6.13.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 30: The Undiscovered Country


Nick Meyer's original choice of title for Star Trek II was The Undiscovered Country. Given that film's themes of friendship, age, and death, the reference to Hamlet makes perfect sense. As Hamlet questions whether or not life is worthwhile given its hardships, coming to the conclusion that people endure only out of a fear of death, (that undiscovered country whence no traveler has ever returned * ) its parallels to Captain Kirk's character arc are perfectly clear.

* Well, except Spock.
 
I can understand the studio's insisting it be changed: The Wrath of Khan has more immediate impact. Meyer acquiesced, but unhappily, so when he was approached by Nimoy to do a story about "the Berlin Wall coming down in space," he said Sounds great; I have the perfect title.

Except that's the first (though not the foremost) problem with TUC; the title makes only the vaguest sense when transposed on the story we actually get. Suddenly, Hamlet's soliloquy is interpreted as "the uncertain future?" i.e. the future of Klingons and the Federation / Trek itself is "the undiscovered country?" I mean, first of all, it was actually fairly well-discovered territory in 1991; we were all watching it every Saturday or Sunday on The Next Generation. I know Kirk and the gang don't know that in the timeline of the movie, but it still repeats the mistake of STV: The Final Frontier, i.e. only by the loosest stretch of the definition did the story involve an actual "final frontier." (It made sense for the original script but not so much for the film it ended up as.) Part VI could just as well be called Star Trek: It's Like About 1991 America and Stuff.

This title mismatch is emblematic of all that is wrong with TUC: this is a movie that overflows with incongruent details not fatal in and of themselves, but a nick here and a nick there and pretty soon you're bleeding to death. Or, as the Klingons put it before they switched to all-Shakespeare, a thousand throats can be cut by one running man.

For years I've been hearing from people who love this movie and have no time for any of the following. To each his or her own, of course, but keeping this sum-is-greater-than-its-parts/ cumulative-effect in mind, let's look at just a few of the many changed premises Meyer and co. bring to the table.

Since when do phasers leave exit wounds? Cool effect, bro and everything, but it is at odds with everything we've ever seen. While I'm here, is it at all believable this Klingon crew could be so confused and helpless in a failure-of-gravity situation? They act not only like this has never happened before but like they've never even considered it happening before.
 
 
 
Text by Michael Okuda. (His text-commentaries on the Trek films/ some episodes are always entertaining)
The entire sequence from the fake photon blast through the Daft Punk robots (thanks to Jeff B, for that) through McCoy's conveniently-botched examination through the trial (where people use 1940s-style transistor-translators and Chang channels Adlai Stevenson, for some reason) just rings false.
Then again, speaking only in other people's catchphrases seems to be all that Chang does. He's the Klingon equivalent of the alien from Explorers, apparently.
The Klingons were of course meant to represent the crumbling Soviet Empire, but the metaphor wags the tail a bit too much to be at all believable. TUC seems more dated than TOS, in so many ways.
The Federation comes across even less convincingly. I'll get to the film's biggest problem (i.e. our heroes and Starfleet are both inexplicably and incredibly racist) more in a little bit, but beyond that:

Apparently, it was meant for the Federation President to be blind, (which actually is a wink-wink detail I enjoy) hence this scene where he pointedly puts on his purple-tinted shades. They probably should have mentioned that in the dialogue itself. Or, better yet, cut it out altogether.
Or have him not be obviously sighted in every other scene. (Incidentally, this whole break to the Federation's p.o.v. is such a tonal break in the film)
Also, are we really to believe that Starfleet conducts its business in a 18th century French drawing room?
Or uses 1960s classroom fold-over maps to pitch a military operation? ("Operation: Retrieve," no less.)
I don’t want to make Nick Meyer the bad guy here. Really, he did everyone a favor by coming on board and steering the production to something resembling a credible destination. As Nimoy said of The Final Frontier, "(Bill) was just riding a bad script." So, too, was Nick, here, except he was riding five or six bad scripts all at once, cobbled together with little sense. (That story's too involved to reproduce here, but suffice it to say, script negotiations started in good faith and ended in chaos and arbitration. Nimoy, Meyer, and Shatner all discuss it at great length in their respective memoirs.)

