Bright Lights Film Journal

Glasnost in Space Revisited: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

“This is a winter movie, an elegy tinged with regret.”

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country opened in theaters in December of 1991, itself twenty-five years after Star Trek premiered on NBC — which means (gasp!) the Trek phenomenon will soon turn fifty. Fittingly, aging — and the rigidity in thinking it can engender — is one of the themes of The Undiscovered Country. Especially given the obstinacy that defines our current cultural and political thinking, the movie’s twentieth anniversary is an apt moment to revisit the final voyage of the original crew.

“Is it possible,” Spock asks Kirk in a pivotal scene, “that we two, you and I, have become so old and inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?” It was easy to think so at the time, given the Star Trek overload in popular culture. In addition to six films in twelve years (starting in 1979), The Next Generation was among the most popular shows on television. By this point, even the jokes — about wheelchairs in space, the Tribble sitting on Kirk’s head, and the asteroid Scotty was hiding under his belt (as USA Today critic Susan Wloszczyna teasingly put it in her review of the film) — were old. True to form, there is much to poke fun at in Star Trek VI. But there is also poignancy in the film’s still-resonant cautionary tale about how fear of change keeps us from moving ahead.

This theme is embedded in a story hatched by Leonard Nimoy about the “fall of the Berlin Wall in space.” The original series often allegorized the Cold War, at its height in the 1960s, with the United Federation of Planets representing a U.S.-led NATO and the Klingon Empire standing in for the Soviet Union. The Undiscovered Country brought the series full circle and gave it fitting closure. It’s a closure that Kirk and crew can’t quite believe; like many of us in real life at the time, the characters seem dazed that they are on the verge of winning a titanic struggle they assumed would go on indefinitely. Kirk is so “used to hating Klingons” that he no longer knows what to do with himself.

The movie begins with the Chernobyl-like destruction of a Klingon mining moon and proceeds through a plot in which the Enterprise must safeguard a tentative peace conference between the Federation and the Klingons, a process threatened by a coup of soldiers and diplomats from both sides terrified of their own potential obsolescence. A real coup in August 1991 that briefly threatened to put Russia back into the hands of Communist hardliners paralleled the story so uncannily that Paramount tried to rush the movie into theaters. The studio execs were stymied by post-production work still to be done, but it was for the best, as The Undiscovered Country is not a summer flick. This is a winter movie, an elegy tinged with regret.

Twenty years later, it holds up remarkably well. Yes, some of the aliens look cheesy (they did at the time), and there are a few goofy and maudlin scenes. But two decades later the production values and special effects stand out as among the best in the Trek canon. Co-writer (with Denny Martin Flynn) and director Nicholas Meyer and cinematographer Hiro Narita shot the action in low — but not dim or murky — light, giving the picture the evocative mood of a lighthouse in a storm. Adding to the nautical feeling — and taking the series back to its Naval roots — the filmmakers worked to create the feeling of the Enterprise as submarine. The downcast lighting and claustrophobic spaces add to the mounting pressure the crew feels as the galaxy threatens to plunge back into war.

The script is another big reason that the movie holds up so well. Meyer, who also wrote and directed the classic second Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, is a gifted screenwriter, one of the reasons that producers have given him difficult adaptation jobs, such as turning Phillip Roth novels into movies. His screenplay for The Undiscovered Country is a classic of genre mixing. He grafts a country house mystery onto a ticking-time bomb plot, with the Enterprise crew racing to solve the mystery in time to prevent a political assassination. He mixes all of this into the political and racial allegories, seamlessly folds it into the Star Trek universe with all its familiar ingredients, and then, for good measure, heaps some Shakespeare on top.

The Shakespeare is mostly spoken — or, I should say, bellowed — by Christopher Plummer, playing the Klingon General Chang, who insists to Kirk, “You do prefer it this way, don’t you, as it was meant to be. No peace in our time,” and who, during the climactic battle with the Enterprise roars, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” By now it’s a given that Plummer is one of cinema’s greatest actors, and his is the most commanding presence in the movie. It’s a meaty, theatrical part, loaded with droll lines that the actor delights in.

In a running joke, Shakespeare is claimed in the movie by the Klingons. “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” says the Klingon ambassador (David Warner), and this cultural appropriation underscores the clash of civilizations. The lines from Hamlet, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, and other plays are also another way to bring the series full circle: Star Trek has always ridden the coattails of Western Literature as a way of conferring on itself the cultural authority that sci-fi has historically lacked.

The movie is not without its issues. As usual with Trek, and sci-fi in general, women don’t have much to do. The movie somewhat makes up for this by creating the intriguing character of Lt. Valeris, a half-Vulcan/half-Romulan protégé of Spock, played slyly by Kim Cattrall. But Valeris not only is revealed as treacherous, she is also the victim of an information-gleaning “mind meld” by Spock that plays somewhere between torture and rape. Racial representation is also problematic. The movie’s theme of racial tolerance resonates up to a point but is ultimately undercut by the reassertion of Trek‘s traditional privileging of white patriarchy.

And yet, despite its flaws, it’s hard to think of a better note on which the original series could have gone out. All the Star Trek tropes are working — the political and racial allegory; the nods to Western Lit.; the operatic space battles; the thoughtful dialogue; the warm and teasing relationships; the goofiness; and also the seriousness of purpose. Twenty years after the movie made its plea for empathy and personal growth, urging us in the wake of the Cold War to find the courage to embrace an uncertain future, we seem as a society to have instead regressed. Like the characters in the movie, we could do worse than to give serious consideration to how our fears and prejudices continue to hold us back.