In some ways, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was a perfect conclusion for the TOS crew. The story arc that’s run for three movies’ reached its conclusion, there’s some character growth, and a promise of the future with a new ship. But it wasn’t the conclusion – so can Star Trek V: The Final Frontier add anything to the saga?
Pre-Existing Prejudices: “What does God need with a starship?” It’s that one! Yes, arguably the most notorious movie in the whole of Star Trek, this has its fair share of critics. It’s co-written and directed by William Shatner, which means he’s bringing everything to the table, for both good and ill. Because I’m a nerdy fan, I’m aware that this is the first of several Star Trek appearances by the joyfully brilliant David Warner, if not perhaps his most noted. Marshmellons, El Captian, Spock’s half-brother… it’s a heady mix. Let’s find out if this movie deserves it’s dreadful reputation!
What’s It All About, JG?
On Nimubs III, the “planet of galactic peace”, a mysterious bearded Vulcan who openly expresses emotion faffs about with the local population until the Enterprise deigns to turn up. Turns out the beardy hipster is Spock’s half brother and he’s on a mission to discover God, who apparently lies at the centre of the galaxy. Off they trot, stopping on the way for some personal revelations and a handful of annoying Klingons. Turns out that God isn’t God (which ought to be self-evident to anyone who’s actually seen an episode of Star Trek) but an otherwise-unexplained life-form who knocks Kirk about a bit till he’s improbably rescued by the Klingons. It all ends with some heartfelt statements about belief in the human heart and everyone getting boozed up in
Ten Forward the cocktail bar this Enterprise apparently has.
Any Other Business:
- Right out of the gate we start with a sort of dusty inversion of Lawrence Of Arabia, with Sybok’s horse galloping out of the horizon to confront a bald man with a field full of holes. It’s a striking opening – and occurs even before the opening theme – and remains a very effective way of getting underway.
- Jerry Goldsmith’s back, so that means the TNG theme and a great improvement in the incidental music overall.
- After the credits have trundled by we have a couple of notorious scenes – someone who is absolutely not William Shatner climbing El Capitan before Spock distracts him into nearly plummeting to his death, and a campfire scene with Kirk and McCoy attempt to teach Spock “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Both are absolutely as cheesy as hell, but also remain strangely easy to enjoy.
- The new Enterprise is a bit of a disaster. Scotty’s been tasked to fix it, so that’s alright?
- Some of the Nimbus III material remains surprisingly not-terrible. Sure, the bar is Mos Eisley, and the three-breasted cat creature will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Total Recall. Except… this was release a year before Total Recall. David Warner of course is marvellous as a drunk, cynical ambassador, but that kind of goes without saying.
- Where did Uhura get those fronds?
- The assault on Paradise City (and if you want to make a Guns’n’Roses joke here, help yourself) is pretty well directed – Shatner acquits himself well, and the cut from the pitched battle outside the bar to the sudden stillness inside is handled with a degree of skill.
- The special effects of all the shuttles in this movie are universally terrible. Most of the special effects are pretty rubbish, in fact.
- Sybok takes over the Enterprise because Spock won’t shoot him at point-blank range in the chest. Fine. They get locked up because of this. Fine. Spock reveals that Sybok is his half-brother but didn’t mention it before because he was not predisposed to discuss it. Not fine. Kind of an important detail there, bro.
- Scotty engineers a jail-break. Great. Scotty knocks himself out on a beam. Not great.
- Turns out Sybok can “take away your pain” by making you relive it. That means we get DeForest Kelley’s best moment in all six movies as he confronts euthanizing his father (and proves what a great actor his is in the process), and we get to see Sarek’s disappointment at Spock’s birth because he is, “so human”. Yet there’s some great intelligence to the writing here – Spock has made peace with Sarek so trying to use Sarkek’s disappointment doesn’t work, and McCoy’s able to throw off the “conditioning” as well, even if it takes a bit longer, as he elects to stay with his friends. That’s sharp writing.
