Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
PG, 113 minutes
Film released 12/6/1991 (USA)
Screenplay Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn
Story by Leonard Nimoy and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal
Produced by Ralph Winter and Steven-Charles Jaffe
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***
"There is an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China."
So quoth the sage Spock early in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."
It's a sublime line of dialog, cleverly appropriate, because it gets to the
heart of what this film is about while at the same time issuing a wink to
the audience. The line gets a laugh -- not just because it's funny, but also
because it conveys a certain cagey poetry. By the time this film has come
around, as the original cast prepares to retire, Star Trek is a piece of
Americana that has earned its right to be self-referential: Spock isn't
really the one telling the joke, because he exists in a fictional mythos
where Nixon perhaps *is* the inspiration for a Vulcan proverb. Spock
delivers it straight and means it.
The line is said to Kirk, who has just been informed, much to his dismay,
that the Enterprise will be commencing a diplomatic mission to meet with the
Klingons, who have extended their own controversial olive branch under the
initiative of Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), a man genuinely interested
in a historic negotiated peace. Of course, there's also the more pragmatic
impetus: the catastrophic destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis, their key
energy-generating facility, which has exploded in the film's
attention-getting-with-a-bang prologue. The explosion was witnessed by the
captain of the USS Excelsior, Hikaru Sulu.
Starfleet's military hard-liners are not moved, and believe this would be a
good time to force the Klingons "to their knees." In a particularly
interesting choice by the filmmakers, Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters)
makes an argument that predicts how in peace the Klingons will become "the
alien trash of the galaxy." With the line being said by a black actor,
Cartwright's prejudice has a disturbing, ironic dimension -- even though his
race is irrelevant in the movie itself.
Already, in its first 15 minutes, "Trek VI" has shown more legitimate and
literate content than the entire sum of its disastrous predecessor, "Star
Trek V." Where "The Final Frontier" was simultaneously ambitious, misguided,
and incoherent, "The Undiscovered Country" is focused and confident about
something concrete and in tune with the spirit of Star Trek. As was the goal
of many original series episodes, this is a story that exists in the Trek
universe while also reflecting upon contemporary world events.
On the original series, the Klingons were often seen as stand-ins for the
Soviets, and that definitely is an allegorical point here. In 1991, of
course, the Soviet Union collapsed. Yes, it was already well along in its
wane, but the timing is still eerie. "Star Trek VI" was released on December
6. Amid the rapid disintegration around him, Gorbachev resigned as president
of a dead union on December 25.
In the DVD commentary track, writer/director Nicholas Meyer explicitly
admits that Gorkon was supposed to represent Gorbachev, hence the name. And
the destruction of Praxis is a very obvious parallel to the 1986 Chernobyl
disaster. What most characterizes "Star Trek VI" (other than being the
original cast's swan song) is that it's the only historical allegory in the
It's also one of the more demonstratively literate of Trek scripts -- even
if the film's use of Shakespeare is mostly to spice up the taunting dialog
of General Chang (Christopher Plummer). Although, it's Gorkon who says,
"You've not experienced Shakespeare until you've read him in the original
For these and many other reasons, "The Undiscovered Country" ranks on my
scale among the better of the 10 Trek films (at the high end of the
three-star range, it ranks fourth behind "Wrath of Khan," "First Contact,"
and "The Voyage Home"). This is a good, solid film, although not powerful
enough to rank as a standout.
The dinner scene provides a reasonable microcosm of the movie. It's a moment
of good, classic Star Trek if I've ever seen one. Here we have Starfleet and
the Klingons sitting down to a formal dinner on the Enterprise, which
provides the opportunity for some expositional give and take -- an arena for
polemics. Good things are accomplished in this scene: There's Chang saying
"to be or not to be" in Klingon; there's Gorkon's daughter (Rosanna DeSoto)
criticizing Chekov on his use of the phrase "inalienable human rights"; and
there's Kirk's humorously inappropriate blurting of "Earth, Hitler, 1938."
There's also a sense that the scene could've and should've said more. When
McCoy, for example, refutes Kerla's (Paul Rossilli) allegation that peace
means the annihilation of Klingon culture, the moment seems to be building
toward an intriguing debate that never happens. What we end up with in the
dinner scene is solid story texture, but a sequence that might've been even
better with more arguments and specifics.
The subsequent siege on the Klingon ship is an intriguing new spin on
standard Trek battle fare, showing what happens when a ship's
artificial-gravity generators are disabled. Two unidentified assassins beam
aboard the vulnerable ship and kill Gorkon in an attempt to derail the peace
initiative. Gorkon's dying words to Kirk are those of an idealist with
conviction: "Don't let it end this way, captain."
From here, with the plot well under way, we're supplied a lot of story
elements -- so many, in fact, that the movie at times resembles a pastiche.
Not only is it the backstory for TNG's Federation/Klingon political
landscape, it's also a Cold War allegory, a convoluted murder mystery
involving forensic investigation (dried blood, magnetic boots, phantom
ships, etc.), a courtroom drama, a prison movie, and finally a race against
the clock to stop the plotted assassination of the Federation president
Meyer combines these elements into an entertaining story that keeps on
moving, even if some of the pieces feel a little conveniently manipulated or
undercooked. The most obvious example would be the overall use of Valeris
(Kim Cattrall), whose function in the plot comes across as a bit too obvious
and at the same time not strongly enough motivated. This is clearly an
example of the plot leading the character and not vice versa.