But it's difficult not to see Nick Meyer as the "running man" from the Klingon proverb above in his determination to turn the film into a relentless hodge-podge of anachronistic cultural allusions completely at odds with all previously-established Trekverse rules. Whereas his Hornblower allusions were kept in check in TWOK, here he gives them not just free reign (At one point, Kirk tells the helm "Right Full Rudder." Are you serious?) but diplomatic immunity.

Not to mention his penchant for all-things-Holmes. I like Holmes (and Hornblower) as much as the next guy, and for the record, I'm fine with Spock mentioning an ancestor of his originated the famous Sherlock Holmes quote "If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." (Meyer maintains it was meant to indicate Spock's relation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through his mother. Fine, whatever.) But I can think of few scenarios less applicable to that quote than the "mystery" sequence in the middle of the film, which is at odds with everything we ever learned about a starship, or tricorders or internal sensors for that matter, and where characters enter and exit like dinner theater, and bad dinner theater at that:

 
 
 
 
By the by, Meyer and JJ Abrams' Dad are friends, and Meyer gave a young JJ an annotated copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes at JJ's bar mitzvah.
I am fine with adding a galley and laundromat to the Enterprise; maybe they went retro at the last refit. I'm fine with adding some new Starfleet rule regarding the discharge of a phaser aboard a starship; it makes no sense/ is contradicted in dozens of previous episodes and movies, but hey, bureaucrats. I'm fine with a one-time "we've got to turn out every locker and mattress as if we were on a submarine" sequence; it makes no sense to go about things this way but hey, okay. (Likewise, I'm fine with the old "Uhh, listen up, everyone, would the killers, like, report to Sick Bay?" trick.) I'm fine with Chekov being made to look like a buffoon just to have a "if the shoe fits..." joke; maybe he's having a mental health day.

Ditto for Scotty, who once again is played mainly for comic relief.
But put all these things together? No. That's several bridges too far. That's an archipelago of bad and lazy writing.

Incidentally, despite the way it's pronounced, the word "inalienable" means in-a-lien-able. Which makes the whole business of "if you could only hear how bigoted you sound," not to mention some of the discussion around the topic, somewhat confused. It might have worked as a moment of translation/ communication difficulty had I gotten the impression the screenwriters understood the word's actual meaning.
And ditto for this "Let's pull out old 19th-century-looking Klingon translation dictionaries" sequence.  Nichelle Nichols objected to this scene, stating (quite correctly) that Uhura would have at least a passing familiarity with Klingon, but Meyer (rather bluntly, according to Nichols) overruled her. (Chekov can he heard saying something about how a universal translator would be recognized, but the whole thing rests on the strange premise that these ships cannot scan one another. Before we even get to the wtf-ness of this "quick! Pretend we're Klingons!" sentry-password stuff, there's that.)

Nichelle Nichols does a good job with the humor of this scene, but the idea of making all of the senior officers look like grandparents trying to "figure out this Tumblr thing" is at best a bad idea and at worst needlessly - and illogically - cutesy.
Maybe spell-check your character names, too? It's Uhura, not Uhuru. Then again, Kirk got it wrong a few times in TOS, as well:
"What's happening to Lieutenant Yoo-hoo-roo!?"
I'm usually pretty forgiving of this we're-really-commenting-on-ourselves aspect of Trek. As a rule, I shrug off a lot of stuff; if we could perfectly detail life in the twenty-third century and beyond, we'd be living in the twenty-third century and beyond. I get it - everything we write is, ultimately, the eye describing only itself. No problem. But The Undiscovered Country is a good exception to this rule: I'm perfectly happy to be forgiving of these things if the story in question doesn't hold the metaphor in such contempt. This couldn't be anything else but 20th (and in some cases, 18th and 19th) century baby boomers winking at themselves and masquerading as Trek. (If I had the time, I'd do a video mash-up of TUC to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" to really drive this point home.)

The "Only Nixon could go to China" line would actually be pretty good if everything else in the movie wasn't there. I like that Spock is trying to make a joke - and a pretty good one. Unfortunately, it's so tonally at odds with the scene that surrounds it (and everything else that happens) that it falls flat.
There are many more examples; to list them all would be overkill. Any one of them can be explained away with a little thought, but the cumulative effect is insurmountable for me. There's a difference between nitpicking and accounting, for Crissakes. One last one: the final starship battle rests on "this ship has got to have a tailpipe," a strange reference for someone of Uhura's era to make, and modifying an actual torpedo, not a photon torpedo, as it is called again and again. It might as well be a "magic cannonball."