- Then they get to “barrier” that lies between them and the centre of the galaxy. The same barrier they bumped into in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”? Could be, though no explicit link is made and nobody gets silver eyes and delusions of grandeur. Oh, also, the other one was at the edge of the galaxy, not in the middle of it. Two barriers, then? Either way, the impenetrable barrier that no probe or ship has been able to cross seems remarkably easy to get by, for both the Enterprise and the Klingon ship following them.
- Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Sybok take a shuttle to the planet they’ve discovered in the middle of a sort of swirly 70’s disco special effect. This movie’s filter du jour – purple.
- The voice for “God” is quite effectively done. The plastic “rocks” that shoot out of the ground to surround our heroes – not so much.
- So… obviously this isn’t God. Of course not. We’ve met plenty of gods on TOS and they’re always something else. Yet this one is curiously unexplained. A being apparently stranded there (that’s what God needs a starship for, in the end – escape). But who stranded it? Is the barrier their defence, or something natural they used? Where does this creature come from? When it says it was “created by Sybok” what does that mean, exactly? There’s a lot of detail not sketched in there.
- Sybok has a huge d’oh! moment when he realises he’s been led by the nose, and promptly chooses to sacrifice himself rather than try to run away with everyone else. Why? As far as I can tell nobody actually dies during his attempts to reach the centre of the galaxy (the Enterprise crew all seems fine, so are the hostages, the Klingons don’t off anyone, and his “healing” technique is predicated on persuading people to his side, not killing them). Other than inconveniencing a knackered starship and some ageing officers of the line it’s hard to see what he’s done that requires that kind of sacrifice.
- There’s a few effective moments on the planet’s surface, though, especially Kirk lit by nothing but a blood-red haze.
- When Kirk gets zapped by “God” his uniform is shown smouldering on both sides. Did that bold go through him?
- Spock said damn! * gasps *
- The Klingons sweeping in to rescue Kirk is a pleasing subversion of expectations, though it’s mostly played for light comedy.
- And it ends as it begun – on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. It’s hacky as hell. But it works. See the next three thousand words for more on this…
And so, in our exploration of all thirteen Star Trek films we reach this, the most notorious of them all. Nemesis has few people who will defend it (though one of them wrote the article you are currently reading). Plenty of people will slag off Into Darkness as a weak, not-woke reworking of The Wrath Of Khan. Generations is pretty pitiful. But even Gene Roddenberry disowned this one. What, then, is so wrong with The Final Frontier that the man who was responsible for The Motion Picture thinks this is unworthy of inclusion into the Star Trek canon?
In truth, nothing. The Final Frontier has plenty of flaws, and we’ll most certainly be getting stuck into those, but in truth this just… isn’t all that bad. Blasphemy, I know. But it just isn’t. What it is, however, is profoundly idiosyncratic, very old-fashioned, and absolutely the work of one creative vision. And that creative vision belongs to William Shatner. Shatner is a strange figure in many ways when it comes to Star Trek. Nimoy’s virtues are pretty easy to elucidate – he’s great at playing Spock, he’s clearly a decent director, he co-wrote one of the most beloved entries in the film series (and was involved in writing two others) and is in general seen as approachable and relatable. The picture isn’t quite that straightforward – the amount of effort he put into the first two movies only once scraped the bare minimum required, and that was his death scene – but as a general rule he’s easy to understand. Shatner is an altogether thornier proposition.
