May 5 2011 4:02pm

The Wall Comes Down in Space: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The sixth Star Trek film, The Undiscovered Country, holds a special place in my heart, and the hearts of many Star Trek fans. It was the last of the films to feature the entire original cast of Star Trek, and it was dedicated to the memory of Gene Roddenberry, who died shortly before it opened in theaters on December 6, 1991. After the poor showing of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country, filmed on a tight budget of approximately 27 million, went on to gross more than 96 million worldwide, thus redeeming the Star Trek franchise and ensuring that Paramount would back more films set in the Star Trek universe.

The Undiscovered Country was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the script was written by Meyer and his friend Denny Martin Flinn, based on a story concept suggested by Leonard Nimoy, who served as Executive Producer. The Cold War had ended not long before, and Nimoy’s idea, as expressed to Meyer, was “You know, the Klingons have always been our stand-ins for the Russian. How about, The Wall comes down in space?” Meyer has said the entire concept of the film then flashed into his mind. “An intergalactic Chernobyl,” he said, excitedly. “Big explosion! No more Klingon Empire!” And thus the concept of the Klingon moon Praxis exploding, thus setting off the plot of the film, originated.

In many ways, this film endeared itself to fans because it was truly an ensemble piece. It was great to see Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan, Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner reprise their roles. George Takei was there too, as Captain Sulu of the starship Excelsior. Mark Lenard was also back, as Ambassador Sarek, Spock’s father. Each character had something important to do in the film, and even though the story itself was “darker” than the other Star Trek films, with themes ranging from racial prejudice and terrorism to the fear of change and the debilitating mental and physical effects of aging, there was plenty of humor in the story, including some good natured parody of assorted Star Trek tropes, such as James T. Kirk being irresistible to alien women, and Doctor McCoy doing “surgery” on a Starfleet torpedo.

In addition to the original cast of Star Trek reprising their roles, The Undiscovered Country featured an impressive array of guest performers, from a bit role played by heartthrob Christian Slater (whose mother, Mary Jo Slater, was the Casting Director) to Kim Cattrall as Spock’s treacherous Vulcan protégé, to David Warner as the doomed Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon, to Christopher Plummer as Gorkon’s Chief of Staff and betrayer, General Chang. Rosanna deSoto played Gorkon’s daughter and successor, Azetbur. In addition, two Star Trek regulars from other versions of the show had small roles: Michael Dorn played Worf’s grandfather who was assigned to be Kirk and McCoy’s attorney during their trial on Kronos, and Rene Auberjonois (who would be tapped to play Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) gave an uncredited performance as Colonel West, the Starfleet traitor who attempts to assassinate the Federation President at Khitomer.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

David Warner’s portrayal of Chancellor Gorkon was excellent. The character, Nicholas Meyer admitted, was based on Mikhail Gorbachev, and Warner’s Klingon makeup was designed to be reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln. All of the actors gave strong performances, and viewers had a sense that the regulars were determined to do their best in what might well be their last film portraying these characters that had been part of their lives for so many decades.

The sets for The Undiscovered Country were different from any we’d seen before. They were deliberately darker, and quite retro in design, reminiscent of a modern aircraft carrier, perhaps. Officers drank coffee out of fine china cups. Pictures hung on the wall. What appeared to be dark wood paneling was used on some of the bulkheads. We saw the character’s cabins portraying more of their individual taste – Spock’s cabin reflected both his human and his Vulcan heritage, with a Chagall hanging on his wall. One scene ridiculously featured a galley, where food was being prepared by human cooks, showing them mashing potatoes—by hand! (The galley definitely struck a discordant note, since we’d always before seen food aboard the Enterprise ordered and delivered by some type of synthesizer.)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

There were, of course, continuity problems and logic errors. Every Star Trek film had them, and fans by that time just sighed and rolled their eyes when they cropped up. The worst one I noted was that the Excelsior under Captain Sulu’s command, was returning from a mission where they’d been mapping “gaseous anomalies.” And yet, at the end of the film when the plot demanded that the Enterprise be able to track plasma emissions from a Klingon bird of prey that could fire when cloaked, somehow the equipment to track gaseous anomalies was right there, magically aboard the Enterprise.

I think most fans felt the way I did—so happy to see our beloved characters back in a film that was actually entertaining, well-paced, and fun to watch, that we forgave the continuity glitches and rubber science. After all, we were used to that…we’d been doing it since 1966.

