We come now to what I consider the finest of the Trek movies. But to understand that, I need to rewind to 1991. I’m 19 and at this point in our lives, my friends and I start every weekend with a movie, then dinner, then hanging out until ridiculous o’clock. But for this movie, my best “frenemy” and I had had a falling out and I neither invited him to see the movie with the rest of us, nor did I tell him the time or place of the movie. So it made complete sense in my warped world to find him holding the door open at the theater as we arrived. I said nothing to him and we watched the movie…
Star Trek VI shows that life has progressed for the crew. Sulu and company are exploring gaseous anomalies on the Excelsior when the Klingon moon Praxis detonates, effectively limiting their survivability as a race. Spock steps in to negotiate a peace treaty. David Warner, in his second Trek outing in a row, plays Chancellor Gorkon and the late Christopher Plummer plays Chang; two giants in the movie industry playing very memorable roles! When Gorkon is murdered, Kirk and crew are framed. Kirk is put on trial and sentenced to life on the penal colony of Rura Penthe (where hard labor is pointing a laser at rocks). The beautiful Iman helps Kirk escape the prison and a piece of convenient Velcro helps Spock rescue Kirk and McCoy before they save the day. Woohoo!
The movie is exciting from start to finish. Oh sure the “Shakespeare was originally written in Klingon” thing is a bit silly, but the notion that permeates the movie is “to be or not to be”, and it is on the forefront of everyone’s minds. There’s also a sense of closure to a very old, and perhaps overlooked element of the series. Kirk is a bigot. Oh, make no mistake, Kirk is my captain. He’s the Starship captain I grew up with and I love classic Trek because of the chemistry between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. But Kirk has been prejudiced against Klingons from the start; if you doubt us, go back and look at our writeups for every time a Klingon has encountered Kirk. This movie shows that in no uncertain terms: “Let them die”, he says to Spock. Later, Kirk says “We need breathing room,” acknowledging that he’s quoting “Earth, Hitler, 1938”. But Kirk isn’t alone. Chekov isn’t happy about having Klingons as guests, quoting the title of a famous 1967 move staring Sidney Poitier as a black doctor getting engaged to a white woman, when he says, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” These people are biased! Other members of the crew comment on the smell of the Klingons and pass derogatory comments that only the top brass can speak. Other members of Starfleet feel the same, but they are not the heroes. We expect better from our heroes. Kirk could be forgiven for his bias had it started with the death of his son (“I could never forgive them for the death of my boy,”) had he not been displaying that very same prejudice since the start of the series. Which is partly what makes this such as strong movie. Kirk is going to learn the error of his ways, and maybe for the first time in the series, he gets the chance to truly change.
Oh, he still makes some mistakes when he tells Spock that “Everyone’s human” completely missing the fact that they don’t have to be human to earn respect. The whole “inalienable human rights” thing reminds me so much of “my fellow Americans” which is by design a way to segregate “us” from “them” and the fact is, it’s not human rights the Klingons are looking for and they are aliens to us, but these things should not stop us from accepting them as people. So the ending, where Kirk and company realize to what lengths some people will go just to (I can’t say “dehumanize”, can I?) disrespect another race is the wake up call he needs. “I was used to hating Klingons.” “I was afraid of the future.” “People can be very frightened of change!” All valid statements and the start of what is needed to get the crew on the path to The Next Generation. (Worf’s grandfather being present is just a nod to the future as well; wonderful to have Michael Dorn playing his own character’s grandfather!)
There’s some very memorable comedy in this movie too. I especially like Spock’s old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon can go to China!” A Klingon not crying at her fathers funeral can be explained simply: they have no tear ducts! (This again illustrates how after all their travels, even Scotty is subject to casual racism, not knowing basic facts about some of the races they encounter!) After Kirk kisses Iman, McCoy rolls over and says “What is it with you, anyway?” And there’s a bit of meta-humor when Kirk encounters himself after Iman shape-changes to look like Kirk. The realization that he kissed himself gets this comment: “must have been a lifelong ambition!” I also had to laugh when Colonel West uses paper flip charts during his display. As for blunders, yeah, there are some. How did Kim Cattrall’s Valeris knows that Kirk said “let them die” when those words were spoken between Kirk and Spock while on Earth? And it seems the Enterprise was also cataloguing gaseous anomalies for them to have that utterly awesome ending. (“Fire!”)
And it would be unfair not to acknowledge Spock who blatantly shows emotion when he mind melds with Valeris. This is not the gentle probing he has performed but an angry ripping of thoughts from his colleague’s mind. He’s angry because she was “the first Vulcan to graduate at the top of her class” (although I wondered about this because Vulcans are supposed to be pretty sharp! So much so that Spock says Sherlock Holmes was an ancestor of his…) and he saw potential in her. His disappointment weighs heavily on him but it’s the realization that packs the hardest punch: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end!” Spock, too, has grown.
