Star Trek: VI: The Undiscovered Country remains the final ensemble outing for the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series, the show that started it all. Let’s take a look back at how this miraculous film came to be and why it deserves recognition in this franchise’s 50-year history…
Despite my personal opinions, the reception to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was nothing short of disastrous: A Razzie for Worst Picture, derision across the board, enough fallout to kill the career of producer Harve Bennett and stop William Shatner from ever directing another movie. But Star Trek: The Next Generation fortunately found its feet not long after, and the franchise survived.
But what of the aging original cast? They were unwanted, unloved, too old, and too much of a financial risk. Gene Roddenberry, in rapidly failing health, was using what was left of his clout as Next Generation showrunner (even if the day-to-day running of the show was something of a power vacuum due to said failing health) to try and get his Starfleet Academy story made. Again.
At the time, there was in fact a real possibility that Paramount wanted, for its next Star Trek film, to recast Spock and Kirk as young mavericks. Harve Bennett wrote a script that he described as “Top Gun in space” and would feature a decidedly un-Trek like story of Spock having to deal with bullying, and Kirk avenging the death of his father.
The idea had been doing the rounds since Star Trek II, but no one wanted to do it because of the backlash from the fans, and the fact that it didn’t really sound that good. Harve Bennett’s pitch for Star Trek: The Academy Years didn’t go down too well and, as a result, he left Paramount entirely. Whether he left of his own accord or was fired isn’t clear.
Other stories did the rounds. A weird one was Walter Koenig’s crossover, which doesn’t sound like it would work for many obvious reasons, but another one that was also eventually made was a Kirk-meets-Picard crossover idea that only didn’t happen because The Next Generation was making too much money. Nothing really took hold. The only thing that kept the idea of a sixth film with the original cast alive was the coincidence of the 25th Anniversary. Had it not been for this, it’s likely that some kind of Star Trek reboot would have happened a lot sooner.
In short, the fact that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country even exists is something of a miracle. But who could pull off such a miracle? Who could reinvigorate the original movie series one last time? Who had enough clout in Hollywood to cobble together a budget, who had enough fondness for the franchise to shoulder the entire responsibility of the original crew’s One Last Adventure™?
Enter Nicholas Meyer. Again.
At first, Meyer had no idea for a sixth film, but eventually he and Leonard Nimoy came up with the plan that would form the final film: “What if the wall came down in space?” It also solved a few other problems, too, such as Shatner’s desire to direct and the one-upmanship clause that still existed. Nimoy had directed two movies, so contractually Shatner would have to direct another one before Nimoy could. Meyer returning to the chair was a situation that was acceptable to all parties. That was fortunate, because it was only due to his connections that the movie got any budget at all.
Star Trek VI, therefore, is much closer in tone to Star Trek II, Meyer’s previous Star Trek movie. This is not a bad thing. It also focuses more on the characters than previous installments. This is also not a bad thing. It has a very cinematic conspiracy thriller in space plot, and has a more militaristic tone than previous instalments. This too is not a bad thing.
It’s also why I like all the odd numbered films and don’t like the even numbered films as much. Bear with me on this.
The problem for me with Star Trek VI, as good a film as it is, is that it isn’t a Star Trek movie. Replace the Enterprise with a submarine and you basically have The Hunt For Red October. Don’t get me wrong, that is an outstanding film, but if you want to make a Cold War submarine thriller, why not just make a Cold War submarine thriller?
The joy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, or even The Final Frontier was that no other franchise could do those things. No franchise has that mix of character, philosophy, and science fiction that manages to be optimistic even when going as dark as possible. For me, they are some of the finest science fiction films ever made and I say that not just because they are Star Trek, but because they are good.
The even numbered films always see the problems of the previous entries as being not commercial enough, or not cinematic enough. And every time, appreciating I may be in a minority opinion here, they throw the baby away with the bathwater. I’m not saying they are inherently bad films. The Wrath of Khan is brilliant (although you would be surprised how many Trek fans don’t like it for the reasons I’ve said), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a good example of that sort of easy-going ’80s fish out of water comedy, and Undiscovered Country is a very good Cold War thriller.
But if Star Trek can only be continued by not being Star Trek, what is the point of Star Trek?
To underline the point that The Undiscovered Country isn’t quite Trek, we have the Cliff Eidelman score. Search and you will not find a bad word spoken about it. And it is wonderful music; listen to it on its own and it’s marvellous.
