Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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William Shatner’s documentary Chaos on the Bridge is a fascinating look into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and why, to be blunt, it sucked.  A revolving door of writers that couldn’t handle the miserable working conditions imposed upon them by the increasingly ailing Gene Roddenberry and his impish lawyer Leonard Maizlish, and a novice cast struggling to navigate through the inconsistent, dramatically dull scripts that dribbled out, resulted in a mediocre series clinging to existence only by the loyalty of its fans.  But by the commencement of the third season in late 1989 and the arrival of new showrunner Michael Piller who moved the series away from aliens-of-the-week plots toward stories centered on the characters, momentum began to shift.  The Next Generation got good.  Really good.  And with Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier having proven a massive box office disappointment, the burden of leading the franchise itself had seemingly shifted to the new, fresh and suddenly vigorous series.  Was there room for another silver screen adventure for the aging Captain Kirk and company?

Producer Harve Bennett, who had shepherded the movie series since The Wrath of Khan, did not think so.  Asked to come up with an idea for a sixth film, Bennett enlisted The Final Frontier‘s screenwriter David Loughery to write an origin story that would involve the first meeting of Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy and let them be played by younger and presumably cheaper actors (John Cusack as Spock was floated as a possibility – get your heads around that one.)  Paramount executives were keen but wondered if it would be at all possible to include the original stars in some way.  Loughery added book-ending scenes that would feature Shatner and Nimoy in cameos, and set the main story instead as an extended flashback.  Bennett received the green light and was beginning pre-production when he found himself victim to the Wrath of the Fans.  Roddenberry, who had learned of the concept as it was developed, railed against it at conventions as akin to the execrable Police Academy movies.  The supporting cast (Doohan, Koenig, Nichols and Takei) who would find themselves out of work if this movie went ahead, were equally and publicly disdainful.  Pressure began to build.  Finally, when studio head Martin Davis was informed that the next Star Trek movie would not involve the regulars but rather a new group of younger actors with Shatner and Nimoy appearing only briefly, he put his foot down and demanded a full classic Star Trek movie.  Bennett was asked to shelve his Academy concept for the time being and produce Davis’ requested movie first.  Bennett chose to walk.  In a panic to try and put a movie together in time for Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary in the fall of 1991, Paramount went back to the man who had had a direct creative hand in each of the most successful Star Trek movies to date:  Leonard Nimoy.

Appointed the executive producer of Star Trek VI, Nimoy reached out to Nicholas Meyer to collaborate on a story ripped from the headlines of the day:  the Berlin Wall coming down in space, with the role of the Soviet Union being played by the Klingon Empire.  Nimoy was also the first choice of the studio to direct, but as Shatner was also alleged to be keen on another shot to atone for the misfired Star Trek V, Nimoy suggested Meyer as a compromise instead of himself to avoid bruising his longtime friend’s ego.  That would not be the toughest battle the movie would face before a single frame could be filmed, and in our blissful ignorance as fans merely waiting out the expected few years before the inevitable next movie, we came very close to not getting a Star Trek VI at all:  studio politics reared its hideous hydra head, with meddling executives forcing Nimoy to accept a pair of unproductive writers he didn’t want to work with (the writers and the executives were eventually fired, though the former did ultimately get screen credit thanks to the rules of the Writers’ Guild), and nickel-and-dime bickering on the budget between Meyer and other studio suits until finally, the entire production was cancelled.  In a last ditch effort to salvage the movie, Meyer went hat-in-hand to Paramount president Stanley Jaffe, who in a snap gracious decision granted him every cent of the budget he needed – and shortly thereafter, the suits who had tried to strangle Star Trek VI in its crib were themselves shown the door.  Nimoy, Meyer, and screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn could get on with the business of crafting the script to everyone’s satisfaction.

Not that this was any easier.  This was to be a movie about the old soldiers of the Federation coming to terms with their prejudices about their mortal enemy, and as such, the script included our heroes speaking racist dialogue about the Klingons – an unappetizing task for the minority actors in the cast.  Nichelle Nichols refused to say lines like “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” and “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” while Brock Peters, returning from The Voyage Home as Starfleet Admiral Cartwright, could not get through his speech about Klingons as alien trash and bringing them “to their knees” in a single take.  For his part, William Shatner had huge problems with his line “Let them die!” and asked for a reaction shot to indicate that Kirk was embarrassed at having blurted that out (it wasn’t – the movie cuts immediately to Spock).  Gene Roddenberry, his health giving out after decades of living large, was appalled by the militaristic and angry tone of the script – hard not to empathize with if you were watching the characters you had created being turned into bigots – and he was especially upset at the proposed reveal of Lt. Saavik as a traitor.  Meyer dismissed Roddenberry’s objections, arguing that he created Saavik and could do whatever he wanted with her, but the point was rendered moot when Kirstie Alley declined to return, Robin Curtis was not even asked, and Saavik became Valeris when Kim Cattrall was cast instead.  Roddenberry’s objections were noted and filed, and shooting finally commenced in April 1991, on re-dressed sets from The Next Generation, while it was on its summer hiatus.  Roddenberry would get one last look at the nearly-completed film in late October; he was wheeled into a screening attached to an oxygen tank, and while he left giving a positive review, he immediately got his lawyer Maizlish involved and tried to have almost a quarter of the movie cut out.  Two days later, Roddenberry was dead, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country premiered in December 1991 without any cuts, but with a brief opening dedication:  For Gene Roddenberry. 

