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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains spoilers. ... Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country PG, 113 minutes Film released 12/6/1991 (USA) Screenplay Nicholas Meyer &
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 17, 2004
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      Warning: This review contains spoilers.


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      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
      film series.

      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
      Klingon."

      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
      (Kurtwood Smith).

      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
      tie-in.

      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
      being enemies.

      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
      so satisfying.

      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
      mood.

      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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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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