TL;DR — I remembered The Final Frontier as terrible back in 1989 (and the plot/climax really is), but to my surprise it has a lot of lovely moments, decent humor, and good characterizations between the Big Three. It had its heart in the right place. The actors went all in, and the topic itself, if executed right, could have been ‘fascinating.’ I mean, Contact and 2001 did something like this and it worked. But most of all, this movie felt like Star Trek.
Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier is a hard movie to grade and review. I always remembered this as the worst of the Star Trek movies, a ruling I never challenged since the day I saw it in 1989. As the years passed and we had poor film showings from both The Next Generations and the JJ-Verse, I figured it was time to revisit if this movie was as truly awful as I remembered.
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So…guess what? The answer is no…and also yes. It really depends on what parts of the film we’re watching.
The first three acts are…well, good!
The first 2/3 of Final Frontier are surprisingly watchable. I was enchanted with the easy-going nature of the Big Three of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and several scenes throughout warmed the cold dark cockles of my heart. I’d forgotten all those scenes of these pals hanging out, teasing each other, and having almost joyful moments — even when nominally confined in the brig or under “house arrest” in the Forward Observation Lounge.
Speaking of the Obs Lounge, it’s the one with the huge wooden sailing ship’s wheel, inscribed with “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Kirk at one point touches it, reverently. How can you not be moved in this scene? Even the oft-derided Row, Row, Row Your Boat camping sing-along ties into both the climax and denouement in meaningful ways. So, surprisingly, there are lovely moments in The Final Frontier where it feels like the kind of transcendent Star Trek we long for.
Again, the ‘God” debacle aside — we’ll get to this — ST:V feels right. It feels like Star Trek.
In a recent rewatch of Nemesis, I can’t even say that. Actually, I’m more afraid to watch Into Darkness again.
Other good moments: Spock witnessing the rejection of his “so Human” birth, and McCoy having to relive killing his father. Any of us with a parent dying of lingering causes can understand this completely, and DeForrest Kelly knocks it out of the park.
Culminating Act Three, Kirk resists having his pain taken away. I had to stop and think about that. Why wouldn’t I want the most painful experience of my life healed? If I could “Total Recall” it away for good, I’d be free to make my existence into my best version of me. Yes, please!
Still, in a lot of Trek discussions I’ve had, this is resonant. Many people thought Kirk refusing this boon was the most deeply Trekkian aspect of what it means to be human.
Star Trek: Generations brings up again up the idea of a perfect existence, where the Nexus provides a life of never-ending joy. In that case, Kirk seemed content to stay. I’m not sure if this is character growth, or Paramount forgetting Kirk’s ‘need’ for pain.
This made me think of a few other movies grappling with the same query.
In The Matrix: Revolutions, a life of paradise was rejected by enslaved humanity. WHY? Doesn’t this sound nicer than living through world wars and pandemics? In the “Firefly” movie Serenity, on the planet of Miranda the people were presented with “a perfect world” via The Pax (literally, “the peace”) …And just laid down to die.
HUH? I could think of some wonderful ways to spend my time with no stress or strife. Are we destined to be kicked out of Eden; are we that cynical; can we not make a life worth living in Utopia?
Continuing this theme is Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone. Dumbledore explains people have wasted away looking into The Mirror of Erised (‘Desire’ spelled backward). Can we seriously not handle happiness? Apparently, Kirk cannot, although seemingly everyone else on the Enterprise and Nimbus III wants to.
Diving deeper into fantasy, in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf describes the joy and wonder of the world beyond the circles of death — Paradise, in essence. The expression on his face, echoed by Pippin, is incandescent. Yet the Elves resist going home to the Uttermost West until the bitter end. Perhaps immortality is a burden after all, and we need our suffering to keep striving for more.
Who do you agree with? Can you handle a perfect universe?
To circle back home to Star Trek, in The Next Generation episode “The Neutral Zone“, Picard has the misfortune to reawaken three people from our time into his 24th-century utopia. One man asks what else there is to live for in a world of peace and plenty for all? Picard famously says, “The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself…to enrich yourself. Enjoy it!”
I agree with Picard but can’t argue with those who think Kirk has it right.
Scotty knocking himself out on a bulkhead was mean-spirited slapstick. I mean, this is SCOTTY. He’s never been a joke and is 3rd in command after Mr. Spock. At least knocking himself out was in service to the plot, somewhat, and we never had to see him as a mutineer.
I’d have liked to see the scenes where Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura are shown their pain, although I don’t understand how that makes them mutiny…
So, Uhura and the infamous Fan Dance: this was something I thought I must have dreamed up because it’s random and uncomfortable. It seemed demeaning for the character. It’s harder to hate on the scene now after reading that Nichelle Nichols said it was her favorite Uhura scene, but the moment still assumes two things: all the space cowboys were men and heterosexual.
