Captain's Blog pt. 29: The Final Frontier

At the end of the chapter on The Voyage Home in Shatner's Movie Memories, he writes, "A lifelong dream was about to be realized. I was going to direct a film. The crew of the Enterprise was about to meet God after taking a short detour through Hell..."

Easily among the most reviled projects of the entire Trek pantheon, The Final Frontier opened in the summer of 1989. After the mega-success of The Voyage Home, it underwhelmed at the box office. I don't know what the math is now, but the conventional wisdom at the time was a film had to make about $14 million over its budget to be considered successful. The Final Frontier cost $30 million, so its domestic gross of $52 million (with another $17 million overseas) made it a very modest success.


I'd love to tell you that it was unfairly panned or that subsequent re-watches have unearthed a hidden gem, but... I can't. It's still a pretty bad movie. I don't hate it the way I hate, say, the Black Eyed Peas or something, i.e. it doesn't invent a new way to suck/ for people to embarrass themselves, but it's still a lackluster effort at best.

Shatner started off with laudable intentions. The original story he set out to film rested on two pillars: fracturing the trinity/friendship of Spock, Kirk and McCoy along lines we've never seen them fractured before and then repairing them, and literalizing the very concept of God/ the devil in a whole new way: "Essentially, I was trying to say that while man conceives God in his own image, that image changes from generation to generation, allowing manmade gods, pretenders, their foothold. Since we'd come face to face with the devil, we could infer that God does exist, most tangibly and understandably, within the heart of man."

That's an admirable line of inquiry, but as Harve Bennett mentioned in Movie Memories, Shatner had first-director syndrome: the story was overwhelmed in "making everything huge," from the interpersonal conflicts to the theme to the production. As each got slowly whittled down to size (and then some,) it's interesting what changed/ what was created to accommodate:

1) Nimoy and Kelley refused to participate if their characters joined in with any cult/ quest that would require their betraying their oldest friend. At this point, the character of Sybok was created. Nimoy said the sudden appearance of a brother was lame. So, they decided to make it even lamer (but protect the continuity of Spock never having mentioned him before) by having him be a renegade half-brother from Sarek's previous marriage. No one was happy with the compromises, here, but it all came about as an attempt to assuage Nimoy's and Kelly's concerns. (Kelley's concern netted him the deathbed scene with his father, which comes off a bit better.)


2) The production didn't run smoothly (few productions do) so most of Shatner's elaborate camera moves and sequences were unable to be filmed. By the end of the shoot, shots that normally took hours to set up were given minutes. A lot of this had to do with first the writers' strike causing chaos with the script, and then a Teamsters' strike. (Which resulted in on-set sabotage: the trucks hired to ferry the cast and crew back and forth were "mysteriously" blown up in the middle of the desert.)

3) The quest to find God/ the devil/ the deity in the heart of man/ turns out to be just an alien or a malfunctioning computer, etc. = overused Trek trope at best, quagmire-of-predictable-failure at worst. As a concept, it is guaranteed to offend at least someone, which isn't always a bad thing; art should be provocative. But it was never something the studio was going to get behind. "Provocative" and "lighthearted franchise hit" are mutually exclusive. So while Shatner set off with the best of intentions, there really was no way he was going to be able to make 2001 or even The Motion Picture; at best, he'd end up with what he got, a severely Harrison-Bergeron-ed version of the original idea.

I feel kinda bad for him, but as Shatner's fictional-real-self says in Free Enterprise re: his idea to film "Julius Caesar" with himself playing all the parts: "It's the definition of hubris." Maybe it's better to shoot for the stars and fail then shoot for the lower stratosphere and fail, but a failure is a failure is a failure.

Added to all of the above, Industrial Light and Magic was either unavailable or too expensive, according to whom you believe, so a relatively untested private fx company (Applied Minds) was hired, and they failed to deliver usable fx, necessitating the deletion of most of the third act.

Originally, angels and demons were supposed to assault Kirk, but they were changed to more budget-conscious "rock men." Alas, the fx returned proved unworkable. (It all sounds a bit silly, but the rock-guys from Galaxy Quest looked pretty cool onscreen, so maybe it could've worked, had they a bit more money and time.)
As Nimoy says of the film/ his friend's directorial debut, "He was riding a bad script, and what was on the page was what we shot."

