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“The Undiscovered Country… the Future!”: Star Trek VI and the Unexpected End of History…

Early in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon offers what appears to be a fairly dramatic misreading of Hamlet.

Opening a dinner between the representatives of the Klingon High Council and the senior staff of the Enterprise, Gorkon raises his glass of Romulan Ale in salute. “I offer a toast,” he states. “The undiscovered country, the future.” By most accounts, this isn’t what Shakespeare meant when he allowed the Danish Prince to monologue about “the undiscovered country.” The dialogue is quite explicit that Shakespeare was talking about death rather than the future. Hamlet is reflecting upon the possibility of “something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” To be fair to Gorkon, this may be a simple translation error; after all, the Klingon Chancellor boasts that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

However, increasingly, The Undiscovered Country suggests that Gorkon’s toast is not a simple misreading of the Bard. In the most obvious of senses, Gorkon himself gets to travel to “the undiscovered country” almost immediately after the dinner, murdered by two assassins in Starfleet uniforms as part of a plot to destabilise the possibility of peaceful relations between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Indeed, even within the larger context of the Star Trek franchise, there is a sense that the future of the Klingon Empire is inexorably associated with death. Gorkon’s peace with the Federation sets in motion the gradual decay and decline of the Klingon Empire that runs through stories like Heart of Glory, Sins of the Father, The Way of the Warrior, Tacking Into the Wind.

However, watching The Undiscovered Country more than a quarter of a century removed from its original context, that seeming misstatement seems increasingly deliberate and calculated. The Undiscovered Country is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the Star Trek films, in large part due to how it consciously and deliberately twins the notions of “death” and “the future”, insisting that perhaps the past must die so that the future might live. In the world of The Undiscovered Country, death is still frightening and mysterious and uncharted. However, it is also a necessary part of growth and evolution. In the years since the release of The Undiscovered Country, it seems like more franchises could take that idea to heart.

The Undiscovered Country manages the rare feat of gracefully drawing the curtain down on (the original iteration of) one of the most iconic franchises in pop cultural history. From very early in the film, it is apparent that The Undiscovered Country is supposed to be the last story told featuring (at the very least this iteration of) these beloved characters. Even if the idea that the Enterprise is “to be decommissioned” is only explicitly mentioned in the closing scene, the film makes it very clear that these characters are not long for this world. They have endured long beyond their five-year mission, and this is essentially one last hurrah for a crew of wisened veterans.

Spock has trained a protégé, Valeris. “This will be my final voyage on board this vessel as a member of her crew,” Spock tells his young ward. “Nature abhors a vacuum. I intend you to replace me.” Of course, Valeris is later revealed as a traitor and a spy, but the point still stands. The decommissioning of the Enterprise at the end of the film confirms that this adventure really would be Spock’s “final voyage on board this vessel as a member of her crew.” Early on, Valeris finds Spock in his quarters, and notes the choice of decor. “It’s a depiction from ancient Earth mythology,” he explains of a painting. “The Expulsion from Paradise.” Valeris asks, “Why keep it in your quarters?” Spock responds, “To be a reminder to me that all things end.”

Spock is not the only character facing his mortality. When accused of murder at a Klingon trial, McCoy acknowledges that age has taken its toll on him. “Doctor McCoy, would you be so good as to tell me your current medical status?” Chang demands. McCoy responds, “Aside from a touch of arthritis, I’d say pretty good.” Chang presses McCoy on his consumption of Romulan Ale, but his line of questioning is revealing. Chang’s interrogation builds to a crescendo. “May I ask, do your hands shake?” Note the tense; Chang does not ask “did your hands shake?” Instead, Chang suggests that McCoy himself is over the hill, that he lacks the dexterity that he once had and that he is no longer the miracle worker that he once was.

Even Kirk faces a similar acknowledgement that perhaps his most vital and virile days are behind him. William Shatner had written and directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as something of a loving ode to James T. Kirk, a nostalgic and regressive fantasy of a middle aged man who was still at the height of his powers; literally, given that the film introduces Kirk scaling El Capitan. The Final Frontier is very much a romantic fantasy of Kirk as a leading man; Shatner gives Kirk an opponent that he deems worthy of the iconic captain by pitting him against (an alien being manifesting as) God, and Shatner also literalises his sometimes fraught relationship with his co-stars by creating a story that features most of the senior staff working against their commanding officer.

In contrast, The Undiscovered Country offers the audience a version of Kirk that feels older and more mature, making an uncomfortable peace with middle age. This is no surprise. Nicholas Meyer had made a point to emphasise Kirk’s advancing years in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with McCoy affording his old friend with a set of reading glasses to compensate for his failing eyesight. Of course, the meditations on ageing in The Wrath of Khan were somewhat undercut by the sequels. For all that The Wrath of Khan stresses that Kirk is closer to the end of his journey than the beginning, the films that followed tended to downplay that reflective maturity.

In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk is able to reverse the climax of The Wrath of Khan by resurrecting his best friend Spock. This resurrection does come at a price, and so doesn’t feel as much as a cop out as it might, but the cost of this recaptured vitality is very telling. Kirk destroys the Enterprise, which seems like a huge sacrifice until he is issued with a new replacement to command. Kirk also loses his rank and commission, facing court martial for his actions. However, Kirk is promptly reinstated as a captain rather than an admiral, representing a literal replacement. The steepest price that Kirk pays for Spock’s resurrection is the death of his son David. In The Search for Spock, the future is sacrificed to resurrect the past.

This point is reinforced within Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which notably made Kirk the commanding officer of the Enterprise once again after saving Earth from an alien probe. Notably, The Voyage Home also features the characters making a trip into the past, even if it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that they instead escape from television into the real world. The Voyage Home features a sequence in which Kirk cynically pawns the glasses that McCoy gifted him at the start of The Wrath of Khan. It does set up a clever time travel gag. As Kirk pawns the glasses, Spock interrupts, “Excuse me, weren’t those a birthday present from Doctor McCoy?” Kirk replies, “And they will be again, that’s the beauty of it.” However, the point is clear. Kirk does not need them.

