Star Trek V: The Final Frontier would have been a great title for the final Star Trek movie.

As it turned out, the film was so disliked it almost was the final Star Trek movie, and perhaps would have been the franchise’s farewell if not for two key factors. For one, while The Final Frontier was the lowest-grossing Star Trek film to that point, it was still profitable, grossing roughly $70 million worldwide against a budget of some $30 million. For another, 1991 marked the 25th anniversary of the first Star Trek television series, and Paramount wanted a new film in theaters to commemorate the occasion. And so The Final Frontier became the not-so-final frontier for the franchise.

The odds were against Star Trek VI from the start. It would need to be made on an accelerated schedule in order to arrive in multiplexes for Star Trek’s anniversary, and because The Final Frontier failed to live up to financial expectations, it would need to be made on a tight budget. (The crew repurposed sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation TV show to save money.) After The Final Frontier limped to the weakest box office in the series’ history, there was also some debate over whether to continue with the original cast, or to restart the franchise with a prequel set during Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock’s time in Starfleet Academy. Amidst all that uncertainty, the franchise’s longtime film producer, Harve Bennett, who was widely credited with turning Star Trek into a dependable film franchise, left the series for good.

Conceived amidst that race against time, Star Trek VI became a film about the one faced by all men and women, with Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Starship Enterprise crew pressed into service one last time before retirement on a mission laden with clever allegorical overtones. Improbably, given the behind-the-scenes turmoil, the sixth Star Trek movie also became one of the franchise’s best — arguably the best this property has ever produced.


READ MORE: Why Star Trek: The Motion Picture Deserves More Love

For its subtitle, director and co-writer Nicholas Meyer chose The Undiscovered Country, a name he had previously wanted to use as the title of his first Star Trek project, The Wrath of Khan. The phrase comes from Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which is explicitly referenced in the film during a ceremonial dinner on the Enterprise in honor of a potential peace accord between the Federation and their sworn galactic enemies, the Klingons.

Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) raises his glass of Romulan ale and toasts to “the undiscovered country ... the future.” But Shakespeare quite clearly intended the phrase to refer to death, as the entire “to be or not to be” soliloquy observes Hamlet as he debates whether to kill himself or to carry on despite the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” (“But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of?”)

While Gorkon may had other intentions in mind, Shakespeare’s undiscovered country hangs over the entire movie. The opening title card dedicates the film to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who died about six weeks before its world premiere. The Enterprise is supposedly weeks from getting decommissioned as the film begins, and while some cast members made appearances on other Star Trek projects after this, this was the last time the entire group worked together. The end credits include the main cast’s signatures scrawled across the stars, a classy and melancholy curtain call for this beloved troupe of actors.


In his Blu-ray director’s commentary, Meyer says he and Star Trek star (and Star Trek III and IV director) Leonard Nimoy developed The Undiscovered Country’s idea shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and intended it as an explicit commentary on “the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Roddenberry conceived the first Star Trek television series as a reflection of its times, and often used the Klingons as Soviet stand-ins to the Federation’s United States; two opposing super powers locked in a perpetual Cold War.

With the end of that Cold War in real life, it was only fitting to create a similar fictional scenario within the universe of Star Trek. So in Star Trek VI, it is the Klingon empire which is on the verge of collapse. Gorkon brokers a fragile peace with the Federation, but after he is murdered under mysterious circumstances, suspicion falls on William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, who then stands trial in a Klingon court. Meanwhile, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise team must uncover the true culprits, rescue Kirk, and ensure the Klingon-Federation peace treaty gets signed.

Meyer and co-writer Denny Martin Finn find all kinds of clever ways in The Undiscovered Country to repurpose recent history as science-fiction so that the film serves as an ideal bookend to this generation’s story. The Undiscovered Country begins with the destruction of the Klingon moon of Praxis in a mining accident — a “paraphrase,” in Meyer’s own words, to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. After Kirk gets convicted in Klingon court for murder, he’s sent to the alien equivalent of Siberia for punishment. And Gorkon himself was inspired by Russian politician Mikhail Gorbachev. (His name is a portmanteau of Gorbachev and Abraham Lincoln, another assassinated political leader.)


All of these parallels work in harmony with a story that ticks almost every box longtime Star Trek fans could want from the franchise. The Undiscovered Country is part celebration and part encapsulation, like all the best parts of all the best Star Trek episodes distilled down into a single 100-minute adventure. It includes action, science-fiction, wry comedy, intergalactic political intrigue, Spock sleuthing out a puzzle with ingenious logic, Kirk making out with a beautiful alien (Iman!), and Chekov wearing the most voluminous toupee I have ever seen in my entire life.

While some of the actors’ hair defies the laws of time and space, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise still look undeniably old in The Undiscovered Country, at least by the standards of typical Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, most of the discussion around the film’s release focused on the stars’ advancing age; “Aging Trekkers to the Rescue One Last Time” read the headline of The New York Times’ Undiscovered Country review.