For more tidbits and trivia, click here. Personally, the best thing to come out of this film is this fan-made Shatner-on-the-Mount video:

Bless you, internet.

The film is not entirely bereft of things to like. It's fun to see Morgan Earp from "Spectre of the Gun" return to the screen:

The Klingons are perfunctory but not awful. And the destruction of Pioneer 10 is a nice wink at the whole V-Ger concept. (i.e. not all of our probes went out and mated with some cosmic force; some were just target practice for triggerhappy Klingons.)

The two actors (Todd Bryant and Spice Williams-Crosby) give a fun interview in the DVD Special Features. They appear to have had a fun time, at least, and are humble enough. They did the best they could with ultimately thankless parts.
Kirk's question "What does God need with a starship?" could be a meme of some kind - it's got the moxy but unfortunately not the context to make it relevant.

Spock nerve pinches a horse. I like that.
The Yosemite scenery is, of course, beautiful to look at, as are the attempts to recall a sort Albert Bierstadt vibe at the end.

Incidentally, it was supposed to be Mount Rushmore, with an additional face added, but this was dropped due to fx/ budget. I think it was meant to be a woman with African features, not Davy Crockett, as it looks like in this storyboard.
Sybok is not a bad character, but his quest/ takeover of the ship never makes a whole lot of sense. We're told over and over again why he believes what he does/ what drives him, but (and this isn't a knock on Laurence Luckinbill, who does a pretty good job for what it's worth) I never quite believe or understand.


Cynthia Gouw plays the Romulan ambassador to (ahem) Paradise City. (The G'n'R song was huge in the late 80s; no one involved thought this might be a bit distracting? It says something about how forgettable this movie is, actually, that no one's made a you-tube mash-up of it. There's a you-tube mash-up for practically every throwaway line or bad pun you could think of for Trek.) She's not particularly memorable or convincing as a Romulan, but she's had an interested post-Final Frontier career. As for the other ambassadors:

David Warner will return in The Undiscovered Country as well as TNG's "Chain of Command."
And Korrd (thankfully apostrophe-free) re-appears a few times as well. (I'm always amused at how many people Kirk runs into who were "required reading at the Academy.")
After Sybok takes the ship through the Great Barrier (more on that in a minute) there is a nice moment where Kirk assumes control and seems like Kirk. It's one of the few times anyone in the cast seems like his or her usual self.

Chekov and Sulu are particularly ill-used.
And Scotty acts like Groundskeeper Willie throughout. Much has been made of the "I know this ship like the back of my hand" business, but okay, cheap laugh, whatever. What's up with every other scene he's in, though?

And what is up with this sudden and inexplicable Scotty/ Uhura romance?
The less said about Uhura's fan dance, the better.
But it's truly a weird moment.
Incidentally, Nichelle Nichols refused to come back as Uhura unless they swore they'd get her out of those dress pants and back into a skirt. I wonder if that's what started the process that resulted in the fan-dance sequence, i.e. Gotta showcase the gams... Whatever the reasoning, I think we all just sort of pretend it didn't happen. As a "lure the bad guys out of position" thing, it's rather ridiculous.
Not to mention more than a little retrograde for the 23rd century.
Most of the humor of the film comes at the expense of the characters, though I do like the turbolift scene. Kirk: "I could use a shower."

Spock: (Beat.) "Yes."
There are many, many other gaffes (including the addition of a few dozen decks to the starship for the purpose of making the "fire the rockets!" climbing scene more dramatic, or something) but let's get to the two biggest remaining problems. I recall reading Roger Ebert's review at the time:

"There was a moment in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - only one, and a brief one, but a genuine one - when I felt the promise of awe. The Starship Enterprise was indeed going where no man had gone before, through the fabled Great Barrier, which represents the end of the finite universe. What would lie beyond? Would it be an endless void, or a black hole, or some kind of singularity of space and time that would turn the voyagers inside out and deposit them in another universe? Or would the Barrier even reveal, as one of the characters believes, the place where life began? The place called by the name of Eden and countless other words? As the Enterprise approached the Barrier, I found my attention gathering."


