I’ve come to think of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as the Abbey Road of the Star Trek movies. As with that legendary Beatles album, everyone involved went into the project knowing that it was probably the last time they’d all be working together, so they focused on making it as good a swan song as possible.
In the wake of the less-than-stellar box-office performance of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, there was a strong possibility that there would be no sixth movie featuring the original cast. Longtime producer Harve Bennett had gotten approval from Paramount Pictures to develop a prequel, The Academy Years, which would show the main characters—primarily Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty—as young men enrolled in Starfleet Academy, meeting for the first time, taking part in an adventure together, and going their separate ways at the end, having no idea that they would be reunited years later aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Bennett’s goal was to take Star Trek in a new direction without abandoning the classic characters, and to bring down production costs—by 1989, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were commanding very high salaries for the films, and negotiations between the studio and the two stars got longer and more complicated with each new production. Bennett’s position was that recasting the roles with young, far less expensive actors would ease the strain on the budget and give the film series new longevity.
Given the go-ahead by the studio, Bennett hired David Loughery, who had written Star Trek V, to write the new screenplay. Even more significant, the plan was for The Academy Years to mark Bennett’s debut as a director. But word leaked out about the project prematurely, and it was met with strong opposition from fans, members of the original cast, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Then a sudden regime change occurred at Paramount, and the prequel was put on hold.
Paramount still wanted another movie, to be released in time for Star Trek’s twenty-fifth anniversary in late 1991, but the new studio heads wanted a traditional film, one featuring the original cast. And they wanted it made as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Bennett turned down Paramount’s offer to oversee the project—according to him, he had no interest in producing another film featuring “the over-the-hill gang.” Nearly 10 years after first becoming involved with Star Trek and playing a major role in saving it, Harve Bennett made his exit from the franchise.
To keep the project moving along, Paramount turned to Leonard Nimoy, who agreed to take over as executive producer but declined to return to the director’s chair. Instead, he approached Nicholas Meyer, director/co-writer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and co-writer of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Nimoy and Meyer worked out a storyline and Meyer wrote the screenplay with his colleague, Denny Martin Flinn. (Fun fact: Meyer had originally intended to use The Undiscovered Country as the title for Star Trek II, but was overruled by the Paramount execs of the time. Clearly, he had a strong attachment to that title!)
Filming began on April 16, 1991. Right around that time, a well-connected friend of mine gave me a copy of an early draft of the script. It was the first time I ever had the script for a Star Trek movie in my possession while that same movie was in production. Naturally, I dove right into it, spoilers be damned—after Star Trek V, I wanted to know ahead of time what I was in for.
I no longer remember exactly what my reaction was, other than the overall feeling that the script definitely had potential and that a lot would depend on the execution. Aside from a few significant revisions and deletions, which I’ll get to later, the script I read was pretty much the movie that opened on December 6, 1991. While certainly not perfect, Star Trek VI restores the dignity and the maturity to the characters that had been missing in the previous film and serves as a fitting and moving farewell to the original crew.
My nine-year-old daughter Maddie, having watched Seasons One, Two, and Three of the Original Series, followed by the Animated Series and the previous five movies, would now get to see how the “first era” of Star Trek drew to a close.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The U.S.S. Excelsior, now under the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu, is hit by a massive shockwave originating from Klingon space. This leads to the discovery of a disaster at the Klingon Empire’s main energy-production facility—a disaster that has caused widespread ecological devastation. The Klingons are now forced to re-evaluate their priorities and establish peace talks with the United Federation of Planets. Captain James T. Kirk and his senior officers, due to retire in several months, are ordered by Starfleet Command to take the U.S.S. Enterprise to rendezvous with Klingon Chancellor Gorkon and escort him and his party to Earth for peace negotiations. Kirk, having grown embittered over the death of his son David Marcus at the hands of Klingons, strongly opposes the mission—which puts him directly at odds with Spock, who supports the peace initiative and actually volunteered Kirk and the Enterprise for the assignment. Gorkon and his senior aides—including his daughter Azetbur and his chief of staff, General Chang—share a tense dinner with Kirk and his senior officers. Later that night, Gorkon’s flagship is attacked—apparently by the Enterprise—and Gorkon is assassinated. The Klingons blame Kirk and Doctor McCoy for Gorkon’s death, arrest the two men, and put them on trial (during which their defense lawyer is Colonel Worf, grandfather of Lieutenant Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation and played by the same actor, Michael Dorn). Kirk and McCoy are found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on Rura Penthe, a harsh, frozen Klingon prison asteroid. Now in command of the Enterprise, Spock, aided by his female Vulcan protégé, Lieutenant Valeris, conducts an investigation into the assassination and discovers that Starfleet personnel are indeed involved. Meanwhile, Kirk and McCoy’s hours are numbered as a plot unfolds to kill them on Rura Penthe. Spock must expose the conspirators determined to derail the rescheduled peace talks and rescue his imprisoned friends—even if it means disobeying direct orders from Starfleet Command and the President of the Federation…
I’ve always felt that Star Trek VI has a pervasive “twilight of the gods” feel about it. The beloved iconic characters, still carrying out their familiar duties but now clearly past their prime, with the end of their careers in sight, are beginning the long fade into history. There are many touches throughout the film that convey this. McCoy mentions that he has a touch of arthritis. Kirk and Sulu have wisps of gray in their hair. Spock still functions as Kirk’s science officer and second-in-command, but he has one foot out the door, as he’s laying the groundwork for his next career. At one point, he wonders aloud to Kirk whether the two of them have grown so old that they’ve outlived their usefulness.
