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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (DC Comics, 1992) (Review)

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

In many respects, adapting a Star Trek feature film into comic book form is very much an editorial function. With so little space available, particularly as compared to a feature film or novel, the assignment is more about whittling the script down to something that can be covered in fifty-five pages of a comic book. While those adapting the features films into novels frequently have to expand and flesh out the material to make it fit within the allocated page count and account for plot hole and logic error, the comic book adaptations just have to keep everything ticking over.

So Peter David and Gorden Purcell’s adaptation of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country plays quite well as a condensed version of the narrative, covering the requisite story beats in the available space.

In space, everybody can hear you scream...

In space, everybody can hear you scream…

Over course, adaptation is an infinitely fascinating subject. After all, the comic and the novelisation need to hit the stands at around the same time as the film is released in cinemas. In most cases, this means that the creators will not have had a chance to watch the film before producing the adaptation of it, instead working from a relatively early draft of the script. As such, there’s no opportunity to study of an actor delivers a particular line, how make-up or special effects realise a particular sequence, or even material that gets added or removed at a certain point in the release cycle.

So David’s adaptation of the script to The Undiscovered Country contains a number of nice sequences and touches that never actually made it into the finished cut of the film, allowing an endearing glimpse at what might have been – at the material that was either changed with the actors while shooting, or altered during post-production. These are mostly a few lines here or there, but they do offer a number of nice little insights into how The Undiscovered Country developed.

"I have been, and always shall be, somewhat impulsive..."

“I have been, and always shall be, somewhat impulsive…”

Oddly enough, most of the lines from the original script that make it into the comic book without making it into the film seem quite like Peter-David-isms, wry self-aware and occasional black jokes. As Scotty beams the Klingons on board, he muses, “Maybe if their particles just got a wee bit mixed…” When Kirk sees Valeris standing in his doorway as he records a particularly scathing log, he observes, “Come on, Valeris, you could knock.”

These are moments that would actually fit quite well with David’s work on the monthly Star Trek comic book, with its wry sense of humour and its fondness for pointing our narrative awkwardness. That said, it’s kinda cool that Peter David retained Colonel Worf’s observations about Klingon law. After Chang cross-examines Kirk and McCoy, McCoy is ready for the defence to begin their case. “According to Klingon law both sides present their cases at the same time,” Worf explains. “We’ve had our turn.”

Ever the gentleman...

Ever the gentleman…

It’s a blackly comic twist, but it’s also something that feels like it adds a lot to Klingon culture. After all, these are an alien race of warriors. It makes sense that their legacy system would be a bit more aggressive and adversarial than the human equivalent. (Although it does make Worf seem particularly ineffective as Kirk and McCoy’s defence consul.)

Unlike J.M. Dillard’s novelisation of the film, Peter David feels quite comfortable with most of The Undiscovered Country. There’s no attempt to rationalise or justify various plot threads or awkward moments. Chekov’s “guess who’s coming to dinner?” is allowed to sit on its own, uncorrected and untempered. Similarly, Kirk’s “I’ve never trusted Klingons and I never will” is left unqualified and undiluted.

Judgement...

Judgement…

That said, the relatively small space available means that a lot of the stuff that Dillard objected to can get trimmed completely – there’s no awkward comedy sequence about Uhura bluffing her way past the Klingon border while the crew balance Klingon dictionaries. David’s own additions to the script are relatively minimal – a line here, a cheesy pun there. “I think I’ve been alien-ated,” Kirk remarks after kissing Marta.

The choice that feels the most meaningful involved Valeris. During her scene on the bridge, Valeris gets an extra line about the fear of change that rests at the heart of The Undiscovered Country, the fear of the future and the uncertainty that comes with it. “The universe was a well-ordered place,” she tells Kirk when confronted about the conspiracy. “We all knew our roles. Why change them?”

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

While the line did appear in a very early script (when Valeris was still Saavik), its inclusion here shifts the emphasis of her betrayal. Valeris is not arguing so much that the Klingons cannot be trusted, but that change frightening. It’s a theme that remains in the final cut of the film, but putting it explicitly at the centre of Valeris’ motive rant makes it clear that fear of change is as much the enemy as years of institutionalised hatred.

Perhaps it’s just a line that serves to make Valeris’ motivations a little clearer, but it could be read as an attempt by David’s to draw attention to the sort of storytelling conservatism and traditionalism that he faced in his disagreements with Richard Arnold. Not that Arnold’s observations and instructions always made a lot of sense, but they reflected a particularly orthodox vision of what a Star Trek spin-off should be – as if he were just as frightened of change as the conspirators had been.

Even the prospect of bunk beds did little to lift Kirk's spirits...

Even the prospect of bunk beds did little to lift Kirk’s spirits…

It’s only a little dig, one barely perceptible. Indeed, it’s quite possible that it was an entirely innocent addition to the script. However, it does draw attention to the shifting status quo. The Undiscovered Country was a movie about a changing Star Trek landscape, with much of the change and uncertainty inside the script reflected in the production of the franchise itself. It was the last adventure starring the original cast, with the crew stepping aside to make way for the bold new future of Star Trek. This was as true behind the scenes as it was in front of the camera.

Gene Roddenberry had passed away in late 1991. As such, he was never involved in anything more than rudimentary planning of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As popular fan lore has it, Richard Arnold was formally ejected from his office less than a month after Roddenberry passed away, thus ending his official involvement in the franchise. (Although he did remain active in fan circles, giving interviews and consulting.)

Well, at least they know his name...

Well, at least they know his name…

The conflict between Peter David and Richard Arnold has been such a significant part of Peter David’s Star Trek comics work – often overshadowing the work itself – that the adaptation of The Undiscovered Country can’t help but offer some small measure of closure. Peter David’s triumphant return to DC’s line of Star Trek comics feels like some form of vindication and validation. David had departed the on-going Star Trek comic less than two years into its run after a series of bitter disputes with Arnold.

While DC’s on-going Star Trek comic series was now being rotated through a variety of talent (with Star Trek: The Animated Series scribe Harold Weinstein doing the lion’s share of the writing), the movie adaptation of The Undiscovered Country allows Peter David to come back in the DC comics Star Trek fold for a brief moment. His four-issue Modala Imperative crossover miniseries serves as something of a victory lap.

Kirk discovered that Klingon social mixers left a lot to be desired...

Kirk discovered that Klingon social mixers left a lot to be desired…

In the years ahead, David would take advantage of the new opportunities present by the end of this particular era. With Richard Arnold gone and Star Trek tie-ins afforded more freedom than they had enjoyed for years, David would go on to launch his own Star Trek novel series, New Frontier. As much as The Undiscovered Country allowed Kirk and his crew to bow out gracefully and make room for “the next generation”, it was also a point where the tie-in books and comics themselves witnessed a changing of the guard.

Although Peter David and Gordon Purcell’s adaptation of The Undiscovered Country is – by its nature – a condensed version of the film, it is still a significant event in this phase of Star Trek‘s own history. It all makes The Undiscovered Country feel more and more like an attempt to close the book on a particular section of Star Trek history. Perhaps it is not quite “the end of history”, only the end of a certain type of history.

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