But as a score to a specific movie? It could be anything at all. The overture is dark, brooding, and could equally be used for a tense chase, a shady backroom deal, or Michael Keaton walking to the Batcave. I enjoy the score, but then again I enjoyed it the first time around when it was composed by James Horner. There will undoubtedly be someone reading this who thought James Horner actually did do the score. Why can’t this franchise get any sort of musical continuity going? Bah.
The other thing that annoys me is that Star Trek VI’s allegory of the Cold War is so bludgeoningly obvious it’s almost a reaction to the failure of Star Trek V. Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s also true that Undiscovered Country is as close in spirit to The Original Series than any other film, save The Motion Picture, precisely because it wears the cold war allegory on its sleeve.
So, the wall comes down in space, but first, space Chernobyl explodes, polluting space Russia. Praxis, a moon of Qo’nos, explodes, contaminating Qo’nos’ upper atmosphere. How does a mine explode that badly that the whole bloody moon explodes? Since this is allegory, we have to assume someone was putting the dilithium into the warp core by hand and forgot how the reactor works (that’s very basically what happened at Chernobyl). What the hell were they mining that could explode that badly?
Anyway, the damage is so bad the Klingons have to divert all their resources away from fun things like looting and pillaging and into boring hippy things like planting trees and voting for Jeremy Corbyn. Space Corbyn being Chancellor Gorkon, played by Star Trek’s most prolific hey-it’s-that-guy David Warner.
Gorkon was meant to be space Lincoln, the great slave-freer and being-shot-in-the-theatre-man. The problem is, Undiscovered Country goes for easy targets and very soft allegory. Had Gorkon really been space Lincoln, he’d have only wanted space peace as a reason to get rid of all the damn Klingons. As it is, this is an allegory in broad strokes. Gorkon is a great man with great ideals, and all other people are bastards, racists, and murderers.
Kirk is at least two of those, and accused of the third. His reaction to the Klingon plight is a shockingly dark “let them die.” Really, Kirk? The reason is that he never forgave the Klingons for the death of his son, which is understandably human, yet remarkably out of character for Kirk. Surely someone who’s seen as much as Kirk would be able to distinguish between that “Klingon bastard” and the other Klingon bastards.
Hell, he was having Romulan ale with Klingon generals only in the previous film after calling God out. Now he’s suddenly a racist who’ll happily commit genocide by omission. You may see that as a failing of Star Trek V, but I think Kirk should be better than that. After all, being better is what Trek is all about.
Spock, having personally vouched for Kirk (on the pretext of “only Nixon can go to China”), is the architect of this odd peace on the Federation side. While Starfleet Command decides that the Klingons should be allowed to die, or that the Federation should actually go on the offensive of all things, Spock is the usual voice of reason. Peace is logical, cold war is the status quo. One the undiscovered country, the other the horrible pair of underpants you keep because it’s comfortable.
Yet his logic is entirely flawed. Have the envoy of peace be someone the Klingons view as history’s greatest monster? The rogue admiral that lost a WMD and suicide bombed a Bird of Prey that was only trying to protect Klingon sovereignty? Spock, are you really that stupid? That’s not logical, not justifiable, and not even a good idea accidentally. That’s like employing Tony Blair as Middle East peace envoy.
Only Nixon can go to China though. Such a weird justification. The constant quotes, often entirely out of context or just for the sake of having a trailer shot, are less a display of learnedness and wisdom and more like stealing someone’s tweet. It’s something that makes less sense each time you think about it. It’s the antithesis of “what does God need with a starship?” from Star Trek V. The truism rendered false, versus the obvious rendered profound. Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war. To be, or not to be. Bang, and the dirt is gone.
Nevertheless, we find Kirk et al dining with the Klingons in charged scene of allegorical stew. The Klingons are at once space Russia, space China and space Hitler, with the peace either the Peace of Paper or something more substantial. Lots of Shakespeare quoted simply for the sake of quoting Shakespeare. A knowledge of history displayed, or at least enough for the small reference pools broad audience the film was aiming for. Reductio ad Hitlerem before the internet made that a thing. Fascinating, but ultimately slightly hollow.
The Klingons themselves don’t acquit themselves very well, yet we are meant to believe all sides are equally wrong. Azetbur was awfully quick to play the race card for superficial reasons of language, which is far more abhorrent than any faux-pas the inebriated Kirk makes. Heavy handed point making that hasn’t aged well into the age of accusing someone of an -ism just to shut them up.
