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Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Hey there Chaos fanatics! I know it's been a while, but I've come back to my reviews of the Star Trek movies. Yep, it's been a long time coming, but I've been busy with Warhammer 40K, other movies, etc. However, I did not forget my promise: that I would review all the original Trek movies. So, here we are- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The question before us is this: is TUC a proper sendoff for the old cast, or is it a let down rushed to coincide with Trek's 25th anniversary (in 1991)? Let's find out, by going where so many have gone before...

Personal Background: Strangely enough, I did not see this Trek in theaters when it was initially released- I don't quite remember why now. I do remember renting it on VHS from the local video store (Ha! Remember those?). Upon first viewing, I liked it, but wasn't thrilled over it- I was only what- 13 years old? However, over time, I grew older and learned to appreciate the racial, political, and military complexities that form the core of this film. Now, it's one one my favorites.

Basic Plot: The movie begins with the USS Excelsior (Captained by Sulu himself- he finally got that promotion) near the Klingon/Federation Neutral Zone, on a routine science mission, when suddenly a tremendous explosion has occurred within the Klingon system. A moon, Praxis, has suffered an environmental disaster and is now gone. This could ruin the Klingon home world and their empire.

For certain, the Klingon empire cannot afford to both clean up the environmental damage AND maintain their large army. The Klingon leader, Gorkon, proposes peace to the Federation. Kirk and crew are dispatched to meet the Klingon Chancellor and escort him to Earth for negotiations. Kirk is reluctant, as he hates the Klingons, particularly because of his son's death at the hands of Kruge (in TSFS). Indeed, there are many who are opposed to this peace (for several reasons), desperate people how will do anything to prevent a Federation/Klingon peace deal, which Kirk finds out to his peril. The Klingon Chancellor is assassinated en route to Earth, and the blame is placed on Kirk, with Kirk being put on trail and given a life sentence on a Klingon prison world. Kirk and crew must try to figure out who is really responsible for the murder, clear Kirk's name, and most important of all: attempt to restore the peace talks before a full-scale war breaks out between the angry Klingons and the Federation.

Themes/Concepts: There are several complicated themes playing out in this movie. First, it is certainly a parable for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War. Although the USSR did not formally end Communism until 1991 (which is when the file was released), the USSR had lost its Eastern European satellite states in 1989, and the Chernobyl disaster certainly helped to weaken the Soviet empire- it is obvious that this movie is using that for inspiration. It is quite fitting, considering that the Klingons seemed to be stand-ins for the Communists in the original series: vaguely Asian, a military dictatorship, and with episodes showing Kirk help native peoples resist Klingon rule (Vietnam?)- oh yeah, the Klingons were the 23rd century version of the Communist nations alright. It was only fitting (and brilliant) to play the story in this way.

However, TUC is not just a simple allegory for the fall of Communism. The movie really centers on a more complex theme: how do you embrace your enemy after years (decades) of hostility and warfare? That is applicable to any war; any enemy that has left deep scars. Besides Spock, no one from the Enterprise crew is thrilled at the prospect of being nice to the Klingons. Again, this is where Roddenberry's ideas of a "enlightened humanity" is just that; many of the episodes belied the fact that humanity is trying, but has a long way to go. TUC shows that in spades- Chekhov, Uhura, Scotty, Bones, and Kirk himself all find derogatory things to say about/to the Klingons, some of which is borderline racist. The fact is, Kligons and humanity have been hostile towards each other for decades. This movie asks the clever question: what if that long war is over? How would both sides look at one another (and themselves) if that conflict that defined them was at an end? It's a great conceit, and it works great in the film.

The other theme regards just how similar humanity and the Klingons truly are. There are good and bad guys on both sides. Kirk is bitter, but not bloodthirsty- he will not allow peace to be sabotaged, even if he doesn't agree with it. The Klingon Chancellor is not overly fond of humans, but he sees that his people NEED peace if they are to survive. Then, there are those who want war- both humans and Klingons, who work together to attempt to, at worst engineer a conflict, or at least stop the peace talks from succeeding. I'm not spoiling anything by stating that the Klingon Chang represents that other side- willing to do anything to avoid peace with his enemy.  At the end, Kirk realizes this truth, and fights to both clear his name AND protect the emergent peace.

