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Writing About Film

Star Trek VI, 1991Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991)

Unpublished, 1992

 

Readers are all too aware of the dearth of healthy, subversive Hollywood entertainment. Despite the industry's liberal platitudes, mainstream cinema inevitably works in one way or another to feed corporate greed and/or maintain the sociopolitical status quo. It's not often that progressives can enter a theater with hope of bona fide guilt-free entertainment. Well, I'm here to tell you that Star Trek VI does a pretty good job, meriting this glowing review a full seven weeks after its premiere.

The Star Trek package may be easy to dismiss because of the bell-bottoms, funny haircuts, and campy star-hopping escapades, but Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the latest installment in this longest of all series, is expertly paced, often darkly thrilling and suffused with the beloved tongue-in-cheek humor of the old TV show. Along the way, Star Trek VI attempts, with minimal sentimentality, to re-introduce the simple, oft-forgotten values of peace, friendship, and trust. Best of all, the film subverts its cold war premise — Us vs. Them, Federation vs. Klingons — and transforms a hated alien race into a complex, sympathetic culture. And where else than on the Enterprise will we ever see senior citizens bounding about like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Believe it or not, Star Trek VI could become an artifact which will be remembered by later generations as a poetic allegory of our times: the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the foundations for world peace. Peace — or a partnership of bullies with the power to control the universe's fate? This film gives even that troubling scenario consideration — leaving the morality of superpower politics unchallenged — and just as we don't yet know our fate, remains ambiguous about its universe's as well.

Star Trek VI is an archetypal fable; "universal" enough for anybody, yet specific enough to form a personal connection with any contemporary viewer. This film refers as much to actual politics — people's lives — as, say, Oliver Stone's JFK, the polemical product du jour. And, because it alludes to contemporary events, and not those of nigh-on thirty years ago, Star Trek VI may be more resonant.

Star Trek VI is directed by Nicholas Meyer (of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan fame), from a story by Leonard Nimoy and Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn. (Note that "and" and "&"; they must mean something.) Once again, the Enterprise's beloved bridge crew returns: William Shatner (Kirk), Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), Walter Koenig (Chekov), George Takai (Sulu), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), and James Doohan (Scotty). At this point, Star Trek's characters are familiar to three generations, as well-rounded as any but one's closest friends or relatives. Serial television allows viewers hours of access into characters' lives, giving their personalities, and the actors in the roles, room to flesh themselves out; and, combined with time's actual passage and the fact that Star Trek endured three years of first-run TV, twenty years of reruns, and eleven years of film adventures, these characters truly are family — if you'll have them. Somehow, the characters' familiarity lends the film validity, as if everything — the show, the previous five movies — led to this historic denouement.

The film opens with the Klingon empire disintegrating. An energy projection station on a Klingon's moon has exploded — an obvious allusion to the U.S.S.R.'s Chernobyl meltdown — leaving the Klingons mostly powerless and their home planet's atmosphere poisoned. The Federation guesses that the Klingons have roughly fifty years before the planet becomes uninhabitable. The Klingons are a bloated, corrupt state, and can finally guarantee peace only because they can no longer afford war. With the encouragement of Sarek, the Vulcan ambassador (and, coincidentally, Spock's father), Klingon Chancellor Gorkon proposes a peace conference with the Federation. Kirk and the Enterprise crew, only three months from retirement, are chosen to serve as the first olive branch between these two suspicious empires, and must escort the Klingons to Earth.

Chancellor Gorkon (excellently portrayed by David Warner), a Twenty-Fourth Century Mikhail Gorbachev, is his race's lone visionary, and he sees an open window for true peace. However, a diabolical plot is soon brought to bear, and in a scene of intense power and masterful filmmaking, Gorkon is betrayed and assassinated. The attack is carried out so that it seems as if the Enterprise fired upon the Klingon ship, and Kirk and Dr. McCoy, strictly through circumstance, are framed for the crime. Interstellar diplomacy is maintained only via the almighty bureaucracy, and despite the protestations of the Lincolnesque but ultimately helpless Federation president, the accused are brought before a Klingon kangaroo court. Scripters Nimoy, Meyer & Flinn work all sorts of tricks, as the trial becomes for all intents a recreation of the historic Cuban missile U.N. showdown between Adlai Stevenson and Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, This time, however, the tables are turned, as the Klingon D.A. demands that Kirk answer his challenge without waiting for the translation. This powerful scene leaves the viewer in awe of the savage beauty of the Klingon culture, as Kirk and McCoy struggle to defend themselves at the bottom of a well of alienation and chaos. The accused are promptly found guilty and are sentenced to hard labor on a frozen asteroid archipelago.

While Kirk and McCoy founder about, it becomes clear that the assassination was conceived and executed by those whose existence depends upon the continuation of the cold war. The martyred Gorkon, who evolves into an idealistic amalgam of Gorbachev and John Kennedy, was "soft on the Federation," and various human, Klingon, Vulcan, and Romulan agents took care to end his career before he could end theirs. Klingon conspirators, especially the pontificating mastermind General Chang (Christopher Plummer), desperately hoping to pillage Federation planets of the vital materials, use the assassination to pressure Gorkon's successor, his daughter Azetbur (Rosanna DeSoto), to bring full-scale war to the Federation. The military-industrial complex functions smoothly in all eras, and the suggestion of a conspiracy precipitating President Kennedy's assassination is more tantalizingly laid out here than in Stone's overwrought thriller. Similarly, the film postulates upon conspiracy theories in broader terms, welcoming analysis of earlier failed periods of détente between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The threatened thwarting of Star Trek VI's promise of peace — and history's true lost opportunities — are the specters which hang over the film.

