Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a masterpiece until it's a franchise movie
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise – and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek‘s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: The end of the Cold War, with more forehead ridges. Last week: William Shatner versus God. This Friday: Kirk meets Picard.
At the beginning of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the opening credits play over a starscape. Opening credits always do that in Star Trek. But something’s gone wrong this time. Cliff Eidelman’s score is minor-key, insinuating, infesting. It puts you on edge. The final credit flashes onscreen: “Directed By Nicholas Meyer.” The name fades. The camera holds. The stars shine dark. And then the universe explodes.
There is no true form for a Star Trek movie, no single blueprint that can explain the architecture of the best adventures of the Enterprise. I hope that this column series is, in some ways, argument against the modern strain of enjoyment that demands all our branded content fall into some prefabricated cinematic style and narrative strategy: that strain of thinking that praises the karaoke achievements of Star Wars 7 and Jurassic Park 4, the sanctimonious originalism that hails superhero movies for doing something “right” instead of doing something new, the sell-out intellectualism that didn’t get furious just now reading the phrase “branded content.”
What is a Star Trek movie? In the last few weeks, we have watched a dreamy lithium brain burp about consciousness and pajamas, a whimsical comedy about humanity’s unsteady relationship with the natural world, and a testosteronic action farce about whether God exists.
One of those movies is a perfect act of human endeavor; the other two are not, but I support their ambition and their lunacy, appreciate the chintzy let’s-solve-the-universe egotism of asking The Big Questions using bald space beauties and giant floating heads and purple space haze and “Row Row Row Your Boat.” In the grand scheme, the Enterprise starts to feel like the Clamp Center in Gremlins 2: Less a place than a thousand states of mind piled atop each other. (Level 20 is where the crew gets funny; Level 31 is where Kirk feels sad; Level 42 is where they meet the Greek Gods; on Level 87 everyone quotes Shakespeare.) Star Trek can be everything, can take you anywhere: That’s how cinema is supposed to work.
I don’t think the franchise has had a more clear-eyed filmmaker than Nicholas Meyer – and I don’t think it has had a more sustained stream of excellence than the first 50 minutes of Undiscovered Country. Meyer made The Wrath of Khan, a clever epic composed out of faces and reaction shots. Meyer had a low budget, but Melville didn’t have special effects when he wrote Moby Dick. I love Khan, but Undiscovered Country begins on another level, thematically deeper, richer in its perspective on the personalities onscreen. The Klingons are in trouble: A moon has Chernobyl’d, they’re running low on energy, the whole civilization is dead in this generation or the next. Leave it to Meyer to make “the problem of limited resources” the inciting incident for his adventure. Resources shouldn’t factor much into Roddenberry’s utopia – but as Undiscovered Country makes clear, Meyer doesn’t believe in utopia, doesn’t trust Starfleet, doesn’t quite trust the dictionary definition of “hero.”
We cut to Starfleet headquarters. Another subtle sign that we’re in uncharted territory: We’ve gotten plenty of San Francisco establishing shots in this series, but this is the first time we’ve seen the Golden Gate Bridge at night, a gloaming settling over the Marin Headlands.
There is a top-secret meeting of Starfleet’s top people: Classified. The Klingons have opened up a line of diplomacy. They want to negotiate for peace, or something like it. Meyer takes Starfleet seriously as a force that is deep-down a military concern. So if you come to Undiscovered Country from The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or even the last few movies — where Starfleet is a place that finances adventures for families and friends, essentially some combination of the French Government and Google that employs everyone to do whatever they would like to do — you might be a bit dizzy to hear how the top brass talks about Starfleet in this scene. (Meyer admires the terse toughness of bureaucratic soldier lingo: “C-in-C” instead of “Commander-in-Chief.”)
