On the Planet Nimbus III, a Vulcan named Sybok has been gathering followers to his cause by using his special powers to take away the pain of their lives. When Sybok’s Army of Light storm Paradise City and take the Federation, Klingon, and Romulan Bureaucrats hostage, Starfleet Command recalls the crew of the USS Enterprise and orders her into the Neutral Zone. Not helping matters, however, is the fact that the Enterprise has had numerous mechanical failures and the crew recalled would be barely enough to allow it to function.
On the other side of the quadrant, a Klingon ship charged with garbage duty intercepts a datastream concerning the Nimbus III hostage crisis. The Captain of the ship, Klaa, desires to engage a Federation ship in combat that he immediately takes off in pursuit. Upon learning that Enterprise is the Federation ship en route, Klaa moves at all due haste to the planet, hoping to engage the Empire’s most feared foe.
Aboard the Enterprise, the crew watches the hostage tape and Spock wonders if he is seeing someone he once knew as a child. Upon reaching Nimbus III, Kirk takes a landing party by shuttle down to the planet, while Chekov poses as the Captain of the Enterprise to create a diversion. Using Uhura’s abilities of persuasion, the crew gets horses and uniforms from the forward patrols and storm into the city. After a firefight, Kirk reaches the hostages, but finds that the hostages actually work for Sybok.
As Sybok takes his people to the Enterprise, the Klingons attack. A quick maneuver by Sulu gets the shuttle to the Enterprise, but Sybok overpowers Kirk. He is taken to the brig with Spock and McCoy, and Sybok uses his powers on Sulu and Uhura. As Kirk tries to escape, Sybok takes the bridge and Enterprise sets course to the Center of the Galaxy. Scotty breaks the trio out of the brig and heads for the Observation Lounge before he is incapacitated during the escape.
Kirk reaches the emergency communications device and contacts Starfleet, relaying their position, course, and speed. Unfortunately, the Klingons were the ones with whom Kirk had been talking with, and Klaa sets a pursuit course. Sybok meets the trio in Lounge, and uses his powers on McCoy and Spock. Kirk resists and this act breaks both Spock and McCoy out of the stupor.
Enterprise breaks through the barrier, and they find a habitable planet at the very center of it all. Believing it to be Eden, Sybok takes a shuttle with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy down to the planet. After having shuttle land on its own, the four walk to a stone temple, where a beam of energy shoots up, far above even Enterprise, and an image of a face appears. Sybok, Spock, and McCoy are elated to see this, but Kirk questions its motives. The being responds by zapping Kirk, then Spock when he asks the same question as Kirk does.
Sybok, now at a loss for what has happened, demands to see the face’s true form and is shocked to find the creature now looks like Sybok. Kirk contacts Enterprise and Sybok decides to attack the creature. Enterprise destroys the temple with a photon torpedo, and the creature attacks the trio. When they reach the shuttle, they find the shuttle no longer operates. Scotty informs them that the transporter has partial power and Kirk has Spock and McCoy beamed up.
Just as the two of them reach Enterprise, Captain Klaa attacks and orders them to surrender. Spock appeals to General Korrd and gets him to speak to Captain Klaa. Kirk continues to evade the creature, but he is running out of options. As he reaches the top of the mountain, the Klingon Bird-of-Prey descends in front of him, firing its cannons to destroy the creature. It then beams Kirk aboard and he is escorted by 2 Klingon guards to the bridge. Korrd orders them to release Kirk and Captain Klaa apologizes. We then find that Spock has been given control of the Klingon ship’s weapons and Kirk is stopped from having an intimate moment with Spock.
Back aboard the Enterprise, a small celebration between the crews takes place before the ships head their separate ways. Back on Earth, Spock plays “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on his Lyre as Kirk and McCoy sing.
Review and Analysis:
This movie is held up by the legions of fans as the worst Star Trek Movie ever made. Many point to the bad effects, the pedestrian story, and poor acting all-around for this movie.
At one point, I agreed with all of this wholeheartedly. But after taking a step back, I find that the assessment that many Trek fans have about this movie are off-base. Many of the opinions are colored by the fans interpretation of William Shatner’s reported behavior; George Takei often griped about how William treated him, and James Doohan made mention of this whenever he could. Other fans have never forgiven William Shatner for his Saturday Night Live skit, in which he berates Star Trek fans for their obsession over the show. Looking back at that skit with the lens of history shows just how irrational far too many Trek fans were for taking Shatner’s performance far too seriously.
