The Undiscovered Country marks Captain James T. Kirk's sixth appearance on the silver screen—this dude's been around the block. In fact, that's the central conflict for him in Star Trek VI: this guy is aging. He's no longer the hot young captain making out with blue alien babes that we've grown so accustomed to. In fact, he's on the eve of retirement.
Oh, yeah, and he's also kind of disturbed by the little fact that the Federation is about to make peace with his most hated foe, the Klingons, who killed his son back in The Search for Spock. What's a Kirk got to do to get some respect around here?
There are two big reasons why Kirk hates Klingons. First, he hates them simply because he's been fighting them his whole life. He doesn't know how to do anything else, and he doesn't know how to see them as anything but enemies.
Second—and more importantly—the Klingons killed his son in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. As Kirk himself says, he "could never forgive them for the death of [his] boy."
Needless to say, dude is flabbergasted that the Federation would even think of making peace with the Klingons, their archenemies from before Kirk was even born:
KIRK: The Klingons have never been trustworthy. I'm forced to agree with Admiral Cartwright. This is a terrifying idea.
Even worse, this peace deal is being brokered by Spock, who volunteers Kirk to be the Federation's chief envoy. Well, that's just rude. Now, Spock believes, perhaps rightly, that Kirk's perceived toughness on the Klingons will make him an effective negotiator, but he's totally neglecting to consider his friend's emotions. Typical Vulcan.
As you can imagine, the peace talks start off…poorly. The Klingon dinner party on Enterprise is more awkward than a first date, and it's clear that both sides harbor great distrust toward the other. The one bright spot is Gorkon. Kirk might not be ready to forgive and forget, but he develops a begrudging respect for Gorkon in their short time together.
Then Gorkon is assassinated.
And Kirk is blamed for it and thrown in prison.
Quite the turn of events, right? Instead of fueling his resentment toward Klingons, however, these events somehow lead him to understand his erstwhile foes better. Check out this conversation between Kirk and McCoy while they're locked up in prison, for instance:
KIRK: Some people are afraid of what might happen. I was terrified.
McCOY: What terrified you, specifically?
KIRK: No more Neutral Zone. I was used to hating Klingons. It never even occurred to me to take Gorkon at his word.
It's hard to understand exactly why this experience changed Kirk's mind. Is it because Gorkon proved himself to be sincerely devoted to peace, even in the face of death? Is it because Klingons like Colonel Worf defended him in court? Or is it something else entirely? We might not know the reasons behind it, but a big change has occurred.
Now, this doesn't mean that Kirk is going to suddenly become a Klingonophile, but it does mean that he's acknowledging his own prejudice. That's a great first step. But Kirk does even more than that—he eventually becomes a full-throated advocate for the peace process.
After he makes out with a shapeshifting alien and escapes the prison, of course.
Kirk goes on to defeat the troublemaking General Chang in a giant space battle. To be honest, however, that's the least exciting part of Kirk's personal journey in The Undiscovered Country. Emotional growth > space battles.
Star Trek. <3
That emotional growth is what makes the ending so special. After saving the day, Starfleet orders Enterprise to return to dock, but Kirk defies their orders for one last interstellar joy-ride. During this final trip, he gives one of his patented audio logs. Take a look:
KIRK: This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man, where no one, has gone before.
What we see here is Kirk finally coming to terms with the reality of aging. He's no longer afraid now—he's actually happy to pass on the reins to the next generation of Starfleet leadership, even if that means he'll be taking a backseat. But hey—if anyone deserves a cushy retirement, it's the most dapper captain in all of the galaxy.
Although Spock is known for his good judgement, this trait is conspicuously absent in The Undiscovered Country. From his misguided trust of Lieutenant Valeris to his hastiness in furthering the peace process, poor Spock just can't get things right this time around.
That's not to say that it's all bad, however. Besides Gorkon, Spock is the main driving force behind the peace negotiations, having secretly met with the Klingons to hash out peace terms. He deserves all the props in the world for this.
