Sunday, April 26, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

After years of hostilities, the Klingon Empire wants peace with the Federation. The times are changing, and our characters are at a historic crossroads. As Mr. Spock attempts to explain the benefits of opening a dialogue with their once-implacable foes, Captain Kirk explodes, "Don't believe them! Don't trust them!" "They're dying," implores Spock. Kirk's icy reply: "Let them die."

Suddenly this isn't the invincible space captain whose exploits we've followed for decades. Instead it's just a man. A vulnerable man, swimming against the tide of time and too blinded by his own hate to see it. It's a bit bracing to get such a different perspective on our beloved hero, but it's merely the beginning of a character journey that helps make Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country one of the most layered and complex in the series.

"How can history get past people like me?" wonders Kirk aloud during a moment of self-reflection, and indeed, history has a funny way of sneaking up on you without even realizing it. Certainly that's what happened with Trek itself by the time The Undiscovered Country entered the planning stages.

In a fortuitous circumstance for Trekdom assembled after Star Trek V's precipitous drop in both quality and box office, the higher-ups at Paramount decided it'd be worth gambling on one last trip to the well to have a movie in theaters for the franchise's twenty-fifth anniversary. Of course, the world in which this new film would premiere was a far different one from that of its five predecessors. For one, it would be the first to do so without its "father," with Gene Roddenberry passing away mere months before its release. For another, the name "Star Trek" was now essentially being borrowed.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, it was a sideshow to the main event. No one seriously thought this thing would last, and the wayward, unsteady first few seasons did nothing to change that impression. But a funny thing happened on the way to Trek's silver jubilee: The Next Generation got good. And it got popular. By 1991, Star Trek's younger sibling had surpassed its televised predecessor in both years in production and hours aired, and the cultural zeitgeist had steadily shifted away from Kirk and Co. to their syndicated successors.

Thus was the stage set for the original crew to make one last hurrah, an opportunity to pay due homage to the preceding quarter-century of history, and pave the way for the history yet to come. Trek VI was conceived at a moment in time when our world and the fictional world of Star Trek intersected. Just as The Next Generation had Klingon officer Worf (played by Michael Dorn, appearing in this film as his own grandfather) bestride the bridge of the Enterprise as part of her crew, current events at the time had seen the Berlin Wall come down, the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Bloc, and an end to a half-century of Cold War thinking.

Given this context and subtext, it's appropriate that the film (in a quotation borrowed from Hamlet) is called The Undiscovered Country, referring to the unknown future that stretches before our heroes as they stand in the crucible of history. The story begins with an ecological catastrophe forcing the Klingons, up till then Trek's pre-eminent bad guys, of necessity turning to the Federation for help. To this end, Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are charged with accompanying the leader of the Empire to Earth for a peace summit, because, as Spock helpfully puts it, "Only Nixon could go to China."

When the Klingon Chancellor (David Warner, made up, in an obvious visual joke, to look like an alien Abe Lincoln) is assassinated after an apparent attack on his ship by the Enterprise, Kirk and McCoy are tried and imprisoned, while Spock and the rest of the crew must unravel the mystery of the assassination. In the end, it falls to the Enterprise (along with Captain Sulu and the Excelsior) to thwart a conspiracy involving Klingons, Romulans, and humans, all bent on avoiding any peace, and led by Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer).

To craft an appropriately sweeping and moving swan song for Star Trek's original crew, the studio wisely turned to Leonard Nimoy, the man who'd given the movie series its highest high financially, to envision the film and shepherd it through production. Nimoy in turn wisely enlisted the aid of Nicholas Meyer, the man who'd given the series its highest high creatively, to shape the story and direct the film.

Like with Wrath of Khan, which juxtaposed harrowing space battles with meditations on death and aging, here Meyer laces issues of bigotry and intolerance to the usual big palette stuff one expects from a Star Trek adventure. And like with Khan's larger-than-life villain, Plummer chews the scenery with wild abandon as the Shakespeare-spouting, eye-patched Chang. His verbal jousting with Kirk during the trial is a particular highlight, including a spiteful, "Don't wait for the translation, answer me now!" that recalls Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis and is another example of Meyer's amusing propensity for inserting sideways historical asides into his scripts.

