Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)


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"
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country virtually obsesses on the idea of things ending; on the notion of inevitable change and the various human responses to such change.

This leitmotif is encoded right there in the film's sub-title: The Undiscovered Country. 

In Meyer's film, Gorkon defines Shakespeare's descriptor (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I) as being a reference to "the future."  

In fact, as we remember from Hamlet, "the Undiscovered Country" is a direct reference to death

I first saw this film while attending university, and my Shakespeare professor had fits over what he detected as the film's grievous mistake regarding this famous passage.  But it isn't actually a mistake, I submit.  Rather, the debate about "the Undiscovered Country" is part of the film's tapestry about two diverse cultures coming together without sacrificing each's sense of identity.  In "the original Klingon" version of Shakespeare, as the film makes plain, "the Undiscovered Country" may very well be the future.

So Star Trek projects an "Undiscovered Country" that is both death and the future.  In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the main characters -- good and bad -- battle over the direction of a future that few of them will actually live to experience (Spock is an exception, of course, given his extended Vulcan life-span).

In other words, this is a film which is both an "end" (a metaphorical death) for the beloved dramatis personae of Star Trek, and a bridge to a distant future as it is projected in the TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, set decades beyond Kirk's time.  Both realms, both destinations, are a mystery.

Given this backdrop, allusions to death, endings, and time's passage dominate Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  For instance, Chang quotes from Henry IV when he leaves the Enterprise:  "Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?" 

Again this quote re-contextualizes Shakespeare in terms well outside the Bard's original meaning.  Here, Chang is noting the lateness of the hour.  He departs the starship after a long night of drinking Romulan ale, but the hour is also late for Gorkon, and for peace.  In just moments, an assassination attempt which Chang orchestrates will be launched.  Chang is "marking" this anticipatory time with his quip to Kirk, and again, it portends death, change and endings.

In a scene set in Spock's quarters early in the film, Lt. Valeris studies a painting: a representation of the Biblical "expulsion from Paradise."  When Valeris asks Spock why he keeps this work of art in his quarters, he replies that the painting serves as "a reminder" to him "that all things end."  

Coming so early in the film -- one widely advertised as the final voyage of the starship Enterprise -- this discussion is of great significance too.  Here is Spock -- a character many of us grew up with -- accepting, his own mortality and the change of the status quo.  He soon tells Valeris that this journey represents his final voyage aboard the Enterprise as a member of his crew. 

The universe shall unfold as it should.  All things live and all things die.  All things end

 Even Star Trek.

Spock's acceptance and "faith" in a universe of change is contrasted strongly in the film with Kirk's stubborn refusal to brace change.  The good Captain admits in the film that he is "terrified" of change, of a world with "no neutral zone," where the Klingons are allies. It is almost easier, like Chang, to believe in the concept of "no peace in our time" than to accept the possibility of something new...and unknown.

Importantly, Gorkon is also an example of Spock's approach.  He begs Kirk, on his death bed, not to let matters "end this way."  Again, it's clear from the screenplay's obsessive language about endings that a chapter of history is closing and the future is up for grabs.

When such "death" or "ending" centric dialogue is coupled with visuals such as a doppelganger of Kirk being disintegrated (on Rura Penthe), one begins to detect how deeply this Star Trek movie treads into the territory of "the future."  Spock even asks, at one point, if both he and Kirk have grown "so old, so inflexible" that they have "outlived their usefulness."

His comment is a wonderfully wry one, reminding us that these beloved characters are people, not flawless Demi-Gods.  They make mistakes, they stumble, and they don't always do the right thing.  It's the most human portrayal -- apologies to Mr. Spock -- of the characters in any of the feature films.

And that humanity even extends to expressions of prejudice, as The Undiscovered Country ably notes.

In addition to Cartwright's description of the Klingons as alien trash, Kirk terms them "animals," and admonishes Spock to "let them die."  Chekov quips "Guess who's coming to dinner," a direct reference to director Stanley Kramer's 1967 film about race relations in America. 