That said, The Voyage Home did herald the future of the Star Trek franchise. The movie’s phenomenal success encouraged Paramount to press forward with the show that would become Star Trek: The Next Generation. The live action spin-off would be set a century in the future and (barring a cameo from McCoy in Encounter at Farpoint) feature an entirely new cast of characters. The show would be on the air by the time that The Final Frontier entered production. By the time that The Undiscovered Country was in development, there was already some suggestion that the franchise would expand further and further intot he future, with spin-offs like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.

The Next Generation casts a long shadow over The Undiscovered Country, reflected in a number of ways. Most obviously and most immediately, Next Generation regular Michael Dorn makes a cameo as Kirk’s defense attorney, “Colonel Worf”, who is implied to be the grandfather of the character that Dorn played on The Next Generation. More than that, the basic premise of The Undiscovered Country is establishing a peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire that was already in place during the first season of The Next Generation. (Indeed, the first season even implied that the Klingons were members of the Federation.) The closing sequence even has Kirk catch himself, correcting “where no man has gone before” to his successor’s more universal “where no one has gone before.”

Much has been made about The Undiscovered Country as a film that exists at “the end of history.” Kirk even name-checks the concept at the climax as he rushes to Azetbur from another assassination plot. “It’s about the future, Madam Chancellor,” he explains. “Some people think the future means the end of history. But we haven’t run out of history just yet. Your father called the future ‘the undiscovered country.’ People can be very frightened of change.” This idea of “the end of history” is often discussed in terms of the film’s obvious Cold War parallels. After all, that is where the phrase originates, from the belief that the end of the Cold War represented the end of the progression of history; that liberal democracy had “won” and that there would be no comparable ideological conflicts ahead.

This idea ripples through the Star Trek franchise. In many respects, Voyager was the Star Trek series that represented the ideal of “the end of history”, imagining a future in which Starfleet was unchallenged even by the might of the Borg. It is appropriate that – as far as the Berman era of Star Trek is concerned – Voyager represented the literal end of history. It was the last Star Trek show chronologically. This is true even of individual episodes; stories like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Relativity suggested a twenty-ninth century Starfleet while Living Witness pushed the show further into the future than anything else in the Berman ere. Tellingly, the next series – and the last series of the Berman era – would be a prequel that effectively allowed Star Trek to retreat into history.

Of course, the doctrine of “the end of history” has been challenged and interrogated a great deal in the three decades since it was first proposed, with many observers pointing out that liberal democracy has in fact faced a number of major ideological challenges. Even in terms of the Star Trek franchise, these challenges can be seen to play themselves out. Despite the fact that it was nominally a prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise became a testing ground. The production team had been so sure of the franchise’s idealised future – so certain that history could not be changed – that they planned to show its origins. Instead, over the course of Enterprise, the entire future and history of the Star Trek franchise was constantly and repeatedly under threat.

The Undiscovered Country works very well as a metaphor for the end of the Cold War. After all, the Klingons had been a metaphor for the communist threat dating back to Errand of Mercy, even if they seemed more inspired by the Chinese than by the Russians. Any number of parallels suggest themselves. The High Chancellor Gorkon shares the same first syllable as General Secretary Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the Russian leader who ended the Cold War. The explosion of Praxis at the start of the film could be likened to the Chernobyl Disaster. Rura Penthe is even identified as a “gulag”, the depiction evoking the wastes of Siberia. There had even been an attempted coup against Gorbachev to stop the collapse of the Soviet Union.

All of this stuff is great, and an essential part of The Undiscovered Country. It is a prime example of Star Trek as a vehicle to tell allegorical stories, effectively reinventing American self-image as an epic science-fiction fantasy. It also feels like an appropriate last hurrah for the original Star Trek cast. After all, as a product of the sixties, the Cold War had defined the original Star Trek as demonstrated by episodes as diverse as Balance of Terror, The Trouble With Tribbles, A Private Little War, The Apple, A Piece of the Action and Day of the Dove. When Chang chides Kirk that “in space all warriors are cold warriors”, that seems particularly true of James Tiberius Kirk and his generation.

However, The Undiscovered Country has aged remarkably well in a number of key respects, in ways that are often overlooked and ignored. Most obviously, it is a film about saying farewell to beloved characters and concepts, understanding that these sorts of stories must inevitably come to an end. While Kirk and his crew might not come to “the end of history”, they have definitely come to “the end.” One of the most compelling aspects of The Undiscovered Country is how it allows these characters to face that ending with dignity and integrity. Despite the (largely misbegotten) attempt to offer Kirk a coda in Star Trek: Generations, the sixth feature film feels like a logical end point for (at least this iteration of) the character.

Most notably, The Undiscovered Country is a movie that is willing to acknowledge that progress is necessary and that times change. One of the film’s most controversial aspects is the decision to deal candidly and explicitly with Kirk’s racism towards Klingons. “Don’t believe them!” Kirk yells when Spock nominates him as the representative to shepherd the Klingons to Earth. “Don’t trust them!” Spock protests, “They are dying.” Kirk snaps back, “Let them die!” Kirk outlines his feelings later on in a personal log, “I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will. I can never forgive them for the death of my boy.” Kirk immediately regrets articulating that thought, trying to brush it aside. However, it has been spoken aloud.

These narrative choices created tension within the fandom at that time, just as the decision to kill of Spock in The Wrath of Khan had led to an angry campaign on behalf of entitled and outraged fans who did things like take out fill page advertisements in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to express their frustration. (For his part, Nicholas Meyer reported getting a letter warning him, “If Spock dies, you die.”) The portrayal of James Tiberius Kirk as a flawed human being who had a strong hatred of the Klingons rooted in a deeply personal experience was seen by various fans as a betrayal of the character. (Even now, some fans see it as “out of character.”) Even the official novelisation, written by J.M. Dillard, does very little to hide its contempt for this characterisation of Kirk.

