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Non-Review Review: Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

Whatever its faults, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a fond farewell to the original cast of Star Trek, giving the ensemble one last epic adventure before heading off into legend. Chancellor Gorkon suggests that the “the undiscovered country” that lends the movie its title is “the future.” Most Shakespearean scholars would argue that it is “death.” Perhaps they need to – as Gorkon argues – “experience” it in “the original Klingon”, or perhaps there’s more to it than that.

Perhaps the undiscovered country can be both – the death waiting for all of us eventually, the “chimes at midnight” that Chang alludes to after a disastrous diplomatic dinner. Probably not. Still, The Undiscovered Country does represent a death. It’s the end of an era, the extinguishing of a torch that had already been passed. It’s the last adventure of Kirk’s starship Enterprise, and it feels appropriate that it serves to end the Cold War raging between the Klingons and the Federation.

It’s a beautiful farewell to the crew, to the extent that even the actors’ decision to “sign” the closing credits doesn’t feel over saccharine or manipulative. The movie has more than its fair share of narrative flaws, neither as tight as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan nor as energetic as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. However, it hangs together remarkably well, in no small part thanks to a solid premise, a strange honesty and a deep affection for the cast and crew.

We're having some old friends for dinner...

We’re having some old friends for dinner…

The novelisation gives a bit more depth to Gorkon’s somewhat questionable Shakespearean scholarship. Fleshing out Kirk’s exchange with Azetbur at Camp Khitomer, author J.M. Dillard adds:

He turned back to Azetbur. “Your father quoted Hamlet. He called the future ‘the undiscovered country.'” He paused as Spock, with Valeris in tow, joined him.

“I always assumed Hamlet was speaking of death,” Spock offered.

Kirk nodded. “Gorkon thought ‘the undiscovered country’ might mean something else – another kind of life. People can be very frightened of change.”

It’s hardly the most bullet-proof of logic, but it sort of works. In a large part, it works because The Undiscovered Country is very much about the end of the era of the original crew. It’s not even about rebirth or regeneration. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on the air for several years at this point. The torch had already been passed. All that was left was to shuffle the original cast gently off stage.

Keep calm and carry on...

Keep calm and carry on…

And the themes of The Undiscovered Country play into this. Opening the commentary, director Nicholas Meyer notes the origins of the film. Naturally, the movie was anchored in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism, but also in another philosophical concept extending from that:

It was originally conceived by Leonard Nimoy and myself in conversations on Cape Cod, the year after the Berlin Wall came down, and is, in some sense, a response to and a reflection of that period in human history when, as the philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote, we may have come to the end of human history.

“The end of history” is a bold statement, much more eye-catching than the fall of a particular system of government or a particular monument to oppression. In a way, it feels like a fitting philosophical basis for the end of the films featuring William Shatner and his ensemble.

The impromptu Daft Punk concert helped lighten the mood after the bungled dinner...

The impromptu Daft Punk concert helped lighten the mood after the bungled dinner…

Francis Fukuyama’s ideas were very much anchored in the late eighties and the early nineties, although – as one might imagine – the 9/11 attacks opened up a whole new dialogue on the relevance of his philosophy. He published his ideas as an essay in 1989, two years before The Undiscovered Country was released. He expanded it out to a book (The End of History and the Last Man) in 1992, the year after Meyer released The Undiscovered Country.

Fukuyama’s argument was that all government eventually pushes itself toward western liberal democracy, and that there’s no system that can resist the gravity of that form of capitalism forever. There is one absolutely final type of government, and the ending of the Cold War represented the victory of that model over the last of its potential challengers. This is a highly charged and political philosophy, but it’s obviously one which probes quite deeply into the American psyche.

All warriors are cold warriors...

All warriors are cold warriors…

It treats the end of the Cold War as the ultimate victory, the most important moment in American political history. As Fukuyama argues himself:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Given that Star Trek can be seen as an extension of American political and moral philosophy, that also has a massive implication for the franchise. In short, it’s a fitting place to draw a line under Kirk’s time in the captain’s chair, an end to future history.

A General problem...