On top of all this, the interiors of the Enterprise are no longer roomy and bright—they’re now a bit tighter, narrower, and lit more dimly and moodier than ever before, as if to indicate that night, figuratively speaking, is descending upon this ship, this crew, this era. This is also conveyed through the music—there’s no bold, upbeat opening theme this time, but rather an ominous-sounding piece that begins quietly and ultimately builds into a loud conflagration of impending menace. And little musical moments throughout the film seem to say, “You’re seeing this for the last time.” (For example, the Enterprise-A departing from Spacedock, carrying Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the original crew on a new mission.)
But while the film directly addresses the now advanced ages of the characters and reinforces the fact that most of them are about to step down, it never pokes fun at them for being older, it never portrays them as anything less than totally competent and professional. When the main characters appear onscreen for the first time, it’s abundantly clear that they’re not the goofy near-caricatures of themselves that they were in the previous film. And that even extends to the Enterprise, which had been portrayed as a barely functional lemon in Star Trek V.
In fact, as far as this movie is concerned, Star Trek V might as well have never happened. In wrapping up the movie adventures of the original crew, The Undiscovered Country makes references to each of the previous films in the series—all except for The Final Frontier and The Motion Picture (the other redheaded stepchild).
Speaking of making references, it’s important to note that Star Trek VI is very much a product of its time, with allusions to Chernobyl, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet, the film doesn’t really feel dated. After all, it’s not like there haven’t been any political assassinations, attempted governmental overthrows, or widespread environmental disasters over the past 20 years.
The film also allows Nicholas Meyer to indulge his inner fanboy—not for Star Trek, but for Sherlock Holmes, about whom Meyer has written three original novels: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer. With a mysterious assassination and a vast conspiracy at the center of the plot, Spock essentially functions as Holmes, quotes him, and even obliquely refers to him as one of his ancestors.
Star Trek VI is very enjoyable, and I rank it as one of the better films in the series. It’s a gripping, fast-paced adventure-mystery-thriller with a lot of heart. But it does have some flaws. There are several inconsistencies and unanswered questions that stick out like a sore thumb. Why are all of the senior officers on the Enterprise retiring at the same time? Chekov is about 10 years younger than Kirk, and about 15-20 years younger than McCoy and Scotty, so why is he stepping down? It’s still conceivable that he could be given his own ship to command, like Sulu.
Also, near the end of the film, it’s announced that the Enterprise will be decommissioned upon its return to Earth, yet Kirk says a short time later, in his final log entry, “This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew.” Uh . . . no it won’t. Not if the ship is being decommissioned. (Which raises another question: why is the Enterprise being decommissioned, anyway? At the time of Star Trek VI, the ship has only been in service for a few years. It was supposedly a brand-new ship in the previous two films.) Those are just a few—and probably the least spoiler-filled—examples.
However, there’s one confounding bit that’s long been interpreted by audiences and critics as a glaring error in the script, but in fact was a goof created during production. It’s established in the first scene that the Excelsior, under the command of Sulu, has spent the last three years cataloguing gaseous planetary anomalies in the Beta Quadrant. Much later, the Enterprise is trying to pinpoint the location of an attacking Klingon bird-of-prey rendered invisible by its cloaking device. Spock notes that, cloaked or not, the Klingon ship is expending fuel in the form of ionized gas. In response, Uhura says, “What about all that equipment we’re carrying to catalogue gaseous anomalies? The thing’s got to have a tail pipe!”
A lot of people immediately concluded, “Meyer got the ships mixed up! It was the Excelsior that was studying gaseous anomalies, not the Enterprise!”
