Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Special Collector's Edition
Paramount Home Video
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley,
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Review by Mark Bourne
"What we require now is a feat of linguistic legerdemain and a degree of intrepidity."
Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Part 1: Saving civilization one last time
(To jump down directly to the DVD details, click here.)
Those were the voyages of the starship Enterprise.
When Nicholas Meyer signed on to direct 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it was clear that this 25th Anniversary outing was to be the farewell voyage for good old NCC-1701, at least as far as Captain James T. Kirk and his fellow aging/thickening officers were concerned. Meyer was the director who, along with producer Harve Bennett, saved the Star Trek franchise from terminal ennui with The Wrath of Khan. But that was nine years earlier, and the Star Trek feature films were starting to look a bit like boxer Mountain Rivera, the punch-drunk palooka from Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight. After the body blows suffered from the unrelentingly awful fifth movie, the franchise had hit the mat face-first and the referee was counting ten. So we can be grateful that Meyer again stepped in to resuscitate our sentimental favorite long enough to let it shine in one last exhibition match.
Now finally arriving in a first-rate DVD presentation, Undiscovered Country hasn't maintained its freshness as well as Wrath of Khan has done, though you can tell that both movies belong to Nick Meyer, who'd rather you call him a storyteller than a filmmaker. Each leaps from the screen with a zest that's derived in appropriate measure from Star Trek's trashy Space Opera roots (emphasis on opera), dog-eared adventure tales, and Meyer's fondness for literary allusions and metaphorical shadings, which ride on his sensibilities about "art" in the popular marketplace. (If the thought of associating Star Trek with the word "art" propels your cappucinno out your nostrils because of the giggling, give a listen to Meyer's erudite yet unpretentious and distinctively non-fanboyish commentary tracks on this DVD and Khan's.) Each pits Captain Kirk against a strong villain here it's Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-spouting Klingon warrior eager to let slip the dogs of war duking it out in a plot that plays up its characters and its ideas. Absent are the torpid inbred pretenses of the first movie, the uneven Wagnerian ministrations of Khan's sequel, The Search for Spock, the affable but ditzy sitcomedy of The Voyage Home (for which Meyer served as emergency script doctor), and any resemblance at all to The Final Frontier.
Instead, Undiscovered Country is another rollicking, fun Nick Meyer movie. Okay, it's too self-aware to the point of winking at the audience. We forgive the plot that tracks like a paperback mystery/thriller you crack open at the beach, and the nitpicker's dream script that turns on too many contrived plot conveniences, such as the "veridian patch" (why was Spock palming this most fortuitous of interstellar GPS devices?), the arsenal in the kitchen (my wife and I often cook together and only once has a firearm proved desirable), and other examples of what Trek bloggers might call "WTF?" moments. We love that Meyer is such a bookish director, so we expect him to once again load up the literary references. This time it's nods to Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, the Adam-and-Eve myth, and even Emily Post's Etiquette; note that the frozen asteroid gulag, to which a Klingon kangaroo court sentences Kirk and McCoy on murder charges, is named after the island hell that haunted Jules Verne's Captain Nemo. Ever since the original series, Star Trek has quoted Shakespeare like the drama club guy who tries too hard to look smart at a college freshmen mixer, and in Undiscovered Country the Shakespearean quotations are so abundant the Bard deserves his own screenwriting credit.
No matter. In the bargain we also get streaking starships and phaser blasts and fistfights and Kirk giving some bedtime bussing to a beautiful shape-shifting alien woman (played well by the model Iman, a.k.a. Mrs. David Bowie), all the familiar spacefaring histrionics we come to Star Trek for in the first place. The bang/buck ratio is high and it's packed with pithy dialogue and little emotional kicks that make it a worthy, dignified sendoff for the crew we've followed for so many (dear God, so many) years.
* * *
The movie draws its title from Hamlet, where in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy it refers to death. Here, as spoken by the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner, playing the most urbane Klingon to ever sport an Oxbridge accent), the "undiscovered country" is the future. It's a future emerging from Gorkon's peace initiative with the Federation, a galactic glasnost prodded by an ecological catastrophe that has crippled the Klingon Empire. Accompanied by General Chang (Plummer, chewing the scenery like a Rotweiller with a plushy hedgehog), his daughter, and assorted aides, Gorkon is en route to Federation HQ to begin negotiations that will bring down the interstellar Berlin Wall separating the galaxy's two superpowers. The starship Enterprise's long-time bridge crew is scheduled for retirement, but they get one last mission to escort the Chancellor safely to Earth. It's an olive branch that James "you Klingon bastards" Kirk is not at all comfortable holding. But as trusty Mr. Spock quotes from an old Vulcan proverb, "Only Nixon could go to China."
