Most Trekkies worth their weight in Tribbles can name off the important Stardates that define “Star Trek” history.
Take September 8, 1966: the first time “Star Trek” ever aired on NBC. That’s an easy one.
How about June 4, 1982 or September 28, 1987? The former is the date “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was released, while the latter was the night “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered.
To a lifelong Trekkie, those are big moments in pop culture history. On the other hand, I doubt there’s a single Trekkie in this quadrant celebrating June 9, 1989. That’s the day “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” premiered in theaters.
Released after “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and right before Tim Burton’s first “Batman” made movie history, the William Shatner-directed/co-written/starring “Star Trek V” was a big hit … for one weekend.
As it sunk like a stone in the following weeks from bad reviews and audience disappointment, it quickly established an unwanted reputation as “the worst Star Trek movie ever.”
Thirty years later, the film’s eternally bad reputation lingers.
Star Trek V is easily the most hated of all #StarTrek films. What makes it so bad? What does it get right? Does anyone actually like this flick or is it everyone’s least favorite? Share your questions, comments, or secret pain and we might use them on our upcoming Trek V podcast. pic.twitter.com/UkHUjI5UUm
— Tex-Trek (Fatheree) (@TXTrek) May 31, 2019
On-the-surface indicators include a Rotten Tomatoes score of 22 percent and an IMDB rating of 5.5, putting it at the bottom end of “Star Trek” films. Without even resorting to internet fact checking, it’s hard to imagine a “Star Trek” entity, movie or TV, that was ever held with decades-spanning animosity more than this one.
Shatner’s sole major motion picture directorial effort is undeniably problematic. Yet, it never deserved its rep as a cinematic pariah. In fact, if viewed with both a critical eye to the flaws and a newfound appreciation for the film’s wild ambition and thought provoking concepts, its easily the most interesting of the 1980s “Trek” films.
Trekkies may remain forever enamored with Ricardo Montalban’s rubber chest plate and the search of humpback whales, in the overrated, even-numbered early films, but this beaten-down mixed bag is worthy of as much reconsideration (and is nearly as troubled a finished work) as the recently re-christened “The Phantom Menace.”
“Star Trek V” opens on Nimbus III, an eerie landscape in which a robed figure, astride a horse, encounters a defeated-looking denizen. The covered rider, who we later learn is named Sybok, entices the sad, worn down man to “share his pain.”
Seemingly taking his inner anguish away through magic, Sybok triumphantly informs the now-cured man that he is on the search for a starship and hints at a mission brewing.
Sybok lifts his hood and reveals the ears of a Vulcan. Even more jarring, he smiles and laughs. This spellbinding opener, hypnotic in its imagery and pacing, establishes that, if the previous installment (“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”) was an ensemble comedy, then this is a sci-fi western.
The opening credits and Jerry Goldsmith’s great fanfare (a reprise of his theme from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”) roll as we cut to “Yosemite, Stardate 8554.1,” and observe Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner, older but spry and in good form) climbing Mt. Capitan.
The visuals and score are majestic enough to almost make one overlook how absurd it is that Kirk, let alone Shatner, would be free climbing one of Earth’s great wonders. Still, you have to hand it to Shatner – has there ever been a better visual metaphor for a first time director than scaling a mountain?
In fact, as the sequence plays out, Kirk loses his grip and nearly plunges to his death (the reason the end credits boast, “Highest Descender Fall Recorded in the United States: Ken Bates”).
Yet, Kirk is saved at the last minute by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock – ironic, as Nimoy offered sure-fire direction for the past two entries; the moment feels sort of like an omen for the film overall.
A C-plot takes form as a renegade Klingon (Todd Bryant) enters the picture, bragging about the opportunity to defeat Captain Kirk. There’s also the establishing of the B-plot, as Sybok assumes control of Nimbus III, taking over a small town and creating a hostage crisis.
When we finally cut back to Kirk, Spock and “Bones” McCoy (played by the wonderful Deforest Kelly), the scenes are as chummy and campy as you remember: the campfire scene where the three sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is intentionally funny, though the humor in this scene and the film overall is hit and miss.
Better still is the establishing of a simple bit of existentialism, as Kirk, Spock and Bones are partaking in the most squarely human of rituals. Watching our heroes eat “marsh-mellons” and sing by a campfire (in the film’s post-credits scene and again right before the end credits roll), we’re witnessing these figures at their most unguarded.
It may be cheesy but it’s also novel to present these men in such a vulnerable, plain manner.
