Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Heath Holland On: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The original cast of Star Trek no longer feels fresh or relevant when compared to the their successor, the wildly popular Star Trek: The Next Generation. That show has been on the air for several years now, and people are clamoring for a movie starring that cast. For the torch to be passed. As an answer to this, and to the poor box office performance of Star Trek V, we find ourselves in 1991, facing the task of honoring the original cast of Star Trek, celebrating the show's twenty-fifth anniversary, and sending these beloved characters on one last mission.
1991 saw plenty of changes. The Gulf War was raging, the Cold War was ending. Nirvana’s Nevermind was a huge hit, signaling the abrupt death of hair metal and party rock (which meant I had to put away my spandex and hair spray for many years). It was a new decade, and we were killing the '80s bit by bit. The original Star Trek had Lived Long and Prospered, but the public was ready for something new, something that reflected the younger, sexier Star Trek they were seeing in syndication.
For me, the original Star Trek series IS Star Trek. I enjoy the later incarnations and certainly see their place and their importance in keeping with the show's the themes of exploration and hope, of always moving forward and striving toward a higher cause, but there is something about that classic show, with its psychedelic colors, short skirts, rubber suits, and grainy special effects that epitomizes the ideals, optimism, fear, and conflict of the mid-to-late '60s. Society was changing and the culture was at war. This was a time of free love, mind expanding drugs, and anti-war protests. Star Trek came along like a technicolor shotgun blast and reflected the changing times. These were the years of Sgt. Pepper, Woodstock, and Timothy Leary. Star Trek seems positively quaint now, but it was revolutionary at the time for its messages of peace and equality. This was the show that broke television history by featuring the first televised interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura. But for all the envelopes it pushed and for all the hot alien ladies Kirk made sweet, sweet love to (more than you can throw a Tribble at), it was cancelled after three seasons. It would be a decade before fans got to see a new live action story in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The plot this time out is fairly simple: take the real-world politics of the ending of the Cold War and translate that to space. Instead of Russia, we have the Klingons. Instead of America, we have The Federation. The Klingon moon of Praxis is destroyed, striking a big ol’ blow against their empire and prompting them to pursue peace with the Federation. The original crew of the Enterprise (three months away from retirement, a la Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon) are sent on a simple mission to escort the Klingon Ambassador to Earth for peace talks. The Enterprise appears to open fire upon the ship, the Klingon Ambassador is killed, Kirk and McCoy are apprehended and held responsible for the death of the Ambassador, and Benny Hill music plays as wackiness ensues. The rest of the movie is about rescuing Kirk and McCoy from the Klingon prison camp, clearing their name, and restoring peace to the galaxy. All in a day’s work for the capable crew of the NCC 1701A!
This movie has a solid cast, including The Sound Of Music’s Christopher Plummer as the Shakespeare-spouting Klingon General Chang (the hills are alive with the sound of “Qapla!”) and a rare clothed role for Kim Cattrall as Spock’s would-be Vulcan successor, Valeris. We also get David Warner, Christian Slater, Iman (ooh la la) and a brief appearance by Michael Dorn as Worf, the walking foreskin.
Full disclosure: this is my first time watching one of the original Star Trek movies since seeing JJ Abrams' reboot (not a reboot?) from a few years back. His take was so different, while retaining all the things I want from Star Trek AND making a rousing, popcorn chomper, that I had a tough time getting going with this one. The opening credits are just that: five minutes of opening credits, with nothing going on and nothing to look at. But once it gets going, it was like slipping into an old t-shirt -- comfortable and familiar, albeit covered with mustard stains and a bit worn. It builds from a slow burn into a full-blown race against the clock, and over the two hour running time we’re treated to fist fights, bizarre aliens, Kirk getting his freak on, Spock struggling with his logic versus his emotions, Scotty givin’ ‘er all she’s got, Sulu being Sulu (oh my) and all the hallmarks of what defines Star Trek as Star Trek. It may not be the '60s anymore, but it’s definitely Star Trek.
The question being asked through the entire film is “what role do these characters have left to play?” The script, the actors, and the public know that this is their last hurrah, and the movie pays fine tribute to their legacy. The characters continually talk about their place in the Federation, the glory days being over, and where they fit into a changing world. It seems designed from the get-go as an adventure in its own right, while also serving as a tribute that closes the door on the previous twenty-five years and clears the slate for Picard, Riker, and Data. We’d see some of these guys again, but for most of the original crew of the USS Enterprise, this was their swan song.