Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Some remarks from George Takei at Denver Pop Culture Con prompted me to revisit the classic film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film came out in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just been dismantled in the very same year, and the writers built an allegory that did an excellent job of mirroring contemporary political events. This was also the last Star Trek movie with the original cast. So it is trying to provide a summary of the series and Gene Roddenberry’s ideas that can serve as a strong conclusion for the show.

George Takei’s comments about both Gene Roddenberry’s vision and this film had a surprising depth to them. He talked about how he grew up in an internment camp for Japanese people that was set up by the U.S. government. He had essentially no rights, and his entire family was under the control of soldiers who treated him as the enemy because of his race.

Takei placed this against Roddenberry’s ideas, and it was one of most moving sets of comments I’ve ever seen. He described Roddenberry’s vision as one of humanity working together and ignoring superficial differences between people to find a common good and improve things for everyone. The starship Enterprise was meant to represent earth, and the show’s idea was about bringing people together to solve problems of the human species. With environmental collapse posing an imminent threat to life and civilization, these ideas are even more prescient now than when the show was made.

Star Trek VI explores Roddenberry’s ideas in the Cold War context very well. The relevance after nearly 30 years is stunning, and this is deepened by the extent to which Russia and the former Soviet Union continue to impact American politics and security issues, with tensions that started out of suspicion of American intentions after the invasion of Iraq and following efforts to expand NATO into East Europe, the most extreme tension happening over Ukraine and then spilling into retaliation from Russia through hacking.

The film deals with race, and it has an engagingly unsubtle way of doing so. Roddenberry’s original show foresaw a future where racial conflict no longer exists, but when Nicholas Meyer made The Undiscovered Country, he was clearly bothered by the extent to which it still existed, and he set up a conflict between this, expectations of a better world after the Soviet collapse, and Roddenberry’s vision of a perfect future. In many ways, the film foreshadowed the present, where a large part of society expected racial issues to have been overcome by now and are shocked by the extent to which these conflicts are very much still part of the present and have troublingly reemerged in sometimes extreme ways. The twofold reaction that is most obvious is on the one hand disappointment over liberal dogma turning out to be fiction and revulsion at conservative pursuits of militancy and racism. Both sides are basically a disaster, and the film sees a world where nothing works except the heroism and good intentions of its central characters.

Indeed, the end of the Cold War had a lot to do with how the world looks today along the lines of that issue and many others. The expectation of the 1990s was that nuclear war would not happen, that peace would prevail, that racism would become obsolete, that environmental problems would be worked out, and that capitalism would last forever. Those views have collapsed in a sadly violent way after the September 11 attacks, Iraq War, 2008 financial crisis, growing environmental collapse due especially to global warming, deforestation, and biodiversity reduction, and Russia conflicts. The Undiscovered Country was well received at the time, but it deserves new analysis in light of how accurately it predicted a disturbingly violent backlash against the progressive ideas that were prominent with the Cold War’s dissolution. It offers stunning echoes of crises that are happening in the present.

Nicholas Meyer returned as director for this film having previously directed what is usually considered the best film with the original cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film was responsible for reviving the entire series in many respects. George Takei surprised me by going over the story of what happened after the show was cancelled and thanked long time fans for reviving it. That’s a history worth briefly recounting here. The original show ran for two seasons, and was expensive as well as very odd for its time, and CBS cancelled it. Then a letter writing campaign from fans brought it back for a third season. Then it was cancelled yet again. Then it became a hit in syndication, and yet another letter writing campaign led to a film being made.

So with that, Star Trek: The Motion Picture brought back the franchise. It was a good movie but not entirely successful at bringing Trek to the mainstream. Still more letters were written by fans for another film. Finally, Star Trek II brought in a highly intelligent director who spent a lot of time researching the show and working to create its most crucial qualities in a work of cinema, and it is probably the point at which the show reached a level of popularity that made it a somewhat permanent phenomenon that keeps finding new stories, new movies, new casts, and new series in what seems like an endless space opera.

Leonard Nimoy directed the next two films which continued the story from the second film, and Star Trek saw three very successful films in a row. That success led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and because Nimoy had been so successful as a director, Paramount made Star Trek V under the direction of William Shatner. Sadly, it turned out to be the only original cast film that collapsed with audiences and critics. It had bold and smart ideas, but perhaps too many of them shoved into one movie, and Shatner was reputedly very nice and accommodating to everyone on the set out of love for the show, possibly with the price of not controlling the production as tightly as needed. He also had to deal with the studio creating some issues with reduced budgeting and had to work with a special effects house that wasn’t adept at the material. The result is a sort of meandering guilty pleasure that didn’t leave the Trek film series in the best position. So Paramount wanted a better conclusion for the the original cast and brought back Nicholas Meyer to direct with Leonard Nimoy as a major contributor.

That turned out to be an excellent choice, and the writing found inspiration in the pairing of Rodenberry’s ideas with the Cold War. This is especially potent, because the series as developed in the 1960’s during the height of the Cold War had the Klingons metaphorically standing in for the Soviets, and the entire show is heavily infused with 60’s ideas. That romantic and futuristic optimism during the economic boom of a world still being rebuilt after World War II gave way to grittier realities that would eventually lead to our present, and the film handles both sides of this adeptly enough to build an inherent conflict between them. In essence, Meyer’s film builds classic drama from the conflict of Roddenberry’s vision with depressing observations of the world.

Secrecy plays a major role in the film, and we see that the powerful often operate in the dark to bring to light impulses that would not be acceptable if they were held out in full view. Shakespeare is also used very well, and indeed his plays often portray similar conflicts, those between the intentions of the powerful and the natural good of humanity. The Elizabethan England that was Shakespeare’s central place of reference was a more orderly world of expectations but one that dealt still with gritty chaos in the streets of London. Certainly in his plays, the powerful plotting of the nobility and royals in their castles have motives that can be very twisted away from the relative harmony that he saw in nature, and so in this film we see elites within the military and political circles plotting together to ensure that profitable conflicts will continue, at the expense of everyone else. 

The cinematography is uniformly beautiful with very skillful and gritty choices for dark photography. It does create a more realistic atmosphere both for space and for paranoia , and it can be seen as a predecessor to the very dark and gritty turn that science fiction would take in the 21st century through examples like the recreation of Battlestar Galactica.

George Takei also recounted the film from Sulu’s perspective and described his efforts to create a series for himself as captain of the Excelsior. This turned very amusing with his appreciation of the film going well into a shot by shot analysis which to say the least, puts Sulu in the most positive and heroic light that could be read into the film. It was a deeply moving speaking engagement, and what stood out the most is that Take takes Gene Roddenberry’s ideas very seriously as offering something important for humanity that is needed now more than ever.

The fourth film, made in 1986 also helps to show the seriousness of this. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home takes a serious look at the environmental crisis, but it’s worth remembering here that the 1980’s was the high point of the environmental movement. Since then, that optimism and seriousness of trying to save both the planet and natural areas have been replaced by dire predictions and empirical observations showing very little to be left of a healthy ecosystem. Insect populations which are essential to the ability to do something as simple as grow food have declined so severely that mass extinction and complete collapse are possible within decades. Sadly, with Roddenberry dead, we are left with his powerful ideas but in need of someone with a creative vision as powerful as his at translating those into narrative art.

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