[box cover]

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: Special Collector's Edition

Paramount Home Video

Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley,
Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner, James Doohan,
Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei

Written by David Loughery, from a story by William Shatner,
Harve Bennett, and David Loughery

Directed by William Shantner


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"Your pain runs deep."
Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), as if reading our minds


Well, this was inevitable.

Like the James Bond series, the Star Trek movies are immune to conventional analysis because they exist within a space-time continuum all their own. For each earlier look at these Star Trek DVD Special Editions — Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — I have been tempted to split the review into two columns right down the middle of the page. The left-hand column would examine the movie as a movie, exploring its merits or demerits as big-screen entertainment regardless of a viewer's familiarity with the Star Trek franchise ur-sources. The right-hand column would hold the movie up to the light of the Star Trek mythos, probing whether it maintained and contributed faithfully to the integrity of Trekkish lore's now-immense canonical writ. We long-time fans are fussy about that sort of thing. "Is it a good movie?" is a question distinct from "Is it good Star Trek?" I resisted the temptation, but that always felt like a pretty good way to go about it.

This time, for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the temptation isn't even a minor consideration. As both a movie and as Star Trek, William Shatner's vanity project from 1989 is famously, fatally, painfully bad. Not "flawed." Not merely "a disappointment." It's a movie memorable only for its dopey script, Shatner's flavorless directing that does little to move the futile premise along, and shoddy special effects. It's a space-faring cousin of Superman IV: The Quest or Peace — a plodding, tacky-looking B-movie. The widescreen awfulness is a hypnotic phenomenon, inspiring the almost drugged fascination one achieves when watching the Zapruder footage or home videos of the family reunion that went horribly wrong. As a moribund reminder of the TV and cinematic voyages that came before it, it's Star Trek as old, fat Elvis bulging out of the sequined jumpsuit.

Nobody enjoys writing about a bad movie, except connoisseurs of schadenfreude or some habitués of Aint It Cool News (two subsets that tend to overlap). But as a recovering Star Trek dork from way back, I'll say without flinching that Final Frontier is one dreary, joyless failure that delivers all the pleasure of a plucked pubic hair. Its shortcomings are particularly striking given that it sits between the series' most financially successful entry, Leonard Nimoy's vapid but affable Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Nicholas Meyer's self-assured Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

*          *          *

The new starship Enterprise (introduced in the final moment of the previous movie) turns out to be an interstellar lemon. That doesn't stop Starfleet Command from ordering Kirk and crew away from shore leave so that the captain can investigate trouble on Nimbus III, the "Planet of Galactic Peace." Once there, the ship is hijacked by a renegade Vulcan, Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), who is not only a mystic leader on a quest to find God on the legendary planet Sha-ka-ri, which is known to humans as the mythical Eden — he's also Spock's half-brother. Sybok quickly coerces the crew to his side by "sharing their pain" (don't ask) and heads the ship to the center of galaxy. There it must breach the "Great Barrier" to locate the planet of God. Meanwhile a renegade Klingon captain is speeding toward the Enterprise so that he can make Kirk's head a prized trophy. Kirk tries to wrestle back command before the Enterprise reaches its destination, but ends up on Sha-ka-ri with Sybok, Spock, and McCoy. The four come face to Face with God, an imprisoned superbeing who lured Sybok there to (as far as we can tell) steal a starship for His escape. Kirk irreverently asks, "What does God need with a starship?", whereupon God smites him down. To say that Kirk and Spock save the day and devise a final Godsmack would be only stating the obvious.

There are hints of lost potential here. Luckinbill's charismatic Vulcan has the makings of an interesting anti-hero. That potential is squandered on an amateurish script and a climax that desperately wants to be an explosive confrontation but instead sputters as a wet fart. David Warner is wasted as a human ambassador with nothing to do, "God" is a children's Sunday school cliché, and the Klingon threat feels tacked on only to provide a Spock ex machina at the end. Ironically, while this may be the worst of all Star Trek flicks, its use of an alien zealot with extravagant goals makes it the one most similar to the original television show, which thrived on wacked-out extraterrestrials. The difference here is that the original TV episodes were only 50 minutes long, making them far more palatable. And while the classic Trek regulars show up for another paycheck, their hamfisted attempts at comedy undermine whatever earnestness the script probably intended to convey.

*          *          *

The anticipated purchasers of this DVD already know that picking at all the movie's misfires — in the story and the screenplay, in its attempts at either drama or comedy, in Sybok's Family Circus theosophizing, and certainly in the execution of the whole mess — is like shooting salmon in a shoebox. The Star Trek devotees know that the movie trashes series continuity (for starters, no way could the Enterprise travel to the "center of the galaxy" in less than decades or centuries) and there's little point in asking about things such as that easily penetrated impenetrable Great Barrier, or the unexplained "God" on the other side of it. (Bloopers like the wonky deck numbers during the rocket-boots-up-the-elevator-shaft scene are a separate matter altogether.) Simultaneously, the movie-lover in us wonders how an action-adventure picture about a spaceship crew going to meet "the Almighty" can be so goddamn boring.

