Retro Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

While a secret peace conference convenes, Kirk and Spock discover an assassination plot involving high-ranking Klingons and Starfleet officers.

Plot Summary: The captain of the USS Excelsior, Sulu, monitors the explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis. Because of the radiation, the Klingon empire is on the verge of collapse. Chancellor Gorkon of the Klingon High Council agrees to negotiate for peace with the Federation, including a dismantling of all Starfleet bases along the Neutral Zone. Captain Spock accompanies Captain Kirk, whom Starfleet has agreed to offer as an olive branch – he will escort Gorkon through Federation space. The Klingon leaders come to dinner aboard the Enterprise and the two crews begin come to an understanding. But when the Klingons return to their own ship, the Enterprise fires upon it, then two men in Federation spacesuits board and assassinate Gorkon. No one on the Enterprise can figure out who launched the weapon, and when Kirk and McCoy beam over to the Klingon ship to try to help, they are arrested. Both men are tried by the Klingons and sentenced to life imprisonment on Rura Penthe, a penal colony where guards are not necessary because anyone who tries to flee will freeze to death on the surface. A shapeshifter named Martia proposes an escape plan to Kirk, and though Kirk suspects a trap, he goes along with her in the hope that Spock can pick up his signal if they are able to lower the planet’s shield. Though Kirk and McCoy are captured again, Spock is able to track them and beam them aboard the Enterprise.

Meanwhile, Spock has had little luck in discovering who killed Gorkon; he knows only that someone aboard the Enterprise must have been responsible, since the ship’s records have been altered. He and his protegee Valeris quickly conclude that crewmembers must have stolen anti-gravity boots, but soon after the boots are discovered, the crewmembers under suspicion are found dead. Spock soon discovers that Valeris herself is part of a conspiracy to sabotage the peace conference, since she does not believe the Klingons can ever be trusted, and that Klingon General Chang and Starfleet Admiral Cartwright are involved as well. Spock and Scotty realize that the torpedo that damaged Gorkon’s ship came not from the Enterprise but from a nearby cloaked Klingon ship under Chang’s command. Kirk asks for help from Sulu, who is able to destroy the powerful Klingon ship with Excelsior’s weapons. Sulu also advises Kirk to go to Khitomer, where Cartwright and the Romulan representative have positioned a killer to shoot the Federation president. Kirk saves the president, and Gorkon’s daughter Azetbur declares that the peace talks will go forward. Rather than taking the Enterprise home to be decommissioned as Starfleet culls its ships, Kirk takes the soon-to-retire crew for a final voyage.

Analysis: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is remembered by most fans I know as a direct Cold War allegory with an environmental message: shortly after the disaster at Chernobyl, that is, the explosion of the energy moon Praxis, our old enemy the Soviet Union, that is, the Klingons, showed a renewed interest in openness and negotiation with foreigners. If anyone in the movie theater had any doubts that the film was meant to be a real-world allegory, we had only to listen to Spock quote “the old Vulcan proverb, ‘Only Nixon could go to China.'” Though there’s a lot of talk at the start and the real drama takes a while to get moving, for the most part, the final original series installment is an enjoyable one. While Kirk gets to play the role of peacemaker and have one last fling with a hot alien babe, Sulu and Uhura finally get their opportunity to save the day – Sulu in command of the bucket of bolts that represents the starship of the future, Uhura by realizing that the Enterprise is carrying the very equipment necessary to smoke out the cloaked Klingon ship. And if Chang is no Khan, uttering random Shakespeare quotes instead of chewing up and spitting out Melville, this is, at least, the film that gave us The Tragedy of Khamlet and the glory that is Shakespearean Klingon.

That’s what most people remember. I keep getting stuck on the character in this film who has pointed ears and sometimes uses logic to solve problems, but who throws a full temper tantrum when he discovers that his protegee has betrayed both himself and the Federation. Then – I have trouble even typing this, let alone watching the scene – he rapes her mind, on the bridge, in front of a good chunk of the crew. I’d have an easier time believing that Kirk seduced her in front of a good chunk of the crew. For that matter, I’d have an easier time believing that Spock used ancient Vulcan sex rituals to get information out of her. It’s disturbing enough to me the way the Trek movie franchise used Saavik, whom it was implied gave her body to Spock to save him from the ravages of pon farr, even though we’ve always been told that pon farr is first and foremost a joining of mind and spirit, and the Spock on the Genesis planet had neither. To see that Spock grown up, rejoined with his mental faculties, and using his Vulcan training and discipline to violate someone in that fashion…I can’t even write about it articulately. You all have probably ascertained at this point that I’m not a fan of the reboot, but I might even find that Spock preferable to this one.

That scene has ruined this film for me for decades. I’ve only seen it a couple of times; I vastly prefer the much-ridiculed Final Frontier, which may be silly on many levels, but has characters I have adored for years and an earnestly felt if poorly executed storyline. The Undiscovered Country opts for the facile over the deep at every opportunity – even the Nixon line (which got laughs at the time of the film’s release) has made The Undiscovered Country seem dated in a way the others aren’t. Sure, it’s cute to have Michael Dorn playing what’s obviously supposed to be the ancestor of his Next Generation character, and sure, it’s sweet to have all these references to a new crew coming along and going where no man, excuse me, where no one has gone before. But there’s a bit of bitterness coming through underneath. Kirk’s fury at the Klingons is understandable, but “Let them die” is not something I’d expect him to have uttered even much nearer to David’s death in the previous movies. Really, he favors genocide for the Klingons? Did he learn nothing from the extinction of the whales?

The film’s sparse budget is reflected in the dim lighting and under-furnished sets – one gets the impression the NCC-1701A was never fully pulled together – and though the space sequences make impressive use of computer graphics, the floating Klingon blood looks fairly cheesy. Even so, the slow-motion Gorkon murder sequence is one of the franchise’s more grotesque killings, far more explicit than David’s stabbing, and Martia’s execution just seems mean-spirited, considering that she was briefly one of Kirk’s aliens of the week. If the idea is to convince viewers that this cast is past it’s prime and everyone should tune in to The Next Generation, I suppose The Undiscovered Country achieves that goal, since Kirk looks old and tired (more so than in Generations), and most of McCoy’s jokes are about how he can’t wait to retire and get away from it all. The moral of the film seems to be that while science and technology may provide the means for intercultural communication and galactic peace, they’re not of much use without the fancy weaponry that has always been at the heart of Star Trek’s contradictory optimistic yet pragmatic view of the future. The pieces all seem to be in place in The Undiscovered Country, but for me it’s always been an off note on which to end the original series film franchise. Our revels now are ended, indeed.

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Michelle Erica Green


Michelle Erica Green

Writer, mother, reader, traveler, teacher, partner, photographer, activist, friend, fangirl, student, critic, citizen, environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, enthusiast. TrekToday staffer for many years, former news reporter, current retro reviewer.

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