For one, this is his only direct creative input into Star Trek in terms of writing and directing. Nimoy’s three efforts (III, IV and VI) all bear his mark, but they’re also somewhat shaped by his collaborators. Shatner’s vision is altogether more unique and though he had a collaborator on this it seems pretty unquestionable that the end result here is essentially Shatner’s . That means that, for better or worse, this movie is absolutely his, and it shows. And, honestly, that makes it more interesting. Nimoy – and I don’t mean this as the criticism it’s going to sound like – is a good team player. He’ll write what fits in, he’ll collaborate smoothly, he’ll deliver something enjoyable and, occasionally, even great. But the idea of a “pure” Leonard Nimoy Star Trek remains elusive. Not so a pure Shatner Star Trek. Shatner’s vision of Star Trek is right up there. It’s spiky and awkward, just like the man himself. It doesn’t fit into smoothly running trilogies or convenient Cold War analogies. It’s oftentimes clumsy and frequently corny. But it is absolutely his vision. And he deserves a lot more respect for it than he usually gets.
Because the list of things The Final Frontier gets right is actually pretty long. For one, there’s a proper investment in the supporting characters. That’s not unique to this movie, but it may well be the best expression of it over the six TOS movies. This film is about the core three character – Kirk, Spock, McCoy – but importantly Shatner doesn’t neglect the other crewmembers at all, indeed quite the reverse. Uhura is given more to do in this film than she gets in the first three films combined, and nobody will give the character more to do until Abrams comes along in 2009 (!). And Nichelle Nichols is simply amazing here, responding to her noticeably increased screen-time with a noticeably more engaged performance. Not that she’s been checked out before – absolutely not – but here she’s got actual things to do. Is the fan-dance scene a bit daft? Oh yes, of course, but she can pull it off with dignity and grace. And how refreshing it is to see an older woman, complete with long elegant streaks of grey in her hair, get to be the sexy, alluring centre of that scene (feel free to compare to the brazen titillation of Into Darkness and Carol Marcus’s unexpected strip to her underwear). Shatner understands the character, gives her material to work with and lets the actor command the role. Uhura also gets to have a brief flirtation with Scotty (bringing him “dinner”) then an actual romantic scene with him later on after she’s been “helped” by Sybok. And unsurprisingly Nichols is terrific. This is both her and her character’s best movie outing, and by a fair distance, and that’s down to Shatner.
Scotty, too, benefits from this. James Doohan’s ability to act (and ability to render anything even approaching a Scottish accent) is on the way out, but he’s still pretty good when opposite Nichols, and again Shatner gives him something to do that isn’t (just) fixing stuff, as he gets to engineer an jail-break. Chekov and Sulu get a funny scene together at the start of the movie (and it is actually funny – good work from Koenig there), but Sulu gets to go on a commando mission and Chekov gets to stall for time on the bridge facing down the Klingons. All the ancillary characters are invested in and that makes this feel like so much more than just the typical central-trio-and-a-few-others. Shatner clearly understands their function within a Star Trek story, gives everyone something to do, and allows some breathing room for them so they’re not swamped out by the core three characters. That’s some pretty good writing.
And the three central characters are all deftly handled here too, none moreso than McCoy. For pretty much the only time during the movies McCoy is written as equal to Kirk and Spock, not just in terms of character importance but also into terms of actual screen-time, and what a difference it makes. In The Wrath Of Khan and The Search For Spock the character was only ever really there in a supporting role. And while given a bit more to do in The Voyage Home it was just a bit more to do. But under Shatner’s stewardship McCoy is allowed space to become an equal again. The campfire scenes allow Kirk and McCoy to share something together that Kirk doesn’t share with Spock. There’s plenty of teasing, a few drunken slugs from a bottle of whisky and a singalong. This is important because it really does show these three as a trio. Kirk and Spock’s relationship is well examined in the films by this point but here we see what McCoy brings to the table, a camaraderie and warmth with Kirk matched by Kelley’s charming performance. Even his teasing of Spock and his mockery of his green-bloodedness feels like friendly sparring rather than the sometimes-borderline-racism of the past. And, crucially, later in the movie McCoy sticks up for Spock – in the scene where Kirk judges Spock for not pulling the trigger on Sybok it’s McCoy that steps up to defend Spock and tells Kirk to back off. There’s a real investment in McCoy here that, of course, reaches its height when we get to witness McCoy euthanizing his father, then being forced to admit that it wasn’t turning off the life-support machines that was the worst of it because shortly after a cure was found. It’s a profoundly powerful scene – the most powerful in the movie in fact – and Kelley is simply amazing during it. But it’s that belief in the character of McCoy that really comes through here, and it gives a real extra dimension to this movie and retroactively makes you miss it in the other films.
