Should I Watch..? Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
What's the big deal?
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a sci-fi adventure thriller released in 1991 and is based on the Star Trek TV series created by Gene Roddenberry, who died shortly before this film premiered. Obviously, the film is the sixth in the series and the last to feature the original cast of the show. The movie follows Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise as they unmask a conspiracy to derail peace talks between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, a story written to parallel real-life events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Released to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the TV series, the film received a warm reception from critics and went on to earn a respectable $96.8 million worldwide as well as two Academy Award nominations.
What's it about?
The Klingon moon Praxis is practically destroyed in a catastrophic explosion, the shockwave so vast that it disturbs the Federation starship USS Excelsior, commanded by Hiraku Sulu. The resulting devastation to the Klingon homeworld forces the Klingons into seeking peace with their long-time adversary, the Federation. With peace talks due to begin on Earth, the Enterprise is assigned to escort the Klingon Chancellor and his representatives from Kronos although many of the crew including Captain James T. Kirk are far from happy about it.
After a dinner hosted on board the Enterprise, two photon torpedoes are apparently fired from the Enterprise and disable the gravity on board Chancellor Gorkon's battleship, allowing two assassins in Federation uniforms to board the vessel and mortally wound the Chancellor. Fearing that all-out war might erupt on the eve of potential peace, Kirk and Doctor McCoy are arrested by Klingon General Chang and taken away for trial. Back on the Enterprise, it falls to Spock and the others to investigate what really happened before their colleagues pay the ultimate price...
Captain James T. Kirk
Doctor Leonard McCoy
Captain Hiraku Sulu
Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flynn *
Release Date (UK)
14th February, 1992
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Academy Award Nominations
Best Makeup, Best Sound Effects Editing
What's to like?
I have always maintained that this was the best Star Trek film with the original crew, even better than the highly regarded The Wrath Of Khan (1). For the first time in the series, the effects are first class - the initial murder on board a Klingon battleship adrift in zero gravity is one of the best looking sequences in any Trek flick as purple Klingon blood floats across the screen. But there is a genuine imagination in the picture from the icy wastes of Rura Penthe to the various creatures making up the Federation. It looks like a real effort was put into making the picture feel like a believable world and it pays off.
Director Meyer, returning to direct in the franchise for the first time since Wrath Of Khan, knows exactly how to get the best out of the cast and delivers a Trek film that balances the tension and excitement with humour. Shatner is a little hammy here but the rest of the cast deserve high praise, especially the newcomers like Plummer and Cattrall. Plummer's Chang is a seriously good villain, providing one of the franchise's more memorable baddies. One suspects that they were assisted by a script which is both intelligent and easily understandable, especially given the real-world events the film acts as an allegory for. This is the first film in the series that actually acts as proper science fiction as opposed to generic "sci-fi", holding a mirror up to contemporary society and its issues like racism (sadly, all too relevant these days) and change. It's such a refreshing change that you wonder why they didn't do it like this sooner.
- The film contains numerous references and excerpts of Shakespeare, mostly from Plummer as General Chang. Even the title is based on Hamlet. Screenwriter Flinn was unsure about having so much dialogue based on the Bard but when Plummer was cast, director Meyer insisted on as much as possible.
- The film marks the final film appearance of Kelley and Mark Lenard who reprises as Spock's father, Sarek. A photo of Merrick Butrick, who played Kirk's son David in Wrath Of Khan and The Search For Spock (2), is also displayed on Kirk's desk as Butrick died in 1989.
- Christian Slater has a brief cameo as an officer on the USS Excelsior and wore Shatner's trousers that were made for him for Wrath Of Khan. He later quipped that it was an honour to get into Shatner's pants.
What's not to like?
The film does sag a little in the middle, especially concerning Kirk and McCoy's time on Rura Penthe which feels a little like filler. It distracts from the central mystery on board the Enterprise and by splintering the film off into two different narratives, it weakens the tension in both. The humour is also a little off-putting, although it is actually pretty good in places. Traditional stooges like Doohan and Koenig have their moments but it feels clunky and a little forced.
The difference in quality between this and the previous entry in the series, the historically hideous The Final Frontier (3), cannot be understated though. This isn't just a great Trek movie but a great movie in its own right, jettisoning the more goofy elements that had plagued the franchise over a couple of films in favour of clever story-telling and a cast determined to go out on a high after many years of service. When Spock asks Kirk if they have grown old that they have outlived their usefulness, it's hard not to think that Nimoy and Shatner are discussing themselves.
Should I watch it?
Unusually for this franchise, it is probably the first film that you actually want to watch. Imaginative, incisive and thoroughly enjoyable, this rollicking swansong is a superb way to bid farewell to the original cast after a quarter of a century of service. Combining the series' insight into society with its trademark sense of humour, The Undiscovered Country remains arguably the best Trek film made so far because I'm struggling to think of any other film which has come this close.
Great For: Trekkers, early Nineties audiences, a cast desperate for retirement
Not So Great For: Soviet audiences, people who prefer Star Wars (4), anyone who misses the original cast
What else should I watch?
The first Trek movies have a wide and varied quality to them, ranging from the insane to the dull to the fantastic. The best two are this and Wrath Of Khan, a gripping duel amid the stars between Kirk and an unforgettable Ricardo Montalban as arch-nemesis Khan. At the other end of the scale, The Final Frontier is a bonkers trip to the middle of the galaxy to meet God while the head-scratching fourth film The Voyage Home (5) sees the crew travel back in time to rescue some humpback whales for some reason.
After Shatner and the rest had finally been dragged off stage, it left the set free for the crew of the recently launched Star Trek: The Next Generation to launch a mini-series of films featuring themselves. The first of these, Star Trek Generations (6), was a not-so-subtle attempt at bringing the two captains together but worked well enough as a sci-fi slice of hokey adventure. The best film with the Next Gen crew was probably First Contact (7), a film which finally put the Borg on the big screen as they attempted to prevent mankind ever setting off into space. These days, of course, audiences have an entirely new timeline to immerse themselves in with the likes of Chris Pine and Zachery Quinto. Star Trek (8) was a bold relaunch for the USS Enterprise with big effects but sadly, not much going on story-wise.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox