Coming off the back of the creative and box office misfire of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier“, the franchise was in the doldrums as it headed towards its 25th Anniversary. Paramount itself was on an austerity drive due to a series of high profile flops (“Star Trek V” wasn’t actually one of them. Although it significantly underperformed, “The Final Frontier” still made back nearly three times its production budget). Having fired Harve Bennett, producer of the last four films, the studio turned to the man who had inexpensively saved the franchise once before: Nicholas Meyer. Working with Leonard Nimoy, the two of them came up with a story to act as both a celebration of the past 25 years of “Star Trek” and a capstone for the adventures of the original cast. As with “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” which was dedicated to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” also carries a dedication: to the memory of Gene Rodenberry who died shortly before the film’s premiere.
When the Klingon Empire suffers a catastrophic environmental accident, they are forced to the negotiating table to make peace with the Federation in order to survive. However, forces on both sides oppose the truce and will stop at nothing to ensure the outbreak of a galactic war. Dragged out of retirement for one last mission, Captain James T Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise must navigate treacherous interstellar diplomacy and unmask the conspirators before it’s too late.
Meyer proves himself once again to be a master of economical filmmaking and while the budget for this instalment was one of the tightest yet, it looks sensational. The Enterprise interiors, many of them redresses of existing “Next Generation” sets, are well designed and expertly lit, giving the ship a harder, more lived-in aesthetic. The bridge has never looked better than it does in this film, with more subdued and subtle illumination, redesigned control panels and a grittier, more functional feeling. Despite the constrained budget, the film feels exotic and expansive with scenes of Klingon courtrooms, icy prison planets and, of course, two starships for the price of one. [Fun fact: at the UK theme park ‘Chessington World Of Adventures’, there’s a ride called ‘The Vampire’. While you’re queuing to board the ride, the sound the ride makes as it winches the cars to the start of the ride sounds exactly like the noise made in the Klingon court as Kirk and McCoy are brought in for judgement. True story.]
Meyer’s knack for casually coining names and places within Trek lore comes to the fore again and in a few lines, the Klingon penal asteroid of Rura Penthe attains the feel of something legendary within the Trek universe that we’ve been waiting to see on screen for years. While the prison planet’s name may owe something to the 1954 movie “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, most of Meyer’s dialogue inspiration is once again literary, this time from the Bard of Avon himself (with a garnish of Conan Doyle). The dialogue is liberally seasoned with Shakespeare quotes and, in a metatextual wink the characters even discuss Shakespeare at a simultaneously amusing and tense dinner scene.
While there are several racial undertones to the plot, the principal allegory in “The Undiscovered Country” is the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a loose metaphor, it works reasonably well although the initial incident which kicks off the action is a little too 1990’s ‘hot button issue’ to age particularly well. Spock advises that the explosion of Praxis, a key energy production facility, has resulted in the deadly pollution of their ozone (what does that actually mean?) which means there are only fifty years before the planet is uninhabitable. While this would be a sizeable blow, it’s difficult to believe that the loss of one moon and one habitable planet, albeit the homeworld, would bring the Klingon Empire to its knees – unless the “Empire” is extremely small. Luckily, the story doesn’t dwell too much on this aspect and once the ‘incident’ has occurred, the story races forward without looking back to examine the credibility of its own scientific MacGuffin.
The opening effect of Praxis’ destruction is spectacular and was so effective it went on to become a commonly used special effect, notably being added to the “Star Wars” Special Editions whenever a Death Star explosion required needless enhancement. It’s a jarringly abrupt start to the film and a perfect opportunity to introduce us to the changes in status quo since we last hung out with our heroes, such as the USS Excelsior having a new Captain – Hikaru Sulu. As with his previous directorial effort, Meyer keeps the plot moving along at a brisk pace without it ever being at the expense of character. There’s a strong plot but the story moves most effectively through a keen understanding of who the characters are, why we love them and what makes good drama. With humour and action aplenty, there are enough twists and turns to satisfy every fan, culminating in a thrilling final showdown involving the Enterprise, the Excelsior and a deadly new prototype Klingon warbird.
The cast, perhaps in acknowledgement that for most of them this would be their last hurrah, give it their all with Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nicholls and James Doohan delivering their best work in the movies. Nimoy and Kelley likewise are at the top of their game while George Takei positively revels in his chance to shine as the captain of his own ship. Kim Cattrall as new crew member Valeris fits in so well you’d believe she’d been a member of the crew for ages. Pitted against his old friend Christopher Plummer as the villainous General Chang, William Shatner rises to the occasion and the two of them chew the scenery wonderfully in a welcome pastiche of the Khan/ Kirk dynamic. The supporting cast is pretty impressive too, especially given the frugal production constraints, and there are subtle links between classic Trek and The Next Generation as Grace Lee Whitney, Mark Lenard and Michael Dorn make cameo appearances alongside David Warner (playing a different role from his “Star Trek V” appearance), Rosanna DeSoto, Iman, Brock Peters, Kurtwood Smith and Christian Slater. There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances by Todd Bryant, reprising his role as Captain Klaa (now demoted to a translator) and John Schuck as the rambunctious Klingon ambassador from “The Voyage Home”. If you’re watching the home video release, you’ll also get to see Rene Auberjonois of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as Colonel West.
The score, by Cliff Eidelman, is one of the best of the entire series – and the one I listen to most often. Deliberately darker than previous chapters, it still manages to capture that adventurous Star Trek flavour while reinforcing the sinister and mysterious stakes at play. During the exciting space battle finale, it manages to deliver a rousing background to the explosion action on screen without having to mimic the pomp and grandeur of Jerry Goldsmith or the swashbuckle of James Horner and when it comes time to finally bid our heroes adieu, the music is perfect: joyful and triumphant.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting end to the adventures of the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise than the one served up by Meyer, Shatner, Nimoy & Co. in “The Undiscovered Country”. Freely acknowledging the age of its cast, the film turns this into a virtue, producing a thoughtful and intelligent meditation on prejudice, progress and change with a theatrical and Shakespearean flair, action, comedy and intrigue. As it was their final appearance together, it’s worth touching on one very tired Trek stereotype: despite their unfair reputations as limited, hammy actors there’s never once a hint on the screen of the very real animosity many of the cast felt towards each other over the years – not a sign. We utterly believe in the camaraderie of these heroes and as Kirk utters the final command to set course for the ‘Second Star to the right; and straight on ’til morning!’ we want to believe that they will live on forever. “Star Trek” movies would never be this good again.