As this 50th anniversary year winds down, I am spending these last several posts talking about the way the various Star Trek series, both on television and in the movies, ended. Last week, I discussed “Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode of the original Star Trek television series. After that episode, Star Trek may have no longer been producing new episodes, but it was not off the air. Thanks to syndication, the series found new legions of fans, leading to the animated series, which ran for two seasons, and then plans to revive the live-action show on a new Paramount television network.
The new network never happened, but thanks to the success of Star Wars, the executives at Paramount decided to relaunch Star Trek as a film. The result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, isn’t exactly beloved by fans, but it was a huge hit at the time, which meant sequel! That film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a success in both story and financial terms, and so, in true Hollywood fashion, the sequels just kept coming.
In the summer of 1989, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier arrived in theaters with big expectations. The previous film, Star Trek IV: The Voyages Home had been a massive hit and, thanks to its modern setting and comedic sensibility, had drawn in more mainstream audiences. Also, in 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, putting Trek back on TV on a weekly basis. Everything seemed to be in place for Star Trek V to be the biggest Trek film ever.
That…did not happen.
Even if you don’t remember the summer of 1989, a few films came out in those months that you may have heard of. Batman. Ghostbusters II. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was a great summer to be a movie fan. I saw Batman in the theater seven times!
Star Trek V could not compete with that, primarily because it is just not a good movie. It has some moments I love. I still think Kirk’s “I need my pain” speech is one of his best. But the movie overall is pretty terrible. To give you some idea, it’s sitting at a lowly 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, while its predecessor, Star Trek VI, is at 85%. The box office bore this out with Star Trek V only making $63 million worldwide against a $33 million budget. By comparison, Star Trek IV cost $21 million and grossed $133 million.
The relative failure of Star Trek V scared Paramount and put plans for a sequel in doubt. However, the 25th anniversary of the franchise was just two years away in 1991, and Paramount wanted to do something to capitalize on the event. Harve Bennett, who had produced the Star Trek films starting with Star Trek II, pitched the idea of doing a prequel set during Kirk and Spock’s days at Starfleet Academy and showing how they and the other members of the Enterprise crew met. Tossing the original cast aside met with resistance, though, and Bennett left the project.
Paramount, at the urging of Leonard Nimoy, turned to Nicholas Meyer, who had written and directed Star Trek II and also worked on the script to Star Trek IV. Together they developed an idea based around current events: specifically the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Meyer went on to write the screenplay with his friend Denny Martin Flinn and also directed the movie.
The resulting film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, was released in December 1991 shortly after the death of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry at the age of 70. It had the biggest opening weekend of any Star Trek movie up until that time and went on to earn close to $100 million worldwide against a $27 million budget. It currently has an 83% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Star Trek VI does indeed closely mirror real-world events from the time of its release. It begins with an explosion on the Klingon moon of Praxis, which is the Klingon’s main source of power (Think Chernobyl). With their empire crippled by this event, the Klingons, under their Chancellor Gorkon (Think Gorbachev) open peace negotiations with the Federation via the Federation’s envoy, Captain Spock. Spock then volunteers Captain James T. Kirk and the USS Enterprise to escort Gorkon to a meeting on Earth. The trip does not exactly go as planned.
Along with the Cold War themes, the film tackles racism and resistance to a changing world, ideas that are just a relevant today as they were with the movie was released 25 years ago. Kirk has a very hard time accepting that Klingons, a species he has viewed as the enemy for his entire career, could be serious about wanting peace with the Federation. And he’s not alone. As Gorkon says to him, “If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”
The movie also acknowledges the ages of the characters and the fact that they are nearing the end of their Starfleet careers. As the film begins, the crew is due to stand down in three months. Later in the story Kirk and Spock have a wonderful discussion about whether or not they have outlived their usefulness.
Star Trek VI is an all-around good movie with an exciting story, relevant themes, and a fantastic soundtrack. The cast outside of the main crew, including Christopher Plummer, David Warner, and Kim Cattrall, is top notch.
More importantly, the movie serves the main characters well and works as a last hurrah for the entire crew as they literally sign off. William Shatner has become almost a joke over the years for his portrayal of Kirk, but he is particularly good in this film. Watch his facial expressions when the Klingons visit the Enterprise and during his fight with the large alien on Rura Penthe, particularly when he gets back into a corner. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, but he is always in the moment.
The film was the final time the entire original crew was on screen together, including the final time that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy shared the screen. In reality, though, it was actually the last appearance in the Star Trek universe only of DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard McCoy (Chronologically he shows up again in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that was filmed in 1987). Kelley died in 1999 at the age of 79.
Jimmy Doohan reprised his role as Montgomery Scott in an episode of TNG in 1992 and also in the next film, Star Trek: Generations, which was a handoff from the original cast to the TNG cast. He died in 2005 at the age of 85.
Walter Koenig also appeared as Pavel Chekov in Generations as did William Shatner, putting an end to his time on screen as James T. Kirk. George Takei would show up as Sulu in a 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager. And, while they are unofficial, Takei, Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) have all appeared as their characters in Star Trek fan films.
Leonard Nimoy appeared in two episodes of TNG around the release of Star Trek VI to help promote the film, but then he was absent from Star Trek for the next 18 years until his appearance in JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film. He also had a brief role in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, his final appearance as Spock before his death in 2015 at the age of 83.
- Alan Decker
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