The prevailing theory amongst Star Trek fans is that odd number movies are vastly inferior to the even numbered films. While mostly true, this does damage the reputation of certain Star Trek films that are more than adequate, namely The Motion Picture and Search for Spock. But with the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy, now is a perfect time to revisit was is widely considered the worst Star Trek film featuring the original crew – Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Great science fiction isn’t afraid to ask big questions or explore deeper meanings. That being said, it’s safe to say that they overreached with The Final Frontier, which has the Enterprise hijacked by a fanatical madman who wants to meet God on a magical planet at the center of the universe.
The previous two Star Trek films – The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home – were helmed by Nimoy. As there was always a competition of egos on the bridge of the Enterprise, William Shatner made sure that he would be able to command dual duties on The Final Frontier. He would man both the captain’s chair and the director’s chair. Shatner himself crafted the story, though numerous revisions were made which is why Shatner shares the story credit with producer Harve Bennett and screenwriter David Loughery. Inspired by the televangelists who running wild in the ‘80s, bilking countless people out of millions and millions of dollars, Shatner crafted the character of Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) as a self-assured zealot who uses manipulation and various devious means to get what he wants. Sybok is a fascinating character that you just wish were in a better movie.
Of the many flaws in The Final Frontier, the most glaring issue is the film’s abysmal pacing. It doesn’t really have a forward momentum to its narrative. The film starts out with Sybok encountering a loner in a desolate wasteland. With a simple glimpse into the man’s soul, Sybok has created a new disciple. Then the film shifts to Kirk (Shatner), Spock (Nimoy), and McCoy (Deforest Kelly) camping at Yosemite. As the trio sits around the campfire singing songs, the brand new Enterprise is having technical troubles, keeping Scotty (James Doohan) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) busy. Then we return to the desolate planet where Sybok has taken Klingon, Romulan, and human hostages. The Enterprise is called to the rescue despite its numerous technical flaws. But the hostage their out to rescue are brainwashed by Sybok. With his growing legion of disciples, Sybok is able to hijack the Enterprise. Meanwhile, a Klingon Bird of Prey is roaming the galaxy looking for the Enterprise. Upon his arrival on the Enterprise, Sybok soon brainwashes members of the Enterprise’s crew, including Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Sulu (George Takei). Now with a starship at his disposal, Sybok will lead the Enterprise past the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and to Sha Ka Ree, the mythological home of God.
Now Sybok doesn’t find God, only another kind of celestial being, an evil one that can shoot lasers from his eyes. But there’s no way to avoid that the whole journey in search of God is somewhat antithetical to Star Trek. It also feels especially out of sequence when placed into the context of the previous films, a number of which dealt with the Genesis project, a manmade device that creates life from lifelessness. Everything takes a further turn for the worse when, at the film’s conclusion, it becomes apparent that nothing much is actually going to said about faith, religion, or the big, unanswered questions of existence. The theology of The Final Frontier is summed up by Kirk in a rather trite piece of philosophizing: “Maybe [God is] not out there, Bones. Maybe he’s right here. The human heart.”
And The Final Frontier isn’t done with its little twists and turns, most of them rather unnecessary. Later in the film, it’s revealed that Sybok is Spock’s long lost half-brother. This might actually have a more meaningful impact within the film’s story had Sybok been more an actual threat, as opposed to a charismatic cult leader. But it’s also hard to coax a number of emotionally resounding moments when a Vulcan is involved. The kinship between Spock and Sybok feels shoehorned into the plot rather late in development. None of the moments between them has even half of its intended impact.
Much in the same way that Sybok’s relation to Spock seems like a late addition, the inclusion of the Klingons in this film seem like they were added after some executive uttered, “Don’t Star Trek movies need Klingons?” They’re neither a formidable foe or relevant to the plot. The uselessness of the Klingons are further emphasized by the lack of space battles. This alien race of warriors that live by a strict code of honor exist only to pad the running time.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier underperformed with critics and audiences alike. As far as the original crew was concerned, this would mark the final time that a cast member would also serve as director (Jonathan Frakes of the Next Generation directed two of those movies). Luckily for Trek fans, Nicholas Meyer, director of The Wrath of Khan, returned to give the original crew a fitting farewell with The Undiscovered Country. However, The Final Frontier does earn its status as a maligned Star Trek film featuring the original crew. I’d argue, though, that The Final Frontier is better than the weakest entries in the Next Generation movies, of which I only like one – First Contact. The Final Frontier is a flawed Star Trek movie coming from the place of good intentions, but it fails to do anything interesting with its premise that would work within the tradition of Star Trek. Hell, I’d watch The Final Frontier five more times before I ever acknowledge the existence of
Star Trek: Generations that weird crossover one.