STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER: God Doesn’t Need a Starship, But He Could Use a Budget

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – Directed by William Shatner – Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, Laurence Luckinbill, James Doohan, Nichele Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig.

Star Trek is a second-rate movie franchise.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Star Trek is a first-rate franchise that’s treated as a second-rate franchise by the people paying the bills. Certainly it’s a first-rate franchise to the people working on it (however mediocre most of the Star Trek films has been, I’d argue they are clearly labors of love by most involved) and to the fans who continued to turn out and watch the movies (even if there weren’t huge numbers of them), but man, there were a bunch of cheap dicks running Paramount in the ’80s, weren’t there? Here you’ve got the fifth film in a successful, if not globally dominant, franchise and it looks like the budget keeps getting smaller and smaller. It’s entirely fitting, I suppose, that STAR TREK V sees an Enterprise that hasn’t been assembled properly sent out on a mission before it’s ready because that’s what the franchise feels like as the fifth film rolls past your non-lying eyes.

The special effects in TREK V largely look like those of a second-rate television network and not a major motion picture studio. The blue energy beams that shoot out of “God’s” eyes look every bit as bad as the effects in The Motion Picture. Effects aren’t everything, of course, but when you’re going to include effects, and when those effects are a noticeable step backwards from the previous two pictures, you deserve to get called on it.

That said – I’ve enjoyed enough classic DOCTOR WHO to be able to watch past cheap special effects if the script and acting is strong, and the script here is just not that good, and the acting (beyond Laurence Luckinbill) is just not that good, either.

Everything about TREK V is a step backwards. The writing isn’t as good. The acting isn’t as good. The direction isn’t as good. The effects aren’t as good. The cast doesn’t have as much to do. It’s not as fun.

On the positive side of the ledger, however, Sybok is a better villain than that whale-seeking alien probe, but he ends up sacrificing himself to save them against the ultimate villain, “God.”

Or, as he’s known in his most famous role, “The Wizard of Oz.”

The result is that we really don’t get to enjoy watching Sybok get his comeuppance.

My name is Sybok. I could have been played by Sean Connery, but he was too busy making a film with Harrison Ford about a magical cup. Instead, I'm played by a fellow named "Laurence." Honestly, this one is a win for everyone.

Sybok is perhaps the best example of TREK V’s inability to get out of its own way. Despite his lack of space mullet, Sybok is as great a villain as Khan, and shares with Khan his prophet-style of leadership. Like Khan, Sybok has a flock of followers behind him, but unlike Khan, Sybok encourages people to let go of their deepest pain to embrace peace instead of Khan’s tactic of embracing his hate and using it as a motivational engine. Khan isn’t in the film because he got himself blown up or turned into a plant or something back at The Genesis Planet (still a stupid name), but TREK V sets up the wrong dynamic with Sybok. Why introduce Sybok as a half-brother to Spock, complete with all this brotherly and ideological baggage, and then pair him off with Kirk?

Because Shatner came up with the story?

Because Shatner directed it?

Because Kirk has to be the center?

Then why not make Sybok a half-brother to Kirk instead of Spock, especially since Spock’s role in this film is really just to play comic relief?Not only is Sybok the half-brother of Spock (they share a daddy, but Sybok’s mommy was a Vulcan princess), but they create him as a binary to our emotionally-challenged half-Vuclan; where Spock struggles to keep his emotions in check, Sybok lets his run wild. it makes him a rather perfect counterpoint for Spock, but … no, TREK V gives us Sybok vs. Kirk. Sybok, the guy who wants you to face your pain in order to go live in a happy place, vs. Kirk, the guy who wants and needs his pain to fuel him.

You know, like Khan does.

Aside #1: Yes, I’m being reductive. Just because Kirk and Khan have a similar energy source doesn’t mean they’re the same dude. Kirk takes that pain and turns it into fuel for helping others as he’s satisfying his own ego, while Khan helps others as a side effect of satisfying his own ego.

Aside #2: Nimoy knows this is a daft script. He’s a better actor and director than Shatner when it comes to these particular roles, but he mailed this performance in. He’s consistently been the best actor among the Enterprise crew throughout these films but he’s awful here; you can practically see him smirk and roll his eyes at the stupidity of it all.

The film toys with the idea of putting Spock in between Sybok’s way and Kirk’s way, but it never really presses it. At this point, everyone knows Spock is going to choose Kirk (even if Shatner’s original story apparently had it otherwise, which would have made Kirk an even bigger center of the film) so the potential shifting of Spock’s allegiance goes as quickly as it comes.

Here’s the deal with STAR TREK V – it’s not very good, but it’s heart is in the right place. Sometimes you can end up having more respect for someone when they fail as opposed to when they succeed and that’s how I feel about William Shatner and STAR TREK V. He’s trying so very hard to make a good film here – there’s humor, there’s something for the whole cast to do, there’s action and philosophy, there’s all those little scriptwriting tricks where you do things like have your cast sing a song at the start of the movie (“Row, Row, Row, Your Boat,” to which Spock says, “But, Captain, life is not a dream”) and give it a pay-off later (Kirk saying that if Sybok is right then “Life really is a dream.”) – but it just doesn’t work.