The Undiscovered Country was a very special film to me, personally. Over the years, I’d met all of the series regulars, with the exception of William Shatner, at Star Trek conventions all over the U.S. We’d chatted together in many green rooms, and even shared meals. I was on a first-name basis with Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan, George Takei and Walter Koenig. I’d met DeForrest Kelley only once, but he’d shaken my hand and told me he’d actually read Yesterday’s Son and enjoyed it. Leonard Nimoy and Jimmy Doohan had both narrated the audio versions of Yesterday’s Son and Time for Yesterday that I’d scripted.

Before The Undiscovered Country opened, I’d been mulling over the idea of writing the ‘back story” for one of Star Trek’s most beloved secondary characters, Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek. The idea of my writing the novel actually came from Mark Lenard, whom I’d met and talked with many times at Star Trek conventions. Over dinner one evening, we discussed my doing the book, and I listened as Mark mused aloud about how he saw his character, and how Sarek felt about Amanda and Spock. But I didn’t have an “anchor” for a novel plot.

The moment I saw The Undiscovered Country, I was fascinated by the idea of Chancellor Azetbur, and her continuing struggle to save her people after the devastating explosion of Praxis, and her father Gorkon’s death. The night I saw it, while driving home from the theater, all I could think about was “that story needs a sequel!”

So I decided to write one.

I realized that I could tell Ambassador Sarek’s back story in flashback, while continuing the story of the Khitomer peace conference and what happened after the end of the film. Thus the plot and character arc for my novel, Sarek, was born. Mark Lenard read the book in manuscript form, and liked it. After it was released, he narrated the audio version, which I scripted. For the next few years, whenever we encountered each other at Star Trek conventions, we’d arrange to sit side by side at autograph sessions, so we could both autograph copies of the novel.

Sarek did quite well in sales, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for about six weeks. Because of the work I did in writing Sarek’s “back story,” I was subsequently offered the chance to write Han Solo’s “back story” for Lucasfilm. And, three years ago, I received another offer to write a beloved film character’s “back story” when Disney asked me to write the prequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, and Captain Jack Sparrow’s “back story.” I did so, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom, will be on the stands May 17 of this year. (Come back to tomorrow for a free excerpt!)

And it all started with The Undiscovered Country…

A.C. Crispin is the author of the bestselling Star Wars novels The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn. She's also written four top-selling Star Trek novels: Yesterday's Son, Time for Yesterday, The Eyes of the Beholders and Sarek.Her new book is the prequel to Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s the first full-length Pirates of the Caribbean novel, titled Pirates of the Caribbean: Price of Freedom, and will be released by Disney Editions May 17, 2011.

This article is part of Star Trek Movie Marathon: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. RobinM
I never been the first to comment on a post. Yah! I enjoyed Star Trek VI because it was the last of original cast movies. The humorous dialog was spot on but there was always one scene that really bothered me. It is the mild meld scene between Spock and the Kim Catrall character. I didn't like Spock forcing himself on someone. Overall it was a satisfying adventure movie.
I also enjoyed your Star Trek pocket books I have treasured copies of all three in my childhood bedroom at my Mom's home.
Eric Scharf
2. EricScharf
I could have sworn I saw at least one preview for STIV:TUC that showed Kirk being disintegrated by some beam weapon. Given that trailers often use footage that don't make it into the final cut, I've always wondered if there wasn't a version that featured Kirk making the ultimate sacrifice to secure peace.

Even before Generations gave us the lame death-by-rockfall, I felt that Kirk deserved a better end. It really would have provided a nice bookend to STII:TWOK.
James Whitehead
3. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

One of the best lines ever.

Rich Bennett
4. Neuralnet
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the movie. This one holds a special place in my heart... saw it in college and remember endlessly arguing with friends over which was better the old trek or The Next Generation. I guess I am a Nicholas Meyer fan becuase this and II were (and still are) my favorites.
rob mcCathy
5. roblewmac
I liked this one better on first viewing. James T Kirk does not hate all Klingons because some jerk killed the son the he knew for a month.
Michael Poteet
6. MikePoteet
I have to agree with roblewmac. I don't think ST VI has improved with age. It was perhaps too much of its moment. Not only Kirk but also other human (andVulcan) characters are portrayed as being virulently racist where Klingons are concerned - a radical departure from Federation culture as portrayed in the original series. To be sure, Kirk and company were never overly fond of Klingons; but, when forced to confront each other, viewers generally sensed that Kirk and his Klingon adversaries (at least Kor and Kang) had a grudging respect for each other. I will grant that David's death at a Klingon's hands could bring out a deeper animosity in Kirk -- but are we seriously expected to believe that Scotty and Uhura think "Klingons don't value life the way we do"?

ST VI tried to follow ST IV's lead in being relevant, but it forgot to have fun along the way, as the fourth film did.
Brandon Daggerhart
7. BDaggerhart
@#2EricScharf that scene did make it into the movie! It's when Iman had shape-changed into Kirk's form, she got disentigrated. :)
8. Jeff R.
Eric: I always assumed that was an alternate version of the shapeshifter fight's ending.

