Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

     “As an ancient Vulcan proverb says: Only Nixon could go to China.”

    The Klingons on Gene Rodenberry’s original Star Trek show were always rather thinly-veiled Asian caricatures. Initially depicted as little more than savage animals, the Klingons would later change in appearance and demeanor - giving the alien race more texture and complexity as the various films and series went on. The characters were created out of communist hostilities at the height of the Cold War, so once the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and tensions thawed, it was something bound to come up sooner or later in the world of the Star Trek franchise.

    Considering the last Star Trek movie writer/director Nicholas Meyer made is widely considered the best (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), he had a lot to live up to returning to the franchise nearly a decade later. Of course, there was probably no better choice to bring to life actor Leonard Nimoy’s idea of “the wall coming down in space” than Meyer, who has always brought enough intelligence to keep the allegories strong - and enough wit to keep them from getting too pretentious. And while The Undiscovered Country is nowhere near the classic that is Khan, Meyer here delivers a political thriller in space - equal parts funny and engaging, if a little uneven.

    The main thrust of the plot begins when disaster strikes the Klingon empire. Leaving them without resources and on the brink of extinction, the Klingons aim to make peace with long-standing enemies the United Federation of Planets, and a diplomatic envoy is arranged. The responsibility of escorting the Klingon diplomats falls to Captain James T. Kirk and his long-standing crew - an order that doesn’t sit well with the Captain, considering his lifelong hatred of all things Klingon.

    All the main cast returns once again, and slips into their roles just as easily as you or I would a pair of socks. Actors with a concurring TV role have it easy in a way, considering they really don’t have to be all that great of an actor to give a strong performance. They live with the roles for so long, they become so entrenched in the characters they play, that it’s almost impossible not to get their performance exactly right - doubly so for the original crew of the USS Enterprise, who played their parts time and time again over two decades. As the last time that they would all be assembled, each cast member gets at least one scene to shine, and the film plays as an effective swan song for the original series.

    Even better are the newcomers, like Christopher Plummer as the Klingon General Chang. Much of Chang’s dialogue in the film are Shakespeare quotes *, which would grow tired if delivered by anyone other than the classically-trained Plummer (even the title itself is taken from Hamlet). He leaves quite an impression with his shaved head and bolted-on eye patch, and although not an instant classic like Khan Noonien Singh, Chang is a more-than-competent villain for the piece. Also appearing as the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon is David Warner, whose appearance and overall design were meant to echo Abraham Lincoln. Warner gives off a regal and honorable presence, enough to inform and hang over like a spectre for the rest of the movie. Kim Cattrall plays the new character Valeris, continuing the Star Trek trend of hiring young actresses (who would later go on greater levels of fame through television) as Vulcan Starfleet ** members.

    Meyer handles the action well, but here shines best during the film’s many comedic bits - the best of which being the dinner table scene between the Enterprise crew and the Klingon envoy. The director deftly plays up the cultural differences between the two, in everything from the way they eat to the way they interpret Shakespeare. Also amusing is a scene where Uhura, Chekov and Scotty attempt to speak the Klingon language while trying to sneak into the prison colony asteroid Rura Penthe. The film is filled with such clashes of culture, tying into the whole end-of-the-Cold War analogy - Meyer seems most interested when comparing and contrasting cultural differences and how they wind up working together ***.

    Less successful are the obligatory adventure elements. The film starts nicely and builds at a nice pace from the beginning through to the attack on the Klingon envoy’s ship, but once Kirk and Bones are sent to the prison colony the plot drags to a halt. It was obviously intended to add some more pulp action to a conspiracy-heavy plot, but the prison scenes don’t add much excitement, with the obligatory inmate fights and escapes ending in the most rote ways possible. It picks up again at the end, but the final space battle and race to stop the assassin at the peace treaty feel a little too undercooked - never coming close to the excitement at the end of Wrath of Khan.

    The Cold War cast a pall over everything for decades, so much so that it simply became a way of life. Any sort of change, any future where war was not a constant was a scary proposition for many, no matter how much they claimed to object to the latter. Because if our enemies were no longer our enemies - if we no longer knew where they were or how to spot them - well, then the future was truly open to change, bringing with it possible new threats and dangers that we didn’t know how to deal with (the devil you know being better than one you don‘t, and all that). It’s led to an unhealthy mindset in Western culture where we must always have something to fight, some great and terrible foe to rally against - one where the future constantly hangs in the balance. Kirk laments to Bones in the film that perhaps they’re both too old for that future, “the undiscovered country” of the title. Fitting that - for their last adventure - the crew of the Enterprise fights for that last frontier of the future, and then politely steps aside for the new generation to take their place.

    *Interesting that an alien race has such an affinity for an Earth-born writer, but it’s an idea I admire - that Shakespeare’s work is so eternal it transcends across any and all boundaries of space and time. The film is also awash with other literary references, most notably quotes from Sherlock Holmes - Spock describes an ancestor who once said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” and Chang also intones, “The game’s afoot!” before the ending space battle (Nicholas Meyer first gained attention through his novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche written as if it were a lost diary from Dr. Watson).

    **Proof that geeks program everything: every time I type in “Starfleet” in my word processor, it’s automatically capitalized by the spell check.

    ***SPOILERS: It’s also interesting to note that factions of both races even work together to keep their endless conflict going - an interesting Yin-Yang dichotomy where, even when sworn enemies, they still need each other to coexist.

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