However, this glosses over three important facets in how The Undiscovered Country approaches the issue. Most obviously, Kirk has fairly consistently been characterised as a more emotive and passionate figure, one guided by his emotions and prone to making errors in judgement. Writers like Gene L. Coon were very explicit about this, playing up Kirk’s more aggressive and militant tendencies. Kirk seemed eager to start a shooting war with the Klingons in Errand of Mercy and threatened to wipe out the surface of a planet in A Taste of Armageddon. There are other more ambiguous examples of Kirk’s attitude; his vendetta in Obsession, his violation of the Prime Directive in episodes like A Private Little War and The Omega Glory, his romanticisation of Khan in Space Seed.

Secondly, and more broadly, The Undiscovered Country is also exploring the reality that the sixties values espoused by the original Star Trek series were not necessarily those of the nineties. Time passes, society moves on. The Star Trek franchise is inherently optimistic, and the basic premise of the show – the idea of a utopian society exploring the stars – is an extension of the old adage that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. It would be shortsighted to assume that arc ended in the sixties, or even the nineties. To be fair, there is a sense that even the writing staff on the original Star Trek understood this, using the show’s science-fiction trappings to explore issues with contemporary American culture in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy.

However, there were other examples of the show’s limitations. As much as Plato’s Stepchildren might be lauded as a potential televisual watermark, it is an episode that portrays a black woman and white man kissing as something freakish and grotesque; a circus sideshow. Similarly, while the basic moral of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was laudable and well-intentioned, it was also a story about the oppressed were just as responsible for civil unrest as the oppressors. The less said about the gender politics of Turnabout Intruder or the racial politics of The Omega Glory, the better. Even little touches, such as the casualness with which the series handles complete erasure of Uhura personality in The Changeling, underscored the show’s capacity for tone-deafness.

The third important thing about how The Undiscovered Country approaches the limits of the utopian idealism of the original Star Trek is reflected in how it deals with these two factors. While some of these episodes (like Turnabout Intruder and The Omega Glory) were definitely retrograde for the sixties, it would be unfair to hold a beloved piece of popular culture to modern political or social standards. However, it is important to understand how times and changed, and to recognise that even a forward-thinking piece of sixties pop culture is still anchored in that cultural moment. The Undiscovered Country understands that acknowledging the limitations of the original Star Trek does not mean dismissing it or belittling it.

Most obviously, The Undiscovered Country allows Kirk and his crew to be heroes together. Kirk gets to save the day. Virtually every member of the ensemble gets one last opportunity to shine. Even Chekov gets to boast about “Russian epic of Cinderella.” The decision to close the episode with the actors’ signatures is genuinely lovely. It is made very clear that nobody but Kirk can save the day. While Spock spearheads the investigation into the assassination of High Chancellor Gorkon, the Enterprise also has to rescue Kirk before it can thwart the threat against Azetbur. Notably, allowing for an awkward piece of retroactive continuity in Flashback, the new-fangled Excelsior largely sits around during this massive galactic crisis; it waits for Kirk to take charge of the situation.

More than that, The Undiscovered Country suggests that acknowledging those changes and accepting mortality is a heroic act of itself. One of the central recurring themes of The Undiscovered Country is Kirk grappling with his own sense of obsolescence, the reality that times have changed and that the universe has perhaps moved beyond him. At one point, he openly asks, “How on earth can history get past people like me?” Later on, in Rura Penthe, he asks McCoy, “Bones, are you afraid of the future?” He elaborates, “Some people are afraid of what might happen. I was terrified.” When Kirk arrives at Khitomer and tells Azetbur that some people are afraid of the future because it represents change, he is articulating his own character arc.

Kirk was afraid of a future in which he was rendered redundant, of a culture that had moved past his own flaws and his own weaknesses. The Undiscovered Country forces Kirk to face that fear. However, he doesn’t defeat that fear in the same way that he did in The Search for Spock or The Voyage Home, by cheating death and restoring the status quo. In The Undiscovered Country, Kirk accepts that the future is inevitable and that there will come a point when history moves beyond him. A key moment in Kirk’s arc comes as he cradles the dying Gorkon in his arms, the moment when Kirk seems to realise that Gorkon really wanted peace between the two powers. “Don’t let it end this way, Captain,” Gorkon begs with his dying breath.

Implicit in those last words is an understanding that all things end, and that the only control that any person has over that ending is how they face it. The Undiscovered Country is the story of the most dignified sort of ending, a veteran troupe surrendering the stage with grace and sophistication to a younger generation. Kirk concedes as much in his closing log entry. “This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future.” This was a very affecting conclusion to the original Star Trek when it was released in December 1991. It is all the more affecting removed by two and a half decades, when the dignity and maturity of The Undiscovered Country feels like an anomaly.

Nostalgia has always been a potent cultural force. After all, one need only look at how many New Hollywood films like Paper Moon, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Sting and Chinatown look back longingly to the thirties and forties. However, in the decades since the release of The Undiscovered Country, it has become almost suffocating. Modern pop culture seems trapped in a state of perpetual recycling and reinvention, resurrecting and reviving old franchises. Some of these approaches attempt to do something novel or modern with the core premise, updating concepts like Ghostbusters for an era more cognisant about representation and diversity. Other attempts at modernisation feel more cynical and unnecessary, like Baywatch or CHiPs.

Inevitably, this nostalgic gaze has turned towards fan-friendly properties. In October 2012, Disney purchased LucasFilm for four billion dollars; the company recouped the investment within six years. There has been a wealth of Star Wars content in the last half-decade; Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story. This is an explosion of Star Wars content, particularly considering the long stretches that the cinematic franchise had been allowed to remain fallow. Similarly, audiences are treated a glut of superhero films year-in and year-out, bringing beloved (and sometimes even forgotten) childhood characters to life on enormous budgets.

There’s an undeniable nostalgia to this, a sense that – to borrow a quote from another beloved property that underwent a somewhat stranger revival than most – “that gum you like is going to come back in style.” The Star Trek franchise was not immune to these forces of reinvention and nostalagia. JJ Abrams would revitalise the franchise with Star Trek, which – while it might be possible to quibble on the exact terminology – was functionally a “reboot” with a new cast playing old characters. Star Trek Into Darkness was arguably an even bolder slice of nostaligia, reimagining both Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan for the twenty-first century.

