After Shatner’s wobby-but-easy-to-appreciate take on the franchise we’re back with “safer” hands as Nicholas Meyer and Leonard Nimoy return to helm the TOS crew’s final outing. But will “safe” be a synonym for “dull” or will The Undiscovered Country deserve its place in the pantheon of good Star Trek films?
Pre-Existing Prejudices: Alongside The Wrath Of Khan this is, I know, generally regarded as the strongest of the TOS outings. It’s one I’ve always had a lot of appreciation for, though as with most of the TOS films it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen it so I’ve no idea whether my warm fuzzy memories are in any way justified.
What’s It All About, JG?
A Klingon moon explodes, scattering shards of exposition to the far corners of the galaxy. The Klingons can no longer afford a war economy so the first, fragile steps towards reconciliation are being made as Kirk & Co are sent to ferry the Klingon ambassador, Gorkon, to the peace conference. The Klingon ship is fired on, the ambassador, is assassinated and Kirk and McCoy are framed for the crime. While they’re shipped off to a dilithium mines to have some shenanigans with a shape-changing supermodel, Spock investigates the assassination. Turns out a new Bird Of Pray can fire while cloaked and Spock’s protégé, Valeris, is caught up in a conspiracy to ensure the peace never happens. It all ends in a big space battle, a rush to stop the President of the Federation being bumped off as well, and enough time left over for a final hurrah.
Any Other Business:
• It’s not completely explicitly stated, but it seems there’s been a good three years between the last outing and this. Sulu was part of the crew last time out but here he’s been captain of his own ship, tasked with the doubtless-exciting mission of charting gaseous anomalies for three years, so the implication is that at least that much time has passed between V and VI. Unless he was just filling in time during the last movie., though that’s not at all how it reads on screen.
• The opening sequence, a ponderous cello-based score for the credits followed by a superb explosion as Praxis blows up and buffets the Excelcior, really make for an interesting way to start the movie, far away from the usual jaunty tunes and getting-the-band-back-together sequences.
• So just how many Cold War parallels can one movie pack in? Quite apart from Praxis being Space Chernobyl, we have the fall of the Soviet/Klingon Empire, two superpowers facing off against each other and depending on trust between implacable enemies to avoid war, the fall of the Berlin wall as represented by the possible removal of the Neutral Zone… yeah, they’re all stuffed in there alright!
• Not that he does much, but it’s nice that Mark Leonard gets one more outing along with the rest of the crew.
• Oh look, it’s Z-movie survivor Kim Cattrall, playing a character that definitely isn’t Saavik! Anyone who’s spent any time with Mystery Science Theatre 3000 will know the level of films she’s done in the past, so it’s kind of great to see that all her hard work as paid off and she’s doing some legitimate sci-fi. She’s not an actor I had much time for when this was released, but I’ve really come around on her and thoroughly enjoy her presence here.
• Kirk, rather pleasingly, has a framed photo of David in his quarters, rather than some silly holo-picture thing (see: Tasha Yar’s picture following her untimely death at the hands of some printer ink).
• This film is quite the who’s-who of people you should probably put in Star Trek if you want the end results to turn out well. There’s Papa Sisko (Brock Peters), Annorax (Kurtwood Smith), Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Gul Madred (the peerless David Warner) and, of course, Worf (Michael Dorn, as if you need to be told). All that and a cameo from Christian Slater!
• Oh and of course this movie’s moustache-twirler, Christopher Plumber, who’s simply fantastic as General Chang. We have, indeed, heard the chimes at midnight, and they’re being delivered by a fruity-voiced lunatic who clearly loves every single second of his time on screen.
• This film makes a real effort to deal with race and racism head-on, which has come in for some flak over the years. Between Kirk openly admitting just how prejudiced he can be, to the two crewmembers who run through the usual gamut of racist comments (“they smell funny” et al), to the brilliantly-realised supreme awkwardness of the dinner scene, this is a film that absolutely does not shy away from tackling racism and the underlying assumptions built into such a perspective (“how can history get past men like me?” Kirk muses). Great. The film handles all this spectacularly well, far better than we have any right to expect from a 25-year-old franchise that’s consciously bowing out.
• The special effects here are so, so much better than we have any right to expect at this point in the game as well. Generally I don’t comment much on effects unless they’re fantastically good or – oh hai, Star Trek V – incredibly bad, but the work here is mostly great. Sure, this isn’t an expensive movie, and there’s lots of sets that are conspicuously the Enterprise-D, but the film uses its money wisely, so we get that great opening explosion or the spectacular destruction of the Klingon Bird Of Prey deployed just when we need the most impact. We even have morphing, as we meet Star Trek’s first on-screen shapeshifter (that is, we see the morph, rather than something like The Salt Vampire in “The Man Trap”).
