Film discussion

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – Movie Rewind

“What does God need with a starship?”

In the late 1980s, Star Trek was going through something of a purple patch. A brand new series – The Next Generation – had debuted on TV, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had beaten the previous two films at the box office by some way. The future of what was now becoming a franchise seemed not only secure, but also bright. Not bad for a TV show which had been dead for a decade, before returning in 1979 with a big budget motion picture.

Back when the original TV series was on air, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had what’s known as a “favoured nations clause” drafted into their contracts – this meant that whatever one received (such as a pay rise, or creative involvement), the other would also get that as well. When it came time to negotiate a deal to appear in Star Trek IV, Shatner made it conditional on his being able to direct the following movie, given that Nimoy had helmed the previous film, and was onboard to direct The Voyage Home.

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He also wanted to devise the storyline for Star Trek V, and came up with a proposal which was initially called ‘An Act Of Love’. Shatner had developed a fascination with American televangelists, such as how they managed to persuade people to give them money, and convince others that they had a direct line to the Almighty. The original proposal had a prophet character called Zar, who was going in search of God, and needed a starship to be able to get to the remote planet where Zar believed He was located.

After taking control of the USS Enterprise when it responded to a hostage situation, Zar took the ship to see God, but it turned out that it was actually Satan. Shatner had come up with a tale which dealt directly with religion, rather than in an allegorical sense, and it was felt that by doing so, the movie would be massively controversial, and potentially sacrilegious, alienating a large section of any potential audience. A similar issue had affected ‘The God Thing’, a proposed script by Gene Roddenberry for what ultimately became The Motion Picture.

‘An Act Of Love’ proved to be particularly problematic, as it not only featured both God and Satan, but also had characters crossing the River Styx, and Kirk saving the captured McCoy and Spock from being taken to Hell. Shatner rewrote the story to make it clear the ‘God’ of his tale was just an alien masquerading. The prophet was also renamed as Sybok, and Shatner had hoped to secure Sean Connery to play the role; even though they didn’t manage to sign him up, he still lived on in the script, as the ‘God planet’ was named Sha Ka Ree as a play on his name.

The production period was fraught with various problems, with work on writing the script impacted by the strike called by the Writer’s Guild of America, which also affected the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Industrial Light & Magic were also unable to provide any of the special effects, due to being heavily engaged in working on Ghostbusters II as well as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, both of which would end up competing with Star Trek V in the 1989 summer blockbuster season; as a result, the VFX – by Associates & Ferren – lacked the usual polish, and didn’t look quite up to the same standard.

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Late budget cuts also affected the finale Shatner had envisioned as providing a spectacular climax. After firing Photon Torpedoes at the phony ‘God’, there had been a plan to have ten creatures made out of living rock pursue Kirk, Spock and McCoy. However, each costume would cost $350,000, and Paramount Pictures baulked at this expense, so they chose to trim the budget, leaving Shatner with enough to afford a solitary ‘Rockman’. It wasn’t successfully realised, and initial footage showed it as looking unwieldy and unrealistic, which meant Shatner had to devise a new ending on the fly.

When the film was finally released, it was into an already crowded marketplace – as well as the two movies mentioned earlier, cinemas that summer were also showing Licence To Kill and Lethal Weapon 2as well as the massively anticipated Batman by Tim Burton, which stole pretty much all of the attention, thanks to a publicity campaign on an almost unprecedented scale. As a result, Star Trek V struggled to find its audience, and took only just over half of the previous film. With a new cast and show gaining popularity on TV, it was beginning to look as though Captain Kirk and his crew had actually reached their final frontier.

Star Trek V did little to dispel the notion that the odd-numbered Star Trek movies were the duff ones, as it was felt to have fallen short of its predecessor, not just in terms of box office take. However, some 30 years on, it’s time for a reappraisal of the film, as it seems to have been judged rather too harshly. For starters, besides The Motion Picture, it’s probably the movie which best captures the spirit of the TV series – II was a tale of revenge, loss and growing old; III was about the quest for a fallen shipmate; IV gave us an ecological time travel ‘fish-out-of-water’ comedy; and VI was a political thriller and Cold War allegory.

Only The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier had the crew properly boldly going, and even the former was mostly a ‘bottle episode’ (albeit a hugely expensive one). Star Trek V didn’t lack ambition or scope, taking us from Yosemite National Park to Nimbus III (the ‘Planet of Galactic Peace’), and through the Great Barrier at the centre of the Galaxy, to Sha Ka Ree. We get action sequences galore, from the assault on Paradise City, to the attack by the Klingons, the shuttlecraft crash on the Enterprise, and Kirk’s bid to escape from the false ‘God’ on Sha Ka Ree.

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There are also some lonely character pieces in here for the regular cast, including the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate: the scenes of them camping out in Yosemite show us some real depth of feeling and warmth as the trio banter back and forth, yet it also gives us some introspection on Kirk’s part as he ponders his own mortality. DeForest Kelley also delivers perhaps the strongest of his performances as McCoy here, when he’s shown a vision of his dying father by Sybok, who makes him relive his decision to euthanise his father out of the need to preserve his dignity, only for a cure for his father’s condition to be found not long after.

Perhaps the most controversial element here for many fans was the revelation of Spock having a half-brother, in the form of Sybok. For years, it was anathema for many die-hard Trekkers to countenance the notion that he could’ve had a secret sibling, which he’d never mentioned to his closest friends and colleagues. Flash forward to 2017, and suddenly Star Trek: Discovery gives us the reveal that Spock also had an adoptive sister, whom he had also never discussed with Kirk or McCoy. In one deft move, this actually fixed one of the biggest fan objections about Star Trek V, and made it not only seem more plausible, but also acceptable.

There’s so much to love about Star Trek V, from Kirk asking why God would need a starship if He’s so all-powerful, to Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring score (which actually reappropriates from Star Trek: The Next Generation his theme music which he’d originally composed back in 1979 for The Motion Picture). Perhaps it’s now time to boldly go reappraise for yourself what’s been an unfairly overlooked and unfairly derided entry in the Star Trek canon.

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