Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has always got a bad rep from most fans and critics alike. It’s usually voted the least liked, original crew feature film and current holds a not very hot, 21% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
But I think that is unfair. I believe the film has a lot more going for it than people give it credit. Once you look past the special effects and strange plot, there is probably the closest feature film that resembles the Original Series. Also, it’s a film that deserves a decent Directors Cut. Let me explain why…
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier followed on from a trilogy of Star Trek movies that were a hit with fans and a commercial success for Paramount while claiming critical acclaim. They also had a story arc that concluded with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was the biggest grossing Star Trek Movie at the time.
On the back of that success, a new Star Trek series was launched. Star Trek The Next Generation started on shaky ground but by the end of the second season, it had found its feet and was being accepted by fans. So with a hit TV show and a separate, successful movie series, Star Trek was on an all time high.
It was now 1988 and it had been two years since the last Star Trek movie, it was time for another.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home were both directed by Leonard Nimoy. During the original series, Nimoy and Shatner had a ‘’favored nations’’ clause in their contract, which basically meant that what one actor received i.e. a pay, rise or contract renegotiation, the other would get it too. That carried over into the movies and therefore because Nimoy directed the previous Star Trek features, it was now Shatner’s turn. In-fact, one of the reasons Shatner agreed to do the fourth film was because he was promised he could direct the next film. The studio also thought it would make a great marketing ploy having Captain Kirk in the director’s chair.
The story for the fifth film was based on Shatner’s experience of watching late night TV evangelists. He was fascinated with how they managed to convince people to hand over money by claiming ‘’God’’ is speaking through them. This became the basis for the Sybok character who was initially going to be called Zar. His original idea had the whole crew including Spock and McCoy turn against him as they are brainwashed by Zar/Sybok. They eventually meet God who turns out to be Satan and Kirk saves the day and his friends from being dragged to hell.
Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly were not so keen as they felt that Spock and McCoy betraying Kirk was something their characters would never do. Gene Roddenberry also hated it but the studio thought it was a good idea and asked for a rewrite.
Shatner rewrote the story with Harve Bennett and hired David Loughey to pen the script that eventually became Star Trek V. That’s when the problems started. The film was rushed into production in the later half of 1988 due to Paramount believing the momentum gained from the last film was being lost with each passing month. Shatner was unable to secure ILM to do the special effects and the budget started to go over what Paramount had agreed. Shatner was forced to make cuts and scale down the epic he had envisioned in his head.
On the films release, after a couple of initial positive reviews, it soon became clear that this was the turkey in the Star Trek movie franchise. The film had stiff completion from Batman and the third Indiana Jones film and therefore suffered at the box office.
But rather than me tell you what went wrong (that story has been told many times), I will explain to you what that film got right and how it might be the truest film to the spirit of the Original Series.
Story and Theme
Star Trek V is often jokingly labelled as the film where the Enterprise crew find God. Another lazy criticism thrown at the film is that Shatner is writing and directing so therefore Kirk goes and defeats God as a comment on Shatner’s ego.
But the film is more about the relationship between religion and science. Star Trek has always been about rational thinking and logic. Gene Roddenberry himself was an atheist and the theme of false Gods is explored a lot during the original series. Shatner does the same in Star Trek V where you have Sybok who is blinded by his religious beliefs and takes the crew to meet ‘’God’’ who is ultimately uncovered for what he is by Kirk’s rational thinking and asking ‘’what does God need with a Starship?
This film stands apart from the other Star Trek films where the main antagonist is primarily a belief. That was always going to be a hard thing to translate to the big screen and that is why in many ways the film works better at home on DVD. Much like other episodes that covered a similar subject, Star Trek V makes a good ‘’at home’’ adventure which would not be exciting enough for an audience who paid to see a film at the cinema. But that doesn’t mean the film should be criticized for it.
It’s a film with a common Star Trek theme and a hope that people in the future put beliefs in spiritual beings behind them and therefore grow because of it. So when the crew meet ‘God’’ and he wants to use the Enterprise to carry him through the great barrier, it takes a rational thinking human to expose him as a fraud by pointing out that hes not making any sense. It’s asking you to not be blinkered to faith and question the loop holes.
Kirk at the end of the film, goes as far to say that ‘’God’’ might be in us, that we control our own evolution and destiny and have no need for an overseeing entity. And that’s a brave message for a mainstream, American film to put out when studios usually stay away from subjects like this in order to not risk upsetting the religious audience demographic.
Kirk, Spock & McCoy
This film has some of the best scenes between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. These characters interactions have always been one of the praised elements of the Original Series and this film really exploits the chemistry between the three. It’s also the only film where Kirk, Spock and McCoy get to spend all their time together.
Right from the beginning when the three are on shore leave together to the climax on Sha-Ka-Ree, the dynamic is really well written and you get some classic moments between them; most notably McCoy who has some brilliant one liners.
