Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)


Both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had a clause in their contracts when it came to Star Trek.  If one got a raise, or got to do something, the other was supposed to get the same treatment.  It was one of those things that happened over the years as it became apparent that, until Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was no use doing the show or movies without the two present.  So, after Nimoy got his chance to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it was now William Shatner's turn.  

Like Nimoy before him Shatner had some previous experience directing for television, mainly for his series T. J. Hooker.  That meant he wasn't going into it blind, but it was his first feature film.  He had some pressure to do it right so, even though Harve Bennett had just about had it with Star Trek, he convinced the cowriter of the last three entries to stay on and help him out with the story he had developed, with David Loughery helping to flesh out the script as well.  What worked out was something that Gene Roddenberry himself had proposed for the first Star Trek film, and he was in no way pleased that it came to be this time around: the Enterprise goes off to find God.  

It was a heavy subject which begged to be done right.  To Shatner's credit the story he came up with largely did try to balance adventure and philosophy.  The problem was little of it made it to the screen.  Despite the box office success of the previous three films Paramount refused to properly fund Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which also had to contend with a Teamsters strike among other problems.  A good part of what Shatner had planned never got filmed due to budget restrictions.  This left the movie with a disjointed feel, full of bad humor in poor attempts to further develop characters and relations, and a bad critical reception from the start that helped kill any chance of it competing against what was a year filled with what are now considered classic films.  The fact that Paramount decided to release it against summer blockbusters, instead of after the main season had ended, also did not help. 

While on shore leave on Earth the crew of the Enterprise are called back to duty to go to Nimbus III.  Called the "Planet of Galactic Peace", it is a place where human, Klingon and Romulan ambassadors all share a conference table in the Neutral Zone.  It is also a desert wasteland with only one small settlement, Paradise City, inhabited largely by criminals.  The city, and the ambassadors, have been seized by a rogue Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) who has gathered a number of followers to his cause.

The Enterprise responds, as does a Klingon Warbird that is more interested in taking on Captain Kirk (Shatner) than rescuing their ambassador, General Korrd (Charles Brooks).  It turns out, however, that getting a ship was Sybok's goal, as he believes that he has found the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree - supposedly the Eden told of in numerous myths - and that there he will find God.  At first resistant to Sybok, Kirk, Spock (Nimoy) and Bones (DeForest Kelley) decide that if Sybok is going to meet God, then so should they. 

Part of the problem with the movie is that it tries to be too much with too little.  It may have worked if Shatner had been given the budget to do what he wanted, but the result is a combination of awkward male bonding, Western in space and Philosophy 101.  Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), being utilized for her skills in the previous two films, is now reduced to doing an erotic fan dance for horny desert dwellers, and to add insult to injury Nichols's vocals that she did for the scene were removed.  Scotty (James Doohan) is still given a bit to do but ends up being the comic relief.  Once again Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Sulu (George Takei) are barely there.  

DeForest Kelley gets a bit of time to shine during a scene where Sybok has him confront his greatest pain, but as key as the scene is supposed to be for both him and Spock it seems out of place during the time between leaving Nimbus III and heading for Sha-Ka-Ree.  It may make more sense if a similar scene had happened for the isolated farmer at the beginning where Sybok is introduced, but it comes out of nowhere and is a bit on the soap opera side - as is the sudden relation between Spock and Sybok that is revealed.  The final confrontation in the movie is largely anticlimactic, and again was hampered by low budget and the need to get rid of bad special effects and just go with what they had.

William Shatner made one other feature film - Groom Lake - after this, and that was over a decade later.  It is not well-known, or well-regarded, but it never seemed like Shatner was clamoring to direct another movie either.  Leonard Nimoy had so much pressure on him while doing the two he did that DeForest Kelley passed on a chance to direct one of the films, and it seems like Shatner was more than happy to pass the behind-the-camera duties back to Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for the sixth installment, especially since it seemed for a time that The Final Frontier may also be the final Star Trek film.  

While Shatner has taken a lot of the blame for the movie's failure the truth is that he is not bad as a director.  Even George Takei, who has a long-running feud with Shatner and at first didn't want to have to do another movie, especially one where Shatner was in so much control, said the experience was surprisingly pleasant and professional.  It's really hard to tell any difference between his style and Nimoy's, since both are utilitarian in their approach, largely since their main experience comes from television.  It comes down to Nimoy getting a lot of what he wanted but Shatner being denied much of what was needed to make this a good movie.  He has tried to get Paramount to go back and let him rework it the way he would like after all this time, but to no avail.  Honestly, it would still probably suffer from the odd-movie curse that the series had throughout much of its run, but perhaps not as bad.

I saw this originally in the theater in 1989 and was not impressed with it then.  Until rewatching it for the review I had probably not seen it as an actual film since sometime in the early 1990s.  What I had seen, and what I remembered many times while watching, was a bootleg of the film where a group of guys did their version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, complete with robots and skits, and did a wonderful takedown of this film.  It's been probably close to 30 years since I've seen that version, but there was still plenty I remember, especially the opening song about rocks while Kirk is climbing El Capitan.  Because I remembered it being expertly mocked one thing I forgot over the years was that, while this is definitely not the worst Star Trek film made, it is painfully dull.  I was hoping it would be entertainingly bad, but instead it is largely unexciting.  The intentional humor is awful while their isn't much unintentional humor outside the Klingons looking like they have a side gig as a glam metal band. 

This also had the bad fortune to come out just as Star Trek: The Next Generation was finally starting to get to be the classic show we know and remember.  The contrast between the latter half of the second season, going into the third season, of that show (and the fact that this movie had to re-use some of the show's sets) and The Final Frontier is quite striking.  Audiences were more than happy to get their Star Trek, but TNG had started to set the bar higher.  The question of whether the movies, with their aging cast, were even necessary was one to consider.  

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Laurence Luckinbill
Director: William Shatner



 

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