In November, a friend challenged me to watch all six classic Star Trek films starring the original cast before the end of the month. Of course, I accepted, and by the time I finished, I came away with the notion that the series’s final film was the best. Here’s why.
If you’ve ever wondered why so many people treat Star Trek like a religion, it’s because many of its stories harness the storytelling power of allegory. They address real-life scenarios and teach moral lessons by placing the crew in an ethical conundrum that forces them to make hard choices and where there are often no good answers.
Classic examples of allegorical storytelling in Trek include “The Doomsday Machine,” which used an allegory of a planet-killing entity for the destructive power of an H-Bomb. “A Private Little War” saw the Klingons and the Federation provide primitive cultures with advanced weaponry as an allegory for the ongoing Vietnam War, where the Americans and the Soviet Union were locked in a proxy battle using the Vietnamese as stand-ins. And “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” addressed the racial tensions in 1960s America.
These allegories were sorely missing in Star Trek films. When they did address current-day topics, like in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, no allegory was employed. Rather, they spelled out that humans killed all the Humpback Whales, and it was necessary to travel back in time to get some back to save Earth from a mysterious probe looking for them. And while Voyage Home is a great watch, it often feels hamfisted with its messaging. “Save the whales” might as well have been plastered all over the screen.
The allegory in Star Trek VI is the ending of the Cold War. And in 1991, that was about as current-day as it got. The premise, as director Nicolas Meyer puts it, was “what if the wall came down in space,” and was inspired by a walk on the beach with Spock actor Leonard Nimoy.
The begging of the film is the Klingon Empire’s (again a stand-in for the Soviet Union with the Federation playing the United States) primary energy production facility exploding, leading to the imminent collapse of the empire, which then reaches out to the Federation for peace negotiations. It’s an obvious nod to the real-life nuclear disaster at Chornobyl in 1986, which kicked off a series of events that eventually led to the collapse of the communist empire.
And in classic Trek fashion, themes of prejudice, aging, faith, hope, and more hang heavy in every scene of the film. Kirk must deal with his bigotry toward Klingons that began when a rouge crew murdered his son David in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Spock faces the challenges of his faith in the logic that “the universe will unfold as it should.” And Dr. McCoy’s surgical skills fail him during his attempt to save the Klingon chancellor after an assassination plot. Every scene in this film is layered with meaning, subtext, and consequence. A thing that several Star Trek films before just don’t replicate.
Some lesser Star Trek films leave you bored and wondering when something important or exciting will happen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V are the worst offenders in this regard. This is not the case in The Undiscovered Country. From the moment Praxis explodes to the moment the Enterprise flies into the sunset, each scene builds upon the last in a tightly-woven, perfectly-paced action-adventure story presented as a political thriller, courtroom drama, prison break film, and murder mystery. No superfluous scenes, throw-away lines of dialogue, or fourth-wall-breaking gags drag the movie from the story unfolding in front of your eyes. It’s a pure gripping story from beginning to end.
And that’s not to say that lighter films like Star Trek IV are an unwelcome change of pace or that the brilliant work in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan doesn’t share a similar gripping structure. It’s simply to say that after five films, Nicholas Meyer and company finally unlocked the formula of a perfect Star Trek film and executed it accordingly.
After three seasons of live television, two years of an animated show, and five films, the original cast of Star Trek is undoubtedly at its best in this film. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForrest Kelly, and the rest wear their characters like a set of old clothes that fit perfectly but somehow retain their sense of newness. However, the ancillary cast is arguably the best casting decision ever made in a Star Trek film. Here’s a rundown of the guest stars in The Undiscovered Country:
Christopher Plummer as General Chang: For my money, Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music is the most brilliantly portrayed Klingon in all of Star Trek. He’s not the bloodthirsty warrior like Christopher Lloyd’s Captain Kruge in Star Trek III and Todd Bryant’s Captain Klaa in Star Trek V. Instead, he’s cold, calculating, and refined. Versed in the classics of Earth’s literature, he’s constantly quoting Shakespeare in a way only a classically trained actor can. Chang rivals Khan from Star Trek II as one of the greatest Trek villains of all time.