A General problem…

It’s worth noting that The Undiscovered Country isn’t uncritical of Fukuyama’s theory and what it represents. Sitting down to dinner aboard the Enterprise, the Klingons reflect on the fact that this represents the ultimate victory of Federation philosophy. “In any case, we know where this is leading,” Kerla states bluntly. “The annihilation of our culture.” Does the triumph of the Federation mean that human values will eventually suffocate the philosophies and political systems of other worlds? Is this just a cue to another form of human imperialism, with the unfortunate implication that human values are incapable of coexisting with other beliefs without subsuming them?

Appropriately enough, the imagery at the climax of The Undiscovered Country feels familiar. A sniper overlooks a celebration from a window that should be empty. With meticulous care, he takes aim down the scope of his rifle. Through the scope, he recognises his target. It’s the President. Indeed, although the tie-in novels have given the character a name (Ra-ghoratreii), the character is only ever identified over the course of The Undiscovered Country as “the President.”

This is precisely his cup of tea...

This is precisely his cup of tea…

Meyer isn’t exactly subtle. Like his decision to name “Gorkon” so as to evoke “Gorbachev”, or even to give David Warner a Lincoln-esque beard, that final crisis in Camp Khitomer is intended to remind viewers of the Kennedy assassination. It’s an idealistic President about to be struck down in his prime, when the future offers untold potential. It has been argued that Kennedy’s “New Frontier” became Star Trek’s “Final Frontier”, and Kennedy casts a long shadow over the classic Star Trek television show.

With its fixation on space as an opportunity to extend humanity’s reach and to strive to better itself, the show often felt like an extension of an idealised version of Kennedy’s Camelot. The universe was out there waiting for mankind, and we could be anything that we wanted to be. It’s no wonder that Gene Roddenberry originally pitched a version of Star Trek II which featured the crew travelling back in time to the Kennedy assassination. Like a lot of American pop culture from the sixties (and beyond) that assassination was a big moment.

Parting shot...

Parting shot…

So it’s no surprise that Kirk’s final adventure ends with the hero managing to thwart an assassination with uncanny similarities to the Kennedy assassination. “Mr. President! Mr. President!” Kirk yells as he runs through Camp Khitomer, ready to shield the President like a Secret Service agent. When the assassin is revealed, he initially appears to be an enemy agent – much like Lee Harvey Oswald’s involvement with the communist movement was explored in the wake of the assassination.

However, it is eventually revealed that the assassin is an undercover member of a vast military conspiracy – playing off the conspiracy theories that circulated in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, given a high profile by the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK in the same year as The Undiscovered Country. Here, in his last adventure, Kirk manages to save the President from an assassination attempt, thus ensuring that new (or final) frontier can continue. He also exposes a vast cynical conspiracy to the light, exposing the shadowy forces which seemed to conspire to smother the optimism and the enthusiasm of the sixties.

Valeris has the worst first day ever...

Valeris has the worst first day ever…

It’s a romantic conclusion to Kirk’s voyage, but it works surprisingly well. Nicholas Meyer is the director responsible for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s considered among the very best moments of the franchise, and for good reason. It acknowledged that the crew were getting older and that they might be past their prime. That assumption lingered on in the background for The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, even as the films assured us that there was fight left in them yet. William Shatner’s attempts to ignore it completely in The Final Frontier were unconvincing, and lent his film the awkward sense of an actor trying to recapture his glory days.

The Undiscovered Country is frank about how its characters have gotten old. It raises the question that must have been on the lips of many fans and pundits. On the commentary, writer Denny Martin Flynn jokes that even David Letterman was taking pot shots at the ageing franchise. Spock asks the question quite candidly, “Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?”

This is all old hat at this point...

This is all old hat at this point…

One of the nicer touches of the script to The Undiscovered Country is the way that it suggests that the crew are being dragged out of mothballs. Sulu has his own command. Scotty bought a boat. Uhura is teaching at the Academy. Spock has been secretly working of peace with the Klingons without letting Kirk know. Far from the start of bold new adventures of the Enterprise-A promised with The Final Frontier, it’s clear that The Undiscovered Country is about crew coming together one last time.

