1989 saw a unique challenge for Star Trek. For the first time in its history, there would be two competing incarnations. Star Trek: The Next Generation was entering its third season, while the original series crew prepared to continue what had suddenly become a popular film series. Where the TV show was entering into new creative heights, infused with emerging voices behind the scenes that would soon take the franchise into startling new directions, the fifth film was undertaken by a combination of players who had never successfully guided Star Trek on their own. Harve Bennett always benefited from his collaborations with Nicholas Meyer, while the director for The Final Frontier, William Shatner, continually struggled against his own ego. Is it really any surprise that the result was, at least until that point, the least successful venture in franchise history?
Perhaps, as a matter of omens, the numbers worked against the movie from the start. 1989 was, after all, two decades removed from the final voyages of the original series, when the sad truth that the network, and perhaps audience, would no longer support it. And as I’ve already suggested, perhaps the fans were never going to be comfortable with the need to split their focus; this was hardly the last time they ended up rejecting one crew for another.
But not to put too fine a point on it: The Final Frontier is hardly a critical success, either. It may, even more than The Motion Picture, be the source of the Odd Number Curse, the theory that as the films go, the odd-numbered movies just aren’t that good (doesn’t help, either, that even-numbered entries Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home were such considerable successes, where none of the others to this point were). Even Gene Roddenberry wanted this one out of the canon, and as a rule, all filmed Star Trek has generally been considered automatic canon, no matter the quality of the material (after all, at the very least “Spock’s Brain” might have been the earliest example of selective experience, wouldn’t it?). Spock’s brother, who was never referenced before, and never referenced again, is a focal point of the story, after all. The dude laughs. He’s got facial hair. He’s a full-Vulcan bastard son of Sarek. And not to mention, again, that fans generally consider it one big dud.
By 1989, I was far enough along in my firsthand Star Trek experiences and memories so that the original TV ads made an impression (Scotty’s ironic statement about knowing the ship like the back of his hand still stands out). Of course, my family was never much for making trips to the cinema. We made a trip to see a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs once, but until around 1994, it simply wasn’t a habit. I didn’t really see Final Frontier until I began to grow serious about my interest in the franchise, which is to say, well after I was aware of its reputation. It became something of a mission, but also something of a completist’s impulse. It wasn’t a question of whether I would ever watch it, but that I was going to, and so, naturally, I would have to approach it with at least something of a virgin’s perspective.
Which wasn’t too hard, because beyond the reputation, I knew virtually nothing about it, not even that tidbit about Spock’s brother. Would you think differently about that one if you knew they tried to cast Sean Connery in the role? Like the missed opportunity of Eddie Murphy in The Voyage Home, just imagine how different Star Trek would have been had it happened. I’m convinced that it’s Connery’s presence in Highlander that helped spawn that franchise. I know that Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade helps make that one my favorite in that series. This was a period in which a lot of his audience appeal had been lost, but his mere presence still gave off an incredible amount of sheen (and probably helped the starring-role resurgence of the following decade). A detail like Sean Connery as Spock’s brother would have made it instantly memorable, for audiences at the time, and those trying to catch up years later.
Instead there exists only vague impressions about Final Frontier, as if it’s not even worth remembering. The only moments worth remembering, talking about, seem to be those that evoke, as no other entry in the original crew films managed, the old camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, the campfire scenes that bracket the main story. The rest of it is that dreaded thing a lot of the Picard films could never quite elude, the feeling that a property that had begun on TV could never quite escape the feeling that it still played like a TV show, some random and not convincingly appropriate film experience.
Therein lies the problem with Star Trek’s curious success, of course. How many other TV properties have managed to continue with the same casts on the big screen? I can think of only two other examples. The Adam West Batman series from the 1960s attempted to strike movie gold while it was still hot, and The X-Files attempted two times to transplant Mulder and Scully to film, and I would argue only ended up weakening their appeal. It still counts as bizarre and unique that William Shatner and Patrick Stewart led casts that had been assembled for television across a series of ten films. The only reason it happened at all was because of the most successful fan campaign in pop culture history, the one that saw The Motion Picture released more than a decade after the original Star Trek series sputtered out after three muddled TV seasons. That Shatner and his cast starred in six films was more a fluke than anything. That Stewart and his starred in four is, in hindsight, probably more than any other film series could have asked.
The Final Frontier, I think, is as much a case study of everyone finally starting to realize how weird Star Trek’s circumstances were as any direct reflection on its own worth. Certainly, anything after The Voyage Home that looked and acted nothing like The Voyage Home would have had a hard time, but Final Frontier had that much greater a problem because all of a sudden, the mere existence of Shatner and his cast acting in another film seemed superfluous, both as something that maybe should never have been, and because Star Trek was now back at what might be thought of as its “real” home.