I’ll never forget opening night for The Final Frontier
It was the very first movie I ever attended on opening night with all the fans. At the time I didn’t even know you could dress for the occasion, but it was a real mental rush to attend with other fans. I still have the free communicator pins they handed out. I love that pin. But it also comes with the memory of being really let down by Star Trek. It wasn’t as good as The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, or The Voyage Home. Everyone seemed to leave the theater confused.
And so I didn’t see The Final Frontier again until…well, now.
And the ugly, in Final Frontier
So, there’s God. GOD. Oh god. The entire 4th act is atrocious. God’s planet hardly qualified as a paradise, although the actors tried to sell it. (Unless you like the desert, which I do, but why use two arid planets in the same movie and have one of them called a barren wasteland and the other Eden?)
God himself is underwhelming and…vaguely stupid. Was this Big Head just a bad Cytherian trapped in need of a Starship? Remember The Next Generation episode “The Nth Degree“. The one where Barclay acquired godlike powers to get where a benevolent disembodied head could explore live forms by bringing the universe to them? Great episode. But back to the movie…
The climax is still awful. I don’t want to belabor it. Also, The Great Galactic Barrier looked like a drop of ink in water. Did Paramount have no funds for FX? I could do this at home.
Also, the Enterprise-A was falling apart, yet they made it to the center of the galaxy in mere hours. Star Trek: Voyager took decades to reach that point in the 24th century, with far faster speeds and tech. Anyway…
The denouement in the Yosemite Campground helps a lot. I loved when these guys finally admitted it — this crew is family. They don’t need to marry, procreate, or continue their lineage to have closeness and belonging. That they even spend shore leave together is everything we need to know. When Kirk admits he knew he wouldn’t die because his friends were with him…didn’t you tear up a little? (What actually happens in Star Trek: Generations is arguably another story.)
What does God need with a Starship? If you don’t remember anything in ST:V, you remember this line.
Great line-reading by Kirk, repeated curiously by Spock. Then “God” blows a gasket, eats Sybock (WTF?), and we get a few awful scenes of the Great Big Head following Kirk around the desert, bellowing pointlessly. By the time the Klingons arrive, we don’t remember there’s supposed to be an Ink Barrier still around the planet. Didn’t you have to have belief or something to get in? Is it worth watching the ending again to see if any of this makes sense?
What doesn’t help is that The Final Frontier is a direct callback to one of the worst episodes in the original series. “The Way to Eden” (Season 3) is entirely ridiculous, depending on whether you enjoyed the Space Hippie musical interludes. Again, good philosophical attempt, but poor execution. (Except for the crew nodding along with the jams, tapping their feet; chilling out. Normally we don’t see the Enterprise hosting concerts until many many many in The Next Generation.)
Points for continuity
Spock plays the Vulcan Lyre at the very end of ST: V. Look closely. It’s the same one he played in exacting detail in “The Way to Eden”. Great callback for super-fans, and shows Spock’s personal progression about the nature of paradise and his nascent Humanity. He was sympathetic to the Space Hippies in TWTE but now shows emotional maturity from his prior misadventures on their five-year mission.
I’m impressed that they either pulled the Vulcan Lyre prop out of decades-old storage or recreated it faithfully for the movie. It shows a long-running arc for our favorite half-human Vulcan. Too bad it was in a throw-away moment, but the continuity effort was made. Kudos there.
Overall, in the ST:FF rewatch
It was tough to grade The Final Frontier. It’s so reviled, but the characters have that lovely chemistry we fell in love with in the 60s. The search for knowledge, meaning, and yes — GOD — is worthwhile as an exercise and very Trekkian.
There’s also an important, if understated, set up to initiating peace talks with Klingons, taking center stage in The Undiscovered Country.
ST:V is by far NOT the worst Trek movie, and it’s easy to soften on it over time because — especially as compared to some of the later films — it’s a joyful ride, rowing “gently down the stream’…
About The Peetimes: Here are 3 Peetimes and all are good, with none of the best action, humor, or character moments. However, the 2nd Peetime is Recommended.
There are no extra scenes during, or after, the end credits of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (What we mean by Anything Extra.)
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Movie Released: 1989-06-09
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I remember when this movie came out a marshmallow company (Kraft I think it was) came out with the “Device” that was used in the beginning of the movie when they were around the campfire and toasted marshmallow. I got a kick out of that thing.
Jill Florio Administrator
Hi Michael! Great catch. I thought that tiny marshmallow (or as they say, Marsh-melon) device was adorable, and I can absolutely see Spock getting a kick out of bringing along a way to make his friends happy.
Spock’s come a long way, and this was him showing them his friendship, without having to say it.
My impression is that it’s a mini-replicator, but love that it’s so specific. Add the molecular matrix for glucose, and off you go!
I can’t see Tuvok picking up something like this. It’s not logical to eat globs of sugar. Which misses the point. 😉