• Yeah, that’s Iman, also known as Mrs David Bowie. She’s… fine. She’s got a bit of a Grace Jones thing going on but she’s pretty decent as far as her (relatively minor) role goes.
• So, for anyone who’s ever dreamed on some Kirk-on-Kirk action, this is the movie for you. You pervs.
• The entrapment of Valeris leaves her looking a bit dim (did it really not occur to her that someone might be on to her?) but it works well enough. Spock mind-raping her on the bridge, however well shot and acted it is (and Nimoy and Cattrall are amazing), does not. It’s vile. Meyer has subsequently apologised for this, and quite right too.
• Sulu gets to ride to the rescue! It’s an interesting narrative stance, having him off to one side throughout this film, then have him swoop in to help save the day. It’s the kind of non-linear scripting the movies could have done with a bit more, to be honest, though it’s most welcome to see it here.
• It’s a well-known error but I might as well point it out anyway. It’s Sulu that’s been out chasing gaseous anomalies, but when Uhura comes up with the plan to find the Bird Of Prey (“things gotta have a tailpipe”, she drawls, and how refreshing they give the plan that finally defeats Chang to her) suddenly it’s the Enterprise that has equipment to detect the gas. Unless they’ve been out doing the same thing, for some reason, but if they have been it’s never mentioned on-screen.
• Scotty gets to ride to the rescue, taking out the assassin, while Kirk throws himself on the President to save his life. The President, frankly, is lucky not to break a rib…
• Then we get the team together for one last photoshoot – “nice to see you in action again one last time, Captain Kirk” (except it’s not the last time, of course) – and they all get to ride off into the sunset in exactly the way the Enterprise-D will do three years hence. But without the signatures. It’s a sweet moment, but not using the TOS theme at this point – of all points – is still an unforgivable error.
With this movie Star Trek officially turns 25. Not quite the longest-running science-fiction franchise in the world (that award goes to Doctor Who), but still a mightily impressive achievement nonetheless. And what better way to celebrate twenty-five years of your characters than pointing out how redundant they are and suggesting its time to move on to something else. Yes, for a film that’s released in time for Star Trek’s silver jubilee it makes absolutely no bones about embracing just how the moment has passed for this iteration of the show. Yet the film also tries to have it both ways – this crew get their chance to sail off into the sunset, finally eclipsed by history and rendered unnecessary, yet are still seen as worth of valediction. That’s an incredibly tough line to walk, so the big questions for this film are a) is it able to walk that tightrope and b) does it provide a satisfactory conclusion to its era?
The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. The Undiscovered Country is better than any other film in the TOS canon, and by quite a considerable margin. And it’s the film’s absolute insistence in tackling both the triumphs and flaws of what make the crew work that allows it to have it both ways. Notably, prejudice runs in all directions – Kirk can’t deal with the Klingons because he’s spent a lifetime fighting them and one of them murdered his son; Spock is blind to Valeris’s faults simply because of her being a Vulcan; Valeris is bigoted in her approach to the Klingons (as indeed is half of the High Council); Chang can’t allow his history to pass, locked into the same patterns as Kirk… and so it goes on. Prejudice lies right at the heart of The Undiscovered Country and it is in exploring that prejudice that the film finds its most resonant themes.
The fact that the film is prepared to countenance criticising Kirk is one thing, that it’s also prepared to do the same for Spock – previously a paragon of balance and fairness, even in this script – is quite something else. Indeed, Spock is shown to be the most openminded of the crew in the early part of the film, but he’s still seen to have a major blind-spot. That’s important because by showing that he too has his flaws it stops the character from becoming either a blunt author-surrogate (“racism is bad, m’kay”) or from becoming an annoying holier-than-thou. He is like the rest of us – capable of great things and capable of mistake. Even the best of us can have our flaws, and by putting that flaw in Spock as well we get to see the whole of the movie in miniature. Interestingly, McCoy is the only one of the three not to succumb to this – he proves desperate to save Gorkon when given the chance (and despite earlier misgivings), and he speaks out proudly in favour of peace at his and Kirk’s trial. Even his gentle teasing of Spock near the end of the movie has the lightness of touch to be gentle ribbing between real friends rather than previous examples which have carried the taint of prejudice. It’s tempting to think that McCoy’s learned from his experiences in Star Trek V, but McCoy (and DeForest turns in a great and very under-rated performance here) here seems to be the one member of the core triumvirate who’s learned his lesson.
