Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' (1991)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Thankfully, Paramount decided not to let The Final Frontier stand as the last Star Trek movie to feature the entire original cast, because Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a lovely send-off for the original Enterprise crew and a very good movie in its own right, second only to The Wrath of Khan in the original series. Wisely, it pays no attention to the events of The Final Frontier, while following up on certain plot elements of the preceding three movies. Yet it's not as closely tied to those movies as they all were to each other, and it functions well as a standalone piece and as a companion to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was at the time in its fifth season.

Torch-passing is very much on the movie's mind, and returning director and co-writer Nicholas Meyer (who worked on both The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home) handles the characters' impending retirement with grace, even when the characters themselves don't. While William Shatner made Kirk into a cartoonish superhuman in The Final Frontier, here Kirk is flawed and arrogant, and he comes to regret some of his actions by the end of the movie. Most of the characters end up reflecting on their age and potential obsolescence, as the entire original crew (minus George Takei's Sulu, who has gone on to become captain of his own starship) is set to be decommissioned in a few months. They're sent on one last, seemingly mundane mission, to escort the Klingon leader to Earth for peace talks, and they find themselves caught in the middle of a plan to sabotage those talks.

The thawing of tensions between the Klingons and the Federation was meant to reference the timely topic of the end of the Cold War, but the story works well on its own, even viewed many years later when the references are not nearly as topical. Christopher Plummer is great as the grandiose Klingon general who is holding onto the old ways, whose methodical and intellectual approach to warfare makes him the series' most compelling villain since Khan. The movie manages to put together a decent whodunit (as Spock and the Enterprise crew search for clues about the saboteurs who assassinated the Klingon leader) along with its political allegory and its exciting space battles, and it makes good on the promise of a storyline about Kirk on trial that was mostly cut short in The Voyage Home. Even Kirk and McCoy's imprisonment in a Klingon work camp on a remote icy planet fits into the story well, giving Shatner one final chance for both fisticuffs and lip-locks (with a shape-shifting alien played by Iman).

While the jokes in The Final Frontier made the characters seem like whining senior citizens, the humor here is both gentler and more consistent, and tinged with a bit of melancholy. Shatner redeems himself after his terrible acting and directing in the previous movie (although Kirk's rousing final speech is more than a little cheesy), and Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley give Spock and McCoy the right mix of dignity and irascibility (if nothing else, rewatching these movies has given me a new appreciation for Kelley's acting abilities). Michael Dorn is a welcome surprise as the great-grandfather of his TNG character, who serves as Kirk and McCoy's Klingon lawyer, and Kim Cattrall brings surprising gravity to her role as Vulcan Lt. Valeris.

Although this is the third Trek movie to substantially feature Klingons as villains, it's the only one that really uses them well, giving them the sense of history and honor they deserve. Outside of their use as metaphors for Soviets, the Klingons have a fascinating culture that this movie gets right, as more than just belligerent warriors or rude bullies. The eventual conspiracy to derail the peace talks, which involves Klingons, Romulans, humans and Vulcans, is a plot worthy of Star Trek's galactic scope, and it highlights one of my favorite things about Trek: the way it can feel like the real political and social history of the future. That's an impressive accomplishment, and a great way to give these beloved characters a proper ending.

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