Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Review
By the time The Final Frontier was released, it was clear that the days of the adventures of Captain Kirk and co were coming to an end. Jokes about the ages (and girths) of certain cast members were becoming common, and with Star Trek: The Next Generation going from strength to strength on the small screen there were ready-made successors waiting in the wings so that Paramount could continue to milk its now billion dollar franchise at the box office. For a time it looked like Star Trek V might actually be the last; its box office was disappointing (although not helped by coming out in the same summer as Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and when producer Harve Bennett did start to make tentative plans for the next film his initial suggestion was to make a prequel, showing how a young Kirk, Spock and McCoy originally met and their first adventure together. However, fans balked at the idea of someone other than Shatner and co playing these iconic characters (sheer heresy!) and when the bean counters noticed that the series’s twenty-fifth anniversary was rapidly approaching in September 1991 it was decided to crank out one last adventure to commemorate and give our heroes a suitable send off.
Swift action had to be taken however and, even for a series that had churned out five films in ten years, the production schedule of what became Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was incredibly tight. To help make life easier, Nicholas Meyer, original saviour of the franchise after the disastrous The Motion Picture was called back into service to direct and co-write. A wise choice, you might think; not only did he know the characters well, but his previous directorial effort The Wrath of Khan was still generally recognised as the best Trek film so far, while the last time he had put pen to paper for the series he had co-written The Voyage Home, arguably the most popular and certainly the most lucrative of the five. The result this time was The Undiscovered Country, a film which was considered when it debuted, and generally is still to this day, as one of the strongest of the now eleven big screen Treks, one extremely popular in the fan community and seen as, indeed, a fine way to lower the curtain on the original crew.
All of which is, frankly, bizarre. For, while superficially The Undiscovered Country is a decent movie, scratch the surface and you find a flawed, deeply contrived piece, one which suffers from large plot holes, a clumsy narrative and one of the worst Trek villains this side of Shinzon. Just as the original series had made episodes about the USSR and Vietnam, so now did Meyer decide to reflect the extraordinary geopolitical changes that were happening across the world even as the movie was being shot and make a film showing the Star Trek equivalent of the end of the Cold War. The film opens with Captain Sulu, newly promoted to his own command, witnessing the destruction of Praxis, the Klingon Empire’s key energy producing facility. Without it the Klingon race will die out within a generation and so, somewhat reluctantly, they begin to make overtures of peace with the Federation. The Enterprise is sent to escort the reformist Klingon Ambassador Gorkon (David Warner, in his second Trek film in a row) to a peace conference on Earth, something Kirk, who still blames the Klingon race for the death of his son in The Search for Spock, is not best pleased about. However, no one expects what happens next, as the Ambassador is assassinated after apparently being attacked by the Enterprise, an occurrence no one on the Federation ship can explain. While Kirk and McCoy are arrest, tried and imprisoned on the desolate Klingon prison world of Rura Penthe, Spock, left in charge, has to don his deerstalker and play Sherlock Holmes. What really attacked the Klingon ship, who assassinated the Chancellor, and what does this mean for the peace conference? It’s a race against time to stop the conspirators destroying the galaxy’s best, and possibly last, hope for peace between the two previously implacable enemies...
Looked at dispassionately, The Undiscovered Country feels like nothing more than an undignified parody of The Wrath of Khan. Meyer brings the exact same ingredients to both films, but whereas they had a truth and intelligence in Khan here they are simply grotesque and pantomimic. Khan’s lyrical poetry, its allusions to the classics and its poetical turns of phrase, are here bluntly re-envisaged as a bunch of Klingons spouting Shakespeare, an absurd affectation that doesn’t remotely ring true. Klingons don’t have a poetical bone in their body, and if they had to take to heart one of the Elizabethan dramatists for their own it’s far more likely they’d have adopted the bloodthirsty Marlowe or Kidd rather than the subtle Bard. This silliness, and the film’s innate misjudgement, are personified in the character of Christopher Plummer’s General Chang, one of the main villains of the piece. Chang is what Khan would have looked like had he been played for laughs, complete with piratical eyepatch and constant yelling, the equivalent of a Roger Moore Bond villain. He’s so over-the-top that it is impossible to take him seriously, even before he starts spouting endless lines of Shakespeare. It doesn’t work on any level, and even worse he’s not even entertaining to watch, making for a totally unmemorable, ill-conceived adversary.
But then the crudity of his character is mirrored by the crudity of the plot. This is essentially a whodunit with only one suspect, backed by a group of other suspects who the viewer neither notices nor cares about. As a result the search for clues is uninteresting, unhelped by the fact the mystery is so contrived as to force the story to jump through several parsec-wide plot holes to be sustained. Away from the adventures of Kirk and McCoy on Rura Penthe, the middle portion of the film set on the Enterprise is a whirl of noise and fuss signifying nothing, a series of contrivances that neither engage nor cohere to a decent narrative. The whole just does not work. If you want an example of how the script twists and turns, look at that clock which has suddenly appeared on the viewscreen; not there in any previous movie or series, its sole reason for being is to help aid Spock in the solving of the mystery.
