Star Trek V: The Final Frontier Review
Okay, so it’s fair to say that in my time writing for DVD Times I’ve defended my fair share of dubious films - I thought that Lady in the Water had its heart in the right place, and that The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was just a bit of harmless fun - but probably my biggest critical heresy remains the admission that Star Trek: Generations is my favourite Star Trek film. Note I don’t think it’s the best – I’m more than aware of its flaws – but for me the combination of Kirk and Picard, Malcolm McDowell, Lursa and B’etor and the bit where Data goes “Oh shit” (I’m a simple soul) all combine to make me a very happy Trekker whenever I sit down to watch it. But everyone has their guilty pleasures, and to admit to liking one sub-par Trek film is not so heinous a crime, just another example of what makes us illogical humans, with our unexpected emotional responses, such a mystery to the Vulcans. But, oh hell, now. Now along comes Paramount’s new set, and I find myself reviewing the first six movies, and we’ve reached The Final Frontier, and there’s no escape. I can feel whatever little remaining credibility I have vanishing out of the air lock faster than a Klingon being chased by a Tribble, but there’s no escape. It has to be done. Okay. Deep breath.
I really, really like The Final Frontier.
There. I’ve said it. That’s actually a bit of a relief to confess that, as though I’ve stood up and declared my faith in front of a hostile audience, a martyr to the cause. In fact, I feel pretty similar to Sybok, the film’s antagonist. Like him I believe in something despite all the evidence to the contrary saying I’m wrong, like him I’m going to give it my best shot to prove I’m right, and almost certainly like him I’m going to end up looking a poor deluded fool destroyed by his own convictions. And like him I know I face a sceptical audience; even now, twenty years after its release, The Final Frontier is derided as quite the worst of the films starring the original Star Trek cast, the film which cemented the series’s reputation for “even numbered movies: good, odd numbered movies: bad” and almost spelt a slightly premature end for its cast and crew. The only reason it doesn’t rank bottom overall is because of Star Trek: Nemesis which is possibly the one single good reason for that film to exist. But is it really, really such a hellish experience?
The major problem is, of course, the film’s premise. Anyone hearing the synopsis “Captain Kirk goes to meet God,” after they’ve stopped laughing, knows that no, he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t. For him to really do so would be simultaneously too absurd and too incendiary, the latter an even bigger factor than the former given that Trek’s major market has always been the God-fearing USA. The odd thing is, though, that having said that The Final Frontier was not the first time that pitch had been made. God’s existence or lack of was a bit of an obsession for Trek’s creator; after Kirk had take on several pseudo-deities in the original series, Gene Roddenberry had spent a considerable amount of time in the Seventies developing a script called Star Trek: The God Thing in which Kirk really had taken on God, the real, Judeo-Christian one, and emerged victorious. Not unsurprisingly, Paramount had rejected the concept out of hand, and by the time The Final Frontier was being written Roddenberry himself was more than a little dubious about the whole idea. Not unlike The Search for Spock audiences knew the outcome before they ever saw the film: Captain Kirk goes in search of God, but he doesn’t find him.
But that’s not quite the focus William Shatner had in mind when he developed the story with Trek’s perennial movie producer Harve Bennett. Instead he wanted to explore the search for God, what drives people to find that ultimate meaning in their lives, and the lengths they will go to satisfy their craving for understanding. This was quite, if you’ll excuse the pun, prophetic, as Sybok (played by Laurence Luckinbill) is very much a David Koresh figure, only a Koresh figure four years before Waco happened. The film opens as the renegade Vulcan and his ragtag band of followers capture the capital city of Nimbus III, a planet in the galactic equivalent of the Middle East, and takes its three Ambassadors hostage. Starfleet despatch Captain Kirk and the Enterprise on a rescue mission, only for them to inadvertently walk into a trap, resulting in Sybok taking control of the Enterprise. It turns out that securing a starship was his aim all along, as he wants to head to the centre of the galaxy and the Great Barrier, beyond which he believes lies Heaven and an Almighty waiting for him with open arms. Can Kirk, Spock and McCoy, on their own after the rest of the crew choose to follow the Vulcan, stop him from leading the ship to almost certain destruction, or is it just possible that God really is waiting for them beyond what literally would be the final frontier?
You have to love Shatner. Because Nimoy had been the director on Star Treks III and IV Bill had it written into his contract that he would get to helm the next one. Unfortunately the experience did not go well for him, and it’s fair to say that after The Motion Picture the making of The Final Frontier was the most fraught of all the six films with the original crew. And yet, despite the problems, he emerged with a picture which, to my mind, is actually very entertaining. At the heart of the picture is the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate, and the portrait of their friendship is the finest in the entire Trek pantheon. These three old-timers stick together through thick and thin, love each other despite their foibles, have become, as Kirk describes Spock, brothers to each other in lieu of the real families their Starfleet careers never allowed them to have. The opening sequences of them camping in Yellowstone Park are among my favourite moments in Trek ever, funny and moving, and far more natural and less forced than most of the original series’s moments of banter. All three actors give sincere performances (indeed, despite the fact Shatner is directing, he’s pretty good the entire film, “SHOOOOT HIM!” aside), and after over twenty years it’s only right to cap off their relationship in a movie which allows them to spend a majority of screentime together.
Indeed, up to the point where the Enterprise passes through the Great Barrier, I truly don’t think there’s anything major with which to find fault. Although you can see Shatner having to employ a few more close-ups than he’d like to disguise the paucity of the sets, he does a good job in imbuing Nimbus III with a suitably seedy, lowdown atmosphere, an arid wasteland where produce can't grow in the soil or improved political relations in the city . Once back on the ship, the scenes of Kirk and co racing around the ship are good fun (even if the lift shaft does contain one of Trek’s most famous bloopers – watch how the numbers change at random as our heroes shoot up it) while DeForest Kelley as McCoy gets a rare chance to really exercise his acting chops in the scene with his dying father. It’s also worth mentioning that Luckinbill is superb as Sybok, bringing to his character the passionate conviction and charisma that make it easy to see why the poor and lost of Nimbus III are so willing to follow him (although, having said that, it's equally easy to imagine Sean Connery, the original choice for the role, being good too.) Even the supposed anticlimax once the crew do reach “God’s planet” is alleviated by one line – “Excuse me, what does God need with a starship?” – which perfectly encapsulates both Captain Kirk and his creator’s beliefs.
However, there is a fundamental problem with the film, a flaw particularly heinous given its subject matter, which is an extreme lack of depth. The film never probes nor questions, never explores the issues at the film’s heart or gets to the nub of the thing. The Kirk-Spock-triumvirate lies at its core, but their relationship is never really challenged, it’s a constant. In The Search for Spock Kirk gives up everything for his two friends, in The Undiscovered Country he and McCoy suffer together the physical and mental hardships of imprisonment in Rura Penthe, but here the most the three have to do is to decide to stick together – not much of a challenge. Equally, Sybok is a fanatic, but we don’t learn why he’s a fanatic, beyond the idea that he was a young Vulcan rebel. This isn’t good enough; a fundamental aspect of such characters is to understand their psychology, their reasons for their pursuits, and that is left totally unexplained here. This renders the film far more superficial than it need be; if one was being charitable one could presume to say that it was because the subject, being dicey anyway, was not deemed suitable for exploration for fear of getting into dodgy areas, but really one has a sneaking suspicion that it was more simply just the case that it didn’t occur to anyone to question deeper. In one of the extras on this disc Shatner goes on at tedious lengths about the metaphor of the opening scene of Kirk’s climbing the mountain, overcoming the challenge – so what? What does that tell us? He never says. Equally, the fact that Spock is Sybok's brother is simply a plot convenience to get past a particular scene, not something which is subsequently looked at - we don't really get any idea of how Spock is feeling, or his reactions to his meeting his sibling after all these times. These and other strands are left dangling in the air, not only unresolved but largely unnoticed by those involved.
The other major issue was that during the film’s production time and time again, Shatner’s grand plans were scuppered by the realities of an extremely low budget. It’s hard enough making a big space epic when you’ve had a nine figure sum backing you up, and he was nowhere near a nine figure sum when the cameras began to roll, resulting in unintentionally amusing moments when the vast difference between what he intended and what ended up on screen are painfully apparent. For example, the scene of Sybok’s troops invading Paradise City, which no doubt numbered thousands in Bill’s head, ends up showing a lowly rabble of twenty or thirty posing what appears to be no sort of threat whatsoever – the City must be in a bad way indeed if such an unimpressive mob can take it over so easily. The effects work for the first time was not done by ILM (they were busy with the likes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and the replacement team were simply not up to the task – there are a few shots which don’t look that far from being cardboard cut-outs being moved around a space back drop, while one set piece, when Sulu has to fly the shuttle into the Enterprise at high speed, is thrilling on paper but woefully executed. The biggest victim of the budgetary woes was the climax. Originally the film was to end in far more dramatic a fashion, Kirk and co finding themselves in an alien version of Dante’s inferno, Hell rather than Heaven, complete with giant rock men smashing out of the ground and chasing them as they tried to escape. Gradually this was whittled down and whittled down until, still not quite appreciating the damage that had been done, Shatner found himself in the editing suite with the sequence we ended up with. Apologists for the film claim that this sequence alone would have redeemed the whole thing. This overstates its importance, but it might have made for a slightly more action-packed ending.
