STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY: Peace and the Bigoted Mind

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – Director’s Cut – Directed by Nicholas Meyer – Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Nichele Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Kim Cattrall, David Warner, Rosanna DeSoto, and Christopher Plummer.

At last, they made a Star Trek movie just for me. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY is so much better than any of the Star Trek films that have come before it that it’s a genuine shame it didn’t come when the crew was three months out of the Academy and not three months from being mothballed.

It is one of the great tragedies of human nature that hate binds us together so much easier and so much more plentifully than love.

Give humanity a chance at peace and it will far too often respond with a collective shrug, but give us an enemy to hate and we’ll stand with anyone who hates them, too, and we won’t be quick to give up that ghost in the face of change.

In short, this is the message of STAR TREK VI: war is hate, peace is hard, and change is scary.

As a whole, the Star Trek movie franchise has been largely “okay,” sitting somewhere in the great middle country between suckage and awesomeness. There was a noticeable improvement in each film of the series until Star Trek V: The Final Frontier knocked the train off the tracks with a valiant but flawed attempt, but none of the films until now were nearly good enough for me to contemplate laying out double digits to purchase. I’d pay 10 bucks for TREK VI, though, because everything here is hard earned and the Enterprise finally shows you a bit of the dirt under the hood.

The Klingon moon of Praxis blows up as a result of an accident at an energy-mining, damaging Kronos’ ozone layer and leaving the Klingons with only a few decades of life on their homeworld left. Sulu, now Captain of the Excelsior (hooray for someone actually being promoted above console duty), gets caught in the wake of the blast and offers his help, but the Klingons pull the “nothing important happened here, keep moving” and send him on his way. With their homeworld now irreversibly damaged, the Kling Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) wants peace, and he and Spock engage in discussions for a peace conference.

Spock volunteers Kirk and the Enterprise to shepherd Gorkon to the conference, which is the worst possible decision because the Klingons hate Kirk and Kirk hates the Klingons but politics often work on symbolism more than practicality.

Kirk wants none of this. As he and his crew (Scotty, McCoy, Uhura, Chekov) are brought in to the top secret meeting where they’re told all of the above, Kirk feels rightly sucker-punched by Spock’s assertion that he vouched for Kirk’s desire for peace. Kirk is all, “Are you f*cking kidding me?” (I’m paraphrasing; Kirk’s penchant for swearing doesn’t extend to f-bombs) and Spock is all, “Only Nixon could go to China,” insinuating that it is precisely because of the animosity between them that makes Kirk the best choice.

Kirk can’t believe he has to treat the “animals” like honored guests after they killed his son back in The Search for Spock, but Spock insists simply, “They are dying.” Kirk’s response?

“Let them die!”

Love it.

It’s easy to paint Kirk and his crew as close-minded bigots but you can’t dismiss the context of having been at war with the Klingons as long as they’ve known them. Klingons are the Big Bad of the Star Trek universe and it would be cheap and implausible to simply expect members of Starfleet to happily accept their enemy into their midst.

The mistake that Kirk and Co. make is the classic mistake of the bigot – applying your attitude of the few to that of the whole. To Kirk’s mind, a Klingon killed his kid and thus all Klingons are responsible. (In part, I think a lot of Kirk’s anger is geared around his own guilt at not having known his son until recently, but the film doesn’t even raise the possibility of that path, let alone walk down it.) He’s only ever known the Klingons as opponents on the battlefield, so he’s not inclined to allow them into Federation space with open arms.

The film tempers Kirk’s hostility a bit by having Admiral Cartwright deliver the harshest condemnation of the Klingons at the original secret meeting. Adamant that the Klingons not be allowed into Federation space (as if this area of space were simply a particular block in a particular suburb), Cartwright flatly declares that letting the Klingons in would result in them becoming the “alien trash of the galaxy.” Tellingly, the reaction shot here is of a disbelieving McCoy and not Kirk, who isn’t portrayed as the extremist that Cartwright is, but is shown to be closer to Cartwright’s position than Spock’s.

