Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Of all the Star Trek movies, The Final Frontier, the fifth and penultimate of the original crew movies, has a very special level of infamy. It’s definitely considered one of the bad ones, but it doesn’t have the grandeur of The Motion Picture to excuse it, or the blandness of Insurrection to ignore it, or even the utterly garbled black-hearted mess of Nemesis to vilify it.
Because, say what you will of The Final Frontier—and I will—but its heart is more or less in the right place. Like an old dog that stumbles around, half-blind and randomly peeing everywhere, there’s really nothing good about it, but at the same time you kind of love it out of habit.
This movie also represents William Shatner’s one and only time in the director’s chair. I can only imagine that, with Nimoy having directed the last two, he figured he was due for his shot. I don’t know. Clearly, it was a bad idea, though the aspect of the film you can see it in the most is the acting. The Enterprise Seven all do fine, of course. They wear their characters like comfy sweaters at this point, so it’s pretty hard for them to screw it up. And seasoned professionals like David Warner as the Federation Ambassador to Nimbus III also do fine.
But then you have Cynthia Gouw, playing Romulan Ambassador Caithlin Dar, who had very little business saying lines in front of a camera.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, we start out on Nimbus III, “The Planet of Galactic Peace”. This actually has the germ of a good idea: a planet that was supposed to be a neutral place for Humans, er… I mean The Federation, Klingons and Romulans to send ambassadors, and was open for anyone to settle on. It would be a central place for openness and communication. Except it failed, because no one except the backwash of the galaxy went there, so it was an utter mess. Frankly, that’s cool. A better movie might have found a way to keep that idea at the center of it. But this is not a better movie. Instead, we get a strange teaser involving a laughing Vulcan who needs a starship.
And then we get the crew of the Enterprise, who are all on vacation. Well, mostly. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are camping together, and Chekov and Sulu are… also camping somewhere else, it seems. (And I should point out, we know from Generations that Sulu has a spouse and daughter, so… he’s blowing them off?) Scotty is staying on the Enterprise because it’s in shambles. For reasons never properly explained, it seems the Enterprise-A was just a mess from the get go. I like the idea that while Kirk has been “rewarded” a new Enterprise after the events of movies III and IV, someone in the top brass is pissed at him and gives him a lemon of a ship. Also, Uhura is sticking around on the ship, because she seems to have a crush on Scotty at this point.
That’s a loose thread of plot that never quite goes anywhere. It’s not something that’s picked up from the previous movies or the original show, nor does this movie actually do anything with it. It’s a bit odd that hear is when she gets sweet on him.
Anyhow, Laughing Vulcan and his band of ragamuffins capture the three Ambassadors on Nimbus III, and the Federation calls in Kirk and the Enterprise crew to take care of it. Here, at least, they do a clever twist on the “only ship in the area” canard that most of the Trek movies use (especially since most of the time “the area” is in orbit of Earth, so it never makes any sense.) Here, at least, the admiral sending them says, yeah, there’s other ships that are closer, but none of them have Jim Kirk.
So, it’s a rescue mission. The Klingons are coming as well, but they aren’t coming to rescue their ambassador. Really, they’ve got no stake as far as that is concerned. The Klingon captain is only coming because he wants to shoot at Kirk. That’s his entire motivation in this movie: he wants to shoot things, and Kirk will be a good thing to shoot. The Romulans, by the way, aren’t sending anyone to rescue people. I find this interesting, especially since of the three ambassadors, Caithlin Dar is the only idealist. She actually believes in Nimbus III. So of course her government leaves her to hang when she gets kidnapped. That might be because the Romulans shipped her away because they were sick of hearing her talk about peace and happiness. (There’s a deleted scene where she says she volunteered, but I imagine the Romulan government was thrilled to send her away.) Their response was likely, “Oh, she was kidnapped? That’s a real shame, we ought to do something about that.”
Anyway, the Enterprise stumbles to Nimbus III. Chekov stays on the ship and pretends to be captain to negotiate with the Laughing Vulcan, while everyone else goes down to the planet. And here is possibly the most WTF scene in all of Star Trek (including the Hyperevolved Salamander Sex of Voyager), where we learn that Kirk went to the Jayne Cobb School of Strategy.
“We need a distraction. I say Uhura gets nekkid.”
Now, I don’t know if 50-something Nichelle Nichols actually did that fan dance or not. And it’s not explicit or anything. As a bit of sci-fi tinged burlesque, it’s not that bad, in isolation. But it’s so damn random and out of character for everyone involved. Was this why the admiral insisted he needed Jim Kirk? “No one else would have his communication officer do a fan dance!”
Anyway, they “rescue” the hostages, who in turn don’t want to be rescued, because they’ve teamed up with the Laughing Vulcan—screw it, Sybok. Everyone gets on the shuttlecraft and goes back to the Enterprise, but not before the Klingons show up and start shooting. So there’s another good bit where they essentially crash the shuttle into the shuttle bay so that Enterprise’s shields are only down for a second. But then Sybok gets the upper hand (since Spock won’t shoot him despite Kirk’s direct order), imprisons Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and brainwashes Sulu and Uhura.
