Defending the Very Worst of ‘Star Trek: The Final Frontier’

Each fan hides a secret pain. Star Trek V must be dragged from the darkness and forced into the light.
By  · Published on September 20th, 2017

Each fan hides a secret pain. Star Trek V must be dragged from the darkness and forced into the light.  Share your pain with us, and gain strength from the sharing.

It’s easy loving something great.  The elation of watching a film like There Will Be Blood, with an audience erupting pure bliss around you, and experiencing the weeks and months of the self-assuring, critical after-glow.  We can all exchange high-fives over the superiority of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Only the coldest of hearts would deny us that joy. Being on the other side of that conversation is a little less pleasant.  Daniel Day Lewis a little too John Hustony for you?  (Bah!)  Not a fan of milkshakes and their sneaky consumption?  If you chime in with your confusion, then you better prepare yourself for eye-roll bombardment.

Even more isolating is the experience of loving a film that’s universally reviled.  Batman and Robin has its merits, right?  The Lone Ranger isn’t that racist, is it?  Knight and Day is obviously a tremendous send-up of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible persona! * Crickets * Hello?  So lonely. But we’re all film freaks here.  We’ve all been caught in this situation and you can either get defensive or get passionate.  I choose the later.  Wanna get nuts?  Let’s get nuts! I love Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

What I’ve always appreciated about One Perfect Shot is that, while we highlight obvious works of cinematic beauty, we also spotlight the gorgeous frames from the unexpected.  The torches may be lit for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but even that film contains a spark of brilliance.  No need for the hyperbolic cries of outrage, we’re always a year away from yet another reboot and the possibility of eventual total success. It’s not our place to shame, but to embrace the weird, the wonderful, and the whacky opinions of fandom.  We all have them.

Star Trek V Falling Shatner

So yeah… Star Trek V.  Obviously, I’m already coming from a pretty defensive place.  I can see your pitchforks cresting over the horizon.  Even amongst the Trekkie community Star Trek V is mostly cited as an abomination.  “What does God need with a starship?” Uhura’s erotic fan dance. Meathead Klingons.  “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  Marshmelons.  There’s a lot to cringe against.  I get it.

Conceived, plotted, and directed by Captain James T. Kirk himself, director William Shatner was hoping to embrace the big, bold ideas of the original series.  After a couple of satisfying punch-ups as seen in the second and third cinematic installments, and after Leonard Nimoy was allowed to tackle a raucous Save The Whales campaign in Part IV, Shatner wanted to bring Gene Roddenberry’s humanitarian quest to God.  The big G.  To truly go where no one had gone before, beyond the great barrier and into a taboo arena that the franchise rarely touched upon in a literal way.  Shatner originally envisioned a mission that saw Kirk and company fighting one-on-one with the demons of hell, but had to settle for a wannabe space deity instead.  Still, for some of us, just acknowledging the possibility of a creator looming above the U.S.S. Enterprise is offensive.  After all, this is the Human Adventure.

Shatner’s Trek saw a misguided terrorist assault perpetrated by the laughing Vulcan and half-brother to Spock.  Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) somehow manipulates the Vulcan method of mind meld to reach into the hearts of others to relieve them of their guilt, their pain.  He uses this self-help psychic power woo as a form of brainwashing, gathering an army of acolytes to his side so that he can take control of Nimbus III, the planet of Galactic Peace. Taking Human, Klingon, and Romulan ambassadors as hostages, Sybok lures the Enterprise into orbit only to steal it out from under Captain Kirk. With the aid of the starship, Sybok will penetrate the center of the universe and knock on God’s doorstep. Center of the universe?

For a series that prides itself on exploring the final frontier and celebrating humanity’s thirst for ultimate knowledge, why does Star Trek V’s search for God rankle the nerves so much? Well, execution is certainly a factor. Shatner had almost a non-existent budget on his film. Forced to cut corners at every turn and hire bargain (New Jersey) basement FX companies, The Final Frontier looked shoddy at best and utterly pathetic at worst. The first film to be shot in tandem with The Next Generation’s television series, Shatner’s crew were often hijacking Picard’s corridors and making do with whatever sets that could pose double. As insane or ridiculous as Shatner’s ideas were, they were handcuffed by laughable budgetary restraints. It was a failure before it even started.

