Star Trek The Marathon: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?
Our Star Trek marathon warps to a conclusion with, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Katey started out as a total Trek noob, but now she's half-Vulcan and well on her way to becoming a geek. Josh is, a bigger dork than ever. Follow along with our entire marathon by going right here.
JOSH: Before Star Trek V started, I half expected Katey to change into a Trek uniform. The brilliance of Khan and the well-earned hilarity of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had won her over. She was half a step away from gleefully beaming into the nearest Star Trek convention. Then Shatner's horrific stint at the helm of The Final Frontier undid nearly everything. It's alright, we can still win her back. I sidle over to her DVD player with my secret weapon: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It's the perfect place to end our marathon because, well I'm out of Cheetohs. Besides, it's the last original cast movie and more importantly, if memory serves, it's pretty good.
Katey looks tired and bored as I plop down in my bean bag chair. I think she, much like the crew of the Enterprise, is ready for retirement. Or is that a tear? V really took the fight out of her. Come on Katey, wake up and let the political intrigue and Shakespeare quoting Klingons of The Undiscovered Country win you back! You'll be a Trekkie yet.
KATEY: I'm not going to admit how genuinely sad I am that this marathon is ending, lest I be known as even more of a geek than I already am, so let's just move on with it....
JOSH: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is perhaps more than any other Trek film a product of its time. It's a direct and intentional allegory for the fall of the Berlin wall, with the Klingons as stand-ins for the Russians. Taking modern day problems and examining them in a sci-fi setting is always something Star Trek has done really well, and in my opinion it's one of the hallmarks of great science fiction in general. It's done well here and I imagine that in particular, this movie had a lot of meaning for anyone watching it back in 1991. In addition to being smart sci-fi allegory, this is also the crew's goodbye movie. When they made it they knew their run was over, plans were already under way to go a different direction with the franchise and Star Trek VI was to be their sendoff. There's a sense of melancholy to the whole thing because of that, which seems appropriate considering this movie's place in franchise history.
In particular I love the opening half of the film, with its ruminations on bigotry and the role of a soldier without any wars to fight in. Nicolas Meyer, who returns to direct for the first time since Wrath of Khan, goes a very different direction with this movie than his previous film and I think it pays off. The dinner scene, in which everyone gets a little drunk and says more than they should, is particularly well done. If there's weakness, it's in the second half of where we're stuck watching Kirk and McCoy run around on a prison planet while Spock plays find the clues aboard Enterprise. The mystery isn't all that mysterious and Kirk's escape from prison is a little too convenient. But when the credits roll the cast has said its good byes, the good guys have won again, and the Enterprise sails quite literally, off into the sunset. Star Trek VI hits all the right notes. It's a great way to say goodbye.
KATEY: Even though I was but a child when the Berlin Wall came down, I still found this allegory pretty convincing, perhaps only because the mention of "an incident" on the Klingon planet made me think of Lost, and it was kind of like the Losties and the Others coming together. Sorry, nerd tangent. Beyond the general metaphor, though, there's a lot going on here-- Kirk and company coping with getting old and letting go of their prejudices, Spock recognizing his own fallibility when it comes to fellow Vulcans, and a pretty great political conspiracy plot, even though it doesn't really amount to much in the end. The dinner scene is indeed spectacular, and I agree that Kirk and McCoy on the prison planet was a bit draggy, but Iman's shape-shifter character really made up for it. The intercutting between the attack on the Klingon Bird of Prey and the assassination attempt at the peace conference is really nifty filmmaking, and really atypical of the somewhat stodgy style we'd seen before (thank Nicholas Meyer, I guess). But when Kirk has his moment with the Klingon princess and the whole room applauds? Pure Star Trek cheese. As for the sappy sign-off ending, it's pretty much exactly the way I would end a movie if I'd been working on a franchise for 27 years-- staring directly at the camera and taking in the silent applause. They've earned it.
KATEY: The whole "I'm getting too old for this shit" vibe definitely makes for an interesting tone in the movie as a whole, but also sucks some of the life out of the characters-- Sulu, finally out from under Kirk's thumb, is the only one who seems to genuinely be enjoying himself this time around. I really resented them bringing back David's photo as motivation for Kirk to hate the Klingons, given that David has been roundly forgotten for the last two outings. And poor Uhura, forced to shuffle through dictionaries in order to speak Klingon-- isn't she supposed to be a linguistics master? I did like seeing Spock get a chance to run the ship for once, and McCoy and Kirk's brotherly bickering as they tramped through the gulag, but the cast felt a little disjointed the whole time, only coming together at the end when it was time to crash the peace conference (though, to be fair, that scene was awesome). At least it all came together in the cheesy sign-off, everyone signing their names in space and sailing off into the sunset.