The campfire scene is a highlight in the film. As Kirk, Spock and McCoy sit and philosophise and argue over life and death, you get a real sense of three friends who have been through a lot since encountering Khan in Star Trek II and they have grown closer from it.
The Special Effects
Let’s face it, the special effects in Star Trek V are rubbish. Compared to the previous films, they can’t compete. Unable to secure ILM to do the visual effects because they were too busy working on Back to the Future III and Ghostbusters II, Shatner was forced to turn to Bran Ferren. He had previously done the special effects for Little Shop Of Horrors and Altered Beast. After a promising initial meeting where Ferren demonstrated how he would create the ‘’great barrier’’ effect, the end results fell short.
People use this as one of the major sticks to beat the film with but so what if they look cheap? The effects in the original series were not in anyway spectacular, that is why CBS redone them for the HD DVD re-release. But that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the episode. Your imagination filled in the gaps when the special effects failed. You had no doubt that the Enterprise was being crushed by the hand of Apollo in ‘’Who Morns for Adonis’’ or the Galileo Shuttle was fighting to stay in orbit in ‘’The Galileo Seven’’ because you just went with it.
Granted the effects should have been better in Star Trek V but why not give the film the same benefit of the doubt as the original series. Especially when you know the problems that the film had in not being able to secure ILM.
Also, when the god entity does materialize, it’s obvious the actors are working against a projection. Whatever the effect looked like, the film was never going to be able to wow the audience and live up to expectations when the crew finally meet “God.’’ It’s a huge thing to visualize on screen, especially when each person will have their own idea of what a ‘’God’’ will look like.
So with that and the ropey Bran Ferren effect, the film had a problem. I however look at it another way. Yes, the effect does look like a cheep compromise but it also looks similar to the many cloud type aliens that Kirk and crew faced in the original series. It has a very nostalgic feel especially when the ‘’god entity’’ starts chasing Kirk.
Shatner’s original plan during that scene was for ten rock creatures to rise from the ground and start to attack them. One rock creature was built but it came in at $250,000. If he had got ten like he wanted, it would have pushed the budget over what Paramount deemed acceptable. So the rock creatures were cut and the one they had didn’t work very well or look good on film during the test shots.
Most fans think that it was a blessing in disguise that the rock creatures had to be dropped. But I think it’s a shame as it would have been great to see Kirk fight it as he did other creatures many times in the series. But sadly it was never meant to be.
In 1990, Brian Ferren said;
“The FX turned to out to be very disappointing, and this was a movie that we really needed them to put us over the top story-wise. Especially at the climax with the horde of rock gargoyles. You don’t ever like to say that because you don’t want to think that a movie is dependent on special FX. Certainly, Star Trek is the kind of thing where the FX play less of a role than the characters and the story, but I think that the story we were telling this time, at least at the movie’s end, very much needed unique and convincing special FX to make those story points work. Those FX don’t quite deliver, and in some cases, it looked a little shoddy and ludicrous.”
I agree with him that the special effects are not as polished as you would expect, but they don’t make the film unwatchable. Like Ferren said, the characters are always more important in Star Trek and there are enough visuals when needed for you to know what’s being implied. If anything, they have a certain retro feel to them that nod to the original series.
Jerry Goldsmith is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is responsible for some of the best film soundtracks ever composed. This was the second Star Trek film he worked on, the first being Star Trek The Motion picture.
As soon as the film starts, you hear Goldsmiths theme for Star Trek that was first used in The Motion Picture and more famously as the theme tune for The Next Generation. But it soon fades into a track called The Mountain which accompanies Kirk climbing El Capitan in Yosemite park. It introduces a melody that’s heard throughout the film and shows Goldsmith’s ability to translate the mood perfectly though his score. He also brought back the Klingon theme first teased in The Motion Picture and the music when they reach the ‘’god planet’’ is spiritual enough to convey that the Enterprise is somewhere mystical even if the location looks a lot like the Trona Pinnacles in California.
Leonard Rosenman composed the music for Star Trek IV The Voyage Home and even though it was nominated for an academy award, it was a departure from what had been established by Goldsmith and James Horner from their soundtracks. So it was nice to see the music for Star Trek V composed on more familiar grounds. Goldsmith said that the hardest part of the film to score was the section of the film on Sha-Ka-Ree but I think he done a fine job as this track ‘’A Busy Man’’ shows.
The part of Sybok was originally offered to Sean Connery. He turned it down as he was too busy with Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. (An interesting bit of trivia, the planet Sh-ka-Ree in the film is made up from Sean Connery’s name).
Shatner then offered the part to Laurence Luckinbill after seeing him on TV and he accepted straight away. He certainly made the role his own.