You have to hand it to Shatner for taking his crew out of the Enterprise, though, like all of these movies, the side characters are often neglected (note the scene with George Takei’s Sulu and Walter Koenig wandering around the woods).
Following the monster success of “The Voyage Home” as a stand-alone sci-fi comedy, “The Final Frontier is overloaded with sitcom-y quips from the early scenes and doesn’t cease.
Once the plot takes hold, we discover the intimate Sybok/Spock connection, learn of Sybok’s plan to hijack the Enterprise to the fabled “Sha-Ka-Ree,” and travel “beyond The Great Barrier.”
There’s an intriguingly ambiguous quality to Sybok’s role as a healer and quasi-man of God. While he clearly has the ability to drain men and women of the pain that plagues them, he’s also a conniving criminal who can control both his flock and even those keeping him captive.
His obsession with finding “Sha-Ka-Ree” (eventually revealed to be Heaven) and asserting a grip on both his followers (and even those opposed to him) give the character a real aura of danger.
At times, Sybok is like a charismatic terrorist or a robed faith healer you find yourself drawn to, whether you believe in him or not.
STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)
— One Perfect Shot (@OnePerfectShot) May 31, 2019
In his enjoyable 1994 book, “Star Trek Movie Memories,” Shatner admits that he devised the character of Sybok after watching news reports of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Robert Tilton and Jimmy Swaggert, all caught up in their public scandals and professing to be instruments of God.
FAST FACT: “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” earned $52 million at the U.S. box office, compared to the $109 million “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” brought in three years earlier.
Shatner’s fascination with such individuals carries over into the film and Luckinball’s effective turn. If “The Final Frontier” can’t compete with the fresh innovation of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (which was in its second season when this movie opened), it at least creates a worthy talking point in having a timely antagonist who never fails to intrigue.
If only the ending were as strong as the build-up.
Despite the long held derision on Shatner’s filmmaking abilities, the problem here isn’t with his direction but the screenplay. Not only are there far too many jokes, campy bits (Uhura’s infamous “fan dance” has nothing on the sight of Spock doing the Vulcan neck pinch on a horse) and an inconclusive climax.
Footage of the unused “rock monster” that was originally a part of Shatner’s once-planned, much wilder finale, is so arresting, I wish it made the final cut.
In the final moments, a New Age button is placed on the subject of religion, with Kirk offering to his friends, “Maybe God’s not out there, maybe he’s right here,” and taps his chest.
A tough question to consider that the movie occasionally explores – what if Sybok, with his genuine powers and faith-driven journey (he is correct, after all, that there is a place beyond the barrier), is genuinely right? Wouldn’t that make his man of faith the actual hero of this movie, especially in contrast to the science-minded explorers he overtakes (but never truly harms)?
Had Sean Connery played the role as originally planned, Sybok may have inevitably come across as a Moses figure. Here, Luckinball keeps us guessing whether he’s a prophet or a fool, though the character always seems up to no good. This works in the film’s favor.
The camaraderie between Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly is consistently strong. What the film gets right is celebrating the prickly but genuinely affectionate friendship between the trio (both the actors and their characters).
While the supporting cast suffers (an intriguing subplot of a Scotty/Uhura secret romance goes nowhere), the leads carry the movie and have some terrific moments.
Particularly memorable is a pleasingly odd, emotionally charged sequence where Sybok practices his powers on Kirk, Spock and McDoy, all to differing results (it’s the best scene in the film).
So are the promising moments that explore existential longing and dread. It may leave a feeling of dissatisfaction overall (especially in comparison to the well rounded conclusion of “The Voyage Home'”) but “The Final Frontier” is worthy of Gene Roddenberry’s namesake and there’s a lot here to chew on.
It’s not the worst in the movie franchise (give that dishonor to “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” or “Star Trek: Insurrection,” both of which are flavorless in comparison) and deserves credit for reaching out in bold new directions, even if, like its crew, it doesn’t go far enough once it reaches The Great Barrier.
I’ll give Shatner the final word, which comes from his aforementioned book:
“I see “Star Trek V’ as a failed but glorious attempt to make a picture full of character growth and a deep philosophical base, delving into man’s universal desire to believe. I really wanted to use Star Trek as a means to tell a story that would have taken those beloved characters into waters they’d never before tested, simultaneously making them question their own beliefs and ultimately their faith in one another.
Obviously, it didn’t come out as I’d hoped.”