“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 the biggest and most tragic of its many flaws is 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. Thing 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).
It begs the question: why can’t Star Trek always be this good?
Like the 1966 Corvette a reckless young James Tiberius Kirk commandeers in an early sequence, the new Star Trek is precision-crafted for speed, sex appeal, and total awesomeness. Kirk launches that beautiful machine off a cliff, but thankfully director J.J. Abrams never does the same with the movie. Star Trek (the first in the franchise to go by the perfectly terse name of the original TV series) joins the rarified ranks of the few other modern blockbusters that thrill and entertain (not to mention cost and earn massive piles of money) yet have lasting merit. Make room on the DVD shelf for a new entry in the canon, alongside Jaws, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man 2.
Trek has a long tradition of utilizing the science fiction conceits of time travel and alternate dimensions to playfully subvert its characters and mythos. The original series introduced the Mirror Universe, giving the cast the chance to reinterpret their goodly characters in hairier, eviler alter egos. Two of the best movies brought the Enterprise back in time, first to save the whales in the 1980s (in the lighthearted Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), and later to witness Earthlings’ first contact with an alien race in 2063 (in the underrated Star Trek VIII: First Contact). Two of my personal favorite Next Generation episodes “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “All Good Things” tasked Captain Picard with course-correcting an Enterprise skipping through time, no matter the sacrifice. The fun in these kinds of stories comes not just from their brain-teasing sci-fi concepts, but in enjoying new twists on the established characters fans love. But any real innovations were always only temporary, the status quo always quickly restored in time (so to speak) for the next episode.
Thus, the Star Trek franchise has managed to maintain a single (albeit massively complicated) timeline across six TV series, ten movies, and countless novels and comic books. There’s even a niche market in the continuity data itself, as evidenced by popular wikis like Memory Alpha and reference tomes such as Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future. Such catalogs of the incredibly complex future “history” in which Trek is set are useful not only to obsessive fans, but also to the writers charged with creating new stories that don’t contradict what came before, at least too badly.
A certain degree of renewal was already built right in to Star Trek. When any one premise ran out of ideas, an ensemble aged beyond plausibility, or ratings dipped, the producers could always start over with a new ship, a new space station, or in a new year. The most radical departure yet attempted was the ultimately disappointing final series, Enterprise. The prequel, set years before Kirk would take the helm, got off to a great start with a Starfleet crew a world apart from any we had seen before. As many have pointed out over the years, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry may have modeled Starfleet on the Navy, but the original 1960s series was basically a Western set in space. The 1980s The Next Generation reconceived Starfleet as kind of trans-species peacekeeping fleet, a kind of U.N. of The Milky Way. So, set between Earthlings’ rough-and-tumble early spacefaring years and the later idealistic intergalactic cooperation, Enterprise featured a bunch of cocky cowboys brazenly taking their values out with them into space, baseball caps firmly screwed on heads, and phasers defiantly set to kill. The series seemed poised to be a somewhat obvious but fruitful metaphor for an arrogant, George W. Bush-era United States forcibly spreading democracy where it wasn’t welcome. But its quality (both in writing and in special effects budget) bottomed out in just a few episodes, and even the smoking-hot, well-endowed Vulcan T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) couldn’t keep the show on the air.
The entire Star Trek franchise seemed all but dead after Enterprise‘s cancellation, not unlike the no-win scenario Spock devises as a test to torture Starfleet cadets to see how they cope with failure. A cherished part of Star Trek lore is that Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, and thus cheated in order to win Spock’s unwinnable test. Paramount evidently learned a lesson from Kirk’s lateral thinking, for the first they they have given the OK to an irreverent new creative team to permanently reboot Trek from top to bottom. Nearly all of Trek’s meticulously maintained continuity (excepting, ironically, the failed Enterprise, set chronologically before any of the events of this movie) has now forever been redefined as belonging to an alternate timeline. At least, that is, until the next reboot. As the heavily-advertised appearance of Leonard Nimoy as the original “Spock Prime” attests, nothing necessarily precludes the reappearance of any beloved original actors or other kinds of crossovers between timelines (anything in possible in science fiction). But Star Trek does mark a very clear end to Star Trek as we knew it.
After 40 years of unreliable quality control and diminishing box office, such drastic measures were arguably essential to preserve Trek as a viable franchise. But I do sympathize with the grumbling of longtime fans upset at scrapping everything and starting over. And this is not even to mention the many writers, directors, and actors that created the no-longer canonical stories. All of which hasn’t disappeared from our reality, and will be enjoyed forever on DVD, but this film does render pretty much everything that came before it as second-class Trek. I can’t help but wonder how all future spinoffs are now going to be handled on a practical level. For instance, if there are to be future comics or novels featuring the characters from The Next Generation, are the physical products going to have to be labelled as taking place in the now-depricated original fictional universe? How does “Trek Classic” and “Neu Trek” sound?