There’s no sense that the crew are kidding themselves here. Spock alludes to “the expulsion from paradise, and maybe that’s what this is. Apparently Denny Martin Flynn’s original draft of the script featured Kirk recruiting the crew from various retirements, further cementing the idea that this was one last hurrah for the gang. The scene wasn’t possible on the budget afforded The Undiscovered Country, but Flynn did incorporate it into his follow-up novel, Fearful Summons.

A work of art...

A work of art…

Here, Kirk has trouble imagining a world where the Federation and Klingons are at peace. He is uncomfortable with the idea of peace, but honest enough to question why he is uncomfortable. “But how on earth can history get past people like me?” he asks, honestly. Chancellor Gorkon singles him out after the disastrous dinner on the Enterprise, wondering, “You don’t trust me, do you? I don’t blame you. If there is to be a Brave New World, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”

It’s worth noting that The Undiscovered Country is quite frank about the failings of some of the early Star Trek stories, perhaps brutally so. In particular, the attitudes expressed by Starfleet towards the Klingons are quite overtly racists. When Kirk is hesitant to help with the diplomatic mission, Spock implores, “They’re dying.” Kirk responds, “Let them die!” Like a few of the actors in the film, Shatner had trouble with the racist undertones of his dialogue, and was angry that a dismissive wave was edited out of the film following his delivery.

Excelsior!

Excelsior!

Quite a few people take exception to the attitudes exposed here. It’s one thing to have anonymous crew members commenting on the smell of the Klingon delegation, but characters like Scotty make uninformed racist comments without too much thought. “They don’t place the same value on life that we do, Spock, you know that,” he insists, suggesting that Azetbur murdered her father. “Take my word. She did not shed one bloody tear.” Spock points out that not only is cultural relativism at work, but Scotty’s also ill-informed about Klingon biology. “Hardly conclusive, Mister Scott, as Klingons have no tear-ducts.”

While these scenes are uncomfortable, they are meant to be. After all, Klingons were introduced on the show as a racial “others.” Their early history is problematic, with the script for Errand of Mercy describing them as “Oriental” and internal memos comparing them to Ho Chi Minh. The make-up for the characters in those early adventures stopped just short of yellow face, with Fu Manchu beards. The Klingons were generally portrayed as barbarian savages with no impulse control and a taste for casual brutality. They were, in short, a convenient stand-in for America’s foreign adversaries. They were inhuman, with all the relativism that implies.

Things are about to go sideways...

Things are about to go sideways…

Indeed, Gene L. Coon’s script for Errand of Mercy was beautifully ironic. It alluded to the fact that Kirk’s meddling in the affairs of primitive worlds was just the expression of the same colonial impulse that the Federation objected to in the Klingon Empire. Coon’s sly and subversive scripts made a convincing argument for the Federation as a galactic colonial power, just one that happened to conform to Western liberal ideals. Kirk’s (and the show’s) inability to see the Klingons as anything other than brutal monsters, and the decision to paint them just short of racial caricature is worthy of criticism.

And The Undiscovered Country is willing to make that criticism. Azetbur scores some pretty effective points at dinner, rebuking Chekov’s attempts to paint the Klingon Empire as a ruthless colonial power, speaking about the “inalienable human rights” inherent to all sentient beings. While he has an obvious point, Azetbur calls him out on his own anthropocentrism. “Inalien… If only you could hear yourselves? ‘Human rights.’ Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a ‘homo sapiens’ only club.”

Afraid of Chang(e)?

Afraid of Chang(e)?

It’s worth noting that this a fairly damning indictment of Gene Roddenberry’s version of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where humanity are presented as a hyper-evolved species spreading their philosophy to the “lesser species” in the cosmos. Azetbur’s retort reads a stern rebuke of the over-zealous Roddenberry philosophy present in episodes like Lonely Among Us and The Last Outpost. Roddenberry objected to the tone of the script, and the idea that the human characters could be portrayed as imperfect.

However, a lot of The Undiscovered Country reads quite effectively as a criticism of his own excess, of the human-centric moral philosophy of the Star Trek universe. Obviously, human-centric philosophy makes sense when humans are the only species in Star Trek to exist in the real world, but the implications become a lot less comfortable when one acknowledges that Starfleet and the Federation very clearly stand for American cultural norms. As such, the decision to feature a location on Earth that wasn’t in the United States – and to identify it as a seat of power – is quite pointed.

The man with the plan...

