"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.