The conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire runs deep in the Star Trek universe; more than any other race (except perhaps the Romulans) the Klingons have been the principal antagonist in many great Star Trek stories. And they have been formidable adversaries indeed, as Captain Kirk could attest from his many run-ins with them over the years. So Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is tapping a very productive well of story ideas when it puts the Klingon-Federation conflict on center stage.
Only... this time it's different. This time the conflict is on the diplomatic stage, as a catastrophic event forces the Klingon Empire to extend an olive branch of peace toward the Federation. Is it a trap, or is it a historic opportunity? Starfleet isn't sure, and so it sends none other than Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew to escort the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon and General Chang (Christopher Plummer) to the peace talks. It's a risky move to entrust the Federation's hope for peace to a man who is well known to hate and distrust the Klingons, but Kirk is also the man the Klingons are most likely to take seriously. It should be a simple enough assignment, in any case... except that things take a turn for the worse very quickly, plunging the Enterprise crew, and the Federation, in a dangerous situation.
In watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country again, I'm reminded of why the last entry in the "original generation" series of movies is the best of the lot. One way to explain why The Undiscovered Country works so well is to observe that at its core it's a mature and thoughtful film, one that strikes a chord with adult audiences with its themes about the fear of change, and about the blinding effect of hatred and prejudice. The Undiscovered Country is full of great action moments which are all the more effective for being framed in a thoughtful way; this isn't an adolescent guns-ablaze space opera, and it's all the better for having grown up. It's a story about coming to terms with a new future; about understanding the fact that when conflict has been a part of your life for long enough, peace can be more frightening than war.
The Undiscovered Country weaves a number of story threads together quite effectively, with the result being that the film moves smoothly from beginning to end. It's a diplomatic/political story with the Klingons facing off against the Federation in a new arena; it's a murder mystery; it's an adventure story. The elements all fit together perfectly. The stakes in the political intrigue are high – nothing less than the future of the Federation – but not over the top; The Undiscovered Country wisely steps back from further escalation (avoiding "Kirk & Co. save the Earth again? Yawn") and puts the story on a level that we can intuitively relate to. We're intrigued by the mystery and eager to find out not just "who did it?" but also "how did they do it?" And the adventure threads of the story, from Kirk and McCoy's fate at the hands of the Klingons to the face-off involving the Klingons, the Enterprise, and the Excelsior, are nicely done, always keeping the story moving forward and developing in entertaining ways.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a stand-alone film, but it builds solidly on the character development of the story arc of Star Trek II, III, and IV (neatly sidestepping any reference whatsoever to V). In one way or another, the various Star Trek films have touched on the fact that Kirk is a misfit: a brilliant starship commander, but one who has never come to terms with taking orders, and one who, in the later films, has also never come to terms with his own aging. The Undiscovered Country puts Kirk squarely in center stage as one of the "old generation": faced with the prospect of a brave new world in which the Klingons are no longer his dependable enemies, Kirk's certainties about his job (and by extension, his life) start unraveling.
For dedicated Star Trek fans, The Undiscovered Country manages to work in a considerable number of clever references to places, characters, and events in both the original series and Next Generation. For instance, the Klingon defense counsel is a "General Worf" played by Michael Dorn (Lt. Worf of Next Generation), presumably the grandfather of that later Worf, and late in the film we hear of a planet called Kittimer... famous in TNG as the site of the massacre that brought shame on the Worf family. It's completely under the radar for anyone who's not that steeped in Trek lore, but at the same time an appealing touch for the fans. Another fun game for Trek fans is to spot the connections to Deep Space Nine. Given that DS9 would have only been on the drawing boards at this point, if it had even been thought of at all yet, the connections are most likely pure coincidence... but fun to spot nonetheless. We can spot Rene Auberjonois and Brock Peters, who would later be on the cast of DS9 as Odo and Joseph Sisko, in key secondary roles. The scenes in the prison camp are also intriguing... first we see a spiky-headed alien that looks suspiciously like a Jem'Hadar, and then we meet a shapeshifter. Shades of the Dominion, anyone?
And there are also a few great one-liners that take an affectionate jab at the cliches of the original series, like McCoy's "What is it about you?" and the response to Kirk's "I can't believe I kissed you." As with all the other elements of the film, these humorous touches are kept precisely in balance with the rest of the film, bringing up a lighter tone for a moment to release tension before moving back to the main dramatic narrative. Overall, it's clear that director Nicholas Meyer, who also helmed the excellent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, knows how to tell stories effectively in the Star Trek universe; it would be nice if he had the chance to direct another Trek film in the future.
The Special Collector's Edition of Star Trek VI is a very slightly different version than the earlier DVD release, although it's not noted anywhere on the packaging that this is the case. Several very brief shots are added, amounting to only a few seconds more of running time. During the interrogation scene, as the conspirator's names are spoken, we get images of them intercut into the scene, one of them replacing a brief line from Chekov ("From Starfleet?"). The only other addition that I noticed was a very short establishing shot of Scotty working in the officer's lounge before the scene goes to close-up on him looking at the Enterprise blueprints. These tiny tweaks do seem to make those scenes flow more smoothly.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a two-DVD set, packaged in a double-wide plastic keepcase. Disc 1 contains the film and some special features, and Disc 2 contains the balance of the special features. There's no insert.