JOSH: No mention of Ensign Christian Slater? That has to be one of the weirdest cameos in the history of cameos. I actually liked Kirk's struggle with bigotry and it makes sense that the death of his son at the Klingon's hands could prompt those feelings. His speech at the beginning of the film where he all but yells at Spock: “Don't trust them!” is particularly good, though it's worth noting that Shatner didn't want to give it. He didn't feel right about painting Kirk as a bigot, that's something Star Trek has always gone out of its way to avoid. But I think Nicolas Meyer handles it perfectly. Kirk isn't a bigot, but that doesn't mean he isn't also human. Meyer had to trick Shatner to get him to say those lines, by letting Shatner end the speech by recanting everything he said. Meyer then cut away right before Shatner does the takebacks because of course, it would have lost all meaning if he'd let Shatner water it down.
Brock Peters, who you probably recognized from To Kill A Mockingbird Katey and who plays the traitorous Admiral Cartwright in the film, also had a longer, more bigoted speech in the script. Meyer thought it would say something interesting to have a man so associated with racism on film giving a speech. Unfortunately only a shortened version of that speech appears in the film. Brock wanted to say it, tried to say it, but apparently it was so rough, and it affected him so much, he flat out couldn't get through it.
I'm not as enamored with the peace conference scene as you are. It's good but for me the crew works best early on in the movie when they're struggling to deal with this new world in which they're now the Klingons' friends. By the end they've all reconciled themselves to it. It's more interesting when they're struggling to wrap their minds around what's happening. Guess who's coming to dinner?
JOSH: You can't really go wrong with Christopher Plummer as an eye-patch wearing Klingon aristocrat. Meyer patterned the Klingon adoption of Shakespeare as one of their own after the Germans, who did the same thing around World War II when they convinced themselves that Shakespeare was one of theirs. Star Trek VI embraces the ridiculousness of the Klingons and has fun with it. If there's a problem, it's that they're having so much fun with it that the Klingons aren't quite as menacing as maybe they should be. There's no point in the film where you really take them seriously and besides, after five movies watching Kirk defeat everything from God to time itself, we know there's no chance that everything won't come out in the end. So maybe Plummer's Klingon isn't exactly a menace, but he's a lot of fun. Katey I know you hated Christopher Lloyd's performance as a brutal, Klingon grunt. Do Klingons work any better for you when they're quoting Shakespeare?
KATEY: They sure do. I loved the universal translator gimmick that allowed Kirk and McCoy to hear the Klingons speaking English during the trial, and the fact that the rest of the diplomacy plot demanded the Klingons talk like the rest of us, eliminating the stupid guttural language and subtitles that drove me crazy in Star Trek III. Chistopher Plummer and his super-cool eyepatch made for a great villain, but there were so many others too! Valeris, the rogue Vulcan who sorta seduced Kirk to get vital information. Martia the Martian played amazingly by Iman, who morphs hilariously into an even-cheesier William Shatner. Plus all those bad scheming politicians, the Klingon princess who turns out to be a good guy in the end, and even the mystery Enterprise crewmembers, who show up on the Klingon ship looking like Stormtroopers and wreak some really beautifully shot havoc. I thought the non-threatening Klingons worked really well for the plot at hand, which was all about breaking down old walls, looking into the new future, and getting Kirk and McCoy out of the gulag. And the mystery of the boots!
KATEY: From the intercutting of the peace conference and the Bird of Prey attack at the end to the Klingon shootout and the floating gobs of purple blood, Undiscovered Country probably looked the best of any of the Trek movies we've seen. I loved the awesomely gruesome food during the dinner scene, the variety of Klingon apparel that all looks crazy, the disappear/reappear effect on the cloaked Bird of Prey, Martia's feathered head and her morphs into other weird shapes, even the shot in the very beginning in the otherwise-stuffy conference room, Kirk and Spock facing off with a long, long table in front of them. Even Uhura got in with the spiffy new looks, dyeing that gray out of her hair for one last outing. It's probably more because of the changes in technology than any grand plan from the filmmakers, but this is the Trek movie with the least distracting visual effects. That said, Nicholas Meyer's skill in editing together space action scenes is undeniable, and has been sorely missed during the Nimoy-Shatner episodes.
