Revisiting the novelization of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier


The novelization of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier expanded much of what was on screen and a lot of what wasn’t. What were these additions to a film that is still widely panned?

J M Dillard was no stranger to Star Trek prose fiction. By the time her novelization was published on June 1, 1989, Pocket Books had already released Mindshadow (1985), Demons (1986) and Bloodthirst (1987). Her gap in 1988 was filled by the release of her novelization of another Paramount property, the pilot to The War of the Worlds TV series (spun from the George Pal 1953 classic), The Resurrection. I avidly collected the Star Trek titles and therefore was familiar with her work, having very much enjoyed her time with the crew from TOS by the time she got around to The Final Frontier.

Much has been said about the fifth movie in the series (and not all of it bad!).  It’s a story certainly with heart, about who we are and how our own souls guide us and is very much a take on director William Shatner’s view of the world: a wry smile, an underlying message of acceptance and the notion to not take yourself too seriously.

The only downside to this is not many people get Shatner’s approach to life and that, coupled with an occasionally clumsy script and set pieces and special effects done on a budget, Star Trek V – The Final Frontier was potentially doomed. Which is a shame because it is very much a Star Trek story both deep-down and on a surface level.

Novelizations of movies aren’t as popular as they used to be, which is a great shame. That said, there does seem to be a few more trickling out there than there have been in the last 15 or so years (Kong: Skull Island, Solo etc) but even major films still don’t always get a tie-in (Prometheus, Star Trek Beyond etc). Yet back in the good old days, we had book versions of virtually every single blockbuster. Such releases of course were because it was a way of reliving our favorites movies before the advent of home video and rentals. Without these treasured tomes, we only had our memories.

And that, I guess is why the novelization is still in its endlessly dying throes: we can see these movies again as often as we like and it’s not unusual for a DVD or Blu-Ray or stream release to occur a matter of months after the theaters have finished showing them. Heck, sometimes you can even go on sites like Amazon weeks before a film is out in the cinemas and pre-order the physical copy!

Okay, so that’s the commercial reason for why we were lucky to have these books. But there is still also another benefit: that of the author expanding on the movie script, giving characters new scenes, new lines (and in some cases authors used older drafts of scripts meaning we have different scenes to what was filmed, what we had witnessed). I myself am developing a series for a production company I’m currently working with and they have asked me if I would consider novelizing my own script at a future time – music to a writer’s ears!

So novelizations are special, magical things and not to be sniffed at.

Which brings me nicely back to J M Dillard.

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She took the core semblance of the story by William Shatner, Harve Bennett and David Loughery (and the latter’s script) and weaved a tale that delves to some level into ideas and themes that were first revealed in TMP. Whether her expansions are considered to be canonical is a) down to the individual or b) governed by the consensus that only anything that appears on screen is part of the entire franchise’s narrative.

But let’s not get worked up about that particular minefield. It’s probably already painful enough for you to be reminded that TFF‘s story was made even longer by the advent of this book.

T’Rea, Sybok’s mother, we are told, was deposed as Vulcan High Master (Mistress?) because she did the naughty with Sarek (before he met Amanda). But being dishonored in life is one thing, being dishonored in death is another: at the time of her passing her katra would still be enshrined in the Hall of Ancient Thought. From her union with Sarek we have Sybok, a child who she taught to be less accepting of Vulcan’s stolid ways. As a result Sybok became a passionate Vulcan, determined to continue his beloved mother’s quest to search for Sha Ka Ree following her eventual death. And there we have his motivation. Luckily, T’Rea wasn’t called Martha. Luckier, too, Kirk’s mother wasn’t called Martha, either. That would have been a really daft story hook.

J’Onn, the first Nimbusian (have I just made that up? What are the native humanoid species of Nimbus III actually called?) to be ‘saved’ by the adult Sybok, followed him because of the death of his wife, Zaara, so there’s his motivation, too.

Among my family, among my people, I am forbidden to speak his name, Spock recalls, so giving us the logic of why we have never heard of Sybok before this point. He also blames his undergoing fal tor pan as fracturing his early memories to some extent (thereby exacerbating his surface recall, which may also explain why we don’t know about Michael by now, either).

Sulu’s awakening concerns his time while as a child and the death of an old lady at the hands of pirates. He and his friend Kumiko couldn’t save Mrs Weisel and this stayed with him for most of his life. But Sybok lifts the guilt from him, and does the same for Scotty by instilling in him that the death of his nephew (as seen in the extended edition of TWOK) wasn’t his fault. Kirk as we know refuses to be ‘brainwashed’, mentioning that he needs the pain of David, Carol and the (original) Enterprise with him. It is interesting that we don’t have a background explained for Uhura.

Nor is it explained what the creature posing as the deity actually was. That, though, may not have been a bad thing. We don’t always need to have chapter and verse explanations as to the childhoods of the Big Bads and when it comes to tales of intergalactic derring-do that’s more apt.

Dillard does partially restore the rock creature sequence to some extent, but as an amorphous bronze tendril-type energy monster, implying that this was one of many forms the God-creature could take on. Ultimately though, it is described as a column of energy and power (but clearly power that didn’t allow to escape from the planet it was found on), and one that could be zapped by Spock’s well-timed use of the Klingon Bird of Prey’s cannons.

I never understood the whole ‘marsh melons’ joke, assuming it was some reference to the new Enterprise‘s data library malfunctioning, but it’s explained here that McCoy mis-programmed the databanks on purpose to play a joke on Spock. My own assumption seems to work better.

We know that the film has its problems but there are some touching moments when it comes to characterization. Dillard did her best with the material she was presented with and dovetailed it nicely into established continuity. It fits into the bigger picture and as a standalone novel is very successful.

Next. A Look Back: Skin of Evil. dark

For me, it does arguably prove that Shatner’s pitch to Paramount definitely had merit and certainly had mileage, the final result on screen perhaps not what the vision originally was. Dillard restored its credulity and is a worthy addition to Pocket Books’ series and I was pleasantly surprised, having not picked it up to read since 1989.

In fact, it’s given me an appetite to read more Star Trek.