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Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier

story by William Shatner, Harve Bennett, and David Loughery
screenplay by David Loughery
directed by William Shatner, music by Jerry Goldsmith
feature film, 106 minutes

Five - an odd number. This film is Star Trek through and through, giving us the adventure, the humour, and some freshly unique unknowns. Though it remains unpolished in a few areas, this is also a VERY ambitious film in many ways, not least of which is the philosophical territory that it tackles head on with gusto, and it does manage to hit home in many of those areas. Personally, I have nothing but admiration for William Shatner who tackled the daunting task of being writer, director, and star of a piece of cinema that tried to say something this big so publicly. I salute him for creating something very special here.

Perhaps the greatest double-edge sword of this film is in finding the territory for its central exploratory journey, and figuring out where that final frontier really is. Is it an external journey, requiring us to find some planet in an unexplored part of the galaxy, and some mysterious being of power outside of ourselves? Or is it an internal journey, to make some peace with our own fears and pains and hopes and joys? The film comes to a beautiful and powerful answer in the end, but perhaps the filmmakers weren't as clear about this difference in their own minds as they crafted the character interactions along the journey.

Shatner's own daughter Liz followed the making of the film quite closely in order to write a book about it, and it is a fascinating read which I would recommend to all. In it, we get much more insight into the discussions during the writing process than in any of the extras on the 2-disc Special Collector's Edition DVD. One of the biggest, most all-pervading notes that Harve Bennett brought to Shatner's original pitch, as Harve did to all his own work, was to always notice whether a story was creating surprise or suspense... and if it did neither, then it was in real trouble. Shatner, Bennett, and screenwriter David Loughery then put their heads together and re-crafted the tale such that its primary strength during most scenes and moments would be based more on surprise than suspense. I tend to see that abundantly when viewing the film these days, and I feel that that is one of the reasons why it worked so well for me the first time through, but not necessarily quite as well on many of my subsequent viewings. This story does lead its audience through a great number of surprising revelations, some intriguing, some purely humorous, and quite often both at once. This pervades the action sequences just as much as the dialogue scenes. However, once you know all the central facts of the story by heart, it's harder to be excited or shocked when tidbits of revelation leak out.

Thankfully, much of the humour works no matter how many times you've seen this. In particular, Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley prove beyond a doubt why they deserve to be heralded as the great stars of the franchise that they are. Their scenes of banter in this film are some of the best they've EVER done, and these scenes do hold up as classics no matter how many times you've seen them before. James Doohan playing Scotty also does very, very well in this film, and helps keep the bar up really high.

Some very good casting happened when Laurence Luckinbill was signed to play the central figure of Sybok, who has to embody a certain ambiguous flirtation with the idea of exactly how dangerous vs. spiritually on-the-money a religious fanatic might be. This is a very difficult and hugely important aspect to get right for this story, and most everyone agrees that Luckinbill did extremely well to bring out everything that was important in this version of the script and make it compelling on screen.

David Warner is also advertised as one of the film's big stars, even though his role turns out to be rather less important than the hype would suggest - a role that doesn't really take advantage of his enormous talent. His character really does get upstaged by both Cynthia Gouw playing his Romulan counterpart Caithlin Dar, and Charles Cooper playing his Klingon counterpart General Korrd. Cooper would go on to play a very important recurring figure in Klingon politics in several episodes of The Next Generation TV series shortly after this.

The central concept of Nimbus III doesn't quite make sense, if examined too closely. The three major superpowers of this era of Star Trek, who all distrust each other, decide to set-up a kind of perpetual "summit" out in the middle of nowhere, where they are each represented by an individual who has fallen out of favour with the establishment. Exactly what are these three supposed to try to accomplish, all by themselves, with no support staff or security or embassy building? What is the point? How does this rough planet of survival-based thinking get to call itself "The Planet of Galactic Peace?" Perhaps each government gets some bragging rights to say that they are participating here. But this set-up seems to be just begging to be turned into a hostage situation, which is a little too convenient. Add this to the generally seedy, dusty, messy quality of the footage from this planet, whether interiors or exteriors, and I have to admit to having very little desire to watch the Nimbus III sequences.

I'm really not sure how the concept of the "laughing Vulcan" was meant to have impact. If you see someone with those ears, and then they laugh, why would you not think that you were looking at a Romulan? Caithlin Dar's long lost love maybe, overjoyed that he's finally made it to the right planet....

So far, we haven't had a Star Trek movie that didn't have some sort of Klingon presence in it somewhere. At this point, the Klingons begin to become terribly overused in the movies, and we get a whole Klingon subplot adding additional action to the movie that somehow doesn't seem to feel all that natural. Captain Klaa and his team seem to be a much less successful repeat of the Klingons we had in Star Trek 3, and seem to be following the same general subplot with a lesser execution.