The plot's deliberate parallels to Earthly political events c. 1990 are as blunt as any of the original TV series' Vietnam War or race-relations allegories. Dressed up in sci-fi trappings are the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev/Gorkon initiating an historic détente. Along the way we get riffs on Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time" speech and Adlai Stevenson's United Nations address during the Cuban Missile Crisis ("Don't wait for the translation! Answer me now!") It's all hung onto a story that could be cribbed from the pages of a Clive Cussler potboiler: a brutal political assassination leads to Kirk and Dr. McCoy being framed to take the fall in a conspiracy that reaches from Spock's young Vulcan protegee, Lt. Valeris (pert Kim Cattrall) to traitorous operatives high within Starfleet Command.
Because it moves at a zippy clip from start to finish, Undiscovered Country hits us foremost as an old-fashioned action-adventure yarn with no agenda beyond keeping us giddily engaged until the closing credits. And it succeeds just fine in that regard. But what can get lost in all the colorful comic-book heroics is how subversive this movie was to Star Trek's tidy-white universe. Starfleet personnel have always been the Good Guys, like the cavalry in old westerns. However, here Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters) and Colonel West (René Auberjonois) are an interstellar Richard Perle and Ollie North, shady neocon elements occupying powerful positions within the government. Operating above the law, they work in cohoots with high-ranking Klingon military counterparts to prevent the end of the Cold War that justifies their existence and prejudices, and go so far as to plot the assassination of their own Federation President to achieve their ends. Meyer, in portraying patriotic hardliners on "our side" as a conspiratorial cabal of murderous apparatchiks, struck a bold move. The notion of malfeasance and corruption within Starfleet became a thread tugged later in TV episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and especially in the more dimensional and probing Deep Space Nine. With audiences growing more savvy and cynical since those halcyon pre-Watergate days, Star Trek needed to toss out the naive White Hats and Black Hats to explore the gray zones that lie between. It started here, and here it's not done in timid half-measures.
Meanwhile, we find Enterprise crewmembers deploying offensive racial slurs directed at how Klingons smell, talk, look alike, eat, and "don't value life the way we do." A get-acquainted banquet aboard the Enterprise positions the Klingons as comparatively restrained guests in the home of boorish and drunken hosts. ("Guess who's coming to deener," groans Mr. Chekov, invoking the 1967 Sidney Poitier film.) During the main course of blue squid, both sides get a chance to reveal their biases, such as when Gorkon's daughter calls the Federation a "homo sapiens only club" whose vaunted regard for "inalienable human rights" is an inherently racist platitude. Early in the film Admiral Cartwright makes an ugly speech about an incoming tide of Klingon immigration bringing the "alien trash of the galaxy" to our doorstep. It's spoken by Brock Peters, an actor best known for his role in To Kill a Mockingbird. In his commentary Meyer notes that Peters, one of Hollywood's great black actors, had a difficult emotional experience just getting the vitriolic racist words out of his mouth. Meyer's pointed reminders of our culture's own recent historical racism are subtle the way a photon torpedo in your cereal bowl is subtle, but it's to his credit that the movie remains light on its feet rather than clubbing us with its obvious message-making.
It's no surprise then that the conspirators' Oswald-patsy, erstwhile space cowboy James T. Kirk, is also revealed to be a bigoted conservative straddling the shifting tectonic plates of politics and cultural relations. Canon-quoting Trek fans remember that in the 1967 TV episode "Errand of Mercy," which introduced the Klingons to the mythos, a strutting young Kirk stated that he's a soldier, not a diplomat. Probably accidentally, Undiscovered Country takes that nugget of character self-definition and spins it up to become the story's gyroscope. In his commentary track, Meyer says that the theme he shot for was the question of how aging cold-warrior Kirk will define himself in the future once his enemies are peace-treatied away from him. In one of the movie's more prescient moments, Gorkon tells Kirk that "If there is to be a brave new world, our generation will have the hardest time living in it." Elsewhere a somberly reflective Kirk asks an astute question "How can history get past people like me?" It's a meditation that feels even weightier nowadays than it did when Undiscovered Country opened.
Fortunately for universal peace, Kirk (and Spock, who's blinkered by prejudices of his own) discovers and obliterates his outmoded thinking in time to save the day with a flying tackle, discard some emotional baggage, disburse redemption, and give a forward-looking valedictory speech.