Historically, Kirk doesn’t do what he doesn’t want to do, but this film around Kirk is going to follow orders and escort Gorkon to the peace conference, at once aboard the Enterprise we see Kirk offer a more tempered view of his own prejudices:

“I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will. I can never forgive them for the death of my boy. It seems to me our mission to escort the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council to a peace summit is problematic at best. Spock says this could be an historic occasion and I’d like to believe him. But how on Earth can history get past people like me?”

It’s a fantastic set-up for the movie and a terrific insight into Kirk’s character, showing you as much depth into Kirk’s inner mind as any point during the five preceding films. Think back to the silly resolution between Kirk and his grown-up son back in the overrated firework show that is The Wrath of Khan, where that film substitutes a proclamation and hug for actual conversation and conflict resolution.

The opening up of Kirk’s mind on Terran-Klingon relations comes at dinner. After rendezvousing with Gorkon’s ship, Kirk invites the Klingons over for a state dinner, which we all know will end badly. Relations are tense, but they’re tense in both directions. The only two people who seem to actually want to be at dinner are Spock and Gorkon, but then they have the most invested in seeing peace come to fruition and they are the only people at the table who have any kind of history, as they’ve spent the past two months negotiating. Gorkon makes a toast to “the undiscovered country” of the future, cleverly (if probably unknowingly) tying in his own desire for peace with the Enterprise’s stated mission to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Kirk’s enlightenment begins with the introduction of General Chang, played magnificently by Christopher Plummer. Chang sees Kirk as his opposite number, a warrior about to become a relic with the advent of peace. (Because it’s a movie, the film pushes a bit too hard at this idea – that we’re about to see war eradicated with the simple brushstrokes of a pen – but at least properly assigns the worry of a dismantled military in the appropriate minds of hardliners like Cartwright and Chang.) Kirk is instantly uneasy at Chang’s formulation of the two of them as like-minded individuals, but the film smartly and correctly takes its time unraveling Kirk’s feelings.

Kirk might not like to think of himself and Chang as similar beings, but he’s not about to instantly want to be pals with every Klingon that crosses his path. As seemingly everyone starts quoting Shakespeare, Chang mentions that all the Klingons need is a little breathing room and Kirk points out that those are Hitler’s words, which irks an offended Chang.

It’s good to know that humans and Klingons all know their Shakespeare and their World War II history.

Even if it seems a bit unbelievable that everyone’s making references to people and events from centuries past and not anything recent to their own timeline, the result is to show the audience that these are smart, educated people. Bigotry, TREK VI argues, isn’t erased simply because one isn’t stupid.

As dinner progresses (and perhaps as the illegal Romulan ale they’re drinking starts to loosen everyone’s lips), the tensions that simmer beneath the surface start to boil over. Chekov insists that the Federation believes everyone has inalienable human rights and Gorkon’s daughter jumps all over him, calling the inclusion of the word “human” as inherently racist, and that the Federation is little more than a “homo sapiens’ club.” It’s a fantastic argument that plays out across the table as we see that nearly everyone has a flaw in their character when it comes to the people on the other side of the table.

After dinner the film’s mystery is created, as evidence seems to suggest that the Enterprise fires two torpedoes at the Chancellor’s ship. Two people in Federation uniforms beam aboard the Kronos One and kill a whole bunch of people. The bridge of the Enterprise is in chaos but Kirk and McCoy beam over to help out, Gorkon dies despite McCoy’s attempts to save him, and Kirk and McCoy are arrested and put on trial in a Klingon court.

The film operates on two tracks from here to the end. The first sees Spock, Valeris (a Vulcan woman taking Sulu’s pace, who was written as Saavik but then altered before filming), and the Enterprise crew trying to figure out what happened – Scotty’s data assures them that no torpedoes were fired, while the ship’s data banks indicates that two of them were fired.

The second track is the trial of Kirk and McCoy, and their imprisonment and escape the Klingon prison camp on Rura Penthe. The film spends too much time on this track (including a silly fight scene between Kirk and a shapeshifter who’s transformed herself into Kirk) but the Enterprise mystery isn’t really that tough to solve. It just takes manpower and time to uncover the anti-gravity boots and uniforms used by the two assassins.