Something else the film gets right – for the first (live-action) time since 1969, we finally get to go where no man has gone before. I mean, you’d think that would be a fairly basic Thing To Get Right. Yet it seems not. V’ger and the stone cigar probe thing were both technically “new life”, though neither quite feel like they’re fulfilling that famous opening voiceover. I mean, we’ve heard it a few times. Nimoy intoned it at the end of The Wrath Of Khan as that film’s closing moment, for goodness sake. Yet we have to wait until Shatner’s at the helm for the stated aim of the series to actually occur. Now admittedly when we get there, it’s a familiar patch of desert, a god-like alien of indeterminate origin, and a purple filter, but still – in a series of films spawned from a TV show which was dedicated to going where no man has gone before, this is the only time it happens. Shatner deserves credit for that.
And though it’s easy to mock yet another god-like entity, it’s worth paying attention to here. This god isn’t the pompous self-important Apollo of the old series. Neither is it Q’s judgemental trickster from TNG. Shatner’s actually trying to say something with his God here. The execution is clumsy – that God is in the human heart did not need to be literally stated by Kirk – but there’s a proper attempt to explore what it is that drives people to religion, what it is that those who lead religious cults offer, and what the cost of that might be. Again, the execution is muddy – there’s a proper critique of cults in place with Sybok, with deference to the cult essentially being equated with the surrendering of individuality, the one thing that Kirk sees as absolutely key. And the theme of real, genuine friendship between the three lead characters is seen as the counterbalance to that – it’s the strength of their friendship that allows them to stand against cult conditioning when others succumb. All this needs to be more clearly articulated but there’s no doubt that Shatner is, in his own way, trying to grapple with a lot more than random Klingons and This Movie’s Bad Guy (though certainly that’s present too).
So if all that is true, the obvious question is, “why does this film have such an abysmal reputation”? Well, it can be two reasons. The first one is simple – this film looks like absolute shit. I dinged The Wrath of Khan for looking cheap and shoddy, so it’s only fair to be consistent and point out the same thing is true here. The special effects look like they were knocked up in someone’s shed (not a million miles away from the truth) and every single time the film needs to rely on spectacle it comes up short. The journey to the centre of the galaxy ought to be spectacular, for once making use of all that wasted potential from The Motion Picture to wallop us with something really meaningful, finally blending the empty spectacle of that film with the action-adventure of this one to produce something really special. We need awe. We need majesty. What we get is someone smoking a cigarette in front of a blue lamp. It’s woeful. Indefensibly so. A bit of swirly smoke and a strong back-light is simply not sufficient – I realise this is TOS, but these effects looks like they come directly from the 60’s without bothering to stop at either of the intervening decades. The Enterprise can’t even jump to warp convincingly any more, and the less said about the terrible shuttle landings the better. Shatner has a few moments of skill when it comes to direction but absolutely none of them have to do with the visual effects, which is a bit of a problem when it comes to a sci-fi film like this. Even the sets – plainly, clearly Picard’s Enterprise, not Kirk’s – don’t help much. So that’s the first reason – cheap as hell.