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Taking the suggestion that one should always start a story with a bang somewhat literally, Star Trek VI opens with a massive explosion amidst an endless backdrop of stars:  the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility, goes full Chernobyl (a deliberate allusion) and disrupts the travels of the starship U.S.S. Excelsior, now under the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) on a mission to catalogue gaseous planetary anomalies.  Two months later, Captain Kirk and his remaining, soon-to-retire crew are summoned to a briefing at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, where the Federation’s special envoy – Spock – advises that the Klingon economy has been crippled by the Praxis explosion and that they have requested negotiations with the Federation to end the fifty-year cold war between the two galactic superpowers.  Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have been assigned to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth for a peace summit, despite Kirk’s history with the Klingons, because of the old Vulcan proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China.”  Kirk berates Spock for putting him in this position, when as the father of an only son who was murdered by Klingons, he is content to let them all die.  Orders are orders however, and the Enterprise, with its new helm officer (and Spock protégé) Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) sets a course for the Neutral Zone.  The first meeting with Gorkon (David Warner), his daughter Azetbur (Rosana DeSoto) and his Shakespeare-quoting chief of staff General Chang (Christopher Plummer) is an uneasy one:  despite Gorkon’s progressive outlook toward the “undiscovered country” of the unknown future, old prejudices simmer during a diplomatic dinner, and Gorkon advises a wary Kirk that if there is to be a brave new world, their generation will have the hardest time living in it.

In the middle of the night, the Enterprise abruptly seems to fire two photon torpedoes at Gorkon’s ship, crippling its gravity.  Two men wearing Starfleet uniforms and walking with magnetic boots beam aboard, murder several of its crew, and gravely wound the chancellor.  An enraged Chang threatens to fire back; Kirk keeps the Enterprise‘s shields down and surrenders, then beams over with Dr. McCoy to help.  Gorkon’s wounds are too deep and McCoy doesn’t know the Klingon anatomy.  Gorkon dies, but not before pleading with Kirk with his last breath, “Don’t let it end this way, Captain.”  Chang has Kirk and McCoy immediately arrested for Gorkon’s murder, and Azetbur, appointed chancellor in her father’s place, agrees to continue with the peace talks in his memory at a secret location, but on the promise that the prisoners will not be extradited, and Starfleet will make no attempt to rescue them.  At a subsequent show trial where they are defended by the same-named grandfather of The Next Generation‘s Worf (Michael Dorn), a recording of Kirk’s log in which says he will never trust or forgive the Klingons for the death of his son is played, and he and  McCoy are found guilty.  They are spared the usual sentence of death and instead condemned to the prison planet Rura Penthe, the “alien’s graveyard.”

Back on the Enterprise, Spock and the remainder of the crew play for time with Starfleet Command by claiming engine trouble.  They still have a full complement of torpedoes, so someone else must have fired on Gorkon’s ship from beneath them to make it seem as though it was the Enterprise.  Because the Klingons did not notice it, it might have been a cloaked Bird-of-Prey; normally Birds-of-Prey cannot fire when cloaked, but this (hypothetical) one can.  And since someone altered the computer records to indicate the Enterprise fired the torpedoes, there must be a conspirator or conspirators in their very midst.  The search is on for the two pairs of magnetic boots the killers were described by witnesses to have been wearing, and when Chekov discovers a trace of Klingon blood on the Enterprise‘s transporter pad, the search expands to uniforms.  The boots are subsequently found in the locker of an innocent alien ensign (whose broad webbed feet reveal he couldn’t possibly have worn them), stalling the investigation.

