Movie Review – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Principal Cast :   William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, Kim Cattrall, Rosanna DeSoto, Brock Peters, Iman, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Dorn
Synopsis:    When the Klingon Empire is brought to its knees, Kirk and the Enterprise crew are asked to escort one of their ambassadors to Earth for a meeting with the Federation, to discuss terms of a disarmament. Naturally, there are those within the Federation who think that now is the perfect time to utterly destroy the Klingon Empire, and frame Kirk in order to provoke full scale war.


To Kill A Mockingtrek.

The underlying subtext to The Undiscovered Country is, to my mind, more about racism and prejudice than anything else. The thing about Star Trek has always been its inherent ability to examine modern-day ethical, moral and societal dilemmas in a futuristic context, in many ways being a little less overt about things through this context than it might otherwise be if the show were set in modern day. The sixth film in the theatrical franchise deals primarily with Kirk’s prejudice towards the Klingons, the one-time series villains who provided a nice balance to Starfleet’s more scientific-exploratory mandate; The Undiscovered Country is superficially an action-centric Trek outing, but if you think about the story, the characters and what the narrative tries to do, you’ll see how it tackles the issue of racism – past and present – and tries to elicit a response on this front, even if the end result isn’t perhaps the strongest Trek film to come out of Paramount.

Kirk's experimentation with internet dating wasn't starting out so well...
Kirk’s experimentation with internet dating wasn’t starting out so well…

The Klingon moon of Praxis suddenly explodes, sending shockwaves across the Galaxy. It turns out that Praxis is a critical Klingon energy production facility, and its destruction leaves the Empire suddenly facing certain extinction – the destruction of the ozone layer on Kronos, coupled with the loss of energy production, means the Klingon Empire has approximately 50 years of life left. The Klingons, unable to maintain their war footing with the Federation, decide to offer peace terms and prevent their own demise. They send an envoy (David Warner) to the Federation, to be escorted by Kirk (William Shatner) and the Enterprise crew. Kirk, harbouring a deep-seated grudge against the Klingons for the death of his son, David, resents the mission, as do most of the Enterprise crew thanks to their entire lives being spent fighting against the alien race; things boil over when it appears that somebody aboard the Enterprise beams to the Klingon vessel and assassinates the ambassador. Arrested for the crime by Klingon warrior Chang (Christopher Plummer), Kirk and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are taken to Kronos, where they are put on trial and sentenced to life working on a distant penal asteroid. Meanwhile, back aboard the Enterprise, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the crew, including new officer, the Vulcan Valeris (Kim Cattrall), search the ship for the traitorous people who murdered the Klingon envoy. In doing so, they race against time to not only rescue Kirk and McCoy, but also to prevent a further assassination at a secondary peace talk, held in a secret location.

Oh, snap!
Oh, snap!

The Undiscovered Country has the distinguished pleasure of being one of the vaunted “even” Trek films; according to lore, the odd numbered Trek films are generally pretty rubbish, while the even numbered film entries manage to be quite entertaining. This holds true of Country by a vast margin over the previous instalment, even though this film continued Paramount’s small-scale budget demands – The Undiscovered Country never feels like it’s been held back by budgetary concerns, thanks to some canny production design and LA-based location shooting, giving the film an almost epic, trans-galactic feel that resurrects the franchise from the doldrums of The Final Frontier. Only a few years prior, the Berlin Wall had collapsed in Communist Germany, and The Undiscovered Country attempts to parallel that with the end of the Klingon/Federation conflict. The sudden outbreak of peace with the Klingons leads to militaristic elements within the Federation seeking to finally, utterly crush the Klingon Empire into dust, something the peace-inclined majority wish to avoid. This sense of conflicted enmity and new-found potential allied angst leads Trek in a brave new direction – one which had been established by the ongoing further-future work on The Next Generation (which saw the Klingons as already-peaceful members of the Federation, and Worf aboard the new Enterprise) – and with Wrath of Khan director Meyer at the helm, things get pretty dark and dramatic indeed.

Don't you dare ask me about Edielweiss....
Don’t you dare ask me about Eidelweiss….

Where I think The Undiscovered Country gets a lot of its gravitas is not in the interstellar conflicts, the brash Klingon posturing or the “breaking down the walls” juxtaposition of the Federation and Klingon worldviews, but rather in Kirk’s undisguised hatred of the Klingons and his understandably frustrated anger at how quickly his way of thinking needs to change. Kirk seems to straddle being both a peaceful individual, and one bordering on vengeance for his son’s death, and his reaction to the inevitable Klingon surrender and the mission to “play nice” with Chancellor Gorkon (essayed wonderfully by David Warner, snagging his second Trek appearance in a row after playing a diplomat in The Final Frontier) is both convincing and, dare I say it, entirely human. It’s a kind of understated racism towards the Klingons, borne out of a generation of conflict, that cuts deep into Trek psyche (at least, for the Original Series cast, it does), and challenges us to consider our own, real-world thinking. Kirk even states that the Klingon’s “[are]… animals!”, telling Spock he feels betrayed after the Vulcan cast his name into the ring for the envoy mission.

Of all the bars in the universe, you had to beam into mine.
Of all the bars in the universe, you had to beam into mine.

