Thursday, December 8, 2016

Celebrating Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

25 years ago Trekkies were celebrating the 25th anniversary of their beloved franchise. The Next Generation was riding high in ratings and reviews. A new series, Deep Space Nine, was just beginning to form in creative minds. Fans were most excited about the newest movie that was to be released on December 6, 1991. It was given the title “The Undiscovered Country” and it was being billed as the final voyage of the original crew. Leonard Nimoy, most famous for his role as everyone’s beloved Vulcan, Spock, was one of the major creative forces behind this film. Not only was he taking on his regular acting role, but he served as one of the story writers. Directing this movie was the talented and beloved Nicholas Meyer, who was widely revered for directing “The Wrath of Khan” and credited with setting the bar for all Trek films. The celebration was a bit subdued, as a few weeks before its release, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had passed away. The movie was dedicated to Gene, who was able to watch it two days before he passed.

Star Trek VI was the only Trek film (to date) that I had the privilege to see in a special advance premier screening. I was a high school student living just outside of a small rural Alberta town, and the movie was being shown in Edmonton, one hour drive away. As both of my parents were unable to go, we called upon a family friend to take me. There was a bitter blizzard that evening, and after a few vehicular mishaps, the two of us finally managed to get ourselves seated in the theater just as the trailers ended. There is nothing like watching a Trek film with the room packed full of Trekkies. When the opening image appeared, Gene’s dedication, we all cheered. Then the music started, and we prepared ourselves for an amazing ride of thrills and nostalgia. The opening credits elicited many more cheers as the names of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nicholas Meyer, and others appeared. Then, as the introductory music faded, Praxis exploded, and we were off.

The Undiscovered Country may not be my favorite Trek movie (Wrath of Khan forever!), but it in no way disappointed us. After the poorly received fifth movie, many wondered if that was it for the franchise in film. Thankfully, the powers at Paramount Pictures wanted something special for the 25th anniversary and a more fitting send off than Star Trek V, and #6 delivered. Big time. It has everything that is needed to be a great Trek film. A compelling story that spoke directly to current events of our time (in the story, while the Federation and Klingon empire were seeking peace, America and its allies were coming closer to ending the cold war against the USSR). There was action and humor, suspense and fondness. The pacing of the plot was near perfect, and when the end approached, we had arguably the best moment of closure with the signatures of the actors we had loved for so long appear on the screen as a thank you to us fans. We left the theatre knowing that we had just completed a fitting sendoff to our dear crew of the USS Enterprise.

There are many aspects of this movie that I love. Indulge me in mentioning a few. First, there were some great guest characters. We saw a few old favourites. Admiral Cartwright was back, played once again by the impressive Brock Peters (we had last seen him in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). John Schuck also reprised his Voyage Home character as the Klingon ambassador to the Federation. Of course, we had Mark Leonard reprise Sarek for the final time (he had just appeared on TNG in Part One of Unification). Some new characters played by seasoned actors were introduced. Kim Cattrall, soon to be of Sex and the City fame, pulled off a fairly good Vulcan in Valeris. David Warner gave depth to the Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon. Kurtwood Smith played the Federation President, his first of three Trek roles. Super model Iman played the shape-shifting Matria. Rene Auberjonois, who we would grow to love as Constable Odo on DS9, was the treacherous Colonel West. We even had Michael Dorn play the grandfather of his TNG character, also named Worf. That’s a lot of star power.

Best of all, however, was General Chang, deliciously played by Christopher Plummer. I would likely rank Chang easily in my Top 3 Trek movie villains. He was cunning, intelligent, witty, and could quote Shakespeare in both English and its original Klingon. Plummer stole virtually every scene that he was in, and Chang sparred with Kirk like few could. I loved watching the final battle scene for nothing more than the gusto that Plummer brought to it. I have never been able to hear the line “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!” since without hearing Chang’s delightful voice. If nothing else, you have to admit that only a Klingon warrior would bolt an eye patch to his head. Sorry Martok, but Chang proved he was far tougher.

The story was so poignant and relevant to the world that was in 1991, and in many cases is even more so now. For the first time, our cherished heroes had to confront their prejudices. Klingons had been the enemy for so long it was easy to hate them. As much as Gene wanted the future to be all rainbows and utopia, even the most morally aligned characters have their flaws. The verbal debate between Spock and Kirk at the beginning of the mission highlights this. When Spock tells Kirk that the Klingons are dying, Kirk emphatically responds “Let them die.” In the movies, Kirk developed every reason to hate the Klingons, and he held onto that hate for many years. Likewise, Spock also had his prejudices towards the superiority of Vulcan morals. He had difficulties believing that his own protégé was a traitor due to her heritage. It took both of these iconic characters a great deal of courage and inner strength to admit and overcome this. Twenty-five years ago, as I mentioned, both sides of the Cold War were learning to overcome decades of distrust against each other. Today, we see the divisions more clearly and deeply as our world is divided on everything from religion to politics to race and to ideologies. Each of us needs to make a careful examination of our own prejudices and see what we need to do to keep them in check.

Most of all, the greatest strength of the film was the core group of characters that we had faithfully watched and re-watched for a quarter of a century. Everyone had some great moments. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all had a great deal of limelight, but we saw great contributions from all the others. Scotty made some key discoveries in the investigation of the conspiracy, Uhura puts her linguistic skills to good use in crossing the Klingon border, and Chekov gets some of the greatest one-liners in the franchise’s history (“Guess who’s coming to dinner”). Most notably was Sulu, now Captain Hikaru Sulu of the USS Excelsior (a Search for Spock throwback). This was the decision that, for me, signaled that this was indeed the end for the original crew. They were finally starting to go their separate ways. This was, indeed, good bye.

Finally, I think that Undiscovered Country was a great movie for bringing closure to this wonderful televisions series that stretched into the feature films. Because it was cancelled after the third season, there wasn’t a final hurrah for the Enterprise and her crew. All of the other television series had it, but not the original. Since this was indeed the final voyage, we fans were able to send off Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, and Sulu in grand fashion. I felt that this was by far a better send off than Picard and company received in Nemesis as it left us with a satisfying sense of completion, which is something that every good franchise will eventually need. While the franchise would continue in some shape or form for another twenty-five years (and counting), this was a necessary final chapter for a cast of characters that are permanently etched into the annals of science fiction and pop culture. The Undiscovered Country proved to be more than worthy of a final ride into the sunset, and it ended with the most fitting of final lines, which also seems to set the tone for ending this celebration.

Second star to the right. And straight on ‘til morning.

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