When Star Trek came back to television, the results were interesting. Although Star Trek: Discovery was nominally a prequel series, positioned chronologically between Enterprise and the original Star Trek, it was also very distinct in style and tone from the franchise as it came before. Indeed, there were shades of The Undiscovered Country to the first season, as it focused on the war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire as well as adding more bald Klingons like General Chang to the canon. Interestingly, the first season was divisive among fans. Conservative sections of the fan base protested that the series was “not Star Trek” and that it was a betrayal of the franchise’s core principles.

This was, notably, very similar to how previous departures from the established Star Trek template had been received by the fan base; those advertisements threatening to boycott The Wrath of Khan or that passive aggressive novelisation of The Undiscovered Country. However, what was different about the reaction to the first season of Discovery was that the internet existed to both amplify and reinforce that fandom discontent. More to the point, the pop cultural landscape had changed to such a point that those sorts of angry voices on the internet held very real power over a production costing millions and millions of dollars.

As such, the second season of Discovery retreated into bland nostalgia. The old uniforms reappeared; the Enterprise made a cameo; Christopher Pike and Spock became recurring characters. Discovery aggressively retreated from a lot of the elements that had given the show such a strong identity in its first season; the mycellium network, the question of whether or not the captain was inherently trustworthy. Instead, it leaned into familiar clichés without any real substance. It became a facsimile of Star Trek, a simulacrum of Star Trek. In its own weird way, it felt a lot like Voyager. It was a show designed to provide requisite amounts of “Star-Trek-ness” on a weekly basis, but without anything that gave it a unique, distinct identity that might challenge or expand the concept of “Star-Trek-ness.”

This reflects a broader movement in culture, perhaps as a reflection of this push towards nostalgia – this sense of arrested development and this lack of forward momentum. Figures like Simon Pegg have argued that contemporary pop culture infantalises its audience, refusing to challenge them or to push them outside of their comfort zone. As a result, anything that challenges their preconceptions is seen as monstrous and grotesque. This is seen in the responses to a wide variety of pop culture, most notably to films like Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which offer a controversial and provocative conceptualisation of two iconic parts of American pop history.

It is also reflected in the response to The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi was a success by any measure. It was well-received critically. It was the highest grossing film of its year of release, by some distance. In a shrinking market, The Last Jedi was the most successful home media release of the following year. However, it’s hard to think of a more successful film that was more divisive culturally speaking. Despite the fact The Last Jedi was a massive success and that it clearly found an audience, it also found itself positioned as a flashpoint in a broader culture war. Fans produced manifestos. Fans cut together man-only edits. Fans plotted to remake the film. Fans chased stars off social media.

All of this would be funny, except that these voices might actually be taken seriously. It has been suggested that JJ Abrams’ follow-up to The Last Jedi might rewrite some of the most controversial decisions in the film, smoothing over the rough edges as an olive branch to those angry fans. While such a move might be unlikely, the fact that it is even up for discussion underscores just how much influence these voices have. The response to The Last Jedi demonstrated how scared Star Wars fandom was of change, how unwilling they were to let go of a franchise that they believed belonged to them. Certain Star Wars fans seemed unwilling to share the franchise with a new generation of fans, to understand that some might look at Rey the same way that they looked at Luke.

And, to be fair, why would they? Modern pop culture has conditioned old generations of fans to believe that their beloved properties will always belong to them, rather than existing as something to be shared or passed down to a new generation. This is why so many modern franchise reboots make a point to emphasise the return of original cast members and to stress continuity; Jason Reitman’s upcoming Ghostbusters seemed to position itself as a gigantic dogwhistle to all those fans who were uncomfortable with the idea of a women-led Ghostbusters movie. Indeed, it’s worth noting that even the soft “reboot” of Star Trek did something similar, with both Star Trek and Into Darkness featuring Leonard Nimoy and Star Trek Beyond featuring a photo of the original crew.

A large part of the extreme response to The Last Jedi was rooted how The Last Jedi approached various parts of the Star Wars lore, most notably the character of Luke Skywalker. The Last Jedi offered a version of Luke Skywalker that seems very similar to the version of James Tiberius Kirk in The Undiscovered Country. This was a beloved character confronting age and mortality, forced to accept that he no longer belonged in a world that was moving forward. Like Kirk’s racism in The Undiscovered Country, there is a sense of failure to Luke in The Last Jedi. While Kirk’s hatred of the Klingons provides a barrier for him to get past in The Undiscovered Country, Luke spends The Last Jedi wrestling with the fact that his generation failed to build a better future for their successors.

Indeed, Luke’s arc in The Last Jedi is remarkably similar to that of Kirk in The Undiscovered Country. Both iconic characters are recognised as flawed human beings, who maybe belong to a different time and place. Both The Last Jedi and The Undiscovered Country for their older protagonists to confront the idea that they are no longer the heroes of the narrative. The Last Jedi has Luke surrendering his role at centre of the narrative to Rey, while The Undiscovered Country ends with Kirk handing offer the reigns of the Star Trek franchise to a new generation of characters who might push the franchise further than he did. It is telling that so many of the criticisms of the handling of Luke in The Last Jedi were made of the handling of Kirk in The Undiscovered Country.

Although The Last Jedi is a lightning rod for this sort of controversy, it is far from the only example in popular culture. In the world of comic book fandom, there is a culture war raging about a new generation of more diverse legacy heroes rising up to take the place of the iconic sixties characters much like Jean-Luc Picard and Benjamin Lafayette Sisko would succeed James Tiberius Kirk. Fans were uncomfortable with the idea of new and more diverse characters taking over established mantles, offering a more representative depiction of contemporary America. It should be noted, in this context, that outside of rare exceptions like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the film and television adaptations have largely focused on the traditional iterations of the heroes.

After all, audiences have been treated to no fewer than three different live-action iterations of Peter Parker since the turn of the millennium, ignoring newer and more diverse iterations of the Spider-Man template in favour of returning to the familiar archetype. As such, there is never any real sense of progress. A particular cinematic iteration of Peter Parker builds to a logical endpoint, and then a new cycle kicks off again. These stories tend to retreat back to the original template, the familiar nostalgic trappings of the iconic origin story, rather than pushing in bold new directions. (Spider-Man is an interesting character in this regard, given that his comics counterpart once sold his marriage to the devil so the publisher could preserve his nostalgic free-wheeling young adult persona.)