Kirk, too, learns his lesson, though it takes a lot for the message to sink in. His overt racism towards the Klingons is both character-consistent and a good hook to hang the movie’s themes off, and Shatner delivers a great performance in his (at the time assumed) final outing in the role. Just look at the way Kirk responds during his trial to the accusation that he’s gone against orders, broken the chain of command and as a result been demoted. He acknowledges that he has, the acknowledgement by turns amused and in absolutely no way regretful even though he’s condemning himself and McCoy as he says it. It’s a lovely, subtle performance of the type Shatner doesn’t often give, but it really does demonstrate how strong he can be given the chance.
And he’s able to convincingly portray Kirk’s shift from prejudice to understanding over the course of the movie, which is no mean feat. Kirk’s prejudices are, after all, understandable – he’s spent a lifetime at war with a race who are now allegedly extending the hand of peace, even without the familial death angle – and when he questions himself it’s a moment of rare self-reflection from a character who’s known for taking action rather than asking questions. It takes the death of Gorkon for him to understand quite how blind he’s been – and it’s incredibly significant that Gorkon’s last words are to Kirk not his daughter, who’s standing right there – and once the penny drops he’ll stop at nothing to do the right thing, up to and including putting himself in the line of fire. That’s a great character arc for Kirk, and had this been his final outing – and how very much I wish it had been – it’s also the perfect conclusion to his story. Finally, the old warrior is able to see the future, and in doing so gains the wisdom to finally let go and hand that future over – both figuratively and literally – to the next generation. That’s downright poetic.
Were the rest of the film rubbish, but Kirk and Spock’s character moments solid, that would still make for a pretty good Star Trek film. Thankfully, though, that’s not the case, and again everyone gets something to do here, so even while we get a core focus on Kirk and McCoy, with Spock getting the investigate-the-plot beats while he confronts his own close-mindedness, the fact that time is spent giving the other characters something of significance to goes a long way to making this feel like an ensemble piece, even though it’s not really. Uhura, such a neglected presence across these movies, gets to come up with the plan that defeats Chang. Chekov gets to generally just be promoted and have a bit more authority about the place. Scotty gets to ride to the rescue, taking out a would-be assassin in the process. Even McCoy helping Spock with the torpedo feels like it’s part of this spectrum (though how that squares with the Hippocratic Oath is, perhaps, a question for another day). Everyone gets something worthwhile to contribute.
Yet Sulu is the most conspicuous example of this, gifted his own ship and crew at long last and finally able to step out of the shadows of his previous commanding officer to forge his own path. His inclusion is the one most relevant to the theme of the movie – moving on. Takei’s great here, giving Sulu’s scenes some proper gravitas and able to make the bonds of loyalty to his previous crew feel real and earned. This isn’t just someone who’s reciting pat lines about honour and duty, it’s someone with a twenty-five-year history who’s prepared to trust his former captain and put his own career on the line to do so. But what’s also interesting is how Sulu ends – he turns up for the photo-op moment at the conclusion of the film, but remains conspicuously not part of the core cast. He gets the, “nice to see you in action one last time” line, but it’s clear that’s exactly what it is – him watching someone else in action, not being a part of it.
Again, in a film that’s a 25th anniversary representation of the franchise, the diverging paths of the crew are shown to be a function of the passing of time. It would be much easier to have Sulu busted down a rank and back at the helm for the flying-off-into-the-sunset shot, to have the crew reunited in their final moments, but The Undiscovered Country doesn’t take the easy path and it doesn’t allow sentiment to overwhelm a genuine moment. People do go their separate ways and while it’s time for us to go on our own way, apart from TOS for the last time in the real world, it’s time for Sulu to do the same within it. It’s a lovely piece of meta-commentary, suitably underplayed yet absolutely underscoring everything the film is about. Time always moves on, and while there is warmth and friendship and comradeship in that, as we know “parting is such sweet sorrow”.
Which, yes, brings us to Chang, brought so very vividly to life by Christopher Plumber. He is, hands down, the best opponent of any of the TOS Star Trek film and arguably the best villain that the TOS crew face off against. Certainly the only competition, movie wise, is Khan but – no disrespect to Ricardo Montalban, who is fantastic in the role – he just isn’t quite in the same league. That’s at least in part because this movie bothers to actually allow Kirk and Chang to spend time together, firstly at that brilliantly-staged dinner party, then later in the transporter room, where they actually get to exchange dialogue eyeball to eyeball. The direct contrast between Chang and Kirk is exactly what was needed, but missing, with Khan and it makes all the difference in the world.