This cast's first TV episode debuted on Sept. 8, 1966. Undiscovered Country premiered Dec. 6, 1991 (setting the record for biggest box-office take on an opening day). The actors who began playing their roles in the Johnson/Nixon/Vietnam years went out holding a mirror to a whole new era of Gorbachev and glasnost and president-elect Clinton. A lot had changed both on the screen and off. (Thankfully, the movie doesn't give the Federation President erroneous credit for single-handedly bringing down this particular Evil Empire.) Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, expressed displeasure with those portions of the screenplay that violated his rather starchy and dramatically stifling template, though he approved of the finished movie, which he previewed shortly before his death.
For a generation who got hooked on Star Trek back in the 1970s, or especially during its original 1966-69 airings, there's something mighty comforting in seeing folks in their fifties and sixties strapping on the spurs, defeating the bad guys, and saving the world without getting winded in the process. Captain Kirk never needs Viagra and Uhura seems immune to the common effects of gravity. Gives us hope, it does, which is what Star Trek always set out to do.
Part 2: About the DVD
Fans will notice right away that Paramount's two-disc Special Collector's Edition of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is far and away superior to the previous bare-bones, non-anamorphic DVD edition. The imagery looks super (though the more anal retentive purists will chafe at the new aspect ratio), and the home-theater audio sounds great too. Add-ons include a worthwhile commentary track and Disc Two's collection of featurettes, which deliver the best making-of supplements found on any of these Special Edition Trek sets so far.
Undiscovered Country looks terrific here. The pristine new anamorphic transfer keeps the colors rich and well saturated, with space blacks that are appropriately deep with no washout. The tonal balance is on the money and everything's well defined with no digital compression problems. As supervised and approved by Nick Meyer, the DVD's aspect ratio is approximately 2.00:1, which opens the image a bit at the top and bottom compared to the theatrical release. Meyer also approved some limited reframing and a few minor editing insertions, though in no case are the visual changes disconcerting, or even noticeable, to anyone other than the most rigidly nitpicking of fans. A marginal complaint might come from those who carp that the DVD sharpness really brings home the embarrassingly dodgy composite work in the scene where Kirk fights the "chameloid" duplicate of himself, but what can you do?
Note too that this edition maintains the infamous "Scooby Doo ending" that was not present in the theatrical release but has been familiar on home video for years. We're talking about the brief scene in the Federation President's office with Colonel West and his paper flip-charts proposing a military rescue strike against the Klingons, and the resulting big reveal at the movie's climax, which replaces an anonymous Klingon assassin with a peel-away rubber Klingon mask that could have come from the Target warehouse on Rigel IV.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio delivers a strong, dynamic soundspread boasting excellent highs and lows and in-betweens. The directional speakers are always pleasingly engaged with ambient and motion activity, and the subwoofer helps out to enhance the bombastic trial scene, explosions, and space battles. Cliff Eidelman's orchestral score, one of the best in the series, pushes through with robust clarity.
The commentary track by Nicholas Meyer and co-writer Denny Martin Flinn is, like Meyer's for Wrath of Khan, suitably packed with anecdotes on the production process and illuminations of the movie's themes. Meyer is the author of three Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels, including the bestselling Seven Percent Solution, so he gives us respectful references to the literary sagas of Arthur Conan Doyle as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, Tolkien, and others. His reflections on how writing for Star Trek is like writing music for a Catholic mass provide an interesting look at how the director's mind works. Meyer gives ample credit to Leonard Nimoy, who also served as Executive Producer, touting the actor's dramatic instincts and production savvy. Flinn does a pretty good job keeping up, though he's definitely the little pup trailing the big dog here. Together they discuss their collaborative process, and neither has qualms about pointing out spots where things didn't come off quite as well as they'd planned. Perhaps expectedly, this commentary track is not as ruminative as the track on the Khan Special Edition, but it's welcome, lively, and often thoughtful right up through the closing credits.
That said, the track does hold one creepy moment. A viewer can argue (and I certainly do) that the scene in which Spock forcibly mind-melds with Valeris in order to extract from her incriminating information is a moment that depicts a public rape, cold and brutal. It's an ugly scene that violates any number of principles, and on the commentary Meyer and Flinn acknowledge that it was put there as one of those aforementioned easy plot conveniences. They state that the act reveals a heretofore never-seen "dark side" of Spock, and they also say this as the camera looms in for the close-up:
Meyer: "I find this to be a very erotic scene."
Flinn: "It was meant to be. It was meant to be erotic. It was supposed to be sexy stuff."
Yeesh. The possibilities of a shape-shifting Iman might be erotic, but "sexy stuff" Spock's harsh rape scene is not.
Text commentary: Disc One comes with another caption-line commentary track by Michael and Denise Okuda. As on the previous Star Trek Special Editions, it offers entertaining annotations to production details, trivia, and behind-the-scenes goings-on.
