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‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 06, 1991

The title "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" is something of a misnomer. After five previous installments, there's little that has been left "undiscovered" by Capt. Kirk and Co. But new discoveries aren't what we look for in the "Star Trek" series, and that's not what Chapter VI supplies. Instead, it gives a high polish to the old pleasures that have sustained us for the past 25 years. Under the guiding hand of director Nicholas Meyer, "Star Trek VI" surprises us only by completely satisfying our expectations, by giving us exactly what we want from a "Star Trek" picture. It's not startling or revelatory, only witty, ebulliently good-natured and close to ideal.

Not all the "Star Trek" movies have succeeded even on these terms. But Meyer, who cowrote this picture and directed the second -- and best -- of the earlier films, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," has the movie equivalent of perfect pitch for this particular brand of popular entertainment. His sensibility marries clever sophistication to an appreciation for cheesy pulp, which, in this case, turns out to be a marriage made in heaven. Or at least a nearby galaxy.

At the end of the last adventure, the series's principals were huddled around a campfire, like weary old cowpokes nostalgically living out the waning moments of their last roundup. They looked ready for fishing poles, not phasers. At the beginning of this film, Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) is only three months away from a well-deserved retirement, but cataclysmic galactic events press the former admiral and his crew into service for one last mission. A massive explosion on the Klingon planet of Praxis has made it impossible for Kirk's archenemies to continue their long and costly antagonism with the Federation. Under the enlightened leadership of Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), the Klingons are ready to make peace. To this end, a historic conference between the Klingons and the Federation has been scheduled, and Kirk is selected to escort his hated foe to the meeting.

Kirk's question, quite logically, is why me? The captain has spent his life fighting the Klingons, who, in addition to being the "trash of the universe," also were responsible for the death of his son. His loathing is a matter of public record, a fact which, he assumes, would disqualify him as an agent of peace. To the contrary, though, it makes him the perfect candidate. As Spock (Leonard Nimoy) puts it, "According to an old Vulcan proverb, 'Only Nixon can go to China.' "

The film's story line playfully bounces off current historical events, in particular the thaw in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unlike the real-world circumstances, the intergalactic peace process hits a snag, when a right-wing coalition -- with participants from both sides -- conspires to disrupt the new alliance. And, naturally, it's up to the crew of the Enterprise to restore order to the universe. This geopolitical riff gives the picture a feeling of up-to-the-minute relevance without weighing it down. Meyer's touch here is pleasingly light; he's capable of sending up his material without cheapening it or disrupting our belief in the reality of his yarn. His one-liners are an organic part of the film's jocular, tongue-in-cheek spirit.

Meyer is at his best during the scene in which, at Kirk's invitation, the Klingons come to a dinner party aboard the Enterprise. The occasion is meant as a gesture of goodwill, with Romulan ale served to create an atmosphere of bonhomie, but quickly the amiable mood curdles. The party pooper here is Gen. Chang (Christopher Plummer), a slyly sarcastic Klingon warrior with a patch nailed over one eye, who pricks Kirk and his other hosts with barbed quotations from Shakespeare (whom the Klingons claim as one of their own). This may be the single best scene of the series, and certainly a moment of glory for Plummer, who brandishes his classical technique with the swaggering bravura of a consummate ham.

Plummer's performance is the film's showiest, and is in direct counterpoint to the mellow, easy-listening styles of the other actors. By now, the appearance of Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley (Bones), James Doohan (Scotty), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov) and George Takei (Sulu) has taken on the quality of a golden-oldies reunion; there are a lot of bulging waistlines and an abundance of atrocious sportscaster hair. But none of this is a drag on our enjoyment. Meyer and his writing partner, Denny Martin Flinn, have created a story in which the over-the-hill status of the crew is turned into a virtue.

Parody has always been an important ingredient in the "Star Trek" formula, and the tone that Meyer has achieved for this final adventure allows the actors to affectionately mock the personality traits of the characters they've created. At one point, when the romantically irrepressible Kirk is kissed by an alluring alien (Iman), with Bones looking on, the good doctor quips, "What is it with you anyway?" On another occasion, when an Enterprise crew member expresses concern that they might all be killed, Spock stoically brushes off the notion. "I've been dead," he says, with the blank-faced expression of a Vulcan Buster Keaton.

The whole film skates along with the unruffled ease of comfy old pros happily running through their roster of greatest hits. They don't stretch themselves, but they aren't just going through the motions, either. Shatner gives us a sample of his syncopated histrionics; Nimoy, his implacable deadpan; Kelley, his grouchy impatience; and Koenig, his botched English. (The series' "Next Generation" is represented only briefly by the Klingon Worf, played by Michael Dorn). So what if it looks like a couple of the old crew have spent the last several years bellied up to the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Sizzler. They're delighted to accommodate their fans.

At times, the film loses its momentum, and there are unresolved issues, such as a peculiar boudoir encounter between Spock and his Vulcan protege, Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall), which suggests the possibility of a seduction without delivering one. Still, if, indeed, "Star Trek VI" turns out to be the last of the series, it couldn't have made a more felicitous or more satisfying exit. It leaves us with a genuine sense of grateful nostalgia. After "Star Trek V," we may have felt that Kirk and Co. had worn out their welcome; now the thought of their drifting off into space is a mournful one. The movie, though, does leave us with the possibility of a return. In the final analysis, they may be 2 legit 2 quit.

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