Let’s get this out of the way up front: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the weakest in the series so far. It starts out on the wrong foot and reaches an unsatisfactory conclusion. It has several groan-worthy scenes, as well as lapses in Trek mythology that even I picked up on, and I’m a newcomer. But is it, as some Trekkies have posited, one of the worst films ever? Not by a mile. It’s a low point in the series, to be sure, but it’s also one of the weirdest Trek flicks, with all the good and bad that goes with that.
The Final Frontier starts off with the crew of the Enterprise on a camping trip in Yosemite. Yes, you read that correctly. Kirk is scaling one of the park’s monoliths, El Capitan, when Spock, in rocket boots, rescues the captain after he loses his footing. This sequence is one of the cheesiest in the series; it’s hard to feel the tension of a 3,000 foot plummet when you’re keenly aware of how fake it looks.
Once on the ground, Kirk, Bones, and Spock sit around the campfire and enjoy some spiked chili before engaging in one of the weirdest cinematic renditions of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” since Manos: The Hands of Fate. If The Voyage Home embraced the silly side of the Trek universe, The Final Frontier‘s opening moments are merely inane. And they inspire some hard questions, like, don’t these guys have any other friends? Why bring Spock and Bones on a camping trip together if they’re just going to argue the whole time?
Mercifully, Uhura (who apparently wasn’t invited to hang out with the boys) interrupts this bizarre R and R session to inform the crew that they’re needed to rescue three hostages from the desert planet of Nimbus III. It seems that a renegade Vulcan named Sybok has captured Federation, Romulan, and Klingon representatives. On its way, the Enterprise is tailed by a Klingon warship, piloted by Klaa, who wants to capture Kirk for his own glory (he hasn’t been greenlit by the Klingon command to do such a thing). When the ship lands on Nimbus III, the crew plans a daring rescue of the hostages, using Uhura’s dancing skills to draw out Sybok’s men (lookin’ good, Nichelle Nichols). But the Enterprise crew is quickly surrounded and outnumbered.
It turns out Sybok merely wants a ship, and used the hostages as bait — though it’s also clear that Sybok has a strange power over his followers (as well as the hostages). He’s adept at winning the trust of many by helping them to overcome their deepest fears, and he wants to use the ship to travel beyond the mysterious Great Barrier, a dangerous and unexplored section of space. Beyond the Great Barrier, according to legend, is the planet Sha Ka Ree, where God hangs His hat. Sybok also seems to have a complex relationship with Spock.
OK, so this isn’t such a bad setup — what if there’s a heavenly entity somewhere in the heavens? Unfortunately, Shatner (who directed, and has a screenwriting credit) aims to use Sybok to make a point about the detrimental effects of demagogues — and the movie suffers as a result. In the late 1980s, televangelists were a hot topic in the mainstream media. Some welcomed them for bringing energy and enthusiasm to Christianity at a time when church attendance was declining, while others were concerned that they preached a watered-down brand of theology without living virtuously themselves — a charge that grew louder as several high-profile preachers (most notably Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart) were accused of fraud and personal foibles. Sybok is clearly intended as such a figure (there’s even a scene in which he delivers a message over a monitor), but this commentary is half-baked — Sybok isn’t particularly menacing as a villain, nor, as a false prophet, are his words particularly inspiring or inspired. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy who’d motivate you to cross the universe with him.
But that’s only part of the problem with this movie. It turns out that Spock and Sybok are half brothers, and they were raised together until Sybok chose to explore his emotional side and was kicked off Vulcan. You mean to tell us that Spock never mentioned that he had a half-brother? It just never came up? Maybe next time Kirk, Spock, and Bones are sitting around the campfire, they should get up to speed on each other’s personal histories, rather than singing.
Anyway, Sybok orders the Enterprise crew to set a direct course for the Great Barrier, and his influence takes hold with many of the crew members. Even Bones is briefly tempted, since he wants to rid his brain of the guilt he feels over failing to save his father. However, he, Spock, and Kirk ultimately choose to live with pain, as it’s a key part of the human experience. (What’s unclear is the nature of Sybok’s powers. Is he able to get inside people’s minds? Is he a charlatan? The movie never makes this plain.)
The ship makes it past the Great Barrier to Sha Ka Ree, where Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Sybok encounter a divine figure that looks like a big hologram (even The Final Frontier‘s vision of God is low-budget). When He discovers how the visitors got to the planet, He asks if He can join them. “What does God need with a starship?”a baffled Kirk asks. (My sentiments exactly.) Such insolence doesn’t sit well with God, who blasts Kirk in the chest. Sybok realizes that this entity is not in fact divine, but a malicious force that seeks to escape the planet. He sacrifices himself to the entity, and the Enterprise fires a torpedo, but lacks the energy to beam up all three of our heroes.
Kirk volunteers to stay behind, but thankfully, Spock convinces the Klingon hostage (a down-on-his-luck ambassador) to persuade Klaa to rescue Kirk. Klaa’s Bird of Prey blasts the entity to smithereens, and after Kirk is safe and sound, Klaa begrudgingly apologizes (on the ambassador’s orders) for his unauthorized attack on the Enterprise (finally, some nuance from the Klingons!). The movie ends with the Enterprise crew back in Yosemite, where we’re thankfully spared a rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
So hold on: what exactly is the final frontier? Is it God? The Great Barrier? The human mind? Wait, wait, I have more questions. What is the fifth element? Who is Keyser Soze? Dude, where’s my car?
Look, The Final Frontier is not a very good movie. Its special effects look cheap (Indistrial Light & Magic was uunavailabe this time out), it strains credulity, and you know a picture’s in trouble when the best gag involves someone — in this case, Scotty — getting bonked on the head. But it’s not quite the travesty that Trek fans had led me to believe. There’s a crazy energy to this movie that keeps it watchable, and I’m getting attached to the characters (especially Sulu — I love that guy’s voice). Uh oh… Am I becoming a Trek fan?
Tomorrow, I’m going to brush up on my Shakespeare with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Will the principle of good even-numbered Trek movies hold? I certainly hope so.