Kirk and Co., three months from retirement, are assigned to escort Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) to Earth for historic peace negotiations between the Federation and its long-time nemesis. The talks are spurred by Spock after the destruction of a Klingon moon — witnessed months earlier by the U.S.S. Excelsior under the command of Hikaru Sulu. Kirk, still hating the Klingons especially for the death of his son, blasts Spock for going behind his back to volunteer the ship. Later, the Enterprise meets up with Gorkon’s ship and has a rather tense dinner with the chancellor and his staff. Afterward, the Enterprise apparently fires on the Klingons without anyone giving the order. Kirk and McCoy beam over to help any wounded, but McCoy is unable to save Gorkon, shot by two unidentified men wearing Starfleet uniforms immediately after the attack. Kirk and McCoy are arrested and after a trial, sent to the penal colony, Rura Penthe. Spock, meanwhile, does his “Matlock” thing and conducts an investigation, piecing together some details of what happened with the help of his new protege, Vulcan Lieutenant Valeris (Kim Cattrall). After the Enterprise crosses the Klingon border and rescues Kirk and McCoy, Kirk realizes that Valeris was part of the conspiracy. Spock forcibly melds with her and learns she was working with Gorkon’s chief of staff, General Chang (Christopher Plummer), a Romulan ambassador, Starfleet Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters) and a Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked (which attacked Gorkon’s ship from beneath the Enterprise). With the peace talks back on at a neutral location, the Enterprise and the Excelsior head there, figuring they’ll need to stop another assassination. After a fierce battle with Chang and the Bird of Prey — where Spock and McCoy hone in on the invisible ship’s tailpipe to target a torpedo — the Enterprise and Excelsior save the day by stopping the assassin and revealing the conspiracy. Then, Kirk and Co. ride off into the sunset.
Why it’s important
Well, “The Undiscovered Country” is the first example of a TOS production that provides background in what’s been established in TNG (this wasn’t done in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” the only other film released after TNG debuted). This film was released during TNG’s fifth season — where it’s been clear for years that the Klingons are allies. To what extent “Star Trek VI” advanced that storyline is pretty murky, but it’s clear that the eventual alliance started when all hostilities ended here. And in the Star Trek universe, that’s a big, big deal — a message this movie rightly conveys. It’s also kind of crazy that the events of this film synced up so well with the fall of the Soviet Union, which, of course, was often the inspiration for the Klingons (and the Romulans, at times, too).
The film also ties up threads from the second, third and fourth movies — the Klingons announcing that there would be no peace if Kirk lived, the death of David Marcus, etc. — though it essentially ignores a lot of “Star Trek V,” the red-headed stepchild of the Trek movies (which has no relevant long-term impact on the Trek universe and won’t be reviewed on this site). Gene Roddenberry allegedly considered elements of that film apocryphal, though the mutual dislike between Kirk and the Klingons certainly was on display (if done in a comic-book manner). As for the greater Star Trek timeline, the only part of “Star Trek V” that is flatly disregarded here surrounds cooperation between the Klingons and the Enterprise at the end of the previous film. The tension around the Enterprise meeting Gorkon’s ship in “Star Trek VI” — “Never been this close” — and the fact the dinner was a momentous thing pretty much ignores the last 15 minutes of the previous film.
Of course, the decommissioning of the Enterprise-A at the end of this movie sets up the launch of the Enterprise-B in the “Star Trek: Generations”. More on that below.
What doesn’t hold up
This movie gets a lot right — and might even be up there with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” as far as the number of great moments. But it also gets a lot wrong. There are logical problems all over the place. We try not to go all nitpicker in these reviews, but “The Undiscovered Country” has so many misfires …
There are a bevy of small things, like the fact that McCoy doesn’t seem to know that Sulu has been captain of the Excelsior for three years or that Starfleet apparently now has galleys and cooks. There’s also the matter of why the Enterprise and Gorkon’s ship were (essentially) stationary (or moving slowly) after they met up. Shouldn’t they have been heading to Earth at warp speed — and wouldn’t that have essentially prevented the attack? Later, how was Klingon security so bad that the Enterprise could get past its borders and fool its patrols with the WORST use of Klingon language ever (and why was the universal translator not sufficient)? Why wasn’t the very noticeable tracking device Spock put on Kirk noticed by anyone? Why is Klingon blood pink in this movie — and only in this movie? And on and on …
Oh, and why were there no ships in orbit of Camp Khitomer during the battle scene? How did all the dignitaries get to the planet? Shouldn’t a ship or two that brought the dignitaries have stayed to return them — and been there to investigate why two Federation starships were getting absolutely pummeled within visual range? We discussed this larger issue in Star Trek in last week’s review.
