Thirty Years of Star Trek VI
Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Wow!
I don’t really pay attention to movie anniversaries. The 6th was also, apparently, the 42nd anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s premiere, which then went super-wide on the 7th.
Also today is Pearl Harbor Day, which, I would think, is more significant.
When I was doing FSM CDs, sometimes we’d tie a release to an anniversary, which I know La-La Land likes to do. To me, the stuff people like, they always like—the anniversary is not a big deal, except for huge ones (25, 50).
I like Star Trek VI and have fond memories of it. Because it premiered in the off-season (the “season” being summer), it would have taken weeks for it to come to Martha’s Vineyard, so my friend Jonah Walker and I took the ferry over to Woods Hole and I think I drove my old Subaru hatchback to a Falmouth mall to see a Saturday or Sunday matinee.
We were not disappointed. After the debacle of Star Trek V, it was a restoration: of Nick Meyer at the helm, of the ensemble cast, of ILM visual effects—of little things like, you know, DRAMA and good storytelling.
Nick figured out so many things about how to do Star Trek on the big-screen—ironic because he was not a Trekkie, but did love the Horatio Hornblower books which were part of Roddenberry’s initial inspiration.
Nick figured out that the key to doing a Trek sequel was to reinvent it each time. From the heavy life-and-death themes of Star Trek II, he wrote the middle part of the likable ecological comedy Star Trek IV—and then, for Star Trek VI, took Leonard Nimoy’s story concept of the demise of the Soviet Union to make the franchise, briefly, a 1970s-influenced conspiracy thriller.
Well...it’s sort of 1970s-influenced. In the thirty years since, I have grown to wonder—don’t the Klingons process their prisoners? Maybe take Kirk and McCoy out of their uniforms and put them in prison outfits? In fact, isn’t that the first thing they do—screen them for bugs and homing devices? Are the Klingons that stupid?
I guess so...but it’s really not that important.
The film had the good kind of fan service, with Sulu getting promoted to captain and the actors’ signatures closing the film. In hindsight, it’s a little too much fan service—we really needed to see McCoy perform “surgery” on a torpedo? That’s goofy. Can you imagine McCoy doing that in Star Trek II, a better and more serious movie? No, of course not.
But Star Trek IV had cemented the idea that Star Trek was pop Americana, and The Next Generation had become a television phenomenon of its own, so every movie and TV show since then has had to acknowledge Trek’s place as a cultural icon. (Whereas, even in the early 1980s, it was still this sort of embarrassing old TV show with geeky fans, and maybe it was cool...but probably not.)
The fall of 1991 was Trek’s 25th anniversary and it was a good time to be a Trekkie. TNG had done a Spock two-partner, “Unification,” which was kind of a stodgy talkfest, in hindsight, but still—c’mon, Picard, Data and Spock together? That was irresistible.
Our first look at Star Trek VI was on September 28, 1991 (I checked) when the final trailer was debuted inside a 25th anniversary TV special. Here’s a version complete with ads:
In late 1991 I was, let’s see, a senior in high school, and already publishing the first few issues of the newsletter that became Film Score Monthly.
So I was heavily into the soundtracks, and at the time pretty incensed with the revelation (made to me by Ford Thaxton) that the reason the Next Generation scores were so wallpapery was because the producers instructed the composers to write them like that.
It seemed insane and I was irate about it!
The fifth season of TNG otherwise had some great episodes, but I was infuriated with how subdued the scores were—and that Ron Jones had been let go. But that’s a story for another time.
Star Trek VI had a terrific score by newcomer Cliff Eidelman. I was thrilled to hear it in the trailer—which Cliff had specially scored. My favorite part of the trailer score was its last section with the chattering trumpets.
When I saw the film, I was a bit disappointed those “chattering trumpets” were the only part of the trailer score that didn’t get reprised in the film itself. Turns out it was a rewrite on the scoring stage, to inject more energy into the final passage of the trailer. We included both the revised and original versions on the Intrada 2CD set of the soundtrack.
Years later I saw an anniversary screening of the film in North Hollywood—I forgot the occasion—and Nick was there. He was rightfully proud of the film. I remember we chit-chatted briefly about the cast. By that time several of them were gone—Kelley and Doohan, but not yet Nimoy.
I can’t remember what Nick said, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth. For me, the film was a reminder of how special the cast was, and I told Nick how envious I was that he had a chance to work with them. It’s not like these were the world’s greatest actors—the supporting cast were barely characters (as they would often complain), but more like a chair and a job with a catchphrase or two. But they were vivid, they were memorable, they were likable—and, ultimately, deserved their place as cultural icons.
Star Trek VI was the end of an era—for the Original Series cast, but also, in many ways for 1980s blockbuster cinema (even though this was 1991). Computer FX were already changing how movies were made, most famously in Terminator 2—there’s some of it in Star Trek VI, like the super cool Klingon blood-in-zero-G assassination sequence. But in 1993, Jurassic Park would usher in a new age.
That new age would have not only new and better (or certainly different) FX, but new stars, faster cutting, more pop-synthy scoring (hello, Hans)—and vastly different storytelling. Some things got worse, other things got better. In hindsight, movies like Star Trek VI seem positively quaint in their limited sets and scaled-down action.
For me, Star Trek VI was the twilight of my childhood, as I would soon be off to college. So I am nostalgic for that time—a softie for nostalgia, that’s me—and one of the things I’ve enjoyed writing about here.
Also, Kim Cattrall was a good Vulcan!