But back to the topic at hand: the totally awesome new movie is packed with glossy art direction, genuinely exciting special effects, fight scenes, chase sequences, and attractive young actors young and attractive enough to strut about on the big screen in their space scanties. Despite all this gloss, it somehow manages to not be totally stupid, which is more than This Dork Reporter can say about your typical summer movie (*cough* Transformers *cough*). However, I can’t help but point out a few, forgive me, illogical plot elements, especially in the mad rush towards the end:
Why does Kirk bother firing upon Nero’s ship as it’s being torn apart by a black hole? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe Kirk feared Nero would time travel yet again to create mischief in yet another timeline (hey, there’s always the inevitable next reboot in a few years).
Starfleet is busy elsewhere in the galaxy, so we see the cadets mobilized into a strike force to confront Nero. So why is the Academy still full of students when Nero’s ship reaches Earth? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe they were Freshmen not qualified to do more than merely swab the decks.
It’s wildly implausible for young Spock to maroon Kirk on the same planet that Nero did Spock Prime. The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: nope, I got nothing. I mean, really, come on! (but still, the movie is awesome, just go with it)
The hardest plot point to swallow is why Spock Prime does not accompany Kirk back to the Enterprise. Would he really risk the fate of Earth because he thinks it’s more important that Kirk and his young self forge their destined friendship? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: yes.
But enough complaining. Did I mention the movie is TEH AWESOME? There’s not one bad performance to drag things down (a notable problem with Watchmen). Despite being tasked with recreating characters beloved by fans for over 40 years, no one attempts an outright imitation or caricature. The most faithful is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Beyond his eerie physical resemblance to Nimoy (maybe not how he actually looked in 1966, but how he might have), he has a fresh take that plays up the character’s internal struggle between emotion and logic. Chris Pine artfully embodies Kirk’s blend of righteous nobility and brash rule-busting attitude without aping William Shatner’s famously hammy style (for which we all, admit it, love him). Karl Urban nails Bones as a seasick pessimist, and Zoe Saldana and John Cho bring welcome sass and physical action hero prowess to Uhura and Sulu, two characters often left on the sidelines. Only Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg come close to overdoing it. Pegg mugs and shouts, playing Scotty as much more of a mad Scotsman than James Doohan ever did, and Yelchin overexaggerates Chekov’s accent for pure comedy. But that’s not to say both performances aren’t hugely entertaining, just like everything else on display.
Star Trek goes much much further with Spock’s half-human nature than any of the Trek I’ve seen. Spock was such a key ingredient that almost every version of Trek that followed was obligated to include a similar character: most obviously the android Data (Brent Spiner) in The Next Generation. We are reminded the Vulcan species is not naturally emotionless, as many casual fans assume, but rather a deeply passionate people that holds its warlike nature in check by elevating logic to the level of religion. A purely devout Vulcan would be about as dramatically interesting as a robot (but it must be said that even Spock’s father Sarek (Ben Cross), a high-ranking Vulcan elder, privately admits to being moved by the irrational emotion of love). The aged Spock Prime is practically jovial, seemingly having come to terms with his duality. It’s actually rather heartwarming for a longtime fan to see him at a place of peace with himself.
I have room for one more small complaint: there’s an overreliance on clichéd father issues as easy story shortcuts to define character, for which I blame J.J. Abrams. Both Kirk and Spock are torn between rebelling against and owning up to their respective heroic, accomplished fathers. Abrams also built his TV series Alias and Lost upon the same dramatic crutch, in which seemingly every character is primarily motivated by strained relationships with absent and/or bad fathers (e.g. Sydney, Jack, Locke, Kate, Miles, etc…). One wonders, statistically speaking, how many people in the world actually do have such complicated relationships with their dads. Maybe those that do are just more likely to make their careers writing scripts for Hollywood.
None of the many Trek sequels, prequels, or spinoffs to date have ever reached the mythic status of the original series and its core dynamic duo Kirk and Spock. Star Trek makes a bold bid to reclaim what made the original such a phenomenon: it goes back to the original scenario and characters, and thoroughly remasters, reinvigorates, reinvents, and gives them a swift kick in the ass. It restores the names Kirk and Spock to the realm of legends and icons.