This perhaps gets to the most interesting way that The Undiscovered Country has aged, and perhaps the manner in which its rejection of “the end of history” seemed overly optimistic. While history did not end in a social or political manner, there is a sense that pop culture itself might have stalled. So much of modern pop culture is given over to exploring old concepts and ideas, in recycling and repeating old material in perpetuity. Indeed, for all the criticisms that The Last Jedi received from fans for being iconoclastic, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were much more interested in retreading (and exploring) the structures of the original trilogy than in trying to break new ground. (The apoplectic reaction to the Star Wars prequels seems to have scared Disney away from novelty.)

There are, of course, great things that can be done within this nostalgic framework. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises uses a familiar character to explore the contradictions and chaos of contemporary America. Similarly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes use a beloved science-fiction property to construct a powerful allegory of a civilisation in decline. However, far too many of these nostalgic offerings seem happy to retread old ground and to offer audiences the illusion that nothing substantive has changed. The new Ghostbusters will assure audience members that nothing has changed since the last time the original cast were together in 1990.

It isn’t just broad blockbuster culture that has this issue. Even prestige pieces are often recycled and reworked. A Star is Born was the early Oscars front runner last year, and was notable for its much embracing a much more nostalgic sensibility than the earlier iterations of the same story. Similarly, even prestige television giant HBO is banking heavily on such nostalgia in the coming years; a Deadwood movie, a Sopranos prequel film, a slew of Game of Thrones spin-offs, and even Damon Lindelof’s sequel series Watchmen. This sense of regression is a part of all levels of culture, not just confined to the (admittedly ever-expanding) summer tent poles. Pop culture is keen to assure viewers that what they used to love will always be available. Nothing ever dies.

In The Undiscovered Country, death and future are interlinked with one another; the passing of the old into history was presented as something noble and valourous, making room for the new and the vital. There was no shame in this. Kirk was still an icon and legend, still getting to save the day one last time. There were fans who were uncomfortable with the treatment of Kirk in the film, wary of the acknowledgement that a beloved icon of sixties culture might not be as relevant more than twenty years after the fact. However, a large part of what makes Kirk a hero in The Undiscovered Country is the manner in which he acknowledges this and accepts it, rejecting those who “fear change.”

It is a bold statement, particularly for a franchise with a fandom as invested as Star Trek. To a certain extent, this might explain why The Undiscovered Country is not as beloved as the other cherished “even” movies like The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home, both of which are accepted as something close to sacred texts by Star Trek fans, being homaged and referenced repeatedly and consciously over the course of the franchise’s history; although The Wrath of Khan slipped comfortably into the lead some time around the thirtieth anniversary. The Undiscovered Country is accepted by Star Trek fandom as a good film, but never really considered with the same reverence as the two other universally accepted “good” film starring the original cast and crew.

A quarter of century on, that seems all the more remarkable. The Undiscovered Country was afraid of the end of history as a political phenomenon, a fear largely dispelled by the chaos of ensuing decades. In contrast, the movie’s fear about the end of history as a cultural phenomenon, the nightmare that history might never get past James Tiberius Kirk, has only grown more convincing and more unsettling in the years since.

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21 Responses

  1. “How on earth can history get past people like me?”

    As always, a very insightful piece, Darren.

    Reading this, it occurs to me that the backlash in older fandom towards new and more diverse interpretations of existing series is but an aspect of a good portion of the older and/or more “conservative” elements in American society violently opposing change, refusing to let their old attitudes die, giving their support to Trump. He is a middle age rich white man convinced of his infallibility who violently rejects diversity and understanding and any new ideas that challenge his set worldview, who promises to return the country to some sort of mythical “good old days” that they only vaguely half-remember with rose-tinted nostalgia from their younger days.

    • Yep, I do think that there are interesting ways in which cultural discourse reflects and intersects with political discourse. You can draw a line through GamerGate to Trump, for example. It’s not the only thing (or even the most important thing) that the line passes through, but I think it’s there.

  2. Undiscovered Country is my favorite Trek film: I used to love it as a kid for the ‘mystery’ storyline and the humor in the film (I was only about 8 when it came out), and then in college I fell in love with it again for the opening 30 minutes and the terrific weaving of Shakespeare and politics into the opening act.

    It’s been a good 15 years since I last saw it, and in the interim I’ve gone into a career in international relations, so the courage of the film in addressing the cold war has only grown to impress me more over time. I think I’m well over-due for a rewatch.

    I think as Star Trek has become increasingly comfortable with itself as a franchise, it sometimes loses sight of how one of the true values of sci-fi is to present real questions through allegory. To take DS9 as an example, Cardassia and Bajor are solid allegories for the relationship between the oppressed and oppressors (Bajor is a compelling match for Israel or Taiwan), but Star Trek can easily get too caught up in its own mythology at the cost of missing the real-world message, and then you end up with the viewer trying to decipher Bajoran politics rather than any actual message. Undiscovered Country does an excellent job of minimizing the ‘world-building’ and instead just focusing on the core ideas of the film, at least in the first half.

    You mentioned how fans were uncomfortable with Kirk and the rest of the crew’s racism towards Klingons (in fact, I saw this criticism come up on the Star Trek reddit just this week). It’s a small bit of trivia, but Chekhov’s line “Guess who’s coming to dinner…” was originally Uhura’s, but she refused to deliver it, since it was a reference to a comedy about interracial couples. I can’t help but think that too many fans are easily outraged when their heroes in a show are made to be flawed humans, yet are blind to their own prejudices.

    Anyhow, thanks as always for a very insightful review!

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. It’s also worth noting that one of the most senior conspirators is played by Brock Peters, best known as a star of To Kill a Mockingbird. Which is equally as pointed, one suspects. (And perhaps even foreshadows Go Set a Watchman.)

  3. “Pop culture is keen to assure viewers that what they used to love will always be available. Nothing ever dies.”

