TrekMovie concludes its week-long anniversary celebration of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country with a look at the film from a fan’s perspective. Much like in his previous remembrance of The Voyage Home, Steve Vivona not only takes a look at the film, but also bring 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.