The screenplay is a hash of risible dialogue applied to scenes Frankensteined from old Westerns, action flicks, and The Wizard of Oz (George Murdock's "God" is a Giant Floating Head that's the spitting image of the Cowardly Lion). There are long scenes that generate no feeling of intrigue, suspense, or danger although they're plainly supposed to. And at the end of this bloodless storytelling we're left with enough loose ends to weave Shatner a new hairpiece. There's no "wow" moment we can carry with us afterward. No awe, no spectacle, no fun. It's all so very tired.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are written as parodies of their comfortable-old-shoe personas, exaggerated and cartoonish, so it's impossible to know how much of these unusually lackluster performances arise inevitably from the poor material the actors received. The trio's much-vaunted camaraderie does provide a couple of pleasing moments, but the movie hits that button so often it borders on the maudlin. Their bookending campfire scenes, capped by excruciatingly twee singalongs of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," aren't touching and revealing, they're cloying and mawkish.

The visual effects — as essential to a Star Trek movie as mustard to a Yankee Stadium hotdog — bring to mind the old 1960s TV series instead of a late-1980s major motion picture. Even prominent sound effects are lifted from War of the Worlds and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as if to unwisely remind the sci-fi film aficionados of superior cinematic forebears.

On this DVD's commentary track, director Shatner notes that his big plans for the movie, especially its effects-heavy climax, were undercut when Paramount slashed his original A-movie budget. An unfortunate downturn for any director, no question. Still, that fails to explain away either the poor material remaining or the vote of no-confidence bound up in that budget-reduction. While this DVD was in preparation, Shatner asked Paramount for capital to complete the movie as he originally intended, as Robert Wise had done for the "Director's Edition" of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The studio refused. He needn't have bothered. No amount of CGI gravy could help us swallow this turkey.

*          *          *

It's certain that no modern digital gee-wizardry could paint over the most objectionable element of Final Frontier, the thing that prevents it from rising to the bad-but-lovable category. It's the degree to which Shatner firehose-sprays self-aggrandizement onto the screen from start to finish. Captain Kirk was always the virile he-man axis of the Star Trek saga. In the '60s and '70s he rewrote the harddrives of American males everywhere. But that factor has never been so grating as it is here, where it's ballooned to elephantine proportions and everyone suffers for it.

Shatner is credited for the screenplay's story, and we can imagine his pitch to the studio being "Capt. Kirk vs. God; Kirk wins." On a level that's narcissistic rather than dramatic, Kirk is more rugged, smarter, braver, stronger, wiser, and nobler than anyone else in Final Frontier. All he lacks is Kung Fu Grip. The script is blotched time and again by characters remarking on how awesomely wonderful or formidable Captain Kirk is. In a key scene his supercilious reaction shots directed toward a babbling McCoy are insufferable.

Psychologists might call it "transference." We call it something less polite.

The captain's long-serving comrades, trained Starfleet officers all, are reduced to fatuous, weak-minded cadets who are lost without him even when vacationing in a U.S. national park. It's hard to take them seriously as grown-ups, never mind seasoned professionals. Before you can say "Scientology" they're Moonie-ized by Sybok's empty self-help platitudes, which come across as samplings from an Oprah's Book Club paperback. (At least in Wrath of Khan Chekov could blame his betrayal of Kirk on that icky earwig.)

Sybok tries to ply Kirk, Spock, and McCoy with his mental whammy-power and nebulous New Age twaddle so that they will reveal their "secret pain" and thus "free" themselves. Only Kirk has the mettle to resist the interactive psychodrama that's part of the experience. "Damn it, Bones, you're a doctor," he lectures. "You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves! I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"

Final Frontier ascribes so much power to inner pain that we must be three steps closer to God by the time the final credits roll.

In Voyage Home, we bit our lip as we watched good old Mr. Scott turned into a buffoonish comic sidekick. Now Scotty completes this character assassination when he Jar-Jars himself senseless by walking his forehead into a support beam ("I know this ship like the back of my hand" conk!   Nyuk nyuk nyuk, as three prior stooges would say). Worse, this time everyone gets at least one scene that makes us feel embarrassed for them. Matronly Nichelle Nichols will never live down her "naked" fan dance. In a lost-in-the-woods scene early on, Sulu and Chekov suddenly channel Lenny and Squiggy.

