FRANCHISE REWIND: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

“What does God need with a starship?”

Ooh, I knew we were going to get to Star Trek V eventually. I remember there was a bizarre theory circulating around for quite some time about the Star Trek movies in that the even-numbered movies were the good ones, and the odd-numbered movies were bad. The theory doesn’t hold because of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (an odd movie) and Star Trek: Nemesis (an even movie). William Shatner (in classic cry-baby mode) refused to participate in the fourth Star Trek movie if he wasn’t given a shot to direct the fifth movie in the franchise, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had what is called, “favored nations” clauses in their contracts, meaning that whatever each party would receive, the other party would also get. If Nimoy got a collector’s edition G.I. Joe Duke action figure with backpack and binoculars then Shatner got the same thing. Nimoy directed two movies. It was Shatner’s turn. He was given executive offices, produced a sufficiently awesome and epic storyline—that of the Enterprise’s search for God—and, subject to Paramount’s approval, a script was written, and the film was rushed into production to avoid stalling out during the writer’s strike of 1988.

A story as vast and complex as this should not have been rushed, but Paramount wanted to capitalize on not only Star Trek IV’s crossover appeal but also Star Trek: The Next Generation which was, at the time, starting its second season. The script had to be heavily rewritten to remove concepts more closely related to the discovery of Satan than of the “false god” eventually revealed. Renegade laughing Vulcan (and Spock’s half-brother), Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) takes hostages on Nimbus III, the “Planet of Galactic Peace,” brainwashes them, and steals the Enterprise so he can find a mythic place called Sha Ka Ree or, as we call it, Eden.

This is where, he believes, God lives. I know it sounds silly and heavy-handed but didn’t Star Trek IV seem silly and heavy-handed as well? I mean, whales? Seriously? The major problem is the handling of theology and belief with kid gloves. And what about restoring Spock’s eternal soul? Star Trek gets silly all the time. You just have to be able to tell these stories with a straight face and you’ve done half the job already.

I saw it opening night and I remember the audience enjoying the movie. Shatner, like Nimoy before him, played around with straight-comedy in sequences obviously designed to amuse the audience, and a lot of the humor works. There was also a great deal more action in this movie than in all the previous movies combined. Star Trek V was the only movie in the franchise (other than possibly Insurrection) to duplicate the feel of the original series, for good or ill.

All of the action is centered around Kirk and most scenes feature only him, McCoy, and Spock (just as in the original series) and the budget cuts probably made the shoot feel like the original series as well. Compared to Star Trek IV, the visual effects are laughably bad for a big budget science fiction movie. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a movie crying out for restoration and remastering with new effects. Why do we keep getting new versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? The movie didn’t exactly flop at the box office, but it didn’t succeed either. Based on the figures, it’s apparent the movie didn’t warrant repeat viewings.

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