Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Somebody can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the general consensus in regards to Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the first two seasons of the show are mostly disappointing, with a few gems scattered throughout, and that the show only really found its legs during its third season.  I mentioned in the review of Star Trek 5 that that film was the first to be released after the premiere of TNG; the film was, in fact, released towards the tail end of season 2 of that show.

Star Trek 5 is, in my estimation, completely, monstrously awful, but more important is the fact that it was a fairly massive commercial flop.  It made money, because even a lot of shitty movies manage to make money, but not very much, and its failure both commercially and critically was a really bad omen for the series.  I don't remember what people were saying about Star Trek at the time, but combine the failure of the film with the general apathy that (I believe) fans had towards the new series, and I have to think it was not a great time for the fans.  The film series had sunk to new lows, and the TV series was mostly disappointing up to that point.

Seasons 3 and 4 of TNG carried a heavy burden, and their success paved the way for the continuation of the brand into the future.  I don't remember the release of Star Trek 5 but I certainly do remember the release of Star Trek 6, which came out somewhere in the middle of TNG's 5th season, and I distinctly remember that Star Trek was in the cultural consciousness as much as it ever had been in my lifetime up to that point.  The new crew had become beloved, and the old crew was going off on one last adventure.

Where Star Trek 5 ignored The Next Generation entirely, 6 is heavily burdened with the weight of being a torch-passing exercise.  It's not simply in the story, which fills in a bit of the back-story that is necessary to understand the world of The Next Generation.  It's not even just that an actor from TNG (Michael Dorn) shows up here playing a very similar part with the exact same name as his character on the series.  It's in the sense that this film, and this mission, are truly our final curtain call with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu, Scotty, Uhura and Chekov.  That they are, for all intents and purposes, going on their final journey together, and then fading away into that good night.  And while these films have been virtually obsessed with the theme of aging, being about a group of people who retain the desire to travel around the galaxy but no longer have the physical or emotional wherewithal to do so, this film is less obsessed with aging than it is with saying thank you.  Thank you for the adventures, thank you for being in our lives, and now you can say goodnight, we can take it from here.

A crisis within Klingon space has left the Klingon Empire in an untenable position as a rival power to the Federation, and they move to begin peace talks.  Not everyone is completely thrilled about this state of affairs, including both our own Captain Kirk and his mirror image on the Klingon side, General Chang (Christopher Plummer).  The Enterprise hosts Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), along with Chang, for peace talks, and things go from frosty to downright hostile when the Enterprise seemingly fires on the Klingon vessel, followed by two Enterprise crew members beaming aboard the ship to assassinate the Chancellor.  Kirk and McCoy beam over to the ship after the attack in an attempt to help the wounded and are arrested by the Klingons and, after a brief show trial, sentenced to a Klingon prison planet for the rest of their lives.  In the meantime, Spock's investigation into the circumstances of the attacks winds its way eventually to lieutenant Valeris (Kim Cattrall), a Vulcan whom Spock had previously championed but is now unmasked as a member of a conspiracy who want to sabotage the peace talks.  Valeris and her co-conspirators, who include a high-ranking Starfleet Admiral, the Romulan Ambassador to the peace talks, and Chang himself, with Kirk out of the way, are plotting to also assassinate the President of the Federation (Kurtwood Smith).  Kirk and McCoy escape from the prison planet with the help of Martia (Iman) and beam back aboard the Enterprise, which along with Captain Sulu's Excelsior, manage to destroy General Chang's ship and get to the second round of peace talks in time to stop the assassination plot.  With the conspirators neutralized, the way is paved for the Federation and Klingon Empire to forge a new and lasting peace.

When all is said and done, and I am now done with the original crew of the USS Enterprise, my head would say that Star Trek 2 is the best of this batch of movies.  It's the one film that can be watched on a Saturday afternoon by basically anyone, and holds up completely as a stand-alone piece of cinema.  But in my heart, Star Trek 6 is the one I have the most fondness for, for the way it weaves a rich (by Star Trek standards) allegory about the distrust between peoples, and the way that getting old can harden our positions when it should soften them.  But mostly I appreciate the way that it allows our crew to go out with their dignity intact, even Shatner (for the most part).  That's a nice thing, and they deserve it, because they mean something profound to the culture, even if I am sometimes ambivalent to that thing.  I liked Star Trek 6 a lot the first time I saw it, and it has only increased in my esteem since then.  And having made it through the gauntlet of 5, I think I goddamn well deserved it.

Bullet points:

Nicholas Meyer is our director, and I'm sure it's not a coincidence that he directed my two favorite of these films.