Granted, this torpedo business is confused in many iterations of Trek, not just TUC.
Let's turn our attention to the bigotry and false-flag-ness of the whole Starfleet plot. Suddenly, Starfleet is racist and ignorant, displaying an understanding of the Klingons out of the 1930s.

Shatner (quite rightly) considered his "let them die" comment to be very un-Kirk-like. Meyer insisted. As a compromise, he did the scene in one take and added a dismissive wave after his comment which was subsequently edited out of the final movie despite Meyer's promise to leave it in. Considering Shatner only said the line contingent on the gesture/ shrug to explain it, this is pretty inconsiderate on Meyer's part.
Nichelle Nichols flat-out refused to say the racist lines attributed to Uhura (the lines were redistributed to the two jock-bigot transporter room folks we see after the Klingons beam in.) Koenig tried the same, but he finally relented, delivering the somewhat-humorous-if-odd-for-Chekov-to-reference "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" line.
Brock Peters' scene in the council chamber had to be shot in numerous takes, as he was very uncomfortable with the racial undertones in his lines that the Federation take the opportunity to "bring them to their knees" which was itself a reference to another film in which that line was said about African Americans. (i.e. The Birth of a Nation.)

The whole idea of turning Brock Peters and top Starfleet brass into bigots and false-flag-operatives is yet another shortcut-to-plotting/ lazy writing, to begin with. Compare how this comes across vs. the considerably better-handled false flags/ crew-stands-up-to-conspiracies of Into Darkness or Insurrection.
Would Starfleet seek to exploit another culture's tragedy and conspire to commit murder and blame it on others to further its own military ends and use racism/ xenophobia as cover for it? Not the Starfleet I know, but these are certainly questions worth considering and I'm glad Trek is asking them. They would be much more relevant, though, if the script didn't undermine and contradict itself (and all previous Trek) as it poses them. When Gorkon's daughter tells Kirk "You've restored my father's faith," and Kirk answers with "You've restored my son's," it's especially grating, given the backflips Kirk's characterization had to do to get to this "breakthrough" moment. Granted, these Klingon bastards killed his son, and granted Kirk's principles are somewhat "flexible" in TOS. But still:

“All things being equal, but things are not equal.”

Not just the actual conspiracy plot, but Worf's grandfather's speech in the Klingon kangaroo court in particular.
Meyer, to his credit, regrets having Spock torture Valeris to get the info, nowadays. One can argue that it's logical for Spock to do so, and I can see that, somewhat. But given the abundance of mixed messages surrounding it, it seems as odd a bit of characterization as everything else in the film.
 

It's supposed to end on a hopeful note, but the whole thing is a war of attrition to get there.

All of these problems notwithstanding, TUC remains a curiously well-regarded Trek film. There are certainly things I like about it, but they're so minor and few and far between:

 
The 2nd unit stuff sounds like it was especially difficult to film, but the visuals are undoubtedly cool.
Sulu is handled well.
His long overdue Captaincy of the Excelsior is good to see, as well as his unhesitant going off-grid when he realizes something rotten is going on.
Valeris is more or less fine. I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense for her to be in on the conspiracy; maybe if they'd intended her to be the fall guy? (Fall girl, I guess.) It's better than the original idea of having Saavik turn traitor. (They only changed Saavik to Valeris when Kim Cattrall balked at being the third actress to play the role; sadly, Robin Curtis wasn't even asked.)
The scenes in the prison camp are all kind of fun.
Although this "Kissing yourself must have been your lifelong ambition" thing makes little sense as a line spoken between Kirk and the shapeshifter. Like the Nixon and China thing, had the rest of the script not existed, it'd be fine, but taken as part of the tsunami of wink-wink and anachronistic lines and moments, just... ugh. To paraphrase Joss Whedon re: Waterworld, "The problem with the third act is the first two acts."
 
