A camera pans across a desert, its cracked ground rife with holes. A miner runs obsessively from one hole to the next. His reverie is broken by the distant sound of a horse galloping. Cut to a cloaked figure shimmering like some dark wraith as he rides toward the miner, slowly growing clearer and more substantial as he gets closer and closer.
This sequence, a visual quote of David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, is the eerie opening to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the ambitious failure directed by the science-fiction franchise’s star, William Shatner. Though Shatner had already directed nearly a dozen episodes of his other notable TV series, T.J. Hooker, The Final Frontier was his feature directorial debut, a contractual obligation owed him because of a clause that gave him parity with co-star Leonard Nimoy, who had just directed a pair of Star Trek’s most successful films, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home.
The Voyage Home was that rarest of sci-fi stories, a fish-out-of-water comedy about the Enterprise crew traveling back in time to present day to retrieve a couple of humpback whales to save the future. That fourth Star Trek feature also was a very profitable worldwide hit for a dialogue-heavy franchise that rarely played well overseas. It’s understandable then that Paramount Pictures was somewhat trepidatious about handing the now globally lucrative hit franchise over to the untested Shatner. But there it was in their contracts, as continued involvement in front of the camera by either Shatner or Nimoy depended on parity behind the scenes, whether it involved money, perks, or opportunities like this one that allowed them to expand their career prospects.
Where Nimoy was much like his science officer Spock in the way he helmed his two films, precise and calculated, Shatner’s approach reflected the audacious daring of his character, Captain James T. Kirk. His film was to be an adventure in which the intrepid crew of the Enterprise would be co-opted by a fanatical laughing Vulcan (to be played by Sean Connery) seeking God at the center of our galaxy. A skeptical Kirk would be led there against his will by his mutinous crew only to discover the Devil instead. But as Shatner put it, the Devil’s very existence would by extension mean that there is a God.
Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, having been stripped of any authority over the movie series following the cost overruns of his first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was now riding high with the burgeoning success of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. But he still retained approval over aspects of each new film’s story. Though The Motion Picture had failed in its attempt to tell its own story about the Enterprise’s encounter with a godlike being, he ultimately gave Shatner his blessing and some notes on things to avoid. One thing the studio, Roddenberry, and current producer Harve Bennett all agreed on was that perhaps chasing the bibilical God was too lofty a goal for this modestly budgeted franchise film. What if Kirk and crew didn’t find God or the Devil, but an alien impersonating God instead?
It would be the first compromise Shatner would make, though not the last. Having had some success with a lighter entry, in the form of The Voyage Home, Paramount wanted Shatner to eliminate some of his story’s darker qualities in favor of more humor. This would lead to missteps like a scene in which a naked, middle-aged Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) performs a fan dance to distract enemy fighters. And the scene that’s likely the movie’s nadir, in which ship’s engineer, Scott (James Doohan), declares he knows the Enterprise “like the back of my hand,” just before knocking himself unconscious with a low-profile bulkhead. Connery would soon drop out of the running for the part of the antagonist to star in another notable Paramount series’s latest sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (He would be replaced by the lesser-known Laurence Luckinbill in the role of Spock’s heretofore unheard of brother, Sybok.)
With Shatner emphasizing action, an ample cast, and gloriously scenic landscapes to bestow a sense of scale to the traditionally soundstage-bound Star Trek features, he ended up allotting considerably less of his budget than what he expected toward visual effects and the movie’s grand finale. A sequence at the end of The Final Frontier in which Kirk, having just defeated the alien, must now fend off 10 giant rock monsters took the biggest hit. First, the production whittled the number of monsters down to just one. Then, footage shot of the rubber-suited monster was excised after everyone agreed how horrible the monster looked on screen. (Eventually some modified version of the monster did show up in a future release, albeit not a Star Trek feature, but the savvy parody of the franchise Galaxy Quest.) Shatner was learning just how hard it was to put his vision up on screen. “The bad news was that he has the appetites of a star, which he is,” producer Bennett observed in a documentary included on the Blu-ray release. “And bigness is part of his persona. Bill doesn’t do anything small.”
Though many have focused on The Final Frontier’s failings, the truth is that it has many virtues as well. The movie marked the return of Star Trek’s best composer, Jerry Goldsmith, whose score for The Motion Picture not only was among the series’s best, but among Goldsmith’s finest in a storied career. Shatner’s decision to frame the story with bookends featuring Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) mountain climbing and camping in Yosemite National Park was a continuation of the verisimilitude offered by Nimoy’s extensive location shooting in the last film and would launch a trend that continues to this day in subsequent sequels. Shatner would also introduce elements of the series fans had been eager to see in the movies such as a new shuttlecraft, a broader range of alien humanoids, more hand-to-hand combat, and even a Romulan character, Ambassador Caithlin Dar (Cynthia Gouw).
Most importantly, The Final Frontier is the only one of the features to actually fulfill the TV show’s credo, “...to boldly go where no man has gone before,” a fact highlighted by the phrase’s appearance on a plaque in one of the movie’s gorgeous sets. While every other Star Trek film concerns itself with a madman trying to destroy Earth, the galaxy, the universe, or some variation thereof, The Final Frontier intimately focuses on Star Trek’s holy trinity, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and their exploration of space and all of its wonders. Shatner may have overreached, but in retrospect, the movie’s box-office failure may have had less to do with its ambitions than with the sizable amount of competition it faced in theaters, having opened two weeks after Last Crusade and two weeks before the Tim Burton behemoth that would carry away most of America on the waves of Batmania. It never even had a chance. Taken on its own terms, though, The Final Frontier is a lyrical expression of the camaraderie and bravery Star Trek always represented on TV, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Tony Dayoub is an Atlanta-based film critic who has written for Indiewire’s Press Play blog, To Be Cont’d, and Nomad Editions Wide Screen, a digital weekly. He writes about film and TV at his blog, Cinema Viewfinder.