But it wasn’t, and after the highs of the Spock-dies trilogy Trekkers was sorely disappointed in 1989 when they were presented with this – especially given that for the first time since The Wrath of Khan there was a rumour going around that this could be the last film. By the time it was released Star Trek: The Next Generation, after a very rocky start, had begun to find its feet and was already seen as a real successor to Kirk and co on the big screen, a possibility increased by the original crew’s advancing years and the fact that this was, after all, called The Final Frontier. The last scene, with our heroes once again around the campfire, had an air of closure to it – why not leave them in their happy retirement? It’s easy to see why, with such issues in the air, people would have been disgruntled at this being the original crew's swansong (especially as the secondary characters such as Sulu and Uhura come off looking utterly disloyal for following Sybok.) However, looked at after twenty years, I really don’t believe it’s anywhere near the worst Trek had to offer. Insurrection, Nemesis, the entirety of Voyager are all far worse, whereas this has a decent narrative (ignoring the flawed premise), an interesting antagonist, some of the finest Kirk-Spock-McCoy scenes in the franchise and a few really good lines - "Then how come you don't know 'Row, row, row your boat?'" being a particular favourite. The film is not without major problems, but viewed with a degree of toleration it doesn't deserve the out-and-out kicking it has always received, and I'm very happy to proselytise on its behalf. Not heavenly, perhaps, but hardly God-awful either.
The presentation of the film is identical to the others on the set. The film and extras are held on a single BD50, which is housed in a slim amaray case which in turn lives in the slipcase of all seven discs - it's Uhura's face to be seen on this particular one, no doubt in honour of her fan dance. The menus across the set are uniform, a minimalistic pan around the Starfleet logo through which space can be seen, accompanied by an extract from the film's score. As ever, the extras are divided into several categories - Production, The Star Trek Universe and so on - but to find out which are new to this release and which come from the SD Special Collectors' Edition from a few years ago you must consult the case.
The Video transfer, which presents the movie in its original theatrical ratio at 1080p, is notably different from those of the two movies immediately preceding it. TFF is a fairly dark, murky film, with a very yellow, brownish palate, not very attractive to look at and very different from the bright, open colours of The Voyage Home especially. The transfer here is softer than those on TSFS or TVH, although the level of detail is, of course, significantly higher than on the SD release, as you can see below. The palate is suitably subdued, but the levels of definition in some of the darker scenes, notably the numerous sequences in the underlit shuttlecrafts, are not all they could be, while there are a few moments when skin tones seem to have been affected by their environments - the scene in the Enterprise brig see Kirk, Spock and McCoy looking rather jaundiced. The excessive removal of grain is arguably less of an issue than for some of the movies however - one can argue, past the initial scenes in Yosemite, that the alien worlds our heroes find themselves on lend themselves to a starker, less naturalistic look, and the look of the God planet especially is not damaged, in my opinion, by over-use of DNR. However, while it's not stellar, once again it bears repeating that it is a step up from the SD - as you can see below - and oddly despite its problems the look is decidedly more natural than the at times clinical, slightly "plasticky" look, of TVH. Below are some comparison shots between the two:
The 7.1 TrueHD Audio is pretty decent. Although it doesn't have the resonance of, say, the equivalent Cantina scenes in Star Wars, the sound designers have a reasonable bash at infusing the bar in Paradise City with a suitable atmosphere, while the opening desert sequence, with subtly whirling winds, helps give the impression of the parched landscape. The scene around the campfire is pretty good too (especially given that it was shot in a studio rather than on location), although the limited number of ship shots aren't up to the levels of TMP, TWOK or TUC and are, appropriately given the visuals, a little underwhelming. The one major battle in the city makes reasonable use of all the speakers, while God at the end is lent a timbre which adds an extra dimension to the climax. Possibly the weakest audio of the six, but not the fault of the track itself as much as the film it's working with.
As ever, the film and all extras bar the commentaries are subtitled, and I've asterisked the extras below which are presented in HD.
It's another full house as, with the exception of Michael Okuda's text commentary, as ever on these discs replaced with the Library Computer, we get all the extras from the SD Special Collectors' Edition of the film brought over. As with all the other discs, they are joined by a handful of new, non-vital pieces which you could easily live without. Not having seen the footage before, I found Hollywood Walk of Fame: James Doohan* (3:11) a little distressing - presented with his star in 2004 in front of his fellow cast members (no Shat, naturally) and well-wishers, he's obviously in very poor health (he died the following year) but at least he seems to be enjoying himself. Star Trek Honors NASA* (9:57) is a pleasantly bland featurette which features a couple of workers at the Space Agency talking about their love for the show, and how it has inspired them. It's certainly better than the wretched Starfleet Academy: Nimbus III* (3:03) piece, about which I think I've gone on enough in the past reviews. There's also the usual BD-Live: Star Trek IQ link, which I've given up trying to access.
