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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country by J.M. Dillard (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Reading her novelisation of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it’s hard to shake the feeling that author J.M. Dillard really does not like this film.

It’s a very peculiar sensation, to read an adaptation clearly written by somebody who could not care less for the source material. It is not unique, of course. Diane Carey’s adaptation of Broken Bow is downright scathing in its attitude towards Star Trek: Enterprise. It just seems rather strange that J.M. Dillard’s early adaptation of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier seems a lot fonder of its source material.


It should be clarified that it’s impossible to know whether Dillard really did actively dislike The Undiscovered Country. It’s quite possible that the novelisation doesn’t accurately convey her approach to the film, and that her attempts to fix various perceived nitpicks with the movie make the adaptation seem a bit more hyper-critical than it might otherwise be. It’s very easy to accidentally imply motives to writers that are not fair, or do not accurately reflect their approach or their intent.

Similarly, it’s hard exactly to quantify this sense that Dillard is not a fan of the source material. Certainly, she’s not the only novelist to add material when adapting a feature film to prose. Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelisations were full of tangents and diversions and original scenes. That doesn’t mean that she hated the script, merely that she felt she needed a bit of freedom in adapting it to another a medium.

To be fair, some of the choices made by McIntyre could be construed as criticisms of her source material. For example, her novelisation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan develops the scientists working on the Genesis Device, arguably drawing attention to how casually the film tortures and kills them. Khan is kept at a distance, a stylistic choice that perhaps suggests that McIntyre felt the movie romanticised him too much.

Similarly, McIntyre’s adaptation of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock features an extended prologue that unpacks the consequences of the previous film, perhaps acknowledging that the movie treats the death of Spock and the existence of Genesis as the only lingering plot threads from the earlier instalment. The fact that McIntyre gives an early chapter of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to Carol Marcus could be seen to suggest that Kirk’s decisions have consequences the films don’t acknowledge.

Even J.M. Dillard’s novelisation of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier took care to point out the various plot holes and characterisation issues that riddled the script. There was a sense reading the adaptation that Dillard was occasionally pausing to snigger at the problems that plagued William Shatner’s attempt to make a Star Trek film. So it isn’t as if Dillard’s novelisation of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is the first time that a Star Trek adaptation to get critical or analytical with its source material.

Perhaps, then, what is most striking about the way that Dillard’s novelisation chips away at The Undiscovered Country is the way that it all feels so unrelentingly and so unashamedly fannish. Dillard’s adaptation uncritically jumps on the band wagon of a certain type of Star Trek fan who is outraged and upset by the depiction of the original Star Trek cast in The Undiscovered Country, without pausing to ask whether this portrayal of the crew is reasonable or even grounded.

Dilalrd takes particular exception to the idea that the crew of the Enterprise might be racist against Klingons. The novel works very hard to try to mitigate Kirk’s early attitude towards the Klingons. Carol Marcus is put in a coma during a Klingon attack as if to stress that Kirk’s opinion is being coloured by events. As Uhura notes:

He had seemed completely recovered from his grief then; at least, Uhura had not sensed the same depth of anger in him. Something had happened to awaken his pain and hate. Kudao, which had stirred the hatred sleeping in them all. Klingons had attacked and killed hundreds of innocent settlers on that world.

It’s an addition that feels rather pointless, as if Dillard is trying to undercut the entire point of The Undiscovered Country by reducing the crew’s xenophobia and racism to little more than a flash of anger provoked by one recent event. Dillard even alters the movie’s most damning line of dialogue for Kirk, as if finding it impossible that Kirk could articulate such a sentiment.

“I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will,” Kirk confesses in a (supposedly) private moment during the film. “I can never forgive them for the death of my boy.” It’s a moment that humanises Kirk a great deal, even as it reveals him to be a flawed individual. That hatred is tragic and horrific, but it is understandable. The novelisation cannot conceive of a version of Kirk who may hold such a flaw, so the line is altered to add a degree of distance to Kirk’s reflection. “I’m beginning to think McCoy is right I’ve never been able to forgive them for the death of my son.”