What does it mean, if they aren’t at war anymore? “Are we talking about the mothballing of Starfleet?” someone asks. There is immediate, angry debate. One Admiral voices opposition. Peace is madness; if the Klingons are weak, we strike now. We are immediately aware that there are two sides to this argument, and see how Meyer positions those two sides, with two familiar faces at the center:
Spock doesn’t just advocate peace: He is the reason for these negotiations, the Federation Special Envoy to the Klingons. Kirk didn’t know that, and is shocked by this whole meeting. “This is a terrifying idea,” says Kirk. “The Klingons have never been trustworthy.” He’s entitled to his opinion. But Captain Kirk, hero of the galaxy, isn’t sitting at the table because Starfleet wants his wisdom. They need his brand recognition. They are sending Kirk to meet with the Klingon chancellor and escort him through Federation space. What a statement that will make: The enemy of the Klingons, welcoming them with open arms. This will be his final mission: A glorified escort mission.
“I have personally vouched for you in this matter, Captain,” says Spock. “You,” Kirk spits. “Have personally,” he sputters. “VOUCHED?” he demands, decades of friendship betrayed in a moment. See how Meyer gracefully moves into a close-up: Kirk looking up and offscreen left, the camera ever-so-slightly above him, so that he looks small and cornered; Spock staring down and offscreen right, the camera staring up at him, so that he looks frustratingly imperious.
And see how, as the meeting breaks up, Meyer leaves them on opposite sides, never further apart.
Undiscovered Country cost more than Wrath of Khan, but if you’re looking, you can feel the same stretching. After Final Frontier‘s soft box office, the budget for this film was cut down — shades of the budgetary reduction from the bloated Motion Picture to the lean Khan. There are sets in this film redressed from The Next Generation; Kirk’s bedroom is also Spock’s bedroom (wasn’t it always, teehee.) None of that matters for Meyer; it might even be a boon for him. He knows how much mileage you can get out of two well-motivated characters.
“They’re animals,” Kirk yells. “Don’t believe them! Don’t trust them!” Spock is droll. He quotes an old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.” But Spock is also clear, and poignantly human. He calls Kirk “Jim.” He says, plainly: “They’re dying.”
“Let them die,” says Kirk.
We’re used to the idea of “darkness” now, as a mode of entertainment. Most of that darkness is aesthetic, shadows and dirt and shaky cameras. Sometimes that darkness actually permeates the movie — but even then, it can feel like a pose, an abstraction of political reality. (See how much fun we have debating if The Dark Knight is liberal or conservative!) Undiscovered Country is clear on its politics. This is the end of the Cold War, rendered spaceward. Spock believes the point of war is peace; Kirk thinks war ends when there’s only one side left. Think of how so many big movies this year bend over backward to find some way for their heroes to fight; think of how, minutes into Undiscovered Country, Captain Kirk hates Mr. Spock.
It’s not that simple, of course. Nothing in this movie is. Kirk is angry, but ruminative. We find him on the Enterprise, in his quarters, pacing in a circle. “I’ve never trusted the Klingons,” he monologues. “And I never will.”
You notice things in this scene. The cruddy smallness of Kirk’s room, for one: a gray dormitory with some ornate artwork hung on bland walls, a small bed with little comfort for a man cusping on 60. And that’s another thing. In Wrath of Khan, Kirk worried about getting old. He doesn’t voice that now, but only because there’s no use worrying; he is just old. His hair gone gloriously gray, his belt buckled too-tight against his stomach. There is nothing pitiful about this: Quite the opposite. Shatner-as-Kirk looks majestic in Undiscovered Country, like any god in ruins. In the shadows of his cruddy cabin, he looks like a man who thought he was free until he woke up imprisoned. “How on earth can history get past people like me?”
Meyer’s camera shoots with clarity, but as a writer he loves grand statements, references, clear-cut homages. We cut to Spock in his own room, where he is talking to his latest apprentice: a young Vulcan officer named Valeris, an avatar of the younger generation played with helplessly seductive wit by Kim Cattrall. We find her looking at Spock’s painting: Marc Chagall’s Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise.
