May 5 2011 10:46am

I Need My Pain: Reassessing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek V camping trip

If you skipped the pre-title scene and opening credits of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and started with the Yosemite rock climbing/camping stuff you’d probably think you were in for a pretty fun movie. And in some ways, you’d be right. What’s not to like about Kirk, Spock and Bones chewing the fat and ribbing each other? Despite having a troublesome premise, a crummy plot, and transparent production problems, The Final Frontier did depict the relationship between this holy trinity lovingly while simultaneously recreating the trappings of many recurrent 60’s era Trek premises.

It also had some memorable dialogue. (What does God need with a starship, anyway?) If you view this movie like a grab bag, you’ll find yourself pulling out a lot of good stuff from what is generally considered the most derided Trek movie of them all.

It’s no secret that The Final Frontier is 100% Shatner’s baby. Not only is the movie heavily Kirk-centric, it also features Kirk doing more action-adventure oriented things than in the previous films. Granted, Kirk kicked Christopher Lloyd in the face at the end of The Search for Spock, but in The Final Frontier he runs around on rocks, rides a horse, punches Sybok in a shuttlecraft, and climbs a mountain. Speaking of which, Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain; why is he climbing a mountain?

As this was Shatner’s first foray into creating a Star Trek story (several novels were to follow) it seems like he wanted Kirk to be a manly hero and do manly things like climbing mountains and riding horses.  If you think about it Kirk is sort of like Space Hemingway and even Bones refers to Kirk’s “macho mind” in the campfire scene. This kind of makes sense, as being physically active was always a part of Kirk’s personality. In this movie Kirk doesn’t sit around and mope (Star Trek II) or ride buses in San Francisco (Star Trek IV). This is the first time since the original Star Trek film that Kirk is no longer Admiral Kirk, but Captain Kirk. It’s as though by having the character get demoted in The Voyage Home, that the clock has been turned back and he’s youthful energetic guy again.

In this way, The Final Frontier IS your father’s Star Trek. However this conceit doesn’t go too far, because Kirk certainly has some baggage that he didn’t have in the original show. In fact, every member of the Enterprise has baggage, and it doesn’t take long before they all end up on the analysts’ couch. Understanding the plot of this one is ultimately secondary to being able to enjoy it. Here it is in brief; a crazy emotional Vulcan steals the Enterprise in a holy quest to find God at the center of the galaxy and only Kirk can stop him.

Infamously, Shatner had initially approached Sean Connery for the role of Spock’s brother Sybok, but Sir Sean was busy with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you picture Connery in every single “share your pain with me” scene you can immediately imagine the Sybok character being a little bit easier to buy. As it stands, with poor Laurence Luckinbill playing this absurd character straight, Sybok comes across creepy. I genuinely don’t believe Luckinbill did anything wrong, just the opposite. If anything, he was too convincing as a totally insane religious fanatic, which made the character unlikable. We’re not supposed to like villains, but we shouldn’t be cringing either. With Connery; I suspect we would have been given a kitschy so-bad-its-good sort of thing, which probably would have been preferable. But I digress, and because there is no Connery, so the only way to really watch the movie is to ignore Sybok. Instead, focus on Kirk, Spock, and Bones as they tackle the most classic of Trek premises: our heroes versus a false God.

How many times does Kirk best a false God-like entity in the classic series? When you consider the premises of “The Apple,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Squire of Gothos,” “Return of the Archons,” “Who Mourns for Adonis?”, or “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” the answer is A LOT. Pulling back the curtain on inept leaders and corrupt authority figures who weren’t necessarily masquerading as gods, but were nonetheless in charge, was another of Kirk’s favorite pastimes in the original show. He does it in “Patterns of Force,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Bread and Circuses,” “A Taste of Armageddon,” and many, many other episodes. When you consider these two themes as “Kirk versus the man” it is sort of weird he doesn’t get to stick it the man in the movies more often.

