One Last Adventure: Charting ‘The Undiscovered Country’

Much like in his previous remembrance of The Voyage Home, Steve Vivona not only takes a look at the film, but also brings us back to 1991, when fans across the world were able to cap off the franchise’s 25th anniversary with a rousing farewell to the original cast.

In mid-1990, George Takei visited the college I attended and gave an informal talk to students. I would see George many times in the ensuing years, but I opted not to attend the talk (something friends have never let me live down). One friend told me that George was strongly encouraging everyone to write to Paramount and demand that they scrap the Starfleet Academy idea floated by longtime producer Harve Bennett, and do a final film with the original crew.

We all know how that turned out. Bennett’s idea was scrapped and the longtime producer of the film series walked. I was sad to see him go, as his contribution to Trek cannot be underestimated.

However, I, for one, was very pleased by the news. Star Trek would celebrate its 25th anniversary in 1991, and the powers that be thought it fitting to have the original cast star in one last film, before handing the baton to the Next Generation crew, who were enjoying a surge in popularity since their third season.

In the summer of 1991, I sat in a darkened movie theater with my then-girlfriend waiting for the Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear to start. Knowing it was a Paramount film, I hoped we might get a teaser for Star Trek VI. What I saw made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

At the time, I had no idea Christopher Plummer narrated said teaser, which was an amazing compilation of clips from the series and the films projected on to the hull of the Enterprise.  Watch it here. Still has the same impact for me!

Paramount wisely stoked the flames of fan fervor that year with anniversary specials and the like. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner toured the country with a two-man show that showcased their playful rapport in front of sold out crowds. Excitement was reaching a fever pitch and Paramount moved up the release date by a week from Dec. 13 to Dec. 6 to avoid going head to head with Steven Spielberg’s ill-fated Peter Pan adaptation, Hook.

Star Trek VI was a fitting send off for the Original Series crew. Leonard Nimoy was the driving force behind the film, conceiving its storyline and executive producing. One would think he opted out of directing so as not to ruffle Bill Shatner’s feathers. Shatner delivered a flop with Star Trek V and nearly derailed the series, so no one was likely to allow him in the director’s chair again. However, he likely could’ve made a stink that Leonard was now directing a third film to his one, so Nimoy wisely enlisted Wrath of Khan director Nick Meyer, with whom he had a cordial relationship, and who was well liked by the crew.

In the years just prior to Star Trek VI, the Soviet Union collapsed. The Berlin Wall fell and most of the countries in the grip of Soviet rule were finally free to chart their own destiny. Knowing that Star Trek was at its best when it paralleled true life events, Nimoy envisioned “the Wall coming down in space”, with old enemies the Klingons and the Federation forced to work together.

While some of the dialogue was a bit on the nose in dealing with the bigotry and fear exhibited by the old guard Kirk and General Chang (Plummer at his scenery chewing finest), it was a thoughtful story of old dogs having to learn new tricks, uncomfortably adjusting to a new reality that saw them as outdated and worn out. In a sense, it also paralleled the idea that our beloved TOS crew was being put out to pasture with this film.

William Shatner gave a thoughtful performance, dialing down much of Kirk’s bravado as he came to grips with the end of the world as he knew it, and having to break bread with mortal enemies who killed the son he barely got to know. He had some great moments with DeForest Kelley when they are incarcerated in the Klingon gulag Rura Penthe that belied the many years these men spent bouncing off one another. And he was game for some playful dialogue that poked fun at Kirk’s persona.

Nimoy’s Spock spent a good portion of the film playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to solve the mystery of who killed the Abe Lincoln-like Chancellor Gorkon (played with appropriate gravitas by David Warner). Again, one had the sense that Nimoy was trying to give each of his castmates something substantial to do. No one could be more pleased than George Takei, whose Captain Sulu finally got the promotion promised to him in deleted dialogue from Star Trek II. He has some truly wonderful moments, and must’ve loved the fact he got to save Kirk’s bacon.

Not enough can be said about Christopher Plummer who took his performance right to the edge of ham fisted, but dialed it back at all appropriate moments. His Chang made a perfect counterpoint to Kirk, an old soldier who flat out refuses to live in the new reality, one who will scheme with his mortal enemy to retain the status quo.