This is the Rock Man. Kirk was supposed to have a big fight with the Rock Man, but they cut it because it looked too awful. Which just goes to show you that the film did have some standards for special effects.

I love that TREK V is trying to show you the dirty, grimy side of the Trek universe and I applaud that notion a thousand times over. I can’t applaud how they go about it, however.

There’s two sub-plots of dirt in TREK V: Sybok’s Galactic Army of Light and the malfunctioning Enterprise. Sybok is an impassioned prophet who’s received visions from God/”God”/the Wizard/Big Glowing Head Guy and can use his own telepathic abilities to get you to face your deepest pain and cry and then become a mindless sheep who’ll follow him to the end of the universe.

Luckily, I suppose, he only wants to lead you to the center of the galaxy.

Sybok’s Army of Light arc starts promising enough, beginning on the dirtball planet of Tatooine (snap!), where some creepy guy with bad teeth becomes Sybok’s first convert. Later, at the Mos Eisley Cantina (burn!), the new Romulan ambassador meets with the human and Klingon ambassadors, who are both total burnouts. Nimbus III is the so-called “Planet of Galactic Peace” because after the Federation-Klingon War blah blah blah understanding blah blah blah co-developlment blah blah blah.

Here’s what you need to know – they paid to get David Warner to play the human ambassador and they totally waste him. Let me rephrase – I have no idea if Warner was getting more than scale at this point in his career (he probably wasn’t since this cheap-ass film probably didn’t even pick up the tab for lunch), but even if he was just getting scale, David Warner is awesome and TREK V gives him about five lines and a lot of standing around.

Unfortunately, they even screw the standing around up as they brainwash him into being just another one of Sybok’s Sheep, so he doesn’t even get to be David Warner for 75% of the film, he gets to be “man with dopey, peaceful expression #3.”

Nimbus III is supposed to represent the chance of peace gone by, but again, they don’t really do anything with it. The whole planet and bar and ambassadors is just done so Sybok can convert them and lead some starship into a trap. Which just happens to be a wounded Enterprise. Which just happens to have Sybok’s half-brother on it. Which just happens to be a starship powerful enough to get through the Great Barrier (which isn’t based on a reef, but a cheesy special effect).

The malfunctioning Enterprise is also done just so things in the film can happen. It only has a skeletal crew in order to make it easier for Sybok to steal. It’s teleporter doesn’t work well enough to get Kirk out of danger but it does work well enough to get Spock and McCoy out of danger.

This is Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is pretty. Yellowstone scoffs at your terrible special effects. Unless this is a special effect, in which case it's the best one in the film.

Silly stuff like that keeps jabbing you in the eye. It starts right at the beginning of the picture with Kirk climbing up Yellowstone’s El Capitan, which manages to be the most unbelievable thing in the entire movie. I imagine they did it to remind us that Kirk is young and fit and while Shatner deserves credit for getting in the gym and not being a total fatty, he hardly looks in shape enough to climb up a cliff face. Combine that with his age and it just plays out like a mid-life crisis for Shatner more than Kirk.

By the time you get to the end of the film, the silly stuff is still hanging around. They get to The God Planet (whatever it’s called) and there’s a big blue talking head who turns out to be some powerful entity who’s a total crabface. Sybok is let down because all “God” wants is the spaceship so he can get off this barren rock of a planet. Kirk wants to know, “What does God need with a starship?”

It’s a good line and you know they know it because Spock gets to say it, too.

Sybok jumps on the floating face and dies and then Kirk has to keep fighting the thing all by himself, and then a Klingon ship that’s been after him saves him because Spock gets the Klingon Ambassador Sheep Person to force that ship’s captain to use their transporter room, and then Spock gets to fire the Klingon weapons to blast the big blue face out of existence because … I don’t know. At this point, you just want it to be over, but they’ve got to all stand around having drinks together, and Sulu and Chekov awkwardly fantasize about having a threesome with the big muscular Klingon woman, but they’re totally cockblocked by the Klingon captain’s standing in place.

FWIW, I would have totally watched a movie about Chekov and Sulu swinging around the universe, awkwardly trying to score with Barbarella.

TREK V is not a very good movie, but as I explained way back at the start, I’ve never been a huge Star Trek fan and re-watching the first four movies hasn’t made me a huge Star Trek fan, so I’m not crushed or angered by the existence of this movie. I would not even remotely categorize this movie as a Franchise Killer, but apparently it almost did just that. (At least the movie half; The Next Generation was filming at the same time and I can’t imagine Paramount was going to cancel a successfully syndicated TV show just because they made a ham-fisted movie with the first generation.) It ain’t great, and I can imagine that if I’d paid the 1989 equivalent of $10 for a movie I’d probably have been a bit torqued, but to me it’s just a not-quite-mediocre movie.

I Netflixed that Kristen Kreuk Street Fighter movie, after all, and this is better than that.

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