“What does God need with a starship?”
Captain James T. Kirk questioning “God” on the planet Sha Ka Ree
After the triumph of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, anticipation and demand was high for another Star Trek film. What audiences received was William Shatner’s directorial effort Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
The fifth Star Trek film is an undeniable disappointment and it has many things going against it. Ranked by many as the worst Star Trek film, it’s hands down the weakest one to feature the original cast from the TV show. Let’s face it, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was a difficult act to follow. It would’ve taken a master director and writer to deliver a worthwhile followup. But Paramount Studios wanted to placate William Shatner, who wanted his shot at the directing chair because his buddy Leonard Nimoy got to direct two Star Trek films. So in addition to paying him and Nimoy a high salary, they allowed him to direct the fifth Star Trek film.
Now it’s easy to lay all the blame on Shatner but there are others to blame for this film. Notably Paramount Studios itself, who should shoulder the majority of the blame. In a foolish move, the studio severely slashed the budget, which resulted in the amateurish looking special effects that were horrendously bad and added to the film’s drawbacks. They also wanted a lighthearted romp similar to Star Trek IV because the studio felt that the comedy in that film made it such a success and wanted to repeat the formula. Instead of gentle comedy, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier came off as goofy and too heavy handed in the laugh-o-meter with our heroes behaving at times out of character. There were laughs alright, just unintentional ones. Who can forget the immortal line, “Spock, it’s me. It’s Sybok!” The Writer’s Strike in 1988 curtailed the film’s pre-production and didn’t allow time for a polished script. When you boil it down what the film needed most was a decent script doctor.
The film starts in a desert planet, Nimbus III, which has the so-called Paradise City colony set up by Klingons, Romulans and the Federation as a means of promoting peaceful coexistence. But the place is run down and practically forgotten. Out of the horizon, a mysterious stranger riding on a blue horse-like animal appears and promises to heal people of their painful memories through his empathic powers and in return asks for followers on a religious crusade. This person is a bearded Vulcan called Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) and he needs a starship.
The film then switches over to Earth, where James T. Kirk (William Shatner), recently demoted from admiral to a captain, is spending shore leave mountain climbing on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. After being saved from falling by his best friend Spock (Leonard Nimoy), he and Spock settle down for the night at a campfire with their other close friend Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and shoot the breeze. The genial banter between the three was the best thing about the film. It was genuine and funny without going overboard. Shatner conveyed a sense that the trio were close friends with a deep bond.
At this time on Nimbus III, Paradise City welcomes the newest Romulan ambassador (Cynthia Gouw), who is all full of energy and optimism. She is greeted instead by two surly and cynical ambassadors (David Warner and Charles Cooper), a human and Klingon respectively. Oddly enough, she and the Klingon are the only members of their race seen in the city, everyone else is either human or some kind of alien. These scenes with the ambassadors were interesting since the actors were good in their roles. The film presented a seedier side to life in the 23rd century, which was an interesting contrast to earlier films’ depictions of near-nirvana. We see drunkards (principally with Cooper playing the bitter and washed up Klingon general), cheap salesmen (watch the video monitors in Paradise City’s bar) wearing ugly plaid jackets and alien strippers. The latter being a feline-based alien with three breasts that predated the famous hooker seen in the original Total Recall. It was a refreshing change from the ethereal utopias from earlier films. Soon after, the colony is invaded and conquered by a literal rag-tag army from the desert led by Sybok, who promises to heal everyone of their spiritual pain.
Back on Earth, our heroes’ shore leave is interrupted by an urgent call from Starfleet. They rush back to their ship the Enterprise-A, a replacement of the ship lost in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, to learn about their next mission. They are ordered to go to Nimbus III and save the hostages in Paradise City. But there’s a problem with the Enterprise-A. The new ship is a lemon. Why would Starfleet reward Kirk and company with a broken down ship after they saved the Earth is beyond me. Except maybe to provide a moronic venue for cheap laughs, such as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott’s (James Doohan) tirades about needed repairs and sight gags such as malfunctioning turbo lifts. The plot point of a broken ship that in the end pulls through would’ve been an interesting story. But that gets lost in this film. As for the film’s desperate earning of laughs at this point, the funniest gag on the ship is Kirk’s reaction when he’s told by an admiral (producer Harve Bennett in a cameo) via viewscreen that Starfleet needs him. He turns away from his superior and makes an exasperated face. It’s a good way of acknowledging this common plot thread of the Enterprise crew being the only capable personnel in Starfleet. Seriously, why send the Enterprise-A? It’s undergoing repairs on Earth so why have it travel all the way to this distant planet? There aren’t any ships closer to the planet? Doesn’t Starfleet have its own version of SEAL Team Six for these kind of situations?