In the same vein, Scotty argues that Klingons "don't place the same value on life as we do," creating a separate category for his enemies. 

These are repellent remarks, and yet they make a powerful point. Even heroic characters such as Kirk, Chekov and Scotty boast a blind spot when it comes to their opinion of "an enemy. " Can you truly begrudge Kirk his prejudice towards the Klingons, given his personal loss? 

We might not like or laud Kirk's attitude, but nor can we deny that it certainly makes sense from his perspective, and knowing his history.  The crew of the Enterprise has spent a lifetime battling the Klingons tooth-and-nail (and phasers and photons) and now, in a heartbeat, that life is over, and the Klingons are supposed to be friends and allies.  What does that sudden change do to their life's work, to their legacy?

As Kirk notes disapprovingly of his own behavior near film's end, he "got used to" the idea of hating Klingons.  It's easy to fall into a bad pattern like that, especially when you're unhappy.  And that, in some way, is how prejudice is born.

And this is one reason why I so much admire the original Star Trek, and this particular film.  The filmmakers have permitted the beloved franchise characters their own individual, politically incorrect viewpoints.  Why?  So Kirk and the others can learn through experience that their perceptions are dead wrong.  The Klingons are proud and can continue "being proud."  And they can do so without being the villains or "alien trash" of the galaxy. 

Later Star Treks, particularly The Next Generation took a different and far less dramatic, far less chancy tack.  There, the Enterprise crew became above such human flaws as prejudice, and so would meet and endlessly lecture less-advanced aliens about how they must live up to Federation ideals of equality, etc. 

The difference here involves how a storyteller chooses to construct a tale.  Either with the characters stagnant and therefore dull, having already learned everything they need to know, or with the characters in a constant state of flux and growth, learning and making mistakes as they go.

As Kirk once noted, "we learn by doing," and that expression is reflected in the storytelling of the original series and, occasionally, in the feature films.  It's more realistic, and more true to life, I submit, than TNG's direction.

I much prefer the Undiscovered Country approach, which permits the Star Trek characters both their foibles and an opportunity -- when confronted with a mirror -- to outgrow those foibles.  

My only wish on this front is that the makers of the Undiscovered Country had been able to more fully realize their original vision.  For instance, they wanted Saavik to be the traitor in the film.  The late Gene Roddenberry scuttled that idea, hence the creation of Valeris.  This substitution robs the final Star Trek film of what could have been one of the most powerful moments in franchise history.  It would have been a genuine shock to learn Saavik was a conspirator and that jaw-dropping moment would have electrified the movie. 

Ostensibly, Saavik would have hated the Klingons for the same reason that Kirk did: she was there on the Genesis Planet when they murdered his son.  She saw it.  She witnessed it all.  Kirk and Saavik both lost David, but only one of them would grow and come to take away a lesson about prejudice.  That would have a been a powerful side-by-side comparison, and the ultimate lesson about bigotry. If Kirk could past his resentment, why then, could not Saavik?  This is a missed opportunity on a cosmic scale.

As it stands, The Undiscovered Country never exactly makes a case for why Valeris should fear peace with the Klingons.  Kim Cattrall is engaging as the character, but there's no audience connection, no history to Valeris, and so it isn't a surprise that the "guest star" in this film is a bad apple.

It' a shame that in this case, some of Star Trek's greatest defenders and advocates couldn't see the larger picture.  That prejudice is universal...affecting even the most enlightened of us.  And also, optimistically, that prejudice can be overcome by facing change and the future head on. 

And if you don't think this is still a very big issue in America right now, you haven't been paying attention to the national discourse.

"There is an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China."

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is great Star Trek for so many reasons. 

First, it lives up to Star Trek's history in that it serves primarily, as a morality play.  It tells the story of a Captain Kirk who first stands in the way of history, and then, ultimately nudges it in the right direction by overcoming his own prejudice and personal shortcomings.

