Film Discussion

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Throwback 30

For a property which was approaching its silver anniversary, Star Trek’s fortunes were somewhat mixed at the end of the 1980s. Having now developed into a franchise with the 1987 launch of a sequel TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation had gotten off to a shaky start, not helped by a writers’ strike during its second season, but had started to gain a following and a strong reputation as creator Gene Roddenberry’s hold on the creative reins started to loosen.

For the original crew of what was to become more commonly known as ‘classic’ Star Trek, however, there had clearly been something of a reversal of fortune, especially in comparison to the young pretender now nipping at its heels. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had underperformed at the box office, so it seemed that Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, etc., were not the big draw which they had once been. For the first time, they were starting to look like yesterday’s Enterprise; jokes about their age, hairlines and waistlines were also commonplace.

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Paramount Pictures were aware that the original series was due to mark its 25th birthday in 1991, so it was expected that there would be another movie to celebrate the occasion; due to the critical mauling and relative commercial failure of Star Trek V, however, Paramount were looking to keep the film’s budget low, and if it meant replacing the high-salaried cast, then so be it. To that end, producer Harve Bennett proposed a notion which had originally been considered for the series’ fourth entry.

Bennett’s concept would be variously known as ‘Starfleet Academy’, ‘The Academy Years’, and ‘The First Adventure’, which would act as a prequel, and see new, younger actors cast as the original Enterprise crew. Described as being like Top Gun in outer space”, the script penned by Bennett and Star Trek V co-writer David Loughery would show the crew’s formative years. The story would be told in flashback, with Dr McCoy telling a group of Academy graduates how he had first met Kirk and Spock.

A younger Scotty would also have played a part in the movie, as a pilot who went on an experimental warp test flight with George Kirk – James T. Kirk’s father – who was now MIA, and presumed killed. Spock would have been the victim of racist abuse and bullying, due to his being the only Vulcan student. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty would have come together to face a foe, before going their separate ways at the end. After getting a poor reception, Bennett rewrote the script to have the older Spock and Kirk as well, but it was still rejected, and Bennett parted ways with Paramount.

© 1991 Paramount Pictures

The idea of recasting to show a young Kirk, Spock, et al. may have seemed like a bold move at the time; Bennett had eyes on Ethan Hawke to play Kirk, and John Cusack for Spock. By the time of J.J. Abrams2009 reboot of Star Trek, however, it was no longer such a contentious issue, and characters like Spock and Uhura have gone on to be recast again for their TV appearances in prequel shows Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

Walter Koenig then pitched his own idea, a story named ‘In Flanders Fields’; Koenig’s outline saw the Enterprise crew – apart from Spock – in retirement. Spock remained in service, and was Captain of his own vessel, before being captured by a race of worm-like creatures. Kirk and his friends would be reunited for one last time, going on a rescue mission to save Spock. However, Koenig’s story would end on something of a downer, as it would result in the deaths of everyone from the original series, with the exception of McCoy and Spock.

Struggling to find a pitch which would act not only as being a swansong for the original series’ cast, but also a celebration of Star Trek having been around for a quarter of a century, it was decided by Paramount to approach Leonard Nimoy, as he had directed the box office smash which was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Along with writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, Nimoy came up with a notion which would see Kirk meeting up with Captain Jean-Luc Picard from The Next Generation, but the show’s producers refused to allow the crossover.

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Real world events would ultimately shape what was to end up becoming the basis for the sixth Star Trek film. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened, and according to Mikhail Gorbachev, the then recently-appointed General Secretary of the USSR, he later said that it acted as a turning point helping to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union within five years. Gorbachev‘s era of ‘glasnost’ (‘openness’) is one of the factors which helped to end the Cold War, so the political landscape had greatly shifted since the birth of Star Trek in the mid-1960s.

Even though Roddenberry’s utopian future vision had seen a Russian member of the Enterprise crew in the form of Pavel Chekov, who joined during the second season, there was still a proxy for the ‘Evil Empire’ (as President Reagan would later describe the Soviet Union) in the form of the Klingons. With the future timeframe having shifted further forward by the setting of The Next Generation, there was peace between the two sides, although it had yet to be explained as to how such a dramatic change had come about.

By the time that Star Trek VI was being conceived, the USSR was still in existence, although the cracks were showing, and a number of states had already broken away from the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1990, Nimoy approached Nicholas Meyer, who had written and directed the well-regarded Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and also worked on the script for Star Trek IV; Nimoy pitched him the idea of the ‘Iron Curtain’ coming down in Star Trek terms, leading to the brokering of a peace at long last between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire.

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The story which was ultimately devised for the sixth film was to prove not only prescient, but it would also preface – albeit narrowly – the course of events in reality; Star Trek VI was to hit US cinema screens on Friday 6th December 1991, and just twenty days later – on Thursday 26th December 1991 – the formal vote was taken by the upper chamber of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union which officially ended the USSR. It helped make Star Trek feel contemporary and relevant, with this latest entry not only capturing, but also anticipating the zeitgeist.

A disaster on the Klingon moon of Praxis, their chief energy producing facility, was to be their equivalent of Chernobyl; the Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon (David Warner), was cast in the role of their Gorbachev, reaching across the divide to try and forge links with a traditional enemy. Meyer also viewed Gorkon as the kind of progressive leader who would be seen by some as being soft or weak, and would then end up being assassinated for his beliefs, in a similar mould to the likes of Gandhi, Anwar El Sadat, or Abraham Lincoln.

