Now this is more like it. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country finds the series back on firm ground. Visually, this is the best Trek movie I’ve seen so far, and it’s probably the most accessible. It’s also a thoughtful political fable and a surprisingly involving murder mystery: the Cuban Missile Crisis as a whodunit.
As the movie opens, the Klingon Empire is in deep trouble due to an economic and ecological disaster (an explosion on the moon Praxis, a fuel depot) and an inability to maintain its many space stations and military outposts (gee, sound like any superpowers you know?). Now in a position of weakness, the Klingons agree to make peace with the Federation of Planets. However, Spock volunteers Kirk to lead a mission to escort the Klingon diplomats to Earth, a move that doesn’t please the captain; he’s never gotten over the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons. There are other objectors as well, most vocally Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters), who feels the Federation should let the Klingons go extinct.
Though apprehensive, for the sake of potential galactic peace Kirk agrees to rendezvous with the Klingon ambassadors. They include Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner, who was a Federation hostage in The Final Frontier), his daughter Azetbur (Rosanna DeSoto), and General Chang (Christopher Plummer), who immediately arouses Kirk’s suspicions. The parties agree to sit down to dinner, but the meeting is mutually hostile; the Enterprise crew is appalled by the Klingons’ table manners, and the Klingons suspect the Federation looks down on them. Still, there is some common ground; all agree in principle to work toward peace, and that Shakespeare wrote some compelling plays. (Best line in the movie, courtesy of Gorkon: “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”)
After dinner, things quickly go south. Once the Klingons are aboard their ship, they are hit by multiple torpedoes that appear to be coming from the Enterprise. Impossible, insists Scotty; the Enterprise‘s torpedoes are all accounted for. In the meantime, two figures in Federation space suits beam aboard the Klingon vessel, which has lost its onboard gravity, and start blasting everyone in sight, most notably Gorkon (zero gravity Klingon blood kind of resembles the effects in The Lawnmower Man, but it’s cool nonetheless). In a show of solidarity, Kirk and Bones beam aboard to try to help save anyone they can, but Gorkon dies in Bones’ care, and the two are arrested for the attack.
This creates a diplomatic nightmare for the Federation, which wants to rescue Kirk and Bones but don’t want to risk antagonizing the Klingons. Azetbur, now the Klingon chancellor, plays hardball with the Federation, insisting that someone be held accountable for her father’s death and that the peace talks be held somewhere other than Earth. After a show trial (with Chang as a prosecuting attorney), Kirk and Bones are sentenced to life on the frigid gulag planet of Rura Penthe. There, they form an alliance with the shapeshifter Martia (Iman, who exudes the hard-bitten cynicism of a classic femme fatale; why didn’t she get more roles after this?) who offers them a way out. But what is she hiding?
That’s a question that can be asked throughout The Undiscovered Country. Back on the Enterprise, Spock continues the investigation into the identity of the killers. One of the ship’s new charges, Valeris (a pre-cougar Kim Cattrall) appears to be in line to succeed Spock as chief science officer. But, in addition to being a goody-two-shoes, she has a strange air, even for a Vulcan. Back on Rura Penthe, Martia helps spring Kirk and Bones from the joint. After a long trek through the barren landscape, they finally make it to a point outside Klingon control, where they can be beamed up. (I have to tip my hat to the production designers and the tech folks for a job well done; Rura Penthe feels so desolate, and so cold, that I got the shivers). However, Martia has tipped off prison authorities to their whereabouts in hopes of getting an early release, and she intends to make their deaths look like an accident. In one of the movie’s (and the franchise’s) most surreal sequences, she morphs into Kirk’s form, and a Kirk-on-Kirk battle ensues before she’s blasted in the confusion. Thankfully, Spock has been tracking our heroes, and promptly beams them aboard the Enterprise.
The plot thickens. Two assassins suspected in the Klingon massacre are critically wounded aboard the ship, but Kirk and Spock suspect they’re merely fall guys. So they set a trap, holding them in the sickbay and waiting until the assailant returns to make sure they’re dead. (Spoiler alert!) It’s Valeris! It turns out that she’s part of a conspiracy to continue the instability of the galaxy, one that also includes Chang, Cartwright, and a Romulan ambassador. This information is gleaned by Spock in one of the movie’s best (and most cringe-inducing) scenes, in which he forces a mind meld with Valeris (that’s gotta hurt). In addition, the torpedoes were fired by a prototype Bird of Prey that can shoot while cloaked — a breakthrough in interstellar warfare.
What makes these conspiratorial machinations intriguing is the motivations behind them. For Valeris, it’s an attempt to save the Federation; for Cartwright, it’s an act of self-preservation; and for Chang, it’s a way of making chaos reign. In each case, there’s an urge to maintain the status quo, rather than deal with an uncertain future.
The crew hurdles through space in order to impede a plot on the Federation president’s life. Sulu (now the captain of the USS Excelsior) tells them the location of the peace conference, which has been shrouded in secrecy. However, Chang is waiting in his cloaked Bird of Prey, and blasts away at the Enterprise with abandon. Bones and Scotty rig a torpedo to act as a tracer and, discovering Chang’s location, blast him out of the sky. (I’ll admit I got a charge when Kirk shouted “Fire!” with every ounce of Shatnerian gusto in his body.)
At the peace conference, the Enterprise crew reveals the plot on the president’s life moments before it’s to happen (this scene is copped almost shot-for-shot from the climax of The Manchurian Candidate). By thwarting the assassination, Azetbur is grateful to Kirk for continuing her father’s legacy, and Kirk says his son’s has been carried on as well.
As I’ve said before, The Undiscovered Country is the best-looking movie in the series (so far): the special effects are top-notch, the cinematography is often sweeping, and the sets, especially the Enterprise, have never looked more sleek or crisp. It provides the most-three dimensional portrait of the Klingons yet; through the context of the Cold War, their warlike nature (and bruised pride) becomes understandable, even tragic. And the supporting cast is excellent; if previous Treks featured uneven bit players, here virtually everyone is excellent.
An air of poignancy hangs over The Undiscovered Country, not simply because it’s the last feature with the original cast. Before the opening credits, there’s a dedication: “For Gene Roddenberry.” The series creator died a little over a month before The Undiscovered Country‘s release, and if his involvement in the films varied after The Motion Picture, the worlds he created remain seminal to the sci-fi genre to this day.
I have to say I’m sad to see my friends ride off into the sunset. Next up: Star Trek: Generations. Will I be as taken with Jean-Luc Picard, Data, and the rest of the gang? Only time will tell.