Secondly Star Trek uses a timely metaphor to dramatize that tale, namely the ending of the Cold War.  In the film, doomed Praxis, the key energy production facility, tracks as Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant that suffered a terrifying meltdown.  Gorkon tracks as Gorbachev, a man who took a chance on peace to save his people.  And Kirk is very much the conservative hawk (the Reagan or Nixon) who, in the end, unexpectedly finds himself the greatest warrior for peace. 

Now, regular readers of this blog are well aware that I am no Reagan fan.  But I also deeply admire the fact that the man grappled with reality, changed his mind, and grew.  Reagan began his tenure as President calling Russia "The Evil Empire," joked that "bombing begins in five minutes" on an open mic and erroneously claimed that a sub's nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch.  But by the end of his second term, he was Gorbachev's committed partner for world peace. Reagan walked back from the precipice and from his own, hawkish views of "winnable" nuclear war, as well.  It wasn't easy for him, and it wasn't painless.  His right flank savaged him, accusing him of giving up the nuclear store.  But Reagan fought for peace anyway, because he believed in the cause.   If that's not something to compliment one of my least favorite modern Presidents on, I don't know what is.

Going further, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country also refers to another Reagan era issue: the Iran-Contra Scandal.  Here, a rogue Colonel named West -- think of Colonel Oliver North -- conspires with intergalactic (international) enemies for an illegal policy.   Even Valeris's denial of involvement, "I do not remember," harks back to North's frequent invocation before Congress that he could "not recall" details of the alleged wrongdoing.

In addition to being timely, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country also ably serves the larger franchise (which at the time only included TNG and the movies) by providing the connective tissue between generations. 

In this film, we meet Lt. Worf's ancestor, Kirk's lawyer, also played by Michael Dorn.  And the writers of the film knowingly set the peace conference at Khitomer, a planet referred to in such TNG episodes as "Heart of Glory."  Beyond those small continuity touches, the film finally shows us the ambitious  last "piece" of Kirk's era: the turbulent story of how the Klingons and the Federation learned to begin trusting one another.

On a much more amusing note, Star Trek VI seems hell bent on recycling one last time many beloved tropes of the classic series.  Kirk gets to kiss a  very sexy (but weird) alien woman, Iman's Martia.  He is forced into hand-to-hand combat with an alien twice his size on Rura Penthe.  And, of course, James Tiberius even gets to face off against a doppelganger, as he did in series segments such as "Whom Gods Destroy" and "The Enemy Within." 

Then there are the submarine movie cliches the movie adopts for its final battle, as the equivalent of a German U boat (an invisible Bird of Prey) repeatedly strikes a surface vessel, the Enterprise.  We saw this idea originally in "Balance of Terror," but The Undiscovered Country outdoes even that remarkable episode in terms of spectacular effects and suspense.

And suspense is important, especially when we talk of a movie concerned with endings.  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier certainly had their moments, but overall they were also jokey, almost flabby affairs.   There wasn't much tension in those stories.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country corrects that deficit in spades.  It jauntily plays with the very idea that this is Kirk's last mission, and so every event, every battle, takes on a new importance.  These characters aren't coming back for another movie, so we wonder throughout the film...are they going to die

Have these characters "outlived their usefulness" not just to the Federation, but to the entertainment franchise itself?  This uncertainty, when combined with Meyers' dynamic cross-cutting, the mad pans, and the dazzling camera spins, makes for a highly suspenseful adventure, perfectly pitched.

"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning...

Everything comes together in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country's valedictory scene. 

Bones reminds the crew that it isn't against the law "to have feelings," and Spock expresses his feelings of disdain for Starfleet rather strongly:

 "If I were human, my response would be...go to hell.  If I were human," he says, at news of the Enterprise's de-commissioning.

And then Kirk gives his final order from the center seat.  "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning," an allusion from Peter Pan that concerns not death, or ending...but perpetual youth and immortality. 