The man with the plan…

So the racism expressed towards the Klingons feels relatively in character, despite Gene Roddenberry’s obvious reluctance to admit it. While the Romulans – with their more human-esque features and the influence of a European culture – were generally treated with respect and deference in their appearances, Kirk’s attitudes towards the Klingons are pretty much supported by the conduct of every Klingon character in the original television show, bar maybe Kang from The Day of the Dove.

Interestingly, The Undiscovered Country touches on the idea that the Federation finds the Romulans far easier to get along with than the Klingons. Far from solemn enemies of the Federation, the Romulan Ambassador sits in on the President’s Briefings, a trusted colleague. This underscores just how alien the Federation judges the Klingons to be, suggesting that peace has come even to the other mortal opponents of the Federation.

The spotlight is really on Kirk...

The spotlight is really on Kirk…

It also raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationship between the Federation and the Romulans during the movie era. The President actively solicits the opinion of the Romulan Ambassador on matters of state. I’m surprised that there aren’t more tie-in materials exploring the implications of Nanclus’ involvement at the heart of Federation government. Author David A. McIntee once argued that Nanclus was “almost certainly the true villain of the movie, and probably the most forgotten of the Trek villains”, and various books have picked up the character and his threads, but it’s interesting to imagine how he got in that room in the first place.

Even outside of racial prejudice, the movie ends with Kirk correcting the sexist refrain he’s been using for the past twenty-five years. “Where no man,” he begins, before catching himself. “Where no one has gone before.” It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that the show wasn’t necessarily as tolerant and as open-minded as it might like to think. I respect that The Undiscovered Country is not so steeped in nostalgia that it can’t recognise some of the problems with those early episodes.

Bird of Prey tell...

Bird of Prey tell…

The Undiscovered Country is a movie about confronting that earlier racism and prejudice. It’s no coincidence that the two most obviously racially-charged lines in the film were supposed to be delivered by African-American characters. It’s hardly subtle, but it is very effective. Brock Peters plays Admiral Cartwright, a supporting character returning from The Voyage Home, who finds himself advocating that the Federation should take advantage of their enemy’s weakness.

“The opportunity here is to bring them to their knees,” he argues at the meeting. “Then we’ll be in a far better position to dictate terms.” The language (“bring them to their knees”) was used in Birth of a Nation to refer to African-Americans. Although Brock Peters was cast in The Voyage Home, giving that dialogue to him is rather pointed. Peters’ most famous screen role remains the part of Tom in the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, a film in which he played the victim of prejudice.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

In the commentary, it’s discussed how Peters had difficulty with that scene:

This was a very hard speech for Brock Peters to do. In fact, it was so repugnant to him with its racist overtones, that he was really unable to get it out in one take, which is one of the reasons we provided several angles of it. I suppose it was part of the point that these sentiments should be enunciated by an African American. He understood that.

To be fair to Peters, he delivered the lines and was professional enough to realise the importance of them. One of the movie’s best little touches cuts to McCoy’s revulsion at that sentiment, despite the fact that that he was quite fond of making racist remarks about Spock, underscoring the idea that the characters of Star Trek have not always been as enlightened as we might like to think.

Fools Russian in...

Fools Russian in…

The other racially-charged line occurs when the Klingons accept Kirk’s invitation to dine with them. Chekov utters, “Guess who’s coming to dinner.” It was a line originally intended for Uhura, obviously a reference to the Oscar-winning 1967 about a racially-charged family dinner. According to Flynn, Nichelle Nichols refused to read the line as written:

We should say, on the ‘guess who’s coming to dinner’ that it was really written for Uhura. I felt it was appropriate for her to say that and I didn’t think twice about it. She decided that it was racist in some way and refused to say it. At some point, we hung on to the line, but Nick gave it to Chekov.

To be fair, having the film’s Russian character utter the line plays into the same undertones and subtext, but it would have been more effective had it come from Uhura.

Til he's blue in the face...

Til he’s blue in the face…

It’s worth noting that none of the conspirators are really a surprise. Admiral Cartwright lays his cards on the table at the briefing. Valeris is the only major Enterprise character who could be the mole, as she’s not a member of the main cast. Christopher Plummer doesn’t try to hide Chang’s obvious villainy. Colonel West has about three lines, and most of them clarify his willingness to “clear their chronometers.” Even the Romulan Ambassador is quite frank about his desire for genocide. (“There will be no better time.”)

