Director: Nicholas Meyer
Original Release: December 6, 1991
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Just a month and a half after the death of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the franchise's sixth motion picture was released. It was the last film to include the entire principal cast of the original series. After the unmitigated disaster of film #5, The Final Frontier, and with the continuing success of The Next Generation, the old guard needed a win.
Meanwhile, the broader world was facing seismic change. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Cold War was over. The geo-political landscape upon which Star Trek was built was no more. Future stories would reflect newly prominent realities. But first, one more tale to acknowledge the transition.
The Klingon Empire is in decline. The destruction of the moon Praxis has brought matters to a crisis point. War with the Federation is no longer sustainable so peace is sought. The Enterprise runs to greet their new friends but a conspiracy is afoot. Not everyone is so keen on peace.
The Undiscovered Country is solid Trek. The regulars are at the top of their game and the supporting cast - including Kim Catrell, Christopher Plummer, Mark Lenard, Brock Peters, Michael Dorn and Christian Slater - is probably the strongest we've seen in a Star Trek movie so far. It doesn't have the obvious broader appeal of #4, The Voyage Home, but it's not as goofy either.
There is a knock against this movie and it's not easily dismissed. The mistrust of the Klingons by many, including our dear Captain Kirk, is seen by some as having uncomfortable racist overtones. Going all the way back to the first Klingon episode, "Errand of Mercy," the antagonism towards them has always been petty. Even the Romulans always seem to engender grudging respect in the end. But a lot of the rhetoric in The Undiscovered Country is downright hateful. Chekov's "Guess who's coming to dinner" line - a reference to the 1967 Sidney Poitier film about two families confronting the prospect of interracial marriage - was supposed to be Uhura's but Nichelle Nichols refused to say it.
Are such attitudes realistic in light of real world parallels? Of course. But Trek is supposed to be better than reality when it comes to confronting the other. As it turns out, even our heroes have their limits.
The script is riddled with Shakespeare quotes, including the title itself which derives from Hamlet. Plummer's character Chang, in particular, is quite fond of The Bard. But the movie's most intriguing literary allusion comes in a Spock line: "An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This is, of course, a famous Sherlock Holmes quip. The speculation: is Spock claiming kinship with Holmes himself or with his author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? For what it's worth, my money's on Doyle, though the idea of two fictional characters being related to each other is certainly fun to ponder.
The moment of truth, my rankings of the six original cast Star Trek films:
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
I'm not offering an especially adventurous perspective here. In fact, my rankings match the Rotten Tomatoes aggregates exactly. I'll be interested to see how subsequent movies measure up.