The film’s somber tone was echoed in a wonderful score by Cliff Eidelman, which took some getting used to for me. However, much as Nimoy chose Leonard Rosenman for the buoyant score of Trek IV, Nick Meyer wisely chose someone whose compositions would enhance the tone and mood he was trying to create.

I could go on about some of the plot contrivances like the viridium patch, the convenient Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked, or the fact Valeris actually thought her co-conspirators might still be alive, but in the end none of it detracts from a timely, thoughtful, and downright sentimental piece that gave these actors a graceful exit from the stage.

Star Trek VI was not the last we would see of most of the Original Series crew, but it was the last time they would all participate in an adventure together. Those final moments where they look directly into the camera as if to say, “Thanks for sticking with us all these years,” still brings a tear. Someone had the great idea for them to literally sign their names to the end of the film, which was another lovely gesture.

Star Trek continues to this day. Its popularity has never diminished as various iterations are unveiled, but there is something magical about the TOS crew. For me personally, no version of Trek is better, and no version has that emotional pull that TOS does. For all their real-life dysfunction, these seven actors were never better when they were playing off one another, and combined to form a concoction whose like I doubt we will ever see again.

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Awesome post

This was a perfect send off from our heroes from the 23rd century

And then Kirk went and got himself killed off.

Trying to forget about it

Hate Generations so damn much!!!

“Oh my” – worst death line ever.

It was his last swipe at George Takei :) lol

I always thought he stole that from Val Kilmer’s death in TOMBSTONE, difference being it WORKED in the western, while it was just godawful in GEN.

That was just the Bermanverse, please ignore it.

Before Generations didn’t you assume Kirk was already dead when The Next Generation came on TV?

Kirk is still alive in the Nexus though as an echo but Paramount are just never going to tap into that idea now are they!

“Oh my” was tremendous and a great suggestion by Shatner. Literally looking into the unknown one last time and commenting on it rather then just dying. Seems very Captain Kirk to me.

TUP, I recently listened to Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga’s commentary on Kirk’s death in Generations on the blu-ray of that film.

You’re right, the “Oh my,” was Shatner’s idea. Moore and Braga didn’t like it and still think it wasn’t needed. I can see both sides of the argument. Maybe it would’ve been better if he’d just ended it with “It was…fun.” Moore explained that that was him speaking as fan, because he thought the original Star Trek, in the end, was just pure fun. Moore said that it wasn’t really clear what Kirk was seeing, that it was ambiguous. It could’ve been interpreted as fear, for instance, and that’s not something that you want for Kirk’s death.

The more I think about it, the more I think they should’ve left out the “Oh, my.”

What a well-written post. Agree completely.

This was the first Star Trek film I watched in a theater. I loved the teaser trailer for this film. That final shot of young Kirk and Spock and older Kirk and Spock was a great book end, since the saucer section shot was from the pilot and the drive section shot was from (at that point) the most recent film Star Trek V.

I was just two months old when this film came out, the creator gene died just about 3 weeks after I was born. The internet was born that year, Soviet Union was liquidated … 1991 was a pretty big year, wasnt it?!

I met my future wife that year and Undiscovered Country was our first date movie. She loved it as much as me and I knew she was a keeper

uh, the internet was long before it just became widely accessible.

The world wide web. That became a thing in 1991. ;)

Yeah, I’d have to agree that Paramount worked that anniversary better then they did this one….

The fact they did anything at all cemented that victory.

Star Trek was at it’s critical and creative peak in 1991. The movie series, even coming off a terrible film, was beloved, the original cast and crew were preparing for the amazing new chapter, while TNG was at in its prime, and I believe DS9 had just been announced. Star Wars was still nearly a decade away from returning, and Trek was a sci-fi icon in a world where sci-fi and genre programming was decidedly thin.

Both original and TNG casts were alive and healthy, so were much more available for interviews and appearances.

TV was also a much bigger media then, and TV specials, marathons and documentaries were highly rated and popular programming.

So yes, Paramount and CBS could and should have done a LOT more this past year, it’s not a fair comparison to put it up against 1991 or even 1996 (when there was a movie and 2 television shows).