Star Trek VI is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at the 2.0:1 aspect ratio, which in practice translates as 1.85:1 on widescreen TVs. This is slightly different from the original theatrical presentation of 2.35:1, but it does represent director Nicholas Meyer's preferred presentation of the film for home viewing. Meyer shot the film in "Super 35" format, framing it with both aspect ratios in mind. No cutting was done; for the DVD release, the image contains slightly more information at top and bottom than the theatrical version. Since this was what Meyer planned for, we also don't get any of the problems of "open matte" transfers: everything we see is what Meyer wants us to see.
Now, as for the transfer: it's truly beautiful. It's clean and extremely sharp and detailed; I didn't spot any edge enhancement at all. The image is free of noise and grain, even in challenging situations. Colors are rich and vibrant; whites are crisp and clean, and blacks are deep and dark. The only thing I can find to criticize here is that in a few of the very dark scenes, there's a hint of murkiness in the darkest areas, but this is a very minor quibble in an outstanding transfer.
I did a side-by-side comparison of this transfer to the earlier non-anamorphic release, and there's simply no doubt about it: the new transfer is vastly superior to the old one, offering greater crispness and detail, richer and more natural colors, and overall a much more attractive presentation. It's worth upgrading to get the new transfer.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is also excellent, offering a warm and immersive audio environment for the film. The surround channels are used effectively throughout the film starting with the opening music; in addition to general ambiance, we also get nice use of the surround sound for spatial effects, especially when the starships are in battle. The overall sound is clear and clean, and the balance of music, dialogue, and special effects is always handled correctly.
A Dolby 2.0 soundtrack and a dubbed French Dolby 2.0 soundtrack are also included, along with optional English subtitles.
Paramount has really done an excellent job with the special features for The Undiscovered Country, with a two-disc set that justifies the presence of both DVDs.
Disc 1, which contains the film itself, also has two commentary tracks. The first is an audio commentary with director Nicholas Meyer and screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn; dipping into the commentary track shows that they keep up a steady and interesting conversation throughout the film. The second commentary track is a text commentary from Michael and Denise Okuda, the authors of The Star Trek Encyclopedia. Their commentary takes the form of running subtitles throughout the film, offering an interesting technical and background perspective on the making of the film. A nice feature of these commentaries is that you can play both at once: select the text commentary from the "Special Features" section, and then when the film has begun, use the audio control to switch to the channel with the audio commentary.
Disc 2 is where the bonus material really piles up. Overall I was very pleased with the quality of the special features here, as it's all worthwhile material that gets right to the heart of the making of the film; there's no promotional fluff here.
The first featurette is called "The Perils of Peacemaking"; this interesting 26-minute piece focuses on the political themes and inspirations for Star Trek VI. The filmmakers discuss what they wanted to achieve here, and how they saw the film as reflecting on current events.
The next section, called "Stories from Star Trek VI," is a collection of six shorter featurettes which can be played individually or with a "play all" feature. With a total running time of 57 minutes, these featurettes take a very interesting look at specific elements of the making of the film, using liberal amounts of interviews with cast and crew. We get "It Started with a Story," "Prejudice," "Director Nicholas Meyer," "Shakespeare and General Chang," "Bringing It to Life," and "Farewell and Goodbye."
The following section, "The Star Trek Universe," is also a collection of short featurettes, although here there's unfortunately no "play all" feature. This section runs a total of 46 minutes, taking us through "Conversations with Nicholas Meyer," the very interesting "Klingons: Conjuring the Legend," "Federation Operatives," which provides information on Star Trek VI actors who also appeared in other Star Trek films and shows, "Penny's Toy Box," which guides us through the prop room, and "Together Again," which takes a look at the collaboration of William Shatner and Christopher Plummer.
The final section of the main special features is called "Farewell." This section starts out with a 13-minute tribute to the late DeForest Kelley, with various actors and crew members sharing their memories of his career and what it was like to work with the man who brought "Bones" to life. Also in this section is a collection of short "Original Interviews" in which the cast members speak in response to various questions ranging from their participation on the film to other aspects of their work in the Star Trek universe. While it also doesn't have a "play all" feature, the total run time is about 42 minutes; we hear from William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Iman (who plays an alien in the film).
Lastly, we get an assortment of minor special features. In the "Promotional Material" section, there's a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, and a 5-minute "sneak peek" of the film that was shown at a 1991 Star Trek convention. In the "Archives" section, there's a 3-minute "Production Gallery" composed of short behind-the-scenes clips, and storyboards for four scenes (one of which, a Spacedock sequence, was omitted from the final film).
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is the very best of the Star Trek feature films, and an example of excellent science fiction storytelling: intelligently plotted and developed, always fun to watch, and with thoughtful themes adding depth and richness to the story. It's a Star Trek film that will appeal on its own merits to both fans of Star Trek and casual viewers; it's also filled with subtle references to the Trek universe that will delight devoted fans. Paramount has done the film proud with its Collector's Edition treatment: the stunning new anamorphic transfer is light-years ahead of the earlier release in terms of picture quality, and the special features offer a very interesting look into the making of the film. Whether you're upgrading your copy or buying it for the first time, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Special Collector's Edition is a gem, and I'm pleased to give it the DVDTalk Collector's Series rating.