In Star Trek III, Kirk goes rogue for selfish reasons to save Spock which means we don’t get a famous Kirk-lecture on why his way is the right way and why being a flawed human is so tops. In Star Trek V he gets to do this in spades. When asked to share his pain with Sybok, Kirk becomes the Kirk of old yelling, “I don’t want my pain taken away, I need my pain!” This is classic stuff! Kirk has always been a champion of being screwed up. This declaration is perhaps more true to the original character than anything he does in any of the other films. Yes, it’s over the top, yes it’s a little cartoony. But then again, so is Captain Kirk.

In climax of the film, when the faux-god tries to pull a fast one on the crew, Kirk casually raises his hand and says, “Excuse me.” This isn’t remembered as a classic movie moment, which is too bad, because it really is great and followed up with the wonderful “What does God need with a Starship?” Here Kirk is being the mixer and iconoclast that he started out as in the original show. If you picture 60’s Kirk with a torn shirt and bloody lip doing these same lines, you’ll realize just how much this movie reminds you of Star Trek. And yes, Star Trek V is deeply, deeply flawed and as a result, full of pain for a Trek fan. But then again, just as Captain Kirk constantly reminds us: would we truly be human without all of our flaws?

Ryan Britt is a staff blogger for He needs his pain.

This article is part of Star Trek Movie Marathon: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Chris Hawks
1. SaltManZ
+1,000 Internets for linking to the Fall on Your Sword video. I love that song. :D

I've always loved this movie. It does a lot of things wrong, but it does so many other things so right. The characters and their interactions are pitch-perfect. And J. M. Dillard's novelization wrangles a lot more sense out of the plot, giving Sybok some much-needed backstory.

I laughed out loud when I first found out about Sean Connery, and the fact that his legacy lives on in the name for the Vulcan paradise: Sha Ka Ree.
Forrest Leeson
2. Forrest Leeson
It made Uhura dance around nekkid, but didn't make her incompetent at her job; it stuck a bag of potato chips in Mr Scott's hand, but didn't put the phrase "Klingon bitch" in his mouth.

I'll take V over VI any day.
Marcus W
3. toryx
No offense, Ryan, but I have to disagree 100%. It sounds like you've been drinking Shatner's koolaid.

I've tried liking this movie . Every now and then I think to myself, "It can't really be that bad." Then I watch it only to swear that I'll never watch it again.

It's got the worst of third season TOS all over it. Even Sean Connery wouldn't have been able to save it for me and as far as I'm concerned this is, hands down, the worst Star Trek movie of all.

The only saving grace is that Shatner didn't get to do what he actually wanted to do, what with the angels and the devils and the trip to hell.

Everything that redeemed the terrible plot choices for ST:III is completely missing from this film. There isn't really a shining moment for any of the other characters. Instead it turns most of them into cruel jokes in order to garner a cheap laugh. Scotty gets lost on his ship and hits his head on the bulkhead? Uhura's only real contribution is dancing naked to entice a bunch of savages? All of the original crew betray Kirk?

Like Matrix Reloaded and Revolution, I prefer to pretend this movie never happened.
Forrest Leeson
KIRK: Spock!!
SPOCK: Yes, Captain?
KIRK: Be one with the horse!!
SPOCK: Yes, Captain!!

(This line makes the whole film more redeemable than the 2009 Crap fest that was the reboot)
Forrest Leeson
5. McMolo
Great review - it has achieved what I thought was the impossible in framing the story in a likeable way. Its flaws are self-evident, but the moments you mention are indeed all fun.

The biggest, weirdest mistake for me is at the end when Kirk delivers the "Lucky for me I got (my brother) back." He is referring to Spock, of course - not his ACTUAL brother. I've always been convinced Shatner had just forgotten that Kirk had a brother, but it's still weird that no one involved with the production corrected the oversight. If memory serves, Peter David added "I got ONE of them back" to his comic book adaptation of the movie.
rob mcCathy
6. roblewmac
SPock's brother so creepy it's a litte jarring when it turns out he's basicllay well meaning
Michael Poteet
7. MikePoteet
I'm always fascinated by the way people remember ST V as "Kirk-centric." It is just as much Spock's story, since he is dealing with a part of the past he though he'd left behind. It is just as much Sybok's story, since he is the zealot driving the plot who faces a major disillusionment at the end. It is McCoy's story as he struggles with unresolved guilt over the death of his father in a truly amazing performance by DeForest Kelley). And, as your review acknowledges in its opening paragraph, it is a story about "the big three." (Granted, the other crew members are slighted; and Uhura's fan dance is best forgotten.)