This is frequently levelled as a criticism of the movie, but I don’t really mind it. To be honest, I think that it demonstrates just how endemic this institutional prejudice was that Cartwright could say something like that at a high-profile meeting without more than a few raised eyebrows. After all, the film is quite explicit about showing Valeris up to stuff in small scenes that initially appear innocent, but quickly build up. When his ship is attacked, Gorkon explicitly asks where Chang is, suggesting that Chang has been no more subtle about his conspiring than Cartwright.

Sadly, I couldn't create a .gif of Chang spinning in his chair to give you the full effect...

Sadly, I couldn’t create a .gif of Chang spinning in his chair to give you the full effect…

This is a bit of a problem in that “anybody vaguely reluctant about the Klingon peace is in on it” sort of way, but it’s not a fatal flaw. For all that The Undiscovered Country works as a fond farewell to the ensemble, it has its fair share of logical problems. Isn’t it weird that the Excelsior just happens to be flying on the same two-dimensional plane as the Praxis explosion? Why does Martia imitate Kirk’s voice when trying to convince that Klingons that she’s not the real Kirk? Why does Valeris need to demonstrate to Chekov – the chief of security – how phasers work?

To be fair, these plot problems are easy enough to overlook. Although probably accidental, I like the idea that Valeris’ use of a phaser in the ship’s galley is a shout-out to Rand’s inventive way of heating coffee in The Corbomite Manoeuvre. The fact that the climax sees the Enterprise suddenly carrying the gaseous anomaly charting equipment that Sulu mentioned on the Excelsior in his exposition dialogue at the start of the movie is easy enough to dismiss (maybe Starfleet has all its ships mapping anomalies?) and makes for a better final confrontation with Chang – just like Shatner argued it would when he refused to allow Takei to ride to his rescue.

Gaseous survey teams report Shatner's still a bit full of hot air...

Gaseous survey teams report Shatner’s still a bit full of hot air…

There’s a surprisingly playful tone to a lot of The Undiscovered Country, and that excuses a lot. The movies offering strong character arcs for Kirk and Spock, The Undiscovered Country finds a nice niche for McCoy as the deadpan snarker. The climax of the movie works so well because McCoy is doing his best Statler and Waldorf impersonation from inside the film. (“This is fun.”) Similarly, Christopher Plummer is relishing his role, making every effort to out-ham the franchise’s other large ham villain, Khan.

Plummer is enjoying himself, and he’s a joy to watch in every scene. From his weird muscle spasm when he insists that Kirk answer the question without awaiting the translation through to his decision to quote Shakespeare while spinning gleefully in his Klingon command chair to his strange decisions to switch between English and Klingon in scenes with other Klingons, Plummer manages to take a character who should be a two-dimensional foil and transform him into a larger-than-life adversary.

Cameo!

Cameo!

It feels a little weird, because Chang is really positioned as more of a henchman than a master mind. He serves as a preliminary obstacle to stop the Enterprise and Excelsior from reaching Khitomer, and the movie’s climax continues long past his death. Like Khan, his confrontation with Kirk is done across the gulf of space. I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind seeing Chang getting a reimagining in an upcoming Star Trek reboot, if only because a Shakespeare-quoting Klingon adversary feels like something of which the franchise can never have too much.

The movie is also quite self-aware. While Kirk discovers that Martia is a shape-shifter who can assume his form, he is repulsed. “I can’t believe I kissed you,” he admits. Martia counters, continuing her Kirk impression, “Must have been your lifelong ambition.” For anybody who sat through The Final Frontier, it’s not too hard to believe that Shatner’s ultimate Kirk movie would have the hero defeating God and making out with himself.

Cue Shatner ego joke #261...

Cue Shatner ego joke #261…

And yet, The Undiscovered Country works because – despite all of the self-aware criticism and the none-too-subtle jabs – it remains somewhat sentimental about the original crew. It lacks the visceral gut punch of The Wrath of Khan. There’s a sense that Meyer has softened a bit from the outsider who introduced himself to the franchise by killing Spock and making Kirk pay the price for his arrogance and recklessness.

