Friday 21 August 2009

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
-Ronald Reagan

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is Star Trek wonderfulness at its most wonderful: bursting at the seams with cheeky literary references and commentary on present day socio-politics, the playfulness with which it weaves the meta into its narrative is just plain delightful. We spent a lot of Undiscovered Country just smiling and shaking our heads, going, "Oh, you guys! Stop making me love you so much!"

KLINGON CHANCELLOR Gorbachev GORKON: You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

Oh... you guys!!

And this kind of breezy, clever Star Trek makes us realize just how cautious most science fiction is. Of course, all us sci-fi folk want to make intelligent commentary and use impressive references, but most of us - with the exception of this and Y: The Last Man - come across sounding precious, or worse, stodgy. Robert A. Heinlein's thinly-veiled moral pontificating in Stranger in a Strange Land? Alfred Bester's clumsy good ol' boy pulp noir plotlines? Spare me! (Well, actually, we jest - we love those books.) It's very hard to be smart and funny in sci-fi - Frank Herbert was a genius but pretty darn humorless, we always found funny-man Douglas Adams not so intellectually stimulating, Rudy Rucker can be both hilarious and mind-blowingly smart, but he also gets a little silly too - but Star Trek is just that. It makes us laugh, and it makes us gasp with, "Oh no, they did not just allude to Adlai Stevenson and the Cuban Missile Crisis?!"

Kirk and McCoy, on trial. Don't wait for the translation, people!!

The final film which features the cast of the original series, Star Trek VI is both a meta-commentary on their own careers, as well as the waning days of the Cold War (when the film was made). Exploiting (rather than pretending to ignore) the age and weariness of these actors, the story follows the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in their last days before retirement. The expected peaceful conclusion is severely thwarted by a shift in intergalactic politics: the "cold war" between the Klingonskis and the Federation of Planets is thawing, and it's time to, ahem, tear down the wall (in space). (Hey, everything's better in space!) Yet old warriors die hard, and Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is a hardline, anti-Klingon hawk. His inability to see past his prejudices is given a neat narrative drive, since Kirk's son, David (Merritt Butrick), was killed by Klingons in one of the earlier films in the series. The realism and sympathy of Kirk's plight as a man whose generation is also quickly outgrowing its use in a changing world was just great - and oddly touching!

KIRK: Captain's log, stardate 9522.6: I've never trusted Klingons, and I never will. I could 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?

And the screenplay?! Brilliant*!

GORKON: You don't trust me, do you? I don't blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.

Now - because this movie is great - Kirk is given the task of extending the olive branch towards the Klingons. In one of the best scenes, he invites the Klingon ambassador, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner... recycled from Star Trek V, but in a different role! Very bizarre) and his generals over for dinner, and the table discussion is just packed to the brim with tense Shakespearean banter, commentary on ethnocentrism and other brainy thrills.

CHEKOV: Of course we believe that every planet has a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.
KLINGON LADY: "Inalienable"? If you could only hear yourselves. "Human rights." Even the name is racist.

Everyone gets properly boozed up on the semi-illegal Romulan Ale, and the Klingons and Enterprisers retire to their respective ships, tired and grumpy and conclusively dubbing the evening a failure. But the onsetting hangovers are quickly interrupted when - to everyone's shock! - the Enterprise fires on the Klingon vessel, hence ruining the whole olive branch point. While Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) scramble to figure out who ordered the missiles, we see two mysterious, masked figures enter the Klingon ship and assassinate the Klingon ambassador. Kirk and our beloved Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) hustle over to try to save the ambassador, but poor ol' McCoy just bumbles around: "I don't even know his anatomy!" This is, after all, the first time he's saving a Klingon rather than, uh, shooting one. And, alas, the ambassador dies. This gives the more hawk-ish Klingon, General Chang (Christopher Plummer... of all people), the perfect excuse to cry foul play, and soon Kirk and McCoy find themselves on trial for murder. And then the film just starts tumbling out with the wildest Cold War references: General Chang as Adlai Stevenson ("Don't wait for the translation!"), Dr. Zhivago meets Ivan Denisovich gulag stuff, and was that "We have no fences!" stuff from Papillon?

Captain Von Trapp?! You?! Here?!

Overall, it's zippy and perfectly done. The storytelling is ace, with just the right balance of humor and pathos, self-satire and earnestness. And the details - finally seeing the Enterprise kitchens (well, we were interested), McCoy cheering Kirk on during a gulag prison, fight, and the later Kirk-Kirk duel - are just icing on a great cake. Oh, why did this ever have to end?!!

* Especially brilliant are the scenes they chose to cut, alas! You can read the full screenplay online, and it has some great, even more cheeky lines, such as:
A KLINGON AT DINNER: In any case, we know where this is leading: the annihilation of our culture. Klingons will replace those on the lowest rung of the Federation employment ladder, taking menial jobs and performing them for lower pay...

CHEKOV: That's economics, not racism -

UHURA: But you have to admit it adds up to the same thing.

BONES: Don't be naive, Commander -!

UHURA: Who you calling naive -?

1 comment:

Heqit said...

If you want excellent, thought-provoking sci-fi that can also be very, very funny, I highly recommend Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books (if you haven't read them already). HIGHLY. Only problem is, once started they're difficult to put down again.