Alas, he was quickly disappointed, and it's when we get to the Barrier stuff that the film really falls apart:

"After you've seen the movie, ask yourself these questions: 1) How was it known that the voyagers would go beyond the Barrier; 2) what was the motivation behind what they found there; 3) how was it known that they would come to stand at exactly the point where the stone pillars came up from the Earth; 4) In a version of a question asked by Capt. Kirk, why would any entity capable of staging such a show need its own starship; and 5) is the Great Barrier indeed real, or simply a deceptive stage setting for what was found behind it? (What I'm really complaining about, I think, is that Star Trek V allows itself enormous latitude in the logic beneath its plot. If the Barrier is real, what exactly are we to make of the use to which it is put?)"

Additionally, they are 28,000 light years from the center of the galaxy at one point. At warp 8, that's 52 years. They make it in less than a day. Even with the deleted scenes of Sybok "modifying the engines," I mean, come on.

No mention is made of "Where No Man Has Gone Before," either; it was only the series' freaking pilot...
It is recalled, I suppose, in this one shot of a plaque in the observation lounge, equipped, as you can see, with an Age of Sail-era steering wheel.
And God, of course, turns out to be... what, exactly? Just an imprisoned alien? There's potential in such an idea, especially if it is the god or the devil of Earth/ Klingon/ Romulan/ Vulcan lore. But... we don't really find out, nor is the mystery ever satisfactorily exploited. Compare it to "Devil's Due" or "The Chase" from TNG, and you see ways the story could have gone that aren't even hinted at, here. Hell, even keeping the idea literal, i.e. Kirk fist-fights Jehovah, or Spock out-maneuvers Yahweh, there's a lunacy there I can get on board with. But what we get is far from exciting. Reheated Klingon drama and pointless character squabbling, and ending with one of the more unforgivable flubs in Trek continuity, i.e. Kirk's telling Spock he lost a brother once but lucky for him, he got him back.

RIP, George Samuel Kirk!
This was corrected in Peter David's adaptation of the film for DC. I don't mean to inflate the importance of Kirk's brother; he's barely ever mentioned again after he dies in TOS. But isn't there somebody on staff to correct this sort of thing? Then again, if Spock can forget he had a brother, maybe this was a result of Shatner's/ Nimoy's "favored nations" clause. (Hey, it's better than nothing)

If TMP is the series finale that we never got, STV: TFF is the bloated mash-up of "Way to Eden," "By Any other Name" and "This Side of Paradise" that we really never needed.

Gene Roddenberry (according to Susan Sackett) didn't participate much in the making of the film. "More than anything, it was the story that distressed him. His own script ("The God Thing") had been turned down by the studio years before, and he was still smarting from that rejection. He felt that Trek V did a much poorer job of portraying an encounter with God than his own story, that it was less imaginative, limited in scope and depth. (...) He found the raw footage so depressing that he stopped attending screenings."

(Also, 100% less nude-oil-wrestling.)

Harve Bennett blamed the film's failure partly on Trek fans not having to store up their appetites for the bigscreen adventures anymore; every week brought a new episode of TNG as well as blockbuster/ sequel fatigue: Lethal Weapon 2, Indy 3, Back to the Future 2, Ghostbusters 2, not to mention Batman, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and The Little Mermaid. It was a banner year for the box office, with each of the ten highest grossing films bringing in over 100 million, but I'm not sure I ultimately agree. It's true that an abundance of small-screen Trek might keep some people away from the movie theater, but Trek fans are a particularly ravenous lot. If The Final Frontier had been anywhere near as fun or as epic as the previous films in the franchise, I imagine it would have made even more money than The Voyage Home.

TFF was the last Trek film to be produced by Harve. It wasn't its lack of box office muscle that led to his departure, though, but the new head of Paramount's resistance to doing his "Starfleet Academy" script. I'm planning a "Trek That Never Was" sort of post somewhere down the line and will cover the plot of that therein. Paramount offered him a rather insulting contract, which he declined to sign. Harve Bennett, after four films and roughly $325 million at the box office, was out. Says he: "We all have a false sense in our worlds, no matter what they are, that by doing the things we are asked to do, by making successes, by making other people money, (that) we're going to be a permanent party in the world we live in. That didn't happen (...) and I encountered the crushing recognition that I'd been jobbed."

Can't help but feel badly for Harve, here. His Starfleet Academy idea was essentially what Paramount did in 2009, so in hindsight, he was 100% correct. Had it been done in lieu of The Undiscovered Country, one wonders how things would have played out. At any rate, things change, Harve was out, and the Trek franchise was momentarily without a head for its bigscreen adventures.

