Thursday, January 5, 2012

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Released December 6, 1991


Introduction

Just like they did following Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount turned again to Nicholas Meyer after the critical and financial failure of Star Trek V. In collaboration with Leonard Nimoy, a post-Cold War plot was hatched in which the Klingon Empire was failing, and required a new world order to take the place of comfortable prejudices and hatreds.

Excuse me, I've got something in my eye...

Writing

Matthew: There are two great strains of Star Trek storytelling in TOS, and probably in the rest of the franchise as well. One is the "hard" sci-fi story, in which a piece of technology or a change in the way we do things as human beings provides a source of drama. Episodes like this that spring to mind are "City On The Edge of Forever," "The Changeling," and "The Ultimate Computer." The other is the allegory, in which elements from our current experience are transposed into a futuristic context, so that we can examine them afresh. Episodes in this category include "A Taste of Armageddon," "The Cloud Minders," and "A Private Little War." This movie is firmly ensconced in the latter category, and that is not a knock against it. I think the way the story recasts the Soviet collapse, the Chernobyl incident, and apprehension over a post-Cold War world is enjoyable, and is not too "on the nose" at all.

Kevin: Yeah...this is definitely several notches above the Yanks and the Kohms from "The Omega Glory." I like that they connected it to David's death, as it both makes sense for Kirk's character, and adds some personal stakes to the peace process. I also always enjoy when Federation ideals are compared to Federation action. It reminded me of Picard's line in "The Wounded" about hatred becoming comfortable, like old leather. It's one thing to win a war; it's another to live in the peace that follows, and that's always going to be dramatically interesting. I'm going to take this opportunity to discuss an issue with the use of "the undiscovered country" as a title and reference. Gorkon raises a toast with it, and then says "the future" to a table of blank stares. Literally taken, Gorkon (and by extension the writers) have just straight up misused the quote. I think there is a kernel of an interesting idea in that Gorkon may have been intentionally ironic. He, more than anyone, understands that regardless of the outcome of the peace process, the Empire as it exists will end. I just think that could have been clarified explicitly, and David Warner is enough of an actor to sell almost any interpretation of a Shakespeare soliloquy.

Matthew: The character stories are reasonably interesting here. Kirk seems to have inherited a bit of a chip on his shoulder with regard to the Klingons - it's a bit of a backslide with respect to his generally enlightened stance throughout the series and movies, but it is believable given the death of his son. Anyway, Kirk's prejudice is tested by the rush of current events, in which the Klingon chancellor is the visionary who seeks peace, while Kirk and others in Starfleet are the reactionaries. Unfortunately, some of the actors rebelled against what would have been interesting lines, in which they express similar prejudice. Apparently, Nichelle Nichols would just not deliver them, feeling they made her character too overtly racist. Brock Peters did bit the bullet as Admiral Cartwright and turned him into a racist villain. I really liked the implicit statement - humans have moved beyond prejudice against each other (Cartwright and Uhuru being dark-skinned, of course), but not against that sort of racism when it comes to aliens. I think this theme could have been expanded further, and found it unfortunate that time was spent instead on the murder mystery elements of the plot.

Kevin: I agree with the general idea, particularly for Cartwright, to be unrepentantly bigoted here. I think there is something very human about the need to identify an "other" and made it the focal point for all our fear and anger, regardless of who we choose to make that focus. I'm actually willing to give Nichols a pass on her refusal to say some of the lines. First, it's not new that actors, particularly ones in such a long running franchise feel a certain custodianship for their characters. They can, and in some cases should, push against a writer or director who they feel is treating the character flippantly or damaging its integrity. Uhura's, and by extension, Nichelle Nichols', place in the franchise is to be the living embodiment of a world without racism. Chekov's line "Guess who's coming to dinner?" was supposed to be hers and another, eventually cut, line about "Would you want your daughter to marry one?" aren't just racist, but are, particularly in the case of the "dinner" line, explicitly referencing racism against African-Americans in the United States. I think there is a valid argument that for a character and actress whose one truly meaningful role in the franchise is to be an example, she should not parrot such a directly racist line. And I'd go so far to say as it would be a tad too "on the nose" in terms of the allegory we're building here. Having the African-American character be generally bigoted (see Cartwright) shows the internal progress of human society. Having the same character use an explicitly anti-African American sentiment to express it goes a step too far.