Even worse from a fan perspective is that the characters have to be fundamentally altered to fit the story. Now, I’m not blinkered; I know that the Original Series’s much acclaimed ideals of equality and freedom from discrimination were layered with more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the form of miniskirts, smacked bottoms and the casually racist treatment of Spock. But importantly the people were open-minded, willing to change and expand. Here Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and the rest are portrayed as bigots, mocking the Klingons behind their back and seemingly unwilling to change. There’s a notable advance in years in the characters between the last film and this, as though all involved thought as it was the last one they might as well not bother trying to look young anymore, and the collective impression one comes away with is a group of old conservatives grumpily standing by and complaining about this new fangled multiculturalism nonsense. An ugly sight, and not the set of heroes I know. A couple of moments are particularly heinous: I can never decide which I dislike more, Kirk’s “Let them die!” or Spock’s enforced mindmeld with Valeris, the latter especially uncomfortable these days as it has more than a tinge of the Guantanamo about it. Those who advocate the movie say that it’s good to show these characters as human, as having prejudices the same as the rest of us, and I would say yes, okay, if this was the first time we’ve seen these people that’s fair enough. But it’s not; after seventy-nine episodes and five previous films we know these people, know their limits, and the unpleasant versions we see here are discomforting and don’t ring true.
The shame is that a better, more dignified movie is evidently straining to be freed. The idea of drawing a parallel between the fall of the Klingon Empire and the fall of Soviet Russia is excellent, if somewhat cute, and even though in the original series it was the Romulans more than the Klingons who represented the Communists, a fairly natural progression. The set piece assassination of the Klingon Ambassador, complete with floating Klingons, and immediate follow-up when Kirk and McCoy go aboard is the undoubted highlight of the movie and shows the same Meyer touch for constructing tense sequences as in Khan’s initial encounter with the eponymous villain. The sequences on Rura Penthe too are very nicely done, helped by a surprisingly decent turn by David Bowie’s wife Imam as the untrustworthy alien who helps Kirk and McCoy escape, while the ending, in which Kirk says that yes, okay ,maybe there is something in this multiculturalism lark after all and everyone gives him a round of applause, is, if a little cheesy, not awful, especially because it’s essentially there so the crew can get a nice clap. Indeed, the last ten minutes overall bring the curtain down nicely and movingly, with Spock’s “Go to hell” a perfect last moment. As the Enterprise heads into the sunset, and Kirk in his log subtly hands over to Picard by changing from “Where no man” to “Where no one has gone before,” I always well up a bit and think, “Yeah, that’s a great way to end. Why couldn’t the rest of it have been so good?” But it isn’t, it’s a mess, demonstrating on screen the rush to get it finished in time.
We reach the final film of the set, and there are no changes - once again the presentation is identical, with the film and extras held on a single BD50, housed in a slim amaray case which in turn lives in the slipcase of all seven discs - it's Scotty's face to be seen on this particular one, presumably because he was the only one left (personally I would have had him on IV's and Sulu's on six, given the latter gets to be a Captain, but I would never say that aloud for fear of being told by Bill to get a life.) The menus across the set are uniform, a minimalistic pan around the Starfleet logo through which space can be seen, accompanied by an extract from the film's score. As ever, the extras are divided into several categories - Production, The Star Trek Universe and so on - but to find out which are new to this release and which come from the SD Special Collectors' Edition from a few years ago you must consult the case.
The new Video transfer is one of the most different from past releases. For the SCE the movie was presented in an aspect ratio of practically 2:1 at Meyer's behest. However, the version here is, like all the others in the set, at 2.35:1, restoring the original theatrical ratio, as you can see from the below comparison screen captures. The difference this makes is quite noticeable if you're used to viewing it in the larger version, but the original ratio is far more preferable - I don't actually know Meyer changed it, but I'm glad it's been changed back here, as I read someone say on a forum a few weeks back, it lends the film a far more epic quality! The other major difference from the SD is that this BD version, like those for The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, is the original theatrical cut - again, for the SCE Meyer went back, rejigged a few scenes (notably the Mind Meld scene between Valeris and Spock) and stuck a couple of deleted scenes in, one in which the Federation President discusses a plan to rescue Kirk and McCoy, the other with Spock and McCoy checking out torpedos. These changes were not to the film's advantage; the President's scene was utterly superfluous, while the set for the second inserted scene did not marry with the rest of the Enterprise's decor, and looked markedly out of place. Most annoying though, like the couple of now deleted-scenes from Khan, these sequences are not included separately in Deleted Scenes - why on earth not?
