After an explosion cripples the energy needs of the Klingon Empire, peace talks begin with the Federation. The Enterprise responds as the first olive branch to escort the Klingons to a peace conference.
Inexplicably, the Enterprise fires on the Klingons, Kirk and his crew must uncover a conspiracy in order to save the peace process and prevent all out war.
In 1991, Star Trek would celebrate its 25th Anniversary and the promotional opportunity of a new movie proved too good to pass up, despite the fact that some of the cast were now into their seventies. However, after the weak box office of Star Trek V, Star Trek VI was given a relatively small 25 million dollar budget and a tight shooting schedule.
Star Trek VI is notable as one of the first movies to deal (allegorically at least) with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As such, the movie is important, for it deals not only with the ending of an important peice of popular culture, but aims for historical significance as well. In one early exchange, Kirk is upset that he is to be the first olive-branch to peace as he is so close to retirement. Spock retorts with the line “Only Nixon could go to china…” meaning that as Kirk is infamous in the Klingon Empire, no-one could accuse him of being sympathetic to the Klingon cause or doubt the sincerity of the Federation towards peace.
Furthermore, General Chang’s line, “Don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!” is a reference to Adlai Stevenson’s similar demand of Soviet Union representative Valerian Zorin at the United Nations in 1962 whilst debating over the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Further depth is added to the film by having the Klingon General Chang declaring that ‘You have not read Shakespeare unitl you have read it in the original Klingon’. According to director Nicolas Meyer, this was a reference to Nazi Germany’s attempts to claim the bard as their own. The use of Shakespeare underscores the political nature of the plot.
When General Chang states that ‘no peace in our time…once more unto the breach, dear friends’, the character is mocking British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who in a speech regarding the Munich Agreement said that “I have returned from Germany with peace in our time.” Ironically of course, less than a year later, Germany declared War on the Allies.
One of the major themes of the film is change, and how people react to it. By the end of the film Kirk has realised how predjudiced he was against the Klingons and was initially reluctant to attend the peace talks. Even Spock, who saw the logic in peace asks of Kirk “is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have out-lived our usefulness. Would that constitute….a joke?”. An especially nice line of dialog as it could equally well refer to the ending of the original Star Trek movies and be construed as Nimoy asking the question of Shatner.
Industrial Light and Magic were back on board to produce the special effects, and some of the sequences were amazing. The shockwave effect produced by the explosion of Praxis would be used in the Star Wars Special Editions, Independence Day, Stargate and any number of other big 90’s films.
Other notable visual effects included digital morphing effects for a shapeshifting character. This was a refined version of the effect seen in Terminator 2, but the camera moves during the effect and the character continues to deliver dialog.The other outstanding sequence with the CG Klingon blood was on paper prohibitavely expensive, but low tech solutions such as suspending actors on wires and building sets that were rotated 90 degrees allowed the sequence to be conceived without extensive blue screen photography. The wires were removed digitally where needed and the scene was lit with harsh lighting so that the wires were obscured.
Cliff Eidelman provides the film with an excellent muscial score, that accompanies the on-screen action to great effect. The music reflects the darker, more serious tone of the film well, with a somber and ominous opening. In the more sentimental sequences, where the crew are basically saying goodbye, Eidelman’s sparing use of the Alexander Courage Star Trek fanfare is perfectly used. I lament that Cliff Eidelman does not get enough credit for the musical score that he provided for Star Trek VI.
Star Trek VI is also the first of the Star Trek movies to really utilise digital surround sound effects. For sure, it’s the only original series movie that will test your home cinema system.
Eagle-eyed Trekkies will spot cost-savings in the film as many of The Next Generation sets were redressed for the movie, notably the Ten Forward set. As usual with a Star Trek movie, there are some inconsistencies, the most glaring of which is the removal of touch screen interfaces (seen in Star Trek V) at the helm and navigation position. When Kirk orders Chekov to fire a photon torpedo, the camera zooms in on Chekov’s hand, which clearly presses a button marked ‘mode select’.
The actors who began playing their roles in the Kennedy/Vietnam years went out holding a mirror up to the then new era of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Clinton. Speaking of the actors, the original cast members all get a chance to shine and put in great performances. The supporting cast of David Warner, Christopher Plummer and Kim Cattrall also make their mark.
I love how well this movie ties into multiple plot strands on The Next Generation, from Unification Part 1 and 2 to Yesterdays Enterprise and more episodes besides. Star Trek had developed into a modern myth that was neatly bound together in Homeric fashion. How much of this was by accident or by design I am not sure.
The film is replete with allusions to death, endings, and time’s passage. For instance, Chang quotes from Henry IV when he leaves the Enterprise: “Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?” This lends a melancholic feel to the denonument of the movie and a sense of regret that we won’t see the original cast together again. The stirring music accompanied by the cast literally signing off is quite emotional.
For me, Star Trek VI is the best of the Original Series movies, a culmination of all the movies that came before it. It combines the epic scale and ideas driven plot of The Motion Picture with the action and excitement of The Wrath of Khan, the emotional heart of The Search For Spock, the humour of The Voyage Home and the sense of family that was explored in The Final Frontier. Its the perfect swansong for the Original Series and elegantly passes the baton on to The Next Generation.
Addendum: The studio’s desire to make this the last original series movie was, in my opinion a terrible marketing move. Star Trek VI would be the 15th highest grossing film of 1991 and have the best opening weekend of any movie up to that date. Star Trek VI had a worldwide take of around a hundred million dollars from a twenty five million dollar budget. This profit excludes VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray sales.