Re-Watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Screenplay by: Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn
Story by: Leonard Nimoy and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal
Produced by: Steven-Charles Jaffe & Ralph Winter
Directed by: Nicholas Meyer

Release date: December 6, 1991
Stardate: 9521.6

Mission Summary

A mining accident destroys Praxis, a Klingon moon where energy for the entire Klingon Empire is produced. With only 50 years of life left to the Empire as a result, the Klingons open a dialog with Vulcan ambassador Sarek about ending hostilities with the Federation and dismantling all bases around the Neutral Zone. Spock has recommended Kirk for the diplomatic honor of escorting the Klingon High Chancellor Gorkon to a peace summit. This enrages Kirk, who has come to despise the Klingons for killing his son David.

Kirk makes few attempts to cozy up to the High Chancellor and his men, and after a particularly tense dinner, an unknown ship fires on the Klingon bird-of-prey while two assassins beam aboard and shoot several Klingons. The High Chancellor suffers mortal wounds but urges Kirk to continue the peace process. Kirk and McCoy, who had beamed over to help, are promptly arrested for the assassination, found guilty in a Klingon kangaroo court, and sent to Rura Penthe, a frozen gulag. They are tricked and nearly led to their deaths by a shapeshifting inmate named Martia, but ultimately saved by a tracking device Spock had planted on Kirk.

As the clues aboard Enterprise come together, Valeris, a promising young lieutenant whom Spock had mentored, is revealed as the main conspirator. They extract the names of other conspirators from her via mind meld, fight some Klingons with the help of Sulu on the Excelsior, and hurry to the secret location of the peace conference to prevent the assassination of the Federation president. A Federation admiral, a Romulan ambassador, and a Klingon general are revealed as the conspirators and arrested. In the end, just a few months from retirement, Kirk and his crew hear that the Enterprise has been decommissioned. They hijack it for one last ride.


I question myself when I re-watch Wrath of Khan or even, sometimes, The Voyage Home, but The Undiscovered Country is my favorite of all the Star Trek films.

I saw it for the first time only a few years ago and fell deeply in love with it. From Sulu’s initial voiceover as he contentedly sips his tea (what a wonderful moment!), to the final reveal of the conspiracy (which still shocks me a little, despite knowing how it all plays out), this film is masterful. Phenomenal direction, excellent performances, a serious and thought-provoking premise, and a bittersweet ending come together to create the very best of the Star Trek films and one of my favorite movies of all time.

How do I count the ways in which I love this movie? It’s two hours of brilliant little moments: Martia’s wookie-ish disguise (and her superbly done shapeshifting effect), Chang sitting down to dinner and having no idea how to use a napkin (brilliant!), Uhura trying to speak Klingon. I always feel a twinge of a smile when Chang rants about Kirk as an “an insubordinate, unprincipled, career-minded opportunist with a history of violating the chain of command whenever it suited him.” That’s our boy! Then there are the powerful moments: Kirk feeling betrayed by Spock (“You should have trusted me!”); McCoy trying so hard to save Gorkon and watching him die anyway. I still find it difficult to watch Spock’s mind-meld with Valeris. He is so angry and he’s obviously hurting her, but the worst part isn’t even watching her cry under his hand: it’s watching the camera cut to reaction shots from the crew and seeing your own revulsion reflected back on you through the characters.

Maybe it’s just because it’s the most recent of the films and thus has the benefit of more advanced technology, but it feels slick and polished where the others didn’t. The special effects take my breath away. I really love the new Klingon outfits and the aesthetic in general, which feels a lot more military-chic than previous installments. I absolutely love the zero gravity assassination scene, which doesn’t look cheesy or stupid even twenty years later. I love the faceless suits that seem to exist in a different world from the Klingons, and I love the moment when the gravity is reinstated and all of the Klingon blood splashes to the ground.  As a political thriller (which doesn’t seem like a genre suited to Star Trek) the intrigue works and the mysteries unfold in a way that feels natural and satisfying. We’re a lot farther from the fall of the Berlin Wall today than audiences were in 1991, but the Cold War allegory still succeeds by tapping into an element of the original series oft-mentioned and yet not oft-explored.  (I do wish Spock hadn’t exactly spelled it out with his “only Nixon can go to China” line, but I’ll give it a pass.)

All of those things make a film good, but they are not the reason it is great. Eugene and I have repeatedly examined Star Trek’s progressive history of dealing with race, and yet none of those episodes come close to tackling the subject like TUC does. In the series, Kirk was always the paragon on the right side of the issues. If he felt it, it was the right way to feel. He was open-minded, flexible, and compassionate. Here, he starts out in the wrong. He’s our hero and we’ve seen and felt all the things he’s been through. We understand his grief and his anger, and we sympathize with his distrust of the Klingons. When Admiral Cartwright stands up and says that this is our chance to really win the war by wiping them out, we’re with him, too, because Kirk is with him. It’s not until Kirk’s full rage boils over the surface that we realize how poisonous that kind of thinking is. “They’re animals,” he says. “Let them die,” he says. And suddenly, it’s clear that this Kirk has become too bitter to see clearly.

If Kirk’s wrong, then aren’t we wrong, too?

If this were any other film or any other series, it would end there. Kirk would become a villain, the audience would reject him, and Spock would be our new hero. We’d all pat ourselves on the back that we were always on Spock’s side anyway, you know. But the movie doesn’t do that. We’re still with Kirk even if he’s being pig-headed because we know this guy. He’s been our friend for decades now, and our heroes–good people–can’t be so casually racist…can they? Prejudice is so pervasive, so innate to human experience, that even the best of us can succumb to it. Good guys can be racist. In fact, everyone can be. At the end, Uhura says she felt the same way as Valeris. McCoy points out that they don’t arrest people for having feelings, and Chekov responds: “And it’s a good thing, too.  If they did we’d all have to turn ourselves in.”

Everyone has these biases, but what’s important is not letting them get in the way.  Kirk risks becoming a “bad guy” not because he hates, but because he nearly allows that hatred to stop a peace process. Kirk only musters the courage and maturity to re-evaluate his feelings when Gorkon dies. The Klingon leader’s last words are “Don’t let it end this way, Captain.” Imagine, would Kirk have said the same thing had he been the victim? Gorkon is the better man, and for the first time Kirk is able to see how close his irrational antipathy came to destroying something so much bigger and more important than one man’s grudge. I think it’s that reason he regrets those captain’s log entries played during his trial–not because they’re incriminating.

Now I said earlier that if this had been any other film, we would have rejected Kirk as the obvious villain (movies can’t seem to understand that prejudice is a flaw even heroes can have) and embraced Spock. Yet where Kirk is prejudiced against the Klingons, Spock is blinded by his faith in Vulcans. He begins the movie as the moral center, preaching peace and acceptance and a new age. He is so eager and so willing to believe that Valeris, a Vulcan, feels as he does and shares his values. But Valeris is an individual with her own motives (and, yes, feelings), and Spock never should have assumed to understand them simply because they are both Vulcans.  I love the moment when he unmasks her as a conspirator in Sickbay. With her phaser aimed point blank at him, he knocks it away with anger. The emotion he feels is raw and passionate. Like Kirk, he feels betrayed, and yet that betrayal is unmerited. She owed him nothing. She did nothing to him. They are not the same, and if he had truly listened to her instead of hearing only that which reinforced his pre-conceived notions, perhaps he could have seen through her earlier.

There’s another kind of prejudice at play in the film and that’s the prejudice of old age. Kirk’s generation contributes most by simply not obstructing progress. Even Spock acknowledges it, asking Kirk, “Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?” What is most heartbreaking about this film is that it implies–rightly or wrongly, that’s really up to the viewer–that sometimes the only way to forge ahead is to push aside those too old to adjust. Think of who the conspirators are: Admiral Cartwright, the Romulan ambassador, Chang. (They do enlist Valeris but it wasn’t her idea.) These are men who cannot imagine a place for themselves in this future. They have nowhere to go when there is no Neutral Zone, no common enemy. All they can do is try to stop it, and preserve the world that has been familiar and comfortable. There’s a really lovely moment when Gorkon first arrives on the Enterprise and confronts Kirk about his (not well-hidden) distaste. “You don’t trust me, do you?” he says. “I don’t blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”

The world is changing without Kirk and his friends. It will evolve and he’ll have no active role. He wonders, “How on earth can history get past people like me?” But the real question is, how on earth can he get past being history? It’s a question that the film, as the last one, needed to address. The Next Generation had been on the air for years now and yet Kirk’s crew has never, in its own continuity, had to confront its own impermanence. I think my favorite scene is Spock’s conversation with Valeris about the inevitability of the future (even if I find the Chagall painting a little ridiculous). He tells her that all things must end, but one must have faith that “the universe will unfold as it should.” It’s a hopeful moment, not a despairing one. The world goes on and on, and sometimes the best thing you can do is know when to step aside.

The worst mistake the franchise ever made–and I say this as someone who has seen “Spock’s Brain” a hundred times and Star Trek V twice–was bringing these people back in Generations. TUC ends as our heroes learn that the ship (and let’s be honest, its crew) have been decommissioned, but Star Trek itself will (and has) continued. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the gang cannot stand in the way of the future, but their contributions in history have made the future possible. It’s a beautiful, touching end to their story. I cannot imagine, not anywhere in my creative soul, a better sendoff than they got here.

The message of course is twofold. As an audience, we cannot be the men too old and inflexible to allow the future to unfold as it should. Yet when the credits roll and their names are signatures written in ink across the stars, I still tear up a little, every time.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 7

Eugene Myers: As I’ve mentioned before, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is the first Star Trek I watched. Before I saw it on HBO in junior high, I associated the franchise with campy, low-budget science fiction, but this film showed me that there was more to Star Trek, that maybe camp was the exception and not the rule. It convinced me that it was worth giving the series a chance. In short order, I was catching up on the other films, tuning into TNG each week (then in its sixth season), and watching DS9 from the premiere on. My friends and I tracked down every episode of the original series and TNG on VHS with remarkable drive, and the rest, as they say, is history.

TUC is probably a weird entry-point to Star Trek, as I was introduced to the characters at the end of their journey. Despite their iconic status in pop culture, I had no idea who these characters were—both in name and in terms of their backgrounds, motivations, and relationships. One thing the original series had going for it was that the characters were so broadly painted, you could start watching at nearly any point. This is true to a lesser degree in the films, but TUC has a fairly standalone plot, and it’s pretty easy to follow along.

By the time I stumbled across TUC, I was already a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and I assume that the unique blending of Star Trek with a mystery story helped to convert me. Now I know that Nicholas Meyer, with his pedigree as writer of the Holmes novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, was particularly suited to directing this film. Even today, I find the mystery plot one of the most intriguing aspects of TUC, although it is no longer the most satisfying one.

I continue to marvel at how many details are introduced with some subtlety early in the film only to be recognized as important clues later on, such as the droplets of Klingon blood that disappear in the transporter and the tracker Spock places on Kirk (which I completely failed to notice my first time watching). But I can’t watch the film with fresh eyes any longer, so I’m not sure if they still work for new viewers. Each carefully placed clue now seems obvious to me, and the Enterprise crew comes off as incompetent at solving this case. Despite its condensed timeframe, the “CSI: Starfleet” sequences are drawn out and require them to make many manual counts and sweeps of the ship, missing the important stuff and drawing the wrong conclusions. On the other hand, many of the best comedic moments come from their bumbling efforts, so perhaps it’s all worth it. (In fact, despite its inherent seriousness, this is a great comedic film, a much underplayed version of TVH.)

Most disappointing of all is the realization—not my own, originally—that the climax of the film depends solely on a continuity error: Excelsior, not Enterprise, was doing a survey of gaseous anomalies. D’oh!

That isn’t to say that Enterprise might not also have been running such a survey, but…it wasn’t. Because every other clue is tightly introduced, this oversight is an incredible disappointment.

Some possible loose threads: Did Chancellor Gorkon know Kirk didn’t have anything to do with his assassination? On his death, uh, table, Gorkon tells him, “Don’t let it end this way.” Perhaps he’s just imploring him to change his evil ways? Or making a case for Kirk to come back in Generations? What was Enterprise doing before this mission? It looks like it was chilling in spacedock, waiting to be decommissioned. Why is the entire bridge crew retiring at the same time? Isn’t Chekov much younger than the rest of them? What’s a Romulan ambassador doing at Starfleet Headquarters? How did Kirk know that Spock put a tracer on him?

My other disappointments are ones of character, primarily the overt racism in the Enterprise crew, and Spock’s forced mind meld of Valeris (who, by the way, is a terrible Vulcan in every sense of the word). It’s not that these aren’t believable elements—and I do believe that they were probably necessary for the plot—but that it was upsetting to see these characters I love behave in this boorish way. The Klingons largely come off as cultured and polite intellectuals in comparison!

In most other ways, the crew characterizations are pitch perfect, particularly McCoy, who really shines in the movie, and Sulu, who kicks all kind of ass as captain of the Excelsior. I loved one particular moment, when Sulu tells Kirk his message is breaking up, which shows that everyone on Kirk’s team knows the same tricks, and also demonstrates the loyalty that he attracts from his officers.

But overall, this movie has a solid, well-written script; wonderful performances by everyone except Kim Cattrall; and terrific direction. After the impressive battle sequences were pointed out in TWoK, I noticed the same directorial touches in this film, where each hit on the ship immediately shows internal damage. And each time I see the movie, I marvel at the way the “Law and Order: Qo’nos” courtroom scenes are directed—especially the way the film elegantly transitions from spoken Klingon with English subtitles to English dialogue in translation.

Like McCoy, I could do with fewer quotations from English literature, Star Trek’s great burden, but I have to overlook most of the film’s flaws because it just feels like the perfect send-off for the original series and her crew. And the last line of Kirk’s captain’s log is a far better passing of the torch to TNG than Star Trek Generations managed.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6

Background Information

After the disappointing returns of Star Trek V, producer Harve Bennett wanted to say goodbye to the current cast and do a Starfleet Academy prequel, an idea that had been floating around for at least a decade. Negative reactions to the idea from the cast (who obviously wouldn’t be involved) and fans (many of whom already disliked the new generation of Trek) scuttled that. Walter Koenig submitted his own proposal, in which the Romulans team up with the Federation against the Klingons. In that story the main ST crew is too old to pass physical fitness tests, save Spock. By the end, the TOS crew must save Spock’s new crew, which has been kidnapped by evil worm aliens, and everyone dies but Spock and McCoy. This was perhaps a less popular idea than even the Academy one.

Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary was coming up, and Nimoy got the idea to do something related to current events: the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Cold War story emerged, with Gorkon based on Gorbachev (Gorbachev and Lincoln), and a space version of Chernobyl. They also wanted it to be a swan song to the cast members. Initially, an elaborate opening sequence revealed each character in his or her retirement: Spock as Polonius in Hamlet; Sulu driving a taxi; Kirk married to Carol Marcus and living a quiet life; McCoy drunk at a medical reception; Scotty teaching at Starfleet Academy; Uhura hosting a call-in show; and Chekov playing chess or whatever Russians do. The many locations needed made the opening too expensive, so the whole thing was nixed, probably for the better.

The budget was smaller, but a darker mood was the aim, with moodier music and tighter sets. Hallways were thinner to give a more cramped, submarine feeling, and lighting was spotty and dim to create atmosphere. The Klingons were re-designed  and the makeup department was given a hefty chunk of the budget: a team of 25 crew made over 300 prosthetics. DeForest Kelley was 71 when this was made, and Nimoy ensured that he earned $1 million for the role, so that it could be his last film and he could retire comfortably.

It was a commercial and critical success, earning nearly $100 million worldwide and saving the franchise as we know it. The studios smelled money and hoped to squeeze out a Star Trek VII, but the three principle actors said they were all done. (The rest happened to be interested.)

Best Line: MCCOY: What is it with you, anyway?

Other Favorite Quotes:

RAND: Do we report this, sir?
SULU: Are you kidding?

SPOCK: History is replete with turning points, Lieutenant. You must have faith.
SPOCK: That the universe will unfold as it should.
VALERIS: But is this logical? Surely we must…
SPOCK: Logic? Logic is the beginning of wisdom, Valeris, not the end.

CHANG: In space, all warriors are cold warriors.

KIRK: I can’t believe I kissed you!
MARTIA (as Kirk): It must have been your lifelong ambition.

SPOCK: Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?

KIRK: Do you want to know something? Everybody’s human.
SPOCK: I find that remark insulting.

KIRK: Once again we’ve saved civilization as we know it.
MCCOY: And the good news is, they’re not going to prosecute.