The transfer is pretty good. As I'm by now tired of writing, the improvement over the SD transfer is marked, the print benefitting from being cleaned up and having an inevitably sharper picture - you only have to look at the comparison shots below to see that. Because it's very much a studio picture, with only a few Second Unit shots of Alaska representing the great outdoors, the removal of grain is not as noticeable, but once again skin tones look a little plasticky, apparently having suffered a slightly too enthusiastic scrubbing from the DNR machine. However, the one significant problem feature in the scenes in Rura Penthe, which are markedly lacking in definition. A couple of scenes, especially the one in which Kirk and McCoy are in their bunks, are not nearly as clear as they should be, making for a more challenging watch than it should have been. This is doubly a shame given the prison sequences are amongst the film's most atmospheric and would have been enhanced with a first rate transfer, which they don't get here (a similar issue, albeit less severe, is also visible in the Klingon court sequence.) The problem isn't manifest throughout the picture - the scenes on the Klingon ship when the Chancellor is assassinated are nice for example - so once again it's a variable outcome, albeit one that is, as I will say once more as I won't get the chance to again, far superior to the SD's. Here are some comparison shots:
The above is a good example of the increased clarity - note how much more visible the wire holding the actor is in the HD shot.
The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD Audio is pretty good too. The opening explosion of Praxis makes good use of all speakers, as does the subsequent fuss on the Excelsior bridge. The Klingon ship has a nicely satisfying timbre, complete with the echoes of panicking Klingon voices, and the Enterprise itself, which is far more crowded than usual in these films, also bustles with the sounds of Starfleet personnel. Rura Penthe is a little less atmospheric than one might imagine, although the Arctic winds are suitably chilly, while the final battle with Chang will rattle your speakers as you are surrounded by his Shakespearean ranting. Overall, pretty good.
The film and all extras bar the commentaries are subtitled. As ever, the extras presented in HD I've asterisked in the account below.
With one important difference, once again all the extras from the SCE have made the journey over to its HD descendant. The difference is that the two deleted scenes, mentioned above, don't appear anywhere, so if you want to see them, you'll have to look elsewhere. (The other SD extra which doesn't appear, the Okuda's text commentary, is as with the other new editions replaced with the Library Computer.) Of the new material, it's on this film's disc that the most notable, or perhaps just insane, new extra of the entire set appears. Scarily free of both irony and the knowledge that they're completely missing the point, To Be Or Not To Be: Klingons and Shakespeare* (23:04) takes literally the joke in the script in which Chang says you don't know the Bard until "you've heard him in the original Klingon" and features a group of actors in St Paul who did, indeed, perform Hamlet in the alien tongue. For a few moments it's pleasant to imagine the actors are just spouting only old gobbledegook (it's very easy to sound like a Klingon and, really, who would know the difference?) but sadly it appears they really have translated and learnt the play to perform. Truly, the gift of life is wasted on some people - the shame of it is that this actually both insane and rather boring as once you've sat through a few minutes of some twit spouting the Klingon To Be Or Not To Be with a Cornish Pasty on his head you'll grow tired of it. Not so much a case of Qapla! as just crap. On the other end of the scale, the anodyne but pleasant Tom Morga: Alien Stuntman* (4:58) sees the Trek bit player chatting about his various roles in the series, while, for the final time there's a pointless briefing from the lady in the poorly made uniform in Starfleet Academy: Praxis* (2:37).
The new "fan" Commentary is one of the better ones and features Larry Nemecek, who down the years has written a slew of Trek reference books, joins Ira Steven Behr, who was one of the guiding lights (together with Ron Moore) on Deep Space Nine. They ramble and go off at tangents at times, but they make for an engaging, amusing pair and enjoyable companions to watch the film with. The SCE's commentary, with Nick Meyer and the film's writer Denny Martin Flinn, is also very good, in that the pair give between them a good idea of both the film's evolution and themes. Taken together, unquestionably this is the film which gets the best yak tracks.
The other SCE extras are decent too. We get a fairly comprehensive Making Of, Stories from Star Trek VI (57:18) which is broken into six parts - It Started With A Story, Prejudice, Director Nick Meyer, Shakespeare & General Chang, Bringing It To Life and Farewells - along the way acknowledging some of the film's problems (Kirk’s prejudice, the daftness of the Shakespearean Chang) even if it doesn't try to excuse them. Meyer himself gets an individual featurette, Conversations with Nick Meyer (9:31), in which he makes two interesting comments, one when he draws a somewhat dubious comparison between Star Trek films and the Catholic Mass, and the other when he relates how he handled Shatner’s more hammy tendencies on set, which is nicely revealing. We also get the usual Trailers* (1:29 & 2:24), Storyboards for four different sequences (including one, the Enterprise leaving dock, that didn't get filmed) and a misleadingly-named Production Gallery (3:25) which features as much moving footage, featuring lots of jolliness. as it does stills. There's also the rather weighty The Perils of Peacemaking (26:31), a decent documentary in which Nimoy and others (including Dennis Ross) talk at length about the themes of the movie and its metaphoric study of the fall of the USSR.