There’s none of that cruel sting to The Undiscovered Country, and that’s for the best. This is the crew’s final outing. To be overly cynical would feel almost mean-spirited. Meyer introduced a replacement for Spock in The Wrath of Khan, and he does the same here with a new character. Whereas Saavik was only implied as a possible replacement for Spock, Valeris is identified as such by Spock himself. “This will be my final voyage on board this vessel as a member of her crew. Nature abhors a vacuum. I intend you to replace me.”

I'm sure she wouldn't mind (meld)...

I’m sure she wouldn’t mind (meld)…

However, while The Wrath of Khan ended with Spock dead and Saavik proven, The Undiscovered Country has the teacher outlasting the student. Spock proves he still has one last great adventure left in him, while Valeris proved a complete disappointment. The Wrath of Khan ended with a younger generation ready to step forward and be counted. The Undiscovered Country reveals that you can only really count on the most experienced warhorses to get the job done.

It is a little overly sentimental, but it’s really the conclusion that the films had been building towards since that shot of Spock’s open coffin at the end of The Wrath of Khan. The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home covered similar ground. At the end of the film, asked to dictate a course, Kirk offers, “Second star on the right and straight on ’til morning.” It is, of course, a reference to Peter Pan. Kirk is laying in a course to Never Never Land, a place where people never grow old and never die. A place for stories and legends to live on, immortal.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

In many ways, this is the last hurrah of this crew. Sure, William Shatner would return in Star Trek: Generations, with Walter Koenig and James Doohan. Doohan would appear in 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Relics. George Takei would appear in the Star Trek: Voyager episode Flashback, which feels appropriate since he was left out of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine anniversary special Trials and Tribble-ations.

Leonard Nimoy had only recently guest-starred in the two-part Unification on The Next Generation, and would help herald in JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek. If you’re going be the internal chronology, DeForest Kelley helped christen the new Enterprise in Encounter at Farpoint. So it seems like The Undiscovered Country was only really the last big appearance for Nichelle Nichols as Uhura. Still, it’s the last time that the whole crew was together like this, and you’d have to be made of stone not to feel some pang of nostalgia.

Once more unto the warp core breach?

Once more unto the warp core breach?

And The Undiscovered Country is all the more powerful for being anchored in a particular place and time. Even if you dismiss the admitted influence of “the end of history” on Meyer and Nimoy, it’s still a film about the end of the Cold War. It opens with the destruction of Praxis, due to “insufficient safety precautions.” It’s obviously meant to evoke Chernobyl, a disaster so large that the USSR could not conceal its magnitude from those outside its borders.

There’s an argument – advanced by Mikhail Gorbachev among others – that Chernobyl represented the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, and so the use of Praxis here is quite astute. Briefing Starfleet Command on the situation, Spock suggests that simple economics spell the end of the great Klingon Empire. “Due to their enormous military budget, the Klingon economy does not have the resources to combat this catastrophe.”

Warping off into the sunset...

Warping off into the sunset…

Indeed, The Undiscovered Country is so perfectly of its time that it seemed to predict the failed coup d’etat of August 1991 against Gorbachev. Although the film was released a few months later, it had finished filming over a month before the State Committee on the State of Emergency made its bid for power. Of course, it’s just a coincidence – the reason for the conspiracy and assassination in The Undiscovered Country is because the plot needs an antagonist – but it speaks to just how much The Undiscovered Country captured the spirit of the time it was made.

The Undiscovered Country is a fitting and fond farewell to the very first Star Trek cast. So fitting and fond that the coda to their movie adventures feels entirely superfluous and anticlimactic.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

19 Responses

  1. “I’m surprised that there aren’t more tie-in materials exploring the implications of Nanclus’ involvement at the heart of Federation government. Author David A. McIntee once argued that Nanclus was “almost certainly the true villain of the movie, and probably the most forgotten of the Trek villains”, and various books have picked up the character and his threads, but it’s interesting to imagine how he got in that room in the first place.”