To complicate all this is the fact that its reputation is not entirely unwarranted. Like The Search for Spock (or, say, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), The Final Frontier attempts to reach beyond the kind of storytelling that is traditionally native to itself. From the opening shot of Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), the brother of Spock, riding across a barren landscape, on a horse no less, to Shatner’s mountain-climbing escapades, it’s all a lot less direct than Star Trek typically is, whether on the small or big screen. Clearly, once again, someone’s been looking at Star Wars, and wondering why they can’t be more like that. But Paradise City is no Mos Eisley. That Romulan chick is no Han Solo. (Okay, so David Warner’s inexplicably undeveloped St. John Talbot would be the Han Solo of this movie, and that pretty much explains all you need to know about that.) Conceptually, The Final Frontier doesn’t fill a lot of its holes.
Yet that’s kind of beside the point. Roddenberry himself had been attempting to do “the god movie” ever since The Motion Picture (or, that is, Phase II). The original series was littered with episodes attempting to address the divine (so much so that I left those entries out of my season recaps entirely). The Final Frontier was, in effect, inevitable. Of course, you might also say, only William Shatner could have made The Final Frontier.
I would not say that statement with sarcasm. Not only with sarcasm, anyway. The idea of it is pretty brilliant, actually, much in keeping with The Voyage Home, and certainly in spirit with The Motion Picture. In fact, you might almost say that The Final Frontier is The Motion Picture, inverted. Instead of following a crew that is in turn following an unknowable entity back to its creator, which turns out to be pretty recognizable, we follow a crew that is headed toward a supposed entity that turns out to be the opposite of unknowable. This is the kind of expansive take on a traditional Star Trek story that Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home were so successful in presenting, but it’s a formula that also misfires, as in the case of The Motion Picture. Treading the fine line of being familiar while being original, trying to evoke a television experience while attempting to be cinematic about it, it’s a combustible proposition.
The Final Frontier ends up being an entirely predictable victim of circumstances.
But since I’m talking so much about it, you can bet I did not, eventually, decide that it was as bad as its reputation suggested. I grew to love it, naturally. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s one of my favorite films, or even one of my favorite Star Trek films, but that I enjoy it, admire it, and am even inspired by it (in a good way).
Part of it may have to do with all those connections I was speaking about, especially the unfortunate associations with The Motion Picture. In addition to every other similarity, there’s the theme of deep emotional pain, which Sybok exploits throughout Final Frontier as shorthand for how he manages to gather such a following around him. He makes it known that he is not a typical Vulcan, that far from suppressing his emotions and following only what seems logical, he embraces emotions and every illogical end that seems to flow from them. Vulcans are only religious in their discipline, but Sybok seems to have taken that idea to a whole new level. It can’t be called blind obsession, either, because he believes with total conviction that he’s right, even about his brother Spock, whom he knew as deeply troubled about the warring Vulcan and human influences in his life, and this is the most subtle thing about The Final Frontier, but Sybok is wrong only in this regard, because he has not had a chance to experience the Spock who has died and come back, who has learned to better integrate the parts of himself that make him such a unique individual. There is no greater representation of Spock in the first ten films than The Final Frontier.
I know, it’s heresy to say that. Maybe it’s Spock’s philosophical conversations with Bones over “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that help define this (“life is not a dream, doctor”), I don’t know. That God turns out to be just another con artist may either strengthen or weaken the film’s impact. I think it’s exploring the idea at all, to let it soak in for an entire film, like allowing Spock, for the first time, to be comfortable with himself, even against a considerable challenge, that gives the film its unexpected heft. To have Spock suddenly have a brother is an immediate and handy way, another version of shorthand, to give the story a little added incentive, a little more overall weight. It may also be another way to undermine everything, especially if fans aren’t buying any of it, and if Star Trek then does its best to pretend The Final Frontier never happened. That’d be why it’s dangerous to walk the episodic line, in a franchise that periodically tries to walk away from it, in a film series that tries to differentiate itself from a prior or concurrent incarnation.
Whether or not you take the film seriously, anyway, clearly there are some pretty big things to think about when considering The Final Frontier.
Recently, when preparing to write this particular article, I put the movie on and listened to it mostly as a background soundtrack, and I think it’s never come off better, that when freed from a lot of the questionable visual choices, it comes off a lot better. You can imagine what it might have been with a little more experience and funding behind the camera. (You can just look at the Klingons in the movie, and watch a Next Generation episode from the same era, and notice how choices deliberately made didn’t really help matters, either.)
But The Final Frontier probably isn’t, in the end, as bad as you were led to believe. If it’s a failure, then it’s one of those noble and spectacular failures, one you can’t help but admire (if you want to). All things considered, I don’t believe, at the very least, that it deserves to be blackballed from memory, franchise lore, or canon, much less. It’s a movie of big ideas, with a lot of memorable pieces stitched together for a serviceable whole. As Kirk insists late in the film, “I need my pain.” Star Trek needs something like The Final Frontier, too.
As a concluding note, I can’t overlook the score from Jerry Goldsmith, the first one he contributed to a Star Trek movie since The Motion Picture, and the last until First Contact. Maybe it’s appropriate that once again, many of the themes he developed here would resurface later. If the soundtrack sounds familiar, then maybe that’s your way into The Final Frontier.