Characters/Acting: The acting is solid in TUC. Though no one is as "flashy" as they had been in say TWOK, all performers give strong performances without any of the bad humor that had been on display in the previous two entries. It's great to see Sulu with a command of his own, and Uhura gets more to do than just "hailing frequencies are open", which is a plus. The standouts are:

Once again, Shatner surprises here in an angry but appropriately subdued performance. Kirk is suspicious of the Klingons and is afraid of peace, no doubt, but just under the surface is his pain over the death of his son at the hands of Klingon Commander Kruge in TSFS. It's not a boiling anger- its a dull, unending pain that Kirk feels: "I'll never forgive them for the death of my boy". Shatner doesn't overplay it- his pain is there, palpable, but without being overwhelming. When Kirk realizes that he's been set up and peace is at stake, he sees how wrong he's been, and is filled with a righteous fury as he attempts to uncover the conspiracy and save both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. It is not his best performance (that's TWOK), but its close.

Nimoy does his best work here also since TMP and TWOK. In STII, Nimoy invested Spock with a new understanding, of sorts. Though he's still Vulcan, he is more accepting/understanding of his own humanity. Then, when he "died" and came back, his Spock was off- either re-adjusting to life or what have you. In TVH and TFF, Spock was just a bit off. Now, he's back with that same serene balance that he had in TWOK. That serenity is broken just once, when he discovers just who is a part of the conspiracy: an angry Spock is a frightful thing to behold. Even better for Spock though, is that he is now following in his father's footsteps, slowly becoming a diplomat (he is instrumental in opening negotiations with the Klingons). Perhaps his father was right all along, eh?

DeForest Kelly isn't given as much to do here, sadly, though he provides great comic relief while he and Kirk are trapped on a Klingon prison world- "you've got him right where you want him" always makes me laugh. McCoy's best scene though is when he's on trial, and he emphatically tells the court that he tried to save the murdered Klingon Chancellor. Kelly was always able to sell McCoy's humanity and compassion, and that is very evident here, one of the best bits in the movie- when the judge tells him to be silent, you can see the pain and frustration in his eyes so well, that it is through McCoy that you see exactly what's at stake in this.

The last standout is Christopher Plummer as Chang. On the one hand, he does very well making Chang an enemy to be reckoned with- he's intelligent, dedicated to his cause, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his aim. His acting in the dinner and  courtroom scenes are simply fantastic. Unfortunately, it was decided that he should quote Shakespeare half the time... now, to me, this is too much like Khan quoting Moby Dick... why repeat such a device? Chang was strong enough, that this quoting was just unnecessary, as it added nothing to the character.

Special Effects: Overall, the special effects in this movie were on the light side of effects. Notably, this movie introduced the so-called "Praxis effect", which is a huge concussive blast that precedes the big explosion. The effect was actually later added to Star Wars when the Death Stars were blown up. The other big effect sequence was when the gravity was lost on the Klingon ship and the assassins barged in to kill the Chancellor, with everything suspended in the air- pretty cool, if not mind blowing. The last battle between the Chang's ship is interesting because it involves both the Enterprise and the Excelsior, but it is far too brief and rather simply done to be a major special effect.

Musical Score: The music in TUC is, like the movie itself, not too showy or wild- it is however brooding and atmospheric, which is just what was needed. It makes the film into a very serious affair, but also quite realistic. This isn't an action movie- it is a murder mystery and political thriller, and the score is appropriate for such a movie. It is not as memorable as other Trek movie scores, but it gets the job done.

 Lasting Legacy: First, and foremost, this was the last film to feature the entire original cast. There are absolutely several "passing of the torch" moments in the movie- as TNG was already airing, the audience already knows there will be other starships with the name Enterprise. Interestingly, one of the things that viewers found interesting about TNG is that a Klingon is a member of the crew in the 24th century. This movie actually shows HOW peace was achieved- the Kitomer Conference becomes a part of TNG cannon instantly. Great way to tie them all together. This movie also contains the seeds of Spock's role in the 24th century as an ambassador- which would have huge implications in TNG, as well as the Abrams "Star Trek" movie.

Overall, I'll give Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country 3 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. It's a great way to close out the series, and is an appropriate swan song for the original crew of the Enterprise. I hope you have enjoyed these reviews. I wonder what I'll do next? What's that you say? You want me to review the TNG movies? I don't know about that... I'd like to take a break from Star Trek for a bit. But, perhaps in the future I will...

Until next time...

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