Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a 1989 American science fiction film directed by William Shatner and based on the television series of the same name created by Gene Roddenberry. It is the fifth installment in the Star Trek film series. Taking place shortly after the events of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), its plot follows the crew of the USS Enterprise-A as they confront a renegade Vulcan, Sybok, who is searching for God at the center of the galaxy.
The film was directed by cast member William Shatner, following two films being directed by his co-star Leonard Nimoy. Shatner also developed the initial storyline, in which Sybok searches for God, but instead finds an alien being; his primary inspiration was the phenomenon of televangelism and the high potential for fraud among its practitioners.
Series creator Gene Roddenberry disliked the original script, while Nimoy and DeForest Kelley objected to the premise that their characters, Spock and Leonard McCoy, would betray Shatner’s James T. Kirk. The script went through multiple revisions to please the cast and Paramount Pictures, including cuts in the effects-laden climax of the film. Despite a Writers Guild strike cutting into the film’s pre-production, Paramount commenced filming in October 1988.
Many Star Trek veterans assisted in the film’s production; art director developed the designs for many of the film’s locales, shots, and characters, while Herman Zimmerman served as its production designer. Production problems plagued the film on set and during location shooting in Yosemite National Park and the Mojave Desert. As effects house Industrial Light & Magic‘s best crews were busy and would be too expensive, the production used Bran Ferren‘s company for the film’s effects, which had to be revised several times in order to lower production costs.
The film’s ending was reworked because of poor test-audience reaction, and the failure of planned special effects. Jerry Goldsmith, composer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, returned to score The Final Frontier.
The Final Frontier was released in North America on June 9, 1989, by Paramount Pictures. It had the highest opening gross of any Star Trek film in at that point and was number one in its first week at the box office, but its grosses quickly dropped in subsequent weeks. The film received generally mixed to poor reviews by critics on release, and according to its producer, nearly killed the franchise.
The next entry in the series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), received a more positive reception.
The crew of the newly-commissioned USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-A) are enjoying shore leave after the starship’s shakedown cruise goes poorly. At Yosemite National Park, James T. Kirk, recently demoted back to Captain after the events of the previous two films, is camping with Spock and Dr. Leonard McCoy. Their leave is interrupted when Enterprise is ordered by Starfleet Command to rescue human, Klingon, and Romulan hostages on the planet Nimbus III. Learning of Enterprise‘s mission, the Klingon Captain Klaa decides to pursue Kirk for personal glory.
On Nimbus III, the crew of Enterprise discovers that renegade Vulcan Sybok, Spock’s half-brother, is behind the hostage crisis. Sybok reveals the hostage situation was a ruse to lure a starship to Nimbus III. Sybok wants to use a ship to reach the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree, the place where creation began; the planet lies behind a seemingly impenetrable barrier near the center of the galaxy. Sybok uses his unique ability to reveal and heal the innermost pain of a person through the mind meld to subvert the wills of the hostages and crew members. Only Spock and Kirk prove resistant to Sybok; Spock is unmoved by the experience and Kirk refuses the Vulcan’s offer, telling him that his pain is what makes him human. Sybok reluctantly declares a truce with Kirk, realizing he needs his leadership experience to navigate Enterprise to Sha Ka Ree.
The ship successfully breaches the barrier, pursued by Klaa’s vessel, and discovers a lone blue planet. Sybok, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy journey to the surface, where Sybok calls out to his perceived vision of God. An entity appears, and when told of how Sybok breached the barrier, demands that the starship be brought closer to the planet. When a skeptical Kirk inquires, “What does God need with a starship?”, the entity attacks him in retribution. The others doubt a god who would inflict harm on people for pleasure.
Realizing his foolishness, Sybok sacrifices himself in an effort to combat the creature and allow the others to escape. Intent on stopping the being, Kirk orders Enterprise to fire a photon torpedo at their location, to little effect. Spock and McCoy are beamed back to the ship, but Klaa’s vessel attacks Enterprise before Kirk can be transported aboard. The vengeful entity reappears and tries to kill Kirk when Klaa’s vessel destroys it in a hail of fire. Kirk is beamed aboard the Klingon ship, where Spock and the Klingon General Korrd force Klaa to stand down. The crews of Enterprise and the Klingon ships celebrate a new détente, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy resume their vacation at Yosemite.
- William Shatner as James T. Kirk. Shatner practiced aerobics and strength training daily to prepare for the role. The physical activity and directing duties meant he woke at 4 a.m. every day during filming, no matter what time he fell asleep.
- Leonard Nimoy as Spock, the Enterprise‘s half-Vulcan, half-human science officer. Nimoy noted The Final Frontier was the most physical film in the series, which reflected Shatner’s energetic sensibility and what he enjoyed doing most on the show—”running and jumping”. Nimoy recalled Shatner’s attempts to instruct him in riding a horse, although Nimoy had ridden many horses bareback when playing American Indian roles for Republic Pictures serials.
- DeForest Kelley as Leonard McCoy, chief medical officer. Kelley also noted the physicality required for the film and enjoyed doing things that he had not been asked to do in years. “I was very pleased to see that he [Shatner] brought it along in fine style,” he said. Kelley noted that his own ambition to direct had deserted him after seeing difficulties Nimoy faced directing the previous two Star Trek films.
- Laurence Luckinbill plays Sybok. Sean Connery was originally contacted to star in the role, but was busy with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Shatner discovered Luckinbill by chance; channel surfing late one night, he saw him perform as Lyndon B. Johnson. When Shatner called to offer him the role, Luckinbill accepted immediately.
The other members of the USS Enterprise-A crew include chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), navigator Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), and communications officer Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Takei said that despite studio pressure to complete the film on time, Shatner maintained a creative and enthusiastic atmosphere on set. “I have enormous admiration for his ability to block that kind of pressure from seeping on to the set.” Takei said that he found the biggest challenge of the film was learning to ride horses. Moreover, Takei acknowledged, “despite our sometimes strained personal history, I found working with Bill [Shatner] as a director to be surprisingly pleasant.