Mark Watches ‘Star Trek’: The Undiscovered Country

In the sixth Star Trek film, EVERYTHING IS MESSED UP AND DARK AS HELL AND IT’S AWESOME. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The Undiscovered Country.

Trigger Warning: For talk of racism.

So, this isn’t just an improvement over The Final Frontier. It’s just a damn good story. I have a few things to nitpick and a lot of things to praise. LET’S DO IT.

The Not-So-Good

So, Star Trek isn’t so good with race, are they? Like… historically they’re pretty terrible at addressing it. The Original Series was often full of some bad implications, and all of the non-white characters were part of a secondary cast that rarely got attention of their own. I was pleased to see Sulu elevated to the role of Captain; it’s one of the coolest parts of this film. But holy shit, the more I think about that reference to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner line, the less I like it. You realize Nichelle Nichols is like… right there??? Sitting off to the left of Chekov? Miscegenation is not the same thing as the Klingon-Federation conflict. Not now, not ever.

That’s especially the case when you consider that a white actor was given a role that required him to darken his skin and be given a name like Chang. Look, I think Star Trek’s use of the Klingons is always going to be a problem no matter which way you think of it. They’re always darker than white humans, and while The Next Generation has done incredible things to deconstruct this narrative, it’s always going to be a representation of the normal versus the Other. Now, Christopher Plummer is damn fantastic as the Shakespeare-quoting General Chang. It’s a very absurd characterization, but it works if you view the Klingons as consuming human art, but claiming it as their own. Which is very ironic, of course! That being said? It doesn’t make that mutually exclusive with the racial implications. I can find Plummer’s performance entertaining as an antagonistic and recognize that this film has a perplexing relationship with race. I mean, one of the most vehement voices against Klingon-Federation peace is… a dark-skinned black man? I get that maybe the show was trying to make some sort of ironic commentary, but come on.

I’ll talk about that more in a second.

The Good!

God, WHO WASN’T IN THIS FILM??? Iman, Christian Slater, Christopher Plummer, Brock Peters, Kurtwood Smith, Kim Catrall… I LOVE IT. It’s a diverse and talented cast, and that made the performances all the more electrifying.

Starting from that, I want to talk about how hilarious it was that I thought I’d never truly learn what Spock was referring to in “Unification, Part II.” It’s a great tie-in to this episode because it provides a brilliant context to his behavior in that episode. Spock didn’t want to lead other people into danger, and now we learn what the danger was. The Undiscovered Country is a political thriller that works as well as it does both because it explains a huge chunk of the context of The Next Generation AND because it’s escalated so effectively. The opening scene is a spectacle, namely because of the combination of the reveal of Sulu’s new position and the jaw-dropping special effects. (They looked great in HD, for the record.) From there, I never felt like this film crawled along. (Of course, my perception is obviously different than most people, since I didn’t think The Motion Picture was boring or sluggish.)

I loved that the look for this film was so dark, especially since it accented the tone of it all appropriately. This is a story that deals primarily with fear and prejudice. Given the Klingon history with the Federation – and with Captain Kirk specifically – it made sense that so many people would be utterly averse to making peace with the species. Even though events forced their hands, could they be trusted? The conspiracy that develops because of that demonstrated that many different species and peoples believed that the change Chancellor Gorkon wanted was dangerous, foolish, and impossible. It’s a perfect companion to the events of “Unification,” isn’t it?

Even Captain Kirk is not without some criticism from the film itself, and I thought this was a bold and rewarding step for the series. His prejudice against the Klingons was not just due to decades fighting against them; he lost his son David during the events of The Search for Spock, and Klingons were responsible for that. It’s why Chang’s plan works so spectacularly: he uses Kirk’s prejudice against him in order to make it seem like the Enterprise murdered Gorkon. The events seem plausible, which is why so many people buy it. Of course, the folks on the Enterprise know that this isn’t what happened, but with all the circumstantial evidence so spectacularly against McCoy and Kirk, how could they ever prove themselves innocent?

God, the scenes on the gulag planet were SO GOOD, y’all. I love how dark and gritty everything looks, and I love that they’re contrasted with the murder mystery vibe up on the Enterprise as Spock leads the crew in rooting out the assassins. I do love a good perseverance plot on Star Trek, and there’s just so much going on. I think that’s one of the reasons that this film flew by for me. There was a fantastic balance between the storylines. We get worldbuilding for Rura Penthe, as well as Iman as a shapeshifting two-timer who’s out to get a full pardon. We get to see Spock’s relationship with Valeris, the second Vulcan to ace their way through the Academy. Hell, there’s even time to see what kind of captain Sulu’s made.

But lord, that conspiracy. It’s a hell of a story, and I honestly did not suspect Valeris. At first, it didn’t seem to make sense to me. How could a being so logical do something so devious? Well, I think it was necessary to contrast Spock and Valeris to show us how Spock makes choices that are more human than Vulcan. It might have been logical to oppose Klingon peace, but as we see far into the future, Spock knows that faith – a concept that the Vulcans rarely bother with – can mean putting aside one’s logic in the hope of a better future. And that’s what he does here when he gets Captain Kirk involved in this nightmare: he deliberate eschews logic in order to pursue a maybe.

Valeris, Chang, and her counterparts are not interested in such a thing, unfortunately, and they were certain the best option was to sabotage the entire peace proceedings and guarantee a separation between the two worlds. They believed peace wasn’t possible, so they tried to guarantee it wouldn’t happen in the first place. It was an attempt to make a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is just so horrible to think about. Of course there can’t be peace between the Klingons and the Federation when you do shit like this! But that’s how shortsighted these people were. Murder and terrorism were better options than an attempt at peace!

The ending to The Undiscovered Country is a little cheesy for my tastes. How did those people at Khitomer know what had transpired? They just applauded Kirk after he said a few things that could not have fully informed them. Still, I like that this explains how the Klingon alliance came about, and I do think it’s a fantastic end to the Original Series films. In a lot of ways, it represents why this crew matters and why their stories should be told. I’ll miss them, certainly. But I’m also very happy to be in the Next Generation universe. This is how I’ll bid farewell to Scotty, Bones, Spock, Chekov, Sulu, and Kirk, and it’s a fantastic way to do so.

The video for The Undiscovered Country can be downloaded here for $1.99.

Mark Links Stuff

– The Mark Does Stuff Tour 2015 is now live and includes dates across the U.S. this summer and fall Check the full list of events on my Tour Dates / Appearances page.
– My Master Schedule is updated for the near and distant future for most projects, so please check it often. My next Double Features for Mark Watches will be the remainder of The Legend of Korra, series 8 of Doctor Who, and Kings. On Mark Reads, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series will replace the Emelan books.
- Mark Does Stuff is on Facebook! I’ve got a community page up that I’m running. Guaranteed shenanigans!

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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