At its best, Star Trek could be a wonderful balance of science fiction adventure, as well as thought provoking allegories. The most memorable episodes of the franchise’s multiple television series usually conveyed this. They leave you with questions to ponder while also entertaining you. It was never about the battles, or the action, which is what separates itself from its closest pop culture cousin Star Wars. In its sometimes uneven history, the stories of Star Trek stay with you because of the messages they gave.
I haven’t really caught up with the new Star Trek television shows, and my interest started to peter out after the J.J. Abrams incarnations, which drove the franchise away from the elements I had loved. Far be it from me to dissuade people to enjoy the revitalized versions of the series, they’re just not my cup of tea. I have however always had affection for the original series. The OG series worked as fine 1960s camp for those who may have grown up with it being their first exposure to science fiction. It was obvious, the sets were cheap, and the alien creatures were often actors in rubber suits, yet the stories transcended its trappings. It also looked wonderful, bathed in bright colors and filmed technicolor, its aesthetic brought home Gene Roddenberry’s Utopian message.
It’s hard not to get attached to the original crew of the Starship Enterprise with William Shatner’s sometimes roguish Captain Kirk leading the squad into where no man has gone before. At his side were his science officer Vulcan friend Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and crotchety sidekick Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelly). Always with them were Communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Engineer Scotty (James Doohan), and navigation officers Sulu (George Takai), and Chekov (Walter Koeing). Although the show was short lived, Star Trek became a phenomenon, and the original actors were brought back to do a series of rather successful films. While the quality of these films was sometimes questionable, the chemistry of the crew could always be counted on.
Rewatching the six films again recently after many years, I was struck by how the best of them could capture what was so great about the television show. However for the purpose of this article, I am limiting my focus on the final film featuring the original cast: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Although this is one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, I find it is often overlooked in favour of more popular choices. Not having seen it since I was a kid, I was struck by how relevant the themes of the film are. It weaves ideas of prejudice and old age relevance into a political thriller, marking a fitting farewell for the original crew as well as hope for the future. In part, it could work as a nice series finale.
The Undiscovered Country begins with the destruction of a Klingon moon named Praxis. This catastrophic event throws the klingon home world into utter turmoil. No longer able to sustain life, they decide to join peace talks with the United Federation of Planets. Captain Kirk and his crew are asked to escort the Klingon chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) to peace negotiations on Earth, however the assignment doesn’t sit well with everyone. The Klingons had been the Federation’s main enemy since the original series, and during the cold war era, they were the stand ins for the Russians. Kirk has fought with the Klingons since the beginning, and he feels they cannot be trusted.
Spock conversely acts as an ambassador, and feels it is the Federation’s responsibility to save the dying Klingons. “Let them die”, is Kirk’s savage response to this, yet his hatred comes from personal tragedy. Those familiar with the films, would know the Klingons weren’t just an enemy, but they were also the species responsible for killing Kirk’s son in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Kirk doesn’t trust them, but he goes along with his mission anyway. Gorkon is greeted on the Enterprise, along with his chief of staff General Chang (Christopher Plummer), a Shakespeare spouting, old school warrior.
After a tense dinner between the Enterprise crew, and the Klingons, where not much love is lost, Gorkon and his entourage return to their ship. Suddenly, the routine mission turns deadly, when two mysterious crew members beam aboard the Klingon ship and assassinate Gorkon. The Enterprise is also seen firing on the Klingons, however Kirk never orders this. Later, when he and Dr. McCoy rush onto the Klingon ship to try and save Gorkon’s life, they are quickly arrested by General Chang and sentenced to a snow covered mining planet. Spock, in the meantime, is left on board the Enterprise to try and piece together exactly what happened in order to save Kirk and McCoy. With the aid of his protege Valeris (Kim Cattrel), they try to find the real assassins and prove there was a conspiracy.
The Undiscovered Country has a very back to basics feel to it. After the bombastic Shatner-directed fifth entry The Final Frontier, this film simplifies things for the better. This is a film about coming to terms with a new age, and trying to find your place in it. Kirk and his crew are now older, and they are no longer fighting for their survival, but rather for a brighter future. Their struggle is knowing what that future should be, and where they fit in. Both Kirk and Spock finally see this when they admit their own prejudice and short sightedness during their mission. These are two seasoned veterans who are well aware their era is coming to an end, and it isn’t so clear cut how they should pass on the torch. What they once knew to be the norm is no longer, and they enter a new era with trepidation but also, in true Star Trek fashion, optimism.
What I found to be progressive about the film is the way Kirk handles his prejudice towards the Klingons. Kirk has never been an infallible captain. He is sometimes depicted as being downright reckless. Yet what he does always convey is a sense of growth and wisdom, which has always made him a reliable and charismatic leader. Despite all the jokes towards Shatner’s acting style, there is a reason his Kirk has always remained relevant and likable. There is a charm to him, where we forgive his shortcomings, because we know that in the end, he does the right thing.
There is also Nimoy’s Spock who is short sighted about who he wanted to impart his legacy to (Spoiler alert: his protege Valeris proves to be one of the main conspirators). It leaves him questioning his own vanity and motives. Yet here we see how much Spock has grown as a character. Logic no longer leads him to all of his conclusions, rather he is more introspective and wise. Spock is probably the most beloved character in all of Star Trek‘s canon, and although others have recently played the part, it’s not hard to see that Nimoy owns the role. There is a contrast of styles between he and Shatner which always works wonders, particularly in the film’s more quiet moments.
The Undiscovered Country was wise enough to bring back director Nicholas Meyer who made probably the series’ most beloved film The Wrath of Khan. Meyer excels in the tight spaces, keeping more of the action claustrophobic, making it feel more like a thriller than the previous films. It also helps that Plummer is a game villain, probably the best since Khan. He relishes the part, and chews up every morsel, his Shakespearean Klingon spouts.
The conspiracy plot itself does fail to be anything more than routine, and is probably the film’s weakest contrivance. Still, the heart of this story is the generational gap one feels when the world is changing around them. This science fiction allegory worked well when the film was released as the world was facing an end to the cold war and new relations with an enemy that have been long feared. Today it fits in another direction as the world is once again changing, and people are facing different prejudices.
Throughout this recent pandemic, we have seen the best and worst in people. The worst of them carry a pride that feels inherently selfish. We have seen an uprising in Black Lives Matter, and a keen new interest in their oppressive history. Many people have been coming to terms with their own prejudice, and some deny they have been instigators of racism. It’s difficult for those who have lived one way, to accept another reality. I understand that it may be a hard idea in our minds, that we have been perpetuating a racist society even if we weren’t aware. Yet now is the time we must accept responsibility, where we are able to grow and educate ourselves.
The Undiscovered Country is a reminder that even the best of us can be prone to upholding racist beliefs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. And it’s not too late to ever see this in ourselves. The future may be confusing, and we might not know what will happen, but we can still grow from it, and be better people, leaving this world with hope in our hearts.
Looking at the original Star Trek films again, I felt a great feeling of nostalgia for them, but also a stronger appreciation. They were films about ideas, and they were accessible for people of all ages to understand. Some didn’t land as well as others, but in a cinematic climate where blockbusters are often reserved for unrealistic apocalyptic battles which borrow more from fantasy than science fiction, Star Trek is a welcome alternative. They also remind us that a future can be bright as long as we keep on fighting and learning. Even heroes like Kirk and Spock can learn to be better.