It seems to me that any of Mr. Shatner's Star Trek novels are far, far more Kirk-centric than ST V. When he had the helm for a feature film, he did justice to Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and gave us, really, not a bad little adventure film that attempted to have something to think about, to boot. (I'm an ordained minister, and have profitably used the confrontation with "God" at the end to spark discussions about how we evaluate religious claims, how we reflect critically on our own images of God, etc.) The movie has its faults -- but "Kirk-centrism" is not, as I see it, one of them.
Forrest Leeson
8. Steve Foerster
I always liked this movie more than most fans I know precisely because it felt the most like an episode of the original show. It's nice to know I'm not alone!
john mullen
9. johntheirishmongol
It's fun to see my buds again, but this was a silly plot. Spock with a brother we never heard of before? Searching out god? What silliness.

Much as I like Shatner, this was a mess from beginning to end.
There will always be little moment of the guys together. Their chemistry is just that good.
Ron Hogan
10. RonHogan
My favorite line is still, "But, Captain, life is NOT a dream."
Forrest Leeson
11. Pendard
As a seven-year-old kid, I loved this movie. As an adult, I really, really dislike it. Your review has reminded me of all of the reasons I dug it as a kid. Good job.
Forrest Leeson
12. SeeingI
Funny thing is, I am not a big Star Trek fan, and I remember this as being pretty awful (and ripping of Harlan Ellison besides) ...

BUT ...

Kirk politely saying "Excuse me" and the following line is pretty much ALL I remember about this film! It was truly a moment of off-hand awesome.
Forrest Leeson
13. cdthomas
Two words: Vulcan. Princess.

And, character-sense-wise, if Sarek married a Vulcan Princess who bore him an offensively iconoclastic and emotional child, who refused all aid (like the Kohlinahr ritual) and ran away to be brazenly emotional as a Vulcan prophet, then how in the hell could he consider Spock as an inferior due to his part-human DNA?

Wouldn't the safe money be on *Sarek*'s side of the family being full-goose loony, and that Spock turned out as effectively and legendary as he did was due to Miss Amanda's care?

That revelation is so huge, and elided over, that it seemed cruel to include it in the first place. Better to say that Sybok got the brain fever when young, and could no longer maintain emotional control, and escaped the Vulcan mental ward and has been on the lam, ever since. This one origin story lays doubt on what we knew about Sarek as well as Spock, and frankly does disservice to the complicated relationship that ST III and IV finally showed as having healed. *That's* what I'm pissed at ST V about -- that waste of character development, and throwing away Uhura and Scotty's developments for a fan dance.
Matthew Clark
14. clarkbhm
Well, Sybok was right insofar as there was some sort of powerful entity at the center of the galaxy. I love the way that he just turned the ship back over to Kirk once they had arrived.

Jerry Goldsmith's score really stood out though and produced some of the best music in all of star trek.
Rob Rater
15. Quasarmodo
I hate everything about ST VI, so this is definitely a step up from that for me. I didn't think ST V was so terrible when I first saw it, and that was before I had ST VI to compare it to.
Forrest Leeson
16. JerryoftheWest
What? ST VI is my favorite of all the Trek films. I will grant that ST V has some nice moments (the Enterprise in front of the moon, "what does God need with a starship?"), but by no means to the brief positives redeem the vast negatives.
Forrest Leeson
17. Claude Slagenhop
Firstly, I have to take issue with your assessment of the amount of control that Shatner had over this film. From what I have read and viewed elsewhere online, the production of Star Trek V (STV) had a lot of problems that were not under Shatner's control. While Shatner was well-known and well-liked at the time, in terms of sheer real-world power as a director, he was not in the league of, say, James Cameron today, and therefore could not write his own ticket. He had to accomodate to others and their orders. This film may have started out on paper as "Shatner's baby", but it did not end that way.

