The sixth Star Trek film, The Undiscovered Country, holds a special place in my heart, and the hearts of many Star Trek fans. It was the last of the films to feature the entire original cast of Star Trek, and it was dedicated to the memory of Gene Roddenberry, who died shortly before it opened in theaters on December 6, 1991. After the poor showing of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country, filmed on a tight budget of approximately 27 million, went on to gross more than 96 million worldwide, thus redeeming the Star Trek franchise and ensuring that Paramount would back more films set in the Star Trek universe.
The Undiscovered Country was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the script was written by Meyer and his friend Denny Martin Flinn, based on a story concept suggested by Leonard Nimoy, who served as Executive Producer. The Cold War had ended not long before, and Nimoy’s idea, as expressed to Meyer, was “You know, the Klingons have always been our stand-ins for the Russian. How about, The Wall comes down in space?” Meyer has said the entire concept of the film then flashed into his mind. “An intergalactic Chernobyl,” he said, excitedly. “Big explosion! No more Klingon Empire!” And thus the concept of the Klingon moon Praxis exploding, thus setting off the plot of the film, originated.
In many ways, this film endeared itself to fans because it was truly an ensemble piece. It was great to see Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan, Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner reprise their roles. George Takei was there too, as Captain Sulu of the starship Excelsior. Mark Lenard was also back, as Ambassador Sarek, Spock’s father. Each character had something important to do in the film, and even though the story itself was “darker” than the other Star Trek films, with themes ranging from racial prejudice and terrorism to the fear of change and the debilitating mental and physical effects of aging, there was plenty of humor in the story, including some good natured parody of assorted Star Trek tropes, such as James T. Kirk being irresistible to alien women, and Doctor McCoy doing “surgery” on a Starfleet torpedo.
In addition to the original cast of Star Trek reprising their roles, The Undiscovered Country featured an impressive array of guest performers, from a bit role played by heartthrob Christian Slater (whose mother, Mary Jo Slater, was the Casting Director) to Kim Cattrall as Spock’s treacherous Vulcan protégé, to David Warner as the doomed Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon, to Christopher Plummer as Gorkon’s Chief of Staff and betrayer, General Chang. Rosanna deSoto played Gorkon’s daughter and successor, Azetbur. In addition, two Star Trek regulars from other versions of the show had small roles: Michael Dorn played Worf’s grandfather who was assigned to be Kirk and McCoy’s attorney during their trial on Kronos, and Rene Auberjonois (who would be tapped to play Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) gave an uncredited performance as Colonel West, the Starfleet traitor who attempts to assassinate the Federation President at Khitomer.
David Warner’s portrayal of Chancellor Gorkon was excellent. The character, Nicholas Meyer admitted, was based on Mikhail Gorbachev, and Warner’s Klingon makeup was designed to be reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln. All of the actors gave strong performances, and viewers had a sense that the regulars were determined to do their best in what might well be their last film portraying these characters that had been part of their lives for so many decades.
The sets for The Undiscovered Country were different from any we’d seen before. They were deliberately darker, and quite retro in design, reminiscent of a modern aircraft carrier, perhaps. Officers drank coffee out of fine china cups. Pictures hung on the wall. What appeared to be dark wood paneling was used on some of the bulkheads. We saw the character’s cabins portraying more of their individual taste – Spock’s cabin reflected both his human and his Vulcan heritage, with a Chagall hanging on his wall. One scene ridiculously featured a galley, where food was being prepared by human cooks, showing them mashing potatoes—by hand! (The galley definitely struck a discordant note, since we’d always before seen food aboard the Enterprise ordered and delivered by some type of synthesizer.)
There were, of course, continuity problems and logic errors. Every Star Trek film had them, and fans by that time just sighed and rolled their eyes when they cropped up. The worst one I noted was that the Excelsior under Captain Sulu’s command, was returning from a mission where they’d been mapping “gaseous anomalies.” And yet, at the end of the film when the plot demanded that the Enterprise be able to track plasma emissions from a Klingon bird of prey that could fire when cloaked, somehow the equipment to track gaseous anomalies was right there, magically aboard the Enterprise.
I think most fans felt the way I did—so happy to see our beloved characters back in a film that was actually entertaining, well-paced, and fun to watch, that we forgave the continuity glitches and rubber science. After all, we were used to that…we’d been doing it since 1966.
The Undiscovered Country was a very special film to me, personally. Over the years, I’d met all of the series regulars, with the exception of William Shatner, at Star Trek conventions all over the U.S. We’d chatted together in many green rooms, and even shared meals. I was on a first-name basis with Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan, George Takei and Walter Koenig. I’d met DeForrest Kelley only once, but he’d shaken my hand and told me he’d actually read Yesterday’s Son and enjoyed it. Leonard Nimoy and Jimmy Doohan had both narrated the audio versions of Yesterday’s Son and Time for Yesterday that I’d scripted.
Before The Undiscovered Country opened, I’d been mulling over the idea of writing the ‘back story” for one of Star Trek’s most beloved secondary characters, Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek. The idea of my writing the novel actually came from Mark Lenard, whom I’d met and talked with many times at Star Trek conventions. Over dinner one evening, we discussed my doing the book, and I listened as Mark mused aloud about how he saw his character, and how Sarek felt about Amanda and Spock. But I didn’t have an “anchor” for a novel plot.
The moment I saw The Undiscovered Country, I was fascinated by the idea of Chancellor Azetbur, and her continuing struggle to save her people after the devastating explosion of Praxis, and her father Gorkon’s death. The night I saw it, while driving home from the theater, all I could think about was “that story needs a sequel!”
So I decided to write one.
I realized that I could tell Ambassador Sarek’s back story in flashback, while continuing the story of the Khitomer peace conference and what happened after the end of the film. Thus the plot and character arc for my novel, Sarek, was born. Mark Lenard read the book in manuscript form, and liked it. After it was released, he narrated the audio version, which I scripted. For the next few years, whenever we encountered each other at Star Trek conventions, we’d arrange to sit side by side at autograph sessions, so we could both autograph copies of the novel.
Sarek did quite well in sales, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for about six weeks. Because of the work I did in writing Sarek’s “back story,” I was subsequently offered the chance to write Han Solo’s “back story” for Lucasfilm. And, three years ago, I received another offer to write a beloved film character’s “back story” when Disney asked me to write the prequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, and Captain Jack Sparrow’s “back story.” I did so, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom, will be on the stands May 17 of this year. (Come back to Tor.com tomorrow for a free excerpt!)
And it all started with The Undiscovered Country…
A.C. Crispin is the author of the bestselling Star Wars novels The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn. She’s also written four top-selling Star Trek novels: Yesterday’s Son, Time for Yesterday, The Eyes of the Beholders and Sarek.Her new book is the prequel to Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s the first full-length Pirates of the Caribbean novel, titled Pirates of the Caribbean: Price of Freedom, and will be released by Disney Editions May 17, 2011.