Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an odd beast of a film. Coming on the back of the successful trilogy of films that re-established the series on the big screen in the wake of The Motion Picture, it could have been the biggest film of the franchise. Instead it has become seen as a failure, a film that somehow failed to live up to expectations and that nearly killed the franchise on the big screen. Is that fair though to the film itself?
Short answer: not at all.
Yes it's a film with problems. Perhaps the most noticeable of which is its special effects. The films had brought Star Trek a long way from it sometimes iffy TV effects but Final Frontier saw that trend sputter a bit. Compared with previous films in the series which had lower budgets, the effects here are unconvincing including the model shots that had been a point of pride for the film series. Even the film's more original sequence are a let down such as the sequence when the Enterprise enters the Great Barrier, a sequence which could have potentially rivaled the incredible imagery of V'Ger in The Motion Picture. Instead the sequence becomes a series of unconvincing model shots in which the Enterprise looks pasted onto the screen as lighting bolts and clouds swirl around. The problems with the special effects go farther as well as they ultimately robbed the film of its intended ending and instead left it with an ending that feels anti-climactic. It's a disappointment to be sure and one that makes the film feel inferior to its predecessors.
The film's other big problem is in its script, or at least in its focus. Star Trek has always been an ensemble show from practically the first episode and while that can be something difficult to bring over to the big screen, the earlier Trek films had managed the transition smoothly by focusing on the core characters (Kirk, Spock and McCoy) while giving everyone their moment to shine. Final Frontier though focuses on the character of Captain Kirk while giving lip service to many of the others of the cast, something that perhaps isn't surprising given that William Shatner is not only the director but co-credited with the storyline the script is based on. Kirk is at the center of the action throughout as well as being a voice of sanity, sometimes absurdly so. Those familiar with Shatner's later Kirk-centric Star Trek novels will recognize many of the tropes here but whereas Shatner was kept in check more in those books, here he is given free reign to the detriment of the film.
Which brings us to the other problem with the script: its humor. Following in the wake of the whimsical Voyage Home, it was perhaps natural to try and include that kind of humor in the next film. How it was done here though comes across largely forced from bad jokes to moments that undermine much loved characters such as Uhura or Scotty (though the infamous scene of the latter hitting his head actually works quite well in context). Once the film enters its last act, the humor goes by the wayside but it effects so much of the film that it's impossible not to notice it.
Yet the film does rise above those flaws.
At its heart, despite its focus on Shatner's Kirk, the film focuses on the core relationship at the heart of the series: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Carrying on what was built in II and III, the film sees that relationship being pushed to its limits once again. This time not by a superman or by death itself but by a Vulcan seeking the answer to some of the questions we all face in our time on this planet: is there a god and where did it all start? The film features some interesting moments between the key trio that range from attempts at humor early in the film to oddly revealing as the film draws towards its finale which gives DeForest Kelly one of his strongest moments as McCoy before reaffirming it at the end. It's a film that deals with its lead characters in interesting ways when it isn't too focused on one in particular.
The other thing is that its really a film about ideas. Whereas Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett had shifted the series into more familiar action/adventure territory, Final Frontier takes it back into territory that seems like it could have been explored in the TV series potentially. The film uses the Sybok character and the quest for Sha Ka Ree raises interesting questions about the nature of belief and fundamentalism in particular that seems oddly prescient in a world dealing with religious inspired terrorism. That it also raises the question of the dangers of those beliefs while also suggesting that they are inherent part of us is also to its credit. Yet it tries to do so within the more familiar action/adventure format, something that it strives for but never quite succeeds in doing but the journey along the way is still intriguing and watchable.
In the end, Star Trek V is a flawed film. It suffers from the poorest special effects of Trek's film franchise as well as a script that overplays humor and focuses too much on one central character. Yet the ideas underpinning the film from its questions about fundamentalism and about whether a god of some kind exists are intriguing more than a quarter century after its original release. It's over-ambitious to a fault but that is more easily forgivable than a film that plays it by the book while trying to claim its something greater.
In a different world Star Trek V could have been an engaging sci-fi action/adventure film with heart but as it stands it remains the weakest of the Original Series based films but one still deserves to call itself a Star Trek film.