It’s in the aftermath of this that Gorkon is assassinated, right in the theater. This must be the only time that we see the gravity go offline in a Star Trek film (excluding Into Darkness, which arguably didn’t so much have the gravity going offline as having the gravity stop obeying the laws of gravity), and it’s a fine scene indeed. Masked men, intrigue, inexplicable and never mentioned again pink Klingon blood (changed from red to secure a PG rating). Enough intrigue to sustain the bulk of the film, the ‘conspiracy-thriller-whodunnit-prison-break… in space!’ plot. The identity of the masked men in Starfleet EV suits being the key hook for the rest of the film.
Kirk and McCoy are given a show-trial to demonstrate their guilt (and since the killers were members of the Enterprise crew, Kirk certainly is), which gives us chance for more direct quotes (“don’t wait for the translation!”) and a Worf cameo. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Klaa, although it’s so brief it’s more even-if-you’re-looking-for-it-you’ll-miss-it appearance, and it’s not actually supposed to be him anyway. Oooh, those pesky Klingons and their backwards ways, with their trials and their due process. Uncivilized bastards!
Anyway, Kirk is found guilty of being a massive racist and sent to Siberia, er, I mean Rura Penthe. Yeah.
The rest of the film writes itself. We have Spock’s protoge Valeris, who definitely isn’t Saavik no sir, being the Spock, Spock being the Kirk and everyone else being the comic relief in a quest to find the killers. They search the whole ship for gravity boots. Then they find them but they’ve been hidden in someone else’s locker. Then they find the dead killers. Predictable filler, and the ‘bottle show’ part of the film, which feels like entirely redressed Next Generation sets and recycled props. After the special effects packed opening, this is where the restricted budget shows. Competent, but unspectacular.
Kirk meanwhile gets back to some semblance of Kirkness by seducing his way out of prison. The shapeshifter Martha, played by Iman, shows them the ropes, then shows them the super-special-secret escape route only she knows. She takes them under her wing. But oh no, she betrays them. The prerequisite mid-movie twist. By the numbers stuff again, but at least we get a scene of Kirk kicking an alien in the balls, and then kissing himself. That’s classic Trek, right there.
Predictably, the traitor is discovered to be the only member of the bridge crew that isn’t one of the main cast. Come on, she’s got a red collar and everything. They also make it a point to show her as being Spock’s special protege, just to twist the knife.
But then something really, really odd happens. Something actually quite distasteful. Ignoring that Spock actually gets angry and slaps her silly for a bit, he forcibly mind melds with her, to the point she’s in clear agony and everyone is appalled. Spock mind-tortures her. A nasty moment. Even nu-Spock wouldn’t stoop that low, and that guy tried to murder nu-Kirk.
Of course, it’s all the Romulans’ fault. Yes, there are Starfleet brass involved and the obviously evil General Chang turns out to be evil as well (it also explains why Kirk of all people was sent to make peace). A great space battle, punctuated with Chang devouring entire bits of scenery in a single bite and yelling any quote he can think of. And it’s over in typical Trek fashion, with someone making a speech about ideals and new worlds and obsolescence. Which is the successful heart of the movie.
As much as the film is a by-the-numbers thriller, it still maintains a core idea that defines it as Star Trek. Kirk et al have not changed. They’re still capable, still physically fit even if sagging around the middle, vastly experienced, and unstoppably competent.
But they are useless. The world around them has changed. They are vastly experienced in things irrelevant, competent at tasks that are no longer required. They have outlived their usefulness. A stage of life we must all go through, and one the film handles very well.
As we see, Sulu has already moved on, and soon the Enterprise itself will too. Worlds change even when people don’t is the theme here. Peace is certainly a good change, but that doesn’t mean it won’t catch a hell of a lot of people in the crossfire.
So this is it. The end. Not quite the finest hour but very far from the worst. It’s an enjoyable and rewatchable sci-fi allegory. Heavy handed and often predictable, but still with that special something. Perhaps a fitting end to an inconsistent but trailblazing iteration of the franchise.
But the end is not the end. In an absolutely wonderful touch, the cast and characters are given their own send off. A tribute from Captain Sulu, and a family photo for the characters, and then the sign off. Literally.
The sign off at the end is the most wonderful way for the cast to go. The actors who made the franchise going out in style, riding off into the sunset with autographs and fanfares. There would be more adventures for them, but not as the stars of their own story. For that, they entrust the Enterprise to the next generation…