Movie Trek 6: Once More Unto the Breach
One final frontier for the original cast
The nineties were a great decade for Trek. The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all aired, along with three of the Next Gen movies. But before Picard and his crew took over Trek's cinematic enterprises, there was one final outing for the original series cast. The sixth Trek film is one of the very best, a personal favourite of the TOS movies and a fine swansong for that entire era of Star Trek.
The last film to feature the entire core cast of the original series – Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Nichols, Takei and Koenig – The Undiscovered Country also had brief guest roles for Mark Lenard as Sarek and Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, in keeping with the everyone-together-one-last-time feel. Plus there were guest roles for other Trek actors: Michael Dorn appears as Worf's grandfather, also called Worf; Brock Peters and John Schuck return as their Star Trek IV roles of Admiral Cartright and the lairy Klingon Amabassador. Rene Auberjonois played Colonel West, a couple of years before being cast as Odo on Deep Space Nine; unfortunately, he was cut from the final film so remains only in the nebulously canonical status of deleted scenes. Growly old W. Morgan Sheppard takes his second of four Trek roles as the chief prison guard on Rura Penthe; Curtwood Smith, the first of three; and David Warner makes his second of three Trek roles as Chancellor Gorkon.
Even this brief list of Trek alumni shows how awesome the film's cast is. Warner, forever one of my very favourite actors, was a bit wasted as St. John Talbot in Star Trek V, but here he gets a good, meaty role as the softly spoken, noble Klingon leader. Only Christopher Plummer outclasses him as General Chang, the eloquent, untrustworthy traitor of the Empire. Klingons had pretty solidly been played by American actors in the past, and increasingly buried under latex and make-up. Both actors insisted on subtler make-up jobs, which allowed them a great deal more individuality as characters than most Klingons got. Warner's look as Gorkon made him look like an alien Abe Lincoln, while Plummer's Gorkon look was especially minimalist, but with the bald head and bolted on eye patch, cool as hell. (The missus, who's long had a thing for Plummer, refers to him only as General Sexy. DS9 features both Chief Sexy and Gul Sexy, so make of that what you will.) Classy, well-spoken and restrained, these were very different to the Klingons we'd come to know in either TOS or TNG. It's hard to imagine any Klingon other than Chang quoting Shakespeare, nor anyone but Plummer getting away with it.
In addition to these fine gentlemen we have three powerful female characters from alien races. Rosana DeSoto is formidable as Azetbur, Gorkon's daughter and successor as Chancellor, but doesn't get enough screentime to make a serious impression. (Incidentally, the existence of a female Chancellor contrasts with the sexist male-only council of the TNG era.) The astonishingly beautiful Iman portrays Martia, the mysterious, untrustworthy, inscrutable shapeshifter who befriends and betrays Kirk and McCoy on Rura Penthe. She dominates her scenes with ice-cold composure. It's a shame she never shares a scene with Kim Cattrall; can you imagine the smoldering?
Cattrall is amazing as Valeris, the young but self-assured Vulcan officer who occupies a prominent position on the Enterprise. It's a shame, though, that the original plan to have Saavik return and be revealed as the traitor on the ship didn't come through. Nicholas Meyer was originally insistent upon it, but Roddenberry told him to change it; Meyer told him to go hang, as it was his film and his character. However, he wanted Kirsty Ally back to play Saavik, and when she turned out to be unwilling (or possibly just too expensive, mid-Cheers), he relented and rewrote her to become a new character. Why Robin Curtis wasn't approached, I don't know, but there we have it. While Cattrall has said she would have refused to play Saavik, but was intrigued by playing a new character, it does rob the revelation of her betrayal of much of its clout. Valeris is functionally identical to Saavik, with a similar relationship to Spock, but by making her a new character we have no reason to trust her or be shocked when she's revealed as a turncoat. Still, at least we got Cattrall in the film, so I can't be too disappointed.
Considering the absolute chaos behind the scenes, it's amazing how brilliantly this film holds together. With Roddenberry making last-ditch attempts to regain control of the franchise before his health finally failed him, long-standing creative figures walking away from the project over clashing visions, and the writers and directors coming to disagreements, this could have been a fun but messy failure like The Final Frontier. Instead, we get an action-packed political thriller with strong echoes of the fragile peace in the just-post-Cold War world.
