Synopsis: The Enterprise leads a battle for peace in the most spectacular Star Trek® adventure ever! After years at war, the Federation and the Klingon empire prepare for a peace summit. But the prospect of intergalactic glasnost with sworn enemies is an alarming one to Captain Kirk (William Shatner). “They’re animals!” he warns. When a Klingon ship is attacked and the Enterprise is held accountable, the dogs of war are unleashed again, as both worlds brace for what may be their final, deadly encounter.
Directed by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan), this topical action-adventure soars with warp-speed excitement that’s “impossible to resist” (James Verniere, Boston Herald). Costarring Christopher Plummer.
eyelights: the strength of its cast. its mixture of contemporary politics, social commentary and whodunnit. its rich dialogues. its pace.
eyesores: its CGI. the dilithium mines set. Nichelle Nichols’ performance.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”
Following the soul-sucking drudgery of ‘The Final Frontier‘, I was put off of ‘Star Trek’ motion pictures for a little while. So, when ‘The Undiscovered Country’ came out in 1991, I simply could not be bothered to go out to see it – despite fairly solid reviews and the fact that it was to be the original cast’s final voyage.
Damn… I so totally missed out.
‘Star Trek VI’ not only heralded the return of Nicholas Meyer, the wunderkind who had stormed and revamped the Star Trek universe with ‘The Wrath of Khan‘, as both co-writer and director, but it was supervised by Executive Producer Leonard Nimoy – who contributed the story idea and returned as Captain Spock.
It also brought to the table one of the series’ most remarkable stories, a Cold War analogy that is rich with social commentary and is finely counterbalanced by a whodunnit murder mystery and layers of humour. It also features some of the series’ best performances all the while serving as a fitting swan song for the crew.
Essentially, ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’, more than makes up for ‘The Final Frontier’.
When Praxis, a Klingon moon and source of most of the Klingon’s energy supply, explodes in a massive mining incident, the Federation’s long-standing enemy is forced to plead for assistance. Seeing an opportunity to put an end to the hostilities, Starfleet sends the Enterprise to escort Chancellor Gorkon to a Peace treaty.
However, there are powerful, sinister forces at work trying to prevent an amicable conclusion to these talks. Soon the crew of the Enterprise are in a race against time to prevent the assassination of a number of Klingon delegates, all the while trying to rescue Kirk and McCoy from a gulag, and tracking down a murderer in their midst.
The stakes couldn’t possibly be any higher, but the Enterprise crew succeeds against all odds.
As does ‘The Undiscovered Country’:
- The motion picture score: Unable to secure the help of James Horner or Jerry Goldsmith for his picture, Nicholas Meyer sought out new blood via demo tapes. He settled on relative newcomer Cliff Eidelman, who brought a more ominous and dramatic score than his predecessors. Not only did it echo Holst’s ‘The Planets’, which Meyer initially wanted to use, but the new tone was much more appropriate to this picture. It turned out to be one of the series’ best.
- The Chernobyl connection: Firstly, I think it was brilliant to address the disaster of Chernobyl by making the explosion of Praxis analogous. But the set-up is also perfect: We find Sulu as Captain of the Excelsior, at the tail end of a 3-year mission when a shockwave from the unexpected explosion hits them. When they’re warned by the Klingons to stay out of Klingon airspace, it is made quite clear how tense this situation is.
- The Starfleet briefing: A full two months later, the Enterprise crew are convened with others to a secret Starfleet meeting. Unbeknownst to the rest of them, Captain Spock is the main speaker, briefing them all on the situation with the Klingons – and on the plan to dismantle the fleet and Klingon Empire.
One of the Admirals is against this plan and Kirk is with him, emphatically stating that the Klingons can’t be trusted. But Kirk and the NC-1701-A have been volunteered by Spock, which creates tensions between them because they weren’t consulted; Kirk feels betrayed and the rest of the crew are shocked.
I like this scene because it’s realistic that the incident would be kept a secret for weeks. It also establishes how politically-charged this situation is – not everyone is going to be happy with these plans. And I felt for Kirk, given his history with the Klingons, all the while being troubled by the strain between he and Spock.
It’s terrific scene, though its staging is hardly perfect.
- Kim Cattrall replaces Sulu: Now that Sulu is Captain of his own vessel, a new helmsman is in his stead: Valeris, a Vulcan played by Kim Cattrall. Valeris is Spock’s protégé and he plans for her to eventually replace him – which is, ultimately, ironic. Cattrall gives Valeris an unusual demeanour, which makes her feel alien both as a crew member and as a Vulcan. I’m on the fence about the performance, though it makes her a standout.