The highlight of the new material is the fan Commentary. The same contributors from the new track on TMP return (Michael and Denise Okuda, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, and Daren Dochterman) and are very interesting and informative, highlighting a whole load of production trivia and discussing the film's strengths and weaknesses. I greatly enjoyed listening to it, far more than that featuring William Shatner and his daughter Liz which they recorded for the SCE. Liz is present as she wrote a book about the making of her father's film, and the track starts off well, Shatner talking earnestly about what he was doing and Liz contributing on-set anecdotes. By the halfway point, however, they seem to have run out of things to talk about, and lapse into lengthy periods of silence, making for an ultimately disappointing track.
All the rest of the extras are from the SCE. I’m not sure of the provenance of Harve Bennett’s Pitch (1:42) which dates from the time, in which he addresses the camera and solemnly tells us Star Trek 5 is “every bit as good as Star Trek 4” but I assume it was for a convention. The major Making Of, The Journey (28:54), is a little more haphazard than those for the previous films, although it does cover all the major problems the shoot faced (well, aside from the tensions between Shatner and his fellow cast members) and is markedly uncritical of the final result. To complement it, a collection of various visual tests are also bunged onto the disc. The Pre-Visualisation Models (1:41) consist of two minutes of people poking small ship models around, the Make-up Tests (9:50) ten minutes of stills and early alien tryouts, and Rockman in the Raw (5:37) footage of the infamous creature which looks like it’s wandered off the set of Lost in Space. I recently saw a discussion on a fan forum which said that actually he wouldn't have looked so bad. No, really, he would have done. Look:
Perched on a rock in Yosemite at the time of the shoot, with El Capitan in the background, Shatner makes a bid for inclusion in Pseud’s Corner in Original Interview: William Shatner, (14:37) in which he dissects the metaphor of the mountain climbing scene in painfully tedious detail. He was also in a difficult mood during the Star Trek V Press Conference (13:42), giving facetious answers to the reporters' questions - one can almost sense the room getting a bit annoyed. It's worth checking out, though, for the toe-curling moment when he introduces the cast (in a manner far more suited to hyped-up convention groupies than stony-faced reporters) and apparently forgets Koenig's name - you can see the latter silently thinking "Typical!" There are four Deleted Scenes (4:17), including one mentioned in at least one of the commentaries with Sulu and Chekov walking in front of a Mount Rushmore with five Presidents instead of four, and a lengthy sequence between the three diplomats which you'd have to be really into the movie to enjoy (I did.) The Production Gallery (4:05) is quite nice as well, with lots of jolly behind-the-scenes shots including a cast and crew looking far more relaxed than all reports suggest they were. Inevitably, the most interesting of the three Storyboards included is that for the aborted final scene, involving said rockmen - again, it's difficult to tell from the rather sketchy drawings, but it doesn't look that much more thrilling than what we got.
Fittingly for the film’s subject matter, Cosmic Thoughts (13:05) (featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it contribution from Ray Bradbury) explores the series’s on-screen explorations of the concepts of religion. A little superficial, but not without merit. That Klingon Couple (13:05) sees Captain Klaa and Vixis (Todd Bryant and Spice Williams-Crosby) reunited to reminisce about the film’s shoot. Spice is, to put it politely, rather exuberant but it’s an interesting piece (and Bryant to this day is proud of his inclusion on his film, as his recent bid for a Captain Klaa action figure on eBay shows!) The worthy but dull A Green Future? (9:24) visits Yosemite to report on the perils of Global Warming and the lovely idea that Star Trek suggests all will be well in the future, and is ultimately little more than filler. Moving a little beyond the scope of just this one movie, the bland but pleasant Herman Zimmerman: A Tribute (19:08) profiles the career of the man who was for twenty years, from the beginning of Star Trek: The Next Generation right through to the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, the resident production designer. The first of the six films he worked on was The Final Frontier and here admirers line up to acclaim his work.
Rounding things off, we get two excellent Theatrical Trailers* (2:42 & 1:38), even if they do spell out the entire movie, and seven TV Spots (3:14).
A decent selection of extras complement this mildly underrated the film, although the video transfer isn't splendid. Worth revisiting though.
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
6 out of 10
7 out of 10