Trivia: The title refers to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy (Act III, Scene 1). (Spoilers! The undiscovered country is death.) It was originally supposed to be the title for Wrath of Khan, for which it may have been more appropriate:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

That is, of course, one of many Shakespeare quotes in the film.  Chang seems a particular fan, quoting The Tempest (“Our revels now are ended”), Richard II (“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”), Henry IV, Part II (“We have not heard the chimes at midnight”), Henry V (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “The game’s afoot”), Julius Caesar (“Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!” and “I am constant as the northern star”), Romeo and Juliet (“Parting is such sweet sorrow”), The Merchant of Venice (“Tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? Wrong us, shall we not revenge?”), and, of course, Hamlet (“To be or not to be”). Gorkon toasts to the “undiscovered country” and it appears that Martia’s also a Hamlet fan: “I thought I would assume a pleasing shape” (regarding her sexy Iman look).

The animation of the explosion of Praxis appeared in many later films, including Stargate. It became known as “the Praxis effect.”

Rura Penthe is a reference to War and Peace, where it is a Siberian penal colony. It’s also referenced in the animated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where it is an island penal colony.

During the trial, Chang barks that Kirk answer a question without waiting for the translation. This may reference a real-life exchange at the United Nations between U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. While addressing the U.N. Security Council, Stevenson demanded an answer to his question: “All right, sir, let me ask you one simple question: Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no! Don’t wait for the translation! Yes or no!”

The speech that the Klingon warden gives when they arrive on Rura Penthe mirrors closely the speech that Colonel Saito gives to the British POWs in Bridge over the River Kwai:  “A word to you about escape. There is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watchtower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die. Today you rest. Tomorrow you will begin. Let me remind you of General Yamashita’s motto:  ‘Be happy in your work.’ Dismissed!”

Spock’s line that “An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution” is a reference to Sherlock Holmes. (If the Klingons get Shakespeare and the Vulcans get Holmes, what does that leave us puny humans with??)

Gene Roddenberry died about six weeks before the film’s release. He did see a near-final print in his last days and the film was dedicated to him.

Nichelle Nichols got the short end of the stick, again. A dramatic speech in Klingon planned for the end was scrapped, and a humorous scene of her struggling with the language was used instead. She also became uncomfortable with some of the not-at-all-subtle racial undertones of the dialogue, and at one point was supposed to say, “Guess who’s coming to dinner” (in reference to the Klingons) but refused, and the line was given to Chekov. She also refused to speak a line about whether you’d want your daughter to marry a Klingon. That line and one in which Scotty refers to Azetbur as “that Klingon bitch” were both cut from the movie entirely.

Gorkon was modeled to look like the bastard lovechild of Captain Ahab and Abraham Lincoln. Mission accomplished!

Valeris was originally intended to be Saavik, but Roddenberry objected to her well-liked character becoming a villain and they didn’t want to cast the part for a third time.

Cinefastique reported that Kim Cattrall, who played Valeris, did a private photo shoot on the bridge of the Enterprise wearing nothing but her Vulcan ears. Rumor has it that Nimoy burned the photos and negatives, fearful of harming the franchise.

The role of Chang was written for Christopher Plummer, who initially turned it down. The role of Gorkon was offered to Jack Palance (who turned it down for City Slickers) before David Warner accepted it.

Mary Jo Slater, the casting director, is Christian Slater’s mother.  Slater reportedly framed the $750 paycheck he got for his walk-on role.

While Martia was intended to be a kind of Han Solo character, Iman decided to use Sigourney Weaver as her inspiration.

The dinner scene was one of the most difficult to shoot. The colored food sitting under hot film lights for hours at a time meant none of the actors wanted to touch it. Director Meyer offered $20 per bite of food if they would eat it on film. Only Shatner did it, and he did it 17 times, earning $340.

The day before the film’s release, the actors got their stars on the Walk of Fame before Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Nichelle Nichols became the first African-American woman to get a star.

Nimoy guest-starred on TNG’s “Unification” two-parter as a way to boost interest in the film.

Brock Peters, who played Fleet Admiral Cartwright, found his anti-Klingon speech so personally repugnant that he couldn’t do it in one take. He went on to play Sisko’s father in Deep Space Nine.

Other Deep Space 9 alumnae are René Auberjonois, who plays the would-be assassin of the Federation president (a scene cut from the theatrical release but included on home video) and went on to play Odo; and Michael Dorn, who plays an ancestor of his TNG/DS9 character Worf (the ancestor is Kirk and McCoy’s public defender).

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.