Another repeated subplot is the idea of our favourite crew of regular characters needing to be gathered up and reassembled on the Enterprise in order to begin the adventure, which once more takes up a good chunk of the first half of the film. At least this time around, all these scenes attempt to pluck our funny bones, with varied levels of success. But on that note, it really is only the Kirk-Spock-McCoy scenes that both nail the humour and have truly relevant philosophical territory to cover - and as these prove to be some of the best parts of this film, it does remain worthwhile in the end.

The optical effects for this film unfortunately don't stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. One will notice that for much of the first sections of the film, if we get an optical at all, it is often a re-used bit of footage from a previous film. It does indeed seem weird that reportedly the Enterprise is the only available ship in the area, considering that it is first revealed as we come up over the Excelsior in a reused shot from the end of Star Trek 4. I much prefer those moments when new shots have been dropped in. However, it seems a shame that so many of these shots only feature one object in them - an interactivity problem that I brought up back in my review of "Star Trek 1: The Motion Picture". Sure, it doesn't result in a pacing problem in this film, per se, but it's not doing much to keep the action sequences interesting and compelling. Rather they turn out to be merely adequate. Ah well.

Structurally though, the film is doing fairly well. Early on, it promises generous portions of action, and before long it is delivering. The Enterprise crew all get plenty of chance to interact with each other all the way through, and they get into the thick of the action fairly quickly in this one. This film does deliver a good ride, and particularly on a first run through, one gets the feeling that the adventure backbone of a good Star Trek story is in place and functioning well.

Inside Out

The most all-pervading note I could give the film concerns the subjectivity of its writing. There's a certain sense of reality that seems to elude it, a sense that we can't quite just pick any character, go through the story as he or she would see it, and have it make sense from his or her perspective. This story, in particular its various character interactions, feels like it is one character's changing, growing viewpoint which has been magically externalized, and we see all the other characters acting out that evolving viewpoint whether it makes sense for their own internal consistency or not. I think the style here might perfectly match up to being one person's dream, where his subconscious controls everyone to some extent.

So just whose viewpoint are we watching here? Captain Kirk's I would think. We the audience see all the other characters basically in ways in which Kirk might view them, all the way through. And that's a perfectly fine way to shoot a movie, and can be very artistic. I just have a feeling that, on this occasion, the filmmakers didn't realize how deep into this territory they actually were, and didn't see the objective level of reality that was eluding the film. Thus it didn't quite turn out as well as it might have. A new set of eyes taking an additional pass over the script probably could have brought this film up another significant notch.

This problem of subjectivity affects many of the elements of the film, but none more so than how Sybok is perceived, what his powers are, and exactly how Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov respond to him or Kirk when the question of "freeing their minds" vs. brainwashing comes up, and their loyalties go off the deep end. To give credit where credit is due, the original plan was to have Spock and McCoy follow suit as well so that Kirk would wind up as the sole resistor, but Nimoy and Kelley stepped up to address some of the inconsistencies presented for their characters, and with a little thought came up with some additions and much more believable positions for themselves to maintain and/or express.

Hindsight also leaves us with a bit of a head-scratcher concerning the geography of the galaxy in the Trek universe, and the speeds available to any given starship. The journey to the center of the galaxy in this film seemed perfectly plausible at the time it was made - concurrent with season two of "The Next Generation". However, five years later "Star Trek: Voyager" began by marooning a starship on the other side of our galaxy, a galaxy that had been neatly divided into four quadrants, with decades of travel time required to get to the center and beyond to the other side - for the ships of the generation that comes AFTER Kirk's time. Kirk's journey here miraculously takes only a few hours, at a guess. Exactly how close to the galactic center did he have to travel to find this barrier, and the planet beyond? How big is this center, and how many other astronomical objects should we expect to find there?

It is with a bit of a cheesy groan that I received the idea that the God creature had designs on stealing the Enterprise, because that is such an overused plot device of the Star Trek TV series, and here it was appearing for the second time in the same movie, delivered in a section of a scene that wasn't quite working for me. But then again, perhaps it is a GOOD thing that Sybok sees his false God trying to pull off the same desperate stunt that he himself was forced to do earlier. It reinforces the unpleasant reflection-of-self re-examination that he is going through. Perhaps the scene most needs McCoy to notice the repeated plot device and beat the audience to the groan by making some humorous quip about it.