    I wonder how much of this, in the broad stokes of culture, is related to the decline of the role Christianity once held in the West as a bulwark of permanence, where the past (Christ arose on the third day) was always present (Christ *is* risen) and would always extend into the future (Christ will come again)? Was there once less of a hunger for unchanging stories when the people knew there would be a story they heard on Sundays that would always be the same?

    • Just to give a counter-example, if you look to the height of the power of the Catholic church in the middle ages, that is also when stories about Robin Hood and King Arthur/Camelot were most popular. Both are essentially unending stories (indeed, Arthurian literature is practically The Avengers of medieval stories), with dozens of stories that could barely feed the popular appetite for them, many of which are now lost to history. Even the end of the Arthurian stories is left ambiguous, with the promise that Arthur and Merlin will rise from the dead to return when England needs them again most.

      Still, the decline of religion could certainly be one of the major factors for toxic fan bases. Perhaps our secular pessimism about the future is what leads fans to consider the stories and franchises of their childhoods so holy?

    • This is an interesting idea. I’d certainly argue that there are religious aspects to the way that fandoms operate – core texts, heretical texts, the need to enforce and curate a canon, and to purge those who do not believe.

  4. There’s the other side of the internet’s influence beyond amplifying voices, there’s now easy unlimited access to your childhood.

    Take Star Trek as that’s the thrust of the article, before Netflix, you’d need to rely on reruns or use up a lot of money and space to view even one series. There was time for other things to develop, for people to develop new interests.

    Now, for less than a tenner a month, you have access to everything from every series you ever watched on demand any time you want, so you don’t have to find new things with new viewpoints. Combined with the sheer volume of material, people can wallow in nostalgia 24/7 should they choose, which will harden their opinions on the material, make it almost sacred to them.

    • That’s fair, actually. All of this stuff is readily accessible. More than that, it’s being marketed and packaged and sold to them. Of course fans are reluctant to let go, it keeps getting put back in their hands.

  5. “However, in the decades since the release of The Undiscovered Country, it has become almost suffocating. Modern pop culture seems trapped in a state of perpetual recycling and reinvention, resurrecting and reviving old franchises.”
    While I don’t agree that it’s been suffocating since 1991, it has been true for the past decade. Painfully true.

    “Figures like Simon Pegg have argued that contemporary pop culture infantalises its audience, refusing to challenge them or to push them outside of their comfort zone.”
    Bullshit. Bad writing and poor execution is excused as “Well your just mad your fan theory didn’t come true, or you didn’t want your expectations subverted. BULLSHIT.

    “It is also reflected in the response to The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi was a success by any measure.”
    NO! That’s is objectively false. Look at the sales figures for The Last Jedi toys. The toys aren’t selling because no one wants a Rose Tico toy or to play with a V-4X-D speeder. By hard metrics, The Last Jedi shows clear signs of failure. Even the Audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes was a clear sign of failure. But in the end, so many people love the point at the profitability of the movie, look no further then the toys. Few want Last Jedi Toys because the movie betrayed the franchise. The Last Jedi was a failure by MANY measures.

    [Editor’s Note: deleted links to YouTube videos flagged as spam by comments engine; they mostly fixated on the declining toy sales]

    You can even see it how Ryan Johnson describes his decisions. He wanted to subvert expectations so instead of a Empire “I am your Father” moment, he wanted to invert it to ‘Your nobody”. The problem here is that Luke was talking about his father many times in A New Hope and Empire and how he is trying to follow in his footsteps. Learning that Luke was trying to be like his Father is thrown in a new context. Rey does not identify with her parents, she never claimed they were “somebody”, she just wanted to reunited with them at all costs. Telling Rey she’s “Nobody” is absolutely meaningless in the context of the movie, she was a junk scavenger, she was already a nobody and she never claimed otherwise or wanted to be otherwise. She doesn’t even know who she is, that’s why she asks Luke to put her in her place. These are one just one of many flaws of the movie where Ryan inverted Empire without thinking it through.

    • Apologies for the delay in publishing this. As noted elsewhere, the YouTube links were flagged as spam by the comments engine. I’ve cleared them out and posted the comment.

      Just on the idea that The Last Jedi could be called a failure by any metric. It was the highest grossing film of the year. It didn’t make as much as The Force Awakens, but that was because the audience hadn’t been waiting for thirty-two years for a sequel to The Force Awakens as they had been waiting thirty-two years for a sequel to Return of the Jedi. It outperformed the Star Wars films either side of it. And, you know, every other film of 2017.

      With regard to the decline in toy sales, ignoring the fact that Disney has already recouped the cost of buying Lucasfilm in only six years, the companies involved have offered an explanation for the lower sales figures. Here’s Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner:

      “The fact that we began to merchandise the film in September and the film came out in December was just too long a period of time to sustain retail interest,” Goldner, 54, said in an interview. It didn’t help that lots of other toys were hitting around the same time, he said, “with an array of entertainment initiatives coming to market.”

      It’s also worth noting that toy sales are down across the board, not just for Star Wars. And that the bankruptcy of Toys ‘R’ Us was also likely a factor; it’s harder to move units when you don’t have a vender.

      None of which backs the paranoid speculation that the fandom’s grossly overblown reaction to The Last Jedi was in any way a serious factor.

      As for the rest of your comment… you’re entitled to your opinion. I’ve done my research and shown my work, often from multiple sources and often with multiple references. Nobody is arguing that you are wrong to dislike The Last Jedi or anything like that; people like what they like, and it’s clear you don’t like that. Nobody is forcing you to like it. And nobody is casting aspersions about you individually.

      For what it’s worth, I’m not a huge fan of The Last Jedi, and I podcast regularly with two people who hate it. Neither I nor they have participated in any of the behaviour mentioned, cited, recorded in the links from this post.

      It doesn’t change reality, though; which is that The Last Jedi was a well-received film by critics and general audiences, which led to a sh!tshow online because of the fandom’s refusal to accept something that didn’t give them exactly what they wanted, and who proceeded to take every opportunity to make online life less pleasant for virtually everybody.