Bigger picture, there are a lot of things that don’t hold up with what we see in second-generation Trek. There are really two huge ones: How bad was the Klingon homeworld affected by the destruction of the moon Praxis, and what, exactly, was agreed to in this film (and in its immediate aftermath).
As for the homeworld, dialog in this movie indicates that Kronos was to be evacuated, as the destruction of Praxis was making the planet uninhabitable. This is a big part of the movie, in that it makes the Klingon position more vulnerable (beyond the economic issues facing the Empire after Praxis exploded). But, there’s no indication in TNG, DS9 or Voyager that the Klingons moved to another planet — and here and in DS9 and Voyager, the Klingon homeworld is called Kronos (it’s usually called “the Klingon homeworld” in TNG). So, did Federation scientists help the Klingons save their planet? Keep in mind that this isn’t a small point. Remember how big a deal it was when Vulcan was destroyed in the rebooted “Star Trek” in 2009?
There’s also the bigger question as to why an empire that’s such a threat to the Federation would be so crippled by the destruction of one moon and the problems it caused on one planet. But, oh, well.
Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about what actually was agreed to during the peace negotiations. It seems like Spock and Gorkon were pushing for an “end to all hostilities” — while some later Trek seems to indicate that the alliance between the Federation and the Klingons was forged here. TNG mostly stays with the ending-of-hostilities point, making assertions that the alliance is about 20 years old in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “Samaritan Snare”, among other vaguer instances. More on that when we get to TNG in our reviews.
But, in DS9, (notably in “By Inferno’s Light”) we hear about the Khitomer Accords in reference to the alliance, presumably a nod to the work negotiated in this movie and immediately after at Camp Khitomer. Also in DS9, Bashir explicit says that there have been “two decades of peace with the Klingons” prior to the events of “The Way of the Warrior”.
Now, you could argue that the peace treaty was negotiated at Khitomer in the 2290s and that it was the site for another set of negotiations that ended some other hostilities in the 2340s or 2350s, presumably after the attack on that planet by the Romulans when Worf lived there in the 2340s. Unfortunately, the Voyager episode “Alliances” has Tuvok tell Janeway about an alliance between the Federations and the Klingons that was spurred by a “visionary” named Spock, when Tuvok was a young man. That’s clearly an allusion to the events of “Star Trek VI” (see more below). Once again, Voyager ruins everything. 😉
The rift causes some issues in early TNG, when we see Klingons (“Heart of Glory”, “A Matter of Honor”) who are clearly not that comfortable with the alliance. That’s harder to swallow if 80 years had passed, but less so if the alliance was only about 20 years old. In the second scenario, Klingons in their warrior primes would have been old enough to remember a time when the Federation was still, sort of, an enemy — or, at least, not an ally.
It should be noted that the issues with the alliance timeline and the Klingon homeworld aren’t really the fault of this movie — we have been to the Klingon homeworld, though not necessarily Kronos, in TNG, before this film (DS9 and Voyager had not premiered when the movie was released in 1991). But they made the most sense to bring up here.
Last thing: The events here take place six or seven years after the events of “Star Trek V.” I’m guessing that was done in part to explain the aging of the characters, as the second, third, fourth and fifth films all apparently took place within about six months of each other in the Star Trek universe when seven years actually passed (and two more had, by the time “Star Trek: VI” was released). However, it’s odd that we know nothing of what happened since the last film (other than Sulu’s promotion). It’s not that big of a problem, but it would have been nice to know what happened since the Enterprise-A was commissioned other than the weird adventure with Sybok. It’s also odd that Kirk and other crew members returned to the Enterprise-A at the beginning of the film, apparently, after some time away, based on dialog. That works if the characters are channeling the actors, but wouldn’t Kirk be all about getting in some exploring before he’s set out to pasture? Were Kirk and Co. just chilling on Earth, waiting for V’Ger, a 20th-century superman or some whale-lovin’ probe to call them back into service?