While The Final Frontier is not a very good movie on its merits, the derision that most fans have with the film have next to nothing to do with the film itself; only its director.
The Final Frontier and the Star Trek Mantra:
This will mark the final time in the Star Trek Universe that any crew of the Enterprise will explore strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations. In terms of what the Star Trek Universe purported itself to be about back in the 1960s, this is a very significant shift. This also marks the last time in franchise history that a Star Trek movie does not have a dark undercurrent throughout the movie.
Star Trek, the original television series, had many episodes where the tone would often veer into the whimsical; while space exploration was serious business, there was also some fun to be had while seeking out new life. The Motion Picture was very uneven in its delivery, owing more to the fact that the movie was trying to re-establish the original status quo. Both The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock were blanket-draping dark stories all throughout. The Voyage Home was a lighter story in comparison, but that movie’s success formed the quicksand that would work to dismantle the Star Trek franchise from the inside.
Thus, The Final Frontier tries to reclaim Star Trek’s whimsical side, but fails miserably.
What Killed the Story:
The comedy. Nearly every scene that was not considered to be serious had some kind of comedic slapstick in it. The jokes were stale, even in 1989. Outside of the comedy, the script was actually not that bad.
Unfortunately, there were many moments of really poorly thought-out attempts at eliciting laughter. For example, during the assault on Paradise City by the Enterprise crew, Spock delivers a Vulcan Nerve Pinch…on a horse.
And the end result is a Vulcan Death Grip on the audience.
Or how about Scotty boasting about how he knows this ship very well and then:
There are several moments where the comedy in this movie was rather inappropriate, and David Loughrey’s script never attempts to ramp down the shtick at any point of the movie. If, for example, the bad comedy during the Paradise City assault and the subsequent scenes aboard the Enterprise had been removed, this movie’s stock goes up quite a bit.
Additionally, the problems that the Enterprise experienced were played strictly for laughs. From the malfunctioning communications equipment, to the faulty log book, and so on, the issues with Enterprise would seem to be more serious than just the “Ha ha, faulty Federation equipment” we were treated to. The only time the equipment issues mattered would be the transporter Scotty worked on could only take two of them at the very end. This would actually be a redux of “The Doomsday Machine” and The Voyage Home, where the transporter was at very low power and/or malfunctioning.
How “The Voyage Home” Torpedoed This Movie:
The financial success of Star Trek IV would set into motion a chain reaction that would be felt within Trek movies for the next decade plus. One of the many things that Voyage used successfully was comedy. This is unfortunate, because it seems that the studio heads would proclaim that Star Trek movies from this point forward would have comedy forced upon its script. Some movies would have more than others, based on the relative clout that the director could wield with the studio heads. And with Bill Shatner being a newcomer director with very little studio clout, the end result is this movie.
Some Star Trek “Firsts”:
The Final Frontier was the first Star Trek movie to feature an actual female Klingon warrior. Star Trek III gave us a female Klingon spy in Valkrys, and the Original Series gave us Mara, but both women were almost completely subservient to their husband Klingon commanders. And neither had Spice Williams’ muscular (and somewhat intimidating) build.
It would also mark the only time in Star Trek history that the Klingons would speak their native language when not in the company of humans for the entire movie. The Search for Spock would try a little, but many of the pivotal scenes had Klingons speaking English. Same for The Undiscovered Country.
Star Trek Carry-Overs:
David Warner, St. John Talbot, would come back as the Klingon Chancellor in the very next movie.
Charles Cooper, The Klingon Ambassador, would also come back as the Klingon Chancellor K’mpec in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series.
George Murdock, “God,” comes back as Admiral Hansen in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series.
The deflector shield visual effect screens would come back in the next movie.
Uhura Actually Does Something?
It may be my imagination, but it seemed as if Nichelle Nichols had actually been given some material to work with. Although she is infamously known for her “Fan Dance,” it looks like she does a little more in this movie than just open and close hailing frequencies. It is also the first time in the movies that Uhura joins an away party mission as an Enterprise crew member.
I should also point out this is also first time that Uhura is ever acknowledged as being attractive, even at an age that is considered well outside the accepted norms for “lad mags” like FHM and Maxim. Even more unusual, Uhura’s attractiveness is used as a distraction against the guards.