While on Rura Pentha, Kirk admits to McCoy that he’s become so accustomed to hating and mistrusting Klingons that he never actually considered that Gorkon was honestly desiring peace. On Kirk’s behalf, however, it should be pointed out that he really hasn’t had many reasons to trust Klingons over the years from the Klingons themselves; if you’re constantly in contact with untrustworthy people who want to kill you (and do kill your kid), you’re not going to be given to see the best in them. You shouldn’t automatically assume the worst, of course, but humans are susceptible to conditioning even in our everyday lives, let alone while at war.

Eventually the assassination plot and its participants are uncovered as Spock makes himself a target to flush the traitor into the open. It’s Valeris who’s been operating as the main traitor on ship, but there’s members of the crew that are helping her out. Even beyond the Enterprise, the larger plot involves General Chang and Admiral Cartwright, showing that people will unite in order to keep hating each other.

Kirk and McCoy are rescued and Spock forcibly mind melds with Valeris (Kim Cattrall) to force information out of her. It’s probably a good external decision to have Valeris be the traitor and not Saavik (Roddenberry apparently didn’t want to see a fan-favorite turned into a traitor, but as a non-Trek fan it seems the only stories I hear about Roddenberry over the past few movies is about him hating on this or that), but it would have made for a better movie if it was Saavik, who has her own reasons to hate the Klingons, since Kirk’s son died while protecting her. Given that Saavik was originally placed in-between her parental figures of Kirk and Spock, it would have made for a much more powerful moment if it was Saavik that had read Kirk’s desires wrong instead of a new character.

Kirk and Spock have one final scene together where they ponder their mistakes. For Kirk, it’s his hate of the Klingons, and he admits to Spock that it took Gorkon’s death to reveal his own prejudice. For his part, Spock admits he was blinded by Valeris’ accomplishments. Spock’s admission would have been infinitely stronger if the film franchise had been allowed to follow through with the original idea to have Saavik stay behind on Vuclan in The Voyage Home because she was pregnat with Spock’s child. (There seems to be a bit of romantic tension with Valeris at the start of the film when he tells her he wants her to be his replacement on the Enterprise, but I don’t know Vulcans and they’re drinking/robe wearing rituals, so maybe I misread that.)

Spock wonders if they’re becoming obsolete in this new world, which is the right impulse but the wrong message.

Kirk and Company go off to defeat General Chang’s bird-of-prey (in the best starship fight of the franchise, so far) and then stop the assassination attempt (both with a nice assist from Sulu and the Excelsior) and everyone slow claps them to a thunderous ovation.

The slow clap. In a war movie. Ugh, ugh, a thousand times ugh.

At the end of the film, the Enterprise is ordered home for decomissioning, but Spock says that his reaction, if he were human, would be to tell Starfleet to “Go to hell.” Kirk decides they could all use one last joyride aboard the Enterprise, and goes all Peter Pan, ordering Chekov to plot a course for the “second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning.”

It would have been a more fitting ending if Kirk and Spock revisited their final chat, realizing that the universe needs people like them and the other officers of the Enterprise, people who can overcome their prejudices and blindspots to help build a better future, but the film gives them a starburst blast-off without raising the possibility that this is more of a new beginning instead of an ending. It’s a bit of a shame that the message seems to be that the time is over for this crew and not that they’re just as important as ever, just in a different context, because they will be incredibly important politically and diplomatically moving forward if the Federation chooses to utilize them.

Maybe that’s too serious a realization for the end of the original cast’s involvement with the film franchise. Kirk does quote Peter Pan, after all, and while the personal growth shown in TREK VI suggests Kirk isn’t afraid to grow-up, we know from most of these films that he has no desire to grow old.

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One thought on “STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY: Peace and the Bigoted Mind

  1. This too is my favorite Star Trek movie. It’s my first exposure to Star Trek other than seeing a few reruns of the 60’s series as an even smaller child. Have to say this one stands up to any film that’s been done since. I still haven’t watched the recent “Action Trek” as Tom calls it but I have a feeling VI will still win out.

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