As the old saying about movie franchises goes, at least in terms of the first six Star Trek movies, the odd numbered ones are terrible and the even numbered ones are great. I used to just believe that outright because of received fan wisdom. Through the years, though, I’ve started to soften on some. I think the original cast movies are all great. Star Trek: The Motion Picture might be slow and dull, but it’s a gorgeous movie to look at and has some terrific ideas. And though Star Trek III: The Search for Spock suffers from being a bit too much like a dumb action movie, it’s still enjoyable.
Then there’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Yeah. I think the adage only really exists because of this one and…uhh…I won’t say it’s bad, but it’s sure weird.
So, like I said, while it’s not everybody’s favorite, I love The Motion Picture because it’s big on ideas and grandeur. Then everybody loves Wrath of Khan (especially people making movies in the series later on…twice), Search for Spock has a lot of weird but interesting Vulcan stuff in it, and The Voyage Home has a nutso story that shouldn’t have paid off but became the biggest money-maker of them all. Chances were taken on all four of them, and they all seemed to mostly work out. Leonard Nimoy had directed the previous two installments and so William Shatner wanted his turn, contributing to the script as well. This is “Un Film de William Shatner,” and it’s… it’s kind of not Star Trek.
The plot for the film feels pretty thin, and that’s because it is. The crew of the Enterprise are away camping on Earth, specifically Kirk, Spock, and Bones, who sit around a campfire and sing “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Meanwhile, on the planet Nimbus III, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) with the ability to assuage pain using his mind meld has taken a human, Romulan, and Klingon hostage in the hopes of luring a starship there. This works and the Enterprise is sent. It turned out to be entirely a ruse, though, because Sybok just wanted a starship to travel to the mysterious planet at the center of the universe called Sha Ka Ree. Sybok is also Spock’s half-brother that nobody ever knew about.
Kirk and Spock are immune to Sybok’s abilities and don’t want their pain taken away, and so the Vulcan begrudgingly allows them all to go to Sha Ka Ree. Meanwhile, there’s a Klingon bad guy who wants to kill Kirk because of reasons and plot. Eventually they reach the little blue world and Sybok speaks to an entity he believes to be God, and indeed who looks like the typical bearded visage of the Judaeo-Christian God. But, as Kirk and the film’s marketing people are keen to point out, “What does God need with a starship?” Good point, Captain/Director/Writer/Star! The entity turns out not to be God but an evil thing that wants to destroy and yadda yadda yadda the end.
Now, a lot of the problems with the movie aren’t entirely Shatner’s fault, he just bore the brunt of it. There was a Writers Guild strike going on at the time and so a lot of the script problems that would have gotten ironed out couldn’t be. There was a completely different climax planned that had to be cut due to budgetary setbacks. Shatner also had to deal with a lot of the cast wanting script approval, or at least input into what their characters did. After all, this was the fifth outing on film for the cast and why would they all want to come back and just sit there quietly while Kirk and Spock got to do all the fun stuff? There’s a story that George Takei didn’t even want to do because he didn’t want to be directed by Shatner. Stuff like this isn’t what makes a good movie.
At 106 minutes, the movie is somehow longer than it needs to be and not long enough. A huge chunk of the beginning is dedicated to Shatner, Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley sitting around a campfire talking about stuff. SO MUCH. There are a lot of ridiculous joke moments, too, which seem really out of place, even for the lighter episodes of the original series. Sybok’s plan never makes sense, even if we’re talking about things based around religious zealotry and fervor instead of cold logic, like a Vulcan is supposed to have. The idea to show Sybok, a Vulcan, laughing at the beginning of the movie was supposed to be shocking but instead it’s just weird.
But, despite all that, I don’t think The Final Frontier is terrible. It’s certainly — by far — the weakest film of the original six. That much I’m not trying to argue. But it’s a lot better than three of the four TNG movies. Shatner is a good director, and you can tell most of the problems are script-based and not directorial. By all accounts, even George Takei’s, Shatner was a capable director who never brought the off-camera tensions to the set, despite all the studio adversity he was facing. So, the movie didn’t do as well as it could have, and nearly “killed the franchise.” But when you look at everything going on behind-the-scenes, it’s sort of amazing the movie is as watchable as it is.
Luckily, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier wasn’t the final outing for the original crew, and in 1991 they reconvened, again under the writing and directing of Wrath of Khan director, Nicholas Meyer. Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country ended up being a whodunit mystery in space, which is certainly strange, but compared to Space God and laughing Vulcans, it’s practically pedestrian.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!