“‘Second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning'”
Captain James T. Kirk’s final course heading for the U.S.S. Enterprise-A
The final Star Trek film to feature the entire original cast from the Star Trek TV show has many distinguished qualities such as a thrilling story, craftsman-like direction, solid acting and yes great special effects. But Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country will always be known for its parallels to the end of the Cold War and more importantly as the last hurrah for the original Enterprise crew.
When the film was released, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had ended bringing on a new uncertain era with ramifications still affecting us today. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the long-running feud between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire comes to a peaceful end with adversaries on both sides struggling to accept the new normal. This was done bravely with the main character Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who expressed an unpleasant side with his unhidden bigotry towards the Klingons.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country literally begins with a bang. A giant shockwave from an exploding moon reaches across space and slams into the Federation starship Excelsior. Commanded by Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), the Excelsior rides out the shockwave’s destructive path. Sulu and his crew learn that the explosion came from the Klingon moon Praxis, which was overused as mining facility in an analogue to Chernobyl.
Months later, Captain Kirk and his senior Enterprise-A crew are summoned to a meeting at Starfleet Headquarters. To their surprise, their colleague Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) presents at the meeting not only the finding that the Klingons are dying out but that peace negotiations have begun between the two powers. Kirk is ordered by the Chief in Command (Leon Rossum) to have the Enterprise-A escort the Klingon leader Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) to Earth for continued negotiations.
Kirk is angered that his friend Spock vouched for him to carry out this mission but Spock did so because Kirk’s reputation and antagonistic history with the Klingons will serve as an effective olive branch if he peacefully escorts Gorkon to Earth.
The Enterprise-A crew leaves Spacedock for its mission, but not before Kirk meets Spock’s protégé Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall), the ship’s helmsman. We later learn that Spock thinks highly of her and intends for her to succeed him as first officer of the ship.
The Federation starship makes its rendezvous with Gorkon’s Klingon battle cruiser Kronos One and Kirk invites the chancellor over for dinner. Gorkon beams over with his entourage, which includes his daughter Azetbur (Rosana DeSoto) and General Chang (Christopher Plummer), a bald, crusty Klingon with an eye patch and an obvious dislike towards Kirk. He is practically chomping at the bit for the chance to engage the famous starship captain in combat and is clearly disheartened that he won’t get the chance.
The dinner held in the officer’s mess goes poorly. There is an uncomfortable tension as both Kirk and his senior officers and Gorkon and his entourage trade charged barbs at each other. The Starfleet officers, except Spock, can barely hide their contempt toward the Klingons. It was a bit jarring to see our heroes in a negative light, but it was very bold and dimensional because we see some flaws with our heroes. The only other person who tried to be polite and engaging was Gorkon. He is a clear reference for the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and exhibited a mature, open and statesman-like demeanor. David Warner was very memorable in this too brief but important role and made the leader seem sympathetic and noble.
After the uneasy dinner, the Klingons return to their ship while Kirk retires for the night nursing a hangover from drinking illegal Romulan ale during dinner. He has no time to rest when he is called to the bridge. These scenes were quite revealing; Kirk seems weary and ready to retire. But he is still the captain and acts as one when he instantly stops slouching after the turbo lift doors open to the bridge.
As he enters the bridge, the Klingons are attacked by an unknown source. The attack damages Kronos One’s gravity field, leaving the Klingons afloat and defenseless. Two men garbed in white Starfleet suits, garbed helmets and gravity boots beam aboard the Klingon ship and fatally shoot Gorkon.
Their work done, the assassins beam back out moments before the Klingons restore power. After answering the Enterprise-A’s hail, a furious Chang accuses Kirk of an unprovoked attack and begins a counterattack. Kirk, horrified and realizing the severity of what is unfolding, orders the Enterprise-A to surrender before an intergalactic war can begin.
Wanting to help, he and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beam aboard Kronos One. They find Gorkon and McCoy desperately tries to save the chancellor’s life, but he is unsuccessful. Gorkon’s last words are to Kirk, a plea “Don’t let it end like this.”
The two Starfleet officers are arrested on the spot by the Klingons. Spock assumes command of the Enterprise-A and begins investigating what happened. According to their computer, their ship did fire on Kronos One, but Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scottie” Scott’s (James Doohan) inventory reveals that all of the ship’s photon torpedoes are accounted for. Spock orders Valeris to continue investigating, convinced that the assassins are still onboard the starship.
Meanwhile, Azetbur is named the new chancellor and despite pleas from her military officers to start a war, decides to continue her father’s peace efforts. Her conditions to the Federation president on Earth (Kurtwood Smith) are that Kirk and McCoy not be extradited and that negotiations take place on a neutral planet. The Federation president reluctantly agrees to the terms in the name of peace.
