The Plot: The Soviet nuclear Klingon mining facility at Chernobyl Praxis explodes, causing an immediate energy crisis that threatens to spiral out into a full-on war if unchecked. Luckily, the Klingon Chancellor is a man they can do business with, Gorbachev Gorkon. Kirk is sent as an envoy and doesn’t do well at it, but then Gorkon is killed and he’s framed for the murder. (We all joke about the similarities to the real-world Cold War, but this almost happened too.) Kirk and McCoy must escape, Spock has to figure out who’s behind it, and Kim Cattrall gets to play a character who was obviously going to be Saavik. Then there’s a pretty great climax and the crew gets a great sendoff. A perfect ending to the journeys of a great crew. Not just some pathetic, last-ditch, bad idea…oh, wait, I’ll just stop there.

What Doesn’t WorkThe Final Frontier got mocked for having too much bad comedy in it. This movie has some not-great broad comedy in it as well, if I’m being honest. Also, we should discuss the little matter that this movie effectively writes The Final Frontier out of the canon. You know, like the part where Kirk says, “Never been this close,” referring to a Klingon ship when in the prior film he was on one. Or how the Enterprise was a brand-new ship in the prior film but an old one about to be decommissioned in the current one. No doubt there are other data points as well that I’m missing. You might say, good riddance. And in spite of my documented soft spot for the movie I do get it. But if we’re going to go this far with the whole canon/not canon thing such that it includes just movies we don’t like that much, then it’s not of much value anymore I think.

What Does Work: Quite a bit, actually. Nicholas Meyer is back to clean up the mess and he had only barely the budget to do it. In his (highly recommended) book, A View From The Bridge, he talks about how Paramount (as it was then known) nickled and dimed him to such an extent that he had to use cheap OfficeMax chairs in his production design. I can’t not see them after reading that. Nevertheless, this is just an incredible movie. Meyer again goes all in on the theme of how to live with the knowledge of death, but from a different angle. Of course, people do have complaints about it. The two biggest that I’ve seen are:

  1. Kirk is suddenly a racist
  2. The cold war parallels are on the nose

Obviously I made a joke about the second in the plot summary–in addition to those parallels, there’s a character named “Colonel West” who recommends illegal covert action to get back Kirk and McCoy. This is not exactly subtle, though Oliver North never asked approval for what he did, and in the most recent Blu-ray release he’s completely removed from the film. (Also worth noting is that there are like a half-dozen different cuts of this film floating around, the differences mainly revolving around the mind-meld “rape” scene and the West subplot. Speaking of what’s canon and not…) But the West stuff aside, I think this stuff all works. Klingons were space Russians from the start and paralleling them in this way seems like a fine idea. I actually think it works better the further away we get from the Cold War. Perhaps people see there being just one too many close details to the real world that make it too on the nose. Which I get. But that’s really just the setup for the story. It’s not an allegory.

As for the first point: eh, maybe they have a point. There could have been a bit more care taken, it is a bit of a retcon, but it’s not as though it’s unheard of for people to become angrier and racially bigoted as they age. The movie roots this in his anger over his son’s death, an especially poignant event as Kirk readies himself unhappily for retirement. There’s maybe a bit of retconning to set up the arc of the reawakening of Kirk’s idealism. That said, that arc does work. The movie mainly combines Kirk and McCoy, which is a different pairing than usual, and one that works well as Kirk grapples with his knotty emotions about aging. I dig the action-adventure plot, there’s maybe the best space battle in the franchise’s history, and then a speech about change that I think is pretty powerful in its simplicity:

I also like how Spock’s subplot with his protege/surrogate daughter Saavik Valeris plays out. It would have been better with Kirstie Alley in there, of course, but it’s sold well enough. Not the biggest fan of depictions of rape on screen but the forcible mind meld scene is very much put in those terms and works really well.

Legacy: Saved the franchise and provided the original crew with a perfect ending. Until the next movie unwisely Lord Of The Rings-ed it and piled on a couple more endings. The Undiscovered Country is just solid, though. There’s a menace and unease to it, but also hope. It’s a decent document of the emotions of its historical moment, the end of the Cold War. It’s also a genuinely fun watch with plenty to say about aging, death, and rebirth.

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