3/27/09

You Don't Know Shat: Star Trek:The Undiscovered Country (1991)

In the three weeks we’ve spent basking in the presence of Shatner, we’ve seen many sides to the man. In Pray for the Wildcats, we were introduced to the Shat in a grey flannel suit. Then Kingdom of the Spiders showed off William’s cowboy hero side. Spplat Attack showed off Shatner the man, perhaps even more fascinating than his character. Well, almost. I say almost because no month waxing poetic about Shatner would be complete without an appearance by James Tiberius Kirk. If you’re a Trekkie (or Trekker as shamed Trekkies prefer) or not, there’s no denying that when you say Shatner people think Kirk. It is a role he has defined in the vernacular of the public for almost 50 years, and with the Star Trek reboot on its way in a little over a month; I thought it was high time I covered my favorite movie featuring Kirk. So at long last the month is over and I bring to you the swan song of the original cast, Ladies and Gents…
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country  starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takai, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols Christopher Plummer, and Kim Catrell. Directed by Nicholas Meyer

After a disaster on the Klingon moon Praxis and through the mediation of Captain Spock, the Klingon Empire has felt the need to negotiate for peace with the Federation. So who better to ferry the Klingon representative, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), than the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise. With the ship and crew due to be decommissioned, Kirk and company are not so happy to be called up for escort duty, and Kirk has no use for the peace overtures of the Klingons who he has yet to forgive for the death of his son.

They crew boards the Enterprise once more with Spock’s protégé Lt. Valeris (Catrell) filling out their roster. They rendezvous with the Klingon ship, and as a sign of friendship, invite their crew to have dinner onboard the Enterprise. After a tense dinner which nearly ends the peace process, Chancellor Gorkon, his daughter Azetbur (Rosanna De Santo) and General Chang (Plummer) retire to their ship for the evening, but deep in the night there is an attack by men wearing the Federation uniform which leaves Gorkon mortally wounded. Kirk and McCoy beam over to try and help. However. McCoy is unable to save the wounded peace maker. Soon the two men find themselves arrested by the Klingons and charged with the death of Gorkon, and it’s up to Spock and the rest of the crew to prove their innocence and bring the whole of the universe into the future, the undiscovered country. 

The Bugg Picture

I want to start this off by saying that this review will probably be lengthy, full of gushing praise, and drowning in factoids and trivia that only a real nut for this film could love. Well, it so happens that I am that nut. I won’t go into my whole history with the Trek series or the length and breath of my fandom, but suffice it to say that it is vast. Sure I’m not as scary as some Trekkies. I’ve never collected garbage on the side of the road in a Starfleet uniform, but I won’t deny having one or two hanging in the closet. I feel that over the years as I’ve grown with Trek, my fervor may have mellowed, but my fandom has not. 

I suppose no discussion of Star Trek films can start without a moment to touch on what has come before. I’ll pass on by the show and the cartoon, and just take a moment with the films. Star Trek: The Motion Picture I feel is a much maligned film with some incredible and memorable moments. The Wrath of Khan, well, obviously a high water mark for some, and it was the first of the films to written by Nicholas Meyer who also directed. The Search for Spock bores me to tears, and I hate that because Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon was quite fun. Then there was the funny one, The Voyage Home, which was also penned by Meyer. This was my youthful favorite and still maintains a spot in my heart today. Then they made Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier (a.k.a The Search for God), and let’s be honest that movie was god-awful. 

So now that brings us up to speed with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Directed and written by Nicholas Meyer (who also did the double duties on the 1979 H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper crossover Time after Time), this film was intended to finally be a swan song for Kirk and his crew. The powers that be were already looking to the future of Trek, and the sixty year old crewmates were not in the picture. Instead they were looking to clear the way for a new series of movies which were long rumored to spotlight Sulu and his new crew of the Excelsior. Instead plans would culminate in the 1994 bit of drek Generations featuring the Star Trek :The Next Generation crew sharing an adventure with the mostly dead James Kirk. (ST:TNG fans would have to wait until First Contact for a good film.)

So now that I’m already wildly off track let me try and reign it back in again. So Nicholas Meyer and Leonard Nimoy had been kicking this idea around for a number of years, but in the face of a crumbling soviet bloc, the time was right for Star Trek to signal the end to two eras at once. That’s what really makes this film work for me. While there are certainly large portions of the film which are meant to mirror Soviet/US relations, the sense of finality and change that pervade the film certainly speak to the melancholy fan watching the end of an era. So when Kirk complains of feeling hopelessly outdated and out of touch with the changing times, is he talking about the Starfleet or is it Shatner making a commentary on his troupe of aging actors. 

Aging? Perhaps, but ready to turn in final and definitive versions of their iconic characters. Sadly, this film does not spotlight the supporting players as much as Star Trek V. So Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov all have some nice moments and places where little touches of character shine through, but lets face it Star Trek has and always will be about the big three; Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. 

I’ll start with the latter and actor DeForest Kelley. Sure he’s been the grumpy cynical doctor, but in ST:TUC, Leonard “Bones” McCoy finally shows both his passion for peace and for medicine. His character is defined by one single scene, when his medical skills are not sufficient to save Gorkon from his grizzly death. Through it we understand more about the “simple country doctor”, a man who has spent years patching war wounds and saving lives throughout the galaxy while on a mission meant to be peaceful. 

