The first episode of the venerable Star Trek sci-fi series was aired on September 22, 1966, and spawned an entertainment tour de force that, despite some rocky times in syndication and various states of cancellation, continues to chug along even today more than 30 years later. But with the passing of time, the weathering of the starship Enterprise, and the graying of its crew, the original series that started as a gleam in Gene Roddenberry’s eye graced the silver screen for the last time 25 years after it began. Even though Undiscovered Country is the sixth movie in the sci-fi franchise, it stands tall as one of the best and still holds its own against its spry, modern, younger successors.
In a bit of a twist from previous films, Sulu is never seen together with the rest of the Enterprise crew. Instead, from the outset of the film, he is in command of his own ship The Excelsior (Note to William Riker: this is called career advancement). Off exploring space as usual, his ship encounters a gigantic energy surge resulting from an energy explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis which was, as near as I can tell, basically a gigantic Klingon Power Plant. In a brilliant twist on typical Star Trek lore, the mighty Klingon race is forced to come to the Federation for aid lest they go extinct as a species in less than five decades. Kirk is then put in the awkward position of playing would-be ambassador to the Klingon high council, an incredibly uncomfortable diplomatic role considering that his son was murdered at the hands of Klingons. It’s this type of juxtaposition that is the hallmark of Star Trek and all good science fiction, and further propels Undiscovered Country into the upper echelons of Star Trek movies.
The phrase “Action-Packed” has never been apt for Star Trek, save for the notable exception of First Contact, but it wouldn’t be far off the mark here. After the abysmal Final Frontier, and knowing that this film would be the series’ swan song, director Nicholas Meyer (who also helmed the brilliant Wrath of Khan) ratchets up the intensity on all fronts. From the uncomfortable dinner scene aboard the Enterprise, where the Klingons and Enterprise crewmen can barely contain their disdain for each other while General Chang (Christopher Plummer) and Kirk try to out-Shakespeare-quote each other, to the amazing courtroom scene (“Don’t wait for the translation!”) to the final showdown between the Enteprise and a Klingon bird of prey, Undiscovered Country is about as intense as they come. There’s also a bit of mystery, treachery, backstabbing, and old-fashioned fisticuffs thrown in for good measure. It all comes together quite well, despite a few missteps here and there such as the over-the-top climax which is far too abrupt and logic-defying to go over with much satisfaction. Believe it or not, even the visual effects are far from terrible, though still mired in typical Star Trek cheese. Couldn’t they find decent model builders by now?
Unfortunately what gets sacrificed here, as with some of the other movies, are the characters. Most of Kirk’s intrepid crew is reduced to goggle-eyed stares at the viewscreen or groan-worthy one-liners. The story here is about Kirk, and to a lesser degree, Bones and Spock, and unlike Voyage Home no one else is given any significant contributions to the story. It’s an unfitting sendoff for Sulu, Uhura, and of course Scotty, but given the high quality of the movie as a whole these character missteps are somewhat forgivable.
Few movie series ever make it to their sixth iteration, and those that do are mostly content to cash in on trends, following the same regurgitated storylines all the way to the bank. But rather than churn out a halfway decent film destined for the VHS bargain bin, Meyer and his crew gave Undiscovered Country all they had and put effort into crafting a work that respects the source material while offering an incredibly pleasing finale to the journey begun by Gene Roddenberry more than three decades earlier.
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