Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Star Trek movies are a special species of film. In most cases, they are simply rather long TV episodes, which is understandable since they are all rooted in one of the numerous TV series the Star Trek mother corporation cranks out.
The movies are almost always enjoyable with the possible exception of the first, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which faltered greatly by being tedious. (Even the ludicrous Star Trek V can be enjoyed on a dull Sunday afternoon if the planets are correctly aligned.)
But like the vast majority of TV shows, the stories are forgettable. They are appealing not for what they are about but for who is in them. In the case of the first six Star Trek movies, we like them because they have the original crew. We want to see Spock, Kirk and McCoy etc. (This is true, too, of The Next Generation movies, all similarly forgettable.)
There are two exceptions, however. The first, best known exception is Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. It’s generally acknowledged as the best of all the Star Trek movies. I think this is probably true, but my favourite of the movies is the second exception, Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country.
The reason both movies stand out is simple: they weren’t made by Star Trek people. Both were made by director Nicholas Meyer who admits not having known much about the series and, more to the point, not caring. He wanted to make good movies.
Within the Star Trek constraints, he did. They are the only two movies that actually play like movies. They are rooted in themes that are developed and a storyline that progresses rather than episodic scenes that manage to complete a checklist of obligatory Star Trek moments.
In The Undiscovered Country, every scene touches on the storyline and informs (or rather is informed by) the theme. Characters change through the course of the film – in particular, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) changes.
The movie is about fear, prejudice and hate and, while almost all the characters exemplify these elements to a degree, they are encapsulated in Kirk.
The way he feels about the Klingons at the beginning of the movie is not how he feels at the end. And while Meyer’s film may not be Hamlet, it does adhere to storytelling cornerstones, particularly those of film, in a way that produces a memorable movie as opposed to a forgettable TV installment.
The Undiscovered Country also benefits by having a great supporting cast, in particular there is Christopher Plummer as General Chang who giddily spouts lines from Shakespeare higgledy-piggledy. (It produces one of the finest lines in Star Trek, Dr. McCoy’s, “I’d pay good money if he’d shuttup.”)
There is also David Warner and Kim Cattrall, both of whom help to anchor the film to its dramatic elements through wonderful performances. We also get to see Iman as a shape-shifter named Martia.
In the end, the movie strikes all the right Star Trek notes – action and adventure in space. But it also provides a well-developed story that engages and allows the film to progress smoothly rather than syncopate through strung-together episodes.
The DVD is also one of the best, if not the best, of the special editions with its additional features. This is largely through Nicholas Meyer who, through interviews and his commentary, provides insight and interesting observations about Star Trek overall, the movie and movies in general. He’s erudite, perhaps a bit pretentious, but never dull.