The second reason is… well, sorry to say, but it’s a built-in part of how Shatner does things. Shatner is, in this film, profoundly interested in artifice, and has no problem directly confronting this, but a pseudo-epic action-adventure science fiction movie is an odd place to do this, to say the least. “God” here is the ultimate artifice, a false prophet who belies what actually matters. There’s artifice in Sybok – he doesn’t really take away people’s pain, just manipulates it for his own good. The cheap look of the film almost ends up helping Shatner here, because everything looks pretty fake – the very world of Star Trek is exposed as artifice. “What does God need with a starship?” makes this artifice even more clear, at the key point in the movie, both textually and paratextually. The way Shatner interrogates this artifice – largely with hacky jokes, corny one-liners and sometimes-overwrought speeches – is absolutely artistically consistent with what he wants to achieve, but at the same time it can prove tough to watch in places. The “human heart” line is the worst contender, a cliché expression of something the movie has already made more than plain, but there are other examples. The humour itself is often hokey, and that’s OK because TOS is often appealingly hokey, but it does sometimes overstep the mark. Kirk’s early “gravity is foremost on my mind” is a lightly amusing piece of word-play, but too often the point will be stretched to breaking (the worst contender for my money is Uhura’s “I always wanted to play to a captive audience” being followed by one of the desert dwellers going “aw damn” and headbutting the sand, undermining an otherwise good scene). The lack of restraint is regrettable but it’s absolutely part of what Shatner does, so it’s equally unavoidable.
Yet in the end I cannot find it in myself to dislike this film. Indeed the reverse is true – a few groaners and crappy effects aside, I actively enjoyed it. Call it lowered expectations, call it a lack of recent engagement with the material making it feel fresh – whatever it was I found it easy to warm to this version of Star Trek. For the last time, as far as this crew is concerned, they get to go where no man has gone before. For the last time, we get to enjoy the crew doing what it is they’re supposed to do. For the last time we have an ensemble piece that actually involves all the crew. Next time out Sulu is pushed off to one side, commanding his own ship and observing the actions of his crewmates rather than being in the thick of it (indeed, so much off to one side that Voyager was able to build an entire episode round his absence). The humour is often silly and over-the-top, but it’s easy to get swept along in the character moments. The big bad at the centre of this desperately needs to be fleshed out to connect more to the thematic elements of the film, yet it’s still easy to admire the artistic intentions that lie behind the script even while regretting that they’re not explored further (a writer’s strike put an end to that possibility, at least partially explaining the unfinished nature of the script, but as ever I’m sticking to just dealing with that’s on the screen).
This vision of TOS is extremely rooted in the 60’s – perhaps overly so – but it’s still paying fealty to the show that spawned it, and doing it in a way that makes it feel every bit as consistent with the old show as the last film did, just in different ways. This isn’t as good – obviously – but it’s still part of the same spectrum. But it’s also impossible to write about this film without noting that something fundamental has changed. Something significant. This is the last time this crew will get to just enjoy being in a knockabout adventure. There’s something on the horizon now. The Next Generation has launched, with great success, and had been on the air for two years at this point. Suddenly this crew – the crew that until now is Star Trek – is marked and the original series has a stalking horse it’s never had before. In some ways TNG acts as a portent of doom for this crew – their arrival signals this crew’s passing. We’ll talk more of this next time out, but for now just unclench and enjoy a silly adventure, and admit that it’s OK to relax and be entertained by this movie. Sure there are plenty of issues here but it’s mostly decent and absolutely does not deserve its stinker reputation. This is absolutely fine to be entertained by at the level of a mid-tier Season Two story. So yes, enjoy it for what it is.
The chance will never come again.
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
Anything to do with the Klingons can go. The only film that actually needs to have Klingons in it is so far The Search For Spock, though obviously that will change next time out. Every other appearance has been little more than tokenistic. Sure there’s the flashy redesign for The Motion Picture, but they don’t actually add anything – if it has been a few Federation ships destroyed in the opening minutes of that film nothing would be meaningfully different. Here, the Klingons are just tokens – it’s Star Trek, Star Trek has Klingons, therefore here are the Klingons. All they do is offer a little random threat from time to time, and provide a (very) mildly amusing conclusion. Excising them would skip about ten minutes of screen-time, get away from their repetitious but essentially purpose-free inclusion and tighten the film up a bit. So let’s go for 7.5%. Sounds about right.
