Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
I have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish. This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less. It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness. I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.
On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility. This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth. This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons. However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated. A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.
Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first. Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent. Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release. So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together. This is quite a well-made and conceived movie. I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved. They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.
Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film. The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant. This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals. The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl. This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general. For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all. Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them. He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.
This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast. Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax. Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.” It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye. It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior. I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock. It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.
Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages. The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller. The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial. The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual. What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency. I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie. If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot. The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.
Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film. In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie. As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film. In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime. There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position. He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act. And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner. There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.
Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film. It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence. While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home. It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock. Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with. Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting. It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously. If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.
Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery. Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience. They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous. The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension. The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise. No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings. The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters. Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight. In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation. I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on. In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.
My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons. While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal. While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in. Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge. It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort. They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design. Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat. We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period. However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste. The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated. The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there. While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals. Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely. At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents. The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture. The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down. They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery. It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons. They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise. At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon. Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release. I agree with him as well. Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.
Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film. Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with. He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality. He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor. Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal. He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling. However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare. The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly. Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays. I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting. The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work. When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose. His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments. They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan. With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly. They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film. He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying. This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax. Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”
The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan. It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material. Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script. Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own. He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great. It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.
The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon. Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance. However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film. His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values. Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period. This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script. Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope. This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.
I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques. This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film. Production values are great as is the cinematography. This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style. The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all. Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially. Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout. The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison. Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within. There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself. These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace. Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk. The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.
The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise. Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2. Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film. All other effects are superb. The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully. The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note. All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.
With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film. Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money. It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story. He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments. When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score. His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.
I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie. I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have. Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement. It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today. Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace. These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie. While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level. As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters. It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details. This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek. I give it a very strong recommendation. Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.