“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (TUC) was something of a redemption for the Trek franchise after the drop (both in quality & box-office) of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” The production team had a mere 18 months to put together a movie in time for Star Trek’s then-25th anniversary in 1991. That team was minus longtime producer Harve Bennett (STII-V), who refused to return after Paramount Studios passed on his ‘Starfleet Academy’ pitch (an idea which seemed at least partly realized in JJ Abrams’ 2009 semi-reboot, “Star Trek”).
I still very much remember going to see this one in December of 1991 with my sister whom I shared a (day-apart) birthday as well as an affinity for Star Trek (hers has dimmed since then…mine hasn’t). It was reassuring to hear Nicholas Meyer was returning as director, since Meyer was heavily involved in two of the franchise’s best; “The Wrath of Khan” (director/uncredited writer) and “The Voyage Home” (cowriter). That Friday evening’s entertainment didn’t disappoint. I don’t care for arbitrary rankings (usually the Trek I choose to watch at any given time is my favorite of that moment), but if I had to rank the Trek movies, TUC would be at, or very near the top.
Despite many twists and turns, the story is relatively simple; as Leonard Nimoy pitched to Nicholas Meyer, “the Berlin wall comes down in space.”
**** SPACEDOCK-SIZED SPOILERS ****
The movie (literally) begins with a bang, as the Klingon moon Praxis explodes in a Chernobyl-like disaster that threatens to terminally pollute the Klingon home planet.
Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), now commanding the starship USS Excelsior feels the shockwave outside of Klingon space, and offers assistance.
Cut to Earth, as Captain and acting ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) holds a briefing on the situation for his old shipmates Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Captain Scott (James Doohan), Commander Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig). He tells them that their ship, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A, has been assigned to escort the Klingon leader Gorkon (David Warner, who also played Jack the Ripper in Meyer’s “Time After Time” in 1979) through Federation space for peace talks on Earth, since the weakened Klingon Empire needs the Federation’s aid.
Aboard the Enterprise, Kirk and company are introduced to Spock’s young, outspoken Vulcan protege Valeris (Kim Cattrall, later famed for “Sex In The City”). Valeris is a very by-the-book officer who seems puzzled by the more fraternal behavior of her human colleagues, much as a younger Spock was, earlier in his career.
The Enterprise meets with the Klingon ship as Gorkon’s entourage beams aboard; they include Gorkon’s daughter Azetbur (Rosanna DeSoto, from “La Bamba”) and a wily, eyepatch-wearing Klingon general named Chang (Christopher Plummer, in a very different role than “The Sound of Music”). Over dinner, the Klingons and Enterprise officers exchange pleasantries, which quickly devolve into unpleasantries. The Klingons beam back to their ship, and the Enterprise crew are reminded why serving Romulan ale at diplomatic functions isn’t such a good idea.
Later that evening, Spock notices an unusual neutron energy reading nearby. Before the can investigate further, the Enterprise seemingly fires (unprovoked) at the Klingon ship. As the damaged Klingon ship temporarily loses gravity control, two helmeted crewmen wearing engineering radiation suits beam aboard and fire their phasers at several of the Klingons, including Chancellor Gorkon. Afterward, the two mysterious assassins are beamed off…somewhere.
A genuinely baffled Kirk immediately surrenders to the Klingons, trying his best not to provoke a counterattack. McCoy joins Kirk in an offer of medical aid to the Klingons. Once there, they find Gorkon is gravely wounded, as McCoy fights frantically to save him (despite his admitted ignorance of Klingon anatomy). Gorkon doesn’t survive, as Kirk and McCoy are arrested for his assassination.
Due to the forthcoming peace talks, which are resuming at an undisclosed site within Klingon space, with Azetbur acting in her father’s place. The Federation president is powerless to help Kirk and McCoy.
The Federation president is played by “Robocop” veteran Kurtwood Smith (who sounds a bit like an alien J.R. Ewing). Kirk and Spock are to be the sacrificial lambs to continue the peace talks, taking the blame and standing trial.
Later, during a Klingon kangaroo court prosecuted by the wily General Chang (Plummer really hams it up in this scene), the pair are found guilty and sentenced to exile on the frozen Klingon mining colony Rura Penthe (yes, same name as Jules Verne’s penal colony in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”; Meyer loves his classics…).
