Study Guide

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Analysis

  • The Cold War

    With a characteristic lack of subtlety, Star Trek VI uses the adventures of Enterprise to reflect some serious real-world issues. To be specific, the film employs the conflict between the Federation and Klingon Empire to comment on the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In particular, the film is interested in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its consequences.

    In Space, War Fights You

    The parallels are plentiful. For instance, the Federation and the Klingon Empire are depicted as having wildly different cultures and political systems—as did the U.S. and Soviet Union. The biggest similarity, however, is that the conflict between Klingons and humans is defined not by massive D-Day style battles, but instead by simmering tension and political intrigue.

    That's what made the Cold War "cold," after all. The Soviet Union and the United States never directly fought one another, but rather engaged in proxy conflicts and elaborate schemes of sabotage. Based on the evidence presented in The Undiscovered Country, we'd say that the same is true in the Star Trek universe. There's lots of intrigue, but there's not much actual combat.

    Chancellor Gorkon, Tear Down That Wall

    Further similarities can be found in the nature of the Klingon Empire's unfolding crisis. In the film, the Klingons are threatened by environmental pollution and military overspending. In reality, the Soviet Union was threatened by widespread poverty and political unrest. (Environmental pollution and military overspending couldn't possibly be problems in the U.S., right? Right?)

    This forces the sparring partners to make a choice. Should they go for the jugular and finish off their foe? Or should they extend an olive branch in the hopes of building a better future?

    Thankfully, the latter argument won out, both in real life and in the movie.

    Of course, this is a vast oversimplification. The Cold War was a complex conflict, one that can hardly be boiled down to the "good guys vs. bad guys." Even so, The Undiscovered Country suggests that true peace can only be achieved with unity, when each side can respect the other's right to life, liberty, and all that jazz.

  • The Undiscovered Country

    Only Star Trek would depict a fearsome alien race as a bunch of Shakespeare lovers. Seriously, these guys aren't just weekend warriors—they have juggalo-level devotion to the Bard.

    To Trek, or Not to Trek

    In fact, the title of the film—The Undiscovered Country—is straight out of Shakespeare. To be specific, it comes from Hamlet's famous to be, or not to be soliloquy. Buckle in:

    HAMLET
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
    The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
    The insolence of office, and the spurns
    That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country from whose bourn
    No traveler returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?

    To translate the Shakespeare jargon, Hamlet is saying that our fear of the "undiscovered country" of the afterlife prevents us from ending our own lives. Pretty heavy stuff.

    The film frames the phrase differently. Instead of using it to describe death, Gorkon uses it to refer to the future. While that may seem like a big disparity, both interpretations of the phrase connect unknowability with fear. Star Trek might be talking about the future, and Hamlet might be talking about death, but the gist is pretty much the same. For better or worse, we're afraid of the undiscovered country.

  • General Chang's Bird-of-Prey

    The defining feature of Klingon warships is their ability to become completely invisible. It's pretty sweet. There's just one downside: the ships must uncloak before firing weapons. Right?

    Yeah, well, not anymore. General Chang, the leader of the conspiracy to derail the peace efforts, heads a Klingon Bird-of-Prey that has a very special ability—it can cloak and fire weapons at the same time.

    In a massive conflict like the one between the Klingon Empire and Federation, half of the battle is inventing ways to kill people faster than the other side. That's terrible for everyone who's not a weapons manufacturer, but war is unfortunately a pretty great incentive for technological innovation. War—cold or hot—is great for the economy.

    Bummer.

    As it happens, though, the reason the Klingons are in such trouble right now is that they wasted all of their money on their military budget. Womp womp. Looks like there's a limit to the bucks that even wartime innovation can bring in. Looked at in a certain way, Chang's state-of-the-art ship represents the militant decadence of the Klingon Empire—especially considering how it gets blown to bits in its second battle.

    That's some pretty poor ROI.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    For Star Trek, the "ordinary world" is a decade-spanning conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire in outer space centuries from now. These two sides hate each other's guts. While on their way back to Earth, the Federation ship Excelsior witnesses a strange explosion on a Klingon moon, signaling possible changes to the status quo.

    Call To Adventure

    It turns out that the Klingon Empire is collapsing. Spock, first mate of Enterprise, has been engaging secretly in peace talks with the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon and has set up a big meeting on Earth. He wants Captain Kirk—who hates Klingons with a fiery passion—to be the lead envoy.

