“Please let me know if there’s another way we can screw up tonight.”
Not only is Nicholas Meyer’s The Undiscovered Country my personal favorite Star Trek movie, I may go far as to argue that it is the best. It truly ticks every box of what makes Star Trek Star Trek, and comes the closest to getting everything just right.
Watching it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor is especially informative. Director William Shatner’s The Final Frontier is not quite the unmitigated fiasco its reputation would have it, but it has many flaws, the most tragic being its deep lack of dignity. There was no escaping the increasing ages of its beloved cast, but it’s just plain preposterous to open with Kirk free-climbing a mountainside, and then end with him embarrassingly huffing and puffing up a tiny hill. And poor Uhura is treated even worse, in what must be one of the most sexist scenes in Trek’s entire history.
Classic Star Trek was in the process of being eclipsed by the Next Generation TV series, midway through its 1987-1994 run at the time, just hitting its stride in quality and popularity. It would have been heartbreaking for the low point of The Final Frontier to have been the last adventure for the classic Enterprise crew. Things could have gone so wrong. Thankfully, The Undiscovered Country reclaims everything that The Final Frontier squandered, and allows the full original cast to go out on a high note.
Far from ignoring the cast’s age, The Undiscovered Country instead embraces it. Our former space cowboy heroes have all aged into diplomatic and strategic roles in Starfleet, and their frontier mindsets chafe at the transition. We’re no longer asked to believe William Shatner is possessed of ageless physical prowess. Kirk wins a fight largely through a lucky sucker punch, and when he’s smooched by the much younger Iman, the moment is immediately undercut… twice.
The stakes are high enough to be serious, but not so low that the movie resembles a feature-length television episode, the excuse often made by fandom to apologize for the too-frequent mediocrity of the feature films. The previously thinly-drawn foes the Klingons are here reimagined as canny equals, on the opposing side of an interstellar cold war. Christopher Plummer is superb as a canny political operator — today, we would recognize his paper-thin charm and propensity for brazen assassinations as very Putin-like. The metaphor for US/Russian relations may be unsubtle but it packs a punch, particularly as Kirk struggles to overcome a lifetime of prejudice.
Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn’s screenplay is a thing of beauty, with an airtight plot, crackling dialog, and just the right balance of humor and gravitas; it’s somehow the funniest and the most serious Trek movie. The at-the-time cutting edge CGI special effects are used efficiently and for story purposes instead of mere flash and sizzle (globules of alien blood floating in zero-gravity not only looks neat, but is a significant plot detail). The entire cast is on point, and everyone gets a moment to shine.
As if to make up for The Final Frontier, Nichelle Nichols has several standout scenes (including my favorite among many classic Trek facepalms):
The Undiscovered Country begs the question: why can’t Star Trek always be this good?