Matthew: The murder mystery and prison break scenes felt both silly and superfluous to me. They are loaded with story logic questions that are left unanswered, and serve to make several characters (like Chekov during his shoe reveal scene) look stupid. Why does Spock put the Viridium patch on Kirk's uniform? When does this become an idea in his mind, since it occurs mere seconds after the torpedo strike against the Klingons? How does such a patch emit radiation visible across two sectors at faster than light velocities without immediately killing the person it is placed on? Why do Kirk and McCoy go onboard the Klingon vessel except in order to get captured? How did the Klingons obtain the Captain's personal log? How wide-ranging is this conspiracy, such that prison guards as well as shape shifting prisoners are involved, but are also relied upon to keep their mouths shut? It seems an awfully complicated and failure-prone way to simply kill Kirk, especially on such an isolated and out of the way place as a Klingon gulag. When Kirk and Spock confront Valeris over her involvement, neither are armed. If the conspiracy's aim is to kill those who have uncovered it, why doesn't Valeris zap them right then and there?

Kevin: I agree it is the weak point of the film. The first third sets up an awesome political thriller. The last third is a tightly executed action payoff, like you expect in a movie. The middle third does fall apart to some extent. I could never understand how Spock arrived at the conclusion that the gravity boots must be on board. I agree that someone in the conspiracy must be on board, if only to alter the databanks, but Chekov's point is valid. The assassins could have beamed back to the cloaked ship. I'll say this, for its logical flaws, it still moved well, and didn't drag the movie down in terms of pacing, which is what usually happens when the middle of the story doesn't quite work.

Matthew: Three scenes in particular bothered me the most. The first was Chekov's "shoe reveal" with Crewman Dax. It makes him look thoroughly stupid, incompetent, and pompous. It's the kind of comedy that went so badly last movie with Scotty and the head injury. Next is Spock's contextless mind-rape of Valeris. These are people that are supposed to have a deep relationship, and a Vulcan ritual that is supposed to be deeply personal and private. But he does it here in front of the bridge crew, without even an eyelash batted as to its being a violation of another sentient, and a woman no less. Third was the ridiculous lack of security at Khitomer. Not only was it unbelievably easy for the assassin to leave with a briefcase and find a shooting nest, (in an era of sensors, scanners, and fuzzy logic computers that record all pertinent video) but then the Enterprise crew beams down fully armed without issue at all. Is there no shield? No complement of orbiting defense vessels?

Kevin: I completely agree with your assessment of the Spock/Valeris scene. It's practically character assassination for Spock, and I can't believe Nimoy didn't put up a fight. I will say that the horrified looks on everyone's face were well played and completely understandable. I think the problem with the assassination plot in general is that it works if this were an actual 1960s Cold War spy thriller. The lone man with the nondescript suitcase, the twists within twists, betrayal, etc. all work in a standalone sense, but don't fit in with established Star Trek history, and what we know the characters and world are capable of. I think what would have fixed this spending more scenes with the conspirators actually conspiring. A scene of Cartwright contemplating the enormity of what he is doing would have been awesome. Even if the Federation does "clean their chronometers," it's going to come at a high price. The Klingon military is still intact, and a desperate, but massive militaristic society is not going to go quietly into that good night. I wouldn't want an explicit MAD analogy, but some contemplation that inciting war with the Klingons would be in the short term disastrous would have been nice. On the other side of the conspiracy, Chang acknowledging he is signing his people's death warrant would have been cool as well. Without Praxis, they can't win a sustained conflict, and all-out war means the end of their empire, but for him, that's obviously a better alternative than peace with the Federation. There's an interesting story there about how far people will go to avoid facing their deepest fears or challenging their deepest held beliefs. Focusing on that would have reduced the need for an overly complex murder mystery and tied in with the general idea of the story.

