Tuesday, August 18, 2015

“...to antiquity its due reverence”: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

There was a time when being the sixth film in a motion picture franchise would have been the subject of mockery. Once considered a laughingstock, a movie with five sequels all set in the same continuity is completely unheard of nowadays, being as we are in an era where it's rare to go two films without getting a full-on “reboot” or “reimagining” with a new cast and director and suspiciously returning everything else.

So Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country feels oddly and quaintly dated today. It's a film that sets about closing a story decisively for no other reason than it's the artistically and creatively right thing to do, and that's just something you won't see today in the age of Cinematic Universes that are unfinished by design and consecutive reboots within three or four years of one another that all tell variations on the same stock plot. And make no mistake, it absolutely is and does: In 1991 there were not yet any plans for a second Star Trek film series, so this was a movie made for the express purposes of thanking the fans for their support and bringing the Original Series story to a dignified close. A lot of received fan wisdom seems to posit this film was greenlit to “make up” for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which would otherwise have been the final Trek movie, but from the studio's perspective the past *three* Star Trek movies had all underperformed at the box office and they didn't see much difference between them one way or the other. But this was the 25th Anniversary, and the Star Trek film team felt something needed to be done.

(This also explains why the movie looks somewhat stunningly cheap: While I remember the VFX shots having been breathtaking and they're certainly impressive when it counts, everywhere else the fact Paramount only allowed this movie to be made if it was produced on the thinnest of shoestring budgets plainly shows. Most notably, while I slagged off Star Trek V: The Final Frontier for reusing the sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's actually way more egregious in this movie. I mean, they didn't even try to hide the fact the transporter room, corridors, observation lounge and ten-forward are painfully obviously from Captain Picard's Enterprise. More on that later, actually.)

You might think a movie with that pedigree would be cripplingly fanwanky, and there are a whole slew of references on display here. But none of them feel like forced name-drops done simply for the sake of pandering. Everything feels organic and freeform, with the grand finale that takes centre stage flowing seamlessly into a prequel for the story that's playing out for us elsewhere. Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer are back behind the camera, and the end result is much of what you would expect from the team: It's Meyer's name on the director's chair, but it's clearly Nimoy's deft eye for cinematic photography that elevates the look and feel of The Undiscovered Country *substantially*: There was a chance the film could have worn its bargain-basement trappings a little too obviously, but Nimoy gives the movie a grandiose, epic sense of scale befitting the send-off of such iconic folk heroes of modern myth.

As for Nicholas Meyer...Well, his usual raft of issues apply. And let's just deal with this straight away, the mind meld scene with Valeris is completely unacceptable, but at the very least Meyer has admitted in more recent years it was a terrible, ignorant thing to write, he should have known better and wishes he could go back in time to tell his younger self not to do that. Elsewhere, Meyer is still a bit too bombastic, a bit too on-the-nose and remains frustratingly middlebrow. But this movie also sees him growing further from his surprisingly improved performance with the San Franciscan deli meat from the Star Trek sandwich that was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Meyer's characters feel a bit more naturalistic and a bit less like they're reciting from a high school English curriculum. It also helps him a lot that the entire movie seems custom-built to tailor to his brand of pomposity and because he's got a savvy partner in Leonard Nimoy he's not allowed to go quite as self-indulgent as he did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It also helps that Meyer has such a fantastic talent to work with in the likes of Christopher Plummer, whose scenes as Commander Chang remain a highlight of the film for me to this day. Like Christopher Lloyd before him, Plummer's got just the right balance of Shakespearean gravitas and cured pork such that his scenes are just the right level of over-the-top. He's delightfully maniacal, even...no, especially when cackling and spewing Great White Western quotes lifted from Barnes & Noble refrigerator magnets. This is probably my favourite role of Plummer's, even counting his turn as Master Arngeir in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that helped change the course of my life. That's not to discount the rest of the cast, mind, particularly William Shatner, who had served as Plummer's understudy when they were on stage together many years ago: Their chemistry is plainly on display up there.