Comparing it to the 40th in 2006 might be more fair, and through that lens it looks pretty damned good.

I was in college when TUC was released, and remember seeing it premiere night in the north Chicago suburbs… The theater was packed, many were dressed up/in costume, and it felt like being at a con full of fellow fans. Everyone cheered and gave a standing ovation at the ending… Definitely a bright memory.
Having grown up watching TOS, the final paragraph captures exactly how I feel about STVI and the TOS cast. Thanks much for putting it into words!

Interesting observation toward the end there that “Star Trek VI was not the last we would see of most of the Original Series crew.” As I think about that line, this movie only marked the final appearance of DeForest Kelley playing Dr. McCoy. Everybody else played their characters at least one more time on the theatrical screen, the TV screen, the independent production screen (a.k.a. “Star Trek: Of Gods and Men” and “Star Trek Renegades”), and in one case even a TV commercial and a TV awards program (Shatner in both cases). Majel Barrett had her last go-round as Christine Chapel back in “Star Trek IV” and never voiced the Enterprise computer in any original series movie.

Majel recorded dialog as the computer voice for the 2009 film, finishing roughly 2 weeks before her death.

DeForest Kelley played McCoy in the premiere episode of TNG

@ Ralph: that was in 1987, well before Star Trek VI.

Tremendous movie. As far as I knew, Nicholas Meyer being director was part of the deal made in order to bring him on board to write the film.

I remember rewatching the film on TV in the late 1990s and it hit me that none of the other crews and shows really measured up to the original. I still feel the same. The reinterpreted crew of the movies prove that the actual original characters work best, although the original cast will always be my favourite.

It’s such a shame they couldn’t sort out some more adventures after TUC. There was the opportunity for an animated movie before Deforest Kelley died (no one suggested it at the time, although I’ve always considered quality animation as a great opportunity to do something grown up and interesting) the great Dirk Maggs tried to sort out a radio serial that never came to fruition, and I’d long hoped for a Shatner/Nimoy reunion on screen, perhaps as a short film on a Blu-ray release, similar to the Marvel One-Shots.

TUC, for all its low budget, gave us a great-looking Enterprise-A, the best-looking bridge set of all the movies, mostly restrained performances from the leads – Shatner was less ‘Shatner’ and more ‘Kirk’ than he’d been in TFF – and a topical end to the series. There wasn’t a revenge-orientated villain either, more a conspiracy to keep tensions alive between factions for political convenience.

Whatever else, I do treat TUC as the last word on the original crew. Generations was an afterthought and it neither reflected well on the original crew nor the TNG crew. Much as we’ll hopefully see, sooner or later, ‘Aliens 2′ overwrite Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, I hope the opportunity is taken in the All Access show to tell stories in different eras and perhaps give the various TNG era characters (and Kirk, given the unfortunate circumstances of his being written out badly) the send-off they deserve. I’m content simply to pretend the TNG films didn’t happen, as All Good Things beautifully drew a line under those characters’ lives. Indeed, had they not made All Good Things as such a beautiful reflection on past and present, alongside a ‘broad strokes’ view of the future, I suspect the TNG films might not have felt so jarring.

It’s good that we saw the original crew sail away, perhaps to unanticipated new adventures, in TUC and, indeed, those three live action seasons, the two cartoon seasons and the six movies form a beautiful complete story of a generation of explorers. They’ll live inside my heart always.

Well said.

This is especially obvious when watching Generations. The best part is the opening on the Enterprise B and the end with Shatner (with the crash scene being about the only notable TNG aspect of the film). Basically, Id doze off after Scotty’s line “aye” and then wake up once Picard hit the nexus.

What a boneheaded move to blow off Nimoy and try to bury TOS. Showed a silly insecurity on the part of the TNG group.

I remember opening night for TUC – I had just finished exams in university and I bought tickets for both the early and late evening showings. After the first one ended, I stuck around and the staff let me stay in the theatre, so I had dead centre seating for the second showing.

TOS was always my Trek. TUC was a great send off but left me thinking they could have done more and wishing they had.