Kim Cattrall as Lt. Valeris: The future Sex in The City star brings grace and femininity to the often stodgy Vulcan species. And those aspects of her character complement the cool logic of the race in a way hasn’t been replicated in the franchise since (sorry, T’Pol). Her character was initially written to be the return of fan-favorite Lt. Saavik. However, the character was changed when Kirstie Alley and Robin Curtis proved unavailable to reprise the role. And that’s a good thing, as the character’s resolution wouldn’t have sat well with long-time fans of the franchise.
Kurtwood Smith as The President of the United Federation of Planets: In addition to being a murder-mystery sci-fi action adventure film, The Undiscovered Country is an intergalactic political drama that involves the highest levels of the Federation government. The movie’s events require the intervention (or non-intervention) of the rarely depicted president of the Federation, and Kurtwood Smith brings poise and gravitas to the role. And with his alien makeup, you won’t even recognize him as Red from That ’70s Show.
David Warner as Chancellor Gorkon: Star Trek is famous for reusing actors in different roles across films and series. We last saw David Warner in Star Trek V as St. John Talbot. A rather forgettable part. In The Undiscovered Country, he plays the stand-in for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And he brings dignity and solemnity to the role. And the weight of the character’s death early in the film fills the rest of the movie with a sense of dire consequence and high stakes.
Brock Peters as Admiral Cartwright: We last saw this character in Star Trek IV, but he didn’t have a large part. And while Admiral Cartwright is only in a handful of scenes in this film, it’s good to see a returning face. Peters brings a sense of continuity between the movies and contributes heavily to the themes of prejudice and war. He commands attention in every scene he appears in.
Notable smaller parts in the film include the return of Grace Lee Whitney, reprising her role of Janice Rand on board the Sulu-commanded U.S.S. Excelsior, and Michael Dorn portraying Colonel Worf, the namesake of the actor’s famous Next Generation character. Plus, we see
Iman as the shapeshifting siren Martia and Christian Slater, who has a cameo as a crewman that gets snapped at by Captain Sulu in one of the tensest moments in the film. And finally, we’re treated to Gorkon’s daughter, Azetbur, played by Rosanna DeSoto, as well as René Auberjonois (who would later go on to play Odo in Deep Space Nine) as Colonel West.
It can’t be overstated how vital the Starship Enterprise is to Star Trek. However, it might interest you to know that in all the classic Trek films up to this point, there has always been something wrong with the ship that kept it from performing at full capacity. In The Motion Picture, it wasn’t ready for action and had to launch prematurely. In The Wrath of Khan, it was crewed by Starfleet cadets when it was called into action. In The Search for Spock, the ship was still severely damaged from the battle in the previous film. The Enterprise didn’t even appear until the final moments of The Voyage Home on account of being destroyed in The Search for Spock. In The Final Frontier, the new Enterprise wasn’t ready for action and constantly glitched and sputtered out. The Undiscovered Country, ironically, is the only time in the films we see the Enterprise operating as it should with an entire crew of trained Starfleet officers onboard.
As crucial as the Enterprise is to Star Trek, Starfleet is even more so. And portraying them as qualified semi-military professionals is one of the things that Star Trek VI does wonderfully. A thousand little moments show how every character is immersed in the Starfleet organization. For instance, there’s a short scene where Captain Kirk enters the bridge of the Enterprise, and Lt. Valeris calls out “Captain on the Bridge” and rises to her feet.