    Refusal Of The Call

    As you can imagine, Kirk doesn't want the gig. In fact, he can't believe that his so-called friend would volunteer him without consulting him first. And that's not even mentioning the fact that this will be Kirk's final mission aboard Enterprise. Unfortunately, however, an order is an order. Spock and Kirk join the crew of Enterprise and leave to rendezvous with the Klingons.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Kirk sets up a dinner meeting with the Klingon ambassadors, which goes terribly. General Chang, one of the emissaries, is openly hostile to Kirk. Kirk gains some measured respect for Chancellor Gorkon, however, who seems empathetic and sincerely devoted to fostering peace.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Then something shocking happens—Enterprise seems to launch photon torpedoes at Gorkon's ship, disabling it. In the aftermath, Gorkon and several other Klingons are assassinated by masked figures. Although Kirk and McCoy try to save Gorkon's life, Chang blames them for the incident and takes them into custody.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    After a quick, clearly fraudulent trial, Kirk and McCoy are sentenced to life in a labor camp. There, they meet a beautiful alien who promises to help them escape. She also makes out with Kirk because of course. Meanwhile, Spock takes control of Enterprise and begins a search for the assassins, convinced that they are aboard the ship.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Kirk and McCoy learn that the alien babe is a shapeshifter, which is both cool and creepy. They escape the prison and trudge across the planet's freezing surface to get outside the prison's shield, which blocks transporter function. Aboard Enterprise, Spock gets closer to learning the assassin's identity, determining that Enterprise did not shoot the torpedoes that hit Gorkon's ship. But if it wasn't them, then who was it?

    Ordeal

    In a (not-so-)shocking reveal, the shapeshifter reveals herself to be hired by the Klingons to get Kirk and McCoy into a compromising situation so that they can kill them and cover it up. At this last second, McCoy and Kirk are transported aboard Enterprise, which has been tracking them and has finally come within range. Spock catches the crew up on his investigation, explaining that the photon torpedoes must have come from a cloaked Klingon warship.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Finally, our heroes discover the identity of the assassin: it's Lieutenant Valeris, mentee of Spock—and his choice as his successor on Enterprise. Valeris is collaborating with General Chang and several members of Starfleet. And they're not done yet: they're going to assassinate the Federation President during a peace meeting later this day. The crewmembers contact their former comrade Captain Sulu to find the location of the meeting, and they rush over.

    The Road Back

    Enterprise battles Chang's powerful warship. It's impossible to land a hit on the darn thing. Luckily, Captain Sulu arrives in Excelsior halfway through the battle, giving Enterprise the window it needs track the location of the ship. Once they find it, Chang is blown to smithereens.

    Resurrection

    After defeating Chang, the crew rushes down to the planet's surface to stop the impending assassination. Afterward, Kirk shares a bonding moment with Chancellor Azetbur, the daughter of Gorkon and the new leader of the Klingons. It seems that peace will actually become a reality.

    Return With The Elixir

    The crewmembers return to Enterprise and are told by Starfleet to return to dock. Knowing that this will be their last time aboard the ship, however, Kirk decides to take it for one last interstellar joyride before handing it over to the next generation of leadership.

  • Setting

    Enterprise and the Klingon Empire

    It's the same Enterprise we know and love, but it just feels...different. Darker. More claustrophobic. More tense. It's giving us shivers just thinking about it. And that's not even bringing up the sheer strangeness of hanging out in the Klingon Empire.

    Shabby Chic

    Director Nicholas Meyer made a series of choices that make Enterprise feel different from the way it felt in previous entries. Most notably, he reduced the amount of lighting aboard the ship and tightened the hallways. This is a way of both amplifying the film's dramatic intensity and giving it a more martial feel.

    It also gives us a new view of the ship we know and love—even if it's not entirely pretty. While most entries in the Star Trek series depict the future as a utopia, The Undiscovered Country reveals that all of the prejudice and violence that plague us today are alive and well in the future. A big part of that driving that point home is making Enterprise feel less pristine than it has in the past.

    The Upside Down

    A similar effect occurs with the film's depiction of Klingon warships, which have a completely different feel from Federation ships. These monstrosities are even more darkly lit than Enterprise, and certain shots have a rolling fog in the background. It's like an Edgar Allan Poe story up in here. Aside from further emphasizing the film's martial tone, this strangeness also highlights the alien nature of the Klingon race.

    The same could be said about our brief visits to Klingon society. For example, the courtroom where Kirk and McCoy stand trial is a huge, echoey hall, complete with cloak-clad judges. It's half Game of Thrones and half Battlestar Galactica. It's yet another way the film emphasizes the sheer strangeness of Klingons, with their culture that is built on feudal and even borderline medieval values.

