable laws of drama is that you don’t make a story more exciting or suspenseful by lowering the stakes. (And not even the screenwriters of Star Trek: Insurrection could grasp that basic truth.) Despite Star Trek V’s supposedly weighty subject matter, half of the scenes are played for laughs. So at no point do we feel that anything important is at stake, or that anyone’s life is in danger, and by the end of the film, the audience has been lulled into a bored, apathetic coma.
And then there was the central concept of the film, which was cooked up in large part by the Shat himself. Shatner even admitted later that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry told him point blank not to do a movie about God. Roddenberry had tried in vain to write his own script about the crew of the Enterprise meeting “God”, which didn’t work and ultimately went nowhere.
But Shatner persisted with the idea of Kirk meeting God, which any sane individual can tell you is an idea far too complex and involved to be properly handled in a single film. Now mix this wrongheaded concept together with Paramount’s decree that the new film had to be light and jokey, and it’s clear this production was headed for disaster from day one.
But ultimately, what really doomed Star Trek V was how it betrayed its beloved, long-established characters by having them do and say things that are unbelievably stupid. Having the entire supporting cast blindly follow Sybok, the magical Vulcan soul-healing guru, solely because he makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside, is only the most obvious example—not to mention the most infuriating. I was frankly aghast at this development when I first saw the movie, and even now, when I watch Sulu and the others working for Sybok with beatific grins on their faces, it really makes me want to strangle small animals.
I mean, shouldn’t betraying Kirk make them feel bad about themselves? Just a little? And wouldn’t feeling bad about their actions, I dunno, counteract the effect of Dr. Sybok’s emotional handjob? That’s the kind of logic that worked in the original series, anyway.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly what happened in ”This Side of Paradise” (AKA The One with the Spores): Happy plant-infected Kirk feels really good about abandoning the Enterprise, but then he feels really bad about feeling good about it, and so manages to talk himself out of being infected. Problem solved! I hear Shatner cured his own baldness the same way.
Unfortunately, Star Trek V doesn’t follow the logic of “This Side of Paradise”. In fact, it most closely resembles ”The Way to Eden” (The One with the Space Hippies), maybe the least-loved episode of the original series. Consider the plot of “The Way to Eden”: a charismatic countercultural leader comes aboard the Enterprise, and wins the respect of the below-decks crew. Said leader hijacks the Enterprise and takes it to a promised paradise. En route, the crew wastes time with a sing-along. Finally, paradise turns out to be a big gyp.
Does any of this sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Why didn’t it sound familiar to Shatner?
There’s another aspect of Star Trek V that rankles me, and I didn’t really consciously realize it the first time I saw this movie. Star Trek as a franchise had, up to this point, been entirely devoted to an optimistic future of interplanetary peace, technological advancement, and human brotherhood. Star Trek V, on the other hand, is a deeply cynical movie.
It starts out by revealing that a planet set aside for the fostering of cooperation between three hostile races has become a cesspool of corruption, sex, poverty, and nonstop infomercials. The technology of the future, as shown in this movie, is unreliable junk. And for the big finish, the movie ends by exposing “God” as a hoax, making a mockery of the faith and hope that brought Sybok and his followers halfway across the galaxy in search of truth.
Chinatown had a sunnier take on the human condition than this movie.