Although the movie was to have an on-screen credit which stated the story was by Nimoy, Konner and Rosenthal, this was subsequently refuted by Nimoy in his later volume of his memoirs, I Am Spock. It was, claimed Nimoy, down to studio politics that Konner and Rosenthal had received their credit; this was later supported by Meyer, who had confirmed that none of Konner and Rosenthal‘s original storyline proposals for Star Trek VI. The screenplay was penned using e-mail by Meyer and his friend Denny Martin Flinn, due to Meyer living in London at the time, and Flinn residing in LA.

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One element of the story which was to prove controversial, not only among some of the cast, but also with creator Gene Roddenberry, was the prejudice and racism which was rife in Starfleet, as well as the crew of the Enterprise, when offered the chance to offer the hand of friendship to the Klingons. In Roddenberry’s view, humanity had evolved beyond holding any such thoughts of bigotry, and now held far higher ideals; as such, he was unhappy at the way in which the humans had been depicted in the script.

William Shatner was reluctant to have Kirk express a wish to let the Klingons die, rather than extend the olive branch and help them when they faced possible extinction; even though Kirk would have a motivation for this after they had killed his son in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Shatner felt that it was still out of character for Kirk to react in this way. Nichelle Nichols also objected to Uhura being given a line about about asking whether you would want your daughter to marry one, in reference to the Klingons, due to the racist undertones, as well as her own experiences of prejudice.

At one point, Chekov references the title of the controversial 1967 race relations comedy Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in a derogatory manner, after learning they will be hosting a banquet for the Klingons. Brock Peters, who played Admiral Cartwright, would have difficulties portraying the bigotry of the character, finding the sentiment so repugnant, due to his own experiences as an African American. Previously, Peters played Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in the adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, which set out to tackle ingrained cultural inequities.

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Roddenberry’s idealism, while certainly laudable, was felt to rob some of the dramatic potential by having the characters in the Star Trek universe portrayed as flawless individuals, as it took away any room for conflict or challenge. Here, Meyer was intent on showing the biases of the crew were driven by a fear of change, with the uncertainty which was being posed by this brand new frontier, having defined themselves for so long by their conflict with the Klingon Empire; this was to be reflected by the movie’s title – The Undiscovered Country – which was taken from Hamlet.

While Shakespeare had meant this to refer to death, here it was used not just to reflect a kind of metaphorical demise – that of the old order, and the current way of things – but also the unknowns posed by the opportunity that was presented here. Interestingly, The Undiscovered Country was also one of the possibilities which had been considered as the title for Star Trek II, and given the nature of the subject matter there – namely, the death of Spock – it may have arguably been as well-suited to that film, it not moreso.

Shakespeare was to also play a part in Star Trek VI, with the Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) frequently quoting from the Bard’s works, leading to a neat spin on the old German joke, by claiming that Shakespeare’s works had originally been written in Klingon. It was to prove something of a headache, however, for Marc Okrand, original creator of the Klingon lexicon for Star Trek; he had crafted the Klingon language without the verb “to be”, so he had to come up with a suitable alternative for when Chang was quoting Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

© 1991 Paramount Pictures

For Shatner and Plummer, it was something of a reunion, as they were contemporaries, having both started out acting in Canada around a similar period. Their paths had crossed on a number of occasions, with Shatner having understudied for Plummer in Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario back in the 1950s. The pair were friends for decades, and they clearly relish playing off against each other; Chang could have easily been little more than a hammy and cliched villain in the wrong hands, but Plummer does a fabulous job in giving him some depth and texture.

Meyer managed to ensure there was an impressive spread of talent across the cast, including those already mentioned; he was able to secure the services of David Bowie’s wife Iman, as well as Kurtwood Smith, and – in the most fleeting cameo – Christian Slater. Kim Cattrall was also cast in the significant part of Valeris, Spock’s protege. Earlier in the development of the film, the notion had been to bring back the character of Saavik, who had been created by Meyer; Cattrall had been tipped to play Saavik back in 1982, but she had sadly proved unavailable due to a scheduling conflict.

Star Trek VI did more than its fair share of making efforts to tie together the original series with The Next Generation in an effort to unify the franchise, such as by bringing Michael Dorn in to play Colonel Worf, ancestor of his character from the TV show. Also, in a nod to how things had changed since Star Trek began, Captain Kirk’s final log entry references the now-famous opening narration, and he corrects himself to talk of it being “where no-one has gone before”, as opposed to the original mention of “no man”, bringing it in line with The Next Generation’s intro.

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country certainly proves to be a fitting finale for the original cast and their characters in sending them out on a high (even though the impact is later slightly diluted by bringing back Kirk, Scotty and Chekov for Star Trek: Generations). It picks up Meyer’s earlier theme of addressing the ageing of the crew and their actors, which he established in Star Trek II. The movie also proves to be more thought provoking than your usual popcorn flick, not only by addressing contemporary global politics, but also in bringing up issues of race and prejudice.

It manages to pay such a fitting tribute to the past, as well as setting up a firm foundation for the future. And it would take no less than a Vulcan not to get even a little bit teary-eyed at the triumphal – and literal – signoff from the cast as they all boldly go into posterity as true cultural icons.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was released in the UK on 14th February 1992.

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