The credits to all of these movies so far are really interminable.  They're just name after name after name projected on a moving star field.  At least the credits to the show had the Enterprise whooshing by to break up the monotony.

I assume that the "Klingons = Soviets" thing was part of the series from the beginning.  They do not go subtle with that idea in this movie; this is not a gentle metaphor, but one that is used to bludgeon you to death.

They explicitly reference the phrase "Only Nixon could go to China" when Kirk is handed the job of meeting with the Klingons. Needless to say, this doesn't make sense, since Nixon was a politician, answerable to the public, and Kirk is a soldier, answerable only to his superiors.  If this movie's elevator pitch was "Kirk goes to China" I would not be surprised.  Spock is the one that volunteers the Enterprise for the gig; as the series went along, their rationalizations for putting the crew into whatever situation the plot demands became less and less plausible, since it was clear time and time again that the Federation wanted to put these people, and this ship, out to pasture, and yet they keep getting these important missions.

Kirk's ultra anti-Klingon racism is actually a pretty interesting character note.  It leaves the audience really off-kilter, forced to both root for and be reviled by the hero.  Then again, Kirk's racism proves to be at least somewhat accurate (he calls them "animals", and the way the approach the "getting to know you" dinner is kind of feral) so it sort of dulls the edge somewhat.  The film kind of wants to have it both ways, with Kirk's racism as a stand-in for US/Soviet distrust but also the Klingons being pretty damned uncouth after all.  And in truth, all the humans are kind of super racist.

Valeris is a pretty clear Saavik stand-in.  Spock's extreme faith in her sets off big, blaring warning sirens from very early on.  I'd make Sex and the City-related jokes here if I knew any; you'll have to supply your own, I'm afraid.

David Warner shows up for the second film in a row, but he has an actual character to play this time, and he adds some gravitas to his short time on screen.  And then we have Christopher Plummer.  I don't know how this movie managed to get an actor of his stature to slap on the Klingon makeup, especially after the disaster that was 5, but man is it nice to see accomplished actors again.  I think the word "Luckinbill" genuinely makes me nauseous now.

Even Klingons know you don't violate Godwin's Law.

Plummer's character is way into Shakespeare, to the point of making everyone around him a little uncomfortable.

Spock's line "In that case, Mr. Chekov, it resides in the purview of the diplomats" is said with an enormous amount of reactionary disdain.  Spock is a soldier, through and through.

Master Pei Mei is now the President of the Federation.  That guy gets around.  Also played by Kurtwood Smith!  Never would have recognized him through the weird makeup and wiggery.

Valeris encourages the crew of the  Enterprise to throw their shoes (once known as sabot on Earth, hence the word "sabotage") into the gears of the Federation bureaucracy when they are recalled back to Earth after the attack on the Chancellor.  The politics here get pretty muddled, but the important thing is we are learning about words.

Plummer is the prosecutor at Kirk and McCoy's trial for some reason?  Good old Klingon parsimony.  A Klingon named Worf defends them; presumably not the exact same Worf from TNG.  I'm sure there's some accepted canon explanation, that he's Worf's grandfather or whatever.  Here's where the film makes the connection between this crew and the TNG people explicit, in any case.  It's fun to have Michael Dorn around, and the film doesn't do the audience the discourtesy of blasting you in the face with "Here is your beloved Worf!"  It's nicely subtle.

Chang, during the trial, screams at Kirk, "Don't wait for the translation, answer me now!"  I confess that this is one of those lines that pops up in my head from time to time.  Plummer goes awfully big in this scene, and the Shat actually responds by going small.

I really like the glimpse we get of the Enterprise's galley as Spock does his investigation.  We get to see more of the workaday crew members and their jobs on the Enterprise in this film than in the previous 5 films combined.  And hey!  We're working with a full crew this time!  Fancy that.  Very strange to have a fully loaded Enterprise.

Iman sucking face with Shatner is pretty upsetting, I'm not going to lie.

The Christian Slater cameo remains completely inexplicable.  Obviously he must have been a fan, and the filmmakers threw him a part to grab for some of that tasty lucre from the teenage girl demographic, but it is a very weird scene, where you hear his (distinctive) voice and then see him partially emerge from the shadows on the Excelsior as some sort of officer on that ship delivering a bit of exposition to Sulu, and then he's gone.
(ETA: An answer finally emerges - Mary Jo Slater, the casting director on the film, is his mother.)

Martia is a shape-shifter, and the morphing effect that they deploy twice is really not bad at all.  According to wikipedia, this film cost less than Star Trek 5, but somehow it looks way, way more expensive.  The answer to this almost certainly revolves around the way an inexperienced director (like Shatner) can waste a lot of time, and with it money, by not having a careful plan in place, whereas a pro like Meyer knocks scenes out without a lot of futzing around and saves that money (cast and crew salaries add up quickly) for the effects budget.  The effects in this movie really hold up pretty well, even in Blu-ray.  And there is some actual location shooting during the prison escape scene.  Real snow, real cold.  It makes a big difference.

I don't want to pick on Uhura, but as the ship's communication officer shouldn't she have learned enough Klingon to fake her way past a checkpoint?  She has to cobble together some rudimentary Klingon in order to get the Enterprise safely into orbit around the prison planet.  That seems like something that should be in her job description, no?

Martia turns out to be working against Kirk and McCoy, taking them out to the surface of the planet so they can be more easily eliminated by the conspirators, who want the two of them out of the way.  She and Kirk have a hand-to-hand tussle once she reveals herself.  Why the hell does she take on Kirk's appearance during their fight?  Why not some sort of big, scaly monster with teeth and horns or something?  That's just ego, pure and simple.  Shatner ego.

The fight between the two Shatners just brings out all the worst aspects in his performance.  Even when he's working against a green screen version of himself that isn't actually in the same scene until post-production, somehow he senses the hamminess coming from his theoretical double anyway and ratchets up accordingly.  Shatner's hamminess is not additive but exponential.

There have got to be a billion easier ways to off Kirk and McCoy than the prison break plan that the conspirators come up with.  This is an entire planet full of pissed off, meatheaded alien criminals with chips on their shoulders.  Not to mention that they have access to phasers that can completely vaporize a body, perfect for corpse disposal when you don't want to have to answer a lot of questions.  This part is definitely the "Shatner's toupee lace lines" of the Star Trek 6 script.

Spock performing a forcible Vulcan mind meld on Valeris for the information about her co-conspirators is a little uncomfortably rapey.

After the crew has saved President Pei Mei, and with it the notion of peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, Kirk gets to deliver a post-climax soliloquy about peace for no particularly good reason.  We even get a slow clap.

And then the old people steal Federation property again for a little while, but Kirk puts a button on this crew's journeys with his final Captain's log, explicitly saying that this is the final journey and conspicuously replacing the "where no man has gone before with "where no one has gone before" (which is how Picard says it in the TNG opening, I think, right?)  Then the cast each signs their name on the closing credits, and the torch is finally and irrevocably passed.


  1. I think Uhura is a victim of a technology that works too well. There's no need for her to learn Klingon because she has the universal translator. TNG did a great job exploring the limitations of the technology (other than the fact that it's completely implausible) in the episode "Darmok," which may be one of the 5 best TNG episodes ever.

  2. And here's an art project my partner did based on that same idea of the universal translator.

  3. You gotta know some of the US history to grok what ST VI was going for.

    The "Only Nixon Could Go to China" phrase, invented for the movie, refers to the event where Nixon normalized relations with China in the early 70s. If a Democrat - compromised by decades of leftists, having "lost" China in the 40s and Cuba in the 60s - had tried to do that, they'd have been impeached: Nixon had earned a rep as being hard on Communism, so when he did it, it was seen as doing so from a position of strength. It was also crafty: it forced the Soviets during their rift with China to negotiate with the U.S. during the 70s, leading to the detente era and the first step towards the fall of Soviet communism.

    Using military officers as prosecutors during wartime does happen, there are rules for it. Given the Klingon's military culture it may have been SOP for a ranking officer at the scene of the crime to persecute the case. Chang's "Don't wait for the translation" was stolen verbatim from Adili Stevenson's retort at the UN towards the Soviet ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Kirk being racist towards Klingons is actually a nice touch to the character. He does have the history vs. Klingons to develop the hate, and the reference to episode III where they killed his son David adds to the pathos. It's what they do with that racism, by forcing him to confront that unwanted part of himself, that fear of "no more neutral zone", the comfort of having a hate to hold onto to, and then working past it to save the universe in the process I found welcoming to the character. We don't want our heroes to be static, one-note, always-right: they gotta learn, like we gotta learn.

  4. Only Nixon could go to China because the President was accountable to a fickle voting public. If anyone squishier had gone, the opposition would have (metaphorically) clubbed them to death over their betrayal to the Communists.

    It doesn't make sense with Kirk because he's not a politician, he's a soldier. When you send your biggest racist asshole soldier to meet with the Klingons, you're not defending your flank from a political attack, you're just sending a racist asshole to meet the people you're supposed to be making peace with. There's no political flank to protect, so Starfleet just seems like maybe they are all racist assholes. It's a miscalculation from a strategic point of view, but that doesn't matter, because it's what the script demands.