The Missing Ending

Perhaps the most obvious flaw that a single viewing will bring to anyone's attention is the fact that this film appears to be missing its action climax - but it's not quite what many may think, and certainly not quite what Shatner himself expresses in his interviews and commentaries. When it hit me in the theatre during my first viewing in 1989, I certainly didn't think that 10 rock creatures climbing out of the scenery to menace Kirk was what was needed. All the action we do get in the film during this climax without the rock creatures was perfectly fine material that escalates the story well.... It just isn't a climax. Sybok's confrontation with the God creature only just seemed to be the major plotpoint that shifts us from the middle act to the final act, and it was then logically followed by this bit of rescue action simply to get the characters away from the scene of that second plot point. I was still waiting for the meat of the final act to get underway.... and instead the characters all decided to party and declare the adventure over. It was quite jarring.

What we really don't have is the sense that they are truly out of danger - and there are a few very specific keys for this. One - as the God creature first appears, a great shaft of light bursts upwards from the planet at his location. It is significant that it goes beyond the height of the Enterprise and the Klingon ship in orbit, because this signifies that being in orbit on either of these ships will not put a person out of the range of the God creature's power. Two - the God creature's dialogue implies that it is the great barrier itself that keeps him imprisoned here, and that only by crossing back to the other side will a person be out of range of his power. Three - the Enterprise fires a photon torpedo directly onto the God creature.... after which his voice is heard again and his face is seen to come back and menace Kirk. This implies that it will take one hell of a great something to actually kill this thing if killing it is even possible at all... which means that a couple of blasts from the Klingon ship's laser disruptors won't be doing the trick either. It can at best tick him off, and buy us a bit of time to beam Kirk up. Once a film pulls one of these "no, the villain isn't quite dead yet as you thought" stunts, it requires a VERY definitive and spectacular bit of action to more decisively do the trick later on, and Star Trek Five totally didn't pull one off.

What we need after Kirk's rescue is a final confrontation over the viewscreen, where perhaps we can fool the God creature somehow, or outsmart him, or REALLY deliver him a serious blow. Ideally, it should dove-tail into the central philosophical point being made in the film. At bare minimum, the Enterprise and Klingon ships need to escape to the other side of the barrier. We need to get clear of the danger. Then we can carry on and party.

The Spiritual Triumph

All that said, Star Trek V is really giving us some good material with the final scenes that we did get. We should note that the conflict with the Klingons diverges significantly from repeating its template from Star Trek 3, and Star Trek 5 totally does it more in keeping with the grandest philosophies of the Trek franchise. Federation and Klingon people talk out their differences and find a sense of camaraderie with each other - and the Romulans join in and participate to boot. Nice!

And it is here at the party that we get the real resolution to the film's biggest philosophical explorations. Is God something outside of ourselves, to be sought? Kirk posits the philosophy he intends to continue to live by, that God is something internal that we all carry with us. Perhaps he's right here, in the Human heart. That may seem simple and trite... but it has more weight to it thanks to us having seen Sybok's journey... all the effort he went to in recruiting hordes of people, in moving them across the galaxy, just to find a greedy creature reflecting his own face and his own thieving ways back to him.

I'm less inclined to dismiss these basic spiritual ideas of the film because I have to note how my own concepts of God and spirituality changed over the years, and more importantly when. I tended to be a bit more atheist early on, believing our legends of God were more about misinterpreting an extra-terrestrial presence earlier in our history. Such presences were "out there" somewhere, technologically advanced but somewhat less than holy. While I still believe strongly in those possibilities, they have since been dwarfed by a more universal God presence within all living beings, something that can't be properly personified as Human religions often try to do. When I look back at WHEN it was that I was at the right age to form my own opinion, when it was that I became open to this new point of view, I realize that my first viewing of Star Trek V was right smack at the beginning of that re-evaluation process. Sybok and the other characters make the very external journey that I believed Mankind itself should make, and found it to be severely wanting as I believed it should be, and then Kirk gently suggests something else. It was just what I needed, and came along at just the right time for me. I have to think that this film did have an influence on me then, and I'm forever grateful to it for its contribution to making a better person out of me, however big or small that contribution was.

No matter how big its other flaws may be, it got something very correct at its core, and it continues to shine bright because of it.

Musical Tour-de-Force

Of course, it would be remiss to talk about this film without mentioning its standout score. Shatner and company went right back to hire the best - Jerry Goldsmith - and about time too. His theme from "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" had taken over as the title theme for "The Next Generation" TV series, and it seemed high time that the movies settled down and stopped changing their main themes so often. Goldsmith's theme came back, and I thought, it's about bloody time! Soon after, my household acquired the single-disc CD album, which stood alone as the only bit of Star Trek music that we had for a long time. I got to know this score better than any other, and was soon deeply in love with its highlights.