Once there, the two get into a couple of scraps with surly aliens until they befriend an enigmatic shapeshifter named Marta (played by former model Iman, widow of the late David Bowie), who takes a curious liking to Captain Kirk.
Aboard the Enterprise, Spock does a bit of Sherlock Holmes-ing (an ancestor of his, apparently) and deduces that Gorkon’s true assassins had to beam aboard from Enterprise, and were able to walk about the gravitationally-damaged Klingon vessel using ‘gravity boots.’ Spock also reasons that the neutron surge he detected earlier was, in fact, a new cloaked Klingon vessel that can remain invisible during firing (addressing a previous weakness in Klingon ship design). He also concludes that since the Enterprise torpedoes are fully accounted for, someone aboard the ship had to alter the data banks to make it appear as if they had fired. A search begins for the first potential clue… two unaccounted pairs of gravity boots.
Aboard the Enterprise, the gravity boots are found hidden in a random locker, in a humorous scene involving a polydactyl alien crewman whom the boots couldn’t possibly fit. Chekov also recovers drops of Klingon blood on the transporter pad, confirming that the killers of Gorkon did indeed beam back aboard the ship. With this evidence in hand, Spock orders the Enterprise to fly into Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy. Spock conveniently slapped a ‘viridium patch’ (think: velcro homing beacon) on Kirk’s back before he beamed aboard Gorkon’s ship. Damn good thing the Klingons don’t make their prisoners wear new uniforms, right?
The Enterprise soon arrives at the border to Klingon space. Realizing that a universal translator would be recognized, Uhura has to speak Klingon personally over subspace radio (prime-universe Uhura is not as linguistically gifted as her Kelvin-universe counterpart of “Star Trek 2009”) in order to fool the Klingon border guards. Why the Klingons aren’t immediately suspicious of the pigeon-Klingon speaking Uhura is taken with comedic license, and is best left unsolved by a not-too discriminating viewer. The Enterprise continues on her way.
Marta offers to aid Kirk and McCoy in their escape from Rura Penthe if she takes her with them. Kirk, never one to refuse a pretty (albeit temporary) face, takes her along with them, since she also claims to know how to get around the frozen prison’s electronic perimeter. Outside the shield, Kirk slugs Marta, knowing full well that she is really setting them up to be ‘killed while attempting escape’ in exchange for a full pardon.
In a humorous nod to an original series trope, Marta shape shifts into a doppelgänger of Kirk… forcing the captain to fight himself. The fight ends as a Klingon lookout party fights the fugitives and the confused, trigger-happy Klingon warden (William Morgan Shepard) accidentally vaporizes Marta/Kirk…just as the Enterprise arrives and beams Kirk and McCoy to safety.
Once reunited with their shipmates, Kirk, Spock and Scotty find both of the missing pressure suits (still stained with purple Klingon blood) as well as the two murdered crewmen to whom they belonged. Kirk confers with Spock about whom he suspects is the traitor in their midst; they conclude that the only one with access to the ship’s data banks, as well as conversations used against Kirk at this trial, is Spock’s protege Valeris.
Valeris is taken into custody after falling into a rouse set by Kirk and Spock in sickbay. Later on the bridge, Spock performs a forced mind-meld on her to learn the identity of Valeris’ coconspirators… a Romulan ambassador, General Chang (duh, right?) and Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters, returning from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”). Personally I find that scene very hard to watch in the era of #MeToo and ‘enhanced interrogations’ (aka torture). Spock is easily my favorite character in all of Star Trek, but I hate that he resorts to what is essentially mind rape. I wish the writers had found a better, more clever way for Spock to get the needed information… perhaps he could’ve made a clever appeal to her pride in her Vulcan logic?
Kirk contacts Capt. Sulu on the USS Excelsior and calls in a few favors. Sulu tells his former captain that he is on the wrong side of the quadrant, but he’ll haul ass to rendezvous with the Enterprise at Khitomer (the location of the peace talks) where Chang and his coconspirators are planning another strike…this time an assassination of the Federation president.
A rousing space battle ensues as a pummeled Enterprise and an incoming USS Excelsior gang up on the cloaked Klingon ship and fire plasma-seeking torpedoes to negate her invisibility advantage. Together they destroy the vessel, and a madly Shakespeare-quoting General Chang in the process (once again, Meyer loves those classics…)
Immediately afterward, the two captains and their officers beam down to Khitomer, just in time to prevent to the Federation president’s assassination. The plot is exposed, the conspirators are taken into custody and a grateful assembly of delegates applauds the actions of the heroic starship officers.
Back aboard the Enterprise, Kirk records his final captain’s log, as the Enterprise flies off towards the “second star to the right, and straight on till morning…” ; a reference to “Peter Pan” (yet another classic literature reference).
A Tale Of Two Countries.
There are currently two mass-marketed versions of TUC on video; the original theatrical version which is on blu-ray, and a slightly longer director’s cut on a special edition 2-disc DVD (it was also on laserdisc, minus a few extra seconds).
The director’s cuts additional scenes include a scene with Rene Auberjonois (later to play “Odo” on Deep Space Nine) playing a Federation conspirator named “Colonel West” (a riff on former Iran-Contra conspirator Col. Oliver North), who is briefing the president on a proposal to rescue Kirk and McCoy from Rura Penthe. There is also a scene of Scotty confirming the ship’s full complement of torpedoes, as well as Valeris confirming the ascension of Azetbur to the office of high chancellor. Another minor change made specifically for the 2003 DVD (not on the 1992 laserdisc) was the inclusion of near subliminal images of Admiral Cartwright, General Chang and Romulan ambassador Nonclus flashing onscreen during Spock’s forced mind-meld with Valeris.
Finally, there is a “Scooby Doo”-style reveal near the end after the attempted Khitomer assassination where the dead would-be Klingon assassin is unmasked and revealed to be the aforementioned human Col. North.
The two versions of TUC are also framed differently, since the movie was shot in Super 35, which was often cropped vertically to fit a wider movie screen and opened up to a full frame for home video release. The DVD director’s cut gives a bit more vertical information on screen (a 2:1 ratio) while the blu ray offers less information top-to-bottom, leaving a wider 2.35:1 horizontal ratio. Given that my main TV is only 43″ diagonal? I prefer the version that gives more information onscreen, which is the director’s cut DVD. The DVD version was apparently struck from a brighter, more colorful print as well; the blu-ray’s color looks a bit too muted. Personal tastes can and will vary…
An Imperfect Country.
As much as I love TUC, it is not without its flaws. None of them really wreck my enjoyment too much (save for the aforementioned ‘mind rape’ of Valeris), but they’re there nevertheless…
— The ‘viridium patch.’
The viridium patch (a slightly reworked real-world element, like ‘dilithium’ instead of lithium) slapped on Kirk’s back is a wise precaution by Spock, but it only works if you assume Kirk would be allowed to wear his own uniform while in Klingon custody. What if he were forced to change into prison duds? I can name more than a few episodes where Kirk lost or damaged his uniform. It only works by sheer coincidence.
It’s hardly a stretch to deduce that Valeris is the Enterprise’s lead conspirator since she is the only new main character we see on the Enterprise. It would’ve been more effective if the conspirator character had been Lt. Saavik (Spock’s protege from “The Wrath of Khan”), as originally intended. Having a beloved character from three prior movies (II-IV) exposed as the traitor would’ve been far more dramatically effective.
As it is, making the conspirator a newbie kills any pretense of mystery. However, the late (great) Leonard Nimoy plays Spock’s betrayal well enough to make it work.
— General Chang.
While Christopher Plummer gives a generally enjoyable performance as the maniacal, one-eyed General Chang, there are times when he dials it up to 11. Chang’s random quoting of various Shakespearean passages during the final spaceship attack feels like a rejected New York theater actor reciting lines to a casting director’s window at one o’ clock in the morning. Plummer’s Chang is far more effective in his quieter, more subtle moments. The character works overall, but there are times when he’s just a bit too much. Sometimes less truly is more.
Why I love my “Country”…
— Captain Hikaru Sulu, commanding.
