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.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
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.
Captain Kirk Out
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.