One more thing to note about Meyer's script: The racial undertones, and rather blatant racism, on the part of the Enterprise crew has drawn a bit of scorn over the years, most significantly from Gene Roddenberry, who apparently threw a fit about it not long before his death. Although I'm not sure if the sentiment is still there, some fans back in the day felt that the Enterprise crew wouldn't hold such bigoted views. The thing is though, in my view, they absolutely would. I think it's important for us to remember here that this isn't the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew: This is the Original Series one, and that sort of utopianism isn't actually built into this story by default. This crew has fought the Klingons consistently for decades and are military officers first and foremost, *not* scientists and diplomats. This is precisely the kind of attitude this crew would hold. It's the one time Nicholas Meyer's space navy stuff, and his themes about aging, are genuinely appropriate: This crew doesn't actually know any life other than war, and they've become so set in that way of thinking that the kinds of “knowing your enemy” sentiments we talked about in “I, Borg” may actually be beyond them. In fact, the film posits that this is tacitly the main reason they need to retire.

In that respect, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a truly bizarre 25th Anniversary special, isn't it? Most media artefacts like this are insufferably self-aggrandizing things, spending an interminable amount of time talking about how wonderful they are, how many wonderful things they've done and how many more wonderful things they have yet to do. Which, incidentally, you can be a part of if you line up to buy the newest product proudly bearing the brand name at the low, low price of your nostalgic memories of the original work. But this is a movie explicitly *about* the original work in question, and is even the brainchild of a not-insignificant number of the original creative figures. And it is unmistakably about how dated, tired and out-of-time said original work is: This is the movie all those people who worship Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for its supposedly powerful handling of aging and death need to watch, because here it's perfectly timed. Star Trek, in this form, *really doesn't* come back again after this. And it can't.

Although the film never wavers from the eminently justifiable postulate that the Original Series had a tremendously important impact on world society, nor does it waver either from its firm commitment that its time in the sun has now more than passed. The world it came into and was meant to comment on doesn't exist anymore (I don't feel the need to talk about the clear parallels with the Cold War and Berlin Wall subtext, mainly because calling it subtext is being wildly and inappropriately generous to it. This is, after all, Nicholas Meyer) and there's no more good it can do without wearing out its welcome and cheapening its own legacy. Perhaps as a collective cultural myth the Original Series will live on in perpetuity (indeed, history since this movie more or less solidifies that assertion, TOS being the only Star Trek anyone important seriously talks about anymore), if it does it will be thanks to the transformative energy of the people who love it so much they don't ever want to let it go. As an extant media artefact, the original Star Trek has finally reached its limit break.

And yet even within this, the true meaning of this presence remains clear within Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One point of singularity and egress where all that is, all that ever was and all that ever will be exists in a single moment. This is an Original Series story, but it's an Original Series story about, if absolutely nothing else, the existence of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are having conversations in spaces that really belong to Jean-Luc Picard, Guinan and Beverly Crusher. So much so the film doesn't even make an attempt to disguise this fact. Of course, many of those sets were actually built for Star Trek Phase II and the film series first, something that was, I confess, a disappointment for me to learn. It would seem the only set that was *really* built for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Next Generation alone was the Enterprise bridge: The oppressive weight and shadow of the Original Series materializes even within the show's physical reality. That said, I don't think anyone watching this film would look at those rooms and think they belong anywhere else than on the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.

Even our future role models themselves are here, deliberately haunting the narrative to remind us of where our true calling lies. There's Michael Dorn, of course, even playing a character named Worf. And it's not just Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is here too, over a full year before it's supposed to properly make its debut to the world. Dax is aboard Kirk's Enterprise (framed for murder, no less), and the man behind the conspiracy to instigate a second Klingon/Federation war is the mysterious Colonel West, who spends part of the film physically altered to resemble a Klingon. West is named and styled after Colonel Oliver North (and who else has invoked and caricatured Oliver North to skewer the heart of Star Trek at its most vulnerable?) and is played by a personal friend of Nicholas Meyer's by the name of René Auberjonois. There's also a shapeshifter named Martia who at one point assumes the visage of Captain Kirk, the erstwhile performer, to challenge him with the weight of his own celebrity image.

And last, but not least, in an iconic scene, Kirk and McCoy are tried and sentenced to Rura Penthe in the exact same manner as Jonathan Archer a century before them in one vision of reality. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country's version of time, strange as it might seem given the headiness of the plot, is not a linear or teleological one. It's a diffuse, dreamlike one, with visions and half-remembered stories all playing over the mindspace above and beyond the comparatively paltry media on display. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has thus always been and always will be *my* Star Trek movie: I was vaguely aware of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home through the broader culture and caught up with them later, but this is the film I remember being in theatres. This is the film I can quote and whose setpieces I can still most vividly remember. The movie poster is one of the most iconic images from my history with Star Trek: *The* defining image representing *the* Star Trek movie.