However, there were no chains where the actors were concerned.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are The Triumvirate made so lovingly by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley. Whatever aches and pains poison the body of Star Trek V, Shatner understands that this friendship is key to our enjoyment of the series.  Of course, this belief absolutely benefits Shatner’s ego and probably led to the alienation of the rest of the cast. He had very little time for the likes of Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, and Scotty. They were mostly detained to comic relief and out-of-the-blue awkward romance. It’s also frustrating to witness their simple indoctrination at the hands of Sybok. Surely they could have put up some kind of fight? That battle was reserved for the stars.

When producer Harve Bennett binge-watched all three seasons of the original series before taking on The Wrath of Khan, he made the marvelous decision to keep the cinematic adventures focused on The Triumvirate. The opening Yosemite campfire sequence of Star Trek V is the epitome of this friendship.  Here we see three total besties – BFFs.  I’m sure on Wednedays they wear pink.  Dr. McCoy throwing himself into the campfire spirit while shattering eardrums as he clangs the dinner bell is a great big “Dammit Jim! I love you!”  Spock is in it to win it as well. He’s packed his marshmelon dispenser (once upon a time available as a peculiar Kraft commercial tie-in), his Vulcan lyre, and memorized a bevy of traditional Terran singalongs.  A few spoonfuls of McCoy’s bourbon brewed beans and these best buds are charmingly embarrassing themselves. They love each other and I love them.

James Kirk’s ascent towards the top of El Capitan also cuts to the very core of the character. Spock asks Jim “Why?” and his friend responds, “Because it’s there.” That’s why these men were born. To seek their limits and the limits of humanity…or Vulcanity, or whatever. McCoy chastises Kirk for attempting such a foolish endeavor and Kirk dismisses his fear with “I knew I wouldn’t die because the two of you were with me…I’ve always known I’ll die alone.” Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes heavy on the strings, my eyes well with tears. This is less about Kirk’s acceptance or mortality (again, see Wrath of Khan), and more about The Triumvirate’s bond. As much as Star Trek is about “Strange New Worlds” it’s also about the family they’ve made aboard the Enterprise.  Star Trek V takes it a step further by having Spock pick his chosen brother Kirk over his blood brother Sybok.

Before the laughing Vulcan can reach Sha Ka Ree (the mythical garden of Eden or just a slight rhyming jab at Sean Connery’s rejection of the Sybok role), he attempts to reprogram The Triumvirate.  Each man hides a secret pain and Sybok exposes their shame to each other. Spock has never gotten over the fear of his father’s revulsion towards his human half and McCoy apparently euthanized his dad just moments before a cure to his disease was discovered. But this is Shatner’s show, so Kirk’s having none of it. “I need my pain!” he screams. His dominance as alpha male is firmly established before the celestial debunking can occur in the climax. Spock and McCoy are rescued from slavery through shear stick-to-itiveness and friendship.

“What does God need with a starship?” Possibly the most infamous line in all of Star Trek. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Star Trek V on the big screen with a willing and loving crowd. The line slayed then and always will. Silly? Maybe. Probably. It’s pure Kirk however. Never one to believe a floating head when others are ready to beam up into the afterlife, Captain Kirk is there to question. As much fun as it is to bash a Gorn in his rubber boots, Shatner’s Kirk was just as quick to out-talk a computer or god-thing. The inquiry is a devastating blow to Sybok, but even he sides with Kirk after the alien charlatan is exposed. His pain runs deepest of all.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier may be one of the weakest entries in the franchise, but don’t expect defenses of Nemesis or Into Darkness next. William Shatner either bungled his chance behind the camera or he was robbed of it. You can still love a thing that is not perfect. What Shatner got right were the heroes that we all fell in love with originally. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Week after week, year after year, we keep coming back to Star Trek because we love the characters as much as the journey.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)