By Marc S. Sanders
Leonard Nimoy is an actor who can also direct himself. Man o’ man, he accomplished amazing feats with Star Trek III & IV, didn’t he? On the other hand, William Shatner is just an actor. Look at Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and you’ll see what I mean.
(Mind you, I’m not being fair, because actually Shatner is a very good literary author. Read his TekWar series to understand what I mean.)
What a terrible shame that this fifth film in what was mostly a successful and beloved film franchise descended so poorly in craftsmanship, writing, direction and performance. The lesson to be learned when committing to a plot that has your cast of characters meeting with the Lord, Almighty God is…I guess you’ll always come up short. Someone will be there to say, “Well that’s not my God!” or “God? Who is this God, you speak of?”
The behind-the-scenes story goes that Shatner agreed to return for the fourth film on the condition that he direct the fifth installment. Producer Harve Bennett and Paramount agreed, and Shatner got to writing. What set this film up to fail from the get go is what a skeptical producer later recounted. If you have a film where the crew of the Starship Enterprise meets up with God, it’s never going to please everyone. Someone-a lot of someones-are going to be disappointed. Talk about hindsight.
Shatner’s other mistake was offering up a shocking new development for the franchise’s most treasured character. Spock (Nimoy) has a long-lost step brother. Yes. Of course, use your film installments for big moments like this, but not this way. Sybock (a dumb sounding, uninspired character name, played Laurence Luckenbill) is a crazed Vulcan heretic who brainwashes people by easing what pains them the most. He arrives on a planet in the neutral zone (between Klingons and the Federation) and rounds up a posse masking them as hostages to bait Captain Kirk and the Enterprise to arrive, thereby hijacking the starship. Next stop a mythical Eden, where God presumably resides. This is supposed to be Spock’s brother????
When the veil is pulled off on who Sybock is, Shatner’s scene set up is kind of anti-climactic. He portrays Kirk in a silly kind of comedic frustration against the no nonsense Spock for not sharing this news. Lines like “Aha…. See? See what I mean?” creep in. It’s kind of sophomoric and hokey, like a failing stand up comic. Spock doesn’t even find Sybock’s arrival very fascinating. (In case you aren’t aware, Spock exudes enthusiasm by declaring something fascinating.) Instead, it’s just matter of fact. So, why should the audience raise an eyebrow at any of this, if Spock won’t even make the effort?
The Final Frontier fails miserably on its visual effects. The renowned Industrial Light & Magic was not available for this picture. Shatner and company resorted with another contractor and the lack of substance in space travel and models shows terribly. At one point Sulu (George Takei) must fly a shuttle transport into the hull of the Enterprise. Reader, I’ve orchestrated better crash landings with my GI Joe toys. This is one of the few science fiction films where I can literally tell that miniature models are being used. The ships are not filmed to appear large and carrying vast amounts of crew members. The scale of it all seems off. God is just a holographic face in strobe blue light. Why did the Paramount production team allow this to happen on such a valuable commodity as Star Trek? After the enormous success of the last three films, especially Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, you would think that the filmmakers would be especially protective of their money maker.
I guess I answered my own question, though. The title Star Trek sells itself, like Batman, James Bond, Jurassic Park or Marvel or Star Wars. So, let’s not kill ourselves with money and effort. Is that the idea? If audiences came in droves for the last picture, surely, they’ll want more and naturally return for the next one, no matter what’s plastered on the screen. It’s terrible corporate hubris that happens all too often though, and it’s not right.
Star Trek always succeeds when each adventure is a reflection on our world histories and/or our current events. The Voyage Home relied on the cause of environmental preservation. The Undiscovered Country (the next film in the series) sprung from the Cold War politics that ended terribly for Russia with the Chernobyl disaster. I like to believe The Final Frontier was aiming for religious doctrine, but ended up being a betrayal on a level of cult status, perhaps in the direction that Scientology or NXIUM have been suspected of taking. A zealot will brainwash you into the illusion of immediate relief from what personally ails you. Then you will follow this so-called leader on a tour to meet the almighty, himself (“God” in this film is portrayed by a man, actor George Murdock.) It’s regrettable, because nothing was gained from this. Characters ranging from McCoy to Uhura, Chekov and Sulu all become followers of Sybock under his hypnosis. Yet, Shatner’s story and direction never provide a relief from what overtakes them. Were they ever deprogrammed? Cults do exist and sadly people have to be reverted back from the mind control that’s overtaken them. I’d argue science fiction could allow for a more economical and immediate relief, but even that is not offered here. So, again nothing is gained or absorbed from Star Trek V.
Film Critic Gene Siskel made a simple and wise observation about the Star Trek films as a whole. We like these movies because we like these characters and they like each other. William Shatner offers a simple life approach to Kirk, Spock and McCoy as they camp out on shore leave in Yellowstone National Park. They sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It has its charm as Spock is dumbfounded by the illogical lyrics of the song. You smirk along with Kirk and McCoy. However, it has nothing to do with the crux of the film. This moment reintroduces the characters at the start of the film and then it is bookended to close out the movie. But why? What was proffered from this? It goes back to William Shatner spit balling as a writer/director. In other films, before the meat of the story would begin, the characters would reflect on Shakespeare or Charles Dickens for example, and somehow it weaved nicely into the adventure or the outcome later on. A campfire song has no relevance that I could determine with a quest for God.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was just aimless telling, and it bothers me to this day. By the time this film arrived in 1989, the cast was already starting to wind down. Their age was showing, and they only had so many more voyages to travel on. Kind of sad that their second to last exploration was dull, short sighted and massively insignificant.