I can still vividly remember the initial teaser trailer for this film, included in the very first home video releases of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As I was eagerly looking forward to reacquainting myself with my favourite show alongside my family in outer space, I was treated to a bittersweet tribute to a story I had never heard. A quiet, dignified and melancholy montage of unfamiliar, dissociated images of people I didn't know and places I'd never been. Even without foreknowledge or asking my parents for confirmation, I instantly and intuitively realised that this must be the “other” Star Trek I had heard about. And though I didn't know anything about who these people were or the lives they had lived (and, frankly, had no particular desire to learn) I could feel, *and appreciate*, the weight of history still.

I could sense that even though this was not my family, these people must be honoured distant relatives of ours. It's a simple little piece, but there's an uncanny, haunting familiarity about it. It reminds me of what Star Trek: The Next Generation looked like five years ago, when it was just getting started, and that set of iconography and emotions resonates with me at a very deep level. Even so, this looked just old and different enough for me to feel apart and removed from the stories being remembered. They were as strangers to me, and yet not. And so I respected them as my elders and forebearers, for I knew they were the ones who had gone before. I thank them for all they did such that me and my people could benefit from the legacy they left behind for us. If this was to be their final story, then so be it. I'm sure they had lived full, rewarding and prosperous lives and had earned it.


  1. You know, I never thought about that before, but you're right: the 25th Anniversary celebration was surprisingly willing to criticize the show it was celebrating. Not just this movie, though that was the bulk of it, but the 25th Anniversary game also had a bit of that, particularly in the way it would punish you for letting too many redshirts die on away missions.

    I really do love this movie, it is most definitely one of the best things TOS ever did. It is a beautiful passing of the torch from TOS to TNG--certainly a better one than the next movie, which does almost the opposite of what this one does: in this movie TOS gracefully retires because it realizes it is obsolete, and TNG's time has come. In the next, TNG kills TOS and then dies itself.

  2. Wonderful post, Josh.

    I remember loving that teaser trailer, too. I hadn't seen it in a decade or two -- thanks for putting it up here.

  3. (This also explains why the movie looks somewhat stunningly cheap: While I remember the VFX shots having been breathtaking and they're certainly impressive when it counts, everywhere else the fact Paramount only allowed this movie to be made if it was produced on the thinnest of shoestring budgets plainly shows. Most notably, while I slagged off Star Trek V: The Final Frontier for reusing the sets from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's actually way more egregious in this movie. I mean, they didn't even try to hide the fact the transporter room, corridors, observation lounge and ten-forward are painfully obviously from Captain Picard's Enterprise. More on that later, actually.)

    We all knew this, of course, but for me at least, very unlike Star Trek V, the way it was lit and filmed made it feel like an entirely different space. Kirk's Enterprise is so dark compared to the Next Generation. (I think this is a problem with both Star Trek V, which makes the Enterprise too bright inside, and the TNG movies, which all seem to be obsessed with showing off how much better movie cameras are at working in low-light)

    This is probably my favourite role of Plummer's, even counting his turn as Master Arngeir in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that helped change the course of my life
    Even more than "Imperial Starship, stop the flow of time!"?

    (Also, it's General Chang, not "commander". Just like the chicken dish from the trendy Chinese Bistro.)

    I note that the reveal that Colonel West is dressed up as a Klingon was not actually in the theatrical cut of the film, which weakens that scene considerably (My dad was bothered by the assassin's blood being the wrong color).

  4. The Undiscovered Country is unreservedly my favorite of the Star Trek movies. For a couple reasons, but this first anecdote is the most novel.

    I did not know it existed.

    Through cable television I had seen many times Khan, Spock, and Voyage Home. I'd also seen Frontier at least and could remember bits of it, and I'd managed to catch The Motion Picture at least once.

    I had long since seen every episode but for a couple of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, as well as all four TNG films, none of which are numbered of course.

    I was quite under the impression that there were nine Star Trek movies. And then one day, quite a few years after I'd covered almost all the ground to be covered, when I was well into my late teens and had already left college the first go 'round (the early 2000s), I stumbled onto Undiscovered Country on TV, roughly at the point where we first meet Kurtwood Smith's efrosian president (missing much of the set-up). No regulars were in the scene with him but I recognized Trek, and then quickly recognized Auberjonois. And in I went.