One problem might be the fact Valeris was rewritten from what was originally
to be Saavik, reprised by Kirstie Alley, who was unavailable for the role.
I'm not sure why the part wasn't simply recast, especially since the part
had already been previously recast for "Star Trek III." For whatever reason,
we instead have this new Vulcan named Valeris, and the result is a character
that shows all the indicators of having a legitimate history but
nevertheless feels hastily inserted into the franchise. She has significant
dialog with Spock, who is her mentor, but it might've had more natural
impact coming from Saavik.
Since Valeris is the conspirator hidden in plain view, she also becomes one
of those functional constructions whose actions must be maddeningly
reevaluated after her true nature is revealed. It doesn't quite jell. Her
motivation is sketchy, and her knowledge is sometimes too handily scripted.
The way she has Kirk's personal logs used against him in court, for example,
is a stretch (convenient that Kirk said what he said and she happened to be
there to hear it).
Though the movie has its share of plot quirks, it covers a lot of ground
relatively quickly, and most individual scenes work well. When Kirk and
McCoy are arrested and put through a Klingon show trial, the results are
darkly Kafkaesque, with great production design by Herman Zimmerman. (The
scene is so effective as pure atmosphere that it became the basis for
Enterprise's "Judgment" more than a decade later.) While the arguments over
the case facts will not impress viewers of "Law & Order," Meyer and his
co-writer, Denny Martin Flinn, set a high bar for theatrics and charge the
dialog with energy, as in one line shouted by Chang, repurposed from Adlai
E. Stevenson: "Don't wait for the translation! Answer me now!" The use of
Michael Dorn as Colonel Worf, the defense counsel, is a nice generational
Next it's on to Rura Penthe, the brutal, icy penal colony, presided over by
a one-eyed Klingon warden who breaks down the situation economically: "Work
well, and you will be treated well. Work badly, and you will die." In
prison, Kirk and McCoy meet Martia (Iman), a shapeshifter who is
suspiciously prompt in her willingness to help them. She's actually a plant
to lure them into a trap, which leads to a scene where Kirk fights the
shapeshifter, which takes on Kirk's own appearance. Twenty-five years later,
it's shades of "The Enemy Within."
Even the warden is in on the conspiracy, and here there's an amusing moment
of self-parody. When the depth of the conspiracy becomes clear, Kirk asks
the warden: Who set everything in motion? The warden responds, "Since you're
all going to die anyway, why not tell you?"
While Kirk and McCoy face their prison ordeal, Spock works on a plan to try
to get them out, and launches an investigation to prove the Enterprise was
not responsible for firing on Gorkon's ship. The search for the truth
involves clues that lead to more clues, which lead to two bodies, which lead
to Valeris. This is handled reasonably adeptly, although it's worth noting
that the technology on Star Trek is often a flexible device that allows or
prohibits whatever a plot needs. You'd think the disposal of evidence in the
23rd century wouldn't be so hard, but no -- even the use of phasers to
vaporize boots or bodies is circumvented by plot cleverness.
A subsequent ruse uncovers Valeris, which has a good payoff when Spock gets
angry enough to smack a phaser out of her hand. I was less thrilled,
however, by Spock's forced mind-meld on Valeris -- in public view on the
bridge, no less. This makes for a potent scene, yes, but the concept itself
is disturbing, and seems to throw ethics and decency out the window.
Necessary under the circumstances? Perhaps. But no one seems to acknowledge
that it's wrong.
Among the conspirators is General Chang -- no surprise there -- but also
Admiral Cartwright, which shows a corruption in Starfleet that is rarely
seen in Roddenberry's universe. Indeed, this film strays from the
Roddenberry "rules" a bit more than some, but of course it must, because it
is about overcoming the problems that exist today so we might grow tomorrow.
"Klingons and Federation members conspiring together," muses McCoy.
Interesting, how those on both sides with the same military self-interests
are willing to put aside the fact they are enemies in order to continue
The film's climax is skillfully executed as a Ticking Clock Crescendo,
crosscutting between the speeches at the conference and the Enterprise's
battle with Chang's invisible Bird of Prey. Chang, the best Trek villain
after Khan and Dukat, has an engaging flamboyance, quoting lines of
Shakespeare to Kirk in between torpedo volleys. His eventual destruction is
one of the great Trek death scenes -- staged larger than life in its moment
of realization and yet still acted with the right amount of restraint. And
Reverberating here and all throughout the film is Cliff Eidelman's dark and
atmospheric score, which for Trek qualifies as avant-garde. It's one of the
best Trek scores, and the most memorable in terms of confidently staging the
Of course the assassination is stopped at the last possible moment, with a
perfectly timed stunt. Of course Kirk makes a closing speech that moves
everyone. Of course there is a standing ovation that employs the Applause
Crescendo Cliche. Of course it's all obligatory. But the moment has been
earned; the plot has paid its dues and told its tale, and Kirk delivers the
moral of the story -- and not a bad one at that. This is a dignified exit
for this crew.
"Once again, we've saved civilization as we know it," Kirk says. The
writers, and the franchise, have earned that self-aware line. One message of
Star Trek has always been that we can become better as people, and maybe
change the world. Kirk begins "Star Trek VI" with his own deep prejudices;
he couldn't see past the death of his son at the hands of Klingons. He ends
it by helping to realize a Klingon's vision. The film is high on optimism
and sentiment and messages of making a difference. If that sounds like a
Trek cliche, then so be it.
We should be so lucky that our own sagas end this way.
Copyright 2004 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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