Last, last thing: Isn’t it kind of odd that the Enterprise-A, which isn’t more than seven years old, gets decommissioned at the end of this film? We see in other Trek that Starfleet vessels can be around for decades (with refits, at times) including the previous Enterprise. I’ve wondered if the Enterprise-A was actually renamed after this movie, to set up Starfleet for releasing the new Excelsior-class Enterprise-B just a year later (which we see in “Star Trek: Generations”). More likely, the creators just figured it would be dramatic if the Enterprise-A and the crew were sent out to pasture at the same time, and didn’t care about anything else. Of course, if that were the one and ONLY conceit this movie required, I’d definitely grant it.
Clearly, I’m kind of ripping this movie. But, there are parts of it that work extremely well. The battle scene with Chang (who is performed with great gusto by Plummer) is truly awesome, the courtroom scene on Kronos is great, it was cool to see Sulu in command (albeit briefly) and the final scene on the Enterprise bridge was a nice sendoff to the original crew.
But beyond the continuity, there are other problems.
Shatner, for whatever reason, really didn’t put in his best performance. It’s a shame, too, because he was so good in the middle Trek films and he had a lot to work with here. He’s especially bad in the briefing room scene early in the movie. Maybe Shatner was still smarting from the bad experience in “Star Trek V”? Or, maybe, he decided a flatter tone was the better way to go during the argument with Spock?
Meanwhile, the insertion of Valeris just doesn’t work that well. Originally, the role was for Saavik, which would have been VERY interesting given the David stuff from “Star Trek: III”. But Kirstie Alley apparently wasn’t available and Robin Curtis (I guess?) wasn’t wanted. So, they rewrote the character. Not knowing why Valeris distrusts the Klingons seriously undercuts the film — whereas Saavik’s past dealings and implied feelings for David could have worked wonders. Valeris comes across as a plot element — and a mostly well-acted one — but nothing more. Could you have imagined a scene where Saavik would have called out Kirk for belittling his son’s memory? Speaking of which, why does Kirk say that the new Klingon chancellor has reaffirmed David’s faith at the end of the film? David never gave any indication that he was all that interested in galactic politics. It’s a glib line that doesn’t, actually, reaffirm David’s faith (unless a lot happened off screen).
It’s not the fault of this film, but later Trek seriously messes with the timeline of “Star Trek VI.” In Voyager’s second season (“Flashback”) we see events as they took place on the Excelsior, through a series of flashbacks brought on by an illness to Tuvok (this sort of ties into the reference above, which comes later in Voyager’s second season, where Tuvok talks about the events of this film when he was a young man). Tuvok was on the Excelsior and witness to much of what happened when and after Praxis exploded. It was meant as a nice tribute, as George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney (who played Janice Rand in TOS and is present on the Excelsior in this film) reprise their roles, as do other actors from the movie.
But the Voyager creators clearly didn’t pay a lot of attention to this film’s story, as they move up the assassination and everything that happening on Kirk’s ship to just DAYS after Praxis exploded. This cuts out a big part of the film’s backstory, in which Spock (on his own and at the request of his father) began a dialog with Gorkon that LED to the peace negotiations weeks, perhaps months, later. As Voyager would have you believe, Praxis exploded and the Klingons immediately asked for a meeting on Earth, like the next day. Note that this flub — which didn’t need to happen, as accelerating the timeline didn’t improve “Flashback” story — isn’t the fault of “Star Trek: VI”, but we don’t have any plans to review “Flashback,” as it’s not important to the general Trek Tapestry and it’s a dumb episode anyway as Tuvok’s illness is caused by some weird parasite that has nothing to do with the events of the movie.
Back to the movie, the most disappointing scene, hands down, is dinner on the Enterprise before the attack on Gorkon’s vessel. It’s hard to explain why — but it really, really doesn’t work. I actually think the direction is the problem, as a lot of the shots are boring and seemed crowded. But it’s possible the writing was too blame. It’s too bad, because that scene could have really rocked — like, it could have been one of Trek’s most famous scenes — but it never quite gets there.
Maybe that’s the way to generally feel about this movie. It’s not a terrible disaster like the previous film or the final two TNG movies — and there are certainly great moments. But it messes up enough smaller points that it really falls short. Shame.
Coming next week …
Back to episodic Trek. A French captain? A blind helmsman? Senior officers dressed like cheerleaders?!