Soon enough, there are Klingons aboard the Enterprise. Their leader is Gorkon, his name an explicit blending of Gorbachev and Lincoln; he is even styled to look like Abraham Lincoln, and the first great surprise of the film is how David Warner plays this role with softness, charm, even a bit of whimsy. He is a graceful guest: “You have my thanks,” he tells Kirk. He has brought his daughter with him: You feel immediately that he is proud of her, not just as a father but as a fellow politician. You may feel, in fact, that Gorkon is — in this moment, in this movie — a far more convincing leader than Kirk, someone who smiles at this curious new moment in history instead of raging against the dying of the light.
The next scene is, I think, my favorite scene in any of these Star Trek movies. It’s a close call, truly, a race between Spock’s sacrifice in Khan and the V’Ger odyssey toward meta-orgasmic cosmic awareness in The Motion Picture and everything on Earth in Voyage Home and Kirk asking what in the world God could do with a starship in Final Frontier and the Borg Queen seducing Data in First Contact and Worf saying “Assimilate This” in First Contact and Chris Hemsworth saying “Let’s call him Jim” in Star Trek ’09.
But: There is a dinner. The camera starts on Kirk, looking a bit too rehearsed and stiff as the waiter pours Romulan Ale into his glass.
The camera pulls back, and we get a balanced image of two people: Christopher Plummer’s Chang on the left, Kirk on the right. These characters have only just met, but note how Meyer ever-so-subtly establishes them as equals here — and how he contrasts Kirk’s stiffness with Chang’s caveman-at-the-dinner-table curiosity.
Chang doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of a napkin — and as the camera pulls back, Kirk unfurls his own napkin. It is one of the best single pieces of physical acting Shatner has ever done: You can feel patrician disgust, and you marvel at all of Kirk’s barely-bottled aggression coming uncorked.
The camera keeps moving back across the table, so we see the two sides. They are dining together, separated.
The shot ends at the far end of the table. If Kirk is on one end, Gorkon must be on the other — and, with perfect timing, the waiter comes around to fill his glass. But you can look closely and see Gorkon’s warm smile. His costume is more ornate than Kirk’s, but he seems more comfortable. We pay attention to this strange Klingon. Kirk seems so petulant; we have the strangest feeling, helped along by Meyer’s framing, that Kirk is boy at a table for grown-ups.
He gives a toast: “To the undiscovered country.” It’s a reference, Spock informs us: “Hamlet, Act Three, Scene One.” Sometimes, when characters in a movie call out the movie’s reference, it can feel too cute, or on-the-nose. But in Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek, characters call out references because they are smart, and they are delighted by how smart the other characters are. And in Meyer’s view, with intelligence comes dry wit: “You have not experienced Shakespeare,” says Gorkon, “Until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
The conversation that follows flows, patiently and logically. McCoy and Scotty try to make welcoming small talk. One of the Klingons praises Kirk’s Draper game: Isn’t Romulan ale illegal? Chang tests Kirk: Would he be willing to give up Starfleet? Shatner and Plummer were old pals — Bard obsessive Meyer must have loved that his hero and villain performed together at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival — and you can feel their delight as equals, and you can feel that Chang and Kirk see each other clearly, and know that they don’t quite belong at this table, and don’t want to.
Kirk tries to change the topic of conversation; he says something diplomatic. “Come now, Captain,” says Chang. “There’s no need to mince words. In space, all warriors are cold warriors.” The tone of the conversation changes, like ripples turning into waves. Gorkon’s daughter has a philosophical dislike for the Federation: It’s a homo sapiens club. (Oh sure, Spock, a half-human — and he’s the only alien sitting on Starfleet’s side of the table.) The Klingons believe that Starfleet wants to annihilate them — if not their species, then their culture. Chang quotes Shakespeare: “To be or not to be.” He tells Kirk: “We need breathing room.”
