Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Heath Holland On: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Captain’s Log: Stardate 12.6.1991. The original five year mission of the USS Enterprise has long since ended. In the twenty five years since televisions first aired the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, the franchise has reached worldwide fandom, spawning toys, trading cards, scores of novels, fan fiction, costumes, and a mostly-successful series of movies on the big screen. But twenty five years is a long time for one cast to keep the candle burning, and it has brought infighting, resentment, multiple hairpieces, and fewer and fewer places to boldly go where no man has gone before. 

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.
There’s a popular sentiment that the even-numbered Star Trek movies are good and the odd-numbered ones suck. I don’t know if I totally agree with that, because there’s good stuff in all of the movies (except for the first one…I kid), But there’s probably something to that argument. Personally, my favorites are II, III, and IV. Those three movies make quite a trilogy, and I’d have gone away happy if that had been the end of Star Trek at the cinema, but Paramount had other plans. After a poor reception with part V (helmed, for good or ill, by Shatner himself), the studio originally planned to film a prequel with a whole new cast. Fan and cast outrage put an end to that idea, and the plan then became to give these characters one final farewell before moving on to the big screen adventures of The Next Generation. Part VI had a smaller budget after the failure of part V, and was filmed largely on sets from The Next Generation television show in an effort to save money. Locations were also limited, and the film was rushed into a quick production schedule in an attempt to make it into theaters before the end of the year, honoring the important twenty-fifth anniversary. All of the original cast came back for this last adventure, and the script definitely feels bittersweet and sentimental. This is a labor of love for all involved, and you can tell that they know this is it. Nicholas Meyer, the man behind the PHENOMENAL Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came back to co-write the script and to direct. He did a great job, and his presence and strong direction had been missing from recent installments. Because of this, and because of all the elements coming together, part VI is a triumphant return to the winning formula.

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.
Everyone brings their A-game and tries their best to make this a special voyage, but there’s not a lot of new ground to cover by the time you’re on your sixth movie with the same cast, let alone your twenty-fifth year. Kirk and Spock have been fleshed out as much as they can be at this point, and McCoy’s grumpy country doctor routine is far from tired, but we’ve seen it all before. And you know what? That’s FINE. On the sixth movie, we don’t need to be breaking new ground. This is about saying goodbye. Deforest Kelley gets my favorite line in the movie: as Shatner makes out with Iman on his prison bunk, Bones rolls his eyes in exasperation and asks Kirk “What IS IT with you, anyway?” Character moments like this pervade the script. By this point, these actors know their characters like the back of their hands.

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.
As the music swells and the USS Enterprise flies into the stars one last time, we get each of the actor’s autographs on the screen. This is their gift to us, their legacy, a quarter of a century seeking out new life, boldly going, and when the credits started to roll, I admit to being choked up. There’s a lot of history on the screen during this movie, and it definitely feels like goodbye. In many ways, I wish this was the last we’d seen of Kirk and Spock, because it’s such a beautiful and fitting ending. What came later for both characters feels somehow like a betrayal to the rest of the crew with whom they fought so many Romulans, Klingons, and Andorians. Before Star Trek: Generations and Kirk’s farewell, before Nimoy’s Spock showed up in JJ Abrams' film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country served as a rousing final adventure, and a love letter to a crew that had finally reached the end of the road.


  1. SPOILERS AHEAD for a 22-year-old movie
    I'm not sure where I read this, and it may be a dirty lie, but I remember reading that Catrall's character was originally written as Saavik, the Kirstie Alley/Robin Curtis character from II & III, but Curtis refused to return. I can't help bit think that the saboteur plotline would have been more effective if it had been her.
    That being said, this is an underrated entry in the series (and the end credits choke me up, too...straight on 'til morning indeed). Loving the column so far, HHH.

    1. That's 100% correct. Nicholas Meyer talks about it in his autobiography, and says exactly what you're feeling -- that the movie suffered a little by having it be a brand new character.

    2. Ladies and gentlemen, Patrick Tiberius Bromley: Star Trek Superfan.

      Yeah, Curtis didn't want to be a traitor in the movie, and Cattrall didn't want to play someone else's character. It would have been great to have Saavik back.

      Thanks for the kind words, JP.

  2. Well-written article, Heath, but I'm not really a fan of the series (my loss!) so I have little to say about it (your loss...?).

    I really dug The Wrath of Kahn when I watched it for the first time during last year's F This Movie Fest but just could never get into the rest (maybe other people TWATCHING it with me would've helped). I have a great deal of respect for the franchise (and really enjoyed the reboot) but just don't have that LOVE for it, you know?

    I guess what I'm trying to say is maybe next time you could tailor your article to MY specific tastes, so I could go on and on about my personal relationship with the subject matter because I just love hearing myself type? kthanxbai

    1. I feel you, my man. And sorry this one didn't hit you in the sweet spot. They can't all be about Strange Brew! I kid, I kid. Star Trek didn't hit me until about 10 years ago. I'd seem some of them, but it took that long for it to really grab me. I can't even explain why. But now I think it's pretty great. And I love that JJ Abrams is doing Star Wars now, because I'm really tired of people pitting Star Trek against Star Wars. There's room for both, and I think Abrams is going to help some of those people to cross the aisle.

    2. Well, you raise an important question: Why CAN'T they all be about Strange Brew?

      I'm not sure why Star Trek has never completely clicked with me - I remember watching them on the CBC when I was little and had a Star Trek colouring book and shit, but Star Wars just made a stronger and more lasting connection. I certainly have not shut them out completely though so who knows - maybe one of these days that'll change.