It also has the distinction of being the only movie where both Nichelle and James Doohan have been given a pseudo-dramatic subplot. I find fault with David Loughrey again, since their times together are usually played for bad comedic timing, it feels like it comes out of complete left field for both of them.
I spent many posts reviewing Star Trek movies wondering why Nichelle/Uhura is sidelined consistently, epsiode after episode, movie after movie. Her experience and expertise are never counted on during the movies, and as I point out in this post, her moments of awesome have to come from sources that aren’t considered part of the official Star Trek canon and continuity. And while Bill Shatner’s directorial debut leaves alot to be desired, at least he doesn’t leave Uhura at the desk answering phones.
Another Interesting Tidbit:
It would seem that Shatner and company, as bad as this movie looks, at least did their best to have everyone included in on something. McCoy actually gets a bit of non-Starfleet backstory when we find out that he had to make a choice regarding his father’s failing condition. This is the only movie that shows Sulu and Chekov being close friends. Uhura and Scotty also interacted with each other more here than in any other movie or episode of Star Trek.
Bad Hair Day:
Every single female in this movie with the exception of Nichelle has the same pony rod getup for her hair. The Yeoman at the beginning of the film (who happens to be one of Shatner’s daughters), Caitlin Dar, and Vixis all have the pony rod.
Sybok and Sha-ka-ree:
According to published rumors, Bill Shatner wanted Sean Connery to play the role of Sybok. Sean was eager to accept, but Paramount balked at the salary that an actor of Connery’s stature would command. Sha-ka-ree is supposed to be a play on the actor’s name.
Not Well Fleshed Out:
Sybok and his relationship with Spock. They are supposed to be half-brothers, but they do not interact as such, despite Nimoy and Luckinbill’s best efforts. Thus, when Sybok sacrifices himself to stop God, it doesn’t feel like anything has been lost.
What Would Have Made This Movie Better:
A new approach to the B-story of this film: Spock’s attempt to embrace logic completely versus Sybok’s utter rejection of Vulcan logic. The irony, however, is that Sybok’s powers could have removed the “emotional pain” that Spock feels because of his inner conflict between his Human and Vulcan halves. This would allow Spock to completely embrace what he believes to be total logic, and assist his brother on this quest. This will make Kirk’s dilemma in getting back his ship that much greater with both of his trusted friends now working with Sybok.
The Energy Creature should have been enclosed in a large temple of some kind, surrounded by a paradise of plant life, thus furthering the illusion that the Energy Creature is indeed “God.”
An expanded role for Caithlin Dar. Of all of the Ambassadors in the film, Dar is the only one who does next to nothing compared to Talbot and Korrd.
Better motivation for Captain Klaa. Kirk is still a wanted criminal in the Klingon Empire. Also, the planet Nimbus III is supposed to be a completely neutral planet, but the planet holds no strategic value, thus the Klingon High Command sends a down on his luck Captain to investigate. When he finds that Enterprise has been dispatched, he sees this as a means to glory.
The number of actors in this film are relatively small. Although the role distribution is still that of your typical Hollywood production, there is still some diversity within the roles, and people of color aren’t shunted to the side or placed in poorly written antagonist roles. Thus, for once, the broken record of complaints that I usually have for science fiction and women of color isn’t so harsh this time around.
The Final Frontier, as bad as the result is, is a case of trying to stay true to the mantra that made Star Trek itself a welcome change from the space fantasy that permeated TV and film, past and present. With Paramount’s accountants spending far too much time trying to cut the budget for their cash-generating franchise, it would seem that any hope of making a very good movie was doomed from the beginning. The visual effects are substandard, even for Star Trek. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this film is very sparse compared to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and many of his cues are reminiscent of his action movie works like Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Executive Decision.
The dialogue of this movie was subpar, and there are points in the movie where I can actually feel the script’s ellipses (that “…”) whacking the actors in the back of the head. Star Trek does not do comedy that well, because the franchise was not built do to so. The Final Frontier and the Star Trek movies after that show this limitation over and over, despite the studios insistence on its inclusion. Roddenberry bailed out on William Shatner shortly after the movie’s release, and Shatner took responsibility for what happened.
There is both good and bad with The Final Frontier. The bad outweighs the good, but this film, as substandard as it is, is not as bad as many of the Star Trek films that come after. But at least a slightly better script and some better visual effects would make this film salvageable.