In 1991, the greatest film about the Cold War wasn’t set on Earth. Instead, the most poignant analog for the tensions between the USSR and the United States was presented in a slam-dunk sci-fi film from a popular franchise.
This month, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country celebrates its 30th anniversary. Here’s why it’s worth another look, especially before it leaves Hulu this week. If you’ve never seen The Undiscovered Country, there’s no better time than now to see why it’s a tremendous political sci-fi film, even if you don’t care about Star Trek.
The Undiscovered Country was the second Star Trek film directed by Nicholas Meyer, but it was the third Trek film he worked on overall, after directing The Wrath of Khan and co-writing parts of The Voyage Home. In his memoir, The View From the Bridge, Meyer likens working on Star Trek to the concept of filling new wine into old bottles but admits that with Star Trek VI, he went further.
“I found myself straining against the shape of the Star Trek bottle,” Meyer wrote in 2009. “Rewriting the words of the Mass, not merely altering the music.” The Undiscovered Country pushes this whole “hopeful future” thing pretty far, dispelling the myth that Trek takes place in a utopian future.
Although many fans regard the classic Trek films with reverence, what gets quickly forgotten is how subversive the classic movies were at the time, particularly the ones which Meyer worked on. In 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, Meyer, with producers Bob Sallin and Harve Bennett, rebooted Trek as a dark, gritty, and serious space opera. With The Voyage Home, Meyer and director Leonard Nimoy crafted one of the most powerful environmentalist films of the 1980s. And in 1991, with The Undiscovered Country, the Trek franchise was briefly presented as a giant Cold War analogy, one that had been lurking there all along.
By the time Undiscovered Country came out, The Next Generation had been on for five seasons, revealing that the Klingons were allies of the Federation in a future beyond the classic series. But how did we get there?
Much has been written about the more prominent militaristic tone of Starfleet that began with The Wrath of Khan, something opposed by creator Gene Roddenberry at the time. And yet, as the new documentary The Center Seat points out, the para-military vocabulary of Trek was baked into the nomenclature of The Original Series from the very beginning.
That said, by The Undiscovered Country, the idea that Starfleet is only a scientific organization, seeking out new life is presented as something of a sham. At the top of the film, the only person doing any space exploring is Captain Sulu (George Takei), who is quickly diverted from that mission when a Klingon moon explodes, sending the galaxy into chaos. When the top brass of Starfleet debate the notions of how to respond to their greatest enemy suddenly being vulnerable as hell, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) says, “Starfleet’s mission has always been one of peace.” Captain Kirk violently rebukes, telling Spock that if the Klingons are dying, Starfleet should “let them die.”
Because the movie is 30 years old and baked into the overall milieu of Trek, it’s easy to forget just how The Undiscovered Country posits a much darker Federation than we’d ever really seen before that moment. Previous Treks always presented the various cold wars with alien races like the Klingons and the Romulans as something happening in the background. Whenever all-out war sprung to the foreground, Trek diffused the hostilities with big speeches about non-violence.
Case-in-point, the first Trek episode with the Klingons ever, “Errand of Mercy,” ends when a race of supreme beings of pure energy — called the Organians — stops the war from happening. Then, in the episode “Day of the Dove,” the premise is flipped: an energy alien tried to force the crew to fight the Klingons, which resulted in Kirk and the gang uniting with the Klingons to beat the hate-loving alien.
Generally speaking, before The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek casually asserted that our heroes, our Starfleet people, were not likely to act violently out of bigotry and racism. And, if they did, some kind of mind control was likely involved, like when Chekov nearly assaults a Klingon woman in “Day of the Dove.”
The Undiscovered Country isn’t like that. The movie portrays Captain Kirk as a bigot who is only tolerant of Klingons because he has to be. Granted, the Klingons killed Kirk’s son David in The Search For Spock, but in 1989’s The Final Frontier, Kirk seems pretty tolerant of Klingons by the end. In some senses, Kirk in The Undiscovered Country is a different guy. In one pointed moment, Kirk admits, “how prejudiced I was.” The classic Trek franchise seemed to be turning to the camera and saying, “Yeah, Kirk is a boomer from the Cold War, and it’s time for that kind of thinking to end.”
If you’ve never seen The Undiscovered Country, you may be shocked to learn there’s not a ton of sci-fi stuff driving the plot. In the interests of preserving big spoilers, the movie is basically a political whodunit, in which we have to figure out who framed Kirk and Bones and why. Along the way, we get great performances from Christopher Plummer as the Klingon General Chang and Kim Catrall as Spock’s new Vulcan protégé Valeris, along with a boatload of quotes from Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. (Even the title “The Undiscovered Country” is taken from Hamlet.)
Relative to other big space-action franchises, Star Trek was always the book smart one, more interested in telling ruminative stories with mixed ethical messages. And in this way, The Undiscovered Country is the most bookish Star Trek of all. Some of the heroes are actually villains, and some of the villains are sensible. It’s a strange allegory for political prejudices and government corruption. And, in terms of presenting futuristic politics in a realistic light, the rest of the Trek franchise wouldn't get this dark again until Deep Space Nine.
It may not be the best Trek movie ever, but The Undiscovered Country is the rare crowd-pleaser that dares to be misunderstood. Yes, we should be cheering for Kirk and the gang in the end, but they’re not off the hook entirely. Before 1991, the existence of a more enlightened Next Generation seemed somewhat like an arbitrary overcorrection. But The Undiscovered Country proved the legacy of Star Trek desperately needed to pass its high-minded ideals to another generation.
Yes, the old gang was great, but as this film reveals, they had their hangups. And in a brave new world of outer space peace, it was time for them to boldly depart. It wasn’t a graceful exit. It was messy, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.