This movie apparently got a lot of rewrites, and was cut for time and budget, so there’s a lot of scribbling in the margins of what’s happening on screen. The whole bit with Sybok’s brainwashing is a big part of that. He “removes your pain”, which seems to involve using Vulcan mind-meld techniques to find your most painful memory, and then helping you heal from it, and as a result you totally want to work with him. There’s an underlying sense of cult-leadership in there, because almost everyone he does it to then has unswerving loyalty to him. But despite this solid concept never quite works, especially since the only people we get a strong sense of the process is with Spock and McCoy. But he does something that makes everyone go, “We totally have to go to this god planet in the center of the galaxy”. It also means Uhura more explicitly demonstrates her crush on Scotty, like she now feels free to express things she kept under wraps. There’s also a bit of… almost romantic chemistry between the Federation and Romulan ambassadors. But like I said, that’s all scribbled in the margins. There might have been a more interesting movie here if it wasn’t forced to keep it at 100 minutes.
Back to the core—Kirk, Spock and McCoy escape from the brig with Scotty’s near buffoonish help, but said escape is meaningless, since Sybok catches them in a few minutes, and then explains his plan and tries to do his brainwash/psychic healing thing. Also, he’s Spock’s half-brother. I’m not quite sure why that’s here, since it doesn’t seem to really have a huge impact. There are brief moments where Spock is hinted at having some divided loyalties, but never in a meaningful way. It wouldn’t have been significantly different if Spock and Sybok were just close childhood friends. But it all leads to McCoy and Spock’s attempted brainwashing.
Let me tell you, Spock’s makes no damn sense. I mean, yeah, his secret pain is that his father hates him for being half-human, which is kind of a sucky way for Sarek to be, what with marrying a human woman and all. Of course, the implication is it’s more Spock’s issue over objective reality. But I really fail to see how anything Sybok does with this “heals” Spock’s pain in any way. “You think Dad hates you.” “Yes.” “All right then.” McCoy’s is at least something dynamic, and it’s a nice bit for DeForest Kelley to play, where he euthanizes his sick father, only for there to have been a cure discovered shortly afterward. Of course, the big flaw is the scene plays like it only happened a little while ago, and at best McCoy’s already ancient father was only robbed of a few years. If it had been clearer that this was from McCoy’s youth, it would have worked better, and all it would have taken would be to cast someone in their forties as McCoy’s dad.
Brainwashing doesn’t take, though, as Kirk refuses to participate. “I need my pain!” is a bit cheesy, but it fits Kirk’s character– a lesson he learned way back in “The Enemy Within”. (Yes, I am an old school Trekkie.) Since he doesn’t do it, Spock and McCoy keep their loyalty to Kirk. Sybok is surprised, but ultimately doesn’t care, since he’s taking the ship through the Great Barrier in the Center of the Galaxy anyway.
So let’s talk about this bit, because here’s a key part where the movie really falls short. The Great Barrier, we’re told, is something you just can’t get through. Ships have tried and failed. Except Sybok totally thinks he can do it. Why? HE JUST CAN. He compares this to breaking the sound barrier or warp speed, which implies he’s got some sort of science-doing behind his plan, or at least figured out some secret key to it. Nope. It’s just, “We’re gonna do it!” and Kirk is all, “Can’t be done!” and Sybok counters, “Gonna!”
And he does.
Seriously, he just goes through it. No big. The Klingons do it ten minutes later. There’s no trick to it or anything. It’s just, go through it. Which makes you think the whole “No ship has made it through the Great Barrier” was really, “Nobody tried, because they took some readings and said, ‘screw that!’”
Once they are through, Sybok kind of becomes a good guy. I mean… I think that Sybok is never a bad guy. He’s determined and passionate, and does troubling things for his goals… but even his brainwashing comes off as more “lifting the scales”, and he gives hopeless people purpose. But once they are through the barrier, he’s won and proved his point, so he just gives the ship back to Kirk. And Kirk, being Kirk, is all for checking out what they’ve found now that they are through.
What they find, of course, is not God, but a prison for a powerful God-like being. The details of which we never really find out—the being says something along the lines of “eternities I’ve been trapped in this place”, so you presume he was put there by equivalent beings of power who found him dangerous and destructive. Now, whatever he is, he’s a Trickster. It’s made implicitly clear that he somehow contacted Sybok to make his escape. Sybok’s self-sacrifice, trying his whole “I couldn’t help but notice your pain” line on the Trickster, is played like a bit of redemption for him. I’m not sure if that works. It almost does, in that it feels like it’s supposed to. Most things don’t work with the ending, save Kirk’s line, “What does God need with a starship?” They apparently ran out of money and effects didn’t work out, but I don’t think Kirk fighting a rock monster would have made the difference.
What it really comes down to is there is a seed of a better movie hidden with it, but the script, and more to the point the direction, don’t let it come out. There was a lot of public goodwill from The Voyage Home when this was made, and I think a lot of its problems come from A. coasting on that goodwill and B. trying to recapture the easy comedy of that movie, and it comes off very forced.
But, hey: fan dance. Seriously.