Any Trekkie knows the odd-even rule, and if you don't . . . consider that the very best of the film series is undeniably The Wrath of Khan (number 2 of the series) and the absolute nadir is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier—which forever should prevent William Shatner from ever directing another Star Trek movie. The same pattern generally holds form throughout the large screen projects, with the stronger and more entertaining enterprises being the even numbered ones. So anticipation was high when the sixth and possibly final voyage of the original cast was announced, especially considering that Nicolas Meyer would helm the director's chair once again, following two even numbered stints there. Thus, a fortuitous walk on the beach with Leonard Nimoy pitching his idea of paralleling current events in the Soviet Union for a new movie, Meyer signed on to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (which incidentally was the original title he had in mind for Star Trek II).
Although this sixth venture entertains and has a number of interesting comments on contemporary human affairs, it largely fizzles by too closely parodying world events and by scripting an ending that Kirk can basically sleepwalk through despite his final Federation preserving leap of faith. Of course it's always great to see the old crew in any tolerable vehicle, and this serves as redemption for an ill advised trip to touch the face of God in the previous chapter.
In one sense The Undiscovered Country holds up as a mirror for the end of the Cold War, with the Klingons representing the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. With their mysterious culture and guttural language, the uncommunicative Klingons have isolated themselves behind the Neutral Zone for years and threatened war every time a Federation ship ventured into their space. With a huge nuclear blast destroying the Klingon empire's main mining facility on Praxis, the film blasts off with a direct reference to Chernobyl. Like the Russians initially, the Klingons claim that they don't need any help over this incident, but Spock knows differently, reporting that the Federation stands on the verge of a new era of peace. Likely through his ambassador father Sarek, Spock has taken initial diplomatic communications with Klingon leadership. The Klingons simply can no longer maintain a war economy, so it is in their best self-interest to negotiate a lasting peace. Essentially, the Klingons are prepared to take down their own version of the Berlin Wall in outer space.
In another naked reference to current events, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (a Gorbachev-like leader played by veteran British character actor David Warner) leads the peace-seeking delegation. To further his stature, Meyer models Gorkon's appearance on Abe Lincoln and gives him lines worthy of a peacemaker, as he addresses Kirk: "You don't trust me, do you? I don't blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it."
Kirk is selected to be the Federation emissary for peace, naturally—not so much for his diplomatic skills, but because he has the biggest reason to hate the Klingons since they killed his son. As Spock relates, "Only Nixon could go to China." However, Kirk's fears of trusting the Klingons start to fade when compared to others on both sides of the Neutral Zone who predictably do all they can to sabotage the peace movement—to the point of assassinating key leaders. Historical parallels are plentiful—from Lincoln, to Gandhi, to Sadat, to Rabin. Even Gorbachev disappeared mysteriously for a few months while the film was being made.
While identifying the simple historical references make welcome fodder for secondary students and teachers seeking made to order assignments, the real fun of the film comes from some of the cultural references and the characters themselves. One highlight comes at the blue-hued dinner meeting from Hell, where the original crew awkwardly meets a Klingon delegation—inadvertently making racist humanoid references, denying their patronizing attitudes, and becoming grossed out by Klingon table manners. Cutting remarks are plentiful with a more subdued Kirk relying more on quiet double entendre, and leaving the over the top histrionics to villainous Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer), who is overly fond of quoting Shakespeare. As they say, you've not heard Shakespeare until you've heard it in the original Klingon!
Shatner once again tempers his traditional hambone theatrics under Meyer, who had literally worn him out with numerous takes in The Wrath of Khan. Shatner's restraint here plays well in his drafted peacemaker role, as he must to stifle his automatic response of protecting the lives of his crew and think of the larger Universal picture when the Enterprise may have mistakenly fired torpedoes at the Chancellor's ship. A submissive Shatner sounds like a contradiction in terms, but he carries it off well. Meyer grants Shatner a chance to ham it up later in a wrestling match with himself, not realizing that Shatner had already done such a good Kirk vs. bad Kirk match up in "The Enemy Within." So this scene will be more fun for those not as familiar with the original television series.
Meyer tries to re-create as much of the Wrath of Khan formula as he can, but his attempts to weave relevant historical-sociological overtones will only be of passing interest in future years—a curiosity not unlike one of Spock's frequent computer searches into Earth's historical past. The patterns of peacemakers and their enemies have become so well-known, that the small quirks here just don't make for real compelling drama. The Undiscovered Country remains fairly entertaining (especially on the heels of the unfortunate Shatner-directed fifth film), but the final voyage of the original crew ends more like an epilogue than with a resounding final fanfare.