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Meanwhile, Kirk and McCoy struggle to survive the harsh conditions of Rura Penthe, with some unexpected help from a beautiful shapeshifting alien named Martia (the late David Bowie’s wife Iman).  She uses her abilities to facilitate their escape from the underground prison camp and across the glaciers beyond the magnetic shield that prevents transporter beaming, while the Enterprise warps through Klingon territory to find them before they freeze to death, aided by a tracking patch Spock placed on Kirk’s back before they boarded Gorkon’s ship.  It turns out Martia is a plant, offered a pardon to make it look like Kirk and McCoy were killed attempting escape, and the prison warden arrives with his men and disintegrates Martia for her trouble.  Before the warden can reveal who wants them dead, Kirk and McCoy are beamed to safety aboard the Enterprise.  Scotty finds the missing uniforms stained by Klingon blood, and the bodies of the two assassins are discovered:  two racist, low-ranking crewmembers we saw being berated by Valeris earlier, phaser-stunned to the head at close range.  Kirk tries a gambit of broadcasting a bluff over the ship’s intercom indicating that the two assassins are alive in sickbay and ready to give statements, and when someone arrives to finish the job, it turns out to be Valeris herself.  Valeris arranged for Kirk’s log to be used at his trial, and reprogrammed the computers to suggest the Enterprise had fired the torpedoes.  Spock is angrier than we have ever seen him at his student’s betrayal, and when Valeris will not reveal her co-conspirators, he extracts the names from her mind via mind-meld:  General Chang, Starfleet Admiral Cartwright and the Romulan ambassador.

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Kirk contacts Sulu to learn the location of the rescheduled peace conference which is beginning today:  Camp Khitomer, near the Romulan border.  The two ships proceed to Khitomer at maximum warp, but as another assassin sets up his sniping post in the Khitomer auditorium, our heroes are waylaid in orbit by Chang and his cloaked Bird-of-Prey, which batters them invisibly until Uhura has the notion to use the gaseous planetary anomaly cataloguing equipment (there’s a mouthful!) to sniff out the Bird-of-Prey’s tailpipe.  Spock and McCoy reprogram a torpedo as the Enterprise‘s shields collapse and the assassin takes aim at the Federation’s President (Kurtwood Smith).  The torpedo is fired, Chang sees it coming and with a last quote of Hamlet (“To be… or not… to be”), his ship is destroyed by a barrage from both the Enterprise and the Excelsior.  Kirk beams down to the conference and jumps on the President to knock him out of the way of the fatal phaser shot.  Scotty stuns the assassin and knocks him from his perch to a plunging death, and Sulu arrests the fleeing Admiral Cartwright.  Kirk addresses Chancellor Azetbur and the assembly and gives a conciliatory speech in which he admits his faults and says that for some people, the future and change can be a very frightening thing.  Azetbur replies that he has restored her father’s faith.  Kirk says that she has restored his son’s.  The assembly – including a reluctant Klingon delegation – gives them a standing ovation.

In orbit again, Kirk says thank you and farewell to Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, and when a message from Starfleet comes in ordering the Enterprise home for decommissioning, Spock advises a cheeky reply of “go to hell.”  Kirk asks for a course set “second star to the right, and straight on until morning.”  In a shoutout to The Next Generation, his final log entry addresses a future crew who will continue the voyages to all the undiscovered countries and boldly go where no man… “where no one…” has gone before.  And in a final “sign off,” the signatures of the original cast of seven fly across the screen before the credits roll.

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As a finale to the adventures of the original Star Trek crew, and one that studio meddling almost kiboshed before it even began, The Undiscovered Country is an immensely satisfying experience, proving that the stumbles of the previous movie aside, there was still a fair chunk of dilithium left in the tank.  I wouldn’t even say it’s bittersweet, in that there is very little bitterness left once the last credit slides by.  As fans, we knew it couldn’t go on forever, and this is a near-perfect goodbye.  In a time when The Simpsons was airing Star Trek XII:  So Very Tired gags, this movie uses the advanced age of its cast as a starting point for its story, asking – even point-blank in one third-act scene between Kirk and Spock – if we are all fated to reach a point in our lives where we become so entrenched in our ways that we cannot adapt to an era that is starting to evolve beyond us, and if that constitutes a joke.  It would not have done to have these people running around acting like twenty-year-olds; not only would that be embarrassing, but a waste of a storytelling opportunity that is rarely presented in films that are so often geared largely toward the appetites of the young.  Nimoy, Meyer and Flinn aren’t afraid to talk about the challenges of growing old, and the accordingly assured cast is not afraid to play it either, framed by a whodunit, a morally ambiguous mystery that is unique among Star Trek films usually more straightforward in their narratives with the roles of good and evil clearly defined.  With Meyer’s hand in the script, we can again play our game of Spot the Literary Reference with nods to Sherlock Holmes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Peter Pan, as well as almost the entirety of the First Folio thanks to the verbose General Chang.  Meyer includes nods to recent history as well, evoking Hitler, Nixon and even Adlai Stevenson, and the screenplay sounds so much richer for it, making this a high-stakes, consequential drama populated by intelligent, educated characters pitted against one another by political point of view.