      Nobody’s claiming that anybody’s opinion of The Last Jedi is wrong, simply pointing out the problems with how that has been expressed.

      • “As for the rest of your comment… you’re entitled to your opinion”

        While it’s nice being entitled to my opinion, I’m not discussing my opinion. Whether I like The Last Jedi or not is irrelevant. I’m discussion metrics and facts. The RT audience score for The Last Jedi was rotten. You can check now, it’s still has a 44% rotten score on the RT site. That’s a provable metric.

        Ryan Johnson said he wanted to invert the Empire scene of “No, I’m your father”. He said it, it’s fact. In the context of appropriated scenes from Empire into the new trilogy, it doesn’t make sense. There’s no setup for it so the logic of the scene doesn’t work.

        “The Last Jedi was a success by any measure”
        “None of which backs the paranoid speculation that the fandom’s grossly overblown reaction to The Last Jedi was in any way a serious factor.”

        You’re entitled to your opinion. Nevertheless, it’s still a metric of the success of The Last Jedi. Just as the success of Solo is a metric to the success of the previous movie. The value of the metric is up to your opinion, but it is still a metric.

        “Just on the idea that The Last Jedi could be called a failure by any metric. It was the highest grossing film of the year. It didn’t make as much as The Force Awakens, but that was because the audience hadn’t been waiting for thirty-two years for a sequel to The Force Awakens as they had been waiting thirty-two years for a sequel to Return of the Jedi. It outperformed the Star Wars films either side of it. And, you know, every other film of 2017.”

        Now we’ve seen this kind of thing before. The Hugo Award nominated Enterprise episode A Night in Sickbay has the highest number of views of Season 2. Now would you, Darren, consider A Night In Sickbay “a success by any measure”?

      • “That’s a provable metric.”

        It’s a gameable metric. It’s not verified. It’s subject to spam, ballot-stuffing, manipulation. All it really proves is that a certain aggressive subset of the internet hates The Last Jedi. Which I never disputed. I don’t doubt that certain segments of fandom hate The Last Jedi. It’s cited repeatedly above.

        I do dispute that this metric is proof of anything else.

        Also, regarding A Night in Sickbay. The episode got a Hugo nomination. Big whoop. Lots of stuff gets Hugo nominations. Again, they’re highly gameable, as the Sad Puppies demonstrated.

        The Last Jedi:
        (a.) is the highest grossing film of the year; (mass appeal)
        (b.) has an A CinemaScore; (audiences who saw it liked it)
        (c.) has a Rotten Tomatoes critics score (you know, the verifiable one) over 90%; (well reviewed)
        (d.) has a Metacritic critics (again, you know, the verifiable one) score over 80%; (well reviewed)
        (e.) was among the very best selling DVDs and blu rays of the year; (demonstrating rewatchability)

        These are objectively verifiable facts. I would love to see you argue that A Night in Sickbay hits any of these criteria. Until it checks off all of these, or equivalents, it’s a spurious counter-example that has no relation to the discussion at hand.

        And again, reminder that I don’t love the film. I have no horse in this race. The film didn’t even make my own top forty of the year.

        I am not confusing my personal opinion with reality. I have no emotional investment in the success or failure of The Last Jedi. It’s clear you want The Last Jedi to be a failure, and was clearly disappointing to you, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

  6. “The Last Jedi was a success by any measure”
    I guess my post pointing out several metrics proving that wasn’t true got deleted somehow.

    • Your comment got flagged by my comments engine for containing spam, as it would if it were a link to porn or a pyramid scheme or whatever. I get dozens of those everyday. The comments engine is pretty good at automatically flagging them. A few sneak through. It recognised the links as potential spam.

      Having reviewed the comment, I concur. You posted links to a bunch of hate-filled radicalised fan videos very clearly pushing their own agenda. Even ignoring the fact that they’re not good sources – they are useful for demonstrating how angry certain sections of the base are, but less than credible as a buttress to any credible arguments – I don’t want that crap anywhere near my blog.

      I operate a pretty lenient comments policy, but draw the line at links outward to extremist rhetoric, particularly given the YouTube recommendation engine’s tendency to amplify and radicalise that hate-filled network. So those links are not appearing on this blog.

      I was still considering what to do with the comment when you posted again. I thought I’d strip out the links, but that might appear disingenuous. I thought about adding a comment like this one in square brackets. I was still trying to figure that out when this comment occurred.

      If you can find a non-extremist site or article supporting your argument, the comment will come through. The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Business Insider, even something like /Film. Those sorts of places, that aren’t peddling in extremist rhetoric. If The Last Jedi was as big and undeniable a failure as you claim, those sorts of sites would be dying to prove it. “Last Jedi, spectacular failure” would be a hell of a traffic- and click-generating headline.

      • “It’s clear you want The Last Jedi to be a failure”
        In this Star Trek essay, you stopped to talk about Star Wars to bash it’s fans. Nobody is arguing that you are wrong to like The Last Jedi or anything like that; people like what they like, and it’s clear you don’t like that. You call Star Wars fans “paranoid”. You called Star Wars fans “afraid of chance”. You’ve called Star Wars fans analysing retail sales as “extremist rhetoric” and “hate filled”.
        .

        “I have no horse in this race.”
        Then what’s with your extremest stance about fans? Why paint them as paranoid, afraid of change and as hate-filled extremists?

        “Certain Star Wars fans seemed unwilling to share the franchise with a new generation of fans”
        When was fandom ever about not sharing a franchise? You qualify the statement as “certain Star Wars fans” but who are these people? Do they steal Episode IV DVDs from children?

        “It’s a gameable metric.”
        So is the critical score. Critics can be bought off or gamed. You talk and talk about the fans and now you’ve dismissed them entirely.

        “I do dispute that this metric is proof of anything else.”
        But it exists. You said “The Last Jedi was a success by any measure”, not “The Last Jedi was a success by SOME measures or The Last Jedi was a success by MY measures”. You have chosen to ignore the existence of metrics with that statement to fit your own agenda. What you deem “gameable” is irrelevant if you acknowledge these metrics exist. If they exist, then “any measure” if a false qualification.

