Why ‘Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country’ is one of the best passing-the-torch stories ever told

With the onslaught of legacy sequels we’ve gotten over the past several years that seek to keep telling stories in franchises that should have arguably stayed finished, I was thinking about which ones had a successful passing of the torch: that is, having a new set of characters take over from older, more famous ones, and was drawing a blank.

Then I realized that we have gotten one story that perfectly passes the torch, and it came out over 30 years ago: ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.’

But wait a moment, you might say, none of the characters from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ or ‘Voyager’ or ‘Deep Space Nine’ show up! I would say that you’re correct, and that’s why ‘Country’ works so well: the classic crew get one last story that is focused entirely on them, they get to save the galaxy, the Federation, and democracy without any help from those who will come after them. And when their task is done, they triumphantly sail off into the sunrise (metaphorically speaking) and a journey that began 25 years prior finally comes to a heartwarming end.

Why does this work so well when so many other passing-the-torch stories fail? Because the classic characters have one last adventure all to themselves. They’re not teamed with younger characters the audience isn’t interested in, nor do these newcomers upstage them. The newcomers – in this case, The Next Generation crew – pick up the torch in their first story, and prove to the audience then that they are worthy of carrying it without having to tear down or upstage those who came before.

To contrast ‘Country,’ consider the fourth Indiana Jones movie, ‘The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’: Indy is accompanied by Mutt, who upstages Indy a few times, helps rescue him, insults him, and infamously almost puts on the famous fedora at the end. Now imagine the same movie, but without Mutt: Indy gets more opportunities to save the day, foil the villains, and do awesome stuff with Marion (and in a perfect world, Henry Jones Sr., Sallah and a grown-up Short Round). At the end, he marries Marion with all his friends present and sets off to a happy and well-deserved retirement. Afterwords, Mutt is introduced in his own movie and given the chance to prove himself worthy of being an adventurer without upstaging Indy or stealing his spotlight.

The lesson here? Let your classic heroes get one last adventure all to themselves before bringing in someone else to keep a franchise going. Let them have their grand finale, their satisfying end, and give their fans closure and the satisfaction of knowing that they saw a great story from its beginning to its end.

For John

2017 was an exciting year for Terminator fans. Not only was it announced that we would get a new film that would be a direct sequel to ‘Judgement Day,’ but it would feature Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as the T-800, and Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor on-screen for the first time since 1996’s, ‘T2-3D: Battle Across Time’. It was a Terminator fan’s dream come true; yet, as filming began and the first promotional material came out, I realized something.

Where was John Connor?

Like many fans, I was wondering why there were no casting announcements for John. Was he not in the film? Were they trying to keep his role a secret? It wasn’t until July of 2019 that James Cameron announced that Edward Furlong would indeed be returning as John, and I was ecstatic. After almost 30 years, we were finally going to have Arnold, Linda, and Edward on screen together again!

Then the movie came out.

Predictably, fans of the Terminator franchise were outraged at John’s death. We had followed John’s exploits, adventures, and growth in TV shows, books, video games, and comics for almost 30 years, only to see him be senselessly killed off. There was no historic last stand, inspiring final words, or seeing John sacrificing himself to save the human race. Instead, we got to see all the struggles and sacrifices to protect him in T1 and T2 be rendered meaningless. ‘Dark Fate’ was the ultimate slap in the face to John, mocking him and his fans.

But what if it isn’t?

Like most Terminator fans, I was angry at John being killed. I had hoped that we would get to see a grown-up John (played by Mr. Furlong) rising from an ordinary life to take up the mantle as humanity’s savior with his mother and a T-800 one last time. Instead, I left the theater disappointed at what could have been.

Yet, as the months have passed, and I’ve thought about the film, I’ve come to realize that, while John’s death was still a mistake, ‘Dark Fate’ shows that he’s still the most important character in both the film and the series. He’s so important that if he were removed from the movie entirely, the resulting consequences would have led to the extinction of the human race.

