Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it's probably not hard to guess that I'd like to nominate that film as a strong candidate for that title: it's a taut political thriller with some of best acting across-the-board in the Star Trek film series and an impressive sense of finality, and it is so much better than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, from just two years earlier, it makes your head spin.
A lot of that can be laid squarely at the feet of director Nicholas Meyer (also a co-writer, though The Undiscovered Country having a fairly cramped population of writers and scenarists, that fact is maybe not as impressive), whose last turn directing one of the films was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, nine years earlier, then as now the consensus pick for the best film of them all. Even as I agree with that consensus, I'm still compelled to suggest that maybe, The Undiscovered Country is the better-directed of the two movies; maybe even the best-directed of all the Star Trek pictures, excusing perhaps Robert Wise's imposing but script-strangled work with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The race for "best-directed Star Trek movie" is surely not a very competitive one, but even so, there's a particular intelligence behind much of the imagery that does not resemble in the least the television-mired aesthetic that Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner had relied on in their own directorial efforts since Meyer's previous turn. There's more of a sense of adventure (the POV shot of the Enterprise-A leaving spacedock early in the film is one of the most rousing spaceflight images in the entire franchise), a better visual expression of character (a tracking shot moving by each member of the bridge crew, pausing, and then moving on, reframing itself around Nimoy, is the most incredibly effective way to quickly summarise all of their reactions to a piece of dreadful news), far more tension than anything since the submarine-influenced space battle at the end of The Wrath of Khan. Meyer manages tone with absolute precision, keeping the heat turned up throughout the film's mystery-thriller plot and speeding things up to a fever pitch in the moments of excitement; he guides most of the cast to some of the best performances they ever gave as these characters, big screen or little, and draws out - apologies to Ricardo Montalban, whose Khan is a classic - the best villainous performance in the Star Trek movies from Trek newbie Christopher Plummer. Though, to be fair, if you can't get a perfectly-augmented hammy villain performance out of Christopher Plummer, you have no right to go around pretending to be a film director in the first place.
By and large, The Undiscovered Country is a metaphor for the slow collapse of the Soviet Union in the back half of the '80s; a process that would finally end on 25 December, 1991, less than three weeks into the movie's theatrical run. If all science fiction tends to comment on the society that produced it, and Star Trek more overtly and self-consciously than most sci-fi, even so is this film a pretty obvious bit of political commentary; it is glasnost-era Trek, right down to the stand-in for Mikhail Gorbachev being given the not-very subtle name of Gorkon (David Warner, getting a much better role than the miserable little slip of a thing he was saddled with in The Final Frontier).
The plot concerns the imminent disintegration of the Klingon Empire, following the disastrous explosion of their primary energy-supplying moon, which will doom their culture to extinction within 50 Earth years. The Klingons' longstanding enemy, the United Federation of Planets, is eager to use this opportunity to broker a peace, and sends to meet with the Klingon leader their best and brightest team, Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner) and the U.S.S. Enterprise, as the final mission in an illustrious career. Kirk, a rampant hater of Klingons, doesn't much cotton to the idea, and that's why it ends up being fairly easy to frame him for Gorkon's assassination the night after a failed diplomatic dinner. Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) manage to get themselves imprisoned on the Klingon penal asteroid Rura Penthe, while Spock (Nimoy) and the rest of the series regulars throw themselves into finding out exactly what happened, racing a clock before whatever conspiracy killed the chancellor to attempt another assassination at the relocated peace accords.