I too was in college at UAB when TUC was released. George Takei came to Birmingham Al for a SciFi convention just prior to the release that year. He was hinting that he finally had a command of his own. He was finaly a Captain, and on and on. It was a little embarrassing to be honest. I actually enjoyed his role as Capt Sulu of the Excelsior. He played it well, though saw little time on screen, as Shatner predicted when he asked why would he want to be Captain on another ship away from the action?. I loved the scene with Christain Slater though. That very recognizable voice in the darkness alerting Sulu to Starfleet’s requests for the Enterprise’s location. I loved Christopher Plummer’s role as General Chang. The bolted on eye patch was awesome! All in all it was a great sendoff for the real crew of the Enterprise!

No offense to TUC but does anyone else find that trailer to sound a bit “Questarian?”

I love UC very much , I remember seeing that teaser reel in the movies and tearing up, as I relived some of those memories. I then looked at the UC family photo on the bridge there and thought ahhhh look how young they are (look) and thinking back to when I saw UK in the theaters and thinking wow they really are getting up there (in age)…perception is a funny thing…all and all what a great ride its been :)

Star Trek VI only showed to me that the original cast still had some fuel in it. And what did we get instead? Generations…

Best to stop out while you’ve still got fuel in the tank than risk coming sputtering to the halt in traffic. *cough* Nemesis *cough*

And the Original Star Trek has never been replaced or upstaged by any spin offs, reboots and future reimages productions.

I used to watch these two every week.

Holy tribble-crap.
Just watched that trailer for the first time ever.
Chills confirmed.
And, like what, more than two decades after the fact?
Prob’ly says more about me than anything else, but freakin’ chills, man.
Wise engineer once said something to the effect of “enjoy these times, because they’ll never come again”.
It is that and much of the attitude of Trek that nevertheless leaves me very much curious for the future.
Live a long, peaceful life and prosper, fellow fans.
Compliments of the season if I don’t see ya.

Star Trek VI was always and still is my favourite of the TOS film series, bar Wrath of Khan. A personal favourite moment is Spock’s use of the oft-quoted Holmes line:

“If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Also, the adoption of Shakespeare by the Klingons was a stroke of genius.

“Cry Havok and let slip the dogs of war!”

Its because of all the ham acting that I actually prefer The Final Frontier.
That Dinner scene is the worst!! and the scene in the transporter room after.
Once you get around the turbolift shaft scene and the cheesy FX used for ‘the great barrier’ TFF stacks up to TUC.

TFF had some great moments and might be the best example of the relationship between the three leads. It faulted more, I think, due to lack of funds. Shatner had the bones of a great idea, but clearly needed some help in bringing it to fruition. And the lack of quality FX is unforgivable.

“…and combined to form a concoction whose like I doubt we will ever see again.”

Agreed, and great article. Many thanks.

I’d like to know whose idea it was to do the “sign” off at the end. That was absolutely amazing. It was like a curtain call for a movie theater and when I saw it literally each new name got a renewed burst of applause that ended with Shatner getting the loudest.

The signoff was Denny Martin Flynn’s idea, but it was for ‘kirk’ and ‘spock’ and the rest to sign, NOT THE ACTORS. Nimoy came up with that notion, I think (Flynn said it was one of the actors), and it was extremely upsetting to the writer (but I have to admit, it works in the movie, which is more than I can say for the majority of it.)

Good post. And I totally agree about the trailer being awesome. I actually wasn’t consciously aware that it’s Christopher Plummer narrating it. He does a stellar job. I still remember, “…join them for one last adventure…” ringing in my ears when I first saw this trailer. This write-up does a good job of making me feel like I’ll enjoy the movie more than I actually will if I watch it again today. Some of the scenes in the movie are superb. The whole premise and theme of the movie are great. But, there’s also quite a bit ham-handedness and awkwardness in execution throughout the movie. The end scene, including the signatures, is wonderful. I didn’t know that Nimoy had been so instrumental in the making of TUC, but it makes sense. He was an important creative driver of the franchise. Today, I rank TUC as tied for third with TSFS. It’s not great like TWOK, but it’s definitely a respectable and enjoyable Trek movie that lives up to the spirit and values of TOS.

You were lucky to see it when it came out, was in the navy on a six month deployment to the middle east. Had to make do with the DC comics adaption until I got back six months later

Best teaser trailer ever, still get excited seeing it.