Another standout in the guest cast is Kim Cattrall (back when Sex and the City wasn't a title, just something that people do) as the ambitious Vulcan Lt. Valeris, who ends up exposing some prejudices that Mr. Spock didn't know he had. Valeris is humorous and charming, easily winning the audience over (which was, of course, Meyer's intent in casting Cattrall). Interestingly, she had been Meyer's original choice to play Saavik in Star Trek II, and Saavik had been his original choice of character to include in Star Trek VI, to be reprised by Kirstie Alley. In the end, we got both and neither, but we do get some terrific character work betwen her and Nimoy, leading up to some tense, dramatic moments near the end.

The knowledge that this was the crew's final screen mission seems to have allowed the filmmakers to tap a rich vein of flawed humanity that had remained mostly unplumbed in the squeaky-clean Trek-verse up to this point. Suddenly the casual bigotry that had gone unanswered in previous films (McCoy refers to the "stench" on a Klingon ship in Trek IV, Scotty calls them "Klingon devils" in Trek V) is called to account, with the story framed by Kirk's journey from unblinking hatred to the recognition that the choice in front of him is either to change his thinking or be swept to one side as history unfolds.

By this point we'd known and enjoyed these character for so long that reuniting with them took on the comfortable air that can only come from seeing old friends whose every mannerism we know and every tic we expect. And so we gamely sit as Spock once more arches his eyebrows, as Chekov mangles another old saying, as Scotty breathlessly announces yet again that the shields are weakening. All of this takes on a deeper resonance this time because we know it'll be the last time -- and that same resonance has deepened even further in the interim, with Deforest Kelley and James Doohan having since passed on.

As The Undiscovered Country reaches its denouement, with our heroes once again saving "humanity as we know it," a helpful voiceover from Kirk/Shatner strikes a metatextual chord and lets us know that while this may be the ship's final cruise with him and his, another crew (read: generation) is waiting in the wings to take over. And with that, heralded by Cliff Eidelman's bombastic overture, the Enterprise sails into the eternal sunset of cinema immortality, with the signatures of the cast appearing on screen in ascending order from George Takei to William Shatner to literally "sign off" this era of Star Trek.

In the end, more than merely letting us visit just once more with our old comrades and compatriots, Star Trek VI embodies the very best that the franchise is capable of, shining a light on our human inadequacies while pointing the way to overcoming them. It's at once gripping, humorous, emotional, and immensely satisfying. An appropriate and fitting farewell to the finest crew in the fleet.

Of course, just because the silver screen voyages had ended for the original crew didn't mean it was the end for everybody just yet. Spock would appear on The Next Generation leading up to this film's release, and Scotty would follow suit soon thereafter.

And as for James T. Kirk, he still had one last bit of business ahead of him. A


Ian Sokoliwski said...

Hold up...didn't Kirk make out with a guy in this one?

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I did like Kim Cattral's performance in this. Although I was a bit off-put by the forced mind-meld. There are just so many ways that that was wrong. Justified? Sure. But still...

Zaki said...

I like Cattrall a lot as well. And I agree that the forced mind-meld was uncomfortable. What's interesting is that I was watching the movie with commentary on, and Denny Martin Flynn, the co-writer, watches the scene and says, "This is really erotic," and Meyer replies "Yeah, I intended it to be erotic."


Ian Sokoliwski said..., yeah. That's an interesting use of the word erotic...

The Mad Swede said...

As always you give us a nice read, Zaki.

I have to say that it's one of my three favourites of the original six movies (the three I've bothered to get for my collection) and I agree that it's probably the most layered one at that.

It's slightly ironic though that they've picked the title from the Shakespeare quote without (at least seemingly) actually seeing what it refers to in the play.

The lines:
"When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?"

In the context of Hamlet's soliloquy, doesn't refer to a future (that by its very nature is unknown and undiscovered, granted) but rather to death itself. Hamlet after all is speaking of existence vs. non-existence.

But, that is of course a small side point to an excellent film. And as stated a great review/analysis thereof.