  • Point of View

    Slow-Cooked Storytelling

    The Undiscovered Country is all about the slow buildup of tension.

    The opening of the movie makes the overall narrative fairly clear: the crew of Enterprise must make peace with their former foes. Kirk is resistant due to his personal biases, which will eventually be overcome, and so on and so forth.

    It doesn't take long for things to get complicated. The narrative splits after Gorkon's assassination, with Kirk and McCoy being locked in prison and Spock investigating the murder as if his name were Sherlock. Both of these storylines develop independently, while still giving insight into the other, before rejoining upon Kirk and McCoy's escape.

    The result is a deliberately paced movie, with plot points unfolding slowly and with ample foreshadowing. In fact, the one critique that might be levied in this regard is that some of the movie's big twists—like Valeris' involvement in the conspiracy—are clearly telegraphed before being revealed. Regardless, this disciplined narrative approach is warmly welcomed after the scattershot story that was The Final Frontier.

  • Genre

    Science-Fiction; Political Thriller; Parable

    Pro-tip: if it's Star Trek, it's science fiction. Unlike Star Wars, which takes a fantastical approach to its interstellar setting, Star Trek tries to remain grounded in real science.

    Of course, we do meet God back in Star Trek V, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Either way, Star Trek's foundational scientific concepts are usually somewhat plausible, albeit a bit far-fetched, making Star Trek VI a classic example of hard science fiction.

    The Undiscovered Country is unique among the Trek film series due to its almost exclusive focus on political issues. Seriously, if you removed the sci-fi trappings and set the story on planet Earth, it would be some cool espionage thriller starring Ben Affleck or Kiefer Sutherland. We'd watch that.

    There's an obvious reason for all of this: the film is a pretty direct parallel to the peace process going on between the Soviet Union and United States. Many Star Trek stories can be described as parables—stories that indirectly convey a moral lesson or analogize a real situation—but The Undiscovered Country is especially literal in that regard.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Oh, wow—a movie with a Shakespeare quote for a title. What a novel concept.

    Recognize the quote in question? No? We'll give you a hint: it's from Hamlet.

    Check it out:

    HAMLET
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
    The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
    The insolence of office, and the spurns
    That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country from whose bourn
    No traveler returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?

    This is a passage from Hamlet's famous "to be, or not to be" soliloquy, which centers on the concept of death. Heavy. In this passage, Hamlet uses the phrase "the undiscovered country" to refer to the afterlife, our lack of knowledge about it, and our fear of it.

    The movie twists this meaning, using the idea of the undiscovered country instead to illustrate the unknowability of the future, especially in times of historical significance like the one depicted in the film. However, both usages of the phrase have a one thing in common: that they illustrate our terror in the face of the unknown.

    Plus, Shakespeare quotes are just inherently epic. We don't know if you've ever heard of him, but that guy was good.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    After showing the Shakespeare-quoting General Chang who's boss, the crew of Enterprise rushes down to Camp Khitomer to stop the assassination attempt on the Federation President. They accomplish their task quite easily, as it turns out.

    What can we say? These folks are pros.

    Afterward, Kirk gives a speech, because of course he does. Here's the gist:

    KIRK: Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven't run out of history just yet.

    The truly important part comes afterward, though:

    AZETBUR: You've restored my father's faith.

    KIRK: And you've restored my son's.

    This is a biggie on two levels. On the obvious level, this exchange significant because it means that the tenuous peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire will have a shot to grow. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

    On a more personal level, however, it shows that Kirk is letting go of his hatred of the Klingons. He and Azetbur are not bonding with each other in spite of the death of their loved ones at the other side's hands—they're bonding because of it. Despite the tenacity with which they once fought against one another, they now see each other as individuals deserving of respect.

    The other big aspect of the ending is that this is the original crew's final mission aboard Enterprise. We've seem Kirk and Spock worry about aging throughout the film, and here they're forced to reckon with the fact that their time on Enterprise is up. After everything they've been through, however, the two men are finally ready to pass on the baton to the next generation of leadership.

    No, really, we mean it when we say the Next Generation

    Sorry.

    That is, these guys will pass on the baton after they take one last interstellar joyride in Enterprise. Hey, they might be a day away from retirement, but that doesn't mean they have to act like it. Kirk's gonna Kirk.

  • Shock Rating

    PG

    This is some good, clean Star Trek fun. The only bit of gore is some blood during Gorkon's assassination scene, but the CGI is so delightfully cheesy that we can't help but giggle.