Star Trek, like most classic science fiction, was always at its best when tackling the complex social issues of its time by presenting them to its audience in new and fantastic ways. Of course, as a product of the 1960's, the series had a lot of material to work with, and everything from the war in Vietnam to racial inequality were themes that were explored and, oftentimes, expounded upon with creator Gene Roddenberry's trademark optimism. The long gap between the series' cancellation and cinematic rebirth saw the dawn of a new breed of science fiction in which real world issues took a back seat to eye-popping special effects and action. While the first film in the Trek franchise sought to buck the trend with a deep and complex storyline more akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars, the critical and commercial failure of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (an unfairly maligned film, in my opinion) gave way to the much more action oriented second installment, The Wrath of Khan. It wasn't long before Trek returned to its classic sci-fi-with-a-message roots with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home's cautionary environmental tale, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's solemn meditation on religion and faith. However, for a true taste of Star Trek at its sociopolitical best, nothing tops the final voyage of the original crew in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered country.
The Klingon Empire suffers a catastrophic explosion on one of its mining colonies that destroys the planet and sends shockwaves throughout Klingon space, threatening the atmosphere of their homeworld Kronos. The Klingons were so obsessed with their military stockpiling that they don't have the money or resources to save themselves, and turn to the Federation for help. Chancellor Gorkon (Warner), a "liberal" Klingon who sees the need for an end to the hostilities between the Federation and his people, is en route to Earth for a peace summit, and the Enterprise is assigned to escort the Chancellor through Federation space. Kirk (Shatner), of course, hates the idea. After all, the Klingons have not only been his lifelong enemy- his only son died at the hands of one. In Kirk's mind the only good Klingon is a dead Klingon. Unfortunately for him, he's not alone. After a rather uncomfortable gathering on the Enterprise, Gorkon's ship is boarded by two assassins dressed in Starfleet regalia, and the Chancellor is shot. To make matters worse, it appears that the Enterprise aided in the plot by firing two photon torpedoes at the ship, disabling it's gravity, and rendering the Klingon passengers virtually defenseless. Gorkon's military advisor, the battle hardened, Shakespeare spewing General Chang (Plummer) holds Kirk responsible, but before he can call in reinforcements, Kirk surrenders, and boards the Klingon vessel with Dr. McCoy (Kelley) to see if they can be of any help. McCoy attempts to treat Gorkon, but his injuries are too severe (and McCoy's knowledge of Klingon anatomy too limited) and the Chancellor dies. Kirk and McCoy are held to face a Klingon tribunal, while the real assassins are still at large, leaving Spock and the Enterprise crew with the unenviable task of blowing open a conspiracy that spans the galaxy.
The Undiscovered Country borrows liberally from both the current events of its time (Chernobyl, the fall of the iron curtain) and one of the great conspiracy thrillers, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. These elements fold nicely into the Star Trek universe, equating the long conflict between the Klingons and Federation with a sort of interstellar cold war. The way the characters respond to the frightening prospect of a brave new world with no clearly drawn battle lines is handled in a believable way, especially in the case of the veteran officers of the Enterprise who know no other world. While Shatner is often the butt of many an acting joke, I rather like his performance here as an old warrior coming to terms with his own obsolescence. He emotes this with knowing glances and weary smiles, looking at the younger crew members with both fear and admiration for the new adventures they will embark on long after he's gone. As a lifelong fan of the series, this film's ending is both satisfying and heartbreaking, and, as silly as it sounds, I have to admit the Kirk's final words to his crew made me a touch glossy-eyed. It's a rousing, funny, and poignant send-off for one of the most beloved ensembles in Sci-Fi history.
The Special Edition DVD from Paramount is a loaded two-disc affair that features a gorgeous enhanced widescreen transfer and a booming Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. Disc one features the film, as well as commentary tracks by director Nicholas Meyer and screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn, and a text commentary by The Star Trek Encyclopedia authors, Michael & Denise Okuda. Disc two features a seemingly endless array of featurettes, trailers, and ephemera for the film, including a wonderful tribute the late DeForest Kelley, and a very interesting featurette called The Perils of Peacemaking which focuses on the real world influences behind the film.
I love these Special Edition sets from Paramount, and I hope they carry on into The Next Generation films. The amount of supplements they pack onto these things make me feel pretty confident that I won't be looking to upgrade to any Super Special Editions anytime soon.
While it would be pointless for me to try and persuade someone who doesn't enjoy Star Trek to see this film, I will say that it's one you can easily get into with nary a lick of knowledge about the Trek universe. It's got loads of action, humor, heart, and isn't just a great Star Trek film: it's a great film period.