I was at the height of my own Star Trek fandom in the early 1990s and eagerly bought a ticket to see Star Trek VI in the theater on opening weekend. I will admit: At the time, I was a bit underwhelmed. The cast did look really old, especially to an 11-year-old. Watching them (or, more likely, their stunt doubles) stumble out of their chairs on the bridge of the Enterprise after a photon torpedo hit was a little sad.

Thirty years later, I find The Undiscovered Country less unintentionally sad than deliberately poignant. Roddenberry’s Star Trek was built on youthful optimism for the future; his sincere belief that despite the turbulence and upheaval of the 1960s, a better world lay just over the horizon. The Undiscovered Country shows how many of the young people who grew up with those values became disillusioned with them by the end of the 1980s. Captain Kirk didn’t kill Gorkon, but he speaks out against peace with the Klingons. Decades of war (and the death of his son at Klingon hands in Star Trek III) have left him an angry and bitter old man. When Spock warns that without Federation intervention Klingon civilization will die in 50 years, Kirk spits back “Let them die!”

Roddenberry supposedly hated the early drafts of The Undiscovered Country script he read shortly before he passed away. But one of the things I love about the film is that rather than assume the future will become a perfect utopia through osmosis, it shows how humanity in every time period is flawed and messy, and always on the verge of screwing things up. So is Captain Kirk, until he proves it’s never too late for an old dog to learn some new tricks. By the end of the film, he’s come to see the importance of peace and restored the audience’s faith in Roddenberry’s hopeful vision.

Most of Kirk’s growth comes through his conversations with Spock, particularly in one powerful scene that stands as one of the franchise’s finest moments. Spock has his own personal issues in the film; he’s become fixated on a new Vulcan member of the Enterprise crew, Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) who is not all she’s cracked up to be. The exchange below where Kirk and Spock finally level with each other contains perhaps the single most essential line to understanding Star Trek’s ideals:

“Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s human.

None of this material works unless Shatner and the rest of the old guard are really old; a fortysomething Leonard Nimoy couldn’t truly sell a line like “Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?”

That’s why I find The Undiscovered Country more effective and more moving than The Wrath of Khan, the consensus pick for the best Star Trek movie ever made from the day it premiered in theaters in the summer of 1982. Rebounding from the slow and ponderous The Motion Picture (a movie I like!), the franchise reversed course with a suspense-filled thriller about Captain Kirk’s old adversary, Khan Noonien Singh, returning from exile to seek his revenge.

As Kirk takes command of an Enterprise staffed mostly with Starfleet trainees, he also grapples with his own mortality. He celebrates his birthday (the film doesn’t specify which one) and receives a pair of reading glasses from Bones. He meets his adult son, David. And he truly faces death for the first time when Spock bravely sacrifices himself to restore the Enterprise’s engine and move the ship out of the way of a cataclysmic explosion. That act leads to the iconic scene where a dying Spock tells Kirk “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”

It’s a great scene, as is the subsequent one where Shatner eulogizes Spock at his Starfleet funeral while choking back tears. But today its impact is blunted by the fact that these events were undone just one film later. If The Wrath of Khan had been the final Star Trek film, or at least Leonard Nimoy’s final appearance as Spock, it really might stand the test of time as the best Star Trek. But The Wrath of Khan’s success inspired Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, where Kirk and company revive Spock, and then bring him along for several more big-screen adventures. Instead of Kirk facing death for the first time, he cheats it yet again.

While none of the original Star Trek crew died in The Undiscovered Country, its themes about aging and obsolescence ring truer now than The Wrath of Khan’s do. It’s also more sharply paced, with all that pointed political commentary and less rigamarole about who should command the Enterprise and how a magical prototype called Genesis works. (You may not want to hear this, but The Undiscovered Country has a better villain than Wrath of Khan too; I’ll take Christopher Plummer’s unflappable Klingon General Chang over Ricardo Montalbán over-the-top Khan any day of the week.)

Don’t get me wrong; The Wrath of Khan is a very good movie. The Undiscovered Country is just better. And the closer I get in age to the characters, the more I feel this way. If you offered me copies of both movies to watch right now, I would almost certainly pick the latter.

General Chang likes to quote Shakespeare in his conversations with Captain Kirk, and at once point he recites the famous “to be or not to be” quote from Hamlet. Only the Klingon version he says — “taH pagh taHbe” — does not technically translate as “to be or not to be.” A more accurate translation of that phrase is “to continue, or not to continue.”

The original Star Trek cast did not continue past The Undiscovered Country. They went their separate ways, alone into the true final frontier after a great farewell.


The vintage Star Trek films are currently streaming on Max

Newstalk 1290 logo
Get our free mobile app

The Longest Films Ever Made

These incredibly long movies stretch on for hours, days, or even weeks!

More From Newstalk 1290