FRANCHISE REWIND: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, 1991 (William Shatner) Paramount Pictures

“Second star to the right. And straight on ’til morning.”

I think we go back to being dark in the Star Trek franchise because, while we had humor throughout the franchise, Star Treks IV and V embraced and then went overboard with high hilarity. The Final Frontier even mimicked the structure of an Original Series episode, complete with a satisfying conclusion. It was a stand-alone film, unconnected from the trilogy of movies preceding it. The Undiscovered Country is a business-as-usual movie, except that it begins with the apparent destruction of the Klingon Empire.

The movie is an apology to the detractors of Star Trek V and William Shatner, as well as a “favored nations” concession by hiring Nicholas Meyer (arguably the best director of the franchise) over Nimoy and Shatner because Paramount knew there would be tension between the two leads if they didn’t hire an outside director. Nimoy (with Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who won story credit after a protracted WGA arbitration) puts together an analogous story inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of democracy in the Soviet Union.

As the barriers are broken down, there would be the inevitable tension from people that we had always thought of as our enemies. It’s interesting the Klingons would be considered those enemies, as I’ve always considered the Romulans (and their shady, sneaky ways) analogous to our Russian brothers. The Klingons were psychotic, war-loving baddies, for the most part one-dimensional until Worf and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Perhaps the Klingons were more well-known than the Romulans for crossover fans.

The “gathering storm” of democracy in this movie is the destruction of Praxis, a Klingon moon and the Empire’s chief source of energy (at least the source of energy they haven’t stolen from conquered worlds). Because of the explosion, Qo’noS’ (the Klingon homeworld) atmosphere is inunudated with pollution as well as damage to the planet’s ozone layer (though I don’t know how that is possible). I hate when an environmental angle is not completely thought out. This is when Starfleet, with the help of envoy Captain Spock, decides to make peaceful overtures to the Empire.

Spock nominates Captain Kirk to represent Starfleet, even though Spock knows Kirk isn’t the most open-minded person when it comes to Klingons. A Klingon murdered his son, after all. Hell, I’d be pissed. Pissed at Spock as well. It’s interesting the Klingons didn’t see through this obvious manipulation and exploitation. Nevertheless, Chancellor Gorkin (David Warner) meets with Kirk, but shortly after a tense dinner, he and his aides are murdered by two assassins disguised under spacesuits, and suspicion points to Kirk and McCoy who were summoned to the ship to offer medical assistance.

The whole thing smacks of theater designed to frame and imprison Kirk and McCoy. After a Klingon kangaroo court (Klingaroo?), Kirk and McCoy (suffering a touch of arthritis) are sent to Rura Penthe, a Klingon prison camp, to mine for dilithium. It’s up to Spock (who wisely slapped a homing beacon on Kirk) to rescue them before the Federation President (Kurtwood Smith) is killed (much like Kaiser Wilhelm) to promote war between the Klingons and Starfleet. This is a fine movie, but it has a more epic scope than Star Trek II; less internalized and puts Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on an enormous chessboard as mere pawns in a much bigger game.

This is also the last mission for the crew of the Enterprise (minus Sulu, who is now Captain of the Excelsior). Scotty, Chekov, and Kirk would appear in the next movie as a bridge to the Next Generation. Guerilla filmmaker Hiro Narita was the film’s cinematographer, and Cliff Eidelman composed the excellent score. Star Trek VI was a hit, but it wasn’t a big hit. It was good for a Star Trek film, but I wonder if it had made Star Wars money, would we have seen another movie? Rather than going straight to the Next Generation cast? Gene Roddenberry died a little over a month before the movie was released.

“To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”

For Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)

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