After the critical and commercial failure of the William Shatner-directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, there was concern that the series – at least from the point of view of the movies starring the original cast – had run its course. On TV, the Star Trek series was thriving of course, with The Next Generation approximately halfway through its run and, just a year after The Final Frontier was on the big screen, aired what were (and are) arguably the most highly regarded two episodes of the entire run: The Best of Both Worlds, in which Captain Picard is captured by the Borg.
The 25th Anniversary of the 60s Star Trek series was approaching, however – and the studio in charge of the franchise, Paramount, wanted to commemorate the occasion with another movie featuring the original crew, but Star Trek V’s failure meant that they weren’t willing to commit a big budget to do so. A number of different options were proposed (including a soft reboot with a flashback to the crew’s time at Starfleet Academy, which would have only featured the current cast as a framing device, with younger actors playing them for the majority of the film) and discarded, before it fell to Nicholas Meyer – the director of the superb Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – to flesh out an idea put forward by Leonard Nimoy: what if the fall of communism happened in the Trek universe?
It was an excellent usage of then-contemporary political commentary; applied to Trek, rather than Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it meant seeing the Klingons seeking peace with the Federation after their home planet is weakened by the destruction of one of their moons. Spock, seeking to assist the potential peace process, volunteers the Enterprise and its crew to escort a ship of Klingons to the vital negotiations on Earth. However, the Klingon Chancellor in charge of their quest for a peace treaty is assassinated – seemingly by the Enterprise. With Kirk (whose hatred of the Klingons, due to their part in murdering his son way back in Star Trek III, being the detail that implicates him) and Dr McCoy – who fails to save the life of the Chancellor – incarcerated on a Klingon prison planet, can the rest of the crew clear the names of their captain and doctor, rescue them and ensure that the peace treaty is enacted without further bloodshed?
There’s a reason there was a rule that the even numbered Trek films are the best; until Nemesis (the tenth and final film to feature either the original crew or the TNG cast), they really are the strongest entries. The Undiscovered Country is an absolute blast and a great swansong for the beloved original Enterprise crew. It’s such a relief that the disaster of the fifth film didn’t mean the end of the line for Kirk and co – instead, they’re given a proper send off with a well written, brilliantly directed and heartfelt chapter to finish their adventures.
As with The Wrath of Khan, Meyer brings an excellent, almost naval feel to the action on board the Enterprise, extending this to the combat between the heavy, spacefaring vessels. The whodunnit regarding the Ambassador is well handled and the crew aboard the Enterprise each get their chance to shine as part of the investigation and eventual rescue mission. There’s none of the cringy, awkward comedy that befell The Final Frontier, though there’s still lighter moments and humour that does work as intended.
A recurring theme with Meyer’s two Star Trek entries is the acknowledgement that the crew are aging; this time they realise that this really will be their final jaunt in the Enterprise, which is very bittersweet.
Though Khan quoting Moby Dick was an excellent insight into his obsession with Kirk – who was, essentially, his White Whale – the main Klingon adversary in The Undiscovered Country seems to endlessly quote Shakespeare, which does get a little wearying. That said, Christopher Plummer’s excellent performance does at least give those Shakespearian quotes the weight they deserve.
The trial of Kirk and McCoy is well done and DeForest Kelley is particularly good throughout. Shatner ends up fighting his own doppelganger thanks to a shapeshifter on the Siberian Gulag-esque prison planet and has rarely been hammier than in that particular scene, though he’s thankfully more restrained elsewhere and – icky kiss scene aside – is well served by the story. Spock – leading the investigation into Gorkon’s assassination on the Enterprise – is as reliably brilliant as ever, and the rest of the crew are great too (though who knows what’s going on with Chekov’s hair in this one). It’s awesome to see George Takei’s Sulu in charge of his own vessel, particularly when his ship is called upon to assist the Enterprise in a thrilling battle.
There’s a number of odd cameos – the most jarring of which is Christian Slater in a brief and distracting appearance as a member of Sulu’s crew. Kurtwood Smith – the vile gang leader Clarence Boddicker in Robocop – is unrecognisable as the Federation President. Even Michael Dorn – TNG’s Worf – pops up as his Next Generation character’s grandfather, defending Kirk and McCoy at their Klingon trial.
Special effects-wise, The Undiscovered Country is leagues ahead of the terribly rushed and underfunded work seen in The Final Frontier. That said, the zero-g floating Klingon blood seen during the assassination sequence on board the alien vessel – being a CGI-based effect – hasn’t aged well, however.
The final moments of the film are wonderful; a Peter Pan quote from Kirk (the Enterprise crew’s final course setting? “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning”), followed by the updating of the original series narration, bringing it into its gender neutral form that was first heard in The Next Generation:
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Though we’d see Chekov, Scotty and – of course – Kirk again in the seventh movie, Generations (in which the torch is passed to the Next Generation crew) The Undiscovered Country was our last trip across the galaxy with the original cast. It’s another successful big screen outing and – along with the underrated third episode – means that we only have two genuine misfires across six films (adding The Motion Picture to the walk of shame with Shatner’s The Final Frontier) which is not a bad hit rate at all.
How does Generations fare with continuing the series though? As soon as I’ve had a chance to rewatch what would be Shatner’s final Trek movie, I’ll be covering it here. Until then: live long and prosper.
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