Well, it’s easy to see why folks would think that, but the fact is, the script had it covered. There was a brief scene written for early in the film, when Chancellor Gorkon and his party first beam aboard the Enterprise, in which this point is addressed directly. I don’t know whether it was filmed and edited out of the final cut, or if it was dropped from the script just before filming began. Whatever the case, here’s the scene, taken from a close-t0-final draft of the screenplay:
INT. R DECK CORRIDOR
leaving the Enterprise Science Labs...
Your research laboratory is most impressive...
Starfleet’s been charting and cataloging planetary atmospheres.
All vessels are equipped with chemical analytic sensors...
This cannot be easy for you, Captain...
(off the look)
I would feel awkward if I had to give you a tour of OUR vessel...
The man’s courtesy makes Kirk feel guilty...
Would you care to go topside?
(pulling Kirk aside)
Captain, you’re not going to show them the bridge??
Full diplomatic courtesy, Mr. Chekov...
And there you have it. I’d love to know why this bit didn’t make it into the finished film, because its absence created a glaring plot hole.
In terms of revisions, the most significant one involves the new character of Valeris, played by Kim Cattrall.
It’s fairly common knowledge now that Valeris was originally written as Saavik. Director Meyer was hoping to get Kirstie Alley to play the role again. For whatever reason, Alley turned him down. Meyer had no interest in bringing back Robin Curtis, who took over the role in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, presumably because she didn’t fit his vision for the character. (Curtis had been Nimoy’s hire, after all, and she had brought a very different interpretation to the part.) When Cattrall was hired, the decision was made to create an entirely new character rather than have a third actress play Saavik. (Interestingly enough, Cattrall had auditioned for the role of Saavik back in 1981, for The Wrath of Khan, and was reportedly Meyer’s first choice.)
For the longest time, I was actually relieved that Saavik had been changed to Valeris. I didn’t like the idea that (SPOILER ALERT!) Saavik would betray Spock and the Federation (even though her motives for it would have been sincere and even understandable). Based on her previous appearances, I didn’t think Saavik capable of such actions, and I felt it would have been unfortunate for her go out that way. Plus, I liked the addition of Valeris. I thought she was different enough from Saavik that she was more than just the same character with a new name. (A lot of that had to do with Cattrall’s excellent performance, though. In terms of the actual writing, all Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn really did was cross out Saavik’s name and scrawl in “Valeris.” The dialogue remained virtually unchanged.)
Nowadays, however, as an experienced writer—one who’s even written Star Trek professionally—I’m far more conflicted about it. I do still like the fact that Saavik was spared from such a troubling twist to her character. But I also readily acknowledge that it would have been far more dramatic, far more surprising, far more groundbreaking, far more gut-wrenching—and therefore far more powerful—to have such a long-running, established, and popular character as Saavik turn out to be a traitor. We the audience would have felt just as shocked, just as betrayed, just as heartbroken as Spock, because we, like Spock, had come to trust Saavik completely and to think that we knew her well. (The fact that she witnessed firsthand the Klingons’ murder of her friend David Marcus would have given her a much stronger motivation for trying to stop the peace talks than Valeris had. I’m intrigued by the notion that Saavik would have held her own deepening resentment toward the Klingons for all those years until she finally acted upon it.)
Bottom line: I’m glad Saavik is still one of the “good guys,” but I think I would have eventually come to accept the originally-planned outcome, particularly if Kirstie Alley had performed the role. I’ve little doubt that Alley would have brought all the nuance and complexity that would have been needed to make the revelation convincing and palatable. (Oh, but what a sucker-punch it would have been—we’ve finally got the original Saavik back, but it turns out that she’s in league with the bad guys! OOOOFFFF!)
Kirstie Alley wasn’t the only Star Trek II veteran who declined Nicholas Meyer’s invitation to return. I remember being absolutely thrilled when I heard rumblings that composer James Horner would be returning to the fold. Alas, those rumblings proved to be incorrect. By 1991, Horner had become one of the most sought-after composers in the film industry, and according to Meyer, his asking price was just too high for Star Trek VI’s modest budget. However, other sources quoted Horner himself as saying that he felt his career had “moved past Star Trek.” (That didn’t sit well with me—it smacked of arrogance and snobbery towards something that helped make his career. I’ve always hoped that he was misquoted.) Meyer ultimately took a chance on Cliff Eidelman, a relative unknown—just as he’d done with Horner 10 years earlier.
While not quite as iconic or as penetrating as the scores by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, Eidelman’s work on Star Trek VI is very effective and appropriate. It’s certainly a lot stronger than what Leonard Rosenman did on Star Trek IV. Eidelman’s score is moody, dark, menacing, hopeful, and uplifting.
