Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VIThe 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.

Star Trek VI Cast

The gang's all here

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?

Star Trek VI Courtroom

The Klingon judicial system: a model of legal efficiency.

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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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek V: The Final FrontierThe Star Trek movie franchise is one of the most inconsistent string of films in existence. While some franchises are either mostly good or mostly terrible, the Star Trek movies swing like a pendulum from amazing to awful.  Conventional wisdom among Trekkies states that every other film is good, and my experience pretty much verifies this.  The first one in the franchise spends well over two hours chasing Kubrick’s coattails and ends up being a mess of heavyhanded philosophizing, but its sequel, Wrath of Khan, is considered one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time.  And so the pendulum swing begins, with Search for Spock floundering while Voyage Home soars.  The pattern being established, then, things don’t look good for Final Frontier from the get-go, even though it’s directed by William Shatner.  If anyone can do justice to a Star Trek film, it’s Captain Kirk, right?  Unfortunately, the pattern holds true: Final Frontier is a poorly written, haphazardly directed, logic-defying science fiction disaster.

Things begin with a bit of promise, as all the trappings of classic science fiction are present and accounted for:  Mysterious Distant Planet? Check. Strange aliens? Check. Hints at a violent struggle–a system to be overthrown–and an allegorical savior figure, check.  We then meet our intrepid Captain James Kirk (affably played, as always, by the great William Shatner), free-climbing mountains in Yosemite with all the fervor a post-middle-aged guy can muster, and soon find and his pal Bones (DeForest Kelley) him teaching Spock (Leonard Nimoy) how to sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat around a campfire.  It’s a tad endearing, and all in all not a bad start for the film.

Star Trek V: Go Climb a Rock

Good advice, Shatner...

It’s not long before things spiral hopelessly out of control, with Starfleet sending Kirk and his aging crew off to the aforementioned Distant Planet to figure out what is going on with Sybok, the man who has taken over the only settlement on the planet.  Why Starfleet would send Kirk on a dangerous mission with a brand new Enterprise that is clearly not ready for a trip around the block, much less across the galaxy, is the first of many such asteroid-sized plot holes in the movie that is just too big to overlook.  Sybok, no doubt cribbing from a few self-help books, persuades all of Kirk’s loyal companions to follow him and turn against their fearless captain.  With the flip of a couple switches, the Enterprise gallivants off to the mythical Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy all because Sybok thinks he will get to have tea with the Almighty. Turns out the mythical Great Barrier is a) about five minutes away, and b) about as impenetrable as a kleenex, meaning Sybok and company sail right through as easily as if they were heading off to Risa for a cup of earl gray.

The final showdown with God has all the drama of a middle school play, but it does give Shatner a chance to ask one of the great questions that has plagued mankind since the dawn of time:

Meantime, those darn Klingons keep causing trouble (wouldn’t you if Kirk had blown up your starship two movies earlier?), and the fabled Enterprise crew is reduced to uttering one-line expositions while staring blankly at the bridge viewscreen.  The movie is an exercise in futility, and the special effects are as cheesy as a jar of Velveeta (though to be fair, this wasn’t entirely Shatner’s fault).  Even though a few lighthearted and genuinely entertaining bits are scattered here and there, it’s like having to sidestep piles of horse manure to pick up some candy at a parade.  As Kirk and his bros enter into a reprise “Row Row Row Your Boat” to close out the film, the best we can do is wish that the film would have also been left ‘but a dream.


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