The inference is that in overcoming his prejudice regarding the Klingons, Kirk has restored his own soul, his own youth and his own innocence.

And more so, that the Enterprise crew --- especially to those who love her -- shall remain forever young in our hearts, even as it sails into retirement and the history books.  That sense of youth is evident in the crew's ability here to change, grow, and surprise us even after twenty five years of going "where no man...where no one...has gone before."

"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning," is the perfect way to bid farewell to these characters.  As they contemplate the end of their journeys (a Never Never Land of its own), they do so not with cynicism and prejudice, but with hope, vigor and indeed, a charming, even awe-inspiring innocence.

So as you experience that final, lump-in-your-throat goodbye -- as the original starship Enterprise flies off into the sunset and our cherished  memories -- I challenge you to deny that, indeed, the franchise saved the best movie for last.

23 comments:

  1. There was a lot about Star Trek IV that bothered me as I got older. First of all, early in the movie it is the Excelsior that is tracing gaseous anomalies. At the end of the film, Uhura says, "Well what about all that equipment we were carrying to trace gaseous anomalies?" and they use it to find and destroy the Bird of Prey. That's a pretty big mistake, even for a Star Trek movie. Also, most college freshmen can tell you that when Hamlet talked about the undiscovered country, he didn't mean the future, he meant the afterlife. I mean, that's the TITLE OF THE FILM. It indicates a level of half-assedness that is hard for me to facilitate. They filmmakers HAD to realize this, I mean, how could they not? To me, it's just a vexing reminder that the people who made these movies had made them for so long and were so cynical about their work that they thought they could slap anything together because the audience would be too dumb to notice. It's good that Nick Meyer was so thematically ambitious in his films, but more attention to detail (or even making sure his film actually made sense) would have made a better movie.

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    1. Why is there always a sour old apple in the bunch?

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  2. Reread your post and noticed that you addressed the Shakespeare recontextualization...I submit you're being unduly kind, but then that is one thing that makes this blog so interesting. :)

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  3. Hi JKM;

    Terrific analysis and thanks for reminding me hoiw great this movie was; it's way overdue for a rewatch. I will submit that it's a notch down from Wrath of Khan for only one reason: Khan. Easily one of the greatest screen villains of all time. No fault to Plummer or his character (the name escapes me and I'm too lazy to look back over the article) but as a threat he is not in Khan's league. This is no slam on VI, if iconic villains were easily arrived at all films would have them.

    On the title controversy, I do agree with you. If memory serves at the time the title was generally assumed to refer poetically to, among other things, the "death" of the world the mass of filmgoers/Trek fans had all known for our entire lives, a world haunted by the presence of a hungry and malicious Soviet Bear. That world was dead, gone. One writer, now hopefully quite embarrassed, though he keeps pronouncing, called it "the end of history". The "Undiscovered Country" was the Afterlife we find ourselves in now. Feels a bit like Purgatory to me.

    Two asides: 1. Typing "Purgatory" reminded me how great the titular
    supernatural western TV-movie is. 2. Tying in with the recent "JKM-apocalypse" of late, it was actually a viewing of "The Day After" that convinced Reagan to change his ways. Genre movies change the world!

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  4. I don't think even with John's contextualisation to the film's ties to death that Undiscovered Country is unfairly used. While the original context was death, the notion the term signifies is the movements to pastures unknown, which is precisely what this film deals with and yes, arguably, death of what we perceived before. So I think on many levels it's fitting. IMO.

    As for the gaseous anomalies, as I recall, according to Takei, the original draft had the Excelsior destroying the Bird of Prey with the equipment it referenced in the first act (giving us a rather amusing variation on Chekov's Phaser, perhaps..), but allegedly George's arch enemy, Shatner, said it was more fitting for the Enterprise to destroy the Bird of Prey - and dramatically, I think he was spot on, and no reason the Enterprise couldn't have been doing similar missions.

    Funnily enough I just rewatched this film last night for the first time in years, and went into the final act with this query in mind and have to say, Shatner was right, Takei was wrong. It would have been a nice moment for George and Sulu, but ultimately, the scene plays out as the idea of Spock and Uhura (giving Uhura a little brainstorming moment), and isn't at all a "Shat" scene - plus it then gives McCoy and Spock one more dance, so I think all in all, it was far better over all to have Enterprise win the day. Sorry Sulu!

    That said, I did find rewatching this how much the film rewards all the cast - so carefully too. Again, the final act gives all characters a moment - particularly Scotty who gets the assassin.

    Overall, I agree John, a brilliant film - though one thing that did bug me, yes Bird of Prey, must have a tailpipe.. but doesn't Excelsior and Enterprise? Been a bit embarrassing if that torpedo had ignored the long silent running Klingon vessel and smacked Sulu in the face.. I'm sure they must have calibrated the torpedo for specific gases.. yes, that's it! :)

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  5. one nit to pick. The Klingon Empire has an empire why should they move into Federation territory. If their planet is dying why not move on to another planet within their territory no fuss no muss.
    But that would have made more a shorter movie

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  6. one nit to pick. The Klingon Empire has an empire why should they move into Federation territory. If their planet is dying why not move on to another planet within their territory no fuss no muss.
    But that would have made more a shorter movie

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  7. Guess I have to disagree there...if the Enterprise was undertaking similar missions cataloging gases, then it's incumbent upon the filmmakers to at least say earlier on that the Enterprise was doing this as well. Otherwise, why even say that the Excelsior was doing that at all? Why create the dissonance? Looks like this was just plain old shoddy filmmaking.

    Likewise with the title issue...in all of the wealth of Shakespeare, even in Hamlet alone, I'm sure they could have found a quote better suited to addressing the film's themes of the future instead of using an inappropriate one and making a lot of people go, "Huh?"

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  8. Great analysis on the movie, which I also consider the best in the franchise. Well executed script and action that contains a lot of sentimental pull for fans, knowing this was the last hurrah.

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  9. I was a little disappointed in this movie at the time because it tried so hard to track the political events we were still living through. Star Trek always commented on the present, but never so directly. Also, I thought the idea of having a central source of energy for an entire empire pretty far-fetched.

    With the benefit of hindsight (and several inferior ST:TNG movies), this one looks much better. It was fun to see how Meyer was able to take character traits, which did not seem negative in the 60s, and show them as foibles in the 90s. It reminds me of how the new Dr. Who examines character flaws we did not see as flaws during the original series.

    The Next Gen crew were too politically correct and, therefore, did not have room to grow in the movies. Those films were simply long TNG episodes with bigger budgets.

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  10. @David - I don't disagree that - as you point out - you can see the "seams" in the script process in the "gaseous anomalies" issue. I do think Takei' perspective is probably accurate; this was a script revision that made the information in the first act muddled. So yeah, one could argue the end result is a little fudgey in narrative execution.

    My point was that dramatically, I'm glad they made the fudge because having Enterprise's crew deliver this final attack is far more colourful than if it had been as Takei suggested and been Sulu's moment. But yes, I don't disagree, as a point of narrative structure, there is discordance in the final product created by script evolution.

    As for the title, yeah, we'll have to agree to disagree. :-) I found in context it was pertinent, though I appreciate your reasoning as to why you feel it really doesn't work!

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  11. Nice analysis John, as always. One thing I'm surprised you didn't mention was that Rura Penthe is an allusion to the prison that so embittered Captain Nemo in the film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
    Given Nicholas Meyer's penchant for reference, this serves an ironic counterpoint for Kirk's burgeoning regret of holding prejudice - where Nemo's hatred and prejudice comes from the death of his family and is hardened in the prison, Kirk (who has also lost a son) begins to realize the need to abandon prejudice soon after being imprisoned.
    It's also an interesting direct comparison of 2 beloved captains, both embittered by loss. One cannot let go of his predjudice and it leads to his death, while the other gives up his prejudice and it leads to his spiritual rebirth.

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  12. One other thought; the sequence where the Enterprise bridge crew realizes that a conspiracy has occurred also features Valeris replaying the 2 torpedo strikes against Kronos 1, freeze-framing with the 2nd torpedo's impact. Given the political bent of the film, I think one could view this as a subtle allusion to the Zapruder film, especially if you're of the mind that JFK was assasinated by persons who wished to perserve the Cold War status quo. Could be wrong, but just a thought.

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  13. What an excellent article (and comments) on this the final ST:TOS film (GENERATIONS is pure ST:TNG, for better or worse). I love the fact that VI played to the current events of the time -- it's why I think it retains its relevance. A lot of history recurs because we love to repeat it. A wonderful read, John! Thanks.

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  14. Amazing comments here today, on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

    David: Thank you for your excellent comments. I see the validity of your points regarding the film's title and also the gaseous anomalies bit.

    I must confess, I too was jarred the first time I saw the film and Uhura mentioned the equipment that Excelsior was carrying! But, I've also come to expect this kind of thing from the Star Trek films, in some sense, and it doesn't bother me much.

    In Wrath of Khan, the Reliant went TO THE WRONG DARN PLANET and ended up finding Khan there. Oops. That's a pretty big goof as well. But nobody really rags on Wrath of Khan about that. And in First Contact the Enterprise traveled from the Romulan Neutral Zone to Earth to join a battle ALREADY IN PROGRESS before they left. And don't even get me started on Generations. That film is a disaster fom an internal consistency standpoint. Craziness.

    Part of being a fan of this franchise is letting go of the small stupid stuff, I submit, or you'll end up going apeshit nuts.

    I just have to assume that the Enterprise was also carrying equipment to catalog gaseous anomalies; that it was a Starfleet wide program. That makes sense.

    Now regarding the Undiscovered Country, I agree with James that it is within reason, certainly, to suggest that the realm describes not just death, but the unknown.

    And death/future are intertwined in that we all have death in our future, as I tried to describe in my piece. It may be a stretch, but again, it's a stretch that I can live with.

    I'm not invalidating any of your criticism by the way. I think you make good points, and I totally understand them. They just don't affect my appreciation for the movie, if that makes sense.

    More to come...

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  15. DLR:

    You are so right that The Undiscovered Country lacks one thing that makes Wrath of Khan so unforgettable: Khan. It's an interesting point, really. Khan elevates Star Trek II to the rarefied level of grand space opera. And yet Undiscovered Country offers a more ambitious tale. I respect the latter film for trying, at least, to break the mold of Wrath of Khan, instead of copying it (as Generations, Insurrection, Nemesis, and Star Trek 09 hae all, in many ways, tried to copy it).

    And thank you for reminding me of the Day After story. That's right, the Nick Meyer (!) movie caused Reagan's conversion to the cause of peace, instead of winnable nuclear war. I'm grateful for that, and also for what President Reagan accomplished after his change of heart.

    I haven't seen or heard of Purgatory. It's a TV Movie? What am I missing?!!!!

    James: Synchonicity is interesting, isn't it my friend? We both had The Undiscovered Country on the mind, apparently. Wonder if it was something that we talked about last weekend, that percolated, and made us both think about it again. Verrry interesting.

    I agree with you that The Undiscovered Country can legitimately be defined as "pastures unknown" without Shakespeare experts howling in complaint. It only makes sense. I think it works for the film, though it's only fair to point out that it is a "rerun." Nick Meyer had thought to use it originally on Wrath of Khan, I believe. Still, in this context, it works.

    I agree with you that Shatner was right, and Takei was wrong. The final battle just wouldn't have had much oomph if Excelsior had been the ship to target and blast the Bird of Prey. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. This is the old girl's last hurrah, and she deserved the glory of taking out Chang. And I wouldn't give up that shot of Shatner lunging from the center seat, making a fist and snarling "FIRE" for all the tea in China. Seriously.

    Your comment about the Excelsior and Enterprise having a tail-pipe is right on, and in some ways, a very valid criticism of the film's ending. You know, in all the times I've watched the movie, I never, ever thought of that?

    More to come...

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  16. Will: Interesting nitpick, and like James' comment on the tailpipe issue, one I hadn't really considered. I'm willing to accept the fact that the Klingons need "save haven in Federation space" simply because it allows the Cold War/Tear Down the Wall metaphor to work. But you're right, closely examined, in lieu of Trek history, it doesn't make a surfeit of sense. But as I wrote in my comment to David above, you just have to roll with this kind of thing in the Star Trek movies. They happen all the time.

    jmcozzoli: Great comment! I agree with you completely that the notion that this is the last adventure of the original crew gives the final film an extra blast of energy and suspense. Combined with the well-executed script and sentimental touches -- just as you say -- the Undiscovered Country certainly views with Wrath of Khan, in my book, as best Star Trek film.

    Neal P: I'm totally simpatico with the statements in your comment. I think Nick Meyer accomplished something stunning by taking the sixties mindset of the characters, essentially, and showing how they looked in the 1990s. It was a great idea, and it was bold too. I love how it plays.

    I also agree with you that the TNG movies are mostly dire, politically-correct, big-budget TV episodes. They were made a decade later than most of the original Star Trek films, and they don't have even half as much entertainment value.

    Jeffrey Siniard: Oh man, I love your two points here; two deeper excavations into The Undiscovered Country that I wish I had unearthed in my post.

    I love your Jules Verne-based reading of Rura Penthe, both another literary allusion and one that plays on the concept of Kirk coming back from a kind of purgatory to be the hero he was meant to be. That, sir, is a brilliant observation, and from this day on, I shall steal it whenever I can! :)

    I also love your intriguing connection to JFK, which was also released in 1991, probably the height of JFK conspiracy mania. You are absolutely correct that the on-screen images (played behind Valeris) are replayed and analyzed, much like the images of the Zapruder film. Man, that's another really fascinating connection to Star Trek's Cold War parallels, and the pop culture Zeitgeist.

    Hi Le0pard 13: The comments on this thread have been amazing, I agree! And I appreciate your comment as well, which notes how Star Trek remains relevant when it is actually about something; about our lives...today; about who man is. Star Trek VI really gets that, I think. I also agree with you that Generations is pure TNG. I will be reviewing that film here in the not too distant future.

    best,
    JKM

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  17. I empathize with your point of view John, without agreeing with you. It's definitely true that you won't enjoy the films at all if you're too picky (or even very picky at all), but I guess it bothers me more in 6 than in others because it came at the climax of the film. Not so easy to look past. Anyway, thanks for the spectacular blog! Hurry up on the Generations review!

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  18. Hi David,

    Thank you for the supportive comments on the blog...I really appreciate them. I understand why you feel how you do about ST 6's climax. Like I said it jarred me the first time I saw it too; but in my case, didn't prevent me from loving the film.

    I'll get to work on Generations (though I have to see it again first...I only have the film on laserdisc these days, and my laserdisc player is broken. I've got to order the blu ray...).

    Best wishes,
    John

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  19. Anonymous6:28 PM

    John, you took the words right out of my mouth. I, too, share the same views you have pointed out on Star Trek VI - The Undiscovered Country(my personal favorite of the first six films).

    Overall, another excellent review.

    My compliments for a job well done.

    All the best

    Chris Dalton

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  20. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the kind words about my review of ST: VI. I see it struck a chord with you as well. This is one of those movies that I can watch anytime, and just fall right in synch with...