Kirk can’t help himself. “Earth, Hitler, 1938.” Explaining that gag takes a while — it refers to Spock’s line about Hamlet, it refers to Hitler and the concept of “lebensraum” — but what you feel most of all in that moment is how completely Kirk has failed. Chang smiles: He has forced the Captain of the Enterprise to reveal his petty side. Gorkon smiles too, but much more sincerely, and sadly: “I see we have a long way to go.”
The Klingons leave, but not before Gorkon gives Kirk a personal message. “You don’t trust me, do you?” he says, always smiling that sad smile, as if he’s seen this movie before but takes great relish in watching it again. “I don’t blame you,” he tells Kirk. “If there is to be a Brave New World, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”
Our generation: What a thing to say! What a moment of unity! You may dislike how completely Undiscovered Country rips its central story from the headlines, you may yearn for science fiction with a less clear allegory, but the joy of this film is how it makes the Klingons Soviet only to make some of the most convincing, fully-fleshed-out, three-dimensional Soviet characters ever to appear in a Hollywood entertainment. Consider that, circa 1991, the Russian bad guy was merely being pushed into a new phase — now renegade Cold Warriors instead of official party members — and consider how, up until this point of the movie, the most likable character has been the onscreen symbol of everything our heroes used to fight against.
As if to underline just how diminished Kirk is, we cut to his quarters. It might be the next morning, although who can tell in space. There’s no complicated way to say this: He is hungover, the kind of hungover where you go to sleep with your clothes on.
And then it all goes to hell. On the bridge, Kirk looks out his viewscreen and sees something impossible: A photon torpedo coming out of the Enterprise, without his command, without any torpedoes leaving the torpedo bay. They hit the Klingon ship and cripple it. Gravity departs, and the Klingons float: fearsome warriors made to look silly, the primitive effects only heightening their own diminishment. Onboard, two men dressed in Engineer attire go on a killing spree.
The assassination scene is strange and haunting and arguably marred by gloopy primordial floating-blood special effects, but it has a kooky power. One Klingon’s arm gets shot off, and he’s too horrified to even make a correct sound. Then the assassins shoot Gorkon, and we can see blood pour out of both sides of his body, and we leave him floating in air, his insides out.
Gravity returns; the Klingons are furious. Kirk is desperate to salvage whatever is left of this mission, so he beams over with McCoy — a show of good faith, an attempt to bring real medical help to beings in need. They bring the still-breathing Gorkon onto a table. The way Meyer frames the shot, you’re reminded of some of those illustrations from your history books, of the dying Lincoln surrounded by desperate men.
By all visible signs, the Klingons’ good faith has been betrayed. The Federation needed Kirk to go on this mission as a sign of good faith, and now, as another sign of good faith, the Federation must stand back as Kirk gets brought up on war crimes. What follows is a grand and merry gag of justice; one character calls it a “show trial.” What a show! Chang is the Grand Inquisitor, forming a coherent case against Kirk. They know he hates Klingons; they have the Captain’s Log to prove it. (We didn’t use this language back then, but how remarkable that, here in his last adventure as Captain, Kirk gets hacked.) The set is a mockery of justice, with Kirk and McCoy under a spotlight, and the assembled Klingons arranged as a mob from the Reign of Terror.
“It’s a goddamn show trial,” says a Starfleet Admiral. Soon enough, we’ll discover that the Admiral who says that is a traitor — that, in fact, Kirk has been set up by a traitorous cabal on all sides of the neutral zone. But we remember how this movie began with Kirk being set up — by Spock, his nominal friend, to be a hero of peace against a nemesis Kirk would rather eradicate. Anyone who declares that Undiscovered Country is a dated remnant of Cold War politics is missing the movie’s deeper, smarter point.