Though Alley and Horner declined to return, George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), which had been absent on Star Trek V, came back to create the special effects. As usual, its team of artists did a wonderful job. They even broke some new ground—the massive shockwave seen at the beginning of the film was so impressive that Lucas later incorporated it into the explosions of the planet Alderaan, the Death Star, and its successor in his revised versions of Star Wars and Return of the Jedi.
It’s worth noting that some people—including Gene Roddenberry, who saw the finished film just days before he died—took issue with Star Trek VI because of the prejudice—the downright bigotry—that several of the main characters display toward the Klingons. It’s true that early in the film, Kirk declares that the Klingons are all animals and that they should be allowed to die out as a race. Uhura acknowledges that she’s been harboring her own anti-Klingon sentiments. And in a scene exclusive to the Director’s Edition of the film (released on DVD), Scotty refers to Gorkon’s daughter, the new Klingon Chancellor, as “that Klingon bitch.”
Yes, this is a bit more extreme than we’re used to from these characters. But given the fact that they’re older now, more set in their ways, with a long history of fighting Klingons—some of whom were quite loathsome and brutal—I don’t think any of this is out of line. Kirk in particular has plenty of cause to feel hatred toward the Klingons after the murder of his son. Having lost the chance to finally establish a meaningful relationship with his only child, it’s absolutely understandable that Kirk would have grown more and more bitter and resentful as the years went by.
But to focus solely on these less-than-flattering character moments and to criticize the film because of them is to miss the bigger picture: the characters come to recognize their prejudice, see the ugliness of it, and ultimately overcome it, thus saving the day and ensuring a brighter future. That, to me, is quintessential Star Trek.
The script is helped immensely by the all-around wonderful performances by the cast. They’re really back in top form here.
With Nicholas Meyer guiding him again, William Shatner is truly excellent as an older, harder-edged, more conservative, and more solemn Captain Kirk. It’s a very straightforward, no-nonsense portrayal, without any traces of the hamminess and goofiness that was on display when Shatner directed himself in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
Leonard Nimoy is a bit more intense as Spock this time around, showing more emotion than ever before—impatience, sadness, disgust, and smoldering anger. This Spock has come to the conclusion that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” thus continuing the evolution of the character that began in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and progressed throughout the other films in the series.
In his last-ever appearance as Doctor McCoy, DeForest Kelley gets some very nice moments, particularly the scene in which he tries to save Chancellor Gorkon’s life and his interactions with Kirk on Rura Penthe. And as usual, McCoy gets most of the funny lines—one of which even gets laughs from a bunch of Klingons during his trial!
All of the supporting cast members are served well, as they get the chance to shine and make important contributions. Most notable, of course, is George Takei, now Captain Sulu (whose first name is finally officially established as Hikaru).
I’ve already mentioned how good I thought Kim Cattrall was as Valeris. Of the other “guest stars,” David Warner—who was woefully underused as a Federation diplomat in Star Trek V—is quite effective in his somewhat brief appearance as Gorkon.
Christopher Plummer is a hell of a lot of fun as the bald, one-eyed, Shakespeare-loving General Chang. (And one of the great bits is when Chang really starts to overdo his quoting of the Bard, to the point where it’s testing even the audience’s patience, and McCoy snaps, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up!”)
Iman is quite good as Martia, an alien prisoner who crosses paths with Kirk and McCoy on Rura Penthe.
Kurtwood Smith, best known for his roles as the vile Clarence Boddicker in the original RoboCop and as Red Forman in That 70s Show, does a nice job playing the alien President of the United Federation of Planets. Brock Peters returns as Admiral Cartwright, the character he played in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—but with a twist (one that required Peters to say some dialogue that he was reportedly not at all comfortable with). And Mark Lenard makes a final, brief appearance as Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek.
It’s also notable that the director’s cut of the film features a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Rene Auberjonois as Colonel West, a Starfleet officer with a daring plan to rescue Kirk and McCoy from Rura Penthe—and full confidence that the Federation would easily defeat the Klingons in the inevitable war that would result from such an operation.
As Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was designed to be the final film with the original cast, it could easily have been a bloodbath, with Kirk and his crew going out in a blaze of glory (except for McCoy and Spock—at the time of the film’s release, we already knew, thanks to Star Trek: The Next Generation, that they would both survive well into the 24th century). But The Undiscovered Country is not about death and tearing things down. It’s about change (and the fear of it), learning to trust, and building bridges. Far preferable, I think.