NEXT: Joyland, I swear! Maybe The Plant and Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, as well. Maybe even Duma Key, Redux! Then on to either TNG Season 5 or The Undiscovered Country.


  1. The way I've always taken Kirk's comment here about having lost a brother, only to get him back, is that he's referring to Spock dying and coming back to life. Not his brother in a literal sense, but a more spiritual one.

    No matter how you slice it, though, "The Final Frontier" is a lousy movie. It's got good moments. They're few and far between (and all of them are wrecked by Uhura's fan dance; you're right to say that we should just pretend it never happened, but it DID happen, and it's very embarrassing).

    That Shatner-on-the-mountain dance song makes it all worthwhile, though. Genius. Couldn't bookmark it fast enough!

    1. I do get that they were going for what you say, here, with that line. It's just... gaaa. David fixed it by changing it to something like "I lost TWO brothers once, luckily I got one of them back." Which works, but it isn't the best line. They should've just scrubbed it.

      I imagine Peter Kirk read the annotated Captain's Logs from Kirk's adventures, got to that line, and hurled the tablet across the room. The Wrath of Peter Kirk is an idea with legs, particularly if he takes to dressing like Khan.

      Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain; why is he climbing a mountain... I was surprised/ heartened/ intimidated to discover there is a four (!) hour edit of that clip out there. Whew.

      I used to be pretty positive on this film, actually. At the time it came out, it reminded me enough of a TOS episode to make me happy. As time went on and more and more Trek got poured down the gulliver, that seemed less and less solid ground on which to walk for me. Ah well. I don't hate it, it's just a bit of a mess.

    2. I agree; that scene should have just been totally scrubbed. Hard to believe that NOBODY associated with the production thought, "Hey, didn't Kirk actually HAVE a brother? In that one episode with the flying pancakes?"

      I am immediately amused by the idea of "The Wrath of Peter Kirk." However, I suspect that his version of wrath consists of flinging himself onto the bed and crying petulantly. (Well, wouldja looky there...I've gone and just accepted "Blood and Fire" as canon, haven't I? If the shoe fits, I guess.)

      I cannot imagine seeing a four-hour edit of Shatner pondering the climbing of mountains. Except that yes, I kinda can.

  2. I actually liked the idea of the old ship's wheel in the lounge. I thought it was a nice touch. That's about the only good thing I can say about this terrible movie.

    1. I don't mind the old ship's wheel, either, actually. As a portent for the Age of Sail Retro madness in TUC, it's disconcerting, but I don't mind it in and of itself.

  3. You know, reading Ebert's questions again, they seem somewhat answerable. I think the overall point he makes at the end is sound; TFF doesn't do much more than nod at its own inner-logic after a certain point. But:

    1) How was it known that the voyagers would go beyond the Barrier; (Because the Barrier Dude knew they could get through; it was only everyone on the outside that was fooled. Except Sybok. Of course, what Ebert doesn't mention is TOS "Where No Man Has Gone Before" here, which is a sounder point, i.e. why is everyone so freaking insistent they can't get through it?)

    2) what was the motivation behind what they found there; (easy: the Barrier Dude wanted out.)

    3) how was it known that they would come to stand at exactly the point where the stone pillars came up from the Earth; (He was monitoring them? Guiding them? What's so mysterious, here?)

    4) In a version of a question asked by Capt. Kirk, why would any entity capable of staging such a show need its own starship; (Well, that is certainly true. I guess he can't escape the Barrier in his form, is the assumption, and needs to be housed in whatever section of the ship houses such beings. But it is indeed a muddled point.)

    and 5) is the Great Barrier indeed real, or simply a deceptive stage setting for what was found behind it? (Also a worthy question.)


    1. My problems with most of that are problems of execution moreso than problems of concept. I can more or less accept that there is a malevolent quasi-deity imprisoned behind an energy barrier who tricks a mortal into providing him with an escape. Why? Because 'cause; that's why. It's one of those things I can file under the heading of Probably Makes Sense, I'm Just Not Being Told The Specifics. (I believe there is a novel -- possibly by Peter David -- that explains it all by saying that he's an outcast member of the Q continuum. I suppose I can roll with that.)

      The scene gets close to working thanks to some of the acting, and to Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score, but it never really goes anywhere, and as a result ends up being anticlimactic. But in theory, it's at least decent.