This isn’t a movie about the end of the Cold War, no matter all the savvy references therein. (At one point, Chang quotes Adlai Stevenson from the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Don’t wait for the translation, answer me now!” At another point, Kirk quotes Fukuyama: “Some people think the future means the end of history…”) It’s a movie about the start of the period after the Cold War, when things will be less certain. Undiscovered Country is the movie where you can spot the beginning of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, developed by Ronald D. Moore, a Star Trek renegade, like Meyer fascinated by the military, like Meyer frustrated by the antiseptic and stilted inhumanity of Roddenberry’s utopia. Consider that, in Undiscovered Country, Spock uses his mind meld not for empathy nor mutual understanding, but as a weaponized form of interrogation. See how Meyer’s camera tilts as Spock digs into his apprentice’s mind; see the horror on her face, and see how everyone else on the Enterprise looks on, in quiet affirmation.
Consider, too, some deeper truth about the Valeris arc. Spock considers her his successor; she is his great hope for the future, and she is the only person onscreen young enough to represent some next generation of Starfleet. But she is a traitor. She has followed the path of logic — and logic tells her that only one side can triumph. You recall how, in Sopranos, the show constantly positioned Tony as an elder looking down on a new generation: Christopher Moltisanti, Brendan Filone, Matt Bevilaqua, Jackie Junior. And you recall how many of those young men wound up dead — some of them by Tony’s hand! — so that The Sopranos really did feel like the end of history, with old men raging against their dying light just long enough to kill all the sons and daughters who could replace them.
Undiscovered Country doesn’t go that far, or that deep. Maybe it can’t. The show trial is the movie’s high point, a hilarious mockery of justice witnessed by the whole galaxy. Then Kirk and McCoy go to space prison, and the film never quite recovers.
I should be clear: This film is never bad, and it is a wild romp. This is the rare politically minded work that actually deserves some comparisons to The Manchurian Candidate. There is the sniper assassin, sure, but there is also the familiar Manchurian nightmare logic that powers the conspiracy. Why, exactly, is the Starfleet cabal in bed with the Klingon cabal, if all both sides want to do is eliminate each other? Isn’t it ironic that, in attempting to stop the talks that will unite their societies, they are actually the first real proof that a Klingon-human union is possible?
“They conspired with us to assassinate their own chancellor,” explains Valeris. “How trustworthy can they be?” We asked them to be evil, and they were evil, which proves they are evil: a loop-de-loop of logic which feels more honest about our shaky ethical realities than any coherent argument ever could be.
Meyer has great fun with Kirk and McCoy on one last away mission, and even seems to be making light fun of the Kirk-ian hero’s journey. In the space gulag, Meyer constantly shoots Kirk up against a much taller alien being. A beautiful come-hither prisoner played by Iman tongue-wrestles Kirk like a moth to a flame — but that’s just a gag, because Iman is actually a tall androgynous beast-changeling.
Kirk’s riotous freak-out at this revelation has a poignant subtext: He thought he still had it with the ladies, but maybe the ladies have had it with him. But Meyer is also sensitive enough to let Kirk and Spock have a final one-on-one conversation, both of them commanding the frame.
“We’re both extremists,” says Kirk. “Reality is probably somewhere in between us.” Imagine that: Here at the end, Kirk and Spock seem to finally understand what they have always symbolized. “Everybody’s human,” says Kirk. “I find that remark insulting,” zings Spock. In another movie, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, with two lesser actors, this might all feel too cute, too self-aware. But history permeates this conversation, and sadness, and hard-won truth.
(Compare this to, say, Civil War, when Iron Man says he used to be Captain America’s friend, and Captain America does everything for his friend Bucky, and you find yourself struggling to remember any time these characters have just been friends, onscreen, humans who seem to know each other, not chess pieces getting pushed around a three-dimensional board.)
But I find that the ambition departs Undiscovered Country at the midpoint. You feel so much under the surface in the first half: Kirk vs. Spock, Klingons vs. Humans, the old generation vs. the new one, extremists vs. moderates, the audacity of hope vs. the way wisdom slipstreams helplessly into cynicism. You yearn to see some sort of reckoning for all these issues. Instead, this happens:
That is Captain James T. Kirk pulling an In the Line of Fire to rescue the Federation president. Consider the distance between Kirk in that moment — a diving headfirst jump, a daring act of action-heroism — and the Kirk who soliloquizes in his quarters, a lonely old man pondering his place in the cosmic joke of history, no longer able to hold his liquor, incapable of holding back his own bias. The back half of Undiscovered Country reminds you a bit of the back half of The Magnificent Ambersons, when scenes get longer and the staging gets more stilted — The Motion Picture director Robert Wise started directing!
