Much like a James Bond actor continuing on way past his sell by date is up or Woody Allen writing scripts which saw him with suspiciously younger girlfriends, the advancing years of the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was becoming somewhat of a running joke in the world of sci-fi cinema. Certainly lacking the immortal genes of Paul Rudd or Keanu Reeves, audiences mused that if Captain Kirk and company were any more long in the tooth they’d be a tusk and the poor reception of the previous movie (the William Shatner directed one where he famously heckles “God”) meant that pop culture’s most resilient explorers where finally running out of steam.
However, much like Scotty managing to wring one last burst of power out of a failing warp core, the original crew had one final adventure to mount and it involved the return of the man who salvaged their cinematic outing once before…
The Klingon empire is in free fall after one of their moons selfishly explodes which gives the notoriously warlike race instantly on life support with barely fifty years of life left in it. Starfleet, considerate buggers that they are, immediately start figgering out ways to give aid with Spock heading up the peace talks, but this stirs the ire of many who have been locking horns with the snarling pasty heads for most of their careers and Jim Kirk is no exception. Nominated by his science officer to be part of the initial olive branch meeting with the peace mongering Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, Kirk reluctantly allows the representatives to break bread on the Enterprise while everyone pretends that the atmosphere isn’t thick enough to hammer a nail into, but after the meal things take a strange turn when the Klingon’s craft is fired upon by… the Enterprise!? Worse yet, mystery assailants beam aboard from the Federation starship and assassinate Gorkon leaving Kirk and co. up a certain cosmic creek without the use of a space paddle and the framed captain surrenders before the incident causes outright war to break out.
Finding his colourful opinions about Klingons offering a damning prosecution (one did kill his son, after all) Kirk and McCoy find themselves sent to a brutal Klingon gulag to live out the rest of their natural lives – which considering DeForest Kelly was in his 70’s, probably won’t be particularly long.
While their captain and medical officer fight for their lives in a bellow zero space Alcatraz, Spock aims his hefty grasp of logic at solving the mystery of what actually fired the phantom photon torpedoes and who could be behind such an insidious conspiracy – but can ol’ pointy ears figure things out before Kirk gets the alien equivalent of a prison shiv in the side of his ample love handles?
Correctly billed as the final adventure of the classic crew after a couple of false endings, it’s actually quite commendable that The Undiscovered Country manages to hold off on a prevailing sense of finality until the film is actually almost over – after all, The Next Generation featuring Picard, Data and the gang had been going strong on TV since 1987 and you could almost feel them snapping at the heels at their predecessors in order to tag in on the cinematic adventures. However, thanks to efforts of returning Wrath Of Kahn director Nicholas Meyer (still the best Trek movie ever made), this sixth entry wisely keeps it’s eyes on the prize and manages to somehow be essentially a whodunnit, a court room drama, a prison break movie, a political thriller AND a comment on world peace all in one, hugely entertaining package that deals in predictably big themes (space Glasnost, y’all!) while holding a steady course toward adventure.
Splitting the crew may not give you quite the triumphant last ride that The Final Frontier tried so hard to nail, but it does mean that the “lesser” crew members get to actively pitch in more with the detective parts of the script – although a reduced budget means that Spock can only search the inside of his own ship for clues. In fact, the plot is so busy and moves at such a clip it’s actually tough for the “main” three cast members (Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly) to get their usual footholds and the movie feels slightly more like an actual ensemble than usual, something that’s bolstered even further by a stacked supporting cast of familiar character actors that includes David Warner, Kim Cattrall, Kurtwood Smith and even roles for TNG and DS9 alumni Michael Dorn and Rene Auberjonois…. and, is that Christian freakin’ Slater waking Sulu up?
However, sauntering away with the best lines is Christopher Plummer’s eyepatch wearing, Shakespeare quoting Klingon General, Chang, a frustrated warrior who is itching to get one last crack at engaging Kirk in a space battle before impending peace treaties make such a thing frowned upon.
Despite a plot that throws murder, political assassinations, treason and some glaring human rights violations that need to be addressed fairly sharpish when it comes to Klingon’s department of corrections, Star Trek VI manages to keep things light, mixing in stuff like Kirk’s romantic dealings with an alien who turns out to be a shape shifter, the crew awkwardly trying to speak Klingon with the aid of numerous giant volumes of phrase books and Kirk besting a giant alien in his fight thanks to the troubling fact that it’s genitals are located in its knees.
The issues are minimal; George Takek’s Sulu may have scored his own command but it leaves him separated from the rest of the fun and the movie plays fast and loose with Trek tech in order to magic up a smoking gun in the form of a Klingon Bird Of Prey that can fire torpedoes while cloaked – but aside from a handful of hardcore Trekkers who no doubt lost their shit for about ten minutes back in 1991, these things prove not to be problematic at all.
While this isn’t quite the last hurrah for a smattering of the gang; Shatner had one more Trek left in him while Nimoy flew the flag for the old guard in the Kelvin timeline set reboots; this is a far more satisfying end to an impressive era in sci-fi cinema than a lot of franchises ever manage to achive and even though it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Wrath Of Kahn, First Contact or J.J. Abrams first attempt, it remains top tier Trek thanks to timely themes and a nimble pace.
So as the Enterprise dodges decommision one final time as Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Chekhov and Scotty head off for one final road trip through the stars, it’s genuinely inspiring to see them beam out on a high.
Props to this, the final, final frontier.
It was always a shame that, for a relatively tight and occasionally brilliant TV show on a tight budget, the Trek movies had funds to spend but were still so clumsy… giving the impression that Paramount thought or cared nothing about the franchise beyond the easy box office cash they thought it was worth. (Of course, they never did–but in the sixties they at least made an effort to pretend in the public eye that they were trying to create quality TV for us.)
The Undiscovered Country was a prime example of that, taking a good premise and choking it to death with the lazy storytelling, sloppy editing and hammy performances that they figured was all they needed to muster for a genre defined by Star Wars. And when the end of this movie finally arrived, I could only think, “Oh, thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy that we won’t be subjected to any more of that.”