    Yes. The nuance is all in the actors, not the plot. But hey, this is TOS.
    Yes. They are all racist, albeit from a military "The Enemy" point of view. But hey, this is TOS.
    Yes. The budget is restricted. But this is TOS - and guys like Nimoy know that is its great strength, actually.

    There's a level of creative flourish. Of filling in the gaps. But this film, in spite of its world-builder stakes and beats that are pure passing of the torch, creates something new for everything that it retires. Plummer's bombastic Chang weds the era of Kor or Koloth to the era Christopher Lloyd to the era of Gowron. And frankly also we get some klingons who aren't warrior-caste, or wearing the same TMP costumes anymore. About time, right? We also get another appearance from David Warner, expertly utilized in a way that makes you rue the fact they didn't have him around to adapt Kitumba once upon a time.

    We get rubber masks on Rura Penthe. I love rubber masks.

    Doohan gets to be the last-minute action hero savior. Takei gets his own command and the whole tone of his ship and crew and unique style are established and made quite clear to us in a series of short b-plot scenes.

    We get tons of Bones McCoy. We get an active, and living critique of all the things we critique - the generational gap emerges. Even as Picard is rising above his generational gap, the weight of the Old Generation on TNG's presence lifts and makes way for its last few seasons (to an extent). There's one more ghost-thread linking the two, but that's Generations and Guinan and we'll get there when we get there.

    And we get Shatner facing down Shatner ... who is also David Bowie's wife. Which seems wildly appropriate and recalls elements of the camp dragfest that was the accidental genius of some of that season 3 TOS.

    I'll certainly agree that Spock's forcible mind-meld was just god-awful. I mean what a sickeningly appropriate way to mark the story that's about the end of the Cold War and those "extreme circumstance" style hawkish justifications. I mean I can see the actors make elements of it work, beyond just Spock's closeness to Valeris. And it would have taken on an added poignancy if they'd followed through on the beat where she's you know ... Romulan. The "V" name? The stunningly fast rise in ranks? Being part of a conspiracy with the Romulan Ambassador? Spock's interest? The fact this was created around the same time as Reunification, as well as Eye of the Beholder. I mean they dropped the dialogue and beats, but contextually, Valeris is totally a Romulan. She's a Romulan. Spock's mind-rape interrogation was meant to be as racist as Kirk's feelings toward the Klingons. (It'll be a while before the entity of Star Trek itself at least takes this notion of forcible mind-rape by Vulcans and reconciles it, not until Enterprise will they actually really explore those ramifications.)

    1. Last note from me is the lovely inclusion of William Morgan Shepard as the Klingon Commandant. Great as the just awful person Ira Graves, and a guy who turns up on Trek a lot, and in generally just a lot of great sci-fi (like in Doctor Who where he and his son Mark Shepard played the same guy at different points in time). I mostly want to mention him because though it's true Plummer's Chang really steals the damn show with Klingon Bombast that would make Kor turn pink with envy, Shepard's Commandant is no slouch in this department.

      Before I forget and I'll get on this more if the discussion pushes me in that direction - it was interesting that they framed the existential threat that finally forces this generation to go off into the night, as a conspiracy. Obviously for the 90s the fact that it was a conspiracy between secret factions in opposing militaries and intelligence communities is on-the-nose, but that it was a conspiracy between secret wings within Starfleet (who we've known is "wrong" since TOS, and who we REALLY know is "wrong" by now), as well as the IKF and presumably whatever the Tal'Shiar entity was called at that point.

      It's also somewhat interesting for me, who always sees the roles of the Klingons and Romulans as having been flipped for TNG, to see events play out here in a way that says "we're none of us all that different, though, are we?"

  5. "Although I'm not sure if the sentiment is still there, some fans back in the day felt that the Enterprise crew wouldn't hold such bigoted views. The thing is though, in my view, they absolutely would."

    As a kid I enjoyed The Wrath of Khan, but when I grew up I saw it as pretty hollow and *loved* this movie utterly in how it exposed the attitudes of TOS characters, whilst combining this with a brilliant space romp which was very well filmed - and yes I agree, they would.

    Good post, cheers again Josh.