It’s not that bad, really: I love how, in the final battle, Chang can only speak in quotes: Now Henry V, now Neville Chamberlain, now Hamlet one last time. I love how the film finds room for the graceful send-off of Sulu, now a Captain in his own right.
Without ever underlining the point, Meyer makes it clear that Sulu is the next generation: a Captain who is patient, and clever, and who is willing to bend the rules but perhaps less offensively Kirk-ian about breaking them. (When we meet Sulu on the Excelsior, he spent three years “cataloging gaseous planetary anomalies in the Beta Quadrant.” You imagine Kirk would get bored with that work — but Sulu looks happy, peaceful, positively thrilled to catalog the cosmos.)
But Undiscovered Country becomes less impressive as a single film when it becomes more recognizable as franchise production. Of course Kirk starts getting into fights and jumping through the air: Isn’t that just so Kirk? At the film’s beginning, the political situation is so tense that even within Starfleet — even at a Starfleet meeting where the Commander-in-Chief declares that they have won, that the Klingon Cold War is over — hostility reigns, arguments flourish, conspiracies are formed. By the film’s end, Kirk gives a short speech, and the assembled cosmos cheer him.
It’s like watching The Manchurian Candidate become Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but I don’t imagine those terms apply for most viewers or the filmmakers. You can feel the ceiling of ambition that a franchise descends upon drama. Sure, you can ask some provocative questions, but in the end, the answer is Kirk.
And yet I love Star Trek, and I am moved to tears by the final sequence, and so maybe I am part of the problem. The film ends happily for all of our favorite people, but Meyer knows how to ground that joy in melancholy, how to earn the sense of an ending. Kirk and his crew walk onto the bridge — and it takes us a second to notice that the bridge is empty besides our old favorites, that all the background Enterprise crewpeople have given them space for final act. Uhura relays the message from HQ: The ship should return to Earth and be decommissioned. The look on Kirk’s face is one of the most wonderfully sad images I can think of.
But the look doesn’t last. Spock makes a joke, and Kirk has a line: “Second star on the left right…and straight on till morning.” Uhura stands up to get a better look out the viewscreen, and Meyer’s camera gracefully advances forward. It is a lovely send-off, quiet like blockbuster movies are never quiet now, framed just right.
Franchise machinery so often triumphs over the cinematic machinery. You watch Undiscovered Country and suspect there was a more complete version of the movie. Perhaps a version where Kirk and Spock were not fated to agree, or a version where the end of the Fake Cold War doesn’t lead to what appears to be complete galactic peace. Maybe that version of the film would note further how Valeris takes her inspiration from Kirk — and would wonder how Spock, as a tutor, could inadvertently guide his apprentice in the wrong direction. If we’re to believe the trailers, Star Trek Beyond wants to ask some serious questions about Starfleet. Actually, when I interviewed Simon Pegg, he mused generally about the film’s ideas: “Is the Federation a good idea? Is it just colonialism?” Those questions get brought up in that great dinner scene — and then get forgotten.
But: If I condemn Undiscovered Country just a bit for hitting familiar notes, can I also praise it for hitting those notes so perfectly? For letting the Enterprise sail off into space, and fade into history? We praise Roddenberry rightfully for his supreme hopefulness — his vision of a future where everything went right. But maybe we should also praise Meyer for the more brutal, tough, sensitive optimism he brought to his movies. At the beginning of Undiscovered Country, the camera holds on a starscape, and there is a blinding light, and an explosion, and then all falls to chaos.
