There was a time when being the sixth film in a motion picture franchise would have been the subject of mockery. Once considered a laughingstock, a movie with five sequels all set in the same continuity is completely unheard of nowadays, being as we are in an era where it’s rare to go two films without getting a full-on “reboot” or “reimagining” with a new cast and director and suspiciously returning everything else.
So Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country feels oddly and quaintly dated today. It’s a film that sets about closing a story decisively for no other reason than it’s the artistically and creatively right thing to do, and that’s just something you won’t see today in the age of Cinematic Universes that are unfinished by design and consecutive reboots within three or four years of one another that all tell variations on the same stock plot. And make no mistake, it absolutely is and does: In 1991 there were not yet any plans for a second Star Trek film series, so this was a movie made for the express purposes of thanking the fans for their support and bringing the Original Series story to a dignified close. A lot of received fan wisdom seems to posit this film was greenlit to “make up” for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which would otherwise have been the final Trek movie, but from the studio’s perspective the past *three* Star Trek movies had all underperformed at the box office and they didn’t see much difference between them one way or the other. But this was the 25th Anniversary, and the Star Trek film team felt something needed to be done.
(This also explains why the movie looks somewhat stunningly cheap: While I remember the VFX shots having been breathtaking and they’re certainly impressive when it counts, everywhere else the fact Paramount only allowed this movie to be made if it was produced on the thinnest of shoestring budgets plainly shows. Most notably, while I slagged off Star Trek V: The Final Frontier for reusing the sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s actually way more egregious in this movie. I mean, they didn’t even try to hide the fact the transporter room, corridors, observation lounge and ten-forward are painfully obviously from Captain Picard’s Enterprise. More on that later, actually.)
You might think a movie with that pedigree would be cripplingly fanwanky, and there are a whole slew of references on display here. But none of them feel like forced name-drops done simply for the sake of pandering. Everything feels organic and freeform, with the grand finale that takes centre stage flowing seamlessly into a prequel for the story that’s playing out for us elsewhere. Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer are back behind the camera, and the end result is much of what you would expect from the team: It’s Meyer’s name on the director’s chair, but it’s clearly Nimoy’s deft eye for cinematic photography that elevates the look and feel of The Undiscovered Country *substantially*: There was a chance the film could have worn its bargain-basement trappings a little too obviously, but Nimoy gives the movie a grandiose, epic sense of scale befitting the send-off of such iconic folk heroes of modern myth.
As for Nicholas Meyer…Well, his usual raft of issues apply. And let’s just deal with this straight away, the mind meld scene with Valeris is completely unacceptable, but at the very least Meyer has admitted in more recent years it was a terrible, ignorant thing to write, he should have known better and wishes he could go back in time to tell his younger self not to do that. Elsewhere, Meyer is still a bit too bombastic, a bit too on-the-nose and remains frustratingly middlebrow. But this movie also sees him growing further from his surprisingly improved performance with the San Franciscan deli meat from the Star Trek sandwich that was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Meyer’s characters feel a bit more naturalistic and a bit less like they’re reciting from a high school English curriculum. It also helps him a lot that the entire movie seems custom-built to tailor to his brand of pomposity and because he’s got a savvy partner in Leonard Nimoy he’s not allowed to go quite as self-indulgent as he did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
It also helps that Meyer has such a fantastic talent to work with in the likes of Christopher Plummer, whose scenes as Commander Chang remain a highlight of the film for me to this day. Like Christopher Lloyd before him, Plummer’s got just the right balance of Shakespearean gravitas and cured pork such that his scenes are just the right level of over-the-top. He’s delightfully maniacal, even…no, especially when cackling and spewing Great White Western quotes lifted from Barnes & Noble refrigerator magnets. This is probably my favourite role of Plummer’s, even counting his turn as Master Arngeir in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that helped change the course of my life. That’s not to discount the rest of the cast, mind, particularly William Shatner, who had served as Plummer’s understudy when they were on stage together many years ago: Their chemistry is plainly on display up there.
One more thing to note about Meyer’s script: The racial undertones, and rather blatant racism, on the part of the Enterprise crew has drawn a bit of scorn over the years, most significantly from Gene Roddenberry, who apparently threw a fit about it not long before his death. Although I’m not sure if the sentiment is still there, some fans back in the day felt that the Enterprise crew wouldn’t hold such bigoted views. The thing is though, in my view, they absolutely would. I think it’s important for us to remember here that this isn’t the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew: This is the Original Series one, and that sort of utopianism isn’t actually built into this story by default. This crew has fought the Klingons consistently for decades and are military officers first and foremost, *not* scientists and diplomats. This is precisely the kind of attitude this crew would hold. It’s the one time Nicholas Meyer’s space navy stuff, and his themes about aging, are genuinely appropriate: This crew doesn’t actually know any life other than war, and they’ve become so set in that way of thinking that the kinds of “knowing your enemy” sentiments we talked about in “I, Borg” may actually be beyond them. In fact, the film posits that this is tacitly the main reason they need to retire.
