Let’s get something straight right off the bat: Star Trek V is a hot mess. Released 25 years ago today, my anticipation for it could not have been greater. By 1989, I was fully immersed in Trekdom, consuming all there was to consume: comics, novels, cards, making-of books, and of course, the actual movies and TV episodes.
Have your eggs and tomatoes handy because I’m here to say that Trek V isn’t all bad. Yes, it is far and away the weakest of all the Trek films. I think we can all agree on that. What I am here to say is that despite its flaws (which are legion) there are virtues, and I am guilty of watching The Final Frontier numerous times simply because it stars my beloved Original Cast.
Trek V was a gross miscalculation on almost every level. Trek IV was funny and hugely successful so the mandate was to bring the funny again. Some of the humor works. Some of it is simply juvenile. Going after God. Really? Haven’t we done the Supreme Being thing already guys? God never works. The non-ILM special effects are from hunger and always take me out of the story.
Then there’s the script. I know I recently accused The Undiscovered Country of numerous plot holes and contrivances, but Trek V is littered with them.
In order for the Enterprise to be successfully hijacked all the necessary elements are front-loaded into the story from the get-go: a poorly designed vessel with numerous flaws, a skeleton crew and no experienced commanders in the quadrant. As Jim Kirk sneers to Admiral Bob, “Oh please.” Let’s throw in some transporter malfunctions to ramp up the tension and give Bill Shatner an excuse to ride a horse. Spock has a half-brother? Gene was really pissed about that one.
And just how skeleton is this skeleton crew? St. John Talbot notes that they will bring up the rest of Sybok’s followers once they reach the Enterprise…which immediately warps out of orbit to avoid the Klingons. So the entire complement of the Galileo is enough to overpower the crew? I suppose Sybok is helping the situation by brainwashing the Enterprise crew into joining him one officer at a time. And just what the heck is Sybok doing to them?
The Klingons: would Klaa really bow to Korrd – a put out to pasture disgrace? Shouldn’t Korrd have committed ritual suicide before accepting such a humiliating assignment? In what universe could the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans put aside their differences to develop a colony in peace and harmony? Obviously it didn’t work out, but the mere premise is ridiculous.
I could go on, but I did promise the film had its virtues, and it does. Was I massively let down by Trek V? I was. I loved TOS and had yet to accept TNG (eventually but not yet). I also knew that the original crew’s days were numbered, and the failure of this film might signify their swan song. And here I was only five years into true fandom.
However, in its own clunky way it captures the heart and soul of Trek, despite its numerous shortcomings. What I truly love about this film, and what I think it nails above all other TOS films, is the wonderful dynamic between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
Trek II hinted at it, but for obvious reasons it was absent from Trek III, and Trek IV focused more on the Kirk-Spock relationship. Here we have our three leads interacting, bickering and working in concert in a way they hadn’t since TOS. And for the first time, they try to make sense of what draws them together during the campfire scene, one of my favorites in the film series.
I love the fact that Bill Shatner wanted to explore that dynamic and articulate what that bond was all about. It’s a poignant scene punctuated by some classic McCoy exasperation with Spock. By the way, the novel explains Spock’s seeming “marsh melon” boner as a trick played on him by McCoy, something I wish was in the final film.
I also believe that Kirk’s vision of “dying alone” is fulfilled in Star Trek Generations when he dies without his friends present to save him. I know he’s not literally alone when he passes, but the line is prescient, and while I doubt anyone was thinking about a callback to this moment when Generations rolled around it takes on a deeper meaning when we hear Kirk say it now. Although if memory serves, Shatner referenced it either in Ashes of Eden or The Return.
The film carries through on the promise of the campfire scene as the trio works together to wrest control of the ship from Sybok (an excellent Laurence Luckinbill). We all know Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley rightly refused to have their characters betray Kirk, and their refusal to do so only endorses what was said around the campfire. They are each other’s family, pure and simple. One could argue that McCoy’s role in Spock’s resurrection only intensified that relationship, but happily for us Spock still annoyed the hell out of him.
Star Trek V was demolished by a string of blockbusters in the summer of 1989 that included Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, and Lethal Weapon 2. It could ill afford to be inferior to Star Trek IV, the only film which possessed the crossover appeal that put it over the $100 million mark. It’s the last Trek film to be released in the summer until Star Trek in 2009.
It’s a safe bet that all concerned knew they had a turkey on their hands. Bill Shatner blames budgetary constraints, rewrites, the 1988 Writer’s Strike and so on for the film’s failure. I have no doubt Harve Bennett and Ralph Winter knew this was a too-ambitious concept doomed to failure, but they were stuck with Shatner as a storyteller. He exercised the “favored nations” clause in his contract which allowed him parity with whatever Leonard Nimoy received, and I can’t imagine anyone in the cast or crew was thrilled at the prospect.
As I said up top, Trek V is a hot mess, a disappointment in almost every regard, and maybe I’m a bit more charitable than most. The mere opportunity to see the TOS cast in action (even a wasted one) meant a great deal to me (and still does). They’re my guys (and gal). The business with “the holy trinity” might not be enough to save the film, but it anchors it. It gives us something positive to focus on (although I have no doubt there are fans who think even that was handled poorly).
I think Bill meant well, but didn’t have the innate understanding of what makes Trek work. He is an amazing, incredible Captain Kirk, but let’s leave him in the captain’s chair, not the director’s chair.
Steve also commemorated the 30th Anniversary of Star Trek III:The Search for Spock, which can be found here.