Friday, October 29, 2021

Squid Flicks: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Title: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Original Release: December 6, 1991
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Just a month and a half after the death of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the franchise's sixth motion picture was released.  It was the last film to include the entire principal cast of the original series.  After the unmitigated disaster of film #5, The Final Frontier, and with the continuing success of The Next Generation, the old guard needed a win.  

Meanwhile, the broader world was facing seismic change.  The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.  The Cold War was over.  The geo-political landscape upon which Star Trek was built was no more.  Future stories would reflect newly prominent realities.  But first, one more tale to acknowledge the transition.

The Klingon Empire is in decline.  The destruction of the moon Praxis has brought matters to a crisis point.  War with the Federation is no longer sustainable so peace is sought.  The Enterprise runs to greet their new friends but a conspiracy is afoot.  Not everyone is so keen on peace.

The Undiscovered Country is solid Trek.  The regulars are at the top of their game and the supporting cast - including Kim Catrell, Christopher Plummer, Mark Lenard, Brock Peters, Michael Dorn and Christian Slater - is probably the strongest we've seen in a Star Trek movie so far.  It doesn't have the obvious broader appeal of #4, The Voyage Home, but it's not as goofy either.  

There is a knock against this movie and it's not easily dismissed.  The mistrust of the Klingons by many, including our dear Captain Kirk, is seen by some as having uncomfortable racist overtones.  Going all the way back to the first Klingon episode, "Errand of Mercy," the antagonism towards them has always been petty.  Even the Romulans always seem to engender grudging respect in the end.  But a lot of the rhetoric in The Undiscovered Country is downright hateful.  Chekov's "Guess who's coming to dinner" line - a reference to the 1967 Sidney Poitier film about two families confronting the prospect of interracial marriage - was supposed to be Uhura's but Nichelle Nichols refused to say it.

Are such attitudes realistic in light of real world parallels?  Of course.  But Trek is supposed to be better than reality when it comes to confronting the other.  As it turns out, even our heroes have their limits.

The script is riddled with Shakespeare quotes, including the title itself which derives from Hamlet.  Plummer's character Chang, in particular, is quite fond of The Bard.  But the movie's most intriguing literary allusion comes in a Spock line: "An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."  This is, of course, a famous Sherlock Holmes quip.  The speculation: is Spock claiming kinship with Holmes himself or with his author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?  For what it's worth, my money's on Doyle, though the idea of two fictional characters being related to each other is certainly fun to ponder.

The moment of truth, my rankings of the six original cast Star Trek films:
  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  4. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  6. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
I'm not offering an especially adventurous perspective here.  In fact, my rankings match the Rotten Tomatoes aggregates exactly.  I'll be interested to see how subsequent movies measure up.

14 comments:

  1. I remember liking this one but feeling like it wasn't really movie level. I felt like I had watched an episode of the series, not gone to a bogger event. I don't know. Maybe that's praise? I haven't watched it since it came out.
    Without re-watching, my rankings would be completely different, except maybe for this one. It might still get the #2 spot but, as a story, I've always felt the first movie was the best. It's philosophically Trek.

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    1. I've heard that criticism of some of the movies. I like the ones that feel like episodes but I suppose I understand the objection. A movie should feel like something special.

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  2. Adding the racism to the conflict probably have it added depth. If it was two sets of humans patching things up, it would be one thing. But humans and Klingons were two different species. It was worth revisiting the second biggest social commentary of the original series, beyond the clash of competing cultures the Klingons represented.

    I didn’t know Nichols refused to say that line, and I won’t quibble about that, but her presence and the famous anecdote about MLK, Jr., and the first interracial kiss, all of that doesn’t get enough attention. Fans think more about the aliens with bodies half white and half black are the biggest legacy of Star Trek’s statement on the civil rights era, but Uhura herself was, and the fact that no episode or movie ever even mentioned it (Spock got more attention as Vulcan, and did face racism, even in his grudging friendship with Bones).

    In 1991 not only was the USSR closing shop but race relations in the US were heating up again. So this is a movie that’s pertinent to both, and probably more relevant now for the latter than the former. It’s actually gotten to the point where black people are voluntarily isolating their perspective from the mainstream one, which they assume is the exact opposite of theirs. There are two social narratives. The protests said nothing about this, but that’s what they were really about. And the problems our society faces will continue as long as we exist in a perpetual state of assumed separation.

    So having our good guys facing up to their end of a conflict with the other guys is a way of saying, it takes two. It takes both sides for there to be a problem. It’s a bold statement, especially for the last story featuring the original cast. It says the good guys still had things to learn. Gene’s vision always implied the good guys had it all figured it. It’s this last one that acknowledges the human adventure is, as always, just beginning. He said it himself with the first film. And somebody else said it with this last one.

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    1. I hope you can figure out where I should have edited that. But hopefully still worth considering.

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    2. The sentence that ends after the parentheses without finishing itself probably finishes something like, “says a lot, too.” Anyway.

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    3. ... So much to unpack here...

      American racism runs a lot deeper than assumed separation. Black citizens face structures which prevent them from living on equal terms with white citizens, no matter the economic and educational status they and their families may have achieved despite such obstacles. Resentment and protest are perfectly reasonable responses to the cultural realities.

      As to the movie, I'd say you have a good point in regards to the broader, Roddenberry vision: the good guys still had things to learn. Indeed, that was a crucial theme of "Errand of Mercy."

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    4. What I’m talking about is having a black friend who shares things on Facebook like “the real origin of the term monkey wrench” because they grew up with history books written by black people for black people that perpetuate a known lie, and telling them that it’s a lie, and they refuse to believe it because that’s what they grew up with. This is what I’m talking about. A whole alternate history. Stuff you wouldn’t even begin to guess about until you randomly learn it exists as “ truth” for someone else. Everyone has examples of things they learn differently. For some it’s denying what others know is true (the Holocaust), for others it’s knowing what others perpetuate as truth (as a Catholic, it’s interesting to revisit vast tracks of history). Anyway.

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  3. I'm of two minds about this one. There are many little things in it I like... and I appreciate all they were doing with the end of the Cold War stuff... but I think in many ways it really was as goofy as IV and V. I don't think they quite knew how to put the goofiness genie back into the bottle at this point.

    With hindsight, I'm thinking they should've taken a break after IV and then gotten the gang back together for one last Generations-type handoff in the early 1990s.

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    1. I am glad for the rebound. Final Frontier would have been quite a sour note to finish.

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    2. Hope I got my numbering right. I envisioned stopping right after the whales. Leave the adventures of the NCC-1701-A to the imagination. :-)

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