Guilty Pleasures: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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Kirk: What does God need with a starship?

McCoy: Jim, what are you doing?

Kirk: I’m asking a question.

“God”: Who is this creature?

Kirk: Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?

Out of all the original cast Star Trek films, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the one that seems to regularly receive the beatings. It is cast aside like the fat and wheezy boys in P.E. lessons. Standing alone at the side of the field while the other Star Trek films save the day. I suppose if that metaphor where to stand up, you would have to say that Star Trek: The Motion Picture would be the swatty, studious boy who sits under a tree and contemplates life, the universe and all that. Anyway, Star Trek V is bullied by most and ignored by the rest.  That must mean it is really bad, eh? Well, no actually. It isn’t. Certainly if you compare it to the Next Generation films such as Nemesis or Insurrection, it is actually a masterpiece.

However in the original cast canon it does rather stand out, mainly for its shoddy practical and not so special effects. Many also point towards the fact that this is a William Shatner “joint” and therefore it is bursting at the seems with his fevered ego, pompous bravado and really rather heavy on the Kirk.  While this is true, and there are some very stupid moments, as a Star Trek story I really rather like it. The idea of someone taking the Enterprise to search for God is an interesting idea, particularly when they are they are able to manipulate the emotions of everyone around them. There’s something of the David Koresh about Sybok (but without the sex) and it is an intriguing concept. William Shatner came up with the idea for the film while watching a TV evangelist. “They [the televangelists] were repulsive, strangely horrifying, and yet I became absolutely fascinated“. Shatner was intrigued by the idea that these people could convince seemingly normal people that God was talking to them and make money out of it.

Shatner was handed the keys due to a deal he and Nimoy had going back to the old days. Their lawyers drafted what Shatner termed a “favored nations clause”, with the result that whatever Shatner received — e.g., a pay raise or script control — Nimoy also got and vice versa. Nimoy had directed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Shatner had previously directed plays and television episodes; when he signed on for The Voyage Home following a pay dispute, he was promised he could direct the next film. And so it came to pass.

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Things were already against Shatner, however. 1989 would be a bad year to make an effects laden film. ILM (the usual Star Trek guys) were very busy. They were fully committed to Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. To get around this issue, the idea was to use as much in-camera trickery as possible and hire an effects company called Associates who had worked on Altered States and Little Shop of Horrors. As if it wasn’t daunting enough to pick up from ILM (who were the best of the best at the time), Associates also only had three months to complete all of their effects shots (which is half the amount of time effects houses are usually given). No wonder then that the effects here are pretty bloody awful (some horrendous blue screen and back projections). As for the in-camera trickery, I’m afraid it’s a case of being very much able to see the strings – and everything else.

Shatner insisted on viewing lots of test footage before he proceeded with each shot, requesting time-consuming changes if he did not like an effect. The production had budgeted $4 million for the film’s effects, slightly more than The Voyage Home, but with all the delays and problems, the film’s budget soon got bigger and bigger so the studio called a meeting with executives and began cutting out effects shots. This lead to the original climax of the film being excised, which was to be the infamous scene of Kirk being attacked by a giant rock monster (wonderfully parodied in Galaxy Quest). It was effects tested, but abandoned. Most of the exterior shots of the Enterprise were simply re-used from Star Trek IV to further cut costs, despite the fact that ILM delivered the model for the effects house to use.

You get the feeling that the crew are simply there because they had to be. There wasn’t quite the same spark as usual and it obviously didn’t help that the script had turned Uhura and Scotty into horny teenagers. In Scotty’s case he was also transformed from an intelligent engineer into a clumsy, Clouseau-esque idiot who would walk into posts at the drop of a hat. There is also the small matter of Uhura doing a sexy dance that is guaranteed to give aliens massive erections. There are certainly tales of disharmony amongst the cast. George Takei certainly didn’t want to return as he didn’t get on with William Shatner. He was eventually persuaded to return (and left the crew for part 6 to have his own ship) by Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner over the phone and is clearly just going through the motions with the rest of them. It doesn’t matter though. This really is Kirk’s film. It was designed that way by Kirk himself. Hence why he climbs rocks and rides horses -this is Shatner showing us that he is a real bloody man and that we are all puny mortals.

Shatner has his moments in the sun while the rest of his crew are manipulated or brainwashed, he is the guiding light and the only man not taken in by Sybok’s machinations. It must be said that there are some excellent scenes in the film too. The moment in which Sybok attempts to use Kirk, Spock and McCoy’s emotions to join his cult are very powerful scenes that are really well acted by all involved.

Kirk: Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!

The real find in this film is Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok who Shatner discovered by accident while channel surfing one night (it does sound like Bill cast most of the film while watching TV, doesn’t it?). Luckinbill is excellently compelling as the ultra manipulative Sybok. He dominates every scene and is very convincing as a controller of men’s minds. He and Shatner both shine during the fantastic climatic confrontation with “God” and give the film the memorable ending filled to the brim with the appropriate gravitas it doesn’t really deserve. Sean Connery was initially wanted for Sybok, but like ILM, he was also busy with Indiana Jones. The Klingons are shoe-horned into the film for no real reason and it does feel a bit like they didn’t have the confidence to go with their A plot, so they conceived the reliable Klingon menace to stir things up a bit. It doesn’t really work and they do ultimately feel very tacked on.

The other masterstroke that Shatner pulled was to bring back Jerry Goldsmith (who hadn’t been on a Trek film since the first one). Back was his original score (now commandeered by SNG) and his talent for digging out incredible scores. The Final Frontier’s locations led Goldsmith to eschew the two-themed approach of The Motion Picture in favor of recurring music used for locations and characters. Sybok is introduced with a synthesized motif in the opening scene of the film, while when Kirk and Spock discuss him en route to Nimbus III it is rendered in a more mysterious fashion. The motif also appears in the action cue as Kirk and company land on Nimbus III and try to free the hostages. When Sybok boards the Enterprise, a new four-note motif played by low brass highlights the character’s obsession. The Sybok theme from then on is used in either a benevolent sense or a more percussive, dark rendition. Arriving at Sha Ka Ree, the planet’s five-note theme bears resemblance to Goldsmith’s unicorn theme from Legend. The music features cellos conveying a pious quality, while the appearance of “God” begins with string glissandos but turns to a dark rendition of Sybok’s theme as its true nature is exposed. As the creature attacks Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the more aggressive Sybok theme takes on an attacking rhythm. When Spock appeals to the Klingons for help, the theme takes on a sensitive character before returning to a powerful sequence as the ship destroys the god-creature.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7xYa1hvVSE

The film was a total failure when it came out. 1989 was not a good year for any other film apart from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman (just ask Licence to Kill). It was not only a financial failure, but also a critical one. In fact so poor was the reception that plans were immediately drawn up to reboot the franchise by taking part 6 back to Starfleet and telling the story of how our crew first met (plans that were obviously abandoned for the fantastic The Undiscovered Country).

I feel it is time to stop picking on The Final Frontier and turn attention to the other tired lads on the sidelines. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock for instance,  a very silly and desperate premise which is then ponderously delivered with little to no moments of interest for the viewer and a very poor villain in Christoper Lloyd’s Kruge (who also has a rubber dog puppet) who you can barely take seriously. So yea, pick on that one and leave poor The Final Frontier alone, it’s actually pretty good.  Anyone who hates it can just go climb a rock.

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