Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

  • star_trek_vi_ver2Year:  1991
  • Director:  Nicholas Meyer
  • Series Rank:  #5
  • Year Rank:  #32
  • Oscar Nominations:  Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects
  • The Enterprise Crew:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Kim Cattrall
  • Villain:  Christopher Plummer

I got home on December 6, 1991 at around eight o’clock or so.  There was a message on the answering machine from my brother John that said “Second star to the right.  Straight on till morning.  I saw it opening day.”  I called him back and got his machine.  I left the following message: “If I were human, I believe the proper response would be ‘Go to hell’.  I wasn’t home when you called because I saw it twice.”  It was not a lie.  After school got out on that particular Friday, I went to the Century Cinedome with my best friend John.  We watched the film (for free – John worked there).  Then John started his shift and I watched it again before going home and checking the machine.

I had watched it the second time because it was so enjoyable.  It was all that I had wanted the fifth film to be and wasn’t.  It had great moments of humor that didn’t feel forced (my favorite was made even better when watching it with Veronica – when the prisoner played by model Iman kisses Kirk she looked at me and said “seriously” and I said “wait for it” and then we get McCoy’s reaction: “What is it with you?”; there are also great lines like “There is an old Vulcan proverb: only Nixon could go to China.” or “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”), it has great character moments (notably Sulu’s loyalty towards his old shipmates), it has a good mystery at its core (the crew needing to figure out who has fired on the Klingon ship and who has planted the evidence) and most importantly, a solid plot that was echoing real world events (Leonard Nimoy had the initial idea, pitching “What if the Wall came down in space?”).  It had Nicholas Meyer back (who had directed Wrath of Khan), both writing the script and directing.  It had better visual effects than the previous film (especially enjoyable is the zero gravity assassination scene).  It had an ending that didn’t disappoint and, in Christopher Plummer, a Shakespeare quoting Klingon, a really good villain for the first time since the second film.  All of this was reflected in the reviews (a 65 on Metacritic, a vast improvement over the fifth one and almost as high as Star Trek IV) and much better box office (it was also released in the fall like most of the previous films while the under-performing fifth one had to deal with a busy summer movie season that included Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opening before it and Batman opening after it).

But, while the film is enjoyable, while it has great character moments and a very fitting ending that allows the original crew to fly off into the sun, complete with all of their signatures scrawled across the end credits, it is really only the surface level that it works on.  If you start to think below the surface at almost any point, the film really starts to fall apart fast.  So, if you love the film and don’t want to think about all the serious flaws it is hiding just below the surface, then by all means, stop reading here and skip to the final paragraph.

First, let’s look at the plot as a whole.  The idea that the Klingons spend too much on armaments and that a horrible disaster means they don’t have the money available to help save their race makes sense.  It’s a perfect analog for events in the real world (Chernobyl, the arms race) and provides great drama for the opening scene, as well as a great Kirk moment (“They are dying, Jim,” Spock tells him.  “Let them die,” Kirk replies in one of Shatner’s best moments).  But that theory only works if all Klingons live on Kronos.  It’s an Empire, but they can’t relocate to another planet?  That seems an awfully big idea to swallow.

Then we can get into some of the more specific ideas.  Kirk is saved because of the patch that Spock slips onto him before he leaves the ship, allowing them to track him.  Are we seriously supposed to believe that Kirk goes through his trial and imprisonment and that patch is never confiscated?  That just defies belief.  Or how about the designed humor scene, where everyone is trying to answer the Klingon questions.  Originally, Uhura was supposed to give a speech in Klingon, which is far more believable, but they wanted the humor of the scene instead.  So, we have to believe that 1 – That a starship was sent to rendezvous with a Klingon ship for a peace conference without a single person on board who speaks that language? and 2 – That the computers can’t help them but instead they are forced to rely on books?  Even in 1991 that seemed a stretch, but a few years later when Babelfish, one of the most brilliant ideas that Douglas Adams ever had, became a reality on the Internet, it was already beyond absurd.  What about the notion that the entire crew is ready to be retired even though they must all be of drastically different ages.  Or why would McCoy be asked to help Spock with the torpedo?  Shouldn’t he ask someone with more of an engineering background like Scotty?  That moment is clearly only in there so that McCoy can give the answer “fascinating”.  Or that Uhura mentions that they have equipment aboard for cataloging gaseous anomalies, which, if you were paying attention at the beginning of the film, was the mission of the Excelsior, not the Enterprise.  Valeris also mentions Kirk’s line “Let them die” which was said only to Spock and there is nothing to indicate Spock would have told her that.  And come to think of it, how about when Chekhov asks why Sulu isn’t there and has to be reminded that Sulu is a captain now, yet Sulu has been completing a three year mission, so it’s not like that’s a new development for the characters, but only for the audience.

Now let’s talk about something that had begun in the fifth film and continues here.  It’s a disturbing trend that is clearly going off the deep end in the upcoming film based on the trailer: Star Trek as an action franchise.  It’s always been fine to have some action sequences in Star Trek, but it’s a Sci-Fi Fantasy franchise, not an action franchise, something which the new films have treated drastically different.  It really began with some of the scenes in the previous film.  But here, we not only have Kirk running and leaping to save the President, but we also have Scotty running up and jumping in to stop the assassination.  It’s just not what Star Trek had ever been.

The final problem comes with the character Valeris.  This was originally going to be Saavik until Gene Roddenberry objected.  Actually Roddenberry apparently objected to a lot of the film, which he saw completed just before he died (when the dedication to him came on-screen at the beginning of the film everyone in that opening day crowd went nuts, in both screenings), but this was one thing that he won the argument on.  To destroy Saavik’s character would have been a terrible idea – it was bad enough what Robin Curtis’ portrayal had done, but to add this in was just stupid.  It made more sense to introduce a new character as they did.  Kim Cattrall was even allowed some humorous moments (like the one with the phaser, or the one with her suggestion of sabotage) that wouldn’t have worked if they had brought Robin Curtis back.  But her presence as part of the conspiracy (another massive flaw – would a mere lieutenant really know who the major members of the conspiracy were?) brings in one of the more dubious scenes in the film as well as the most disturbing.  The idea of putting out that the crew members she killed had survived so she would come back to try again to kill them makes sense – it’s an old mystery trope and it works well the first time you see it and allows for a scene with some real power behind it when Spock reacts to her actions – but it wouldn’t really work.  Would the injured crew members really just be sitting in a darkened sick bay with no guards?  Shouldn’t she have at least been suspicious of that?  But that’s nothing compared to the scene where Spock pulls the names from her mind.  It’s a scene that I think is clearly designed to be reminiscent of rape – she is violated against her will – and yet, done for the greater good.  It’s almost the argument for torture and it has disturbing implications.

But all of this really shouldn’t get down your enjoyment of the film.  We have a good, satisfying villain, which is actually a rarity in the Star Trek films.  We have a great new weapon that makes things both dangerous and interesting (the Klingon Bird of Prey that can fire when cloaked) and also allows the crew to come up with a smart solution to take it out (hearkening to The Hunt for Red October, another Paramount film where they also follow the displaced plasma).  It even gives us a brief little connection with the crew that would be taking over the film franchise as they had the television franchise, as the Klingon defense lawyer is played by Michael Dorn, playing an ancestor of his TNG character Worf.  It also gives us that great moment at the end (not Kirk’s over-the-top “Fire!” but Sulu’s “Track that explosion and fire.”) and we have a great send-off to the crew, especially with Spock’s wonderful “Go to hell” moment.   The original crew sail towards the second star on the right, straight on until morning, and we’re all okay with that.