The starship Excelsior, captained by Hiraku Sulu (George Takei), is struck by a shockwave as the Klingon moon Praxis is destroyed along with the protective ozone layer of the Klingon home world Qo’noS (Kronos). The Klingons make peace proposals to the Federation of Planets. Starfleet sends the Enterprise-A to meet with the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), the old cold warrior, whose son was murdered by Klingons, is resentful.
The Enterprise and Gorkon’s battlecruiser rendezvous and head for Earth, the two command crews sharing a tense dinner. Afterward, it appears that the Enterprise fires torpedoes at the Klingon ship. Two figures in Starfleet uniforms board the stricken ship and fatally wound Gorkon. Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is unable to save him. General Chang (Christopher Plummer) arrests and tries Kirk and McCoy as assassins. They are found guilty, of course, and sentenced to life on the frozen prison-planet Rura Penthe. Gorkon’s daughter becomes the new Chancellor and the talks continue. Starfleet will not listen to those who want to rescue Kirk and McCoy.
In prison, they are befriended by a shapeshifter prisoner named Martia (Iman) who offers to help them escape, though she actually intends to maroon them on the surface, where they will die in short order. She shape-shifts into Kirk to fight him but is killed by prison guards as Kirk and McCoy are beamed to the Enterprise by Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Spock has determined that the Enterprise did not fire the torpedoes and that the assassins are still on board. They are found dead, but the crew trick the killer into believing they are alive in sick bay.
When their accomplice tries to kill them, she is discovered to be Valeris (Kim Cattrall), Spock’s protégé. In a disturbing scene, Spock forces her to mind-meld (Can you say mind-rape?) and learns that a group of Federation, Klingon, and Romulan officers planned it all to scuttle Galactic Peace. It seems that Chang’s prototype Bird-of-Prey can fire torpedoes while still cloaked.
Enterprise and Excelsior race to Khitomer and the Peace Talks. Chang attacks and damages both ships. At Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) suggestion, Spock and McCoy modify a torpedo to target the Bird-of-Prey’s exhaust. It strikes and pinpoints the cloaked ship, and a volley of torpedoes destroys it. Crew from both Federation ships beam into the conference and stop an assassination attempt on the Federation president. Having saved the day (again) the Enterprise (again) is to be decommissioned, but Kirk sets off on a final mission.
The 25th Anniversary of Star Trek was coming up and nobody wanted The Final Frontier to be the Final Film. There was a lot of conflict between stalwarts like Gene Roddenberry, Harve Bennett, Frank Mancuso, etc. The idea of the Berlin Wall coming down in space was Nimoy’s and he suggested it to Nicholas Meyer, who took it and ran with it. Meyer asked Nimoy to direct but no-one wanted to see Shatner’s reaction if Nimoy got to direct three Trek films to his one. Roddenberry hated the script and there was more acrimony. In the end, the film was well-received by fans and critics, got two Oscar nominations, and won the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Roddenberry died after seeing and approving the excellent film. It was dedicated to him and his ashes were launched into space in 1997.
Originally, Saavik was to be Spock’s turncoat protégé, but the character was loved by fans and Roddenberry objected. Kim Cattrall did not want to be the third actor to play her. Valeris was created and named by her after Eris, the Goddess of Discord. Kirk’s and McCoy’s defence attorney was Colonel Worf, the grandfather of the Next Generation’s Worf, and was played by Michael Dorn. Nichelle Nichols protested the scene in which she desperately spoke garbled Klingon, surrounded by anachronistic books, but was overruled. She refused to make two jokes comparing anti-Klingon prejudice with black racism. The jokes were at the expense of racists, but still offensive. Chekov became the one to say, “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” but “Would you want your sister to marry a Klingon?” was dropped.
Perhaps the best thing about the movie is Christopher Plummer as Chang. It was his idea that his eyepatch should be bolted to his skull. He and Shatner were a couple of old Canadian hams from the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Theatre and well-matched. Shatner had been Plummer’s understudy and when Plummer became ill and could not play Henry V, Shatner filled in and did so well that Plummer made his performance the next night the best in his career. He gave Shatner credit for it. Plummer reminds me of Ricardo Montalban as Khan, as he spouts lines from Shakespeare with joyous gusto while the torpedoes fly.
There were so many Klingons in this one film that their uniforms and heads went through a major refit. Plummer designed much of his own, refusing even to wear a wig as baldness suited the character better. Gorkon, since it is unknown at first if he is friend or foe, was modeled after Ahab and Lincoln. Every day the technicians did 126 prosthetic makeups. The food for the summit dinner was mostly blue and unappetizing, so actors were offered an extra twenty bucks to eat it. Shatner was the only one to eat purple squid, but he never got the money. In the courtroom scene, there were sixty-six Klingons. The effects team bought a hundred Worf dolls for the back rows on a ten-foot-long miniature gallery, with the dolls rocking back and forth to make them seem angry. The spurting Klingon blood was purple, because if it was red, they would get an R rating.
The Rura Penthe surface was played by a glacier 40 minutes from Anchorage, Alaska, by helicopter. The prison interior was filmed in Bronson Canyon, Griffith Park, Los Angeles, which had been used as the Bat Cave and in the Flash Gordon serials. Naturally, Shatner loved the scene in which he fought a doppelganger of himself. Rura Penthe was named after the slave labour camp in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. John Shuck, the Klingon Ambassador, was once married to Susan Bay Nimoy, Leonard’s later wife. The Klingon translating Chang’s words into English in one scene is Klaa (Todd Bryant), demoted to translation duties because of his actions in the previous movie. When Kirk said of the Klingons, “Let them die,” he made a gesture suggesting he didn’t really mean it, but that was cut to Shatner’s chagrin.
Christian Slater, whose mother was casting director, had a walk-on. He framed his $750 check. He wore the trousers made for Shatner in Star Trek II and said it was an honor to get into Shatner’s pants. George Takei’s Sulu is the only original series crewmember to get his own starship. Sulu was the one who discovered the bird-of-prey’s weakness, but Shatner had it changed to Kirk. The music of Cliff Edelman was moody and dark, like Stravinsky’s Firebird, with a touch of Holst’s Mars theme. In the background is a chorus singing To Be or Not to Be in Klingon. The whole movie is full of Shakespeare quotes, mostly because they had Christopher Plummer to speak them. The Nazis always claimed that Shakespeare was German, and the Klingons praise Shakespeare in the original Klingon. The Klingon Language Institute, founded by Marc Okrand, eventually translated the works of Shakespeare into Klingon. The scenes from Hamlet in Klingon in the Blu-Ray extras are a lot of fun.
Looking back over the six movies here, most of them beloved, and the modest TV series that spawned them and seven other films, plus seven other TV series, so far, over some fifty years, it’s easy to see what went right. It started with Gene Roddenberry’s vision, genius, and tireless energy, add some damn fine acting, writing, and directing—even if some of these writers and directors were at odds much of the time--great music, constantly advancing special effects, and the fine madness of the fans who kept everyone on their toes for—literally—generations. But I think it all comes down to the seven main characters, particularly the threesome at the centre. We admire people for their abilities, but we love them for their frailties. We respect Bones and Spock and Jim because they save the day, but we love them because Bones is an irascible old coot who can’t keep his opinions to himself, Spock is maddeningly better than us in every way, and Jim is a crazy sonofabitch that people will follow into Hell.