Kirk and McCoy are taken to the Klingon Homeworld to stand trial. Michael Dorn, who played the Klingon Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, appears as Col. Worf, an ancestor and Kirk and McCoy’s defense lawyer. The trial is swift and rigged. The two men are found guilty and instead of being executed, in the interest of peace, are sentenced to spend life in Rura Penthe. An obvious stand-in for a Siberian gulag, Rura Penthe is a harsh, frozen mining asteroid populated by thuggish Klingon guards and a hodgepodge of aliens and humanoids in fur coats. It makes Hoth look like a day at one of those luxury ice hotels. Kirk and McCoy endure a brutal existence aided by a mysterious but beautiful shape-shifting alien called Martia (Imam). This exile does allow Kirk to reflect on his feelings towards the Klingons and he admits to his friend that he was wrong to mistrust Gorkon, who only wanted to help his people through peaceful means.
The two men and Martia plot an escape as Spock and the Enterprise-A crew desperately look for evidence to exonerate their comrades. Along the way, it’s revealed that there is a vast conspiracy by factions among Starfleet, the Klingons and the Romulans to stop the negotiations, even if it means assassinating the Federation president himself.
As a last hurrah, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country delivered big time. It’s a rousing adventure that is emotional at the end as we say our goodbyes to this gallant crew. There is so much that is well done with the film, starting with the script. Based on a story by Leonard Nimoy, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, it got a brilliant sprucing by director Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn. There are so many terrific lines and funny puns, such as Spock reciting an old Vulcan proverb “only Nixon could go to China”, and McCoy admonishing Kirk with “What is it with you?” after he sees Kirk kissing Martia. There is a tremendous amount of quoting from literary works, principally Shakespeare, usually by Chang, even the film’s title is taken from the immortal Hamlet (a reference to the unknown future). But at times it threatens to go overboard, as Chang only seems to be capable of spouting Shakespeare as he and Kirk finally clash with their ships during the climax.
As a villain, Chang was quite cunning and cold. Plummer wisely didn’t try to make him some bombastic hothead. Instead Chang comes off as calculating and deceitful, like a serpent waiting for the right moment to strike. He was a brilliant foil to Kirk.
William Shatner performance as Kirk was quite good and even his speechifying at the end was appropriate, enlightening and mercifully short! It was very daring for Kirk to be shown negatively since the death of his son hardened his antagonistic feelings towards Klingons. In an unflattering light, Kirk openly admits that he doesn’t trust them. In the end however, Kirk demonstrated a humbled realization about the wrongful nature of his views and was able to grow.
The original cast members turned in their usual substantive performances. Takei finally was able to shine as Sulu and was a valuable help to the Enterprise-A with his own ship at the end. Strangely, he was the only character to be shown to have moved on with his life. Originally, there were to be scenes presenting how the crew had moved on to different places and occupations but budgetary constraints curtailed them. That is very frustrating because once again, we’re given the impression that these people never moved on with their lives. The closest indications, aside from Sulu’s promotion, were Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) mentioning that she’s supposed to chair a seminar and Spock’s offscreen clandestine negotiations with the Klingons.
Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was also noteworthy since his character had grown with his reserved emotional expressions. He comes very close to displaying outright anger at one point in the film when he deals with betrayal. Spock also delivered one fist-thumping line at the end when after learning that the Enterprise-A is to be abruptly decommissioned utters “If I were human, my response would be ‘go to hell’.”
The film’s last lines however, are from Kirk who quotes with a twinkling smile a line from Walt Disney’s version of Peter Pan and his final captain’s log as he passes the torch to a new generation, stating “They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man…where no one has gone before.”
The new characters in the film were very interesting and had presence, like Gorkon, Azetbur, and Valeris. Originally Valeris was supposed to be Saavik but the filmmakers decided they didn’t want that character to be seen in a negative light, plus Nicholas Meyer was unable to get Kristie Alley to play the role again. Nor was he able to bring back composers James Horner or Jerry Goldsmith. That was unfortunate because while Cliff Eidelman’s score had its moments, his particular Star Trek theme isn’t memorable.
The production design and thankfully the special effects were well done. As he did with Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Meyer presented a grounded, realistic look at Starfleet with cramped quarters that featured bunk beds, genuine food in the galley, and uniforms and clothes in hangers and drawers. There was also a sense of elegance onboard the Enterprise-A, as seen in the officer’s mess with its portraits of President Lincoln and Surak and fine dinnerware.
As the sixth Star Trek film made allusions to Star Trek: The Next Generation, linking the two properties, it didn’t forget its past. There are plenty of smile-inducing nods to the original show and films, particularly with the characters. They include Scotty seen studying technical specs, Chekov’s (Walter Koenig) tendency to attribute significant cultural achievements to Russia and Kirk fighting an evil duplicate of himself.
Some might argue that the analogies were too obvious and heavy handed, but that was one of the TV show’s great facets. It commented on what was going on at the time through its stories and this film continued that tradition. There are also some plot contrivances and oversights such as why there aren’t any ships guarding the planet where the peace conference is being held, it was fairly easy to guess who were the co-conspirators, and so on. In the end, it didn’t matter. This was an impressive, splendid send-off for the original Enterprise crew.
Watching this film is a bittersweet experience since another reunion with the entire original cast won’t ever happen because Kelley and Doohan have since passed away. It was so good that you wish they could’ve done just one more film with these characters. But they ended on a high note, which is the best way to end things. Still, a true Star Trek fan might shed a tear at the film’s end as the Enterprise-A soars off towards a star and disappears in that sun’s brilliant light signifying that legends never die.