Any Trekkie worth his stars can probably fix the precise moment when Kirk, Spock, and Bones replaced the Three Stooges (or the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) in the American popular imagination. The less enthralled among us simply grin and bear the gradual fact of it. In any case, here they come again, noticeably silver-haired and moon-faced now, traveling at something less than warp speed through Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Messrs. Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have packed away a quarter century's worth of deep-space adventure and dime-store parable, after all. Who can blame them for having to loosen the belts on their McUniforms a couple of notches?
Not so oddly, the Enterprise crew has invited the growling, barbaric Klingons to its Silver Anniversary party. Three or four dramatic stutters into the new movie, Captain Kirk and Company host an uneasy, but hilarious, state dinner aboard ship for Klingon chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), his belligerent, Shakespeare-spouting general Chang (Christopher Plummer), and half a dozen spike-faced henchpeople. Why? Due to a massive explosion the movie doesn't explain very well, the Klingon civilization has but fifty years to live: In its generosity and wisdom, the Federation sends forth the chary Kirk to make peace with his old enemies. Fueled by bootleg Romulan ale and ignoring the Klingons' beastly table manners, he does his best. Then the inevitable disaster. Unbeknownst to its captain, the Enterprise apparently starts firing upon the Klingon warship, and the aroused Cold Warriors of old soon threaten to blow up the universe.
Uncover the conspiracy and avoid total annihilation, that's the mission here. Count sturdy Captain Kirk in. Count in Gorkon's fierce but level-headed daughter Azetbur (Rosana DeSoto). Count out the fearsome General Chang. He does his level best to wreak havoc and scuttle the pivotal Federation conference that would deliver the galaxy to "the undiscovered country" of lasting galactic peace.
It doesn't take Boris Yeltsin or Vulcan logic to see that Star Trek's creators (in this case script steward Leonard Nimoy) have once again gone shopping through the newspaper headlines for a tidy moral tale ripe for transplant into deep space. Recast the Klingons as the Soviets, the Enterprisers as the guardians of the West, the superweapons as themselves, and there you have it -- the vivid Nineties drama of perestroika, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the whole New World Order ball of wax. As grandiose Star Trek parallels go, this one works pretty well. Certainly it's timely, and it provides for a happy ending. So far, anyway. If you don't look too closely at Yugoslavia.
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Meanwhile the assembled wizards at Industrial Light and Magic and no fewer than fifty make-up artists have outdone themselves in the effects department. Just a few eye-popping examples: when Chancellor Gorkon is assassinated, huge globules of his mauve Klingon blood drift weightlessly around the ravaged flight deck; after Kirk and McCoy are convicted of murder in a Klingon show trial and banished to slave camp on a frozen asteroid (read: Gulag), they escape with the help of a confederate who can transform itself into anyone, into...anything. Aware that the measure of any fantasy epic is the quality of its villainy, the effects people have also bolted a black-steel eye patch right onto Christopher Plummer's face, all the better to outweigh, say, the nameless (and faceless) whale killers of Star Trek IV. Despite a serious shortage of screen time, this villain proves every bit the equal of Ricardo Montalban's evil Khan, who enlivened Star Trek II way back in 1982.
For the edification of casual fans and cultists alike, Star Trek VI indulges in the usual inside jokes and canon shorthand -- historically minded jibes exchanged by Kirk and Spock, residues of Klingon-hatred and Vulcan self-consciousness that don't have to be explained. Not only would it take too long, audiences have grown so proprietary about the whole Star Trek saga as it moved from TV to movies and back again that they expect more than a little preaching to the converted. Happily, the new film never quite slips over the edge into self-parody.
That's doubtless because the great minds at Paramount Pictures know there's still a huge cult audience out there -- not a scattering of nostalgiaphiles, but an army of serious connoisseurs. To please them the studio has dedicated this movie to Papa Trekkie himself, the late Gene Roddenberry. It has called back Nicholas Meyer to direct in the same workmanlike style he brought to Star Trek II (Meyer also collaborated on the screenplay of IV). The Paramountebanks have also assembled the grand old gang one last time (Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, James Doohan, and George Takei return in their familiar roles) in the hope that ticket buyers aplenty will show up to sip Silver Anniversary Champagne. As the Paramount publicists put it, this is "the final adventure of the starship Enterprise under the command of Captain James T. Kirk." But if I were new boy Patrick Stewart, who commands the Enterprise as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on TV's current Star Trek: The Next Generation, I wouldn't pack my gravity boots anytime soon. If Star Trek VI's grosses add up, you can bet venerable Captain Kirk is the man Paramount will ask to go exactly where he's gone before.
STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Story by Leonard Nimoy, Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal; screenplay by Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn. Directed by Nicholas Meyer. With William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Christopher Plummer. Rated