The problem comes when he decides to make Kirk the Federation's representative without asking Kirk first—even though he knows that his friend hates Klingons with a fiery passion. But this is all part of the plan, says Spock. Take a look:
KIRK: We volunteered?
SPOCK: There's an old Vulcan proverb. "Only Nixon could go to China."
KIRK: How could you vouch for me? That's an arrogant presumption.
SPOCK: My father requested that I open negot—
KIRK: I know your father's the Vulcan Ambassador, for heaven's sake, but you know how I feel about this. They're animals.
SPOCK: Jim, there is an historic opportunity here.
Paradoxically, Spock thinks that Kirk will be a good negotiator because Kirk hates Klingons. That's why he compares him to Nixon. Nixon was the first American president to visit and establish relations with the People's Republic of China. Many people think he succeeded in his negotiations largely because he was seen as "tough" on the country. While there might be some wisdom behind this strategy (and who can argue with the results?), it leads to quite the complicated situation.
In contrast, Spock's mentorship of Lieutenant Valeris is a caveat-free fail. These two go way back: Spock was her sponsor in Starfleet Academy. Even more significant, however, is his decision to make Valeris his successor on Enterprise, as this will be his final mission aboard the ship. He must respect her a lot to entrust her with that responsibility.
So you can imagine how shocked he is when Valeris is revealed to be part of the conspiracy to thwart his peace negotiations. That would be like Obi Wan finding out the Luke was a Sith the whole time. Spock is thrown for a total loop:
SPOCK: I was prejudiced by her accomplishments as a Vulcan.
KIRK: Gorkon had to die before I understood how prejudiced I was.
SPOCK: Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness? Would that constitute a joke?
Although he might not be dealing with the issues as directly as Kirk is, Spock is going through a similar struggle now that his time with Enterprise is winding down. Being betrayed by the woman he chose to carry his legacy is like pouring salt into the wound.
The movie ends without definitely charting the course that Spock's life will take in his retirement years, but we're confident that he'll use them well. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to see him chilling on some interstellar beach, mind-melding with all the eligible alien bachelorettes. Not that we've written a fan-fic to that effect or anything.
In many ways, with General Chang, the creators of Star Trek VI have attempted to recreate the magic of The Wrath of Khan. Constantly chewing scenery and even quoting Shakespeare, this outsized villain might not live up to the great Ricardo Montalbán, but he does get pretty darn close.
Chang is almost entirely defined by his military background. Interestingly, he frequently tries to connect with Kirk based on this shared background—even though it often comes across as if he were insulting the guy. Here's one telling example:
CHANG: I have so wanted to meet you, Captain.
KIRK: I'm not sure how to take that.
KERLA: Sincere admiration, Kirk.
CHANG: From one warrior to another.
We detect some shade. Kirk has killed many Klingons in his day, so it's doubtful that Chang has much respect for him outside of his strategic know-how. But respect is respect, and it makes the relationship between these men extra complicated.
A similar exchange happens over dinner, after Spock suggests that Starfleet's mission is a peaceful one:
KIRK: Far be it for me to dispute my first officer, but Starfleet has always been–
CHANG: Captain, there's no need to mince words. In space, all warriors are cold warriors.
In both of these instances, Chang emphasizes his status as a warrior—as well as Kirk's. More than that, however, he makes it clear that he's opposed to peace. It seems as if he expects Kirk also to be opposed to peace. What do warriors do in peacetime, after all?
In fact, Kirk is in a similar boat for most of the movie. At first, he's too prejudiced against Klingons to even consider giving peace a chance. But here's the big difference: Kirk changes his mind. Instead of perpetuating an endless cycle of bloodshed, Kirk steps aside and lets a new generation of leaders take the reins.
