In looking back at Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country late last year, director Nicholas Meyer said in an interview that his one regret on the project was that he was kind of naive at the time. The end of the Cold War, which served as a thematic basis for the story, was not the end of history as they had though. Indeed life 25 years after the end of the Cold War might be even more dangerous, and ever more unpredictable than the 45 year stand-off between super powers. Despite Meyer’s personal feelings though, it’s hard to argue that The Undiscovered Country isn’t as prescient today as it was a quarter of a century ago.
It’s hard to think of a Star Trek movie more born of its time. Perestroika was sweeping Europe even as Star Trek V was in theatres in the summer of 1989, the Berlin Wall was down by the time it was available on home video. As producers began to look to the next Star Trek movie, they flirted with a prequel, but cooler heads, including Leonard Nimoy’s, made them realize the timely end of the Cold War in space, the one between the Federation and the Klingons, was a fitting way to mark Trek’s 25th birthday, and send off the original series crew.
Perhaps because of the time crunch, or just because of the time, the production of The Undiscovered Country is unlike any other Trek film. The look and sound of the film, although within the Star Trek mould, is starkly different from Star Trek V, and what was going on at the time on TV with Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Undiscovered Country is colder, more militaristic, more pessimistic; the score by Cliff Eidelman, which opens the film without a hint of the original Alexander Courage theme, is more Wagnerian than the comparatively jaunty work of Jerry Goldsmith.
Early on, after the opening credits there’s another definite change you notice, at a meeting of Starfleet Command where its announced to the top brass, and the crew of the Enterprise, that due to an ecological disaster the Klingons are willing to embrace peace over facing extinction, the reaction is shocking. In the face of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future free of racism, ignorance and prejudice, there’s a frightening amount of all that in The Undiscovered Country. It’s purposeful, of course, and actors like Nichelle Nichols and the late Brock Peters came out years later to note their understandable discomfort with some of the dialogue.
Among the more egregious examples is a line by Brock’s Admiral Cartwright, who vehemently sides against peace with the Klingons. “To offer the Klingons a safe haven within Federation space is suicide,” he said. “Klingons would become the alien trash of the galaxy. And if we dismantle the fleet, we’d be defenceless before an aggressive species with a foothold on our territory. The opportunity here is to bring them to their knees. Then we’ll be in a far better position to dictate terms.” The line reading is still striking because yes, it’s in the context of the Klingons’ character, and you can hear echoes of Cold War fear of communism, but there’s still something about this that still strikes a chord today.
Let’s consider some other quotes of the non-Star Trek variety. “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you that just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem,” according to Donald Trump Jr. “If there’s a rabid dog running around your neighbourhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog,” added incoming Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. “We have no idea who these people are, we are the worst when it comes to paperwork. This could be one of the great Trojan horses,” said the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
Hearing Cartwright talk about “alien trash” and being “defenseless before an aggressive” people and how offering them “safe haven” would be “suicide,” it’s hard not to hear a lot of the “criticism” about opening borders to some of the millions of Syrian refugees. Peace is always unthinkable to those unwilling to concede that it’s possible, and while Star Trek is always about progress and moving forward, the sad fact of human history so far is that no matter how far we’ve come, there’s always another prejudice to overcome.
Many, including Roddenberry himself, bristled at that sentiment in Star Trek VI: how can these enlightened people fall backwards so hard? On the other hand, haven’t we fallen backwards since the election of Trump? The two terms of Barack Obama were marked by incredible social progress for women, people of colour, and people who identify as queer, but many of the people from those groups are now looking at four years of concern and unpredictability about their rights and the rights of their neighbours. Marriage equality, Roe V. Wade, the Voting Rights Act, it seems as if there’s nothing that’s not off the table…
The lesson of Star Trek VI is that prejudice can be overcome. Kirk, although he starts the film as a hardliner, comes to see in the more interventionist mode of a conspiracy to kill the heads of the Klingon Empire and the Federation a dark mirror for his own misconceptions, and decides to change. In his own piece on Star Trek VI, Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich hailed the film for its dramatic departure from Trek norms in the first half only to fall back into form in the second. He’s right about the movie’s limited ambition, but he misses the point. As has already been observed recently, progress isn’t a straight line.
Good science fiction serves as a mirror for its time; great science fiction can serve as a mirror for any time. Star Trek is generally good, but as time goes on, it’s hard not to appreciate The Undiscovered Country in new and different ways. At its core, the movie’s about how we deal with change, do we seize an opportunity when it comes around or do we vehemently reject it? Do we stoop to indulge our baser instincts and react violently, or do we rise to the occasion and try to inspire anew? The fate of the next undiscovered country, which begins in just a few weeks time, will depend on the path we choose now.
Trek Bastard is a bi-weekly column that looks at the issues, history and art of Star Trek over its first 50 years. Trek Bastard will be back on January 22.