Madness? The desperate grasps of a fan trying to make sense of a senseless and tragic event? Perhaps. But we’re told on the C-5 Galaxy in the third act that Dani led humanity to victory over Legion, the malevolent AI (‘we took our world back’). In order for that to take place, two things must happen:

1. Dani has to survive.

2. Dani has to learn how to become a leader.

‘Dark Fate’ spends most of its time fulfilling the first task. Dani initially is protected by augmented super-soldier Grace; yet, while Grace is a powerful warrior, she is unable to stop the REV-9 on her own, and would have been killed with Dani in Mexico without Sarah’s intervention. But even with Sarah, the group still wouldn’t have been able to destroy the REV-9. They need Carl – the T-800 who killed John – to finally defeat the REV-9 for good and ensure Dani’s survival.

Yet, Sarah and Carl wouldn’t have been able to help Dani if it wasn’t for John. If we imagine a future where he had lived, Sarah would not have known of Dani’s existence, and would not have come to her rescue on the bridge in Mexico. Dani and Grace would have been killed, and Legion would have won the second machine war.

Carl, too, would not have been present to protect Dani if John had lived. If, say, Sarah had managed to destroy him, then there would have been no T-800 to take on the REV-9. Carl was the one who ultimately had the necessary strength and endurance to destroy the REV-9, but he never would have done so had he not eventually realized what he had taken from Sarah, and then willingly sacrifice himself in the end.

‘Dark Fate’ ends with Sarah setting out to train Dani in how to become a leader and a warrior. Here, too, John also comes into play. Because of Sarah’s experience hunting terminators before and after John’s death, she is the only person on Earth who can train Dani how to fight and destroy them. Furthermore, Sarah still has all the tactical and leadership training she has from the first two films, which she will presumably pass on to Dani as well. With all three sets of skills given to her, Dani will have all she needs to fight – and ultimately destroy – Legion.

Though the mantra of the Terminator series is, ‘There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,’ it almost seems as if the opposite is true: Humanity is destined to fight malevolent AI at some point. It may be Skynet, it may be Legion, but a war is inevitable. Yet, it also seems that there will always be a figure who will rise up and lead humanity to victory. For years, we’ve believed that John was that leader, but ‘Dark Fate’ shows that there can be multiple leaders. When we step back and look at the broad picture, it seems – hard as it is to accept – that John’s death is necessary in the Terminator universe. John, Sarah, and Uncle Bob succeeded in destroying Skynet, and in the process, John had fulfilled his purpose of saving the human race. But would he have been able to do the same against Legion? While fans – myself included – would have loved to see a middle-aged John fighting and defeating an enemy neither he nor Sarah know anything about, I doubt he would have been able to pull it off.

To use a war analogy, let’s say John is the greatest Allied commander of World War 1. His knowledge and experience in trench warfare, chemical warfare, and the like are without compare, and he leads the Allied forces to victory. He’s hailed as a hero and the savior of the civilized world. But what if he suddenly had to lead the allies again in World War 2? While many principles of warfare would remain the same, John’s skills would be obsolete against opponents who have much better technology, weapons, and tactics than he went up against decades earlier. And while there’s a chance he can still win the war, having a younger person who learned from the lessons of the first, and is more familiar with the latest technology, has a better chance of victory.

If the story of the Terminator franchise is humanity’s ultimate victory against malevolent AI, then John can be seen as the commander who, having stopped the machine’s first offensive, ensures that his successor can see the war through to its completion. He is the spark that sets humanity’s ultimate victory in motion. Without John, neither Sarah or Carl would have saved Dani. Without him, Dani would have died.

Without John, humanity would have perished… But it didn’t happen.

Whatever you may think about the movie, in my opinion, ‘Dark Fate’ proves that even in death, John is still the savior of humanity.

Or, if you prefer, you can pretend that this is how the movie ended.