Revisiting Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

A lot of people will tell you that the even-numbered Star Trek films are fantastic while the odd-numbered entries are nearly unwatchable pieces of junk. For many, none of the movies perpetuate that myth more than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. So, was it really that bad?

I’ll be the first to admit that The Final Frontier doesn’t quite measure up to any of the four big screen Trek’s that came before it. The movie certainly has its problems. But coming on the heels of the enormously successful Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it had huge shoes to fill. William Shatner’s participation in The Voyage Home was contingent upon him being allowed to direct The Final Frontier, and he’s taken a lot of heat for this film over the years. But what he delivers is a fun stand-alone space adventure that, of all the movies, has the most in common with the original series in terms of tone.

The overall plot is solid. A renegade Vulcan commandeers the Enterprise in an effort to reach a mythical planet believed to be the home of a God-like being. If that doesn’t sound like a great episode of the TV show, I don’t know what does. Said Vulcan Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) is revealed to be Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) half-brother who has not only embraced emotions, a big no-no in Vulcan culture, but found a way to use them to his advantage. It seems he has the ability to get people to rally behind him by cutting to the heart of their hidden emotional pain and releasing them from it. After luring Captain Kirk (Shatner) and company into a trap, Sybok and his followers hijack the ship and take it to a distant region of the galaxy. So what we have is a believable, complex, motivated villain with ties to a character the audience already knows and loves. He’s not a mustache-twirling bad guy who just wants to blow some stuff up. He’s a man who truly believes in what he’s doing. Honestly, the only real problem I have with Sybok is his familial connection with Spock. A history between the characters serves the plot well, but the same effect could have been achieved by simply making them old friends or classmates. Having them as brothers feels forced and a little too on the nose.

One thing that is never lacking in a Star Trek film is space battles. Throw a dead Tribble at the screen while watching a Trek film and you’ll hit it during a space battle. What is typically lacking, however, is good old fashioned ground assaults. Not in Star Trek V though. Sybok and his cronies hold three ambassadors (a human, a Klingon, and a Romulan) captive in a remote outpost on a desert planet in order to draw Kirk out and it works like a charm. Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) fan dance diversion not withstanding, what follows is a thrilling little segment where Captain Kirk and his crew attempt a rescue, on horseback no less, hearkening back to the original series’s Western-inspired roots.

For me, one of the most important and enduring aspects of the entire Star Trek universe is the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). That relationship is displayed in The Final Frontier to its greatest effect since the series ended in 1969. We catch up with the trio on R and R, camping in Yosemite National Park. Kirk scales El Capitan with no climbing equipment, Bones cooks up some beans with a secret ingredient (bourbon), and Spock recommends a sing-along. It sounds corny, but it works. It’s rare that we get to these guys just hanging out. It’s even less common to see Spock as much out of his element as he is in this scene. He can compute the formula for time travel from memory but the lyrics to Row, Row, Row Your Boat confound him. Now, I’m not suggesting an entire film, or even an entire episode, dedicated to what the crew does in their off hours. Watching Scotty put away a whole bottle of Saurian brandy by himself isn’t my idea of compelling cinema but here it’s a wonderful way to explore the trio’s friendship in a new way. The best bit comes when McCoy acknowledges that, despite spending so much time in deep space, annoying each other, they still wind up taking their furlough together.

Though the camping sequence occurs early in the film and is essentially lighthearted and played for laughs, the more serious nature of their friendship is depicted later when Sybok attempts to use his skill on the three of them. Kirk, making Sybok for a bit of a Gorn oil salesman, flat out refuses, stating that his pain is part of him and makes him who he is. Spock and McCoy agree to let him try. Sybok figures out that Spock’s pain comes from his mixed heritage and the fact that he will never truly be Vulcan, especially not to his father. Well, obviously. No 23rd century psychologist is going to win any awards advancing that theory. But what we learn about McCoy is much more revelatory. Turns out, the good doctor euthanized his terminally ill father, mere months before a cure for his disease was found. Once the audience learns that McCoy has been carrying this around for years, it instantly adds a whole new depth to the character. Spock doesn’t fall for his brother’s hooey for a second but McCoy is all set to fall in line with Sybok when Kirk snaps him back to reality, pointing out that he’s a doctor and he should know better. The scene ends with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy standing together, effectively telling Sybok where to get off.

Aside from all this, we get treated to a fantastic scene with Kirk going toe to toe with a powerful entity who may or may not be God. Remembering who directed the film, guess who wins.

So, even though it’s usually dismissed as the unwanted stepchild of the Star Trek film franchise, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier doesn’t deserve the amount of hate it’s garnered over the last 27 years (wow, who feels old?). At the very least, it warrants another look by those who have deemed it a failure and probably haven’t seen it since.

What do you think of ST V?

(This article originally appeared on MovieFanFare in 2009, and it is being republished today in honor of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek‘s TV debut).