In that respect, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a truly bizarre 25th Anniversary special, isn’t it? Most media artefacts like this are insufferably self-aggrandizing things, spending an interminable amount of time talking about how wonderful they are, how many wonderful things they’ve done and how many more wonderful things they have yet to do. Which, incidentally, you can be a part of if you line up to buy the newest product proudly bearing the brand name at the low, low price of your nostalgic memories of the original work. But this is a movie explicitly *about* the original work in question, and is even the brainchild of a not-insignificant number of the original creative figures. And it is unmistakably about how dated, tired and out-of-time said original work is: This is the movie all those people who worship Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for its supposedly powerful handling of aging and death need to watch, because here it’s perfectly timed. Star Trek, in this form, *really doesn’t* come back again after this. And it can’t.
Although the film never wavers from the eminently justifiable postulate that the Original Series had a tremendously important impact on world society, nor does it waver either from its firm commitment that its time in the sun has now more than passed. The world it came into and was meant to comment on doesn’t exist anymore (I don’t feel the need to talk about the clear parallels with the Cold War and Berlin Wall subtext, mainly because calling it subtext is being wildly and inappropriately generous to it. This is, after all, Nicholas Meyer) and there’s no more good it can do without wearing out its welcome and cheapening its own legacy. Perhaps as a collective cultural myth the Original Series will live on in perpetuity (indeed, history since this movie more or less solidifies that assertion, TOS being the only Star Trek anyone important seriously talks about anymore), if it does it will be thanks to the transformative energy of the people who love it so much they don’t ever want to let it go. As an extant media artefact, the original Star Trek has finally reached its limit break.
And yet even within this, the true meaning of this presence remains clear within Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One point of singularity and egress where all that is, all that ever was and all that ever will be exists in a single moment. This is an Original Series story, but it’s an Original Series story about, if absolutely nothing else, the existence of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are having conversations in spaces that really belong to Jean-Luc Picard, Guinan and Beverly Crusher. So much so the film doesn’t even make an attempt to disguise this fact. Of course, many of those sets were actually built for Star Trek Phase II and the film series first, something that was, I confess, a disappointment for me to learn. It would seem the only set that was *really* built for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Next Generation alone was the Enterprise bridge: The oppressive weight and shadow of the Original Series materializes even within the show’s physical reality. That said, I don’t think anyone watching this film would look at those rooms and think they belong anywhere else than on the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.
Even our future role models themselves are here, deliberately haunting the narrative to remind us of where our true calling lies. There’s Michael Dorn, of course, even playing a character named Worf. And it’s not just Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is here too, over a full year before it’s supposed to properly make its debut to the world. Dax is aboard Kirk’s Enterprise (framed for murder, no less), and the man behind the conspiracy to instigate a second Klingon/Federation war is the mysterious Colonel West, who spends part of the film physically altered to resemble a Klingon. West is named and styled after Colonel Oliver North (and who else has invoked and caricatured Oliver North to skewer the heart of Star Trek at its most vulnerable?) and is played by a personal friend of Nicholas Meyer’s by the name of René Auberjonois. There’s also a shapeshifter named Martia who at one point assumes the visage of Captain Kirk, the erstwhile performer, to challenge him with the weight of his own celebrity image.
And last, but not least, in an iconic scene, Kirk and McCoy are tried and sentenced to Rura Penthe in the exact same manner as Jonathan Archer a century before them in one vision of reality.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country‘s version of time, strange as it might seem given the headiness of the plot, is not a linear or teleological one. It’s a diffuse, dreamlike one, with visions and half-remembered stories all playing over the mindspace above and beyond the comparatively paltry media on display. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has thus always been and always will be *my* Star Trek movie: I was vaguely aware of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home through the broader culture and caught up with them later, but this is the film I remember being in theatres. This is the film I can quote and whose setpieces I can still most vividly remember. The movie poster is one of the most iconic images from my history with Star Trek: *The* defining image representing *the* Star Trek movie.
I can still vividly remember the initial teaser trailer for this film, included in the very first home video releases of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As I was eagerly looking forward to reacquainting myself with my favourite show alongside my family in outer space, I was treated to a bittersweet tribute to a story I had never heard. A quiet, dignified and melancholy montage of unfamiliar, dissociated images of people I didn’t know and places I’d never been. Even without foreknowledge or asking my parents for confirmation, I instantly and intuitively realised that this must be the “other” Star Trek I had heard about. And though I didn’t know anything about who these people were or the lives they had lived (and, frankly, had no particular desire to learn) I could feel, *and appreciate*, the weight of history still.
I could sense that even though this was not my family, these people must be honoured distant relatives of ours. It’s a simple little piece, but there’s an uncanny, haunting familiarity about it. It reminds me of what Star Trek: The Next Generation looked like five years ago, when it was just getting started, and that set of iconography and emotions resonates with me at a very deep level. Even so, this looked just old and different enough for me to feel apart and removed from the stories being remembered. They were as strangers to me, and yet not. And so I respected them as my elders and forebearers, for I knew they were the ones who had gone before. I thank them for all they did such that me and my people could benefit from the legacy they left behind for us. If this was to be their final story, then so be it. I’m sure they had lived full, rewarding and prosperous lives and had earned it.