        “It’s also worth noting that toy sales are down across the board, not just for Star Wars.”
        You have already admitted that Star Wars toy sales are down.

        The sales of Star Wars toys is a measure of The Last Jedi’s success: True / False

        The lack of sales of Star Wars toys is an example of The Last Jedi succeeding. True / False

        This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s simple logic.

        “If you can find a non-extremist site or article supporting your argument, the comment will come through.”

        Unfortunately, I have no idea what you consider “Extremist” so I will leave the links of these articles out:

        “Other unpopular toy-aisle items included all things “Star Wars,” likely because the last movie came out in May and other blockbuster hits like “Black Panther” and “Aquaman” have been more captivating.” – The New York Post

        “Star Wars is having a difficult time at retail and retailers therefore reduce shelf space for Star Wars action figures that fail to sell.

        On top of that Hasbro is also losing shelf space for NERF and its fashion dolls, whereas MGA Entertainment with its Bratz Dolls is storming shelf space, they have a whopping 114% more shelf space allocated for their dolls than one year ago. And since shelf space is a finite resource that space must come from somehere… and as it seems it’s mostly shelf space that was taken away from Hasbro and, to a much lesser degree, Mattel.

        So here we are now at the end of 2018. Star Wars has had a veritable box office flop with Solo, the toy line is struggling with decreasing sales and retailers giving less shelf space to Star Wars action figures.

        In light of all this it may not be a complete surprise that we haven’t heard anything yet about an extension of the licensing agreement between Hasbro and Disney. My feeling is that Hasbro wants better terms. As things are now Star Wars toys, especially action figures, are on the decline.” – Seeking Alpha

        I’m certain Darren, that you can write a provocative essay about the fans starting with “A Night in Sickbay was a success” but if you add “by all measures”, it’s going to seem ridiculous and delusional.

      • So, your argument is that I don’t give enough weight to gameable metrics like user scores on websites that have themselves taken steps to prevent such gaming, and which require no authentication or validation? That I’m skeptical of systems that have been demonstrably subject to cynical manipulation? Rotten Tomatoes don’t trust their own user scores! They’re working to fix the system. Why should I trust something that even the site operating thinks is broken?

        Or that I don’t treat global declines in sales of ancillary merchandise for a wide range of franchises that happens to include Star Wars as a reflection on how much the entire world hated this one particular film which is massively successful by any measure of… you know, its actual success? If your one argument is “the toys aren’t selling”, and I have already shared sourced links with you explaining from qualified experts (a.) why toys in general aren’t selling, and (b.) why there are logistical factors unrelated to the film itself that explain the declining sales.

        As for source, I told you. Actual news sources. Not conspiratorial fan videos. Look at the links I provided up thread. Places like Bloomberg, etc. You know, actual news companies that employ actual reporters and who serve more than just the demographic who want to be told that The Last Jedi was bad.

        As for the article, the whole point of it was that modern fandom would never accept a movie like The Undiscovered Country. That argument needs demonstrable proof, and the level of insanity around The Last Jedi from a very vocal section of fandom proves that.

  7. “The Last Jedi was a success by any measure”
    You say “any measure”, then you proceed to attack several measures, ad hominem other measures and delegitimize even more measures. You say “any measure” and you proceed to cherry pick you own measures.

    It’s as simple as that.

    • When you say “cherrypick”, you mean “refuse to acknowledge metrics so gameable that even the sites hosting them are trying to figure out what to do” and “tend to favour commentary from people who understand ancillary markets like merchandise over conspiratorial YouTube videos.”

      The entire article is predicated on the idea there is a vocal section of fandom out there dedicated to insisting that “The Last Jedi” is a failure. Your sources all support that assertion. They don’t support that it was a failure, merely that there’s a very vocal subsection of fandom grasping at straws to portray it as a failure.

      It’s as simple as that.

      But, hey, even if it wasn’t… even if I accepted those observations at face value instead of actually interrogating them… so what? That’s your big argument that “The Last Jedi” was a failure?

      “Sure, it was the highest grossing movie of the year! Sure, it made more than the last Star Wars film! Sure, critics loved it on the aggregators designed to measure critical score! Sure, audiences on opening weekend gave it an A score! Sure, it was best selling blu ray of the year! Sure, it was one of the best selling DVDs of the year! But…

      “… a bunch of anonymous unverified voters on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t like it! And, eh, maybe some of the toys that Hasbro wasn’t selling that year happened to be Star Wars toys! So, I guess that means it’s a failure!”

      Wow. That’s… quite an argument.

      • You’ve declared what my motives were to me, despite you having no clue what that was. You have declared to me that I wanted the The Last Jedi to be a failure despite you having no clue if that’s true. And now you’ve declared that I’m arguing the Last Jedi was a failure. Darren, for someone who claims to have no horse in the race, you do everything to act like you do. I have nothing to gain from this debate.

        I see you attacking the Star Wars fandom, painting them in a horribly negative light again and again. Your essay is even conspiratorial, lamenting that the fans of Star Wars have an influence on Star Wars. As if the fans having influence was some great tragedy. This is why I respond.

        “But, hey, even if it wasn’t… even if I accepted those observations at face value instead of actually interrogating them… so what? That’s your big argument that “The Last Jedi” was a failure?”

        No. My big argument is that your assessment that “The Last Jedi was a success by any measure” is flawed. If you cannot grasp what I have just said and have repeated again and again, then I guess this discussion ends here. I’m not gonna take your strawman bait and pretend The Last Jedi was a failure, but neither will I pretend The Last Jedi was some kind of unanimous success. The divisiveness in of itself is proof of that.

      • You’re right to a certain extent, the success of “The Last Jedi” is debatable to a very vocal and aggressive section of “Star Wars” fandom that is unable to accept that they can dislike a film that was successful with critics, general audiences and other sections of the fandom.

        But that argument relies on trusting gameable metrics (user scores) and conspiratorial thinking about ancillary matters (declining toy sales explained by both people in the industry and experts in as nothing to do with the film itself).

        That’s my point. The fact you have to rely on those interpretations of those two metrics to argue that “The Last Jedi” wasn’t a success only illustrates the degree of its success.

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