How Shatner-y Is Shatner?
It’s a William Shatner movie. If he was any more Shatner-y he might reach a critical mass of Shanter-ness and collapse in upon himself, leaving behind only a small popping noise and a copy of The Transformed Man in his wake. Some hubris definitely seeps in here – there’s no fucking way that’s Shatner scaling El Capitan – and he get’s a couple of requisite “Spooock”’s in that way we all know and, let’s say, love. Still he’s smart enough to give other people good lines – “Please captain, not in front of the Klingons” – so Kirk doesn’t completely dominate even though obviously it’s his vision that holds sway. He’s leaning ever more on character ticks, though these do sometimes work in his favour – the famous line might be “what does God need with a starship?” but it’s worth watching his little comic “excuse me?” just beforehand. He raises one finger and moves forward to ask the big question, but does it in a way that suggests he might just be making the enquiry of a first-year cadet, and it’s a subtle way of undermining this supposedly omnipotent being. It’s very funny. It’s just not especially clear if it’s meant to be.
How Achingly 1989 Is This Movie?
Given the quality of special effects, more like 1969.
Fanwankometer Reading, Captain
So, this planet of galactic peace. When did that come about? Twenty years ago, we’re told, but weren’t the Romulans an unknown quantity back then? It’s not quite clear how much time has passed between “Balance of Terror” and the present, but if you take it as literal years then it it’s twenty-two, and the events of that episode scarcely suggest a rush to set up some kind of triple-headed peace process. Ditto the Klingons – the Organian peace treaty might be about twenty years ago but how many times have we seen the Klingons agitating since then? It’s all a bit peculiar. Along similar lines – why choose this planet? It’s a miserable rock, of no value, and seems to exist merely to annoy these three diplomats. Or did the Klingons, Romulans and the Federation get together in secret and concoct a plan to get rid of their three most annoying people under the guise of a “peace plan”? Aside from the planet though, not a lot of fanwank. The new Enterprise is very new indeed – almost a hundred years ahead of its time in fact (the bar at the end couldn’t be more plainly Ten Forward if it had Whoopi Goldberg slinging the booze). Kirk’s a captain again after the events of the last movie, and there is something rather pleasing about hearing him called Captain rather than Admiral. For the rest, the Klingons growl their language (quite a lot, actually), still fly the same Bird Of Prey and so forth. The biggest change to continuity is the hitherto unrevealed existence of Spock’s half-brother but don’t worry – no matter how much we dip in to Spock’s family life in future he will never, ever be brought up again (I’m rolling my eyes at you, Discovery, although don’t think the Abramsverse movies are off the hook). Actually, I haven’t really talked about Sybok all that much but Laurence Luckinbill is good in the role and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. He’s pretty charismatic and does a great job of selling the cult leader/televangelist side of the character, and is able to bring credibility to Sybok’s “abilities”.
It ought to be Shatner, really. Even though he falls manifestly short of achieving what he wanted to I find it impossible not to admire his ambition here, and I’d far rather an ambitious failure like than a bland restating of what’s come before. But I’m giving it to Nichelle Nichols. She’s just so magnetic when she’s on screen and every single thing Shatner gives her to do she just excels at. We’ve never had a hint of a Scotty/Uhura romance before, but she’s able to sell the hell out of it. I mentioned the fan-dance before, but it really is great to have a middle aged woman be the sexy chanteuse, and if you wanted to make the argument that this is actually progressively in line with the way Star Trek is meant to be progressive (by breaking down barriers simply by showing things as they should be) then I wouldn’t be disagreeing with you. Nichols is amazing, and it’s great to have the character do more than opening hailing frequencies – the only problem with her performance here is it makes you ache for her to have more to do in the previous outings. So yes – Uhura all the way here.
- The Voyage Home
- The Search For Spock
- The Final Frontier
- The Wrath Of Khan
- The Motion Picture