Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is widely championed as the finest of the Star Trek films featuring the original TV series cast, and for a multitude of good reasons.
Yet, in many substantial ways, 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, also directed by Nicholas Meyer, actively competes for that title too.
The sturdy foundations of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are many. First and foremost, the film features a strong literary bent that adds a new and even poetic sense of realism to Gene Roddenberry's far-flung, Utopian future. Revolving around death and re-birth both personal and cosmic (vis-a-vis the Genesis Device), The Wrath of Khan never fails to prove deeply affecting. And, of course, the film is endlessly exciting, a tense technological space duel between two evenly-matched opponents and starships.
While never a shallow copy of Khan (like 2002's Nemesis...) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country attempts a similarly ambitious alchemy. This sixth film in the franchise grounds its tale of interstellar rapprochement in the Western literary canon (this time the oeuvre of William Shakespeare), as well as in current 1990s-world affairs, namely glasnost. Or as Leonard Nimoy called it, "the Wall coming down in space."
The Undiscovered Country also reveals beloved Star Trek characters grappling with old age, and more specifically a hardening of their perceptions and sensibilities about the universe, a kind of metaphorical "death." These aren't the idealistic, energetic young space adventurers we first met in 1966. They have grown jaded, and more than a little cynical over the long decades. As Captain Kirk notes to Spock in the movie, "I'm really tired," and you can detect that exhaustion in his carriage and in his gait.
But also -- with Star Trek's trademark sense of optimism about the future-- this sixth Trek film sends these aging icons out to pasture in glorious, heroic, even transcendent terms. They fly off into the proverbial sunset both literally and metaphorically.
Notably, Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country also obsesses on issues such as prejudice, death and "change," all while preparing franchise fans for the inevitable fact that "all things end." These issues are woven into the very fabric of the film through the literate screenplay, the darker-than-usual, Gustav Holst-inspired musical score by Cliff Eidelman, and director of photography Hiro Narita's autumnal -- and then wintry -- visuals.
Such qualities make the sixth Star Trek film a very good movie, but the film also functions ably as great Star Trek, re-visiting core (and sometimes very funny) concepts of the franchise one last time, and even bridging the gap between Trek Classic and The Next Generation.
An important factor in terms of critical appreciation for this final Trek movie also involves visual flourish. On this front, The Undiscovered Country is undeniably the most confidently realized of all the Trek films, reveling in dramatic camera spins, suspense-heightening cross-cutting, and other tools of a formalist's quiver.
In colorful, pulse-pounding fashion, the film emerges not just as a glorified TV episode then, but as a proper cinematic farewell to the most beloved and charming space heroes of a generation.
"Guess who's coming to dinner."
While cataloguing gaseous anomalies in Beta Quadrant, the U.S.S. Excelsior under Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) encounters a "subspace shock wave" of dramatic proportions.
It originates from Praxis, a Klingon moon that serves as the Empire's "key energy production facility."
This event quickly reverberates in galactic politics. The accident at Praxis, caused by "over mining and insufficient safety precautions," inspires the Gorkon Initiative, a move by the Chancellor of the High Council (David Warner) to seek peace with the Federation. This peace, incidentally, will involve the dismantling of Starfleet star bases and outposts along the Klingon/Federation "Neutral Zone."
Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) volunteers Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the U.S.S. Enterprise as the peace initiative's "first olive branch." Just three months shy of "standing down," Kirk is to escort Gorkon's vessel through Federation space to Earth, for a summit with the President of the United Federation of Planets.
The idea of peace with the Klingons does not sit well, however, with several Starfleet officers, including Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters) and Kirk himself. While Cartwright terms Klingons the "alien trash" of the galaxy, Kirk -- still bitter over the Klingons' murder of his son, David Marcus -- believes that Klingons can't be trusted. He knows that there is an historic opportunity for peace, but wonders "how on Earth" history can get past people like him.
After an awkward state dinner between the Klingon delegation and the Enterprise staff, the peace process goes awry when it appears that Kirk's starship opens fire on the Klingon battle cruiser.
The alien ship loses gravity, and in the ensuing chaos Chancellor Gorkon is assassinated by two helmeted hit men wearing Starfleet uniforms and gravity boots. While attempting to ascertain what has occurred, Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are arrested by Gorkon's chief of staff, General Chang (Christopher Plummer) and held for trial.
Aboard the Enterprise, Spock and his Vulcan protege, Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) attempt to clear Kirk's name and solve the mystery of Gorkon's assassination, even as Kirk and McCoy are found guilty of conspiracy and transported to Rura Penthe, a dilithium mine and penal facility deep inside the Klingon frontier, often referred to as "the alien's graveyard."
Kirk and McCoy contend with an alien "chameloid," Martia (Iman) on Rura Penthe as Spock and the Enterprise crew determine that a new Klingon weapon -- a Klingon Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked -- was utilized to frame Kirk and the Enterprise. It seems Klingons, Romulans and Starfleet officers are conspiring together to destroy the peace process, and maintain the current political status quo.
With the help of Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, Kirk and the Enterprise crew set out one last, grave mission: to stop the next assassination attempt, this one directed at the UFP President.
Unfortunately, there's a traitor in their midst...
"So...this is goodbye"