It's exciting as hell, with a well-handled central mystery (Meyer was a Sherlock Holmes fan and writer of three latter-day Holmes novels, and squirrels away several references to the master sleuth in the film), and a prison exile that's sufficiently filled up with all the best trappings of popcorn sci-fi (good monster design and the like) to be entertaining despite being a bit static, and it's all enough to disguise, pretty well, the degree to which it just ain't Star Trek; of all the movies, perhaps the one that misses the franchise's heart and soul the most (until the 2009 reboot, at least). There's a pronounced emphasis on military culture within Starfleet like absolutely nothing else anywhere in the franchise in all its incarnations, and it is, as a disappointed Nimoy described it in his autobiography, "The Manchurian Candidate in space". Plainly, there are worse movies to be than The Manchurian Candidate, but Nimoy's dismay, like Gene Roddenberry's (the Star Trek creator lived to see the film completed, but not released, and it was dedicated to his memory), surely isn't that far off base. By the time The Undiscovered Country came out, Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on TV four years, reminding everybody of the pacifist, humanist ideals that Roddeneberry had in mind when creating the original Star Trek in the '60s,and the film serves the narrative purpose of filling in the hole between two generations: explaining why the future of Jean-Luc Picard and friends is so much more pleasant and tame than the wild west explored by Kirk and his crew. Then too, The Next Generation had spent a lot of energy exploring the nature of Klingon society, and pretty much everybody involved in writing The Undiscovered Country had the hope that it would be a grand-scale continuation of that idea.
It failed to be that, utterly; and while its plot hinges on the idea of building peace and ending the old way of things (it's a very nice farewell to the original Star Trek cast, no doubt about it), it doesn't feel like it's transitioning to the philosophy of the newer TV show at all, simply taking about peace and retirement in a largely abstract way, while actually devoting itself to blowing up space ships and hunting for assassins.
Like I said: not very great Star Trek, but it's such an impeccably made popcorn movie that it's just not worth it to pretend that it matters. Anyway, The Final Frontier was all kinds of Star Trek in all kinds of ways, and that was a wretched disaster; if the course correction meant that the new film had to repudiate the franchise a little bit, then so be it. It's a real grab bag, and everything in it works: the central mystery about who onboard the Enterprise is part of the conspiracy is handled with excellent tension, and Nimoy gives one of the best individual performances of Spock ever, finding a hard edge and growing frustration that he anchors within the character's natural emotional reserve, making the moments of outburst that much more effective (at one point, he slaps a phaser out of someone's hand, and it's such a mean and angry moment as to be entirely out of character; yet the actor has done such a good job of building up to that moment that it feels instead the climax of a 25-year-long performance). The space action, though limited, is of an exceedingly high quality; the moment in which the enemy ship is destroyed is an extremely well-mounted explosion with some of the best visual effects in the series run. And of course, Plummer's performance of the villain - which occupies much less screentime than I always remember it doing - adds a flourish of theatrical menace that perfectly ramps up the stakes and the grandeur of the conflict, making the space battle in which he tauntingly delivers Shakespearean quotes a highlight of the 12-film Star Trek series purely by virtue of his enormous, threatening personality.
To be honest, what I like about The Undiscovered Country, I like more than any other film in the series, more than The Wrath of Khan, even. The difference is that there are more flaws here: the random subplot with Captain Sulu (George Takei) of the U.S.S. Excelsior, present entirely to give the character something new to do and not because it adds any kind of value to the material; Meyer's indifferent handling of the Kirk and McCoy on Rura Penthe plotline, with Shatner's performance wandering all over the map, and the film's momentum abruptly shifting every time it returns to the asteroid; or Cliff Eidelman's score, consisting of one absolutely grand primary theme and a great many generic, bland action move cues. And compared to a lot of the films, it's probably a bit more insular: every one of the movies improves somewhat if you know the characters going in, but The Undiscovered Country leans rather heavily on our having an emotional attachment to the material to get any kind of resonance from the autumnal themes of time passing. I cannot imagine how anybody who wasn't already a fan of the material could possible find this to be anything but the most shallow nonsense imaginable.
But, for one who does have that attachment, it's a thoroughly engaging farewell to the first generation of the franchise, with an absolutely lovely final scene and opportunity for every character to hog the spotlight for at least a moment. It might not be an entirely intelligent and deep finale for the original Enterprise crew, but it is an enthralling, fast-paced one, and given the strengths of the Star Trek movies compared to the TV shows, that's probably just as well.
Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)