 
Is this the stuff of David Bowie's nightmares? Or perhaps his fondest dreams?
I've detailed here and there how Roddenberry's declining health and presence of mind dovetailed with the last few Trek films and the beginning of TNG. After a particularly intense stroke, he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to say much beyond yes or no. Susan Sackett relays in her memoir how he was wheeled into a screening of this film. While the assembled suits (for whom the screening had primarily been arranged) talked to themselves about how great everything looked, Roddenberry, limited in speech but having one of his more lucid days, could only whisper "No... no... no..." over and over again.

I'm sorry, but a) that is so incredibly sad, and b) could this possibly bring Captain Pike from "The Menagerie" to mind any more?

 
Once he recovered his energy and vocabulary, Gene instructed his lawyer to do everything possible to shut the movie down, as it had taken the "Starfleet is military" trope to new and dangerously offensive heights. He died shortly after, and the lawsuit fizzled out. TUC raked in just under $75 million at the box office, and the original cast never appeared together again on the silver screen.


Given how they are handled here, that is probably a good thing. I personally prefer to think of The Voyage Home as the original cast's collective swan song. I've never read a satisfactory explanation as to why Meyer went about things the way he did with this movie; he seems to shrug off all criticism of it in his memoir (though less so in interviews on YouTube.)

For me, and with apologies to those who champion it, it's the first thing I think of whenever I hear or read people say "(fill in the blank) doesn't get Star Trek." Take the worst episodes of every Trek series, and they all seem more Trek-like than what we get here. It's hardly the worst thing in the world, but it's definitely my least favorite of the bigscreen Treks.

13 comments:

  1. The Federation president is a source of amusement and distraction for me. First, let me say that Kurtwood Smith, whose greatest role was that of Red Forman, in my estimation, is a great actor. The trouble is, he's made to look like a cross between Bill Bartlett of Ram Jam, Ziggy Stardust, and Elric of Melnibone, and could be a bad guy in one of those "Devil May Cry"-type games. The drawing room office hammers home the Glam Rock look of the guy even more, like we should expect him to tear off a Keith-Emerson-sounding synth solo on his hidden desk keyboard.

    Holy shit, I just realized I would have enjoyed the hell out of THAT movie...

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    1. That is pretty good stuff, right there.

      Kurtwood Smith plays Clarence Boddicker in Robocop, possibly my favorite screen villain of all time. Or up there.

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  2. Seriously, though, you point out a lot of failings for this movie, some of which I never thought about much.

    There is so much about this movie I don't quite grok, in the sense of why many of these very specific things were done. Like you, it's a bunch of little things: the oversized translators in the Klingon trial, the apparent lack of Zero-G training in the Klingon military, a Klingon obsessing on Shakespeare...

    And, perhaps most important to me, there is the continuing need of the filmmakers to neuter the Enterprise. In every movie from Wrath of Khan on, it has been battered, destroyed, forgotten, and then, in this movie, voluntarily surrendered by its captain. It's like they don't know what to do with it, really. That lack of making the Enterprise an effective character in the films in general aggravates me. Could none of the production team figure out a way to write the Enterprise a few action scenes that didn't involve it ending up relatively impotent? I mean, James Bond usually ends up trashing whatever new vehicle he's given, but it also usually does something really cool before it ends up as scrap. The Enterprise doesn't even get that bit of glory.

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  3. You know, like Jeff, there are several things about the movie that I didn't quite grok but never really focused on like you did here, Bryan. *Ouch* I guess I've always enjoyed the movie because I do like the idea...but I see now how it could have been SOo much better. Damn, I'll never truly look at the movie the same anymore. :-(

    -Brad

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  4. No mention of Kirk surrendering the Enterprise? That scene caused everyone in the theatre to gasp. Even "Uhuru" was shocked. I always thought that was Berman-driven. Picard surrendered the Enterprise 15 minutes into the pilot episode of TNG and fans hadn't forgiven him. He was always seen as wimpy because of it. So Kirk surrenders and therefore takes spome of the heat off Jean-Luc. Don't know if that's how it went down but there it is.

    Also, Kirk's line about never trusting Klingons, spoken in his quarters for his personal log, is later used against him at his trial. He should have objected. The playback is different from what he actually said. Watch it again.

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    1. I'm not sure Berman had much if anything to do with the picture, but what you propose is certainly plausible. I wish that guy (and Harve Bennett) would hurry up with their memoirs, but I imagine they're being saved for Trek's upcoming 50th anniversary. (If indeed they still plan to be published at all.)