      More to your point, though: Ebert was a great critic, but sometimes he seemed just a little on the determinedly dense side. Not often, from what I remember; but on occasion.

    2. Even an outcast member of the Q (which is better than nothing, so I'll use that, now, as the best explanation offered up to us,) isn't this guy... kinda lame? I mean? What is he really capable of, once they get there? A side show? Some lightning? Sybok's just a regular Vulcan, tho obviously trained in some crazy kung-fu/ telepathic persuasion, but he goes in for a fist-fight/ ritual-of-Chud with him, and he's dispersed by a Klingon disruptor blast. Bam, that's it. Why would anyone need this elaborate center of the galaxy thing?

      It's clearly a holdover from the first version of the story, where he really IS some kind of devil figure, or Q figure (demented Q - I kind of like that; David really did offer up some great things to the Trekverse, it must be said. Of all the non-canon writers, he should be given a plaque or have a starship named after him, though the USS David isn't all that memorable) but not adapted very well to the finished version, is it?

      And yeah, as on as Ebert was, most of the time, when he and I didn't see eye to eye, we REALLY didn't see eye to eye. Not so much, here, but in other cases to be sure.

    3. Oh, he's definitely lame, what with his curly hair and all. And his essential powerlessness and his tendency to make "oooooooooooooo!" noises.

      Well done on the ritual of Chud reference, by the way.

      I didn't mention at all how horrible an idea the whole Spock-has-a-brother thing is. When I finally get around to creating my personal Star Trek Canon of what does and does not count (in my opinion), The Final Frontier is assuredly going to wind up on the "Does Not Count" list.

      But it does count, really. It does. How sad.

      I'm with you; I don't hate the movie, exactly. In some ways, I even prefer it to The Undiscovered Country. It's just SUCH a misfire...

    4. I forgot to include "Who Mourns for Adonais" in my "this is just a TOS mash-up of..." remark. Ah well. But yeah (except Apollo's way, way cooler.)

      I've rationalized aspects of Sybok over the years, I think. (I may have Stockholm Syndrome with trek, story for another day.) In the same way Spock's never mentioned his cousin Selek until it was relevant in "Yesteryear," maybe he just never mentioned Sybok. Or maybe there's a Vulcan taboo on Dad's previous marriages, or something. It's not perfect, but that part of it I can get. It's just everything else: why is this guy so convinced the Barrier Dude is bringing him to Ska Ka Ree? So, I'm with you, is what I'm saying. I'm fine with Spock having half-relatives that pop up now and again, but only if they have a point and the story they appear in gets the job done.

      I probably prefer TFF to TUC, but it's a bad weekend at the McMolo household when those are only the two films I have to choose from...

      He thrusts his Vulcan fists against the posts and still insists...

    5. ...that seeing ghosts is NOT logical.

    6. p.s. I mean, is Kirk seriously the only guy who doesn't buy it? "Excuse me... haven't we seen beings like you before in forty or fifty episodes...?" Of course, this is where the Sybok hypnosis/ feel-your-pain thing covers their tracks. But Spock, i.e. Mr. "the bullets are not real?"

      Oh, TFF, how I love trying to untangle your many knots then discovering how far into the briar patch I've fallen.

    7. (Oh, if we could only get Young Spock to appear in the Losers Club. "I discovered your Barrens... may I offer assistance?")

    8. Good God...I just now realized that my life's ambition really ought to be writing a series of fanfiction in which Star Trek characters and/or Doctor Who travel through time and parallel dimensions so as to try and prevent horrible occurrences in Stephen King novels.

      Example: Donna and Tad Trenton get menaced by Cujo, only for Doctor Phlox to show up and cure the rabies and save everyone from despair and agony.

      Example the second: Tom Baker's Doctor shows up -- with Sarah Jane and K-9, I assume -- at the Overlook Hotel, where they solve the mystery of the malevolent ghosts.

      This is genius.

    9. Count me in! Man, the mind boggles. Phlox cures rabies, An Assignment: Earth style ep for "It," V-ger meets Gard on his way to Altair-7, Christine meets Nomad, The Doctor meets THE DOCTOR and Doctor Emmett Brown for a BTtFp2-style take on Pet Sematary, Joyland meets Shore Leave... we need to pitch this to Lindeloff/ King and stat.

    10. I smell comic-book gold just waiting to be mined.