    That was pretty much my own theory, nice to know that an author said the same thing. People point and laugh at the “Klingon and Federation officers working together so they won’t have to work together” plot often. It makes a lot more sense if you figure that the Romulans were the ones manipulating both factions from behind the scenes… especially since they would presumably have benefited a lot from having the other two major powers at each other’s throats.

    (Which, speaking of Cold War imagery, would tie it in to the classic Connery era Bonds, where the Chinese were sometimes the implicit client behind SPECTRE’s conspiracies).

    • That’s actually a brilliant point – I seem to remember Blofeld making a wonderful “third factor” speech in From Russia With Love that could easily have been the Romulan position.

      I think there’s a wonderful story to be told about how Nanclus ended up in that room – how did the Romulans go from the Federation’s second-most hated enemies to potentially trustworthy advisers? Barring a small role in The Final Frontier, they are mostly absent from the films, so there’s a lot of room left to “fill in the blanks”, so to speak. The Romulans feature in several tie-in novels – particularly the work of Margaret Wander Bonanno – but there’s never been (to my knowledge) a parallel account of Romulan involvement in galactic politics during the movie era.

      If anyone from pocket books is reading – I have some great pitches!

  2. I think this the best Trek movie. I like it not only for its balanced mixture of cynical honesty and optimism, but also for its worldbuilding, which is realistic while still being exciting. I particularly love the use of languages, and being shown a universal translator device in action. The franchise’s generally loose handling of languages has always annoyed me, but this movie does languages right.

    • I love how Chang seems to swap randomly between Klingoneese and English in scenes with the other Klingons. (“Your father was killed for what he wanted.”) It’s so deliciously hammy.

      That said, the translation scene is absolutely brilliant in a sort of “trusting the audience to keep up” sort of way – I wonder if the studio executives worried that the audience might get a bit confused by that cut. I’d hope they’d have more faith, but experience makes me skeptical. It’s my favourite Universal Translator moment, because it’s both incredibly logical and relatively understated.

  3. I always found Spock’s forced mine meld of Valeris to be…akin to Vulcan rape.

    • I didn’t get time to deal with it here, but I will cover it in one of the supplemental pieces later in this week or next week, where James Swallow kinda calls Spock out on that. (Although he ultimately takes the easy way out, narratively. Dillard’s novelisation seems to identify it as potentially troublesome as well, suggesting that Spock leveraged the information using only the threat of mind rape. It’s hardly better or more moral, but it does acknowledge the troublesome implications.

      Interestingly, the people involved with the scene didn’t seem to read that much into it. On the commentary, it’s described as “erotic” and almost romantic. Kim Cattrall joked that she got to have safe sex with Mr. Spock. It seems like everybody involved missed the implications.

  4. Another great review!

    For what it’s worth, the “Don’t wait for the translation,” is taken from former US VP Adlai Stevenson to a Russian diplomat during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the hottest point of the Cold War.

    I love this movie. I love the over-the-top conclusion for the crew. Warping off into the sunset (in space, somehow), going to Never-Never Land, “signing off,” making peace with their oldest enemies by blowing a few of them up. Kirk even switches his “Where no man…” to Picard’s “Where no one..” as a nice little torch-pass. It seems like they say goodbye in every way they can think of short of gathering the cast for a big final wave bye-bye. Is it cheesy? A bit. But no more than Star Trek should be. I love this movie and I love the ending.

    I don’t know if this teaser was used in Europe. It is one of my favorite things about this movie. In fact, I used to watch my old VHS of Star Trek V just to watch this this: http://youtu.be/RERAc0ipha0 I get chills just hearing those first few notes!

    • The music is fantastic – massively influenced by The Planets, I believe!

      It is absurdly cheesy, but I think part of being a Star Trek fan is embracing the cheesiness of it all. And you’re right on the Stevenson reference. Plummer is having so much fun in the film it’s impossible not to get caught up in it.

  5. “The fact that the climax sees the Enterprise suddenly carrying the gaseous anomaly charting equipment that Sulu mentioned on the Excelsior in his exposition dialogue at the start of the movie is easy enough to dismiss (maybe Starfleet has all its ships mapping anomalies?) and makes for a better final confrontation with Chang – just like Shatner argued it would when he refused to allow Takei to ride to his rescue.”