At the end, a great ship moves into a starscape, and fades from our view. Like before, there is a great light. But it does not blind us. It reaches out, in love and friendship, welcoming us home.
A brief postscript:
I haven’t paid much attention to Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, or even McCoy. In part, that’s because the movies also don’t always pay much attention to them. McCoy gets some good lines, but he’s never quite the third opponent you want in the ring with Spock and Kirk. There are whole movies that only use Sulu and Uhura for reaction shots — which is still a better fate than the much-abused Chekov, who gets burned in Motion Picture and brainbugged in Wrath of Khan and goes tumbling into a head injury in Voyage Home. Scotty is Scotty, and only in the brief sorrowful aftermath of the attack in Khan does he get called upon for anything besides boisterous vaudeville.
None of this is a problem, really, and their collective chemistry gives Voyage Home its unique energy (and provides Final Frontier with a barely-earned goofy charm.) Much is often made about how Star Trek‘s vision was multicultural and progressive from the beginning, but yesterday’s liberalism becomes tomorrow’s conservatism, and I suspect you could watch some of these movies now with a raised eyebrow. (Seriously, how come Uhura doesn’t go on the mission in Search for Spock? No girls allowed?)
This is all just to say that, in Undiscovered Country, Meyer uses several different strategies for making the crew feel like a real crew again. The film doesn’t have as many showcase standout moments for the supporting cast as Voyage Home — which Meyer helped to write — but it incorporates them all together more than any other film. There’s the scene where someone fires a phaser onboard the ship, and first Uhura and then Scotty both run into the room, yelling “Did someone fire a phaser?” There’s the scene where the whole crew attempts to help Uhura understand Klingon on a radio. There’s a graceful shot after the Klingon envoy leaves, and the camera holds on Kirk’s officers as they unclench, unzip their tight clothes, generally all look ready to go to bed.
The movies never entirely treat the rest of the crew as complete characters. (Even McCoy doesn’t have much to do besides provide moral support for Kirk.) And every actor has their own fascinating story. Uhura was supposed to give a big speech in Undiscovered Country in perfect Klingon, but instead there’s the wacky scene with the Klingon dictionaries — oddly reductive, when you consider that such a great communications chief can’t speak the language of Starfleet’s main rival. (The new movies give Uhura a “xenolinguistics” specialty.) In her memoir, Nichelle Nichols recalls how uncomfortable she was with some of the film’s overtones, and how she flat-out refused to say the phrase, “Guess who’s coming to dinner.”
In his own memoir, George Takei is more open about his frustrations with Star Trek and with the frequently shabby treatment received by Sulu (and anyone not named “Kirk” or “Spock”) by various studio heads. After Undiscovered Country, some of the Trek crew retired and some receded; time passed, and some died. Takei has only ascended in the last quarter-century, such that there may come a time — maybe it’s already here! — that Sulu is considered a more central part of Trek iconography than McCoy. Much as I love Takei in these movies, I think his finest turn as Sulu came years later, in the Voyager episode “Flashback.” It’s a sidequel to Undiscovered Country, focusing on Sulu’s actions onboard the Excelsior. It’s not a great episode of television, but it’s a thrill to see Takei in the Captain’s Chair. Oddly, Sulu as a commander has most in common with Gorkon: They both have a way of smiling in the face of their enemies.
These movies didn’t always service the supporting cast — and you could argue, carefully, that a couple of the movies simply didn’t need them. (Search for Spock would be a better movie if Kirk went off on his rescue mission alone — if even his closest friends and crewmates didn’t support him.) But they were an important part of the series, providing this franchise with the kind of texture you used to get from character actors in the studio era. The last couple films have overcorrected, maybe too much, turning the crew into a banter-y band of Shondabots. I adore the straightforward work of Nichols, Takei, DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig, and James Doohan: Their professionalism becomes their characters’ professionalism.
In conclusion, in The Undiscovered Country, Nichelle Nichols gives a masterful performance with a GIF for all occasions.
THE WHOLE MOVIE IN A NUTSHELL: