ET spoke with William Shatner and the rest of the Enterprise's legendary crew about their cinematic farewell.
Following the emotional climax of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, the movie's credits paid tribute to the franchise's core ensemble, by way of taking a cue from the finale of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. While Marvel Studios' head honcho, Kevin Feige, had already revealed himself to be a Trekkie by this point, the presence of these signatures displayed one of Star Trek's most sentimental influences on the MCU.
In both films, one by one, each actor receives an animation of their autograph on-screen. Behind these cinematic yearbook signatures, there's more than one meaning to be found. In addition to honoring the cast's performances and commemorating their contributions to a worldwide phenomenon, the autographs sought to bring closure and signal to the fandoms that this was the last time these characters would be together on screen. In that farewell spirit, the sense of finality helped ease the transition into each franchise's new chapter, be it another phase or next generation.
ET spoke with the TOS (the original series) cast in 1991 about their final mission after 25 years of warping across the galaxy with each other. And one guest star expressed her excitement for working with a longstanding crush. “I saw the series in the '60s. I loved it. I thought Spock was the sexiest thing on television,” Kim Cattrall told ET at the time. “I thought he was wonderful. I loved his look, his intelligence [and the] little humor in those eyebrows.”
But what’s going on with the title? To begin with, "the undiscovered country" derives from Act III, Scene I of Hamlet, adjacent to one of Shakespeare's more enduring quotes, "To be or not to be..."
In its original context, the phrase, in short, means death. But for one character in Star Trek VI, "the undiscovered country" is invoked to refer to the concepts of future and change (and, presumably, how both ideas can seem just as scary as death itself).
In fact, nothing could be clearer from the first few minutes of The Undiscovered Country that the TOS crew is in a state of transition. Lt. Sulu (George Takei) is now Captain Sulu after taking the conn of the Excelsior. Meanwhile, his former crew mates aboard the Enterprise-A are getting ready to embark on the strange new world of retirement and having their tightknit group disbanded. But before they go, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) ropes his old pals into helping facilitate that aforementioned future. Specifically, peace between the Federation and one of its longest adversaries. As Spock explains, the Klingon Empire is on the verge of collapsing in the next half-century and instead of relishing the misfortune of their perennial foes, he instead recognizes the opportunity for harmony -- or at least the trailhead for it.
As Nimoy saw it, the present was catching up with the future as he and his fellow writers were developing the movie’s story. “A lot was changing in the world. The Berlin Wall had just come down. We're watching television and seeing these amazing events in Eastern Europe,” he explained to ET leading up to the film’s release. “Pieces [of concrete were] being chipped away, symbolizing the breakdown of that whole idea of that order of the world. ‘Us versus them.’”
“The best of Star Trek rips its stories from the headlines... and dramatizes that as though it were happening in the future,” William Shatner, aka Captain Kirk, told ET in 1991. “The best of science fiction is taking a human theme and just putting it in a different environment.”
There was another reason this thematic direction was selected at the time. Elsewhere in the Star Trek canon, a Klingon was seen as a respected member aboard the Enterprise-D on TNG (The Next Generation). Michael Dorn’s performance as Worf portrayed the alien species as competent and intelligent beings within their gung-ho, Bat'leth at the ready personas. As Nimoy pointed out, the TOS era had previously reduced Klingons to two-dimensional, black hat antagonists. “The Klingons were always our evil empire and it was time to maybe examine the possibility of beginning to come to grips with that,” he said.
But not everyone immediately adopts Spock’s enlightened new perspective. After 25 years of tense run-ins -- everything from space battles to bar fights -- the crew has whiplash from this sudden change in direction on Starfleet's moral compass. The most vocal is Kirk, who also cites the murder of his son at the hands of a Klingon (portrayed in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) while speaking out against the proposition.
While TOS was and continues to be heralded for its diverse representation on-screen, the Enterprise crew's final outing forced them to confront their own capacity for prejudice. “It's our distinction and, of course, righteous indignation,” Nichelle Nichols, aka Lt. Uhura, told ET in 1991. “But it is a prejudice and [The Undiscovered Country] was an opportunity for people to face that.”
And that they did, with the TOS ensemble literally coming face to face with Klingons in a very tense -- and very funny -- dinner scene made up of officers from both regimes. The occasion is also where Spock's counterpart on the Klingon end, Chancellor Gorkon (David Werner), utters the titular Shakespearean phrase as everyone toasts with their very potent, and very illegal, Romulan ale. But just as soon as headway is made, the initiative is blasted two steps back after the Enterprise, by all appearances, fires on the ship carrying their Klingon dinner guests. Aghast, confused and terrified that their chance for peace was gone forever, Kirk and Bones (DeForest Kelley) transport over to the Klingon ship to help.
Unfortunately, Gorkon was mortally wounded and the good Starfleet doctor is unable to save him. For DeKelley, the emotional sequence wasn’t his average day of filming Star Trek. “I was very concerned about the scene with Werner and [Shatner] and I on the Klingon ship,” he revealed to ET in 1991. “It was a very difficult scene to do. It's the kind of scene that you worry about before you do it.”
Already standing on their turf, Kirk and Bones are arrested on the spot by Gorkon's chief of staff, General Chang (Christopher Plummer), charged with orchestrating the chaos and fatalities that unfolded. To no one’s surprise, they're found guilty and sent to a labor camp on the freezing planet Rura Penthe, where they meet fellow inmate and shapeshifter Martia (Iman). And in an instance of putting all nuances aside, the worlds of TOS and TNG implicitly collide with Dorn portraying Worf’s grandfather, who acts as Kirk and Bones’ defense attorney in the court proceedings.
Back on the Enterprise, Spock and company are deep into investigating who set them up. Meanwhile, Kirk and Bones attempt to escape their chilly imprisonment, leading the former to face off against his most existential foe to date: himself -- or Martia transformed to look like him, anyway. As the old chums are about to be assassinated by prison guards, they're beamed off the planet and onto the Enterprise at the last second.
After being rescued, they discover Spock's protege, another Vulcan, Lt. Valeris (Cattrall), played a role in the sabotage. It's a devastating reveal, as fans previously witnessed Spock express an unusual amount of affection for the up-and-coming Starfleet officer. And the emotional connection was just as real for both actors behind the scenes, according to Cattrall, who received a Vulcan history lesson from the iconic actor while helping her prepare for the role. “Leonard and I met and instantly there was energy. There was a report between the two of us, and we had a lot of telephone conversations back and forth at the end of the day,” she recalled.
Cattrall added, “I would sit and watch Leonard in the rehearsals and would almost physically mimic what he would do, because he is the grand guru of being Vulcan.”
Following one of the most violent mind melds ever portrayed in Star Trek between Spock and Valeris, the true puppet master behind the sabotage is revealed to be Chang, who is defeated via space battle at the hands of both the Enterprise and the Sulu-helmed Excelsior. With time very much of the essence, both crews make haste toward Khitomer, where the official peace summit is transpiring -- and where one of the last remaining conspirators is getting ready to murder the Federation President (Kurtwood Smith).
After Kirk and company thwart the assassination attempt, their last directive from Starfleet is to return the Enterprise to Earth. No more five-year missions or (on the clock) Gorn fights. But in a final display of his trademark anti-by-the-book leadership, James T. allows the crew one last joyride around the galaxy.
With a quarter of a century having passed since TOS first debuted, the cast endured a multitude of feelings knowing this would be their final outing together. “I think there's a certain amount of denial going on. Nobody is really prepared,” Walter Koenig, aka Commander Chekov, told ET days before the movie was released on Dec. 6, 1991.
“I said, 'Geez. This is the final one of these [films],' every day,” Shatner recalled of filming the movie, adding, “I was very much aware of the nostalgia of the moments involved.”
Three years before reprising Captain Kirk one last time in Star Trek: Generations, Shatner revealed there was never any secret to playing the iconic role. “I don't know what Kirk is. I play the role with certain pillars of knowledge,” he explained. “He's brave. He's kind. He's interested. That kind of thing. And he's amused at life. Things don't knock him off balance. He finds them interesting and that's, I guess, the character.”
The Undiscovered Country also provided an opportunity for the cast to reflect on instigating and then cultivating an unprecedented fan phenomenon. “[Star Trek] is so special and people want to know the real reason why. And nobody knows,” James Doohan, aka Chief Engineer Scotty, told ET at the time. “I use the word ‘magic.’ Star Trek has some kind of magic to it. Nothing else answers the question. Great scripts. Great idea in the first place. Great casting. Wonderful acting. It's not good enough for 25 years and two series.”
Of course, the movie felt even more like a goodbye when the Star Trek universe suffered the loss of its creator less than two months before its release. Gene Roddenberry died at the age of 70 in October 1991 after suffering a blood clot (which also followed a long illness). A dedication title card to the prolific TV writer and producer appears at the beginning of the film.
“I loved Gene very much. He was my friend for over 30 years,” Nichols expressed. “He always had this dream, and he was determined to realize it, of having men and women of all colors, races and even an alien intelligent life form... working in peaceful harmony with one another on an equal basis. This is the legacy that Roddenberry has given us. One of hope. One of adventure. One of nobility. One of great expectation. And he did it all without violating the first law of show business and that's to entertain. That's a hell of an accomplishment.”
“If Gene was trying to say any one very simple, specific thing it was that humanity has an interesting and vital future,” Nimoy said. “And I think that 's what we've been saying with these films. And I think this film says that as well.”
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is streaming on Paramount+.
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