Spock is perhaps the most difficult character in Star Trek to get a handle on. This probably comes from the fact that no one else died and came back as a blank slate. It took until Star Trek VI to repair the damage done when they resurrected the character, but here we finally get a whole fully realized Spock. There are parts of his manner which are quite Vulcan and some which are very human, and that’s what Spock really is, a man trapped between two worlds. Spock’s journey through the films has lead to this point, and Leonard Nimoy brings us resolution to this journey which is much deserved. 

Last, but not least, the reason we’re talking about this film in the first place, William Shatner. Shatner’s Kirk is not a dynamic character, and while he does have some minor moral changes due to the events in the film, Kirk is what we need him to be. He is the hero brave in the face of danger, the diplomat able to navigate the waters around him, and the schemer one step ahead of the bad guys. Shatner is clearly having fun with what was supposed to be his final turn as Kirk, and we have plenty of fun with him. As always Shatner is magnetic and all the threads of the plot follow in his wake. With his final command from the Captain’s chair to set the ship on a course, “Second star to the right, and straight on until morning.”, it was more than a wink to Peter Pan. It was a nod to the kid that comes alive in Star Trek fans when we join into the adventures of the Enterprise. At the tender age of fifteen when I first saw this flick, it brought a tear to my eye, and I have to admit it still makes me misty to this day. 

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to talk about the rest of the supporting cast. Kim Catrell, of Sex & the City and Mannequin fame, actually manages to make the pointy Vulcan ears look sexy, and I am no fan of her body of work….or her body for that matter. Christopher Plummer shows up here as a Shakespeare quoting Klingon and almost steals the show from Shatner with his scenery chewing performance. There’s also a stunning performance from character actor David Warner as Chancellor Gorkon. Unrecognizable from his role as Bob Crachit in the George C. Scott version of The Christmas Carol, Warner turns in a brief performance that is memorable and moving. You also get some great appearances from Kurtwood Smith, Michael Dorn, Brock Peters, Renee Auberjonois, Christian Slater, and Iman as a shape shifting alien who seduces Kirk. 

When you get down to brass tacks, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country is a movie in two parts. While Kirk and McCoy are embroiled in a political situation which leads them to fight for their lives in a Klingon jail on a snow covered planet, Spock and the Enterprise crew are trying to uncover the mystery which will exonerate their friends. This search throughout the ship for clues really boils down to a locked room mystery in space with Mr. Spock taking over for Mr. Holmes. The stunning thing about this film is that these two interlocking storylines, which mainly rely on dialog and not action to propel them, actually manages to stay exciting. The aging cast clearly could not make another action oriented movie, and action is for the most set aside with the only “action” sequence  occurring in the final moments of the film and only one singular space battle gracing the screen. 

 Wow. I have really gone on way too long, and I could go on for this long or longer over again. So I suppose it’s best I put an end to this here. There are plenty of gaffes in this movie I could tear apart, just take a look at the IMDB “goofs” page if you don’t believe me. There are plenty more pieces of trivia to drop, but in the end what I want to emphasize is that to me, for me, this is THE movie featuring the original crew of the Starship Enterprise. Many will cite Khan, some may point to Four, a misguided few might even like The Final Frontier, but for my money when I need to capture the majesty of what Star Trek means to me, this is the film. So my rating, well, take it with a grain of salt. Unlike other times, I am not even going to try and separate my love for the film from my rating. This is a film I can go back to time and time again and never tire of. I just hope that some of my enthusiasm gets even one of you to give this film a first chance or a re-watch. In the face of the rebooted Star Trek, I think it’s high time we remember where the first crew of the NCC-1701 ended their journey. 

Bugg Rating

9 comments:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobMarch 27, 2009 at 6:27 AM

    it must be 15 years since i`ve seen this one and i honestly dont remember it being anywhere near as good as you have said, anyway i was always much more "DANGER, PENNY ROBINSON, DANGER" than i was "BEAM ME UP SCOTTY".

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  2. There's probably no one on the planet that thinks it's as good as I said. I fully admit to that.

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  3. I would like to live in a universe where odd Star Trek movies didn't suck.

    I remember being mocked when I claimed that VI > II > IV. Most of my friends claim ST:WoK was /it/.

    I couldn't agree more Bugg.

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  4. This is my second favorite of the Trek Movie franchise, after Khan. I remember vividly seeing it on my frist holiday break freshman year in college... it was hotly anticipated, and didn't let me down. I love the way the film tackles the death of the Sovie Bloc, and how this spins out to the later TV shows.

    And the conversation between Spock and Kirk in Spock's room near the finale ("Would that constitute... a joke?") is immensely moving, and a far better farewell for Kirk than he would receive in Generations. It was the perfect end to the Spock/Kirk relationship.

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  5. I'm a big Star Trek fan. This is a really fantastic film. It's definitely one of my favorites in the franchise.

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  6. VI is the second best of the Shatner movies after II. Once upon a time I was so excited about this film that I bought a copy of the script at a comics convention before it came out. The major thing different about it was that the traitorous Vulcan officer was originally meant to be a returning Lt. Saavik from II and III. I don't think it hurt that they ended up using a different character.

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  7. I'm glad so many of you folks enjoyed this flick.

    I actually bought the script too back in the day when they had an antique show at the mall. They should still have those....

    I've heard a couple on why the character got changed. One version says Gene objected, and in another Kim Catrell didn't want to fill a role which had already been inhabited by two actresses.

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  8. This is probably my 2nd favorite of the series' films [right behind Khan]

    Excellent review LB!

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