Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)


All things must end at some point and, though Star Trek as a universe was far from meeting its last days, the cast of the original series had an amazing run considering every obstacle the show had to overcome.  The original television series ended in 1969 and, except for an animated show, there was a 10-year hiatus.  There was (and still is) friction between the leads and supporting actors, there was Gene Roddenberry doing everything he could to give Harlan Ellison a run for his money when it came to being difficult, and by 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation was the most popular television show in syndication.  

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country had a tough job.  Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, as high-concept as it was, ended up being a failure at the box office.  While William Shatner took the brunt of the blame the truth was that budget cuts, studio indifference and trying to release the film against one of the most populated blockbuster summers of the 1980s had a lot to do with it.  Since film studios, at least in the past, largely looked at returns, the thought was that audiences had grown tired of Star Trek, and maybe it was time to retire the original series cast all together.

Part of that crept into the story for The Undiscovered Country, as most of the crew have gone on to other jobs in Starfleet or into civilian life, although the scenes covering that were ultimately deleted.  Some of those still on active duty, such as Captain Kirk (Shatner) and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), are just months away from retirement.  Sulu (George Takei) has become captain of his own ship, the Excelsior, and he and his crew are the witnesses to the events that touch off what is to unfold.  

The Excelsior, returning from a mission studying gaseous anomalies, is hit by a sudden shockwave when just outside the Neutral Zone on the border of the Klingon Empire.  One the empire's moons, Praxis, has exploded due to a mining accident.  As a result it comes to light that the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, due to fallout from the moon entering its atmosphere as well as other environmental factors, will cease to be able to support life within 50 years.  Faced with this reality Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) of the Klingon High Council, through Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), has made it clear he wishes to negotiate a permanent peace between the Klingons and the Federation. 

Kirk is none too pleased to hear about this, and even less pleased to find out that he is tasked with escorting Gorkon to a peace conference on Earth.  However, after a tense formal dinner, the Chancellor's ship is seemingly fired on by the Enterprise.  Kirk is accused of planning Gorkon's assassination, while McCoy is arrested as his accomplice.  After a short trial on Kronos they are convicted and sentenced to life on a mining asteroid.  However, Spock and the rest of the crew, defying Starfleet's orders to return to Earth, begin their own investigation, and soon discover that there is a conspiracy to try to keep the peace from happening. 

Though Lawrence Konnor and Mark Rosenthal are credited, that was only after a lawsuit said the credit had to be there.  None of their story is here, but is instead largely based on ideas by Leonard Nimoy and fleshed out by Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn.  Harve Bennett, who had been one of the writers since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, bowed out after his prequel idea was nixed.  Meyer, who had directed the second movie, returned to this one, both because he had directed one of the fan favorites and because the studio was afraid that if Nimoy directed the film Shatner would be difficult.  

More than ever The Undiscovered Country reflected the times.  It spent some time laying the groundwork for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it also was a reflection of the collapsing of the Soviet Union and the two earthly superpowers, Russia and the United States, finally entering into somewhat of an uneasy friendship.  

As usual the main cast of characters is solid, and everyone except Chekov (Walter Koenig) seems to get a decent amount of time in their final go-around.  Sulu gets more screen time that he had the entire series, both television and movies, while unfortunately Scotty (James Doohan) doesn't get as much as he should.  A lot of the focus is on a new character, Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall), whom Spock intends to succeed him as first officer on the Enterprise, but of course Kirk and Bones get the majority of the time.  Everyone pretty much goes into action once more at the end.  However, one person steals the show, even from Shatner; that is Christopher Plummer as Chang, the head of security for the Chancellor, and also one of the few villains the Star Trek movies have had that are on the same level as Khan.  

The special effects are definitely better than the previous film as there weren't so many restrictions on The Undiscovered Country as there was on The Final Frontier.  Unfortunately some of the early digital effects are cartoonish and distracting, particularly the purple Klingon blood in zero gravity, although the assassination scene is surprisingly violent for a Star Trek film.  In contrast, the morphing scenes of the prisoner Martia (Iman) on Rura Penthe are quite well done.  I also credit the film for not relying on effects and, instead, often concentrating both on the tensions between Klingons and humans and on solving the mystery of what happened in the attack on the Chancellor.  

All this adds up to Star Trek VI being one of the best in the series, combining mystery, sci-fi action and Cold War politics all into one nice little bundle while giving the original series cast the sendoff they should have received two decades prior instead of a bland last episode aired on random date.  At the time it was not only supposed to be the last with the original cast, but also the last period, as there had not been any talk yet of TNG getting the movie treatment.  It does have its slow spots and occasional silliness, but even the best of the Star Trek movies did, but if this was to be the last then at least it wasn't a fizzle like the previous film, but more of a salute to both the actors and the fans. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Time: 110 minutes
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, James Doohan, Walter Koening, Nichelle Nichols, Christopher Plummer, Kim Cattrall
Director: Nicholas Meyer

 

Comments

  1. The main plot here seems to have been stolen from the 1989 Gene Hackman film, The Package, though I've never seen any official acknowledgement of that for obvious legal reasons. The only insight I've had regarding the writing Is a reference by Meyer to having incorporated the Chernobyl theme, referencing the hopes of some people at the time that Soviet recovery from that disaster would be an opportunity to relieve Cold War tensions.

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    1. It has been so long since I've seen "The Package", but from what I remember parts of it are similar. Never seen the connection mentioned before. Interesting.

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