After being tripped up by their own mistake of letting William Shatner direct a Star Trek feature, the powers-that-be at Paramount did the only wise thing: They brought back Nicholas Meyer, director of installment number two, The Wrath of Khan, still the gold standard among the ten Star Trek movies.
While this sixth movie doesn’t rise to the same level of Khan, it comfortably leaps into second place among the Trek feature films. The plot is a rather obvious allegory for the end of the Cold War but at least the story clicks along at a brisk pace and, like the second film, allows our characters some genuine human moments among the explosions. It’s nice to see our beloved crew go into action one more time in the service of a quality movie.
This movie finds Captain Kirk and crew on the verge of retirement (Like Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, Kirk is perpetually on the verge of retirement). His former helmsman, Captain Sulu (George Takei) of the starship Excelsior, witnesses a massive disaster on a Klingon mining planet called Praxis. The scale of devastation is such that the Klingon resources are stretched to their limits and they are forced to the peace table. Kirk is chosen to escort the Klingon leadership to the summit meeting. Still hurting from the death of his son at Klingon hands in Star Trek III, Kirk is less than enthusiastic.
The Enterprise meets the Klingon ship and beams the Klingon leader, Gorkon (David Warner), and his party aboard for dinner, including a scarred general with a Shakespeare fetish (Christopher Plummer). The evening goes quite badly, due to equal parts drink and ill feelings between old enemies, and then gets worse. The Klingon ship is fired upon, apparently by the Enterprise, and Gorkon is killed. To head off an immediate outbreak of war, Kirk, accompanied by Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), beams over to the Klingon ship to render aid. They are arrested instead.
With the Federation powerless to do anything without starting a war, Kirk and McCoy are tried, convicted and sentenced to the Klingon equivilent of a gulag. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) disobeys orders to return the Enterprise to base in order to expose the real plotters before they can completely derail the peace negotiations. Sulu also disobeys orders to track down the Enterprise and force her to return, going to her aid instead. Meanwhile, Kirk and McCoy attempt to escape with the aid of a sexy shapeshifting alien (Iman).
Joining the cast as Spock’s protege, Lt. Valeris, is Kim Cattrall. Meyer had intended to bring back Kirstie Alley to play Lt. Saavik but Gene Roddenberry overrode his wishes, for reasons that will be obvious once you’ve seen the end of the film. There is an exchange toward the end of the film that is clearly meant to reference a similar one between Spock and Saavik in the second and it certainly would have had a lot more punch with Saavik in the scene instead of Valeris.
The story and dialogue are smart and literate, even if Christopher Plummer’s character goes a bit overboard with quoting Shakespeare. Contrasted with the second film’s economic use of Herman Melville, the sixth is a virtual Shakespearean explosion. Little bits of the Bard are everywhere. The film also contains knowing nods to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Iran/Contra affair, as well as references to The Bridge of the River Kwai, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and Sherlock Holmes.
Taken as a whole, The Undiscovered Country is effective both as a movie and as an extension of the Star Trek mythos, second only to The Wrath of Khan.