Even DeForest Kelley, the only one who made it through Voyage Home with his dignity in place, gets the treatment. Starting with his neck kerchief, he looks like Don Knotts' Mr. Furley from Three's Company, and his role overplays every McCoyish tic and trope. We can't help but wonder if Shatner was punishing him for being the best actor of the original series.

*          *          *

Final Frontier wasn't completely ignored when the time came to hand out motion picture awards. 1989's annual "Razzies" awarded Shatner with both Worst Actor and Worst Director mantelpieces. Producer Harve Bennett "won" the Worst Picture prize. Other nominations were for Worst Screenplay, Worst Supporting Actor (Kelley), and Worst Picture of the Decade.

Fortunately, with Nick Meyer (Wrath of Khan) directing again, everyone pretty much redeemed themselves in the next movie, the last of the "old cast" features, The Undiscovered Country.

*          *          *

It's reported that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry went on record saying that he considered parts of Final Frontier to be apocryphal to the Star Trek universe. Whether some "parts" can be canonical while others are not is a sticky point, but Roddenberry seemed to suggest that we are free to regard Final Frontier as something like a DC Comics "imaginary tale" where baby Superman lands in Nazi Germany instead of Kansas. It didn't really happen so it's not part of the scriptural texts. After all, no subsequent Trek adventure refers to any element of this movie. Maybe it was all Captain Kirk's dream, literally, between the two campfire scenes. ("Life is but a dream," you see.) We long-time fans find some comfort in that sort of thing.

And one can make a case for Final Frontier possessing a virtue that at least two subsequent Star Trek films do not, thus making it not necessarily the bottom of the Trek feature film barrel. At least it tried to give audiences something thematically big and cosmically "deep" for their movie-stub dollars. It failed utterly, but ambition and intent count for something. Contrast that with two "Next Generation" films, the ninth and tenth (and likely final) movies in the franchise. Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis are mediocre banalities that don't even pretend to be more than paint-by-numbers dross cranked out on Paramount's "those dweebs will buy anything" conveyor belt. There's a difference between ego-driven incompetence and the lazy milking dry of a cash cow. Each of those two later films is a middle finger extended out the driver's side window at loyal Star Trek fans.

At least Final Frontier wanted to give us that geeky splayed-fingers Vulcan salute.

The DVD

Like its predecessors, Paramount's two-disc Special Collector's Edition of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier gives us another excellent print and audio, plus more of the extras that we've come to expect.

However, compared to the earlier releases, this is one passionless offering. From the tepid grab-bag of Special Features to Shatner's dull commentary track, it seems that no one felt there's anything "special" about this release. By the looks of things, they just loaded their stuff onto the discs to fulfill their contractual obligations and then go home.

The picture — The clean, strong, sharp print looks terrific and received a new 2.35:1 (anamorphic) transfer since the previous non-anamorphic "bare bones" DVD edition. Color, clarity, and definition are excellent. For this reason at least, completist collectors will want to pick up this edition.

The audio — Similarly, the audio is outstanding, although it's the same mix found on the previous edition. The Dolby Digital 5.1 option is robust and active.

The new extras round up the usual suspects:

Commentary by William Shatner and Liz Shatner — He's the director, star, and story-pusher. She's his daughter and the author of a "making of" book chronicling her father's "personal account of the making of Star Trek V." This commentary track may be the biggest surprise on both discs. We can be forgiven for popping this DVD into our players if only to hear Shatner's spirited defense of the film as well as his work on (and in) it. We can anticipate a track bursting with fustian indignation over the way studio suits screwed him during production. Because it's, dude, William Shatner giving the commentary to THIS movie, the DVD ought to be worth the sticker price if only for its lively commentary track delivered with all the grandiloquent bombast he put into "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

But no.

Instead both Shatners sound resigned and business-like, as though they'd rather be at a Denny's. Long-time fans won't glean much new information or insight, and the scene-by-scene byplay comes with little enthusiasm behind dry and superficial anecdotes. Then even that peters out to long stretches of dead air. Perhaps Mr. Shatner realized that there's no point in defending what's on the screen and that there's nothing left to say about the movie.

Oh well. Shatner has better fish to fry these days. Check out his exemplary narration work in the science documentary series Cosmic Odyssey, which airs on the Science Channel. That's where his strengths shine, and it's the best work he's done at least since his good-natured, self-deprecating appearance playing himself in the clever Free Enterprise.

Text commentary by Michael Okuda and Denise Okuda, co-authors of The Star Trek Encyclopedia — Another caption-text collection of production info and trivia. Like the audio commentary, it's the weakest example so far on these Trek Special Editions.

The Star Trek Universe featurettes:

Production featurettes:

Deleted Scenes (mostly trims and snippets really):

Archives:

Advertising:

—Mark Bourne



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