Indeed, the reactions by the entire Enterprise crew to the Klingon envoy party, as they have a meal together on the Enterprise, is particularly telling for what it throws up as a mirror to ourselves. The obvious disdain  which both parties have for each other is palpable, but they clench-jaw their way through their meal: this mutual distrust and hatred is not easy to overcome, especially considering the Trek crew have been fighting the Klingons since they were introduced in the Original Series. That’s a lot of water, under a lot of bridges, to circumvent. The scene plays superbly, with Shatner, co-stars Christopher Plummer and David Warner doing their level best not to oversell the momentous impact this meeting means to the franchise.

Room service!!
Room service!!

Of course, there are obvious parallels throughout the film to the military agenda, the collapse of the “cold war” and its then-reality for our planet. The Undiscovered Country is ripe for exploration in terms of subtexts and analogous elements which one can find entrenched in modern society today – bigotry, hatred, distrust and vengeance all play key roles throughout the film, and although I’ve focused on a single aspect (one which struck a particular chord with me) there’s plenty of grist in this mill to chew on. The script, by director Meyer, and Denny Martin Flinn, does struggle to find its true voice early in the film, though; there’s almost too much story shoehorned into a very short space of time, but about the midway point things settle and the film reverts back to the Trek we all know. Meyer casts a lot of his film is darkness, or deep shadow, using lots of deep black and browns to portray the Klingons, and the primary reds, blues and whites for the Federation. This added melancholy seems to saturate the film from within, casting a pall across the story that actually strengthens the on-screen action, rather than working against it.

Bad hair month.
Bad hair month.

The Undiscovered Country’s cast all perform admirably; Shatner, Nimoy and DeForest Kelley all work well together, although I get the sense that this time, Spock’s a little on the outer in terms of development as a character. The rest of the original series crew are all present, including Sulu (George Takei), who has taken up the captaincy of another ship, the Excelsior, meaning he never really interacts with the rest of the Enterprise crew for the entire film. I’m not sure why they needed to do this, but it kinda ruins the end scene of the film where Meyer effectively transitions the OS crew into retirement. The bulk of Undiscovered Country’s engaging characters come in the form of the supporting cast, namely Chris Plummer as Chang, who spends the entire film quoting Shakespeare as he flies into battle, and cross-examines Kirk at his “trial”. Plummer’s a good enough actor to make this fly, but exactly how or why a Klingon who hates humans would find time to enjoy Shakespeare – a very human aspect – seems a little muddled. It works for the film, though, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

Emperor Hirohito wasn't the slightest bit moved by their earnest pleadings.
Emperor Hirohito wasn’t the slightest bit moved by their earnest pleadings.

Kim Cattrall makes a good fist of her role of Replacement Spock, Valeris. Valeris has been hand-chosen by Spock to replace him aboard the Enterprise when he retires, and although things don’t work out exactly as Spock (or Valeris, for that matter) intended, Cattrall brings a subtlety and behind-the-eyes humour to the part that makes her pleasing to watch. One-time supermodel Iman has a role as a fellow prisoner on the penal asteroid Kirk and McCoy are sent to, and having not seen this film in at least fifteen years, I was pleasantly surprised at how natural and believable the actress was. Her role amounts to little other than to provide Kirk another sexual outlet, but still, Iman is good in the part. Brock Peters, who played innocent killer Tom Robinson in the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, is cast against type as a belligerent military antagonist, passively-aggressively agreeing with Kirk that the Klingons need to be wiped out, and that they cannot be trusted. Watch out too, for That 70’s Show alum Kurtwood Smith as the President of The Federation, having a grand time beneath a bunch of makeup and Old Chinese Man facial hair, and sharp-eyed viewers will catch Deep Space Nine actor Rene Auberjonois, and The Next Generation actor Michael Dorn, making appearances.

Don't even bother asking. You won't get it.
Don’t even bother asking. You won’t get it.

In his attempt to cover so much material within the boundaries of a Trek film, director Nicholas Meyer does struggle with the film’s opening half. It feels stilted, almost as if it’s unsure of itself, even through the visually dynamic assassination sequence aboard the Klingon envoy vessel. Once Kirk and McCoy are arrested, though, and sent to the asteroid, the film hits its straps, with the double-team narrative working well building the tension to its violent, explosive climax inside the secondary rendezvous for peace. Uniquely, The Undiscovered Country doesn’t feel as light-hearted as previous instalments either – there’s a current of humour, sure, between the Enterprise crew as they stall for time against Starfleet’s instructions, but the overall tone of the film is a lot darker, more menacing than the previous films since Khan. Personally, I think this makes Trek a better franchise, and this, a better film.

Dang, I forgot to pack some space-underwear.
Dang, I forgot to pack some space-underwear.

As a final send-off to the full Original Series crew (Kirk, Scotty and Chekov would appear in the next film, Generations, in 1994, crossing over with the Next Generation franchise) The Undiscovered Country feels like a close relative of the 80’s. The effects might seem dated now, but Meyer’s story delivers plenty to think about, while the cast rise to the challenge of making this swansong one to remember. In hindsight, the film probably doesn’t work as well as it should (or could) thanks to an overabundance of themes within it, and you get the sense that a lot of compromises were made in order to get the film on the screen, but within the context of a Trek feature, it’s a nice harkening back to just how challenging well-written Trek could actually be. Divisive, insightful and definitely provocative, not only for what it says but what it doesn’t say, The Undiscovered Country is one of the better Trek franchise films to come along the pipeline. It has its faults, but those faults are easily outweighed by the strength of the writing, and the wonderful work by the entire cast.

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