STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

  • Director: Nicholas Meyer
  • Writers: Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn, Story by Leonard Nimoy, Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal, based on the TV series Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry
  • Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Kim Cattrall, David Warner, Brock Peters, Rosanna DeSoto, Iman, and Christopher Plummer
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Makeup, Best Sound Effects Editing), 
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Video or Hulu, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

So it turns out Christopher Plummer was from Toronto. I had always assumed he was British, not sure why. I think, in my silly American way, it was because of the gravitas. Plummer always brought an extremely specific, sharp acidity to lines while also feeling like he had been chiseled from stone. If you wanted someone who brought weight to a role, you got Christopher Plummer. As a result, over the course of his career he played (deep breath): the Duke of Wellington, Rudyard Kipling, the Roman Emperor Commodus (decades before Joaquin Phoenix did), the journalist Mike Wallace, Leo Tolstoy, Kaiser Wilhelm II, billionaire J. Paul Getty, Sherlock Holmes, Cyrano de Bergerac, the Inca Emperor Atahualpa, Field Marshal Rommel, the biblical King Herod, the actor John Barrymore, the philosopher Aristotle, and basically every meaty role in Shakespeare. In 2011, he became the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award, for the indie comedy Beginners, and also the oldest ever to be nominated, at age 88 for his portrayal of Getty in All the Money in the World. Plummer passed away this week at his home at the age of 91.

We will get soon to what is perhaps Plummer’s most famous role, as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. But it’s not surprising, in our house at least, that on a Saturday afternoon what ended up on the TV was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Plummer (who had started out acting in Shakespeare in Canada with William Shatner) plays the Klingon General Chang, the villain of the piece. Somehow he brings all his usual gravity to the role despite wearing several hours’ worth of makeup the whole time and getting dialogue that is mostly either random Shakespeare quotations or in Klingon. Even the title, “the Undiscovered Country,” comes from Hamlet. He gets probably the movie’s most memorable line, or at least most memorable line delivery, when he shouts, as prosecuting attorney at Kirk & McCoy’s big trial, “Don’t wait for the translation! Answer the question!”

Star Trek will perhaps be amongst the most enduring of American cultural creations, but for years there was a thought that only the “even numbered” movies were good. The full original cast of the 1960s TV series starred together in six total movies, and of these the two most beloved are probably the second, The Wrath of Khan, and the fourth, The Voyage Home, but The Undiscovered Country, the send-off for the series’ original cast, is also well thought of. The basic plot involves Captain Kirk (Shatner) and Dr. McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) being framed for the assassination of Klingon High Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), as part of a plot to derail peace talks between the utopian Federation and their galactic rivals, the Klingon Empire. Meanwhile Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the rest of the crew work to catch the real perpetrators and help Kirk and McCoy escape from the Klingon “gulag” asteroid where they are serving their sentence.

This was not the first or the third time I’d seen this movie, but what really struck me for the first time on this go around was how this movie was basically one big metaphor for current events when it came out in 1991. Leonard Nimoy (who had also directed the third and fourth Trek features) pitched the idea of “what if the Wall Came Down… in space?” The Klingons had always been the Trek universe’s metaphor for the other side of the Cold War. The Undiscovered Country depicts the fall of their Empire and a forced rapprochement with their enemies. The movie is not subtle about this. Chang tells Kirk that “in space, all warriors are cold warriors.” When Kirk has to give a speech to the gathered peace conference, he notes that “some people think we’re at the end of history.” “The End of History” was a phrase floating around at the time, thinking that America would just be the one big superpower forever and that we were basically done with big world events. These concerns were so current in 1991 that the book that essentially would codify the phrase, by the historian Francis Fukuyama, didn’t come out until 1992.

In addition to the final outing for most of the original cast, this was also the final Star Trek outing at least nominally overseen by the series’ original creator, Gene Roddenberry. His vision of the future was free from poverty, greed, and bigotry. The problem that this vision always ran into was that on a basic level drama runs on conflict, so there had to be some problems somewhere. Over time, as more and more people got their hands on Roddenberry’s future, shades of gray found their way in. During production on The Undiscovered Country, Roddenberry repeatedly clashed with director Nicholas Meyer over Meyer’s vision for the movie, particularly the ugly hatred repeatedly expressed by the crew for the Klingons throughout. Roddenberry did ultimately watch a rough cut of the movie a few weeks before his death and reportedly liked it. His ashes were shot into space a few years later.

It is perhaps important to note that Meyer wasn’t having the crew express bigotry towards Klingons (one of whom even calls them out as “racist”) for no reason. We’re supposed to realize that they’re actually wrong here. Interestingly, Meyer thought the audience would find this hatred even more jarring in the mouths of the only two Black characters in the movie. Brock Peters plays an admiral who basically says Klingons are inherently untrustworthy and the only good Klingon is a dead Klingon, a role for which Meyer reportedly cast Peters because he had played the wrongfully accused Black man in To Kill a Mockingbird. By contrast, Nichelle Nicholls (who plays Lt. Uhura), refused to quip, about making peace with the Klingons, “but would you want your daughter to marry one?” Instead, Meyer gave Chekov (Walter Koenig) the line, upon learning the Chancellor will soon arrive on the ship, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Meyer had previously directed The Wrath of Khan, and as in that movie he brings a very particular view of Star Trek. He always emphasized the naval trappings of the Enterprise, down to a guy blowing a little whistle to signify the Chancellor boarding the ship. Meyer always viewed serving in space as not so different from serving on a submarine, a view perhaps most on display in the spectacular final starship duel of Khan. Meyer made the hallways thinner and was always shooting them through metal gratings. His torpedoes are physical objects coming out of tubes, which at first don’t work until someone physically clambers around in them. Here, the crew’s final defeat of Chang comes after they figure out his position even though his ship is “cloaked,” by tracking the ship’s exhaust. You could almost do the thing shot for shot and word for word in a movie about guys on a submarine.

There is plenty in this movie that is downright silly. Kirk & McCoy getting sent to the gulag is more an opportunity for lots of fun alien makeup than for a serious take on anything. Kirk literally gets into a prison fight with a big alien that he wins by taking out its knee, and then is told, “that’s not his knee, we don’t all keep our genitals in the same place.” Plummer’s gleefully Shakespeare-quoting Klingon is especially ridiculous, and everyone involved knew it, but that’s fine. Meyer said he thought it was going to be too much until he saw Plummer actually make it work. It’s less a comedy in the way much of The Voyage Home is, and more of a drama made by people who have done this many times and know what will make their fans happy. At the end, the crew is told to come back to spacedock, but Spock says, “If I were human, I believe my response would be ‘go to hell.’” Kirk then tells Chekov to set a course of “second star to the right, straight on ‘til morning,” and the ship speeds off into the stars like that is a real direction they could go. If this all leaves you cold, there’s nothing I can do to help you.

3 thoughts on “STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

  1. Christopher Plummer was the ONLY thing that worked in this film. Anyone else would have destroyed the role. From the stupid zero-g assassination to the pink blood globules to Kim Catrell, it was really bad.

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    1. I really do like most of it, though the purple blood globules don’t work, I agree. Apparently they were worried that if it was red the movie would get an R-rating, though really it’s more the weird CGI than the color that bothers me.

      Like

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