Talking of the characters, there seem to be so many of them even given the movie’s restricted budget, and this is arguably the deepest bench of guest cast in any Star Trek film before or since.  After being a glorified prop as a human ambassador in Star Trek V, David Warner gets a second try in the Trekverse as the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (named after Gorbachev) and brings great gravitas to a brief role; we wonder how this thoughtful liberal ever managed to achieve the premiership of the extremely conservative Klingon Empire, and lament his not seeing his last dream made real.  Rosana DeSoto as his daughter-turned-successor effectively brings the inspired yet weary qualities of a born statesperson to her role as well.  The lithe and lovely Iman injects a welcome dose of sinister sex appeal into the second act – even in yellow contact lenses – and Kurtwood Smith, who had just scared the hell out of everyone in Robocop, makes for a contemplative and believable Chief Executive of the Federation.  Kim Cattrall as Valeris does well in charting a transformation from a young idealist to an embittered cynic undone by the perversion of her idealism – and she wears the Vulcan ears rather beguilingly at that.  The biggest accolades do of course go to Christopher Plummer as the everything-dialed-up-to-11 Chang, who sinks his teeth into each Shakespearean tidbit, tears off the flesh and gnashes it into powdery bits, becoming the most grandly theatrical villain of the Star Trek canon.  Where Kirk recognizes his prejudices and refuses to let them interfere with his sense of morality, Chang is Kirk tipped over that fuzzy gray border, sticking to the hardest of lines even in the face of death.  Unlike Khan, Chang’s history doesn’t matter.  He just blows onto the screen and (nearly) blows everyone else off it.  There is also something patriotically amusing in watching the fate of the galaxy being played out between two legendary Canadian actors.

The movie is often described as one of Star Trek‘s darkest – it probably has the highest on-screen body count, the sets are cold and metallic and lit dimly, and Cliff Eidelman’s score begins with an ominous main title theme reminiscent of Holst’s Mars movement from The Planets and rumbles about the bass side of the scale for most of the running time.  The shift in comportment of our main family of characters is a bit jarring, too.  We’ve seen them in conflict with the Klingons before, but we’ve never seen them this embittered:  you’ll recall Kirk tried to help pull Kruge up from the collapsing cliff on Genesis even after he’d ordered the death of Kirk’s son.  Here, we get Klingons compared to animals and derided for their smell, and even lovable old Scotty casually refers to Azetbur as a bitch.  It’s difficult given those examples not to agree with the late Gene Roddenberry’s objections to the tone of the screenplay.  But confronting one’s prejudices is always uncomfortable, and recognizing the swaths of ugliness present in otherwise beautiful and beloved characters is a challenge to ourselves, the audience, to dislodge our own asses from the well-shaped groove of stereotypes that we may hold regarding some of our fellow human beings.  Roddenberry harbored a hope that in the future we would evolve beyond our pettiness, and seeing his aspirational creations fall back into those hated patterns must have represented an infuriating triumph of everything he had fought against during his years of battling with the studio to protect what remained of his vision.  However, in that Star Trek VI shows Captain Kirk learning to grow beyond hatred of even his most reliable enemy, it stands as a tribute to what Roddenberry wanted for humanity, and what he wanted Star Trek to be.  It is a more than fitting farewell to both the original cast and the man who first brought them together.

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In summary:  Points for the unique mystery aspects of the story, the amazing guest cast (even Christian Slater’s cameo is fun!) and a tremendously exciting, edge-of-your-seat finale coupled with a poignant and hopeful goodbye.  Points against:  the obvious budget-saving reuse of too many Next Generation sets (the President’s office is just Ten-Forward with some drapes), the fairly obvious reveal of the lone new character on the bridge as the traitor.  But we digress, the movie is still one of the best of the bunch.

Next time:  Captain Kirk passes the baton to Captain Picard and then has a bridge dropped on him as The Next Generation makes an awkward transition from small screen to big.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

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5 thoughts on “Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)”

  1. Wow, do you just know all this stuff, or how much time does it take you to do the research and finding tangential tidbits (like the Simpsons reference) for each one of these amazing posts?!

    1. Most of this stuff I do know. Years and years of reading various books and articles and behind-the-scenes trivia. It sort of floats around in my head looking for an outlet. I have peeked at Memory Alpha a few times during the course of this series just to confirm stuff I wasn’t entirely sure about.

  2. Great review of a great movie. I had no idea how close we came to not getting it at all, and I really enjoy the progression of the crew, especially Kirk, from bigots to more accepting/reflective people. It is, as you say, a great way to preserve Roddenberry’s sentiments of what Star-Trek was and what humanity could be.

    1. Thanks! I sometimes think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to the stupid studio politics that get in the way long before these things ever make it to the screen. Frankly it’s amazing that any movie ever gets released.

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