Similarly, Spock is horrified by the attitudes expressed by his crew mates during the mission. We’re told that “the past few days had revealed a startling degree of anger and bitterness that Spook had never expected to find among Federation members, least of all his friends.” Gene Roddenberry would be turning in his grave, we are clearly supposed to think while reading the novelisation. Where are Roddenberry’s enlightened humans now, the novel invites us to wonder?

Dillard even has a great deal of trouble with Chekov’s sarcastic “guess who’s coming to dinner” line, ignoring the fact that the line is meant to draw the audience’s attention to the obvious parallels. Not one for any form of subtlety, McIntyre has Uhura openly call Chekov out for that line:

There was irony in his tone. Uhura felt a flash of indignation. Diplomatic relations with the Klingons were delicate, mercurial, at best. Everything Spock was trying to achieve could be all too easily destroyed. “Chekov, an attitude like that isn’t going to help.”

Dillard seems to have a great deal of trouble with the idea that The Undiscovered Country could exist as a reflective exploration and criticism of the Cold War attitudes that shaped the original Star Trek series, and that the movie might be making a very valid argument about the origins of the franchise.

Dillard seems to be giving voice to a not-insignificant section of fandom that considers The Undiscovered Country to represent a betrayal of the franchise’s enlightenment and idealism. The problem with this criticism of The Undiscovered Country is that it buys into a romantic ideal of Star Trek that never actually existed. For all that Gene Roddenberry claimed to present an enlightened future version of humanity, his characters were decided racist and xenophobic.

For all Roddenberry’s pontificating about “tolerance” and “open-mindedness”, he is the writer who not only scripted The Omega Glory, but felt that it was such a good idea that he ignored every legitimate criticism made of the story along its path to production at the tale end of the show’s second season. Consider Kirk’s attitudes towards the Klingons in shows like A Private Little War. Are they so far removed from his attitude here? Or have they simply been galvinised by the death of David?

Even if we allow that these stories were produced by Roddenberry decades ago, his work on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation does little to redeem him. There, his “enlightened” and “idealised” human characters seem to fly through the cosmos lording their superiority over societies that do not conform to their values or ideals. Look at how Picard and Riker react to “primitive” aliens in The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us.

The attitudes expressed by the Star Trek cast in The Undiscovered Country are not as radical or out-of-character as they might seem. Instead, the movie just provides a context where those attitudes are properly held to account, and properly acknowledged as arrogant and racist. Azetbur might make a cheap shot about the naming of “human rights”, but she has a very valid point about the way that the original Star Trek show would see the universe.

The strong reaction to the portrayal of the crew in The Undiscovered Country speaks to certain attitudes in Star Trek fandom. There is a tendency to lionise Gene Roddenberry, to defend his legacy and his reputation against criticism. He is the man who invented Star Trek, after all. He created a dream that means a lot to a lot of people. He worked phenomenally hard to keep it going. He sustained it during its long absence from the big or small screens. These are great things, and Star Trek fans owe him a lot.

However, this does not mean that Roddenberry is immune from criticism. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to defend Roddenberry’s perceived idealism from those who would undermine it or attack it, even when those people are simply offering valid criticism. The Undiscovered Country offers very valid criticism of the show and the franchise. It’s not a betrayal of Roddenberry’s vision, so much as an attempt to acknowledge the huge blind spots and then try to fix them.

To a lesser extent, this reaction to The Undiscovered Country also speaks to the way that fandom tends to lionise James T. Kirk. The character is larger than life. He is one of the two most iconic characters in the franchise. There’s a strange tendency towards hero worship in Star Trek fandom, as if presenting Kirk as the platonic ideal of Star Trek characters. Witness the fan reaction to the portrayal of a flawed Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness.

This ignores the fact that the franchise has been critical of Kirk on quite a few occasions. Gene Coon was very fond of having Kirk’s gung-ho attitude cause problems for the crew. Both The Devil in the Dark and Errand of Mercy only resolve themselves when Kirk is forced to confront his own mistakes and miscalculations. The Undiscovered Country could be seen as an extension of that approach. Kirk starts out with a skewed perspective, only to eventually realise his error in judgement and his own flaws.

This isn’t even the worst example. In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk’s arrogance leads him and a crew of cadets into a “no-win” situation which can only be resolved through Spock’s sacrifice. Kirk’s mistakes come back to haunt the crew, costing countless lives and killing his best friend. The Wrath of Khan is a scathing critique of Kirk’s character buried beneath the exterior of “Horatio Hornblower in space!”