      I'm totally cool with JJ doing Star Wars and excited to see where he takes it (I like to be positive about future movies rather than preemptively be mad at them). I too don't see why the two franchises are pitted against each other - aside from being set in space and having aliens the ideas they are exploring are basically NOTHING ALIKE. There is no reason to compare them really and I hope JJ helming both franchises does highlight the fact that like, even with the same director there are two entirely different things going on here. We can enjoy both!

    3. "I like to be positive about future movies rather than preemptively be mad at them." -- This is a novel approach! I wish more people could do the same.

      I agree with you that Star Trek and Star Wars are nothing alike (apples and cars), but I think the new Star Trek invites the comparison more because JJ Abrams kind of turned it into a Star Wars movie. Maybe that bodes even better for his version of Star Wars. But I'm glad we have them both, and I'm glad my kids can grow up in a world where they can go to a theater and see these movies the same way I did as a kid. THE CIRCLE OF LIFE.

  3. Great job Heath! I've always wanted to be a Trek fan more than I am one. It's weird. The reason for that is the passionate feelings fans like you (and Patrick) have for the series. I feel like I'm missing out. I haven't even seen Wrath of Khan yet!

    Keep up the great work bud :-)

  4. I'm a big fan of the original Star Trek series (and a naysayer of the reboot). The Wrath of Khan is among my 5 favourite films of all time.

    The Undiscovered Country is a pretty solid entry but disappoints in a number of ways. The scenario is terrific, providing intrigue, suspense and action along with personal conflict for the characters to overcome. But there's a lot of silliness and (as usual for these films) it comes at the expense of the secondary characters' credibility.

    Christopher Plummer is totally underused as the villain. He's pretty compelling when he has something to say so it's a real disservice to have him do nothing but cackle Shakespeare lines in the big finale.

    I also have problems with the choice to depict Klingon blood as pink for the only time in the series. Was it to avoid an R-rating or to just be a clue for the Scooby-Doo ending? It's a bad choice on every level.

    I totally agree that the reveal of the conspirators would have so much more impact with Saavik than the new character. There is still a bit of punch having Admiral Cartright be involved but he is a less familiar character.

    1. I could be speculating wildly, but it seems like, from what I gather in the featurettes from the blu-ray, that Christopher Plummer kept add libbing Shakespeare the whole time. I also gather, PURELY OUT OF MY OWN OBSERVATION, that he may have been a little bit of a strong personality and not taken direction as well as some others. That could probably be said of the whole cast of this movie, too. We had two other directors just in Shatner and in Nimoy. Plummer is a long time theater actor and I gather that he kind of acts each role the way he wants to. Again, that's a lot of speculation on my part, but even his interviews on the blu-ray come across he comes across as really...firm. But he loved Nicholas Meyer. I like him a lot in this movie. Like, a LOT. but I could have done with 60% less Shakespeare.

    2. A gerneralization: Theatrical actors are slavish to the script. They may have ideas of their own about line-readings but they don't improvise new lines.

      Even if Plummer was adlibbing, Meyer could have easily left all of it on the cutting room floor. Meyer's a Shakespeare fan himself so I have little doubt he is behind the inclusion.

      All the Moby Dick and Tale of Two Cities quotes work so well in TWOK, so it may have been another case of a filmmaker learning the wrong lessons from past success.

    3. Well, Meyer does say that all the Shakespeare wasn't scripted but that he let Plummer run with it. He even said that he normally thought it would be too much of a good thing (or something like that) but that he thought it worked because Plummer really sold it and pulled it off. My paraphrasing. But you're right, Meyer is a big Shakespeare fan, as well as a Sherlock Holmes fan (which is also represented, I believe), so I'm sure he loved it. And you're also right that if he didn't, he could have cut it. Shatner had a problem with his character responding to the statement that the Klingons would die by saying "then let them die!" He talked to Meyer and asked him to film him recanting the line. The deleted scene has him saying the line and immediately waving it away in regret, like "no, I don't mean that." Meyer did not put that part in the movie, and Shatner holds a grudge about that. So I agree with you, there's nothing there that Nicholas Meyer didn't want there. He cut Shatner's request. I wish he'd cut A LITTLE Shakespeare too. Chang comes off a bit one note during the final confrontation. Cry Havok!

  5. That was a spectacular read Heath. My sister and I just revisited TNG's classic "Measure of a Man", so reading this gave me even more of an appreciation of the Star Trek legacy. Kaplah!

  6. It's great to see you doing a regular feature, HHH!

    Star Trek II may be better; III may hit me harder emotionally (who doesn't tear up when Spock says "Jim...Your name - is Jim); IV may be funnier, but I love VI. They have a bit of fun with Kirk's (and by definition Shatner's) vanity, when the shapeshifter turns into a doppleganger of Kirk. Kirk says "I can't believe I kissed you!" And the fake comes back: "It must have been your life's ambition!" And how about McCoy's disgruntled line after he sees Kirk making out - "What IS it with you!?"

    1. Ah - I see you already referenced that line (embarrassed cough).

  7. This one is my favorite Star Trek, even with Shatner in his "Fat Elvis" stage. Actually, probably BECAUSE he's in his "Fat Elvis" stage. When this one comes on cable, I can't resist it.

  8. great article. thank your for the cold war metaphor. been saying tha for years.

    was and is the ONLY star trek I like