Because Chang and Kirk are set up as mirrors of each other – both directly equivalent, Chang the Klingon Kirk and Kirk chosen for this mission because the Klingons wouldn’t dare start something with Kirk around. Their parallel is very carefully drawn here, yet their differences are also starkly highlighted. Kirk makes mistakes here, as indeed does Chang, but the crucial difference is that Kirk is prepared to learn from his mistakes, and in doing so move past them. Kirk’s final scene is one of warmth around his friends – Chang’s is being blown into a billion atoms. They may, ultimately, mirror each other’s role in their respective organisations – Starfleet and Klingon command – but in the end they are not the same, because one is prepared to learn from history and the other is not, and the difference in outcome is quite plain.
Yet it would be ridiculous to suggest that the only pleasure in Chang is how intelligently he’s scripted, because Plummer is simply terrific. It’s a real skill to be able to go exactly as far over the top as required but not so far as to undermine the character. That’s absolutely a skill that Montalban had as well, I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise, but there’s something about Chang that makes him a more convincing enemy. He gets to quote from the same Big Book Of Shakespeare Quotes, and we never for a second stray into the idea that he might quote something else, but there’s a convection in the way Plummer lands the lines that really make it seem like Chang understands what lies behind them, not just that he’s dropping facetious bon mots to make anyone in the audience who knows where they come from feel smart. Maybe Shakespeare really is best in the original Klingon.
Despite being a visibly inexpensive film, Nicholas Meyer has upped his game as well. The direction here is so much better than The Wrath Of Khan it’s hard to believe that they’re even directed by the same person, in fact. And it’s not all about the action – the scene between Kirk and Spock after Spock has “volunteered” them for the mission is a triumph of understatement, the emotional gulf between the two characters shown physically by a high shot that emphasises the space between them. And the moment is allowed to hang, awkwardly, rather than cutting away from the uncomfortableness, a smart choice that really lets the moment land. There are flashy moments as well – there’s only one space battle but it’s a great one and that Bird Of Prey explosion was good enough to turn up in Generations as well – and Meyer has really deployed the limited resources he has to make the film punch well about its weight. Rura Penthe ought to be a typical TOS setting, all cardboard walls and stock alien make-up. And it mostly is that, right up until the moment it isn’t. Kirk, McCoy and Martia make their getaway through the usual series of interchangeable caves, then emerge into some polystyrene-covered sets…. only to then emerge onto a genuine massive ice-flow with huge swooping helicopter shots as the three struggle to get outside the beaming shield and make it to safety. It not only makes Rura Penthe seem so much more like a real environment, it also neatly subverts standard TOS operating procedure, presenting us with the usual fake-environment, then effortlessly shifting to the real one to give us a proper sense of scale.
Even something as static as Kirk and McCoy’s trial scene benefits from Meyer’s improved work and what could have been a speech-cut-speech standard piece of blocking is rendered much more visceral thanks to the way it’s shot. There’s the initial zoom up the elevator shaft that delivers Kirk and McCoy to the trial room, the single echoing laugh after McCoy’s arthritis joke, the hooded judge with his sparking gavel… it lends a real sense of dynamism to a part of the film, had it been handled less skilfully, that could have ground things to a standstill. All of the work Meyer puts in here contributes towards the feel of a film that’s so much more expansive than it has any right to be, and as a final outing means the crew get to go out a great hurrah rather than a damp squib. Action has always been a core component of TOS alongside its morality and philosophy, so its impressive to see this side catered to just as well as the character work or the thematic underpinning.
In the end, The Undiscovered Country is simply the best ending that the TOS crew could possibly have hoped for. Because, ultimately, the message here isn’t that this crew are redundant at all. They have served their time, and their time has passed now. But that makes them neither irrelevant nor worthless, but rather they are those who stood when they had to even as that moment is no longer with us. This is appropriate. The history that TOS was brought into comment on has, with the end of the Cold War, passed. People may mock the “space-racism is bad” of the original show, but at least it bothered to turn up and actually say it when so many other shows simply didn’t. It is again worth pointing out that Uhrua was the first black character in science-fiction. Not the first on TV. In science fiction. These things matter. It’s may have become a cliché of the convention circuit that Whoopi Goldberg was inspired by Nichelle Nichols, but that’s how it works. This generation inspires the next.