    Funny you should mention this. I actually examine this alleged plot hole in my own retro-review over at my blog, and I reveal the truth behind it:
    http://glenngreenbergsgrumblings.blogspot.com/2012/01/star-trek-through-fresh-eyes-part-ten.html

    Here’s the relevant section…

    However, there’s one confounding bit that’s long been interpreted by audiences and critics as a glaring error in the script, but in fact was a goof created during production. It’s established in the first scene that the Excelsior, under the command of Sulu, has spent the last three years cataloguing gaseous planetary anomalies in the Beta Quadrant. Much later, the Enterprise is trying to pinpoint the location of an attacking Klingon bird-of-prey rendered invisible by its cloaking device. Spock notes that, cloaked or not, the Klingon ship is expending fuel in the form of ionized gas. In response, Uhura says, “What about all that equipment we’re carrying to catalogue gaseous anomalies? The thing’s got to have a tail pipe!”

    A lot of people immediately concluded, “Meyer got the ships mixed up! It was the Excelsior that was studying gaseous anomalies, not the Enterprise!”

    Well, it’s easy to see why folks would think that, but the fact is, the script had it covered. There was a brief scene written for early in the film, when Chancellor Gorkon and his party first beam aboard the Enterprise, in which this point is addressed directly. I don’t know whether it was filmed and edited out of the final cut, or if it was dropped from the script just before filming began. Whatever the case, here’s the scene, taken from a close-to-final draft of the screenplay:

    INT. R DECK CORRIDOR

    leaving the Enterprise Science Labs…

    GORKON
    Your research laboratory is most impressive…

    KIRK
    Starfleet’s been charting and cataloging planetary atmospheres.
    All vessels are equipped with chemical analytic sensors…

    GORKON
    This cannot be easy for you, Captain…
    (off the look)
    I would feel awkward if I had to give you a tour of OUR vessel…

    The man’s courtesy makes Kirk feel guilty…

    KIRK
    Would you care to go topside?

    CHANG
    Very much.

    CHEKOV
    (pulling Kirk aside)
    Captain, you’re not going to show them the bridge??

    KIRK
    (clenched teeth)
    Full diplomatic courtesy, Mr. Chekov…

    And there you have it. I’d love to know why this bit didn’t make it into the finished film, because its absence created a glaring plot hole.

    • Cool. This is one of those stories that has obviously become so pervasive that it’s often repeated by fans and even production staffers. I think that Meyer and Flynn discuss it on the commentary, but I definitely saw it discussed in some of the behind-the-scenes material I dug through.

      Thanks for the info!

    • Referring to the bridge as “topside” is another example of the prevalence of nautical language and customs in this film – I love it!

      • It is really great. One of Nicholas Meyer’s strongest legacies on the franchise, and something that I think has made it more accessible to casual audiences.

  6. The text under the final image that shows the Enterprise and the Excelsior should be rewritten as “Impulsing off into the sunset…” because the two starships are obviously at impulse speed and not warp speed. The two starships are at impulse because the red impulse engines are active on both starships.

    • Thanks Robert. I acknowledge it’s not technically accurate, but I think “warp” works better in terms of the larger cultural context, because EVERYBODY knows what “warp” means in relation to Star Trek.

  7. The characterisations of Gorkon and Chang have always seemed a bit odd to me, probably because I was raised on the Klingons we saw in TNG. Gorkon seems quite a reasonable man for someone who’s the head of an Empire that’s been in conflict with the Federation for decades. And while it is fun to see Christopher Plummer quoting Shakespeare while attacking the Enterprise at the climax, it does seem doubtful that the Klingons would be that well read on one of humanity’s literary giants.

    • Yeah, I can understand that. But I can also just go with it as Chang being an “eccentric.” After all, on Earth we have American businessmen who quote Sun Tzu almost religiously.

      • Chang’s portrayal seems more Cardassian then Klingon, especially during the trial, which would not be that difficult to turn into a courtroom on Cardassia Prime.

      • That’s a fair point, I suppose. But Change does have that very theatrical tone that many TOS Klingons had, the sense that they’d happily monologue to themselves about how evil they are. He kinda reminded me of John Colicos’ Kor, particularly in his more sinister moments.

  8. Yeah, again that sounds Cardassian. They could go on monologuing (is that a word?) all day.

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