As the Enterprise-A makes its voyage to Nimbus III, a restless Klingon captain called Klaa (Todd Bryant) commanding his bird-of-prey ship is ordered to rescue the hostages on the colony. The brash idiot sees this as an opportunity to pick a fight with a Federation starship. OK, so you send an overeager hothead for something as delicate as a hostage situation. Way to go Klingons!
Let’s not forget the Romulans. Oh yeah, they don’t bother to send anyone. They know a lost cause when they see one.
The Enterprise-A arrives on Nimbus III and Kirk sends out his version of Navy SEALs via shuttlecraft. This deadly team of commandos happens to include himself, Spock, McCoy, helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Her job is to dance provocatively by moonslight and distract the enemy guards.
The landing party manages to infiltrate Paradise City and fight the hostage takers but end up being betrayed by the hostages themselves, who have been brainwashed by Sybok. Now here is a core problem with the film, Sybok himself. He is one of the weakest Star Trek villains on film. As a supposed messianic figure, Sybok is strangely uncharismatic and doesn’t seem menacing. It was hard to believe that this man was able to raise an army out of the planet’s downtrodden and carry out his plans. Then the way he easily captures the Enterprise-A and co-opts most of the crew stretches logic. Sean Connery was offered the role and turned it down because he was doing the third Indiana Jones film. Maybe his gravitas and regal demeanor would’ve salvaged the role.
Another problem has to do with Sybok’s motive. He needs a starship to breach a “galactic barrier” in the galaxy’s center to reach a mythical planet called Sha Ka Ree. Supposedly this is the Vulcan version of heaven and he wants to commune with God. Meeting God on film is nearly impossible to pull off in a sci-fi story. Everyone has different ideas about who is God and how to accurately represent God. But the filmmakers do deserve some credit for coming up with a bold idea like that. This theme also touches upon how religion is viewed and practiced in the 23rd century, though so little of it is covered. The plot’s fundamental flaw is that although showing God can’t really be accomplished, the focus of the story has to be on the quest to meeting God, but the poor execution dooms the filmmakers’ efforts.
As I stated earlier, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has some good in it to paraphrase another sci-fi franchise. What worked for the film were the quieter moments when the trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy made heartfelt observations about life and friendship. Composer Jerry Goldsmith returned to score an admirable soundtrack after a three-film absence. It was a relief to hear his iconic Star Trek theme on the big screen again. Some of the action scenes were well done and the film is never boring.
The acting was competent but Luckinbill’s performance failed to make an impression when it comes to villainy. However,when it came to this film’s villains, he was the highlight. Klaa from the start was just a wannabe poser who didn’t amount to anything and the malevolent “God” entity (George Murdock) Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Sybok ultimately encounter was a flameout.
With Shatner directing himself, there wasn’t an adequate rein for some parts of his performance, though his portrayal of Kirk was authentic. Shatner knows his character well, but sometimes he went into bombastic territory, particularly when he speechifies to Sybok about needing his past pain to help him grow.
The supporting crew’s screen time was reduced compared to the last film, but they each had their moments in the limelight, such as Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) pretending to be the Enterprise-A’s captain. Sometimes it was to their detriment, such as Uhura’s big moment on Nimbus III. Doohan for better and worse, stole the show in that regard with Scottie’s nearly hysterical braying. One nagging question about these secondary characters does come up: they’re clearly approaching retirement age, why are they still on the Enterprise-A in the same capacity as they were in the original show?
But Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’s inferior qualities drowns out those few good nuggets that promised a better film if more time was spent on the good points. Put aside all the complaints about the special effects. Improved special effects wouldn’t have saved it; atrocious as they were the special effects were just a symptom of what was wrong behind the scenes. Perhaps if the script by David Loughery had been worked on some more or if the story idea by him, Shatner and Bennett had been changed for an entirely new premise, we might’ve wound up with a good if not great Star Trek film.