By 1989 the Star Trek franchise was in a healthy place. A full decade had passed since its revival on the big screen, and the adventures of Picard and his crew in The Next Generation was building a solid fan base across the land. Having seen Spock direct two big-screen instalments which did decent business – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home pulled in the biggest domestic box office haul since 1979’s big screen debut – it was only natural Captain Kirk was eager for a piece of that pie.
Unfortunately, William Shatner’s debut directorial effort Star Trek V: The Final Frontier not only resulted in the franchise’s all-time box office low (pulling in a paltry $52m domestically) but it was met with a warp drive 7 of critical scorn. It holds a 22% score on Rotten Tomatoes – a mere 7% more than Howard the Duck – and critic Roger Ebert labelled the film “a mess”. There was the general consensus Shatner had dropped the ball, particularly after Leonard Nimoy’s immensely entertaining time-travelling forth instalment.
In hindsight, the film’s ethereal central premise was a stretch even by the often outlandish standards of the sixties TV series. This time around the crew of the Enterprise are tasked with rescuing hostages on a far-flung planet, only to discover that Spock’s half-brother Sybok is behind the dastardly scheme. It transpires the renegade Vulcan has used his prisoners as bait in an attempt to lure a Federation starship. Using the mind meld technique to take control of the crew and their ship, he plans on travelling to the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree, a place where creation is alleged to have begun.
In all honesty, The Final Frontier is far from an unwatchable mess and largely comes across like an average Star Trek episode with a feature-length running time. The film’s rather fanciful denouement – which had already been reworked due to poor test-audience reactions – and workmanlike plot was the hurdle for some audiences at the time. Fans had previously witnessed the death – then dramatic resurrection – of Spock, before seeing their beloved characters thrust back all the way to mid-eighties San Francisco on a mission to procure a humpback whale (as the only means of saving future mankind, of course).
Shatner’s film was more like a pleasant, unremarkable jaunt through the Trek universe in comparison. Yet there are some genuinely affecting and surprisingly un-Star Trek like moments scattered throughout, not least the film’s opening scenes which finds the holy Trek triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones hiking around Yosemite National Park on shore leave. This also features the winning sight of a Vulcan trying to comprehend a campfire rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. That’s a top ten Trek moment right there which has added poignancy given that Shatner is now the only surviving member. This brief glimpse into the earth-bound, off-duty lives of those who work amongst the stars is almost enough to make up for the film’s shortcomings.