There are two really stand-out new themes in it. One plays over the second half of the main titles, during the gorgeous footage of Yosemite National Park, and is often known as "The Mountain". It's a beautiful piece of slowly ascending glory that comes to represent Kirk's sense of friendship with his closest shipmates - and it later takes on a sense of gentle intimacy that most of the other themes don't approach.

The other main theme represents the holy glory that Sybok and friends expect from God and/or Eden, best exemplified by later portions of the cue "A Busy Man", which begins in the film just as Kirk decides to take a shuttle down to the planet and quips "God is a busy man." I was so enamoured by this cue, I used to listen to it over and over until I could play a good approximation of it by ear on keyboard. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, and can hold its own against anything by any major classical composer over the past few centuries. Too sweet. I have fond memories of one morning in church, perhaps only a year or two after this film came out, when my friend's mother got up from her seat at the organ saying, "I'm tired today. Martin, you play something." And I got at the keys and let "A Busy Man" rise up from the organ in church as the congregation was breaking up into their own individual conversations. Johann Bach, eat your heart out. Goldsmith had arrived in the building. That is such a sweet and perfect piece of music that he composed.

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Oddly, it's entirely something else from this film's score that has been added to the continuing repertoire that Goldsmith used on the rest of his Star Trek scores after this. It's an oft-repeating simple four-note motif, consisting of a chord's major third, played twice, followed by the base home note, and ending on the major fifth. For example, in the key of C, you'd get E-E-C-G. I grew to think of this motif as representative of Sybok and his questing nature (listen to the scoring on that moment when Spock has him at gunpoint and Sybok marches straight up to point-blank range and dares him to pull the trigger), but I'm not willing to hang on to my original interpretation too closely, since this motif must be finding very different meanings when it comes back in Star Trek's 8, 9, and 10. Whatever it is, it's become a nice, familiar, and very prolific bit of Goldsmith's Trek work.

Of course, the Klingon theme is back as well, and gets more widespread use here in this film than in its debut in the first Trek feature of 1979. Here it finally gets a proper workout and many good variations, which we had been awaiting for some time. This excellent theme works very well and is totally welcome, but it gets a bit buggered up by an unnecessary and ugly bird-call that jams itself in. On the film, the bird-call features during the end credits, but the CD thankfully presents end credit music with the bird-call removed. During the film, most cues thankfully give you just pure Klingon music, but when those feature on the CD many of them have the ugly bird-call added in. Don't know what was going on there. Too bad they didn't just leave the bird-call out everywhere - it never sounds good and doesn't work. It's the one true black mark on an otherwise magnificent score.

Well, as far as I am concerned, with this film Star Trek had scored another very important and unmissable hit, even if the ride was in part a bit bumpier than usual. Star Trek V stands proud and tall amidst its neighbours in the film series, and has a few unique strengths and ways in which it can outshine the others. Thoroughly recommended to all for deeper examination and thought as well as pure entertainment and enjoyment!

Read the next Star Trek review: "Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country"

Star Trek 5 is available in various incarnations on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the desired disc format and location nearest you for pricing and availability:

2-disc DVD Special Collector's Edition


DVD Canada


DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by director William Shatner (Captain Kirk) and Liz Shatner author of "Captain's Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V".
  • "The Journey" making-of featurette (29 min.) adding producers Harve Bennett and Ralph Winter, actor Leonard Nimoy, screenwriter David Loughery, designer Herman Zimmerman, cinematographer Andrew Lazslo, scenic artist Michael Okuda, concept artist John Eaves, science advisor Dr. Charles Beichman.
  • 5 additional production items
  • A Tribute to designer Herman Zimmerman (19 min.)
  • Original Interview: William Shatner (15 min.)
  • Cosmic Thoughts (13 min.) w. author Ray Bradbury.
  • That Klingon Couple (13 min.) interview of Todd Bryant (Captain Klaa) and Spice Williams (Vixis).
  • "A Green Future?" (9 min.) on preserving Yosemite park for the 23rd century;
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Okuda text commentary
  • storyboard and photo archives
  • Trailers and TV Spots
1-disc Blu-ray

Blu-ray U.S.

Blu-ray Canada

Blu-ray U.K.

Blu-ray Features add:

  • Commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens and Daren Dochterman
  • Library Computer
  • Star Trek Honors NASA
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame: James Doohan
  • SCISEC 005: Nimbus III
  • BD-Live--Star Trek I.Q.

Or, get all 6 original crew feature films on Blu-ray at once with an exclusive bonus disc.

The First Six
Feature Films


Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray U.S.

Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray Canada

Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray U.K.

Also includes exclusive bonus 7th disc, with
"The Captain's Summit" discussion (HD, 70 min.) between
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy,
Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Article written by Martin Izsak. Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

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Read the next Star Trek review: "Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country"

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