Sybok compared to other ‘‘villains’’ in Star Trek is not evil; he is more misguided if anything. Believing he knows where ‘’’God’’ is and having the ability to release people from their pain, Sybok recruits followers to his cause and sets about to hijack a starship in order to go to the planet where he thinks he will find the almighty.
He tries to play a clever game to get what he wants and without shedding any blood. He doesn’t want to hurt people, he wants to help them. If it’s through making them deal with their torment or by changing the foundations of the universe by finding God, his cause is very unique in terms of motivations that other Star Trek antagonists have.
Whoever played the part had to convey Sybok’s utter believe in his cause and while he is selfish in the way he goes about it, he has to remain likable and charming enough for people to trust him blindly.
Luckinbill captured this perfectly and from the first scene he’s in, he controls the screen and you hang of his every word. It could have been played very hammy and over the top but Luckinbill kept the dramatics in check and made Sybok a man that is delusional but good underneath. That make his sacrifice at the end of the film that much more believable.
One of the criticisms of Star Trek V is that it doesn’t have a villain that you can really hate but that ignores the complexities of the Sybok character. Ok you can’t dislike him like you can Khan but that only makes him stand out as a character from all the other bad guys in Star Trek. The only thing I would have changed is him being Spock’s half brother. I still cant understand why this had to be in inserted into the film as it didn’t really achieve anything.
One of the things that made Star Trek IV The Voyage Home so successful was the humor. It offered light relief from the general seriousness of the previous films and bought in a new audience who found the film more accessible than its predecessors. That is why it was the biggest grossing Star Trek movie at the time.
Paramount recognized this and asked for humor to shoehorned into the script for Star trek V. It worked in some cases but other times it felt forced. Unfortunately, when the humor didn’t work, those are the moments people remember; Scotty banging his head on the beam for example.
But the film does have a lot of genuinely funny moments that don’t get recognized.
The scene around the campfire has some great banter between Spock and McCoy, as does the section when they are locked in the brig. But here is my favorite example to illustrate;
McCoy Euthanasia Scene
This scene is one of the best scenes in Star Trek.
Sybok, makes McCoy deal with his ‘’pain’’ which is him having to face his fathers death and his act of euthanasia. His father is suffering from disease that’s causing him severe pain. After battling to find a cure, Mccoy gives in to his father’s pleas to ‘’release him’’ from the pain he’s in and switch off his life support. This led to McCoy struggling to deal with what he done because a few weeks after he helped his father pass away, a cure was found for the disease.
This scene really helps add an extra dimension to the McCoy character and is brilliantly handled by Deforest Kelly. You really feel his metal anguish about the act he is about to commit and the utter anger and disbelief about a cure being discovered so soon after, if only he had waited a little longer.
This whole sequence does get lost in the Star Trek shuffle but it deserves to be held up there on an emotional level with the death of Spock in Wrath of Khan and destruction of the Enterprise in Star Trek III. Apparently Deforest Kelly was ill himself when this scene was being filmed and found it very difficult. Laurence Luckinbill recalls that before they shot the scene, Kelly turned to him and said “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Luckinbill said ”I sure am” to which Kelly replied “Let’s just do this.”
Paramont did a really good job when it came to the Special edition DVD releases of the Star Trek movies, especially with the first two movies. Robert Wise, the director of the first Star Trek film, did a stellar job off reediting The Motion Picture and adding new special effects which ironed out some of the problems people had with the film. It is now considered the definitive version of the film, even over the blu-ray version. Nicholas Mayer did the same with The Wrath of Khan by including scenes that were removed from the theatrical release.
Many where hoping Paramount would extend the same treatment to Star Trek V but they decided against it. William Shatner even approached Paramount to allow him to do a proper director’s cut for the film and include the ending he originally wanted but was also turned down.
It does seem bizarre that they don’t want to do it as the HD-DVD release of the Original Series and the success of the directors cut of The Motion Picture show that a new lease of life can be given to a film or TV series, and more importantly, that there is an audience for it. Also, it would be relatively inexpensive for Paramount to do.
There is a Facebook page and an online petition to get Paramont to change their mind on this. Internet campaigns have proved successful in the past, most notably the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II, so hopefully the same can be achieved for Star Trek V. This would allow the film to find its place in the series rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. So take time to sign the petition and like the Facebook page and maybe it can still happen.
I’m not saying I liked everything in Star Trek V, I could have done without seeing the Uhura fan dance but there is a decent Star Trek film under the surface. If you look past the flawed veneer, you have a story that captures what Star Trek is truly about while encapsulating what made the Original Series so much fun. Its not 1989 and you haven’t paid to see the film in the cinema after a long break between the features so the film can be judged by different standards. Try to look at like an extended episode and you will find a hidden gem that’s fashionably disliked unfairly.
Let me leave you with with what has to be the most awkward press conference for any movie ever released.
This article was first posted on April 25, 2012