Acting


Matthew: To some extent, I get the feeling like a good portion of the main cast is kind of phoning it in. For Shatner's part, he only seems really invested in some of his quiet scenes with Nimoy. Otherwise, things are relatively mundane here. I'm not saying it's bad acting, I'm just saying it doesn't seem to quite reach the heights of, say, Star Treks II or IV. Doohan, Nichols, and Koenig are all just sort of OK. De Kelley has a few good laugh lines during his adventure with Kirk on Rura Penthe. I would say the best of the bunch is George Takei, who was obviously quite engaged by being a Captain.

Kevin: I agree the script didn't necessarily challenge the main cast. We've done the exploration of their friendships before in both series and movies. We've explored their discomfort with aging before, and far more effectively in TWOK. In the end, I agree. Nothing is bad, but any stretch, but it does feel a tad overly familiar. There were a few missed opportunities, too. Nichols tried to get Meyer on board with the notion that as communications officer on the flagship, she should speak the language of their greatest foe, and Meyer shut her down. For all his other good decisions, that was pretty damn stupid. The comedy was really forced in the scene and it made everyone look bad. Giving Uhura a really useful skills related to being the communications officer would elevated a lot of that stretch of the movie.

Matthew: The guest cast is very strong, with two superb actors in Christopher Plummer and David Warner. Warner's Gorkon has gravitas and a depth not seen in Klingons outside of Dorn's Worf. Christopher Plummer chews some scenery here as Chang, but it's enjoyable to watch any way you slice it.  Iman was fun as Martia, and Rosana Desoto was good as Azetbur. Overall, it's a really strong guest cast, probably the best of all the movies, even besting TWOK.

Kevin: This was a particularly strong guest cast, and I like that the Klingons, both visually, and dramatically felt like a through-line from the TOS to TNG Klingons, by turns both moustache-twirling evil and pathos-ridden samurai. I really liked Iman's turn as Martia. It's something I didn't realize until I watched all of TOS, but there were definitely notes of past Kirk conquests in her performance, like Marlena from Mirror, Mirror. She also looked fantastic. I recently located the Martia action figure in a collectible store, and let me tell you, it gratified me as both a trekkie and a homo.

Production Values

Matthew: The model work in this film is superb, and probably beats Star Trek II for best in the series. Kronos One looked amazing, and we got some terrific shots of Spacedock, the Excelsior class, and the Enterprise A model. The space battles and visual effects were also quite good, with a nifty opening explosion and some really nice torpedoes and explosions.

Kevin: Agreed. The Praxis explosion was freaking awesome, and seeing the torpedo go through the saucer section of the Enterprise was both really well-realized and upsetting as a fan. It really drove home the threat. I loved the underside shot of the Spacedock, too.

Matthew: The Klingon wardrobe was really cool. It's really nice that they departed from the same old warrior garb that was introduced in TMP and run into the ground in TNG. The red leather, subtle accents, and makeup were all varied, interesting, and rich looking. Costume design really added a lot to this movie, and that's something that can be said only rarely.

Kevin: Plummer requested as little makeup as possible, leading to the bald, lightly ridged effect, and I think it really works. He's the equivalent of the villain who looks too slight and reedy to be a threat, but is probably the biggest badass in the room. Also, it again served to be a midpoint between TOS and TNG Klingons. I also loved the bling all around. Gorkon's bone staff and Chancellor medallion and Azetbur's headpiece looked great.

Matthew: There were a lot of nice set designs that were enhanced by the use of early CGI effects. Although I did not like the color of the Klingon blood (too Pepto Bismol!), it was integrated nicely into the weightless scenes. The trial arena on Kronos was also a CG enhanced set, and it looked really neat. The Khitomer sets, both interior and exterior, were really good and made the world feel real. The only set that failed to impress me was the Rura Penthe mines. It looked very fakey. The glacier photography was nice, though.

