A confession: I am almost entirely a “Star Trek” virgin, and not in the way that virginity is usually associated with “Star Trek.” I’ve seen only clips from the original series, even less from the spinoffs, and the only films I’ve seen are the three most recent ones. Until now, that is. Now I’ve seen “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” And now I’m wondering how “Star Trek” has ANY fans.
“Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”: I’m guessing “final frontier” is a euphemism, as in, “We’ve used up all the good story lines; now we’re down to the ‘final frontier.'” It’s a film with no actual villains, a film in which the Enterprise crew meets the Wizard of Oz and almost gets killed by him. It’s also full of corny, vaudeville-style jokes. I haven’t seen so many bloated, wrinkly mammals doing mediocre comedy since the walrus show at Sea World.
We begin on the planet Nimbus III, identified by an onscreen title as “The Planet of Galactic Peace,” complete with quotation marks, which makes it sound like they’re being sarcastic, like when New Jersey is called “the Garden State.” A dirt farmer is out digging holes in the ground for no reason when he is visited by a Vulcan on horseback who reveals his pointy ears and laughs heartily, as if enjoying a good joke that only he is privy to. Then the opening credits roll — apparently, the people who made the movie thought that showing two characters we’ve never seen before chatting in the desert about something we don’t understand was a good way to whet the audience’s appetite.
After the credits, Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is climbing a rock at Yosemite National Park. He and the Enterprise gang are on leave while the ship is being renovated. (They’re finally getting a hot tub.) Kirk falls off the rock, plummets earthward, and is rescued by Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who’s wearing a jet pack and, luckily for Kirk, is following his every move, Smithers-like. The two of them join Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) for an evening of marshmallow-roasting and bean-eating around the campfire. Are you riveted yet?? First it’s anonymous characters conversing meaninglessly on a desert planet, then it’s Federation officers going camping — HOW CAN THE FILM MAINTAIN THIS BREAKNECK PACE??!
Shore leave is canceled and everyone is called back to the Enterprise early after a distress signal comes in from Nimbus III. It seems that horse-riding Vulcan has taken three hostages: a Romulan, a Klingon, and an Earthling, which sounds like the set-up for a joke. (Punch line: “Resonating polarizing regulator? I hardly knew her!”) A Federation leader tells Kirk that the Federation doesn’t care about vacation time, or the fact that the Enterprise is only barely functional. Kirk’s orders are to hightail it out to Nimbus and save the day! After some bartering, the Federation agrees to pay the Enterprise crew time-and-a-half and sponsor a pizza party for Sulu’s birthday next week.
Meanwhile, there’s a starship full of rogue Klingons trolling the galaxy, looking for trouble. Their captain, Klaa (Todd Bryant), is bored and wants a challenge, so he decides to pick a fight with Kirk, which suggests that what he meant by “challenge” is “fighting a doughy senior citizen.” This Klingon starship pursues the Enterprise for the rest of the film and never poses more than a minor threat. It is clearly in the movie only because they were halfway done filming and someone realized, “Hey, wait a minute, don’t we need bad guys?,” and they hurried up and slapped some bumpy foreheads on the catering crew and shot some improvised Klingon scenes.
Anyway, back to the real story. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go down to Nimbus III on a shuttlecraft and try to sneak into the planet’s only civilized outpost, Paradise City, where, as you know, the grass is green and the girls are pretty. They want to maintain the element of surprise with regard to the hostage situation, so they distract the guards by having Uhura do a seductive fan dance on a sand dune. (Since people who have not seen this movie will think I’m joking, I’ve included a picture.) The guards are all very excited to see a 60-year-old woman writhing nakedly in the moonlight, and the plan succeeds in distracting them and creeping out the audience.
Then there is a fight between the Enterprise crew and the Vulcan’s goons. Kirk throws a lot of weak punches, slaps a few guys around. You know how he rolls. Spock does the Vulcan nerve pinch thing on a horse, I kid you not. Eventually we learn what’s going on. The Vulcan terrorist, whose name is Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), turns out to be Spock’s half-brother, which is a huge surprise to everyone who wasn’t paying attention the dozen or so times that Spock got a weird look on his face when he saw him. Unlike other Vulcans, Sybok has embraced his emotional side and can brainwash people to join his cause by helping them explore their deepest pain. Once they’ve purged it, they feel happy and complacent and will do his bidding. Sybok has already converted his hostages to Syboktology, and now they’re going to help him with his insane plan.
His insane plan is to commandeer the Enterprise and take it past the Great Barrier to the mythical planet of Sha-Ka-Ree, which Sybok insists isn’t so mythical after all. There, at Sha-Ka-Ree, is where one would supposedly find the creator of the universe, aka God. Every civilization in the galaxy has a Sha-Ka-Ree equivalent in its theology, even Klingons. Even Canadians. Since Sybok has already brainwashed most of the Enterprise crew, there’s not much Kirk, Spock, and McCoy can do but go along with it. They get past the Great Barrier without any trouble (it’s really more of a so-so barrier), then land on God’s planet, which looks a lot like New Mexico, which means it looks a lot like Nimbus III, which means — hey! All they did was turn the cameras around and shoot in the other direction!
Sybok and the Three Stooges find God, sure enough. He’s represented by a giant floating head, and he really, really wants Kirk to bring the Enterprise closer to him. Kirk asks why God would need a starship, and God responds by shooting lasers out of his eyes, which you have to admit is a pretty good debate tactic. It is in accordance with the Old Testament, which states, “And verily, if thou wilt question the Lord thy God, the Lord thy God will smite thee with special effects; yea, special effects which cometh from Industrial Light & Magic.”
It becomes apparent that this isn’t actually God after all. (It should have been apparent when they found him living on a planet that looked like New Mexico, for crying out loud.) So everybody skedaddles before whatever this creature is can shoot more lasers at them, and then the Klingons arrive as an afterthought, whereupon a non-evil Klingon ambassador forces Capt. Klaa to apologize to Kirk for attacking him. Then there’s a cocktail party on the Enterprise, Klingons included, and I’m not making that up, either. Crisis averted! Except that there never really was a crisis. But whatever it was, it’s been averted. Excitement averted!
I understand that humor is often a part of the “Star Trek” experience, but surely the fans were disappointed to see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy reduced to such buffoonery in “Star Trek V.” They shuffle around, befuddled and clueless, like a trio of aging second-rate comedians wandering around the buffet at Sizzler, good-naturedly bickering while looking for the pasta salad. And not to dredge up an age-old debate again, but while newly christened Darth Vader may have wept like a little girl when he learned his wife was dead, at least no one in the “Star Wars” series ever got shot in the chest by a faux deity’s laser eyes. That’s just embarrassing. (“How’d you get that scar?” “Oh, I asked a hologram an impertinent question.”)
In closing, I want to point out that William Shatner not only directed this film but helped conceive the story, too. This makes him almost entirely to blame for its lousiness. And if you were to ask him about it, I bet he’d say, “I want to be in the new ‘Star Trek’ movie! Why wouldn’t J.J. Abrams let me do a cameo?? WHINE WHINE EGO EGO WHINE WHINE!!” Then he would shoot lasers out of his eyes.