It seems strange that it has been embraced so readily by a fandom that tends to take issue with portrayals of James T. Kirk as a very flawed individual. The Undiscovered Country is – if anything – less scathing in its criticism of Kirk’s character, and yet its portrayal of the original Star Trek cast was so polarising that even the film’s novelisation seems to pay lip service to these rather shallow and fannish criticisms of the film.

In keeping with the sense that Dillard’s novelisation is approaching The Undiscovered Country as a hardcore fan horrified by its perceived deviations from the Star Trek canon, the adaptation seems suitably horrified by the idea of a treacherous Vulcan, foreshadowing one of the stock criticisms of Enterprise nine years ahead of time. Dillard’s novelisation is suitably confused by the prospect that Valeris could be a racist traitor. After all, Vulcans are the good guys, right?

The book rather hastily explains that Valeris is really just a crap Vulcan, because – to borrow a logical fallacy – no true Vulcan would behave in such a manner. So we get a snippet of her history, including a story about her largely absent father:

He exposed Valeris to only the rudiments of a Vulcan upbringing, leaving her mostly in the care of the human house servant. She was not given a proper Vulcan education, nor was she initiated into the mind rules.

This seems like a rather reactionary expansion to the film, one that arguably set the tone for other books featuring Valeris – such as James Swallow’s Cast no Shadow.

Of course, this feels like another reactionary piece of fanlore trying to “fix” an element of the film that is simply not broken. As much as fans like to imagine that Vulcans are inevitably “good guys”, the franchise itself begs to differ. The Vulcans in Amok Time are by turns confrontational and conniving. When Sarek is introduced in Journey to Babel, he is wilfully antagonistic towards Spock. Vulcans certainly don’t seem very fond of outsiders based on those two episodes alone.

Even during their few appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Vulcans did not seem particularly friendly. Sarek’s pride leads him to jeopardise an important peace mission in Sarek. In the same episode, a young Vulcan admits that he has been secretly using his telepathy on Sarek, without informing Sarek himself – and without informing anybody that Sarek’s judgement might be compromised.

Naturally, fandom would continue to protest the idea of “bad Vulcans”, even when televised Star Trek just ran with the idea. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine embraced the concept that even well-behaved Vulcans could be arrogant and confrontational, producing episodes like Shakaar and Take Me Out to the Holosuite. The show also gave us a Vulcan serial killer in Field of Fire. Star Trek: Voyager was a bit more low-key in that approach. In the first season, Tuvok betrayed both Chakotay and Janeway. In Blood Fever, we got to meet a Vulcan rapist.

As with the fanlore that has built up around Roddenberry and Kirk, it’s another example of how Star Trek fandom tends to latch on to its own preconceived notions and reject anything that disagrees with their presuppositions and assumptions. The problem with Dillard’s novelisation is not that it is critical of The Undiscovered Country, it is that the adaptation is so lazy and cynical in that criticism – so keen to latch on to ideas held by fandom that it misses the entire point of the film.

2 Responses

  1. Well done!

    Expressed here are ideas I have held for years, but lack the knowledge to adequately defend.

    This is one of the most challenging Trek stories around. Perhaps the most challenging, given the creators’ courage to present seriously flawed characters in all their warty glory. And you’ve done a fine job explaining the necessity of, and precedent for, such characters.

    But my favorite part of this essay is the criticism of the Roddenberry utopia. Trekkies seem fixated on this, perhaps even more so with the controversial plot of STID. And, except for blatant announcements of humanity’s perfect human future, I can find no evidence of it in Star Trek. Like Lucas’ constant announcements that Padme and Anakin are really in love, the creators of Trek seem to rely on telling us, rather than showing us, that people will be better.

    But still. You’d think Uhura would know Klingon. (Maybe her character achieved a bit of a redemption in Star Trek 09 where her first action was to decode a Klingon message.)

    Also, Spock’s forced mind-meld is hard to watch. I do like Dillard’s version of that event. But I can easily admit that I do so just so I can keep Spock up on his pedestal…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mickey. I can appreciate what Roddenberry did, and all that Star Trek did, but I don’t think the blinders help anybody.

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