Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Dir. Nicholas Meyer. Starring William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Christopher Plummer

It’s a little hard to love the execution of The Undiscovered Country, a movie which throws quotes from Shakespeare around with total abandon in lieu of actualy dialogue—which suffers from a lack of any really good scenes between the one where Kirk (Shatner) and McCoy (Kelley) are sentenced to life imprisonment in a Klingon labor camp and the would-be assassination at Khitomer—which never really gets away with being disinterested in the Enterprise. That last one is the one that really kills me, because over and over again, Star Trek movies which are really about the Enterprise tend to hit: Wrath of Khan, First Contact. Even in Star Trek movies that aren’t of the higher orders, like Generations and The Search for Spock, tend to give us ways to make us feel sad about losing an Enterprise. It burns across the sky in Search for Spock, a necessary but terribly sad ending for a ship that had been through so much before; Generations is at least as elegiac about the end of the Enterprise-D as it is about the end of James T. Kirk. There are multiple scenes which feel ten to fifteen percent too long, and if we’re being honest the movie is either ten to fifteen percent too long, or it would benefit from ten minutes of exposition. But what I love about The Undiscovered Country, and what keeps the movie from being just another Star Trek slog is the allegory. It’s a loud allegory, as all Star Trek allegories about present-day issues must be deafening, and it is so detailed that you almost wish they’d let us imagine more than they do. But the story is gripping even if the screenplay is not, and the swiftness of the transition of real-life events into a movie about them, i.e. the fall of the Soviet Union, is a little amazing.

Klingon Chernobyl happens, and its military budget is entirely out of proportion of its ability to spend; the Klingon Empire has a countable number of years remaining unless they fundamentally alter their policy. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is good enough to see in this a possibility for peace with an enemy that the Federation has been scrapping with for decades, pushes a policy of disarmament which will require negotiation with the Klingons and their visionary Gorbachev, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). (There have not been a lot of really brave decisions in Hollywood, but I gotta tell you, it would be brave if The Undiscovered Country took its “fall of the Soviet Union” plot and turned the Federation into the heir to the USSR as opposed to the heir to the USA. I digress.) All of this is too much for some members of Starfleet brass, as well as for Kirk. His son was killed in literal hand-to-hand combat with a Klingon. Kirk is a naval lifer who has spent much of his adult life fighting Klingons, distrusting them when it wasn’t coming down to active combat duty. The Wrath of Khan,is as much about how Kirk is struggling with the idea of getting older, about what it would be like for him not to be the swashbuckling space cowboy living by his wits, as it is about Khan and his wrath. The Undiscovered Country is not as much about aging as it ought to be, but when it works it’s often because it connects a dot that The Wrath of Khan does not. In that movie, Kirk is getting older, and trying to cope with a new version of himself. In The Undiscovered Country Kirk is at the very edge of obsolescence, and more than that he is in conflict with history. Kirk’s final mission before he’s retired and the Enterprise-A is scrapped is to act as the welcome wagon for Gorkon. How will history judge James T. Kirk, the face of Starfleet, the man who fought the Klingons, if it turns out that history views the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons as a pointless dick-measuring contest? History is littered with generals who have been unable to adequately adapt to the demands of peace. Kirk is vocal about how much he does not want to be involved with a peace mission with the Klingons, and aligns himself with a hardcore militarist admiral, Cartwright (Brock Peters), who argues that it would be better to take advantage of the Klingons’ weakness and force them to submit to more favorable terms for the Federation. In the first fifteen minutes or so of this movie, Kirk is on a path to be the Douglas MacArthur of the 23rd Century, a brilliant commander who is a comment about “thirty to fifty atomic bombs” away from sullying a legacy that must have seemed unimpeachable. It’s an interesting choice for the movie to make, even if purely from a character perspective Kirk is exactly the kind of person who’s wrong before he’s right, because The Undiscovered Country dismisses out of hand this idea that the victorious superpower ought to crush a flailing one under its thumb at the first provocation. Without even proffering the many good political reasons not to obliterate the Klingon Empire, the picture, like Spock, simply sees peacemaking as the right thing to do. How many Americans in 1991 unhesitatingly thought making peace with the Soviet Union, arguably the greatest national threat to the United States in its history, was a good idea even if they might have admitted it was the right thing to do? I was not really around back then, but I cannot imagine everyone went along like Spock; surely a number of Cartwrights at all levels of American society must have existed.

Alas that every premise must turn into a story sooner or later, and that happens when a pair of torpedoes cripple Gorkon’s ship, and two assassins kill some Klingons and mortally wound Gorkon himself. There’s some intrigue, I guess, in the idea that the call is coming from inside the house. The torpedoes appear to have come from the Enterprise, but a visual count shows that all of them are accounted for; before long, Spock and company deduce that an unknown Klingon ship must have done the impossible and fired its weapons while cloaked (the Chang maneuver?), and the conspiracy is on from there. Meanwhile, Kirk brawls with giant aliens at Rura Penthe, McCoy rolls his eyes as his buddy cuddles with a mysterious prisoner, Martia (Iman), and a very, very strange scene happens where two Kirks fight each other. This is not really gripping stuff. A lot of the happenings on Spock’s end comes down to everyone searching for laundry soiled with some iridescent magenta Klingon blood. What feels like a shame in this plot has to do with Valeris (Kim Cattrall), Spock’s wunderkind Vulcan protégée, who turns out unsurprisingly to a significant figure in the assassination of Gorkon. Aside from the palace intrigues that presumably kept Valeris from being Saavik, I cannot imagine a reason why this isn’t her. Once you’ve had Saavik played by two actresses, a third hardly seems to make a difference. Furthermore, Saavik had always been an uneasy fit between Spock and Kirk, admiring both while not really understanding either, and thus making her into a key figure in the covert war against the Klingons when Spock advocates for no war and Kirk advocates a hot war fits pretty neatly. Valeris, like General Chang (Plummer), is always a little too recognizably new, and thus it’s never a surprise when it turns out that they are among the group conspiring to further the war between the Federation and the Klingons indefinitely. If Valeris is a disappointment, so is Chang. Christopher Plummer seems uncomfortable in the role as it develops. As a man hiding the secret of conspiracy and murder, prodding Kirk at a dinner on the Enterprise and talking about Klingon lebensraum while plotting the death of his boss, Chang is fairly interesting. He is limited to two or three Shakespeare quotes in this segment, which is a relief. Spinning his chair around on the bridge of his Bird of Prey and spouting off Shakespeare at random is pretty campy, something that Ricardo Montalban did pretty well about ten years earlier and that I don’t think Plummer quite has the stomach for. Subdued menace, Plummer can do. Shouting “Yippee” in chopped-up quotes from Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice, not so much.

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