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a review of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
by D.G. Littleford
to be published in ANTARES 16, April 2007

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was the movie that showed the fans that the "suits" at Paramount had hearts after all. Following the disappointment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, The Powers That Be decided that the characters of the Classic Trek era should go out on a higher note, especially as the 25th anniversary of Star Trek was approaching. In their infinite wisdom, they returned to the creative folk who had brought success in the past. Leonard Nimoy was tapped for an Executive Producer and Nicolas Meyer was brought back to write and direct. The story was derived from current events, also a previously successful Trek element, in this case an allegory for "the Wall coming down", the end of the Cold War.

The combination of script, cinematography, and design gives us much that is memorable. The film starts literally with a Bang, as a catastrophic explosion threatens the existence of the Klingon homeworld. The Enterprise is chosen to escort the Klingon Chancellor through Federation space to a summit where an end to hostilities between the Klingon Empire and the Federation is to be discussed. We learn that Spock has been instrumental in these diplomatic negotiations, while his old friend and commanding officer, James Kirk, is of a more skeptical mind towards this potential change in galactic politics. When the Klingon flagship under their escort is attacked and the chancellor brazenly murdered, the officers and crew of the Enterprise end up in the thick of conspiracy, betrayal, and intrigue.

The Klingons are both familiar and also broadened and deepened in concept. David Warner as Chancellor Gorkon is a sympathetic pragmatist as a parallel to Soviet leader Gorbachev. Christopher Plummer as General Chang is an intelligent and cunning foe, with a fondness for quoting Shakespeare. Their padded leather, militaristic yet exotic costumes are... well...really cool.

The attack on the Klingons in Zero-Gravity is a remarkable sequence and the courtroom scene on Kronos is visually stunning. Spectacular Alaskan location shots intercut with interior cavern and set pieces give the prison gulag of Rura Penthe the feeling of being a truly cold, strange, and dangerous place.

There is a rich texture to the dialogue as Meyers and writing partner Denny Martin Flinn ground the story in history, both political and personal, comparing Kirk with Nixon going to China, and Chang with Hitler’s desire for "breathing room." We are reminded of the death of Kirk’s son at the hands of the Klingons, the demotion of Admiral Kirk to captain, and the death of Spock in Star Trek movies II, III, and IV.

The music is darker than in past Trek adventures, underscoring the more dramatic subject matter. There is lighter counterpoint, however, with a sprinkling of humor throughout that is mostly character driven. Meyer’s quirky sense of humor is seen in his giving the Klingons a love for Shakespeare (a twist on the story of an Aryan remark, "You’ve not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read it in the original German"). The inclusion certainly raises the movie’s literary quotient, although by movie’s end I have to agree with Bones, "I’d give real money if he would shut up!"

Of course, the central reason for my viewing any Star Trek film, is to see "our old friends", the crew of the Enterprise, go through their paces one more time, and they do not disappoint. The Trek veterans--William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig--are utterly comfortable reprising their roles, and conveyed what appeared to be a genuine camraderie.

The relationship between Kirk and Spock took an interesting turn initially with their disagreement over galactic-politics, although their mutual trust returns before long. Kirk depends on Spock to get himself and the doctor out of any trouble they will encounter on Gorkon’s ship. Spock anticipates Kirk’s escape from prison. Together with McCoy, they employ a favorite tactic of deception to flush out who is behind the attack and murder. The "Dining on Ashes" scene makes for a charming coda for these two characters, with defining commentary on their long experience of working with one another.

The rest of the Trek regulars are also copiously and respectably featured in Star Trek VI. McCoy accompanies Kirk to the Klingon ship and into prison, providing his usual incisive observations. Scotty champions the innocence of the Enterprise photon torpedoes. Uhura is the lioness at the gate for information both coming in and going out, privy to Spock’s method for keeping tabs on the captain. Chekov figures prominently in the shipwide search for evidence. Sulu gets a promotion and is captain of the Excelsior. All play integral roles in the enfolding action, and all but Sulu are highlighted in the delectably less-than-diplomatic dinner scene with Gorkon’s staff.

We are also treated to brief cameos by other old friends, Mark Lenard as Sarek and Grace Lee Whitney’s Janice Rand serving as communications officer on the Excelsior. Brock Peters reprises his role as Admiral Cartwright; and other human, Klingon, and alien characters flesh out this futuristic world.

I have to say I personally found their new Vulcan co-star Lieutenant Valeris, as played by Kim Cattrall, somewhat irritating. I was not really sorry to see her and her funky hair band unmasked as a conspirator. The Spock-Valeris mind meld, nevertheless, was another riveting and well-portrayed scene. The first time I saw it in the theatre, my usually very mild mannered companion shouted right out loud as Spock approached for this intense Vulcan interrogation.

I should mention here that extra footage has been added back in for the DVD, creating a slightly different movie than was its theatrical release. There are included more of the harsh racial slurs against the Klingons, bringing out more bitingly the theme of prejudice. The extra footage also makes it clear that the conspiracy was between members of Starfleet as well as the Klingon High Command. Faces intercut into the Spock-Valeris mind meld become a double-edged sword, unfortunately, reminding us who these supporting characters were, while diminishing the intensity of that scene.

Even so, there is so much in The Undiscovered Country that is good that it is easy to overlook most of its flaws, such as the campiness of some of the humor, a phaser cabinet conveniently in the galley, or the Federation having what should be a classified briefing with a Romulan ambassador in the room. My biggest complaint, however, is with the climactic space battle.

This was Kirk’s Last Space Battle. The series depicted the starship captain as a skilled and imaginative tactician. Chang’s verbal exchanges with Kirk in the early part of the film foreshadow an eventual showdown between the two military luminaries. When the inevitable showdown comes, it is really unforgivable that Kirk isn’t given anything more inspired to do than "back up". Now I don’t begrudge Spock and Uhura coming up with the idea that delivers the final blow to Chang’s ship, as Enterprise successes were always a joint effort. But it is so out of character for Kirk to just wring his hands while his ship gets pounded to pieces in the meantime. When the Excelsior comes on the scene, neither does she do anything productive, except provide a second ship for Chang to pound.

At the very least they could have extrapolated the invisible ship’s trajectory each time it fired, or repeated what Kirk did against the cloaked Romulan Bird of Prey in the "Balance of Terror" episode, where he "laid down a pattern" of pot shots, resulting in an occasional lucky hit. In the TV episode, the Romulan commander called Kirk "a sorcerer," but there is little magic in this movie sequence, except for the spectacle of ship debris being blown into space by the stealth Klingon prototype. I imagine budgetary constraints were to blame for the lack of a more reciprocal fight sequence, but if you’re going to do Trek, I think you have to be prepared to do justice to that obligatory "climactic space battle".

Thankfully, Kirk got to do what he is second most known for. Okay, yes, he got to romance the alien babe. And he also got to give one more of his inspiring speeches, the kind that motivates everyone in the known local galaxy to strive to become more noble, decent people. A "country" and a future well worth discovering.

In its subtle way, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a much better film about Faith than was Final Frontier. As Spock tries to explain to Valeris, "We must have faith…that the Universe will unfold in the way that it should." Whether it is faith in a benevolent design to it all, or faith in one another, it is a timeless message that in these perennially unsettling times continues to resonate. While not flawless, Star Trek VI was a creative and well-executed swan song for the cast of the original, classic—and in the minds of many—the only true Star Trek.

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