JOSH: It looks better because you're comparing it to Star Trek V. Star Trek V really is a shitty looking Trek movie. Actually the technological advances used on it are the thing I liked the least. They toyed with CGI for the first time in some of this movie's space scenes and it just doesn't look as sharp as the model work in Star Treks 1-4. Otherwise though, this is a great looking movie. Most of it is by directorial man crush Nicolas Meyer, who made subtle changes to the existing sets he was forced to use. For instance he had the set designers go through and distress them all, to make them look more worn and lived in. He decreased the size of the corridors, to make them more cramped, give them more of a shipboard feel, and make the scenes in which the crew walks through them feel more cinematic. It's the little things like that which make this movie look so much better than the last one. Some of the new sets are really stunning too. How great is the Klingon courtroom for instance? Very cool.
JOSH: The score for Star Trek VI is a complete departure from anything they've done before, and it's tremendous. It's full of deep, menacing, bass tones and frantic strings which perfectly capture the tone of the movie, helping to give it some of that menace that was missing from the Klingons. They don't even use the Star Trek theme really, not until the end when we're saying goodbye to the crew. Yet somehow it still feels like Star Trek. At one point they even use a Klingon chorus to provide percussion. Pretty cool.
KATEY: I kind of missed the old score, even though I suppose this new, more sci-fi feeling one worked well with the glossy new feel of the whole thing. I would have liked just a few bursts of the original overture, though, in some of the more triumphant moments of the story, just to remind us this is the same old heroic crew we're dealing with here.
KATEY: I'm really confused on the operating structure of the Federation. Are Romulans part of it? Are Klingons? All those politician-type guys conspiring back on earth really just confused me, though I don't think it really matters in the end.
JOSH: I'm a Trekkie and even I'm sort of confused by the Romulan's involvement in this movie. It really doesn't make a lot of sense in a broader Trek concept. They definitely aren't part of the Federation. The Romulans are a separate government, generally enemies of Starfleet. I have no idea why they're involved in this movie as allies. The Klingons too are not part of the Federation. They're a separate, enemy government. Think of the Federation as the United States. It's one government of which many different planets and races are a part. The Klingons are Russia and I guess the Romulans can be China.
KATEY: "There's an old Vulcan proverb... only Nixon could go to China." That is ridiculous. Why would Vulcans have a proverb about something that happened on Earth?
JOSH: I believe that was Spock trying out a joke. You die and come back to life, you sort of have to develop a sense of humor, don't you?
KATEY: Wouldn't it have been cooler if McCoy had come back from the gulag with the wrong Kirk in tow? Maybe I just missed Iman once she was gone, but I thought that would have been a cool plot point.
JOSH: Except it would have meant the real Kirk was dead, making it pretty hard for them all to sail off into the sunset at the end.
KATEY: Seriously, why wouldn't Uhura speak Klingon?
JOSH: She really should. I get why Meyer did it, because it's funny, but it's really not consistent with her character. I choose not to think about it, but if I were to do so, I guess I could compare it to the way so few CIA operatives spoke Arabic before 9/11.
KATEY: I made it! I made it! Time to run away screaming from Josh and resume my regular hatred of sci-fi and making fun of anyone who understands what a phaser is. See ya, geeks!
Just kidding. I've obviously had a blast doing this marathon, learning about things like pon farr and impulse power, picking a favorite between Spock and Kirk (conclusion: Kirk), and figuring out, bit by bit, how a franchise built on a cheesy 60s TV show can hold such lingering cultural power. I still wouldn't call myself a Trekkie-- I don't seem to have that geek DNA that inspires people to read the comic books and attend the conventions and debate hypothetical match-ups between Captains Kirk and Picard. Then again, I recently caught myself comparing someone I know to Spock, so maybe I've got it in me after all.
I'm not planning to check out any of the subsequent Trek series or movies, and love Kirk though I might, I'm not tuning in to Boston Legal any time soon. But I will definitely, definitely be rewatching Khan and Voyage Home, and because I bought it off iTunes when caught by a Netflix snafu, I might even revisit Search for Spock (at least the jailbreak sequence). And after I catch the new Star Trek this week, I'm sure I'll find myself missing Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, Sulu, Bones, Spock and Kirk, stuck for the first time in weeks without a new adventure to join in on... at the center of a dead planet... buried alive! Buried alive!
JOSH: So you're saying you don't want to borrow my Star Trek comic book collection? Then why the hell did I drag this big box in from my car? If JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot gets a sequel, we're so introducing you to Picard. And you really should learn about tribbles. For now, back to the real world where my car won't move at warp speed even if I duct tape nacelles to it, and where the Vulcan neck pinch is worse than useless in a street fight (I've tried).
What do you think of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country?
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