I’ve been hearing about the “even-odd” rule for Star Trek films for years. There’s a rule of thumb that the odd-numbered movies in the Star Trek series are poor, or at least sub-par, while the even-numbered movies are great films. I’ve also heard quite a lot of wrangling on how to fit this theory in with the films from Generations onward, which are not numbered and reputedly don’t follow quite the same pattern.
Having now seen all six of the original-series-based Star Trek films, I think I can safely say that the rule holds for those six, but isn’t precisely an even-odd rule. It’s a “Nicholas Meyer” rule. Meyer had no part in the odd-numbered films, but he was a writer on all three of the even-numbered films (though uncredited on The Wrath of Khan). He was also the director on The Wrath of Khan, the film usually held as the high-water mark. For The Undiscovered Country, he was back in the director’s chair, and once again it’s a high-quality film.
As with the Enterprise crew, sometimes it’s best to let an old hand take care of things.
Picking up plot threads from some of the intervening films, The Undiscovered Country bears a lot of similarities to The Wrath of Khan in theme. Revenge and obsession both figure prominently in its story. Kirk (William Shatner) has been at war with the Klingon Empire for essentially his whole life, and he blames them for the death of his son. But not even war lasts forever, and when the Klingons begin making overtures for peace, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) volunteers the crew of the Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth for peace talks against Kirk’s wishes. Kirk is forced to face his prejudices and the consequences for them head-on when he and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are framed for an assassination attempt on the Chancellor.
The plot allows Star Trek to play to its strengths, with both action and intellectual exercises. There’s an element of mystery in the story, and Spock even references Sherlock Holmes in his investigation. Meanwhile Shatner is at his slightly-hammy best as he fights for his freedom and his life. As usual, the old experienced crew of the Enterprise is contrasted with a new crew member fresh from the strictly-procedural Federation Academy; also as usual, it’s a young Vulcan, this time played by Kim Cattrall, and the contrast again serves to show both how the Enterprise‘s maverick ways work for it and also just what separates Spock from a typical Vulcan. Of course a plot like this also demands a villain, and Christopher Plummer provides a delightfully scenery-chewing example, liberally quoting Shakespeare and cheerfully pushing the galaxy to unending war. And Next Generation fans will get a kick out of seeing Michael Dorn’s Worf acting as Kirk’s defense attorney in his trial.
The special effects also hold up well, except for the fake blood in some scenes (which is always a bit tricky). But the makeup effects on different aliens are terrific, and the optical effects in space battles are as good as any in the series.
It all adds up to a story that is both thoughtful and a lot of fun. And no doubt as the film as released in 1991, the Cold War parallels were deliberate; it really is a proper conclusion to the original series in that respect.