Kevin: I liked some of the reuses of TNG sets even if they were a touch obvious, particularly the Ten Forward-cum-President's Office, though the matte work of the Parisian skyline was great. I like that they thought to have it somewhere other than San Francisco. The bridge of the Excelsior was awesome as well. I loved the diagram in the background, and as evidenced by the theme of the blog, I loved this run of Okudagrams. The colors really pop without being distracting.

Matthew: I'm really glad they spent the extra money on the animated signatures at the end of the movie. It was a really nice, and neat looking, send off for our crew. The music cue was good as well, as was the score throughout the movie.

Kevin: I loved the opening orchestral piece. It's really haunting. I enjoyed the signatures, too. It was fun psychoanalyzing the actors. George Takei's signature is, let's be honest, pretty gay. Nichelle Nichols has the exaggerated signature of a true performer. James Doohan signed like he was signing the Declaration of Independence.

Conclusion


Matthew: I'm probably going to catch some flack for this, but this is a 3 in my book. Nothing deflates a rating for me faster than a case of the dum-dums, and this movie has a few whoppers. I do not deny the interesting premise which includes investigations of politics and racism, and I also do not deny the fun action scenes, especially the starship combat. But the whole middle third of this movie is a mushy, messy, unsatisfying blend of Agatha Christie and Hogan's Heroes. These 30 minutes would have been more fruitfully spent on really plumbing the depths of bigotry and prejudice, and the perils of the military industrial complex. I think a really interesting political thriller/spy drama could have occupied that time, which instead saw mashed potatoes, sight gags based on footwear, and other such frivolity. The scenes cut of Colonel West typify what I would have liked to see. Anyway, this would have been a 4 for me if some of the dum-dums had been toned down. If the movie were an hour long and contained the first and last thirds, it would be an easy 4. The main cast acting also didn't really light my fire, it was just adequate. Production values were superb, especially given the tight budget, and stand as the best in the movie series so far. But it's just an average result for me. A 3 is not bad. A 3 is a good, entertaining show that doesn't approach transcendent heights. And if you're asking how I could give TMP a 4 and TUC a 3, well, it's just personal preference. I'll take a boring big idea over a dumb thriller any day of the week.

Kevin: This is a 4 for me, and is better than TMP. I agree the middle third is weak, and full of "just accept it" plot developments that keep it from being great. On some level I at least consider the pacing and editing problems of TMP to be as serious a sin as a writing flaw. An episode or movie is a whole package, and on some level, since you need all the parts to work for the whole thing to work, no one part is innately more important in constructing a finished product. I also view the plot problems less as "dumb" so much as I view them as "lazy." There was a way, with a little more investment to shore up that story and make a crackerjack mystery, as Star Trek has done before. What puts TUC ahead of TMP is that TUC's flaws annoy me, but they don't bore me. There are stretches of TMP that are flatly unwatchable at 1.0x playing speed. The best outings are always the ones that are both genuinely entertaining and intellectually stunning. But on some level, we're here to make movies and televsion shows, a form of entertainment, and lofty ambitions don't excuse failing on that score. I am more "entertained" by TUC than TMP. Don't get me wrong, when I feel entertaining me is coming at the explicit expense of not treating me as an intelligent being, or the failures on that front are severe enough to pull out of the moment (see Star Trek 2009), I am genuinely annoyed and/or offended. The plot shortcuts here were stupid, but I still didn't feel insulted or patronized, like I did with the Abram's outing. So it's not I'm for entertainment over, or at the cost of, intellect, it's just that I'm not more willing to excuse bad editing or staging than I am bad writing. So with both films having one (significant) notch against them for some reason, I'm left to compare their success of failure in a general sense, and TUC is just has more raw entertainment value for me than TMP. That makes a thoroughly contested 7.


Podcast


Postscript


Kevin: There was nowhere else to discuss this, but I wanted to say something about it. I cannot overly recommend Klingon Academy, a PC game that details the backstory of Gorkon and Chang, with both Plummer and Warner reprising their roles in one of the more thoroughly plotted video game outings in the franchise. The game itself is really fun too, if not perfect. You can probably find the cut-scenes on YouTube, and they are totally worth it. Adding the cumulative half-hour of dialogue to TUC may have actually made the movie a hell of a lot better.

