It would have been easy (and obvious) to end things with a grand space adventure, with a galactic war or massive alien threat that puts Vygr to shame or with the Enterprise in some far-flung corner of the universe seeing sights we’ve never seen before.
Instead, The Undiscovered Country centers around diplomatic missions, peace talks, and political negotiations. When talks go astray, it becomes equal parts prison story and police procedural, with a heaping helping of Hitchcockian spy-movie intrigue to keep the audience guessing until the big climax. This being Star Trek, that sounds like a risky approach. Hell, it is a risky approach. When you know the adventures of this beloved crew are coming to an end, you want to see huge star-spanning quests and gripping starship battles and inventive new threats, right?
Sometimes what you think you want is not what you need, though, because despite that somewhat risky approach, The Undiscovered Country ends up being a fantastic way to end the saga of the original crew.
No, it doesn’t live up to the epic majesty of The Wrath of Khan or the pure fan service fun of The Voyage Home, but it doesn’t need to. It just needs to be good. And it is.
After a disaster on a Klingon moon threatens their entire species, Kirk and crew are sent to act as an escort to bring some key Klingon dignitaries to Earth so that peace negotiations can begin. See, without an end to the hostilities, the entire Klingon race will die. Not even their longtime enemies in the Federation want to see that. But everything goes amiss before negotiations can even start when the Enterprise appears to open fire on the Klingon vessel, then sends a strike team on board to assassinate the dignitaries. All hope of peace in the galaxy is now in the balance.
All evidence points to Kirk and crew being responsible for these murders. Kirk and Bones surrender, and are railroaded into a guilty verdict (with Worf acting as their defense counsel, which clears up a question I had about the gap between original crew and Next Gen). (EDIT: No, it doesn’t. When I watched generations I realized I was wrong – but this error stays!) Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew start to scour the ship looking for evidence pointing that will reveal the assassins.
It’s to the film’s credit that they kept me guessing. I knew it had to be someone we knew, otherwise the reveal would have no potency, but I also knew it couldn’t be an original crew member, because the backlash would be too great. Sex in the Vulcan City was staring me in the face the whole time, yet I never suspected her. Well done. Or maybe I was just stupid, given that from a writing standpoint it couldn’t have been anyone BUT her (unless they brought back some old character in a sudden reveal). Anyway …
In prison, Shatner gets some Shatner shit to do. He overcomes overwhelming odds and beats up a big alien, he has a brief dalliance with a gorgeous alien, etc. It’s the kind of stuff Kirk fans love and I have little use for. The dynamic between him and Bones is just enough to carry this material, though. When Bones gripes, “What is it with you?” after Kirk gets a smooch from the crazy gorgeous Iman, you can’t help but laugh.
So they arrange to escape while the Enterprise tries to find out who’s at the heart of the conspiracy.
That so much of this film’s running time is devoted to a murder mystery is unusual. It defies expectations. Ultimately, however, that ends up being a positive. Sometimes it’s nice to have your expectations smashed.
The traitor is inevitably revealed, Kirk and Bones are busted from prison, then it’s a race to stop more assassinations from taking place. Sulu has his own ship now, the powerful Excelsior (I can’t help but wonder if George Takei didn’t request this so he’d never have to be on set with Shatner), and the two ships take on a Klingon Bird of Prey that can fire and cloak at the same time. This battle is, admittedly, pretty lukewarm. It doesn’t play out with a lot of tension. It doesn’t look all that spectacular, either, with the dullest special effects in the movie. But the double-hammer of Enterprise and Excelsior firing and blowing up the enemy ship is a “YES!” moment, so all is forgiven.
Then a quick rescue, the crew are heroes, and suddenly we’re in the strangest new country of all: peace with the warlike Klingons.
It’s all pretty satisfying. Every character gets some decent screentime. Most have a good moment or two. The story has real stakes that actually change the entire franchise, even if they are not at all the stakes you expect. And that final shot of the two starships together, the Excelsior then peeling away and leaving the Enterprise alone and pointed to the stars, is enough to make even a casual fan like me get all caught up in the moment.
They deserve credit for making the audience question Kirk, too. With peace in the balance, his rants about the Klingons comes across as … well, racist. Kirk is a bigot. A bigot with understandable reason to be, perhaps, given his long years of dealing with antagonistic Klingons and the murder of his son, but a bigot all the same. That’s NOT what you expect from Trek writing, which sometimes bends over so far backwards to make Kirk the Ultimate Space Hero they could lick the back of their own knees. So all credit for that.
Plus, the themes of this movie still resonate today. The idea sprang from the end of the Cold War, but it’s easy to view it through the modern lens of global terrorism and all that implies. While the movie doesn’t dig deep into notions of race, bigotry, and prejudice, there is enough thought-provoking material bubbling under the surface that the movie carries more weight than a mere space adventure would. So again, all credit for that.
And finally, Christopher Plummer kills it as General Chang, the best Trek villain since Khan. Absolutely terrific in this role.
To say that The Undiscovered Country sits in the middle of the pack would be accurate, but it’s no insult. The only reason it does is because Khan and Voyage are both so damn good. This movie is miles better than the mess that was The Final Frontier and far better than the noble failure that was The Search For Spock. It’s good, it’s fun, and it gives the crew a nice sendoff.
Can’t ask for anything more than that.