Monday, December 06, 2021

30 Years Ago Today: 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 -- now 30 years old -- 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 VIThe 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.


  1. I have to admit that time has allowed me to appreciate this film in ways I didn't appreciate when it first came out.

    Back in 1991, there were too many elements that were meant as analogous to the events of the day; Praxis/Chernobyl, Reagan and the Russians/Kirk and the Klingons, and the over-militarization of the Federation.

    There were small elements that grated on me as well, lines like "the old Vulcan proverb" or " You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon." I disliked that Gorkon (similar enough to Gorbachev) sounded like a distinguished gentleman and looked like Abraham Lincoln rather than the Klingon's we'd been exposed to up to that point (Worf from TNG not withstanding).

    I took offense at the Spock/Valeris relationship which at times felt as if they were lovers, not teacher/student. Sure, this is a Spock who has died and come back to life but he suddenly seems to have taken an interest in the finer things in life with his paintings and fancy drinking containers.

    I took offense that my "heros" held bigoted thoughts. I took offense that Spock would purposefully extract a thought from another person, no matter the circumstances in a scene that to me felt like a mind rape rather than a mind-meld.

    Other small quibbles gnawed at me...clocks all over the bridge because they were needed by the plot and a convenient homing patch on Kirk's outfit, placed there by Spock that somehow got past the Klingons.

    Having rewatched the film recently, I have to say my feelings have softened quite a bit. Time and distance have rubbed away all the topical elements so that we're left with a plot that is interesting. I can understand everyone's distrust and hatred towards one another despite the fact that I still want to believe that by the time this film takes place even our beloved characters remain committed to the ideals of the Federation (and to Gene Roddenberry's as well) rather than express outright disdain for their enemies.

    Like the first Trek film, this film has improved with time. I can put aside my preconceptions and just watch the film as a film, not as an extension of a TV show. STVI will never be in my top 3 Trek films but it has certainly moved up in my personal ranking.

  2. John, very thoughtful and honest review of one of my favorite Star Trek films. Both Star Trek The Motion Picture(1979) and Undiscovered Country(1991), the first and the last of the Original Series films, are truly great films. My opinion has never wavered since they were released in theaters.

    All the best,


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