Janus Film Review Classics of Sci-Fi Special: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

as discussed by Daniel R. Browne

Format Reviewed: Blu-ray/Paramount Pictures (2009).


It was the beginning of the 1990s, and the Star Trek universe was in rude health. Star Trek: The Next Generation had launched in 1987, and after a very shaky start, the fresh ideas and perspectives provided by writers such as Brannon Braga, Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore had transformed the show into a mature and authentic experience. 1992 would see the debut of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the confirmation of Star Trek as bold and enduring entertainment; for the fellow traveller and transient viewer alike. It was a rich time to be a Trekkie, as we basked in the vibrant and the new, but it is important to remember whence we came. After the various failings of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) was conceived as a true and proper way to bid a very fond farewell to the original crew, but also as an allegory for that other little happening that occurred as the new decade dawned: the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War.


Leonard Nimoy - the man who will always be Spock - collaborated with his friend Nicholas Meyer, writer and director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), on the development of an intriguing notion: In the 20th Century, the Wall has fallen, and the Iron Curtain has been withdrawn. What if the same thing was to happen in space, in the 23rd Century? Together, Meyer and Nimoy fleshed out this initial concept, crafting a story that would ultimately become Star Trek VI, by substituting the Soviet Union for the bête noire of Starfleet and the Federation: The Klingon Empire. After an utterly devastating lunar explosion threatens to render the Klingon home-world uninhabitable, the overextended and permanently militarised Klingon economy is unable to cope. As such, and in a manner deliberately reminiscent of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the so-called ‘evil empire’ must ask for help and ultimately, sue for peace. Looking back on this creative decision almost thirty years later, it’s not hard to see why it worked. It’s a sublime allusion, but more than that, conflict is the essence of drama. Taking the warrior culture of the Klingons, and forcing them to ask for help from their bitterest enemy, created significant scope for both dramatic and thematic exploration.


Suddenly the conflict wasn’t about lines in the sand or big red buttons anymore, but rather the quieter and more intimate pressure points of human nature. How do you set aside generations of prejudice, and stay true to your principles, when that which you have been trained to call an enemy alights on your doorstep, seeking sanctuary? The answers are both complicated and, in the steady hands of director Nicholas Meyer, fascinating. Star Trek VI is a sharp, uncompromising and cunningly whimsical study of forced alliances, and how each individual chooses to react in such circumstances. The script is razor sharp throughout, and peppered with pop culture references both subtle and gross. After being assigned the task of escorting the Klingon delegation to Earth for peace talks, Captain James T. Kirk reacts to the mission - his last mission - with indignation and derision. Spock, having presumed to manoeuvre Kirk into this position (on account of his own personal idealism), seeks to assuage the captain by remarking wryly: ‘Only Nixon can go to China’. It is a cute and brilliant summation of the situation; one that lays bear the ugly truth of it: humans and Klingons are implacable enemies, forced into conversation, and the initial results will not necessarily be noble.


This truth is never more clearly conveyed than in the excruciatingly awkward ‘dinner party’ scene aboard the Enterprise, as Kirk and his (equally reticent) officers host the Klingon head of state, Chancellor Gorkon (played with customary gravitas by David Warner), and his retinue. What ensues is a cutting, darkly comical comparison of differing values; all under the pretence of maintaining decorum within a formal setting. It is quite something to witness the holier-than-thou ranks of Starfleet displaying disgust and near-revulsion at the uncouth and belligerent demeanour of their guests. Conversely, the surprising eloquence of the Klingon perspective on Federation dogma poses some candid questions, and affords both parties the opportunity to embarrass and enlighten in equal measure. It is a superb piece of theatre, that affords each character at least one opportunity to shine brightly.


The undisputed star of the show is the everlastingly splendid Christopher Plummer, cast in the role of General Chang: Gorkon’s verbose, Shakespeare-loving chief of staff. Plummer delivers a tour de force, as he dines on the scenery with absolute gusto, and his performance throughout the film is an ode to delightful villainy. Standing right alongside him is William Shatner, who gives arguably his finest performance as Captain Kirk. He is utterly convincing as the old soldier swept up by one last battle. From his hilarious, Hitler-referencing mockery of Chang’s love of quotation, to his bitter requiem to his murdered son David, Shatner is note-perfect in every scene. With Meyer back in the director’s chair, Leonard Nimoy was free to deliver his customary excellence in the role of Spock, and he delivers a contemplative and suitably melancholic turn. The remainder of the crew is as solid as a diamond - as always - and it is a singular pleasure to behold DeForrest Kelley’s laconic charm in the role of ‘Bones’. Karl Urban’s subsequent, altogether loving reinterpretation of the character is a finer tribute to Kelley than any I could offer here.


Mention should also be made of Kim Cattrall, in the role of half-Vulcan, half-Romulan Lieutenant Valeris. She gives a peculiar, borderline-schizophrenic performance, in a role that wasn’t even meant to exist. Paramount Studios and Nicholas Meyer were both keen to have Kirstie Alley reprise her role as (the Star Trek II incarnation of) Lieutenant Saavik, but negotiations reached an impasse. Gene Roddenberry, who by 1991 was on his deathbed, objected to the proposed characterisation of Saavik in Star Trek VI, feeling it was a betrayal of fandom. This prompted an indignant response from Meyer, who had suffered more of Roddenberry’s (mostly witless) attempts to meddle than most, but Alley’s trademark recalcitrance rendered the argument moot, and the Saavik character was abandoned in favour of Valeris. Cattrall - who was ironically Meyer’s original choice to play Saavik in Star Trek II - thus stepped into an uncertain and rather muddied breach. She occasionally comes across as taking the piss, and rumours of her and a camera-toting ‘friend’ staging an after hours invasion of the Enterprise bridge set, in a state of total undress (save for her prosthetic ‘ears’), only serves to fan these flames. That being said, her final scenes alongside Nimoy are superb; the ‘mind meld’ sequence in particular, which is a harrowing spectacle, powerfully conveyed by all involved.


Nicholas Meyer originally wanted to use ‘The Undiscovered Country as the title for what became Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In truth it does suit that film, but it serves the purposes of Star Trek VI even more effectively. The final bow of the Original Series is a bittersweet affair, that heralds the hopeful coming of a new era with the sad fading of another. Yet for all its intensity and occasional bouts of cynicism, Star Trek VI ends on a very hopeful note. In witnessing Kirk, his crew and their ship saving the day one last time, we are reminded of the strength of their collective resolve, and ability to learn from their prior mistakes. Towards the film’s climax, we behold Kirk and Spock together one last time, each acting as the other’s confessor; pondering the triumphs and failings of their respective viewpoints. It is a beautifully written exchange, highlighting both the fallibility, and enduring capacity for growth, that defines the human condition. It is the mark of an endeavour in full control of itself, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is confidence personified. It isn’t as bold or as brilliant as The Wrath of Khan - its thematic and tonal cousin - but then it isn’t really trying to be. The actors, writers and the director hum along in perfect harmony, resulting in a film that is skilfully written, measured in pace and entertaining to a fault: a fitting denouement to a true icon of pop culture. You might shed a tear when the end is reached (and Kirk aptly quotes J.M. Barrie), but you won’t be sad, because it was a journey well-worth taking, and that’s how it should be: to boldly go then, now and always.

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