The Star Trek Re-watch – Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
One of the positive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the ability for people to explore television shows and films they never got around to see. This of course comes with the caveat that one actually has time to do so. Depending on certain circumstances (i.e. children or lack thereof and the essential nature of your job) this may or may not be the case. Nevertheless, millions of people who didn’t have free time before now have the opportunity to watch every episode of The Wire or the entire Harry Potter series.
With that in mind I thought it was high time to explore some gaps in my film and television lexicon. So of course I completely scrapped that idea and decided to re-watch every one of the thirteen Star Trek films that have been released since 1979. We continue on our journey down the warp lane with the second most maligned film in the franchise and the only one directed by William Shatner, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Director: William Shatner Written By: David Loughery Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Laurence Lukinbill.
Plot: Things are going far from smooth for the crew of the Enterprise 1701-A. Even after its first shakedown mission, the ship experiences multiple technical malfunctions and has yet to have a full crew compliment. Spock, Bones, and Kirk’s shore leave is interrupted when the Enterprise is ordered to save three diplomats on Nimbus III. There the ship is hijacked by Spock’s half-brother Sybok who is looking to take the Enterprise beyond the Great Barrier where he believes he will encounter God.
Re-Watch Review: So here’s the thing about The Final Frontier, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone claims it to be. Now granted there are some incredibly goofy and borderline asinine things in this fifth outing for the crew of the starship Enterprise. Simultaneously, there are some really bold concepts and ideas that occasionally work. The film had issues from the start, everything from a writer’s strike, to rushed pre-production, to massive rewrites, poor test screenings, and an overinflated budget. The fact that this movie even got made at all is a miracle of Sha Ka Ree proportions.
So let’s begin with the overall plot, which is admittedly batshit. I don’t think anyone had, “the crew of the starship Enterprise searches for God on a mythical planet” on their Star Trek bingo card. While David Loughery possesses the sole writing credit, multiple people contributed to the screenplay which underwent massive rewrites. (And yeah, it shows.) Shatner himself wrote the initial draft in which the Enterprise actually encountered the real Lucifer at end of the film. Thankfully that was nixed. The inherent problem with Frontier‘s story has to do with its overall premise as it relates to the overarching themes of Star Trek. When it comes to issues of God and religion, Star Trek is at best agnostic. Star Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry was a noted atheist who detested organized religion. The very concept of The Final Frontier was anathema to him and a fundamental betrayal. While I wouldn’t go to that extreme, The Final Frontier‘s plot runs counter to what most fans had come to expect.
There’s also just an inordinate amount of goofiness in The Final Frontier. While Star Trek has always possessed a certain degree of humor, some of Frontier‘s content borders on ridiculous. Spock in rocket boots? Check. Bones, McCoy, and Spock singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while camping? Check. Uhura doing a weird striptease dance on a sand dude to lure Sybok cohorts away from a building? Check. Kirk battling a feline alien female and then throwing her into a vat of water prompting numerous “wet pussy” jokes? DOUBLE check. Also let’s be honest, as great as Laurence Lukinbill is as Sybok in The Final Frontier (and he is great), Spock having a long, lost half-brother is decidedly soap opera-esque in nature. This is Star Trek after all, not The Bold And The Logical. Honestly, some of this can be contributed to Shatner as director, who’s ability never rises above the realm of competent.
Now that we’ve gotten what’s glaringly obvious out of the way, may I posit something that goes against the grain? If you can get past the aforementioned goofiness, the themes examined in The Final Frontier are pretty compelling. In fact for 1989, I’d say they are ahead of their time. While the concept of “Man’s Search For God” stands in the forefront – and I’ll get to it – I’d rather address the concept of pain/trauma. Sybok’s philosophy on personal pain are on display from the opening scenes where his empathic powers allow him to share another’s trauma. The concept of being able to safely verbalize your pain/trauma in a safe environment so that you may be unburdened is a novel, borderline psychiatric concept. Take it from someone who’s been there, burying your pain only allows that pain to grow and fester and – if you’re not careful – consume you. Arguably the best scene in the entire film is where Sybok reveals McCoy and Spock’s secret pain. Bones is haunted by the fact that he allowed his father who was in tremendous physical pain, to die from a disease that was subsequently cured. Spock meanwhile suffers from his father’s initial rejection due to his half human status. There’s wisdom in Sybok’s actions.
However, where Sybok falls short and is dead wrong is in his notion that revealing that secret pain equates to a cure. Anyone who’s fought addiction, experienced trauma, or gone through therapy knows fundamentally that this is untrue. As Kirk says to Sybok, “I need my pain!” It’s true. Our pain/trauma doesn’t have to define us but it is a necessary component of who we are as human beings. We are the sum total of all our experience both good and bad. To forget about them is to deny a fundamental part of our own identities. Now some of your may be thinking I’m going a little off the deep end for what many consider to be the worst Star Trek movie, but I don’t think so. These are clear, intentional themes put into the script by design and the fact of the matter is, they work well within the context of the movie. In fact I’d offer that amidst all the goofiness, The Final Frontier may be the most cerebral and psychological of the initial six films.
While the overarching theme of “Man’s Search For God” doesn’t work quite as well as the theme of pain/trauma, it’s still pretty potent. It’s an examination of how we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking we are doing God’s will or more simply that we are doing the right thing, when in actuality it’s our own ego and hubris getting in the way. Sybok himself comes to realize this when he confronts God on the planet beyond the Great Barrier, only to discover that he’s an alien carnival barker trying to get off the planet. (As Kirk says, “What does God need with a starship?”) This was also by intention as the story creators behind The Final Frontier were commenting on crooked televangelists of the 1980s. (Not much has changed in 30 years huh?) Although Sybok coming face to face with himself is very on the nose, it doesn’t undercut his ultimate sacrifice in saving Bones, Kirk, and Spock. In the end the question of “Is there a God?” is still relevant although Kirk’s essential answer – and I’m paraphrasing here – that “Maybe God was inside us the whole time” comes off cliche. While it may have dampened the ire of some Star Trek purists, it’s not necessarily something I agree with. Then again that’s a personal opinion, your mileage may vary.
In the final analysis I can’t sit here and write that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a good movie. It’s not necessarily even a good Star Trek movie. However, it’s not nearly as deserving of the hate it receives. It’s far from irredeemable. There’s complex themes at work here that are unfortunately undercut by goofy camp and some poor special effects. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a frustrating exercise in cinema. Or to put it in a way that the reputable Mr. Spock might understand:
My rating System:
0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier rates: 6/10
Next Up: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country!!!!!