Time To Revisit Star Trek VI

200px-star_trek_vi-posterAs 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.

9 comments on “Time To Revisit Star Trek VI

  1. I really loved the rant that Khan went into as Kirk was attacking his ship. “From the depths of hell I spit at thee.” My question is, Is that a quote from classical literature?

  2. Floyd, indeed! It’s from the end of Moby Dick. At the end of chapter 135, as Captain Ahab is preparing to harpoon the whale that Ahab had been obsessively hunting because it had eaten his leg, he shouts: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

    In another Star Trek reference, it’s an allusion to Moby Dick that brings Captain Picard to his senses in First Contact. Speaking of which, actor Patrick Stewart got to speak these lines himself as Captain Ahab in a great film version of Moby Dick about ten years ago.

    And of course, Mr. Burns uses the line in an episode of The Simpsons

  3. You make a great argument for The Undiscovered Country. I still have to go with Wrath of Khan as the best. It has murderous, nightmare inducing earwigs, the Kobayashi Maru, Kirk for the first time ever faced with the consequence of his incessant womanizing, and (SPOILER ALERT) Spock’s death. It cointains the greatest monologue:

    “I have been, and always shall be….your friend.” As Spock dies. I cried the first few times I saw it.

    The most memorable lines:

    “KHAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!! KHAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! KHAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I think this laid the foundation for Shatner’s spoken word career.

    Of course, we know the funniest line came from The Voyage Home.

    “You’ll have to excuse my friend. He did a little too much LDS.”

    If you need my definitive Movie power ranking, I’d have to go

    1) Khan
    2) First Contact
    3) The Undiscovered Country
    4) The Voyage Home
    5) Search For Spock
    6) Generations/Insurrection
    7) Nemesis
    8) The Final Frontier

    I have omitted The Motion Picture because the one time I saw it I was way too young to remember, and I’ve been told so many times it is such a yawner that I have never revisited it to give it a chance. Someday, I’m sure. I esteem Search for Spock/Generations/Insurrection about the same, generally entertaining if not somewhat pedestrian offerings, giving slight nostalgia weight to the original crew. Choosing three movies for one slot would have been completely gutless. As you can see, I ascribe to the even numbered movie theory, with the exception of Nemesis, which I felt was a poor swan song for TNG movies (and a pretty poor remake of Khan, actually). It should be noted that the worst movie was directed by Shatner.

  4. I watched The Motion Picture again last summer; it wasn’t bad. A slow, cerebral kind of movie, like Search For Spock. It just needed a lot of editing (I still can’t believe there’s a Director’s Cut of that one out there; who saw that movie and thought, “This is OK, it just needs to be another half hour longer”?).

    Another reason why Undiscovered Country edges out Wrath of Khan for me: when I saw Star Trek VI in the theater and the cloaked Klingon ship finally gets blown up at the end, people in the theater actually got up and applauded. It was huge fun and made a big impression on me.

    Here’s my list; as you can see, our tastes run largely parallel:

    Great Movies:
    1. Undiscovered Country
    2. Wrath of Khan
    3. First Contact
    4. Voyage Home

    Average Movies:
    5. Insurrection
    6. Search For Spock
    7. Generations
    8. The Motion Picture

    “That’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back!”
    9. Nemesis
    10. Final Frontier

    I debated which to put dead last. Final Frontier was undeniably the worst film, but I had such high hopes for Nemesis–even going to see it at midnight–that I was personally hurt when it was so awful. I agree with you–a wholly unworthy end for Picard’s crew.

    Trivia: not only did Nimoy direct Search For Spock and The Voyage Home, he also made Three Men and a Baby.

  5. By now, Wrath of Khan looks a bit dated. As I really like the TNG cast, I’d put First Contact and Insurrection high on the list. I wouldn’t have said that until re-watching them both on DVD last year; in memory, the lighter moments tend to mask the impact of the more intense scenes and conflicts. Let’s see where the new movie takes the franchise — we’ve never had a cast that made a movie before doing a TV series. The trailers sure look good.

  6. Final Frontier was so bad that despite having been a fan since 1972 and having published a zine for a while, I gave up on Star Trek altogether. I haven’t seen the later movies. Almost thou convinceth me to Netflix. Maybe someday.

  7. Dave, I hadn’t thought about that–this IS the only time there’s been a movie without a show. (Isn’t it too bad they never did an Enterprise movie? That could have been really good.) But if TNG was your favorite, then I bet you really hated Nemesis!

    Ardis, don’t let the apostasy that was Final Frontier hurt your faith: I’d like to share a message with you about the Restoration that was Star Trek VI. The sci-fi gods came down and renewed the true power and authority of the franchise, expelling the false priest Shatner from the office of director. Now we have access to the plan in its purity for our own generation: “to boldly go where no one has gone before!”

  8. I think what really shook everyone’s faith in Star Trek was that Nemesis was an EVEN NUMBERED MOVIE. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE GOOD! I always felt Search for Spock refuted that odd/even theory, but Final Frontier was bad enough to be worth two odd numbered movies.

    I won’t vehemently press the Khan issue, because they are both really good (and in the right mood, I think I would put Undiscovered Country ahead of First Contact). All we really need to say is that this new movie looks amazing. J.J. Abrams could make “Bathroom Jokes: The Movie”, and it would destroy Citizen Kane.

    Does anyone remember feeling extremely uncomfortable when a 50 something Uhura did her little desert fan dance in The Final Frontier? I still wake up in cold sweats sometimes…

    I don’t know where old episodes of Futurama can be viewed, but their episode paying fan service to Star Trek is one of the 5 best television parodies of all time. Nothing encapsulates so perfectly the mania of Trekkies as elequently as that 22 minute masterpiece. Check it out.

  9. I’m going to confess two dirty secrets that will force me to cut two corners from my Trekkie Card…

    I have seen half an episode of Voyager, and 1/4 of an episode of Enterprise. Now I will hide with my shame.

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