The Undiscovered Country acted as a handover to the Next Generation-era of Trek, taking place at the end of the twenty-third century and setting up some of the political situation of the twenty-fourth. TNG had been pretty vague about the details in the earliest episodes, but the big difference was that the Federation were at peace with the Klingons, while the Romulans were nowhere to be seen until the end of the first season when they came out of isolation (mirroring similar events a century earlier in TOS). The Undiscovered Country saw the Klingons forced to sue for peace when their moon, Praxis, exploded, threatening to devastate their atmosphere. The tenuous peace that was won in the film gradually evolved into the strong alliance seen on TNG, itself leading to the Romulans deciding to keep themselves to themselves. While this is all fascinating from an in-universe point of view, the parallels intended with Chernobyl and the fall of the Soviet Union are more interesting in the potential they hold. Unfortunately, the politics of the Trek universe turned out to be more hopeful than those of the real world.
Back to the original cast... While five of the seven core actors came back to Trek after this (Doohan on TNG, Nimoy on TNG and the reboot films, Takei on Voyager, Chekov and Shatner on Star Trek Generations), there's still a sense of finality to their scenes together. Things have already moved on, and unlike in the other films where there's the sense that they're still part of the same extended crew, it all feels more separated here. Sulu has, deservedly, his own command, the coveted Excelsior, although by now even that ship is relegated to surveying gaseous anomalies (it's been about eight years since it was the exciting new ship on the block in Star Trek III). Chekov and Scotty are still on the Enterprise, under the command of Spock (it's not made much of in the script, but it's clear that Spock is in full command of the ship now, with Kirk as a guest – indeed, he even issues him orders). Uhura is doing seminars and McCoy looks about ready to hang up his hypospray for good. The mission to meet the Klingon elite is very much their last hurrah.
Then, of course, it all goes horribly wrong, with Kirk and McCoy framed for the assassination of the Chancellor. That they're obviously patsies isn't a problem; diplomatically, the Federation can't do anything to upset the Klingon Empire at such a delicate time. A parallel plot to assassinate the Federation President runs alongside, intended to destroy the peace process for good. It's gripping stuff, with the Enterprise-Excelsior team on the joint mission to rescue Kirk and McCoy from the Klingon prison asteroid and solve the conspiracy. (The central irony being, of course, that Klingons, Romulans and Federation citizens are working together in their plot to disrupt the peace.) The scenes on Rura Penthe are some of the film's best, filled with all manner of colourful alien bastards who you wouldn't want to mess with. These scenes retain some of the gritty grubbiness of Star Trek V's Nimbus Three scenes, only with over-the-top sci-fi colour. There are some classic Kirk-McCoy moments here, such as McCoy bitching at him for snogging yet another alien woman, or Kirk bollocking a big blue brute in the knees. Although it all pales compared to Kirk fighting Martia in the form of Kirk. “I can't believe I kissed you!” “Must have been your lifelong ambition!”
There's a darker element to the film, with Kirk expressing, at best, xenophobia and, at worst, outright racism towards the Klingons. While this is more pronounced in the theatrical cut than Shatner had intended (certain scenes being trimmed to remove expressions of regret at his more questionable comments) it's certainly understandable that Kirk, having fought the Klingons throughout his career and lost his son to one, would have grown to hate them. It's a very human failing to ascribe hateful qualities to a whole people, and, with the best will in the world, I doubt that people will grow out of it completely in the next three hundred years. Other Enterprise crewmen drop unpleasant comments. Initially some of the worst were to be made by Uhura, using racially-loaded phrases like “Look who's coming to dinner,” but Nichols refused. While this is understandable, the tense juxtaposition would have worked better than Chekov delivering the lines. At least Brock Peters stomached saying the equally inflammatory “Bring them to their knees,” although he had his reservations as well.
The film features some of the greatest space battles in Trek, courtesy of Chang, his invisible warship and his constant Shakespeare quoting. The ending is triumphant and hopeful, but also a little tragic, as the old boys are told that their ship is to report home for decommissioning. In-universe this makes little sense – the Enterprise-A has only been in service for about seven years, although it's possible it was an older ship renamed – but in story terms it's perfect, marking the end of Kirk and co's ownership of the franchise and paving the way for the TNG cast to take over on the big screen. Age comes to all of us – even though half these characters do survive to the twenty-fourth century, of the core seven cast members, three are now dead, and Nichols is seriously ill. Of the broader cast, Whitney, Plummer and Sheppard are all gone. Whether you're team Roddenberry or not, his death mere weeks before the film's release, and the film's dedication to him, is an added sadness. There's a bittersweet tang to the whole thing.
A fine farewell to the original Star Trek cast, The Undiscovered Country is one of the best films in the franchise.
STAR TREK VI : THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Written by Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn
Released: 6th December 1991
Starships featured: USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A,
USS Excelsior NCC-2000, Kronos One
Planets visited: Earth, Kronos, Rura Penthe, Khitomer