The success of the first four films of the Star Trek film saga (released in 1979, 1982, 1984 and 1986) made the brand popular again even on the small screen with the launch of The Next Generation series in 1987. Two years later, while the series led by Jean-Luc Picard achieved an unexpected success, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was released and it almost ended Paramount’s plans to continue to make a new Star Trek film every two or three years.
Written and directed by William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself, it was both a box office and a critical failure and even now there are only few trekkies who love it. After all, there are solid reasons behind the existence of the rule of the good even-numbered movies (the excellent II and IV, but also VI, as we’ll see)!
But let’s talk about the movie. I already wrote that it was directed by William Shatner. And that’s why George Takei didn’t want to be in the film, since the two never got along and the good George imagined that being directed by Bill would’ve been a nightmare. Surprisingly, it went well, at least from that point of view. There was no shortage of conflicts, though, with a script that was heavily reworked, with producers imposing limits of all kinds on the budget, with the creators of special effects not exactly up to par (no longer Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic of the previous films), and also with Roddenberry who didn’t take well the story being centered on God, a concept that he had proposed several times but never managed to get done (although he did something similar with the episode The Way to Eden, but we’ll talk about it).
The plot is the following: the Vulcan Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) gathers a mass of followers to find the Creator, who seems to be on the planet Sha Ka Ree in the center of the galaxy. He needs a starship to do this, and so he takes hostage the Federation ambassador on Nimbus III (David Warner) to set a trap. And it’s up to Kirk (William Shatner) in command of the newly launched Enterprise NCC-1701-A to save the ambassador! And what a coincidence, given that Sybok’s half-brother Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is on board of that same ship! On the planet Sha Ka Ree there will be some surprises, and there are also the usual Klingons, this time led by Klaa (Todd Bryant) in command of his amazingly-looking Bird of Prey.
Why is this film not particularly popular? Because it doesn’t feel original (it draws both from previous Star Trek stories and from other various fantasy sources, including Star Wars), it’s not particularly exciting, the plot is a mix of ideas that don’t work together, and its pacing is slow. On the other hand, there are also some very interesting concepts such as friendship (always present in the TOS films) and how to deal with pain, as well as an interesting analysis on religion and what drives multitudes of people to follow messiahs and preachers. But the final result is far from the excellent previous chapters. In short, it’s a mixed bag, not a total disaster.
On the positive side, Sybok’s character is really interesting. Based on the television preachers who haunted US television of the time, a mass of unfortunate people follow him because he takes away their pain thanks to some strange Vulcan mental techniques. This trick fails with Kirk who tells him outright that he needs his pain to be the person he is. This is an interesting concept, rejecting the simplicity of a quick solution such as that of deleting certain painful memories which irremediably changes the individual. It’s much healthier to live with both our joys and our sorrows, accepting them both as experiences that shape us and make us what we are.
This part of the film works well, and allows Shatner to reflect also on those who are easily attracted to preachers who promise great goals to be achieved easily, which in reality rarely happens. Luckinbill’s excellent performance also helps, although it’s impossible not to try to imagine Sean Connery in the part since he was meant to play it, originally. I also found it nice that Sybok is not a real antagonist, but a much more multifaceted character.
As for the friendship between the protagonists, after the team effort of Star Trek IV, here we take a step back as we return to the power trio Kirk-Spock-McCoy (DeForest Kelley), while the other officers barely have something to do. Too bad, but the three protagonists are splendid together and here it’s easy to see how they’re approaching retirement age (the actors were 60 years old), but continue to want to have fun together, be it with a walk in the park or in a battle against Klingons.
So far so good. Unfortunately, the film offers little else. The special effects have aged very badly (not those of the starships, the Bird of Prey is amazing), the rhythm is uneven, the gimmick of Spock’s half-brother is only half-cooked, and above all the ending is yet another encounter with a powerful alien who’s defeated by Kirk’s cunning and a well-placed photon torpedo. The Original Series contained numerous examples of that such as The Return of the Archons, The Apple, Who Mourns for Adonais and Catspaw, to name just a few. And the story is also very similar to that of the horrible The Way to Eden, in which some hippies of the future looked for the Garden of Eden and used the Enterprise to get there!
The consequence is that Star Trek V feels more like an uninspired TOS episode rather than an actual film of the saga, especially since it followed a great trilogy: the drop in quality is evident. That said, the line “What does God need with a starship?” made history, albeit perhaps for the wrong reasons!
I conclude by saying that, if you hadn’t got it already, I love this film, but I’m aware of its numerous defects. It’s a guilty pleasure for me, I don’t really consider it a good movie. Ciao!
PS: Just a few days ago Wil Wheaton wrote about when he first met William Shatner. It was the second year of The Next Generation, Shatner was working on Star Trek V, and one day young Wil found the courage talk to him. Things didn’t go as he hoped, let’s say (long story short: “Bill Shatner is an ass“).
- Movie trailer on Youtube
- Movie page on Internet Movie DataBase
- Movie review on The m0vie blog
- Movie review on The corvid review
- Movie review on Review nebula
- Movie review on Eruditorum press
- Movie review on Reflections on film and television
- Movie review on Jammer’s reviews
- Movie review on Mid-life gamer geek