And speaking of alternate versions, I have to say I have a strong preference for the "Scooby Doo" ending version of this film over the theatrical release. Because that _was_ not (as established in the film) Klingon blood...
Chris Hawks
9. SaltManZ
This one never really grabbed me (says the guy who loves III and V) and I don't know why. There was a hokeyness to it that I could never get past; the whole Spock-plays-detective storyline felt off to me, plus the main cast was just getting way too old. Some cool moments, definitely, but I never saw what the big deal was.
Richard Chapling
10. Chappers
I'm sure I read somewhere that the gas-detecting equipment error was a result of Shatner intervening to stop Kirk being rescued.

Strange how few people seem to know Shakespeare was a Klingon; I mean, we have pictures and everything...
A.J. Bobo
11. Daedylus
I liked this movie a lot. Interestingly, I think I read the novelization before I got a chance to actually see it though. To RobinM@1, the mind-meld scene was a bit more detailed. If I recall correctly, Spock actually shares his own past with her first - then she lets him into her past. Hard to show that on a screen, though.

Then there's Chang. Anyone that has an eyepatch NAILED to his head is not someone you want to mess with. Period.
12. alreadymadwithtrekVI
Second star to the right... And straight on till morning!!!
john mullen
13. johntheirishmongol
This movie was a lot of fun, and though there were some holes, it was a pretty strong film. Christopher Plummer was the only one who has come close to being a good enough villian to keep things going. The cast was great, the main characters were too. This movie gives me a warm feeling whenever I see it.
Richard Dickson
14. DailyRich
The highlight for me is still the cast literally signing off at the end of the film. Still get goosebumps watching it.
15. Desertpaladin
but are we seriously expected to believe that Scotty and Uhura think "Klingons don't value life the way we do"?

But they didn't place the same value on life as the crew of the Enterprise did. This is shown by the numerous encounters that Kirk and Company have with Klingons in the series and the movies. Time and again the Klingons were always shown as eager to kill.
16. Glenn Greenberg
There was a scene written (and possibly shot) for Star Trek VI that took place shortly after the Klingons beamed aboard the Enterprise and before the dinner scene. Kirk gives Gorkon and his crew a tour of the ship, and during this tour, he mentions to the Klingons that much of Starfleet's focus lately has been on scientific research, so all starships are now equipped with special instruments to observe and catalogue gaseous anomalies (thus tying in with the opening scene aboard the Excelsior). But this tour sequence got cut. So later on, when Uhura mentions that they have those instruments on board, it seems to come out of nowhere and appears to be a continuity mistake.
Sujay Naik
17. simoquin
My family moved to India in the late '80's; so I never saw this film or able to track down a VHS tape of it... by the time DVD's et al ( in India ) were around I'd given up on seeing it. This review make me think, I should look around after all..

Yesterday's Son was (is) one my favorite Trek novels...
Michael Poteet
18. MikePoteet
@Desertpaladin -- So some of the Klingons we met don't (seem to) value life as our heroes do. To generalize beyond that, as Scotty and Uhura do in that scene in ST VI, is really beyond the pale, now or in the 23rd century. It was modern day racism shoehorned into "Star Trek." (For a more artful approach to the subject, check out Mr. Stiles in "Balance of Terror." It's not that there are no Federation racists -- Roddenberry's own protestations by the time of TNG notwithstanding -- it's just that Scotty and Uhura ought not be among them.)
This one is by far one of my favorites of the franchise. The Whodunit aspect, the Two disparate storylines, the intrigue, the music from Cliff Eidelman, and the Cast.

This one too, has one of the best exchanges in Star Trek...

McCoy: We're finished. One day, one night. *grkkkk* Kobayashi Maru...
Kirk: Bones, are you afraid of the future?
McCoy: I believe that was the general idea that I was trying to convey...
Kirk: I dont mean this future.
McCoy: What is this, multiple choice?

Only to be followed up by the ENTIRE courtroom scene. I can't help but think that Colonel Worf was a pretty crappy lawyer though. I mean, I know from reading the books that there was very little evidence in support of Kirk or McCoy, and that they were supposed to present the case at the same time as the prosecution, but Col. Worf didn't even seem to try.

All in all, an excellent film.
20. desertpaladin
it's just that Scotty and Uhura ought not be among them.
I'd chalk it up to not so much as being outright racist as "We know we didn't fire on the ship and now the Klingons are trying to kill out Captain and Doctor". I mean who doesn't say something they don't regret under duress. Sometimes good peopls just say absolutely horrible sounding things when it wasn't their intention because of a bad situation.