Maybe that sounds simplistic, and perhaps TOS does consist of morality plays, little vignettes that look charmingly incongruous next to today’s slick, sophisticated, morally ambiguous dramas, but The Undiscovered Country proves just how much power still lies in the format even in its dying moments. But the world of TOS, of its certainties and its doubts, has passed now, and with it our heroes get their moment of jubilation even as it’s the last time they ever will. The wisdom that Kirk learns is the wisdom not only to confront past demons, but the wisdom to know when to step aside. “Can it be,” asks Spock, “that we have grown so old, so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?” That could be a bleak ending for this crew indeed, but ultimately the answer is no. Kirk is able, when he faces Gorkon’s daughter, to have his faith restored, as is hers. That’s not borne of inflexibility, that’s borne of intelligence and understanding, on both their parts. Revenge and hatred are put aside to embrace a better future. What could possibly be a stronger message from the TOS crew to go out on than that? This isn’t about the old crew becoming redundant at all. It’s about them having served their time and knowing that it’s right they step aside for the new crew. That’s what the change from “where no man” to “where no one” just before the credits really represents. The world has changed. Time to let the next generation step forward and claim it as theirs, as they always must. The trials and tribulations of the old crew have been worth something, and as they literally sign off, they’re allowed, at last, their peace.
Rest well. You’ve earned it.
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
It depends how generous you’re feeling. In truth, other than helping out with defeating the Bird Of Prey at the end of the movie, Sulu’s adventures (well, maybe “adventures” is a little strong) don’t contribute much to the actual plot, even as they pleasingly suggest a wider universe for the story to operate over than we normally get. Ditch Sulu, lose about 7 or 8% of the running time. I’d be loath to do that though, especially given this is Takei’s last outing in the role, so you know, I’m just gonna say 0%. This is a terrific movie and there’s really nothing that needs to be lost. Even the briefing/exposition at the beginning to get things underway is rendered worthwhile by the scene between Kirk and Spock at the end of it.
How Shatner-y Is Shatner?
Shatner splits his time evenly between turning it what we now think of as party-piece Shatner, and actually bothering to act, but even at this late stage in the game it’s not even close to being just cured pork and eyerolling. His speech about “how can history get past men like me” has him sounding genuinely conflicted in a way that Kirk very rarely does, and the scene after the briefing (“you should have trusted me”) has real power to it – Nimoy’s at the top of his game there too, but Shatner really brings the goods. Elsewhere – well, he gets to snog a supermodel so you know, there’s going to be a fair amount of Shatnerisms going on, and it’s McCoy that gets the all-too-appropriate eye-roll that follows.
How Achingly 1991 Is This Movie?
It’s covering the last few years really, what with the focus on the Cold War and everything, and that it speaks so directly to the concerns of the era can’t help but make it feel rooted in 1991. Certainly, there are some things which anchor this film very much like the sudden glut of conspicuous CGI, from the pinkish explosion of Praxis at the start of the film to the zero-gravity blood of the Klingons (also pink – was pink big in 1991? That is not my memory of the year that made grunge go mainstream with Nevermind). And then there’s the morphing, so recently made popular by Terminator 2 (also a 1991 release) and deployed here to actually make the character of Martia seem genuinely alien. Having her played briefly by a small child and some guy in vast amounts of latex is surprisingly effective at realising this as well, but it’s the money-shot CGI that really lands it. For the rest, well, nobody’s wandering round in a stoned-smiley t-shirt or anything but even if you didn’t know when this was released you could probably hazard a pretty shrewd guess. Some films seem timeless – this is not one of those films.
Fanwankometer Reading, Captain
Worf’s in it. Oh sure, it’s “General” Worf not “our” Worf, but still. Worf’s in it. Of course, George Takei was constantly agitating for a spin-off series featuring the adventures of Captain Sulu, and his off-to-one-side narrative (apart from providing us with a very good episode of Voyager) suggest that this might not have been too terrible an idea. Certainly Takei looks very comfortable in the captain’s chair but they’d have to find something a bit more exciting that cataloguing gaseous anomalies in the Beta quadrant to keep him busy…
Everyone. This is a surprisingly sharp, pointed movie considering its consciously written as the end of the line for this crew, but really – I’m gonna give it to everyone, because this really is the end of the line for this crew. A small number of them will turn up for a bit in Generations but even though that film gives us precious little reason to care about them, this is TOS’s proper farewell, and it would be unfair to either single someone out or exclude others. The fact that the film is so prepared to critique its cast, yet also allow them their moment of valediction, is not only to the film’s credit, but it makes that moment of valediction feel earned rather than pat. So this time out the MPV’s are William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. Thanks, all of you.
The Movies, Ranked
1. The Undiscovered Country
2. The Voyage Home
3. The Search For Spock
4. The Final Frontier
5. The Wrath Of Khan
6. The Motion Picture