In defense of William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

I may be treading on dangerous ground here. I can already hear snorts of derision even at the mention of Star Trek V, but please humor me.

No, I’m not hoping to turn non-believers into followers by adopting some Sybok-esque manipulation technique, nor am I attempting to force your opinion. I just want to share with you whyin 2019 and in the year of its 30th Anniversary, I still adore Star Trek  V: The Final Frontier.

Let’s set the scene: the franchise was still riding high on the wave of the success of 1986’s The Voyage Home and The Next Generation was just in its second season (and improving all the time). Part of the deal with Paramount hiring Leonard Nimoy to direct the features was, it’s understood, that William Shatner would be given the same opportunity.

And so Captain Kirk himself pitched his movie idea to Paramount and Harve Bennett and they green-lit a rather ambitious plot:

A renegade, passionate Vulcan seeks passage to find what he believes to be God existing at the center of the galaxy. To get there, he hijacks the new U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A, fresh from Spacedock and with a crew initially called back from shore leave to investigate what Starfleet understood to be a terrorist hostage situation on Nimbus III, the so-called ‘Planet of Galactic Peace’.

There. In a nutshell. It’s very Star Trek, very reminiscent of a classic episode construct and wouldn’t be the first (or last) time religion raised its head in the series (there are religious allusions in ‘The Way To Eden’ and ‘The Apple’ for a start). Even Gene Roddenberry had put forward an outline called ‘The God Thing’ (intended to be the first of the Star Trek feature films) in 1976 and The Motion Picture itself talks of ‘the Creator’. So Shatner’s pitch was hardly remarkable and ‘out there’ but he was still clearly eager to do something a little different – and it’s strange that Roddenberry had considered it apocryphal (perhaps he was still smarting from the rejection of ‘The God Thing’?).

Shatner wanted to imbue a sense of fun into the film, with physical action scenes that hadn’t truly been realized in the movie franchise before (shuttlecrafts ploughing into holds, captains physically standing up to hovering Klingon Birds of Prey – that kind of thing). I think the down-side to the ‘fun’ side is that Shatner has a certain, shall we say, style: slightly off the wall, rather tongue-in-cheek and definitely poking fun at himself. And whether you like it or not, that’s him and his infamous ego.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of the guy and have a huge respect for him and love his approach to life, it’s just that I can see his manner doesn’t necessarily conform or sit easily with everyone. Yes, I’ve got some hero worship going on here and have had since I was a kid (which I guess explains why I wanted to write this article).

The inspiration for Shatner was televangelists and a search for religious meaning – but because Paramount was concerned this would turn audiences away, the notion of an alien posing as a deity was developed. Shatner wasn’t too keen on the idea but nevertheless accepted the revisions suggested to him.

Problems arose even before the cameras started rolling: the Writers Guild of America went on strike leading to delays in the script being ready, meaning some of the cast, Leonard Nimoy included, filled the time with other projects.

Sadly, the budget was slashed during the course of production, so Shatner and his crew had to fly by the seat of their pants (which seems very Kirk-like!). ILM proved too expensive (and plus they were too busy working with Steven Spielberg on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as was Sean Connery, who Shatner originally wanted to bring Sybok to life) and so producer Ralph Winter hired Associates & Ferren. This meant that some key scenes the director wanted and had been story-boarded for had to be cut (such as the ‘rock creature’ sequence on Sh-Ka-Ree) or reworked. Filmed scenes that suffered included the falling of Kirk from El Capitan and Spock’s rescue (blue-screen didn’t look its best there and neither did Nimoy and Kirk on wires) and a few effects shots of the Klingon Bird of Prey.

But Shatner’s eye for a good shot is often overlooked.

The mysterious rider in the dust in the first scene immediately grabs you, as does the subsequent head shot reveal of Sybok laughing. Watch the whole title sequence (before Spock pops up on his jetboots): the scenes of Kirk free climbing with the sun casting him (well, his stunt double) in shadow are quite something. Then there’s the reflection of the Enterprise in the window of the Galileo as they approach it in Earth orbit – not quite the level as a similar scene from The Motion Picture but it’s a lovely moment, all the same.

The effects of the Great Barrier, realized initially by dropping inks into oil, are different to what we’d seen before in a Star Trek movie and certainly gave it a unique feel.

Then there’s the wonderful music. Jerry Goldsmith returned to the fold with original compositions for the first time in 10 years. Those of you who kindly follow my regular articles on the Sound of Star Trek, please watch for my piece on this particular soundtrack in the coming weeks.

The Final Frontier fits pretty neatly with canon, too.

Yes, there was the argument that we’d never heard of Spock having a brother brother before but the idea that Sybok was the result of a previous marriage of Sarek’s (to a Vulcan priestess) does make sense. How many disparate families are there in the world with siblings (half or otherwise)  who never talk to each other and who are never mentioned? With Vulcan pride and honor in place, it would be even more of a reason for Spock to simply not talk about Sybok. And let’s not forget too that there’s also someone called Michael Burnham now in the mix. Playtime in the young Sarek household must have been fun: Spock being all serious, Sybok laughing and Michael looking bemused.

We had flashbacks to Spock’s actual birth which echoed the long-term animosity between him and Sarek that we were told about in The Original Series and McCoy’s struggle with his father’s terminal disease and his agony of not being able to save him, especially when they found a ‘goddamn cure’ not long after. These are perfect moments that really add to the canvas of these two great characters.

Kirk of course – and in true style – doesn’t need to be told if he should have turned left or right : he needs his pain and that’s exactly how he would properly react to Sybok’s ‘brainwashing’.

The Klingons are by-the-numbers, with Klaa on a mission to kill Kirk, an act not authorized by his government, and so we learn very little of their race here beyond what we already know. And that’s fine:  after all, it’s not a Klingon story but this does make me ask why they were included – but the finale with Spock on the Bird of Prey is a nice touch.

Laurence Luckinbill plays Sybok completely earnestly, completely straight and does not waver in his portrayal. It gives the character such depth and anguish. When he realizes that the God Thing (see what I did there?) trapped on the alien world isn’t his God or any other God, he is broken-hearted and betrayed.

The camaraderie between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is perfectly presented. The shore leave scenes topping and tailing the movie are great fun and Spock, having only recently died, is dead-pan throughout, with McCoy as lovably spiky as ever. And I think this is the fun that Shatner wanted to instill. Heck, he and his two main co-stars had been playing these roles for well over 20 years by the time the movie went into production and his on-screen enjoyment of being with his friends is clear, so why the hell not?

And the one liners! I could list a whole wealth of them here…but my favorite? Well, that will be McCoy’s:

“I liked him better before he died.”

Next: The Sound of Star Trek Part 7: Star Trek [2009]

So I don’t expect you to agree with me and I expect that there is much wrong in other fans’ eyes that is too troublesome for them to accept, let alone like, this movie. I could also fuel others’ counter argument to my own by saying that, when I saw the film in 1989, I was the only one in the (seat-belt free) theater. But seeing a movie in a dark, pop-corn-crunching-free, devoid-of-other-movie-goers environment was just like watching it at home (if my home had a whopping 45 foot screen up on the wall, which it doesn’t, and didn’t in 1989, either). Oh, and my solitary viewing? Well, that was the fourth time in as many days I’d seen it on the big screen. Yeah, I love this movie.

I could use a shower.

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