- The new Enterprise bridge: Although the budget forced the production to re-use a lot of the ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ sets, they nonetheless managed to make this version of the Enterprise look terrific. I love the new bridge (which is slick, techie), cold though it may be.
- The Klingon vessel: When the Enterprise rendez-vous with the Klingon Chancellor, they find a standard Klingon ship, à la ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, not a bird of prey. While I love the bird of prey, the classic ship was a welcome return.
- Kirk the diplomat: I love that, despite his prejudices with respect to the Klingons, Kirk tries to tap into his higher self and invites the Klingons for a diplomatic dinner. That’s what makes Kirk such a great character: though he sometimes stumbles, he always tries to rise to the occasion.
- “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”: Chekov gets the best laugh of the picture, as his dejection seeps through and he (presumably unwittingly) refers to that classic motion picture about racial prejudice starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier.
- Meeting the Klingons: There’s something exciting about the prospect of a dinner between two sworn enemies – especially when they’re tentatively trying to bury the hatchet. Although all polite and cordial, the tension fills the air as the Enterprise crew and Klingons meet; their first meeting is cautious. But, after they leave the transporter room, two crews comment to each other that the Klingons all look alike and smell. I thought this was a nice touch.
- Christopher Plummer as Chang: I’m no great fan of Plummer but he’s undeniably a terrific actor, with decades of experience on the stage. Here his character spews off quote from Shakespeare’s oeuvre – like the perfect cartoon villain, proud to speak in idioms. He’s outstanding. Adding to this aspect is one of the Klingon delegation’s assertion that “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”. Priceless!
- Dinner with the Klingons: What a dinner! It’s polite at first, but it soon becomes very tense as various people candidly express their differing views on the situation. There’s prejudice from both sides, and paranoia, and it devolves to the point that a sheepish Kirk retires with “Please let me know if there’s some other way we can screw up tonight.”. Ouch.
- William Shatner’s performance: It’s hard to believe, but, after the debacle of ‘The Final Frontier’, Shatner is more subtle here, delivering a credible performance the likes of which hadn’t been seen in years. There is one exception: that fight that he has with himself towards the end, which is a bit over-the-top. He also has a couple of external internal monologues which annoyed me at first – until I realized that they were not just for our benefit but for his Captain’s log. Still, this is a tremendous improvement over his unhinged performance in the previous picture. Thank goodness.
- Nichelle Nichol’s performance: Conversely, Nichols is totally off her game. Maybe she didn’t want to make this movie, maybe she had other things on her mind, but she really phoned it in.
- For the kill: That moment when, somehow, the NC-1701-A is firing on the Klingons is utterly baffling! “What could be happening?”, you wonder! But no sooner does the question pop into your mind that armoured assassins appear on board of the Klingon ship to kill them. Who are these people? Where did they come from? And seeing how vulnerable the Klingons are, now that their gravity is out, puts things in perspective. Add to this the genius touch of having purple blood floating in the anti-gravity, and it’s an unforgettable moment.
- Kirk’s surrender: Enraged by the unprovoked attack on their ship, the Klingons retaliate. Kirk, knowing that returning fire would escalate the situation to war, surrenders instead of provoking them further. It’s the only thing he could have done, but it’s clearly not what he’d personally want to do. It must have been a hard choice for him, but it proves yet again that Kirk is one of the best.
- The good doctor: Kirk and McCoy go on board the Klingon vessel to help with their casualties – the Klingons, slaughtered and undermanned, allow it. McCoy tries everything he can to save the Chancellor, puts his whole heart into it. DeForest Kelley is amazing here, impassioned, emotional; you feel his desperation.
And then, when the Chancellor dies, when the dust settles, he and Kirk realize the trouble they’re in. Ulp.
- The show trial: A major set piece is the show trial of Kirk and McCoy. After the Starfleet diplomats agree there isn’t enough info to exonerate them, the pair is subjected to the Klingon version of justice, a trial so clearly rigged that no amount of objection from their lawyer, Colonel Worf, can give the court pause.
Although the set is a fraction of its intended size due to budgetary limitations, it’s still an impressive hall, made more claustrophobic by its reduced size: Kirk and McCoy are in the eye of the storm, with a spotlight shining on them in the dark, and surrounded by Klingons. Everyone’s watching, powerless, as they are obviously being set up.
Chang is a great interrogator. Even though McCoy implores with all the passion he could muster that he tried to save the Chancellor, Chang counters by using a recording of Kirk’s personal log, in which he states that he can never forgive them for David’s death. Ouch. They had no chance of winning, though they get a reduced sentence.