Years before the film's Shatner and Christopher Plummer had acted together in Canada, and in Together Again (4:56) they recall the time when Shatner stepped into the breach (no pun intended) when Plummer fell ill during a run of Henry V. Nice little featurette, although it’s a shame the two aren’t together to reminisce. Moving back to the film's release, this disc's collection of Original Interviews, which consist of brief five minutes with each of the seven cast members as well as, for some reason, Imam, is most interesting for seeing which of them thought this really would be the last film, and which hoped for yet another – Doohan and Takei in particular are convinced they’ll be back again (and, indeed, they both eventually were, albeit in not exactly the ways they imagined at the time.) The other bit of publicity included is the 1991 Convention Presentation By Nick Meyer (4:49) which sees the director introducing a short series of clips from the bridge of Chang’s battlecruiser.
As usual, there are a handful of extras looking at the "wider Star Trek universe." Klingons: Conjuring the Legend (20:44) is the sort of in-depth look at a particular aspect of Trek lore that has ubernerds like me clapping along happily but which won’t be of much interest to the more casual watcher, while Penny’s Toybox (6:05) features the then-Trek archivist at Paramount Penny Juday showing us round the huge collection of props, models and costumes from the franchise, a collection which has since been auctioned off. Federation Operatives (4:52), meanwhile, is a bit of filler which details actors in TUC who also popped up in other guises in the franchise down the years, from which no doubt the Tom Morga featurette above drew its inspiration. Finally, there's the suitably touching DeForest Kelley: A Tribute (13:18). By all accounts Kelley seems to have been by far the most pleasant and easy going of the original series’s cast, and here they all remember him with affection. Of course, at the time the SCE was released, he was the only one of the seven to have died, and it's noticeable in extras across several of the film's discs how he was still greatly missed - Shatner especially a couple of times in commentaries seems to dwell on his passing.
There's also a seventh disc included in the set, entitled Star Trek: The Captain's Table (71:13). This consists of a single feature, in which Shatner and Nimoy sit down with Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and invigilator Whoopi Goldberg to have a chat about all things Trek. The tone is one of light-hearted banter, intermixed with the odd sincere reflection, and is very reminiscent of what it's like when such people perform on stage at conventions. I doubt it's of much interest to anyone who isn't a fanatical Trekker, and even for those there are moments which are tiresome or indulgent, but in general it's great fun, especially for the amusing contrast between Nimoy - relaxed, laconic, at peace with himself - and the hyper Shatner, who is always "on."
The Undiscovered Country, while one of the poorer of the films, gets a great collection of extras, second only possibly to those on Khan.
And that's it. We've reached the end of our week-long trek through the big screen voyages of the Starship Enterprise. From the false beginnings of The Motion Picture, to the series's high point of The Wrath of Khan and then slow descent into mediocrity, it's been great fun to revisit the six adventures, and enjoy them anew. It very quickly became apparent that Star Trek was never going to have the same box office clout of Star Wars and once it realised that, it settled down quite happily, content to churn out a new picture every couple of years to amuse the fans and keep the franchise ticking over. They are not, by any stretch of the imagination, collectively a great film series, but compared to many other franchises that reached a similar number of instalments in roughly the same decade - A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th both spring to mind - they managed to maintain a very credible consistency, managing to battle and, usually, overcome many difficulties like budgetary constraints and giant egos. Along the way they managed to tell what is still arguably the greatest Star Trek story ever, the death and rise of Spock, and helped cement the cultural legacy of Gene Roddenberry's series into the consciousness of the US, and beyond that the world. A great example of pulp storytelling at its best, and its thanks to the seven stars - William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols - that these films, often as pulpy as they are, will continue to live long and prosper. (Ahem.)
As for this set, despite many online quibbles, the new transfers are, if not quite as good as they could have been, still such a vast improvement over the rotten prints we got for the SD releases a few years back that upgrading is unreservedly recommended. The set is not without the odd extremely annoying flaw - the lack of the deleted scenes on this disc being a perfect example, as is the lack of option to choose between the different versions of both this film and Khan (and even The Motion Picture, SFX issues aside), doubly annoying given that exact same option is one of the main selling points of the new Original Series BDs. The new extras are also, give and take the odd one, not worth your time and smack of obligation rather than the pressing need for any extra material, but in fairness the original SCE material had already done a fine job in covering most of what was needed, with only the missing extras from The Motion Picture letting the side down. Odd quirks like that aside, this is a fine set, and well worth your time in seeking out and boldly going where no BD viewer has gone before.
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