6 comments:

  1. So I have to say while I enjoyed the podcast I was disappointed that you did not mention my favorite Bones moment when he decries the notion of going back to the surface while he makes the grab for the coffee. I also always like the Holmes reference as well. I had never really thought about the murder mystery plot part being problematic but I have always wondered thought Chekov was such an idiot. I think the idea of the patch is that it is like the capsule bond takes in Thunder Ball. It is not a tracker more of a locator if you have a general idea of where the person is. As for the gravity boots. If we assume they are star fleet issue and no crew members are missing clearly they beamed back to the ship.

    BTW as I am listen I have no issue with you bashing the prequels they deserve to be so. I am a little mad about this rating lower then Motion Picture but bash episoded 1 especially 2 and 3.

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  2. I think I have consistently shown more charity to high concept sci-fi that ends up on the boring side of things than to action/thrillers with a case of the dum-dums. It's why I can give "Darmok" a 4 and "Night Terrors" a 2, and it's why I don't feel hypocritical or idiosyncratic for liking TMP over TUC.

    What I find interesting is that Kevin gave TMP a 4 but now seems to talk about it as if it were a 3. Have you changed your mind on it, Kevin? Were you clouded by my enthusiasm and by a recent viewing of TOS?

    Maybe you should retroactively change your rating :)

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  3. Well, first, I'm going to avoid retroactively altering a score, to prevent statistical chaos. And if I were, I'd use it amend my score for Amok Time, which I fully admit was wrong.

    I would still say that TMP is a 4, though TUC is better overall. I may have been affected by my recent fervor for TOS, but I don't think that's all of it. The flaw in TMP is not that the story got away from them and became somehow unfilmable, it's that they literally didn't edit it right. If you fast forward past three or four sequences and play the wormhole sequence in double time, you get an hour and forty-five minute movie without any major flaws, and a hell of a lot going for it. We tend to award fours to episodes that are average plus something special or awesome minus something critical. In the case of TMP, the "critical" was the pacing.

    And reviewing my TMP review, I think the only thing that changed was then I said the sequences were "uncomfortably close to unwatchable" and here I called them "flatly unwatchable." That was just my naturally accommodating nature not wanting to say something bad when they were trying so hard, so I was diplomatic. Still, I'm happy with the 4.

    And, like Matt, I think my reviews are consistent as well. I value entertainment value as a coequal part of other parts of the episode. I will say I think this has gotten moreso over the years. My job is pretty emotionally and mentally draining, and I have found my personal tastes have veered toward the lighter in weight. Don't get me wrong...the synergy of high entertainment value and expertly conceived and plotted storytelling makes me deeply happy, and happier than a merely entertaining episode could. Still...they can't all be WOK, and on a rainy Saturday afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and a choice between the two, I'm probably gonna pick TUC, and that counts for something.

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  4. Yeah, your Amok Time score was something of a traveshamockery. I may have to listen to that one again just to hear how you justified it ;-)

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  5. I believe I hung my hat on the internal logic problems with some of the pon farr explanation.

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  6. Watching TMP again. I maintain my opinion of it. TMP is a well-conceived movie that is poorly (almost disastrously) edited. But excising 5 to 10 minutes of effects scenes leaves the viewer with a taut, interesting, if somewhat over-serious sci-fi story with good character development. It also has really superb production values, and good performances.

    TUC on the other hand is a story that is middling in the quality of its concept, but is very well edited and brisk. The overall idea of the story is a strong political allegory with a good character focus, but the plot itself creaks from point A to B to C, using a lot of unjustifiable leaps to progress. Interesting ideas (expecially the excised conspiracy scenes) are bypassed in favor of broader comedic and action elements. The problem is, you can't really fast forward through the problems as you can with TMP. You need all the dumb elements as well as the smart ones for the story to make sense. The main cast acting is a bit tired, with the guest cast really delivering. Production values are high.

    So you have two good but flawed movies. The question of rating just hangs on which types of flaws annoy you more.

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