- A flawed verdict: The only real problem I have with this scene is that the chief argument is that Kirk is responsible for his crew, so that makes him guilty. The problem is that it hasn’t been established that his crew did it; it’s merely an assumption. In fact, by that point, the assassins had not yet been revealed or found.
So, technically, Kirk shouldn’t be called upon to do time until the killers’ identities are established.
Now, I don’t know if it was the writers’ fault, in that it was an oversight, or if this was just a hallmark of Klingon justice, but it bothered me slightly that it wasn’t at least addressed by Spock, if not more characters. At the very least there should be outrage that Kirk and McCoy are sentenced before the investigation is complete.
- The Rura Penthe mines: Kirk and McCoy are sent to Rura Penthe mines for life, a reduced sentence from the standard death penalty. Sadly, this whole part looks like it was shot on a TV show, from the sets themselves to many aliens, whose masks and make-up don’t look real – though the character design are good. I’m not sure if it could all have been concealed with the lighting, by making these bits more shadowy, but this segment deserved better.
- Iman as Martia: Originally conceived with Sigourney Weaver in the role, Martia is absolutely breathtaking as incarnated by Somali model Iman. Weaver would have given the character a much-needed ferocity, but Iman gives her a streetwise and sultry mixture that’s rather appealing. It’s really hard to take your eyes off of her.
- The future: Late at night, in their bunks at the work camp, Kirk and McCoy discuss their fears about what the future holds. Although the exchange is a bit simplistic, I appreciated the effort – and at least it conveys their sentiments coherently.
- Kirk vs Kirk: Okay, so we’ve seen this before, but it’s still a fun idea to have Kirk pitted against himself. Unfortunately, the scene is mired by Shatner’s overacting and mugging and that makes it nearly unwatchable. It reminded me of a similar scene in ‘Army of Darkness‘ – except the latter was purposely campy, done for laughs.
- Crew involvement: I like that the rest of the crew is involved in the investigation because every cast member has a part to play for once: Under Spock’s guidance, the crew debates the case and details, then plan their investigation. That’s terrific to see. Oh, sure, it’s complete BS that the whole cast is involved in all of it, including the interrogations, and that they all converge to prevent the assassination – including Uhura (a Communications Officer, not a Security Officer!). And Sulu, who was initially aboard another ship. As if. And it’s silly that they’re cheered. But it’s fitting, given that it was the cast’s last movie – so this mild cheesiness can be overlooked.
- Finding the assassins: Um… why would the two murdered assassins be the middle of the hall, like discarded luggage? It just doesn’t make any sense. You’d think that the killer would want to hide the bodies somewhere to buy more time. And why hadn’t anyone else noticed, given that their murder was right in the middle of the place?
- The interrogation: Why in the world would the crew interrogate the culprit on the bridge? Did they run out of sets and just decided to use that one because it was already dressed for the next scene? It seems like a weird place, a distraction for the rest of the crew who are trying to run the ship.
- Spock’s mind meld: Spock’s mind meld during the interrogation is amazing to watch, because he’s probing with his fingers; he’s actively seeking, searching through his subject’s mind. It’s a studied approach and it illustrates that it’s more than just touching someone – there is technique involved. Plus it’s just cool to see it done one last time.
- One last spin: The crew is together for one last time, as they go for one last quick spin of the Enterprise. It seems like the perfect end to their journey together, and it’s so much better than mere farewells: They go out just as they were introduced, out trekking through the vastness of space. Brilliant.
- Farewell: And almost to underline that notion, the picture ends with a shot of space, followed by each of the main cast members’ signatures being drawn on screen and then warping into space, each in turn. With this the series has been drawn to an end – with the whole cast’s stamp of approval.
‘The Motion Picture‘ is my favourite ‘Star Trek’ film on principle: It’s a brilliantly-executed slice of pure science-fiction; it’s a technical marvel that highlights the best aspects of the original show. But ‘The Undiscovered Country’ is the picture I like to go to for a good time – it literally has everything in it that I could ever want in a ‘Star Trek’ movie.
And, as far as swan songs go, it’s one of the best. Sure, it twists itself into a knot to give everyone the limelight, but those contrivances can easily be forgiven – it is, after all, the last hurrah of a group that has been on screen together for 35 years. Nothing less than a final bow for them, and this crew took their well-deserved leave gracefully.
Long will they live in our memories. And our hearts.
Date of viewing: July 10, 2016