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  5. I remember seeing this film in the theater, knowing it was probably the last for the original cast. I really enjoyed it and still do.

    Many of the things you pointed out I just glossed over. Many of the small things didn't bother me.

    What did bother me was the overdose of "cuteness" in the characters. It worked well in The Voyage Home because it was well written. But the quips about the "tailpipe" and McCoy saying, "fascinating!" when Spock asked him to help perform surgery on a photon torpedo really grated on my ears.

    I grew up when the Cold War was not a series of events or history. It was zeitgeist. The Cold War defined our major political parties, our presidents, our economy, and our culture. It's end staggered my imagination. I admire the writers and director for trying to capture the excitement, uncertainty, and guarded optimism of that time.

    Are the film and its many Cold War references anachronistic? Sure. But no more so than THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL made 40 years earlier to capture the tension of the beginning of the Cold War.

    As I stated, I could have used a little less comedy, or at least better comedy. Otherwise, I loved this film and given all the social and political commentary and subtext in Star Trek TOS, I thought it was a worthy capstone to the series.

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  6. The Day The Earth Stood Still comparison is interesting. I think I'll take TDTESS over TUC just the same, but I can see what you're saying, there.

    It's not the Cold War references, though, I take issue with, just the clumsy manner they're presented. It was a perfectly reasonable reaction to a zeitgeist moment, just not the execution I would have preferred, I guess. It's too much 1991, not enough 2293 for me. (Or 1948.)

    As you say, tho, this is hardly alone in the Trek canon, on either account.

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  7. I agree with you, comparing the two. Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country was an entertaining movie that used the Cold War to make a Star Trek movie. Was it good? Yes. Was it entertaining? Yes. Was it important? No. And therein lies the difference between Stark Trek VI and The Day the Earth Stood Still. That movie was important and more accurately captured the zeitgeist of the early days of the Cold War better than Star Trek did.

    Having said that, It would have been worse had the writers taken Star Trek too seriously. When the show took itself too seriously, as it did in the first movie and in a few episodes, it looked silly.

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    1. I don't know if I'd agree that the first movie is either silly or takes itself too seriously. Compared to STVI, it's Citizen Kane.

      But I'll agree in general that Trek works best when it is playful without sacrificing the characters on the altar of cutesy.

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  8. I was at the height of my Trekkiedom when this movie came out, and I loved it, and continued to love it for years afterward. Which really goes to show me how ill-formed some of my opinions were, because I don't think this is a particularly good movie at all.

    Entertaining? Sure. Well made? Yeah, relatively. But in many ways it is offensive, and that poignant-as-hell image of Roddenberry-turned-Pike whispering "no" over and over certainly indicates that he was one of the people offended by it. I never was, until I rewatched all of the non-"Enterprise" series and all of the movies in 2008-2009. When I got to this particular movie, I watched it with my jaw agape at how poorly it held up compared to my memory of it.

    The idea that enough members of Starfleet would support a plan to more or less annihilate the Klingon race to enact a shadow conspiracy intended to do so is just plain wrong. It goes against so much that "Star Trek" stands for. The similar conspiracies in "Insurrection" and "Into Darkness" at least have mitigating factors which make those plotlines palatable.

    In "The Undiscovered Country," even our supposed heroes are raging racists. (Not Spock; happily, they didn't go THAT far.) I cannot accept that, especially since there are precisely zero hints of it in the previous two films in the series. It's bad, galling stuff, and for that reason, this is my least favorite of the Trek movies. In an objective sense, it's far from being the worst; but in terms of which one I'd least like to sit down and actually watch, it's scraping the bottom of the barrel, and is likely to stay there for quite some time to come.

    Great review! I'd never considered how ill-fitting the title was.

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  9. Thanks! Yeah, I just do not understand how or why the decisions that were made were made on STVI. It's such lazy writing. (And five minutes, literally, do not go by without some wtf needless-continuity error.)

    Like you say, objectively, it's not the worst (STV is probably that) but this is a sum-greater-than-its-parts situation. Any film that does to its flagship characters and continuity what STVI does is a greater turkey, regardless of anything else.

    Gene might have gotten over-defensive or perhaps too stringent/ limiting re: Trek at times, but this is a I-agree-with-you-1000% situation, for me. It's sad.

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