Sulu’s promotion to Captain of the USS Excelsior is great on multiple levels. It allows the criminally underused (and charismatic) George Takei to have a much greater role in the story (and the action). It also opens up future story possibilities that were later touched upon in Star Trek: Voyager (season 3’s “Flashback”) and in the wonderful fan film, Star Trek New Voyages/Phase II:”World Enough and Time.” To those who haven’t seen “World Enough and Time”, you can find it on YouTube and it is well-worth a look. In my humble opinion, it is Takei’s best turn as Hikaru Sulu, and it is elegantly bookended with scenes of Sulu as captain of the USS Excelsior.
— Klingon Perestroika.
TUC also completes Kirk’s arc with the Klingons that began in the original series and reached a deadly head in “The Search For Spock”, when Klingons killed Kirk’s son David Marcus. Having an old ‘cold warrior’ like Kirk and his shipmates finally coming to terms with their own prejudices regarding their mortal foes was a great way for the TOS adventures to come to a close. While the Cold War plot line is arguably dated today, the struggle with prejudice is (sadly) still relevant, and TUC still works very well in dealing with it head on. As much as Meyer’s previous “The Wrath of Khan”, TUC nicely ties in the old series with the movies and ends a previously open plot thread. The embryonic Klingon peace overtures also paves the way for their future alliances with the Federation, as predicted in TOS’ “Errand of Mercy” and seen in The Next Generation, with Lt. Worf.
— Cliff Eidelman’s musical score.
When you hear Cliff Eidelman’s moody, contemplative, decidedly non-heroic theme during the opening credits (a radical departure from Trek movies past) you realize you’re in for something quite different, musically-speaking. Eidelman makes his audience work for their supper; dishing out the bells-and-whistles heroic themes near the very end, when they feel truly earned. Eidelman’s music during the Rura Penthe escape feels simultaneously epic and intimate (quite a trick for the then-26 year old composer). He also gives a nice bold, wave to Alexander Courage’s original series theme, but only as we see William Shatner’s signature over the end credits (another nice touch; the cast ‘autographs’ during the closing credits). The composer teases out the grandiose bits sparingly, making one appreciate them all the more when they happen. Cliff Eidelman’s score is a sophisticated model of both melancholy and restraint.
— TUC subtly passes the baton.
The addition of Colonel Worf (Next Generation’s Michael Dorn, playing his character’s own ancestor), the imminent decommissioning of the USS Enterprise-A, and Kirk’s final log entry gracefully acknowledge all of the newer incarnations of Star Trek that will continue to follow long after Kirk and company permanently holster their phasers.
Final log entry.
Star Trek series’ creator Gene Roddenberry, who passed away shortly before the film’s release in 1991, allegedly had issues with his classic characters coming off as bigots. Writers Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin-Flynn (with a somewhat contested credit given to the writing team of Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner) took a chance by making the Enterprise regulars seem a bit more flawed with their prejudices against the Klingons. Even actress Nichelle Nichols refused to say a thankfully excised line of dialogue regarding the Klingons (“Yes, but would you want your daughter to marry one?” ). While I’m glad little battles (such as Nichols’ excised line) were won to preserve the overall likability of the main characters, I also think having them face their own demons was very much in keeping with the original series. Classic Star Trek usually dealt with the Enterprise crew learning something new about themselves whenever they encountered a new or adversarial culture (“Errand of Mercy” “Arena” “Spectre of the Gun”). TUC takes this idea to its logical conclusion… the beginnings of peace with the Federation’s longtime mortal foe, the Klingons.
TUC is usually my ‘comfort food’ Star Trek movie; it’s the one I reach for when I want a Trek movie that pushes all the right buttons. If I want a dark horse, there’s “The Wrath of Khan.” If I want comedy, there’s “The Voyage Home.” If I want unabashed heroics, there’s “The Search For Spock.” If I want pure science-fiction, there’s “The Motion Picture.” But when I crave a grand celebration of all-things Star Trek? I usually reach for “The Undiscovered Country.” It deals with such classic Trek issues; overcoming prejudice, accepting change, embracing the future, etc. It also says ‘goodbye’ to the original crew’s adventures with just the right level of sentiment (made more bittersweet when you realize how many of the movie’s beloved cast members are gone). It’s too bad the equally deserving “Next Generation” cast never got such a graceful theatrical sendoff.
As retirement parties go, “The Undiscovered Country” is a classy affair.
Screencaps courtesy of http://trekcore.com