Chang, on the other hand, is revealed to be the chief instigator behind the conspiracy to stop the peace deal, which began with the assassination of Chancellor Gorkon. What a shady dude, right? Like many a leader throughout history, General Chang is driven entirely by a need to win, even at the expense of the people he's promised to serve.
Thankfully, Chang and his fellow conspirators are taken down by time the end credits roll. Or—in the words of Chang's favorite Englishman—these baddies have simply "shuffled off their mortal coil."
That's a Shakespeare burn, y'all.
Chancellor Gorkon is almost single-handedly responsible for fostering peace between the Klingon Empire and Federation. Sure, he had some help along the way, but nobody made as big of a contribution as he did.
He was the first to fight to make "the undiscovered country" of the future a peaceful one, for instance. Besides Spock, everyone else thinks he's nuts—Kirk included. Being a sharp fellow, Gorkon sees this resistance and understands the reasons behind it:
GORKON: You don't trust me, do you? I don't blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.
Like Kirk, Gorkon comes from a bygone era, one in which Klingons and humans were mortal foes. Now, however, Gorkon realizes that the best thing for his people is peace, and he's willing to fight for that no matter how much it hurts his pride.
Of course, Gorkon ends up losing a lot more than his pride due to his efforts—he loses his life. Nevertheless, although his assassination is tragic, we think Gorkon would see it as a worthy sacrifice, since it inspires both Kirk and Azetbur to finish the work he started.
The daughter of the assassinated Chancellor Gorkon, Azetbur takes control of the Klingon Empire during one of the most perilous periods in its history. No pressure or anything.
Of course, she's also dealing with grief over her father's assassination. This actually turns out to be a positive thing, however, because it drives her to finish the work he started and build peace with the Federation. True, she doesn't approach it with the same ideological zeal as her father did. But that almost makes her actions seem even more honorable. She's wisely come to see that "war is obsolete," and she acts accordingly.
This bet pays off when Kirk saves the day, stopping Chang's plot to derail the peace talks. In the aftermath, Kirk and Azetbur share a surprisingly personal moment:
AZETBUR: You've restored my father's faith.
KIRK: And you've restored my son's.
That's some powerful stuff. Not only has Azetbur helped realize her father's dream, but she's also bonding on a personal level with one of the most intense Klingon-haters in the galaxy. Now that's what you call leadership.
Over the course of The Undiscovered Country, Lieutenant Valeris goes from being Spock's right-hand-lady to a political terrorist. It's not such a good look.
Not only did Spock sponsor Valeris, a fellow Vulcan, when she was in Starfleet Academy, but he's also training her to be his replacement on Enterprise. That's huge. It's like a young rapper getting a co-sign from Jay Z.
So why does she betray him? Well, according to Valeris, it's not a betrayal at all:
VALERIS: Klingons cannot be trusted. Sir, you said so yourself. They killed your son. Did you not wish Gorkon dead? [...] And you were right. They conspired with us to assassinate their own Chancellor. How trustworthy can they be?
Valeris is a walking example of how fear can prevent us from making the "undiscovered country" of the future a better place for everyone. Influenced by the prejudices of Kirk and his generation, Valeris sincerely believes that she's doing the right thing by fighting against peace.
Spoiler: she's not.
Leonard "Bones" McCoy plays a less prominent role here than he did in previous Star Trek films, but he still proves to be an indispensable member of Enterprise's crew.
McCoy's big moment in The Undiscovered Country is his attempt to save Gorkon's life. Despite not knowing jack about Klingon anatomy, McCoy mounts a desperate effort to save the Chancellor's life. Even though he ultimately fails, we'd argue that his actions go a long way toward showing Azetbur that Kirk and McCoy are good men.
Of course, McCoy is still thrown into a Klingon "gulag" with Kirk. (And unlike Kirk, he doesn't even get to make out with a shapeshifter. Lame.) Regardless, McCoy's unerring commitment to the Hippocratic Oath is refreshing in a movie filled with prejudice and distrust.