Star Trek VI ends beautifully. Kirk, quoting from Peter Pan, gives a final course heading: “Second star to the right… and straight on ’til morning.” (Meyer had actually intended that to be Kirk’s last line in Star Trek II.) The Enterprise then literally fades into the sunset and the main cast signs off in a final farewell.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the last we’ve ever seen of the original crew. There’s just no way to appropriately follow up on the sight of them passing into legend. Their ultimate fates—particularly Kirk’s—should remain unknown. (If you don’t already know what I think of 1994’s Star Trek Generations, take a guess.)
And now for Maddie’s comments:
MADDIE: “I liked it! I had no expections (expectations) going in, so I wasn’t disappointed.
“I thought after Star Trek V that they might look for something else, the way they had looked for God. So I was surprised that this movie focused on the Klingons.
“I liked how it was a mystery—who fired on the Klingon ship if it wasn’t the Enterprise? It was very cool that it turned out to be a bird-of-prey that could fire its weapons while its cloaking device was on! We know from Star Trek III that a bird-of-prey isn’t supposed to be able to do that, so it added to the mystery.
“And then the old Klingon at the prison was going to tell Kirk who was behind everything and Kirk and McCoy got beamed back to the Enterprise just before they could get the name!
“I thought from the second I saw Valeris that she was a suspicious character. There was a look in her eyes when they did close-ups on her. You knew that you couldn’t trust her. I wasn’t surprised that she turned out to be working with the bad guys. But if Valeris had been Saavik, I would’ve been fooled!
“I think that when Spock found out the truth about Valeris, it made him feel very sad and disappointed in her. He was her teacher and he wanted her to be the best and to succeed.
“Spock seemed very angry when he smacked the phaser out of Valeris’s hand. That was really surprising, because Spock doesn’t usually show his feelings—so he must have been really angry!
“The movie was kind of funny. I laughed during the scene in the Klingon courtroom when McCoy was asked about his health and he said, ‘Aside from a touch of arthritis, I’d say it’s pretty good!’ I also thought it was funny when Spock asks McCoy to help him perform surgery on a torpedo and McCoy says, ‘Fascinating!’ And I loved it when the alien woman kissed Kirk and McCoy made a face and said, ‘What is it with you, anyway?’
“It’s great that we got to see everyone one last time. The movie didn’t focus only on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Everyone got some attention, which was good.
“The Klingons were different in this movie. They wanted peace—except for Christopher Plummer. I never thought that Christopher Plummer could be a Klingon, after seeing him in The Sound of Music, but I guess I was wrong! Chang was mean and he wanted war with the Federation. Christopher Plummer played Chang very well—I was surprised he could play such a bad guy.
“I liked that they showed Spock’s father again.
“Kirk was very depressed and angry about the death of his son. But I think it was very weird for Kirk, of all people, to say, ‘Let them die.’ If I were in his place, I’d probably feel the same way, but I still wouldn’t have expected Captain Kirk to say something like that. William Shatner played him very well in this one—he was all serious.
“Good for Sulu that he’s got his own ship now! And he’s got the Excelsior—last time we saw that ship, it broke down, but it seems to be working fine now!
“I thought Sulu might die at the beginning when his ship was hit by that giant shockwave, but I didn’t really think anyone was going to die because this is the last movie and these characters are loved by so many people, and they would want the audience to be happy at the end, not devastated.
“I’m sad that this is the last one—it seems like yesterday that we were watching ‘Space Seed’ and ‘The City on the Edge of Forever.’ It’s like saying goodbye to people that I’d see like, almost every weekend!
“I’ll definitely miss McCoy the most!
“I liked when Kirk says, ‘Second star to the right… and straight on ’til morning.’ The Enterprise just fading away into the sunset was really very nice.
“The movie ends the way you really want it to—you don’t see them really say goodbye to each other. You can make up your own way for how they do that. They’ll always have a special bond, even though their adventures together are ending.
“It was very nice seeing the cast signing off at the very end. It was a way to say goodbye to the audience.”
“If I had to put the movies in order, starting with the ones I liked best, it would be like this: II, III, IV, VI, V, and I.”
And so, we’ve finally reached the last of the Star Trek adventures featuring the entire original cast. I’ve had a great time revisiting everything from beginning to end, but what really made it special, of course, was watching Maddie experience it all for the first time—and become a fan in her own right. The next generation, indeed!
Speaking of which—we won’t be getting into any of the later Star Trek TV shows, or the movies featuring the Next Generation characters. But Maddie and I will wrap up this special series of blog entries in the near future, with our comments on the 2009 film, Star Trek.
Until then, I intend to post some shorter pieces, on a wider variety of topics—which will undoubtedly be a relief to all of you non-Trekkers out there!
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.