1991 was a special year in franchise lore. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary. Above and beyond the failure of The Final Frontier, fans still had an abundance of affection for a cast they had followed for so many years. It would take a lot more than one bad experience to kill Star Trek again, especially now that five films and a second TV series and crew had been introduced. One final film with the original cast was warranted, and probably demanded, for the occasion, and so was released The Undiscovered Country.
It may seem like an antiquated notion to modern ears, but the Cold War was still a recent subject in 1991, and social allegory had been a common theme in the original series. The closest the films had gotten with this theme had been The Voyage Home, which had ridden a wave of environmental concern to exceptional box office success. Given the recurring presence of Klingons in the films (which had probably done more than any original series appearance to popularize them), it probably wasn’t a huge leap to connect this final film’s story with them and the Cold War’s conclusion. Doing all this was probably enough to create a more successful movie. But for fans, probably the active participation of Nicholas Meyer helped put it over.
As I’ve said before, The Undiscovered Country feels like a continuation of the story begun in the trilogy, and is in a sense therefore a continuation of it (leaving the odd ducks Motion Picture and Final Frontier forever disconnected in still more ways from fan affection). To create a separate and continuing narrative was perhaps the most cinematic as well as successful thing the original crew films accomplished, and helped create the franchise just as much as the appearance of The Next Generation in 1987 and Deep Space Nine in 1993. Even if every episode of every series had been episodic, the creators couldn’t help but bleed a certain amount of continuity, which was far more inevitable because of the work the films did than the existence of the forebear TV show. In a sense, Star Trek, before Star Trek in 2009, had already rebooted itself.
The Undiscovered Country is probably the most fully realized, complete, and fulfilling of the original crew films. Where it lacks the surprise of Wrath of Khan, the scope of Search for Spock, or the fun of Voyage Home, it offers a mature product that hasn’t aged in twenty years, the first time a Star Trek experience could say that. It is as appropriate a final statement from both this crew and their movies as it can be. Fans had long known these characters were timeless. At last one of their adventures feel like it as well.
Some of the guest actors help make it that way. David Warner, as the doomed Klingon chancellor, has one of his signature roles in the franchise. Christopher Plummer is virtually rediscovered thanks to the film. Kim Cattrell, like Kirstie Alley, enters the popular consciousness thanks to Star Trek, only to find her big success with another project. All three performances add to the luster of the final project. Brock Peters returns as Admiral Cartwright, Kurtwood Smith appears as the Federation president, Christian Slater makes a cameo (okay, so if anything dates the movie, it would be the idea that this appearance would be relevant, because his star has fallen considerably since then). A popular supermodel (Iman) costars, even! We also get the first deliberate generational crossover, as Michael Dorn is shone briefly as his own ancestor, defending Kirk and Bones in Klingon court. (Scenes not shone in the original theatrical release also bring us Rene Auberjonois, a few years before he officially joins the family as Odo.)
As with virtually every other film in the series, the passage of time is clearly evoked. That would certainly be another unique element of the films, since it’s hardly routine for films, let alone a film series, to stick with a group of aging actors. Sean Connery was booed out of the Bond films forever when he definitely no longer looked like he did in the 1960s. George Takei finally gets his wish, something that was intended as far back as Wrath of Khan, when Sulu is finally shown as captain of his own ship, the Excelsior (I don’t know if anyone has ever properly made the connections here, but he made his intentions toward this ship pretty clear back in The Voyage Home, after everyone else had already made their continuing resentments from Search for Spock perfectly clear). This was only the beginning of a new Star Trek campaign that would insist a Captain Sulu TV series would work wonderfully, an argument that probably helped give us the Voyager episode “Flashback,” which is set during this film. (Maybe then we might have found out why Sulu liked that ship so much.) That Sulu’s command is a prominent element of the movie probably felt like a reward for Takei’s years of patience, and still stands apart as the only real career progress for any member of that crew.
“Flashback” isn’t even the only episode to evoke the film. A few years later, Enterprise revisited the Klingon penal colony (and court) in “Judgment.” After “Mirror, Mirror,” no single Star Trek adventure has left as much of a lasting impact as The Undiscovered Country. A lot of other films and episodes have served as lucrative launching pads, such as the introductions of Q and the Borg in Next Generation, but without even meaning to, the sixth film has managed to become an instant touchstone. It may be because it was the final original crew movie, and so automatically sticks out in franchise lore. Sulu never did get that series. No film or series ever really revisited Klingon culture in quite that way, expansive as some of them got. I would argue that, far from having exhausted itself, as many fans were arguing by 2005, Star Trek had only scratched the surface, by 1991, by 2001, and even by 2011, even though hundreds of episodes, eleven films, and countless books and comics have explored far and wide the emerging canon. The phenomenon of The Undiscovered Country is an example of that.
I don’t remember when exactly, or how, I first saw it, much like Wrath of Khan, but Undiscovered Country was pretty easy to love, as it has been, apparently, for most fans. Aside from the allegorical implications, it isn’t quite as ambitious as Khan or Voyage Home, the other unabashed successes of the first six films, so its success is more a testament to the fact that sometimes, it does pay to have a lot of history behind a Star Trek, sometimes being good at what you’ve already done is good enough. This was the last time fans allowed the creators to get away with this kind of attitude, or experience, so it’s nice to think of the film in that regard as well. Maybe it was simply that, for a change, Star Trek was merely content to tell a good story, that allowed everyone to get along so well. It wasn’t trying to do or be anything else. With nothing left to lose, the franchise in the hands of a new generation, The Undiscovered Country was like a cruise home.
I usually rank this one pretty near the top of my list when considering the film series as a whole. Even though I have a lot of glowing things to say about some of the others, and even an emerging appreciation for Wrath of Khan, which has suffered in my mind the way The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier have for others, The Undiscovered Country will probably remain that way, a consummate experience that constantly finds new ways to entertain me. You have to love a film that finally has someone ask Kirk what the heck the deal is between him and women. Or that features the hilarious first appearance of someone named “Dax.” Or finally flummoxes Scotty with the basic laws of physics.
I don’t know, go and watch it again yourself. One final piece of endorsement: The Undiscovered Country probably also has the most distinctive and interesting of all the movie titles, as well as the feel of what the original series used to do all the time with its episodes, a trend Deep Space Nine would later continue.