Secondly, I think that another big reason that STV is not well-spoken-of is that it directly addressed the search for God in a positive way, and that is something that the T-V episodes that you mention either did not do ("The Apple": it is not a god, it is a computer), or spoke against ("Who Mourns for Adonis?": we have outgrown you). The problem is that there are too many people in Hollywood, in the science-fiction business, and among readers and viewers, who scorn the idea of God, because that would also require that they accept an absolute morality in the light of which their lives would likely be unworthy of respect. Yet Shatner, though not the author of the screenplay, had a primary role in building the story (that idea was indeed "his baby"), and clearly what positivity one can ascribe to a search for God in STV, despite a watering down of this concept by other forces in the production, had to have been the result of Shatner's input. "Real men", like Kirk, believe in God.

Lastly, I will agree with you about the value of the imperfections in this film. There are a lot of films that I will admit are not good films, but are films that I like, and can watch again and again, and enjoy. For instance, I like "Twins" (1988) with Schwarzenegger and DeVito: bad science, cookie-cutter plot, ridiculous und unbelievable story and characters, but -- it worked -- I like that movie. I can say the same about STV: I like it. I like it for the same reasons that I liked the T-V series, and so I agree when you say that this film was indeed "your father's Star Trek". The T-V series, almost always successfully, put a good strong message in every episode. And the "I need my pain" speech is the strong message that this film delivered: the excercising of free will, personal responsibility, and the suffering of consequences makes us better people (now that I think of it, such ideas are anathema to too many people in this country today -- more reason for so many to speak badly of this film). Again, consistent with your assertion of how Shatner made a point of characterizing Kirk as being a real man, real men in the real world understand why they need their pain. And to real men who understand this, the brotherhood of those of like mind (e.g. Spock, McCoy) is extremely important -- that is what made the Yosemite scenes in STV so relevant, rather than incidental or meandering.

Thanks for a good public re-examination of the value of this most underrated of Star Trek films.
Forrest Leeson
18. Mr Spock
Awesome movie. Saw it with my brother and dad in the theatre when it first came out. Awesome poster. Loved the blasphemy (we are not religious folk in my family), loved the Kirk centric story. It was just like an original series show, which I gre up on. Superb acting all around.
Forrest Leeson
19. Francisco Colmenares
My favorite lines:

Kirk: "All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer by."
McCoy: Melville.
Spock: John Masefield.
McCoy: Are you sure about that?
Spock: I am well-versed in the classics, Doctor.
McCoy: Then how come you don't know "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"?
Forrest Leeson
20. James Mandolare
I always thought this was more another episode-low budget-like the TOS; and so I liked it very much. I know there are those that hate it and for good reason it is so campy and goofy; but that is a side of science fiction that has always been dear to true fans-and there's enough comradery and philosophy to go around; and fun. I think Shatner erred on the side of fun-and his philosopghical and psychological and macho bent; but what the hell-it was great. Into Darkness had many of the same kind of flaws-too hectic for my old brain. How many last minute nick of time count downs do you need in one movie?
Forrest Leeson
21. Meok
I hate the special effects but I like the story. When I first watched this movie, I had not watched TOS, and I thought it was an okay film story-wise. Thought-provoking. But after watching TOS, I now believe this to be the best of the movies in terms of capturing what the series was. If TOS had two-parters, this plot could have easily been a TOS plot, and the scenes between Kirk/Bones/Spock are the best in all the movies. This is what the series was. I also think,as far as memorable lines go, it has the best memorable line of all the films that had memorable lines.

V - Excuse me. But what does god need which a starship (Classic TOS)

The only other movie line that rivals this is in WOK - "The Needs of the many, outway the needs of the few", but it wasn't as nostalgic a line as Kirk's delivery in V. As he said it, it was like I was watching TOS, right down to how he prefaced it with a polite, "Excuse me".
Forrest Leeson
22. France's YOZAWITZ
I Love James t. Kirk & Bones MCcoy.Thank yu, Ms.Frances Yozawitz

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