SEQUELISED: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The Shat picks up the megaphone for Star Trek’s darkest day. 

Who made it?: William Shatner (Director), David Loughery (Writer), Harve Bennett (Producer), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Laurence Luckinbill.

Tagline: “What does God need with a starship?”

IMDb rating: 5.2/10.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier begins with a middle-aged James T. Kirk climbing a mountain, without so much as a rope, in what is perhaps cinema’s greatest manifestation of ego. We are not only seeing the star of the series perform an “illogical” feat, but a filmmaker determined to wrestle the franchise away from a dear friend. Enter: William Shatner, director. We know something’s amiss when Spock (previous helmsman Leonard Nimoy) appears beside him sporting a hitherto-unseen pair of rocket boots. When the Admiral loses his footing and falls, the Vulcan swoops down and grabs Kirk in the nick of time. Sounds fine on paper, but in execution, it’s like a scene from a cartoon with “special” effects that would have stuck out on The Original Series. Right then and there, I knew the sensible thing to do would be to hit stop and skip to The Undiscovered Country, but life hates me just as Bill Shatner hates Trekkers.

Hardcore fans will tell you that number five is the weakest of the original six films, but I’ll go one further and say that it is the crumbiest of the twelve films released to date. The problems with Shatner’s film are manifest, almost tearing a temporal rip in the space time continuum that swallows up common sense, coherence and any semblance of wit. He might have been a Starfleet Captain slash Admiral since 1966, but when finally given the big chair, Shatner couldn’t help but toss aside the franchise’s proud history and bask in his own tubby glory. Just about nothing in this film works, and that includes the all-important story which barely registers as a narrative.

I’ll save you a great deal of time by saying that – SPOILER - Spock’s brother, Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), is on a personal quest to find God. Yes, the Almighty himself. To accomplish this, he takes over command of the Enterprise and leads Kirk and co. through the dreaded “Great Barrier” to a planet where our creator supposedly resides. That’s the long and short of it. The Klingons pop in for a few quick cameos, but mostly The Final Frontier is concerned with painfully ham-fisted religious commentary and a lack of direction that, due to a horrific script, causes total screen inertia. Phasers are not set to stun.

To be fair to Shatner, the project was beset with problems. His original script pitch was routinely dismissed by the cast and series creator Gene Roddenberry, and a Writer’s Guild strike only exacerbated his woes. The final screenplay, credited to David Loughery, feels like a first draft rushed into production, and the feeling of meeting a release date pervades every aspect of The Final Frontier. Nothing about the God plot is resolved in a satisfactory manner, and Sybok’s Jesus-like ability to cure people’s inner-pain has no explanation or a reason to exist in the Star Trek universe. The script and its story are the most important aspects of a motion picture, and if you don’t have these fundamentals in place, the entire, um, enterprise is going to topple like a house of cards. There’s just no rhyme or reason to this film, making it a collection of scenes that mean nothing in the context of the story or the mythology. This is a film where Kirk, Spock and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) sit around a campfire on shoreleave singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It feels like Shatner is purposefully wasting our time in his search for a saga worth telling.

Making it all worse is a cast well-aware of the lacklustre script. Whether you like Star Trek or not, you can’t deny that the camaraderie between these characters is strong and sincere, but none of that indefinable chemistry is apparent in The Final Frontier. They’re all there to spout exposition and deliver jokes that would make a toddler embarrassed. Indeed, I lost count of the shots where Nimoy is reduced to nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a head-tilt, like a forlorn puppy. Shatner should have given his long-standing cast mates more dignity than that, and without another director to reign him in, this is easily his most self-aggrandising performance ever. This is Porky Pig levels of unrestrained ham.

But at least the space stuff is well-shot, right? Wrong! The effects were not produced by Industrial Light & Magic like the previous three entries, as they were too busy doing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II, and boy, does it show! The team had a scant three months to complete every shot, which is roughly half the industry standard, taking all sense of spectacle away from the Enterprise’s manoeuvres. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was ten years old in 1989, had a substantially bigger budget, and boasted some of the best VFX of the series. Whether it was Paramount’s penny-pinching or Shatner’s incompetence doesn’t matter, because, ultimately, The Final Frontier almost killed the golden goose.

If you’re thinking about a Star Trek marathon, my advice is to ignore altogether and warp-speed to 1991’s The Undiscovered Country. This film is so bad that not even the stalwart fans can defend it with a straight face. Beam me the fuck out of here…

Best Scene

“Captain, I do not think you realise the gravity of your situation.”

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  •  The name “Sha Ka Ree” is a play on words from the original actor asked to play the part of Sybok: Sean Connery.
  • Enterprise-D corridor sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation were used as Enterprise-A corridors in this film. Very few cosmetic alterations were made so as not to interfere with filming of the TV series, which was under way at the same time. The sick-bay from TNG is also used unaltered in the film, which marks the first appearance of Star Trek‘s LCARS computer system.
  • Laurence Luckinbill (Sybok) is the son-in-law of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Desi and Lucy’s production company, Desilu Productions, produced the first two seasons of Star Trek.
  • William Shatner, in an interview on E! Entertainment Television, said that David Warner’s character was going to have a prop that consisted of a self-lighting cigarette. According to Shatner, they simply forgot to use it in one of the scenes even though the prop actually worked and cost thousands of dollars.
  • During pre-production meetings, screenwriter David Loughery jokingly proposed to have Commander Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) appear as an erotic dancer in order to lure away the hostage takers from the Paradise compound. He was surprised to learn that the producers approved of the idea right away.
  • Shatner asked Paramount for money to complete the film the way he originally intended, for release on DVD. Paramount refused.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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