Disc Two holds the supplements assembled from new (2003) and archival (on-set interviews, etc.) materials:
What's a Trek Special Edition without a high-minded docu that attempts to mine Deep Thoughts from the boldly going? This time it's The Perils of Peacemaking (26:31), which places our real history's sable-rattling 20th century Earth alongside the world of Undiscovered Country. Casting light on dark regions are the always smart and well-spoken Meyer and Nimoy, as well as political scientist Dr. Angela Stent and Ambassador Dennis Ross from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Stories from Star Trek VI is a collection of six featurettes that you can select individually or through a "Play All" option that totals up to 57 minutes. They are the usual well-produced and not overly glossy "talking head" documentaries supported by footage from the movie, from behind the scenes, and other sources. Together they provide the Star Trek Special Edition DVD series' most comprehensive and substantive "what we did and how we did it" collage:
It Started With a Story (9:44) Personal reminiscences about the movie's origin and early development come from William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Plummer, Meyer, Flinn, producer Ralph Winter, Star Trek V screenwriter David Loughery, and others.
Prejudice (5:02) This one looks at the racial and cultural biases illustrated in Undiscovered Country.
Director Nicholas Meyer (5:57) Meyer is interviewed and lauded by his cast and crew.
Shakespeare and General Chang (5:52) The man from Stratford-on-Avon gets credit for being a darn good writer, and Shakespearean stage veteran Christopher Plummer speaks fondly of being able to play such a villainous Bardolator.
Bringing it to Life (23:25) Here's a meaty overview of the production's preparation, design, musical scoring, and other elements from those who were there. Meyer, Shatner, cinematographer Hiro Narita, and others are joined on screen by long-time Trek designer Herman Zimmerman and boy wonder composer Cliff Eidelman.
Farewell & Goodbye (7:03) The Star Trek cast and crew get appropriately misty about fading away into the sunset after a quarter century.
Similarly, The Star Trek Universe collects five featurettes of leftover minutiae:
In Conversations with Nicholas Meyer (9:31), the director speaks about his involvement with the Star Trek feature films and gives us some thoughts on filmmaking in general.
Klingons: Conjuring the Legend (20:44) traces the history of Klingons as depicted in the original series, the subsequent spin-offs, and the feature films. On hand, usually without bumpy foreheads, are William "Koloth" Campbell, Michael Dorn, makeup man Michael Westmore, and designer Dan Curry. Should be half its length.
Federation Operatives (4:52) uses a cheesy format to show how selected actors have played multiple roles within the franchise. Spotlighted are David Warner, Brock Peters, René Auberjonois, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Dorn, Grace Lee Whitney, Morgan Sheppard, Michael Bofshever, Darryl Henriques, Jeremy Roberts, John Shuck, and Tom Morga.
Penny's Toy Box (6:05) brings in props archivist Penny Juday for a guided tour through the Lost Ark warehouse for Star Trek props, models, and set pieces.
Shot separately, Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are nonetheless Together Again (4:56) to talk about reuniting on the movie set many years after working together in radio and theater during their salad days in Canada.
DeForest Kelley: A Tribute (13:18) The late "Dr. McCoy" gets a warm remembrance from Shatner, Nimoy, Meyer and others. Highlights include footage from Kelley's early years as a bad guy in Westerns. This memorial to the original cast's best actor is just about worth the price of this edition all by itself.
Running roughly five to seven minutes each, Original Interviews assembles promotional interviews shot on-set during the production of Undiscovered Country. With Shatner (5:03), Nimoy (6:24), Kelley (5:01), James Doohan (5:31), Nichelle Nichols (5:37), George Takei (5:26), Walter Koenig (5:29), and Iman (5:05). Although clearly shot for promo purposes, there's some good personal, affectionate content here.
Within the Promotional Materials menu item you'll find the movie's Teaser Trailer, Theatrical Trailer, and a sneak-preview convention presentation Nicholas Meyer made in 1991.
Finally, Archives holds a video montage Production Gallery (3:24) and Storyboards of Praxis, Assassins, Rura Penthe, and Leaving Spacedock.Mark Bourne
- Anamorphic widescreen (appx. 2.00:1)
- Single-sided, double-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
- Subtitles in English
- Commentary track with Nicholas Meyer and co-writer Denny Martin Flinn
- The Perils of Peacemaking
- It Started With a Story
- Director Nicholas Meyer
- Shakespeare and General Chang
- Bringing it to Life
- Farewell & Goodbye
- Conversations with Nicholas Meyer
- Klingons: Conjuring the Legend
- Federation Operatives
- Penny's Toy Box
- Together Again
- DeForest Kelley: A Tribute
- Original Interviews
- Promotional Materials
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