Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings.
— William Shakespeare, Richard II
You cannot appreciate Shakespeare until you have read it in the Original Klingon.
— Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Great art is at once timeless and relevant, enduring but also packing the immediacy of a gut punch. It might seem misplaced to evoke the concept of “art” when discussing a Star Trek movie, but Nicholas Meyer, the director of The Undiscovered Country, the final film featuring the series’ original cast, does so straight away. “All works of art,” Meyer says early in the commentary track for Paramount’s new DVD, “are ineluctably the product of the time in which they were made. That includes movies.”
The time for Star Trek VI was 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the corresponding breakup of the Soviet Empire. A long walk on a Cape Cod beach shared by Meyer and Trek actor/director Leonard Nimoy (Spock) produced a high concept. What if Star Trek‘s own “wall,” the one between the Federation and the Klingons, fell? “In space, all warriors are cold warriors,” a Klingon general (Christopher Plummer) tells Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in the resulting film. The line only makes sense in the larger geopolitical landscape of the day. In 2004, it’s more likely to certify the film as a relic.
That would be regrettable, because Star Trek VI is a reminder of the power the faded franchise once commanded. Both the 1960s television episodes and the early films were at their best when they tackled contemporary concerns, such as racism, war, and ecology, with the characters’ trademark humanism front and center. Since then, Star Trek has existed largely as a marketing vehicle, substituting mindless action (Star Trek: Enterprise) or CGI spectacle (Star Trek: Nemesis) in place of the show’s original core values.
Meyer, the best Star Trek director ever, uses the meltdown of the Soviet reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 as his starting point. An energy production station on a Klingon moon explodes, dooming the homeworld to an environmental catastrophe. The Klingons propose to negotiate with the Federation to end all hostilities, sending their premier, Gorkon (read: Gorbachev), to Earth on a diplomatic mission. Starfleet orders Kirk and the venerable Enterprise crew, now on the edge of retirement, to escort Gorkon’s ship. Gorkon is assassinated and Kirk and Dr. McCoy (the late DeForest Kelley) are wrongfully charged with the murder. Ultimately, Starfleet officers, including a Vulcan lieutenant on the Enterprise (winningly played by Kim Cattrall in her pre-Samantha days), are found to be part of a conspiracy to derail the peace accord.
As clunky as Star Trek can be, this film at least possesses the ambition to be about peace, about still hating, yet learning to live with your adversary once you’ve stared him in the eye. “I was concerned about the demonization of the enemy,” Nimoy says in an interview included on the two-disc Special Edition. “I still have those ’60s ideals.” (An entire second disc is devoted to featurettes and interviews concerning the making of the film.) To realize that ambition, the film takes chances, over the objections of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died shortly after filming was completed). Meyer places racist crewmembers on the Enterprise (clashing with Roddenberry’s vision of a color-blind future), and likens Starfleet to the 1980s Pentagon, terrified of a brave new future absent a designated rival. Most important, Meyer makes the franchise’s central personality, James T. Kirk, an angry old soldier, an Ahab too spiritually exhausted even to hunt his whale.
“Jim, they’re dying,” Spock tells Kirk in the movie’s most electric moment, trying to persuade his comrade that the Klingon peace initiative is legitimate. “Let them die!” Kirk responds savagely. For a moment, try to imagine any other enduring movie hero, be it James Bond or Superman, portrayed in such an unflattering light. (Shatner was unhappy with the line, he says in an accompanying interview, and was concerned about his heroic image.)
The Kirk in Star Trek VI has lost his swagger and smirk. Filled with bitterness over the murder of his son at the hands of a Klingon in Star Trek III, Kirk spends much of the movie in a grim, unforgiving pose. Despite the fact that the movie came just two years after the disappointing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Meyer, who co-wrote the script, sets events a decade after the action in its predecessor. As a result, this Kirk appears older, grayer, and diminished, shorter and smaller than the Lincolnesque statesman Gorkon (David Warner). (Shatner, a favorite target of comedians and critics alike, should get credit here for his convincing portrayal and his willingness, finally, to embrace middle age.)
Meyer, who also directed the successful Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and wrote the script for the fourth movie, understands the series’ rightful place in the pantheon of pop culture. The script is peppered with references to Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, along with nods toward the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Manchurian Candidate. (The film’s title borrows from Hamlet; try selling that to a studio exec today.) He and his co-writer, Denny Martin Flinn, insert jokes about Richard Nixon (“There’s an old Vulcan proverb,” Spock says. “Only Nixon could go to China”) and ’60s social issue pictures (“Guess who’s coming to dinner,” a deadpan crewmember says of the Klingons.) Perhaps most daringly, the film casts Brock Peters as a racist admiral, surely jarring for viewers who recall his role in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Meyer also treats the franchise characters, who appeared on screens large and small for 25 years, with respect. Undiscovered Country becomes increasingly melancholy and sentimental as it nears its conclusion, as if a collective sense that this adventure is inescapably the final one slowly becomes pervasive. Its warm-hearted conclusion is over-the-top, sure, but why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t the heroes have their moment of praise and then ride off into the sunset of our imaginations? Star Trek was always larger than life. At least, it used to be.