    Best,
    John

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  21. Anonymous5:23 PM

    Pffft Reagan? the post modern president? He didnt have anything to do with Russia,he just stood in front of the camera and delivered his lines like the actor he was, like most presidents do. Much like America now USSR was bankrupt & scheduled to fall to make way for pure unilateral western dominance, all this Reagan Man of Iron is pure mythologizing.

    Saavik? Damn, that would've been far more dramatically compelling as she wasn't an unknown. As it stands, the character of Valeris is such a tack-on she's an easy guess for being the secret on-board conspirator.You give him even now too much credit

    Gene Roddenberry shooting himself in the foot again; beyond creating the whole franchise he had alot of very bad ideas

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  22. Many good points were brought up here. I think that as much as I enjoyed Khan and Voyage, there was a strong intellectual element here not seen since the Motion Picture, and frankly, probably not since about the mid-point of the second season. It was REALLY refreshing.

    The big goof about the wrong planet in, as well as the gaseous anomalies anomaly, were explored in fandom after the films came it. The Trek fanzine discussed these points, and they later appeared in the series of books Signet put out before Richard Arnold...er, Paramount put the kibosh on it.

    They agreed with the idea that all Starfleet vessels must have the special sensors. Heh, maybe it was an attempt to get around the goof that the Reliant's sensors couldn't pick up the Botany Bay survivors, just a weird blip.

    Rather than nitpick on the error about the wrong planet in Khan, I look more to the major continuity error of having Khan recognize Chekov, when he wasn't in the first season at all. Again, discussed by fandom and he is usually considered a lower decks crewmen at that point. Very amazing Khan recalls him at all.

    The idea of comparing and contrasting Kirk and Nemo has two more corollary points. Visually, the ram on the Nautilus from the Disney film is analogous to the Klingon forehead ridge bumps---and Klingons are known to butt heads against opponents in battle on occasion due to their extremely tough cranial ridges.

    The other point is that the Nautilus could have been an absolutely incredible vessel of scientific exploration---except that Nemo chose to use it to kill for vengeance. Kirk and company, however, use technology designed for scientific exploration---the gaseous anomalies sensors---to stop a man (Chang) who would kill for hate.

    I think Chang really chanelled the Khan of Space Seed, not the vengeance-seeker of Wrath. He comes aboard under one set of pretenses, being suave and debonair, but actually had some devious plans. Those plans lead to galaxy-shaking consequences over time. The steps towards peace that began with Chang's death ultimately led to the victory of the Federation and Klingons over the Dominion nearly a century later. Plummer was the best Klingon we'd seen, except for Kor, Koloth, and Kang, up to that point in time.

    Another side point about Disney: at the time of making 20,000 Leagues, they made a number of excellent live-action films in this timeframe, but slowly the quality dropped. In recent years, they've become relevant live-action filmmakers again with the National Treasure series as well as Sorceror's Apprentice.

    Somebody referenced the 2009 film's Nero as being a weak version of Khan: Yes, that's true. And Nero's ship was strikingly reminiscent of the Nautilus--big, advanced beyond the time it found itself in, a vessel used for vengeance against others by both Nemo and Nero. He pales in comparison to Nemo as well as Khan or even Chang. In fact, it is interesting to see that Nemo and Nero both lost their families and struck back against Western society/the Federation in revenge. Kirk, though he lost his son, was able to overcome those destructive urges.

    In a similarly limited role, David Warner was much, much more effective as Chancellor Gorkon than he was as Ambassador St. John Talbot on the Planet of Galactic Peace, Nimbus III, in The Final Frontier. Talbot couldn't help create peace---but Gorkon's death led to it. Chang's role is an interesting counterpoint to Sybok. They are both so locked into their plans, they can see no other way out. And it leads to their deaths. Six did a great job exploring how people could change---and Five did a poor job exploring how people could make changes in their lives.

    Kirk is capable of learning, while Nemo, Khan, Nero, and Chang...simply weren't. And they all ultimately paid the ultimate price for their failure to change.

    Gordon Long

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