After a brief exchange with Kirk and Spock, they return to the technical business of launching the Enterprise from spacedock. The nautical commands Kirk gives, like “one-quarter impulse power” to leave the docking station and Valeris reminding him that Starfleet regulations stipulate “thrusters only while is spacedock,” shows that these characters live and breathe the world of Starfleet and that they’re committed to its mission and ideals. The film is filled with small nods like this and sells the notion of a highly professional crew, which is often missing from other films and TV shows that treat them as an afterthought or use them flippantly.
The writing in this film is arguably the tightest and most compelling of any movie in the franchise. As I mentioned before, the film is a slow burn that doesn’t let up or give you satisfaction until the very end scene. But even among those scenes, a bunch stand out as classic Trek moments.
For instance, the briefing scene that lays out the mission Captain Kirk and company must undertake to bring the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council to Earth for peace negotiations is a masterclass of minimal filmmaking and perfectly lays out the emotional stakes of the film. It ends with a rare confrontation between Kirk and Spock when the Vulcan implores the Captain to consider that the Klingons are dying. “Let them die!” Kirk exclaims. Nothing could lay out his feelings more clearly.
Another classic scene for the Trek ages is the one depicting the State dinner on board the Enterprise, where the top officers of the ship host the Klingon delegation to a spread of blue food. This scene conveys the Klingon side of the stakes, as General Chang puts it, “To be, or not to be. That is the question which preoccupies our people, Captain Kirk.” Of course, he follows up with, “we need breathing room,” to which Kirk replies, “Earth, Hitler, 1938,” showing again precisely how he feels toward the Klingon Empire.
Who could forget the trial scene where Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy are wrongly condemned for assassinating Chancellor Gorkon? Christopher Plummer chews the scenery in the best way possible as he grills the two Starfleet officers while quoting Shakespeare yet again. “What would your favorite author say, Captain? Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings?” And then, he proceeds to lay out Kirk’s supposed motives for murdering the Chancellor as revenge for the death of his son. It’s chilling stuff and executed brilliantly. It’s also the moment we learn what the “T.” stands for in “James T. Kirk.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the climatic space battle between the Enterprise and Chang’s cloaked Bird of Prey, with Captain Sulu’s Excelsior coming in at the last second for an assist. While space battles are a staple of Star Trek films, they’re used sparingly throughout the film franchise up to this point. In The Motion Picture, the Enterprise fires a weapon precisely one time.
The battles in the Wrath of Khan are slow burns that don’t involve a lot of weapons fire. The battle in The Search for Spock involved a single exchange of phaser power. The Voyage Home doesn’t even have a space battle. In The Final Frontier, a Bird of Prey stalks the Enterprise throughout the film, but the climactic battle never happens. So, it’s refreshing to see The Enterprise locked in a true-blue battle with a Klingon ship, even though it is invisible. “I can see you, Kirk,” Chang taunts over the Enterprise comm system, “Can you see me?”
I can already hear many of you thinking, “Well, this is all fine. But can’t you also apply most of these points to Star Trek II?” After all, they have the same director, and the events of Wrath of Khan set up nearly everything that happens in subsequent films. I agree with this notion to an extent. However, there are slight flaws in Wrath that technically give Undiscovered Country the edge. For example, the matte paintings aren’t always top-notch and take away from the believability of some of the scenes. The central theme of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one” is contrived. There’s no reason for Spock to have said that phrase when it was first uttered. And while these are quibbles with that film, I need to point them out because I know I have to justify ranking this film over Wrath in the minds of those who will read this.
Throughout the film series, growing old and fulfilling your true purpose in life is a recurring theme. Captain Kirk is constantly struggling with his rank, position, and age. So, it’s fitting that we see his final commands as the film’s last scene once the Enterprise crew has “saved civilization as we know it.” As Checkov puts it, “So, this is goodbye,” and Uhura receives an order to return to spacedock to be decommissioned. To put a bow on the aging theme, Kirk’s last order is to set a course of “second star to the right and straight on til morning.” Followed by his last Captain’s Log officially relinquishing the Enterprise and her history to the next generation to boldly go where no one has gone before.