Needless to say, the plot is soon uncovered, and various adventures reunite the Enterprise crew as they race against time to prevent the precarious détente which remains from being irrevocably lost. Our heroes battle more than just the dastardly agents who killed the visionary leader and framed them for the crime: they must also combat the prejudices of generations of hatred and the stultifying cobwebs of galactic cold war.

Trust — bandied about, abused, but too infrequently explored in contemporary film — is Star Trek VI's archetype. As the film deconstructs trust, it redefines it: between friends, lovers, family and, most difficult of all, states. In the cold war Star Trek universe, the Klingons are the ultimate enemy, more hateful than even the real-life Russians. Left, right and center, all could detest the warmongering, hateful, dirty Klingons. Until now. The film manages, in two hours time, to wash those years of propaganda away. Despite Gorkon's assassination causing the very worst of times between the two sides, Kirk must find room for trust, and Azetbur, the Chancellor's daughter, becomes the film's beacon of righteousness. The hatred Kirk feels toward the Klingons — cemented by the death of his son at their hands (in Star Trek III) — is tangible and understandable; in its humanity, its blind need for revenge, its defiance of reason and common sense. And as Kirk begins to see through his hatred, we see possibility as well.

At the dinner table the night before the Chancellor's murder, Gorkon's party and the Enterprise crew dine together in frosty petulance, Chekov attempts to shame the Klingons with lofty talk about "inalienable human rights." Instead, Azetbur shames him and the other humans, pointing out his ethnocentrism: "''Inalienable'?" she says, "If only you could hear yourselves. 'Human' rights? Even the term is racist. The Federation is a 'homo sapiens only' club." Powerful words and concepts for an adventure film, and the fact that they are directed at Chekov, the Russian, only makes them the more so. In the Twenty-Fourth Century, Russians may no longer be aliens and humans may have overcome their need to oppress one another, but racism and xenophobia clearly are homo sapien traits, not merely Western ones. Liberalism is conceptually rooted in an elitist ideal of who qualifies as "human," a paradigm which assuredly excludes true aliens like Klingons (and possibly — Spock may wonder — Vulcans as well).

The dinner brings other lessons, as Trekkies, maybe for the first time, behold the Klingons unburdened by the curtain of fear. They are an ancient, tragic, even beautiful, race — and are certainly endangered. Brigadier Kerla, Gorkon's loyal chief military advisor, says, "You hypocritically assume your democratic system gives you a moral prerogative to force other cultures to conform to your politics. We know where this is leading: the annihilation of our culture. Klingons will replace those on the lowest rung of the Federation ladder." Paleo-con McCoy offers the classic capitalist excuse — "that's economics, not racism" — before Uhura, recognizing racism, cuts him off. It is a powerful exchange and frames the film's themes.

As trust works to grow against such overwhelming odds, Star Trek VI glimpses its struggles elsewhere. The viewer learns to appreciate the hazards on this journey to understanding. Azetbur must trust her father's vision and refuse to bow to the warmongers in her camp. Similarly, Vulcan Lieutenant Valeris wrestles with either trusting Spock's peaceful intuitions or her cultural and military indoctrination. And Kirk, of course, has lessons to learn as well. While marooned, he is seduced by Martia, a shapeshifter who often looks like the African model Iman but in her natural manifestation is decidedly "male" in appearance. This realization throws Kirk for the proverbial loop, but one suspects he learns a little, about constructed ideals of sexuality and judging people by their appearances.

A leap is called for, and the only ones who have made it as the film opens are Gorkon and Spock, who accomplish it due to faith in the principles of peace. Trust me, as well, not to reveal Star Trek VI's conclusion, or even if there remains a peace to be salvaged. Trust instead my assurance that the movie's conclusion is both dramatically and emotionally satisfying, and that the film emerges above all as one of the superior entertainments of the cinematic season.

In a time of upheaval and possibility — and fear — Star Trek VI is about hope and comraderie, and most of all, trust. No radical manifesto, to be sure, but the film embraces true progressive convictions. It may be idealistic — about a universe which doesn't exist, whose problems can be perfectly resolved — but it tenders a vision which everyone should hold: peace and understanding, cliches which need periodical reexamination so as to more tightly grasp their fundamental concepts. The Klingons are the ultimate Other: signifying American Indians, blacks, women, Russians, or whatever bugbear Western history's long reign has found convenient. Star Trek VI performs the consummate postmodern political maneuver, stripping the Other of its strangeness and revealing one's own face beneath. It is a powerful idea and is brought to mostly successful fruition. Anyone who leaves the theater still hating all Klingons is a very dangerous person indeed.

Kirk's closing comments, "Once again we've saved civilization as we know it," however true, is a poke at his own ostentatiousness. Emerging from forty-plus years of nuclear terror, maybe we the viewers can appreciate its resonance. Whether Star Trek VI can inspire new attitudes is not as relevant a question now, post-Soviet Union, but the film's ideals apply to all continuing struggles. Removed from the rhetoric about "evil empires" and "better dead than red," the black and white fades to grey, and movies can't help us there. Nonetheless, I found the film uplifting and was imbued with a radical sense of possibility. If I could toss one film into a time capsule, I couldn't think of one which more poetically touches upon contemporary fears and hopes about where history is leading.

By Star Trek VI's conclusion, our heroes have learned a number of lessons about trust and understanding, and when it's time for independent thought, for seeing beyond rules and hierarchies to a greater possibility. As the credits come up, the Enterprise soars off one last time, but now to where "no one has gone before." Go off and see this film before it disappears into the sunset as well.

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