The movie ends with some great quotes before Kirk sends the ship on to its next mission. “Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning”. We get a lovely image of Roddenberry’s “space western” wrapping up as the heroes ride off into the sunset and the quote is changed for the future, to boldly go where no one has gone before”.
The energy that was coursing through a movie theater full of Trekkies was palpable. The messages and the friendships of the crew are as strong as ever. The “private little war” between my best friend and I dissipated as if it never existed. Trek did what Trek always did: it offered hope and friendship and it inspired us. The original teaser referred to the crew of the Enterprise as “our guides, our protectors, and our friends.” They were indeed that and they reminded us of important things throughout their travels. My “crew” from back in those days have gone on to other Excelsiors but when we hail one another, it’s as if no time has elapsed. As for my Spock, we may not speak daily, but that friendship has never waned again.
Yes, Star Trek VI wasn’t just a great movie; it healed a friendship. I’d even say it strengthened it! May Star Trek always live long and prosper! ML
The view from across the pond:
Making peace with the Klingons seems a very good place to conclude the original run of Star Trek, and addresses some issues that really did need looking at. The original version of the Klingons were far from being Star Trek’s finest moment, basically blackface villains with only Fu Manchu moustaches to make them a slightly more generic other. Depending on how charitable you want to be, it either demonised people with dark skin, or at the very least played on traditional fears of a non-white threat. It was all utterly revolting, and added to that this has been a series that has been frequently casually racist, particularly with McCoy’s treatment of Spock as fair game to be taunted because of his pointy ears. This movie pretty much puts an end to the problem of Star Trek being an inherently racist series, and does so while first examining the nature of xenophobia.
Kirk has a problem with Klingons, which he attributes to “the death of my boy”. His opinion therefore treats a whole race as fundamentally the same as one criminal element, which sadly keeps on getting more and more relevant to our modern world as time goes on. We’ve seen it in recent years in particular with the insidious conflation of the words “terrorist” and “Muslim” in the Western world (some countries more so than others). But even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, because Kirk was prejudiced against Klingons long before a rogue group cost him the son whose life he had failed to be a part of (and his feelings therefore would almost certainly be complicated by guilt). His opinions were set in stone a couple of decades before the events of this film, which again is relevant to the real world, where xenophobia towards a particular race can ignore the fact that people can change and the son is not always the same as the father. To some extent the Western world still wallows in prejudices that were informed by a war that predates the birth of the vast majority of people alive today. Refreshingly, Kirk is remarkably honest about his failings:
“How on Earth can history get past people like me?”
With difficulty. One of the most important jobs of sci-fi is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and when we hear crewmembers saying things like “they all look alike”, it hits close to home. Delightfully, the variety of Klingon prosthetics here is probably greater than we will ever see again, which makes that opinion look even more foolish. But I think this film also shows us something even more worrying in the mirror it holds up:
“We know where this is leading: the annihilation of our culture.”
The Klingons worry that peace will lead to their assimilation in the Federation culture and way of life, and as Kirk says to Spock with alarming honesty, everyone is human in his philosophy. I think that’s a reflection of the Federation as a whole and holds the mirror up to what we think of as “integration” in the modern world. Moving forward from this point in Star Trek, it’s depressingly clear that a form of fairly overt racism (the Original Series’s blackface villains and point-ear slurs) will instead be replaced by a more subtle xenophobia, one that doubles down in the 90s Trek iterations on a vision of the Federation as the USA in space, with other races joining their party, swearing an oath, wearing a uniform and learning to conform. On an individual level, we have already seen an example of this journey with Spock in the movie series (who has basically been on a path to learning that “human” feelings are better than “Vulcan” logic), and we will see similar journeys of integration with Data and Worf in TNG, and Odo, Garak, Nog and Rom in DS9, all examples of the other, who must follow a path to becoming more human to some extent.
So this film has something very important to say, but only gets halfway there, which I think is probably the most we could have expected from Star Trek at this point. The serious stuff comes packaged with a greatest hits of classic Trek, with Kirk vs Kirk, and his last of many conquests. Watching Shatner doing fight scenes and kissing a woman who is young enough to be his daughter is all a bit absurd, and McCoy’s eye-roll echoed my own sentiments at that point, but I can forgive the indulgence as an affectionate tribute to what Star Trek used to be, before the final curtain.
A large part of the plot of this movie hinges on discovering the identity of a traitor, despite there being only one new major character on board, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, but I didn’t expect great things from this film anyway. Without any kick of nostalgia for this first-time viewer, this has been a film series that has fairly consistently hit a level of mediocrity, but never really reached warp speed. At least, in the end, it found something to say, and in its closing moments even managed to acknowledge the existence of more than one gender. Star Trek would boldly go to much more interesting places after this, but it has been fascinating finding out where it all started. We will take a look at some of the more recent Trek efforts in future articles. RP