As the hubbub heats up for the release of the big Star Trek reboot in two weeks (and it does look terrific), I’ve been thinking back on the first ten films in the series. Fans have their favorites and their theories: the even numbered films are the best, most say, and favorites tend to cluster.
Many people will cite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the best, and they have a strong case: Kirk’s backstory, the ingenious continuity of an episode from the original series (and the hilarious mistake of having Khan recognize a crew member who wasn’t actually on the show during that original episode), the presence of recently departed Ricardo Montalban as supervillain Khan and a young (and skinny!) Kirstie Alley as a Vulcan named Saavik, plus the riveting conclusion with its cat-and-mouse battle and Spock’s sacrifice. Undeniably, a great movie.
Those who aren’t devoted fans might fondly remember 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a lighthearted romp where the Enterprise travels back to the 1980’s to…wait for it…save the whales! By far the funniest in the series, its jokes mainly revolve around the 80’s tried and true “out of place adults and/or aliens reacting to the strangeness of modern life” formula.
And of course, there’s a lot to be said for Star Trek: First Contact, a film made especially to attract non-fans, which did so by pumping out one of the most viscerally intense action movies of the 90’s (really!) by taking the Borg threat from the Next Generation TV series and making them ten times cooler.
But as I’ve reminisced, I realized that I hadn’t seen Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country since I saw it in the theater 18 years ago. I figured it was time to give it another go, and put it on tonight.
Here’s six reasons why Star Trek VI may well be the best of the first ten Star Trek movies:
WARNING: Spoilers follow! If you don’t like it, go and watch the movie first. Just trust me.
First, creator Gene Roddenberry always conceived of Star Trek as a utopian vision of the future, which he pictured as the result of modern problems being solved perfectly. A bit of a hippie dream, sure, but that philosophy produced some of the best social commentary ever on TV, and for science fiction, that’s saying a lot. (Don’t forget that TV’s first interracial kiss was on Star Trek.) The dominant metaphor in the Star Trek universe was always identifying the Klingons as the Soviets, and nowhere is Star Trek’s political analogy nor its commentary more trenchant than in Star Trek VI. Appearing in the same year as the Soviet Union fell, it was an eerie mirror image of the world around us that year, showing the decline and fall of the Klingon Empire and a world shocked by the sudden end of generations of hostility, and still reminds us of how far we all have to go, as nations, as races, and (as Kirk shows us), as individuals.
Second, the plot is clever and effective. It gets going quickly enough, with a bare minimum of exposition, and after that it gets faster and never lets up. Nearly every scene treats us to inventive visions–the Klingon assassinations in zero gravity and the more realistic torpedoes foremost–and offers a combined murder mystery and conspiracy to unravel behind it (elements that would essentially be reused later in Star Trek: Insurrection). Looking back on it now, long after the dust has settled, one easily gets into this movie as a fun ride; it’s not short, but it never drags.
Third, the supporting cast is light years ahead of any other entry in the series. Kim Cattrall (of “Sex and the City”) as a young Vulcan officer, Kurtwood Smith (the dad on “That 70’s Show”) as the Federation president, David Warner (the bad guy’s servant in Titanic) as a wise Klingon, African supermodel Iman as a shapeshifting alien, a surprise cameo by Christian Slater, and best of all, Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music’s Captain Von Trapp himself) as the Klingon bad guy with a metal eye patch bolted to his face. Wow.
Fourth, this movie is a nerdy English teacher’s dream. The quotes from Shakespeare alone are far too numerous to remember off the top of my head now, but make this an especially literate script. The title, of course, is a reference to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech…a line which is also quoted in the movie.
Fifth, this is a very funny movie. There are a few ironic self-referential bits that, once you hear them, you know just had to be there. When Captain Kirk has to fight “himself” (the shapeshifting alien in disguise), Kirk quips, “I can’t believe I kissed you!” To which the alien twin replies, “It must have been your lifelong ambition!” Heh heh heh. Because, you know, he has an ego.
Sixth, this film made an appropriate and satisfying ending for the original crew’s adventures. Shatner narrates a bit of dramatic nostalgia-inducing wisdom at the end that provides a noble bridge to the future. In a film that invests so much energy in musing on the theme of daring to enter a future whose only certainty is that it will be unlike the familiar past, Star Trek VI can rest easy knowing that it served its purpose honorably and prepared us for the journey well.