Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is much maligned as one of the odd numbered, and thus awful, original cast Star Trek films. I’m a bit of a freak, as I actually like these films. Maybe not Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but Search for Spock and Final Frontier are just fine in my book. What? Generations? Don’t be silly. That film never actually happened.
So yes, I quite like the odd numbered original cast films, and I find myself particularly at odds with most of humanity when it comes to Final Frontier. I’m not saying the movie is perfect; far from it. However, I have this feeling throughout the whole movie that the intentions behind the project are good, and it’s always felt that way to me. Shatner, despite infamously participating in the “get a life” sketch, has been profoundly faithful to Star Trek fan culture even if his motives are slightly hard to determine from the various strands of his ego. His direction of Final Frontier is all about that. The film opens with a Vulcan laughing. A Vulcan? Laughing? For people like me, who grew up with the films and watched a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation but not much else, this is a big deal.
The film goes along in a similar vein. The whole Yosemite interlude and the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” stuff is intended as fan service. Fair enough, it’s Shatner’s idea of fan service, an insight for fans into the lives of Kirk and the other two guys. It is a nice touch though, even if the joke that Spock doesn’t get it (again) falls a bit flat. But hey, that’s why we had DeForest Kelley. Regardless of how flat a Star Trek scene gets, if Deforest Kelley is there things will be alright. Incidentally, Kelley used to get a lot of fan mail from actual doctors, and he would sign them “From the reel McCoy to the real McCoy.” The guy was pure class. And cool as a cucumber.
Shatner is a little different. The climax to the movie essentially involves Kirk standing up to God and winning, or at least successfully defeating an alien entity of previously unknown power. Everything about the finale feels right to me though, in concept, if not in practice. There’s something so old school about breaking through the unbreakable barrier to have a long chat with a well voiced special effect. The climax to the film highlights everything about this film that I like, a strange mixture of Shatner’s considerable ego and his genuine fondness for the material. Of the series of original cast films, The Motion Picture and Final Frontier stand out as having the most tv-friendly plots. Despite the numerous problems inherent in that fact, the fifth film in the series works for me.
Of course, it’s far from perfect, and I have to agree that the film’s detractors make excellent points. The rather sudden emergence of Spock’s brother after several motion pictures and an entire television series is rather grating. I can imagine that for fans of The Original Series it must have been infuriating. It all makes you feel just a little sorry for Laurence Luckinbill, who does a great job with one of the sillier characters produced by the films. What was Sybok’s story anyway? I know that the character grew out of insane Shatner ideas about evil intergalactic televangelists, but where does he end up? Is he a bad guy? I never really see him as a bad guy, just as some kind of brainwashing nomad. We know very little about his background except that he was an excellent student, became a revolutionary, and was somehow raised alongside Spock even though they had different mothers. Did Sarek have a Big Love situation going on of which I wasn’t aware? That was never clear to me.
It all leaves poor Todd Bryant to pick up the slack as the film’s bad guy. He does a great job with what he’s asked to do, but unfortunately all that entails is him barking a lot and complaining about shooting things or not having things to shoot. Kirk’s understandable hatred for Klingons, exacerbated by the murder of his son in Search for Spock is completely ignored, even though it’s a major plot point in Undiscovered Country. There’s two major problems here: after the Genesis Trilogy, despite all the ridiculous time-travelling Save the Whales stuff, Final Frontier was on a hiding to nothing. The film is basically presented as a standalone story, when perhaps it would have been fun to keep some form of continuity. Undiscovered Country certainly hearkens back to those films. Final Frontier is hung out to dry a little.
Search for Spock, another odd-numbered film, is saved by the bad guy. There’s a clear definition here. He kills Kirk’s son! It doesn’t hurt that Christopher Lloyd innately understood that a genre movie needs the best bad guy possible, and that being the best bad guy possible often involves chewing up as much scenery as possible. Christopher Plummer understood this, too. In Undiscovered Country he plays a Klingon general with a leather eye-patch who quotes Shakespeare, for crying out loud. It should be offensively stupid, but it’s an absolute blast from start to finish. I wish they’d given him more time on screen.
So, what kills Final Frontier in the end? I don’t think it’s Sybok. It’s the lack of a clearly defined bad guy and the weird TV effect of being a standalone story in between a trilogy of successful Star Trek films and the original cast members’ official goodbye to the fans, via the successful foiling of the space Cold War. In space. I like Final Frontier. I do. Stop being mean to it, Internet.