All that considered though, they should have kept their mouths shut, but I forgive them their bad behavior because this movie is just soooo good. It's my favorite of the Trek movies.

21. heartnut
I shared this on my FB, and my Trekker friends loved it. I've always been an admirer of your work (I even have Yesterday's Son on audio tape and need to transfer it before it falls apart!)

Excellent parallels to World Issues, I hadn't really thought about before. I was a wee tot when this film came out (only 9!), so I watched it very grudgingly with my parents in the theater, but came to adore it as my favorite Trek film by the time I entered college ten years later.

Looking forward to seeing your new prequel book for POTC! Congratulations!
22. Pendard
Glad to see some love here for The Undiscovered Country -- it's my second favorite TOS film, after The Voyage Home... and that's just 'cause I like funny better than dramatic and thought-provoking! This movie was the perfect coda to the classic series, which had always used the Klingons as cold war villains but had predicted there would be peace way back in "Errand of Mercy"; it was the perfect allegory for the times which is what Star Trek should always try to be; and it was an excellent transition into Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had already showed us a future where the Klingons and the Federation existed quasi-harmoniously. Above all, it provided a classy and elegant exit for the TOS crew (and I do my best to pretend the TNG writers could have left it alone rather than ruining it with Generations).

I didn't have any problem with some of the racial prejudice that the TOS crew showed in this movie -- in fact, it's one of my favorite things about the movie. Unlike the TNG crew, who were paragons of the Federation's values and ideals, the TOS crew were always just doing the best they could. They were the frontiersmen of the Star Trek universe, doing their best to live up to their ideals under difficult circumstances. Even when they were young men and women it was a struggle for them to put aside some of humanity's worst impulses behind them. In "Arena," Kirk fulling intends to kill the Gorn for most of the episode, which makes it more powerful when he decides not to. A few weeks later, in "A Taste of Armageddon," he tells Anon 7 that the ancient impulse towards barbarism can be fought in the "I'm not going to kill today speech." That moment, one of the most powerful in the series for me, is much stronger coming from Kirk than it would have been coming from Picard because, while Picard's unfailing moral compass makes him the embodiment of everything the Federation stands for, Kirk actually knows what he's talking about from personal experience. He's an imperfect human being. For him every day in the captain's chair is a fight to make the right decision.

It's also a fact that when people get "old and inflexible," as Spock puts it, they become closed to the ideas of peace. In The Undiscovered Country, Kirk is a man who has spent forty years in Starfleet on the front line of the conflict with the Klingons. He's seen planets they've conquered and reorganized into slave labor camps, he's been the victim of sneak attacks, he's seen them secretly poison a shipment of grain that would have decimated the population of Sherman's Planet if it hadn't been detected... and he's seen them, in the middle of a peace conference, send a commando team to the Genesis Planet and destroy a Federation starship, killing its whole crew including his own son. It's no wonder he doesn't trust them -- hates them, even, thinks they're animals. And yet, even before he believes they're serious about peace he fights every instinct in his body and surrenders rather than firing on their ship. The conspirators probably put him in command of the escort mission because they thought that, when he was staring down the Klingons' photon torpedo tube at close range, he was the sort of man that would fire first. The fact that he doesn't do it says something really important about him. And the fact that, in the end of the film, these hardened, jaded, front-line fighters in a cold war that has lasted their entire lives are able to put aside hatred and mistrust, believe their enemy truly wants to change even as the action of the conspirators provides evidence to the contrary, and put their lives on the line for peace is a lot more powerful to me than a scenario where they were all as high-minded as Spock is at the beginning of the film.

@A.C. Crispin: Like many of the posters, I want to add that I'm also a big fan of Yesterday's Son and Sarek, which I think are some of the best Star Trek novels ever. I read a French translation of Yesterday's Son when I was living in Paris some years back, and despite it being a pretty wonky translation (as all the Star Trek books are) I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I've been very disappointed by the direction Star Trek novels have taken in recent years. I feel like they're no long accessible to people like me, who have never really cared to view TOS and TNG through the lens of Voyager and Enterprise. I, for one, really miss you. They just don't make novels like Yesterday's Son and Sarek anymore.
23. tiberius66
Hi Ms. Crispin-

Any chance we'll see Zar again? I had heard awhile back that you were writing a third "Yesterday" novel.
24. madhi19
It was a great ending for the TOS serie but I did not like the scooby doo ending. Or the last line about the ship being decommisioned. It would have been a better ending to do the reverse Kirk wanting to go to earth to decommision the ship while an Admiral saying. "Well we got one more job for you..."

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