The following piece on a major bit of Star Trek movie history first appeared in the Sunday Datebook of the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 1, 1991. For some inexplicable reason I failed to include it with the rest of my Star Trek interviews in my 2007 autobiography, I Was a TV Horror Host (which you can purchase on this website). My apologies – but at least I’m finally catching up to myself. Thanks for waiting all these years. — John Stanley
Where Star Trek Has Never Gone Before
Means the Series Regulars Must Retire . . . Maybe!
“It speaks to basic human needs that there is a tomorrow. It isn’t all going to be over with a big flash and bomb. The human race is improving. We have things to be proud of. No, ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. Star Trek is about those things.” – Gene Roddenberry
THE CREATOR of Star Trek was dying of heart failure when he uttered those optimistic words in the fall of 1991, in what was to be his final interview for a commemorative TV special. Only weeks later, at the age of 70, the world-popular TV and film producer, succumbed to a final attack, a blood clot to his heart. So it happened that on October 24, 1991, the entertainment world lost one of its finest creators as he beamed up to . . . only God knows where.
No combination of modern medicine and science could have saved Roddenberry, but in his own fanciful, advanced world of Star Trek, there would have been a different outcome. Dr. McCoy’s scanning device would have made an immediate diagnosis and injected him seconds later with a life-saving serum. And his soul would have become eternal.
That was the kind of idealization of life that Roddenberry had always maintained was the inspiration behind his science-fiction classic. He had created Star Trek in the mid-1960s, during the escalation of the Vietnam War, as a “positive view of our future” – a depiction of “mankind’s ability to overcome his earthly problems to conquer diseases as well as space and the territories beyond.”
Although Roddenberry the dreamer has taken that ultimate voyage to the most unexplored country of all, he leaves a legacy for Trekkers worldwide. It is a legacy that seems never to die. Syndicated TV’s Star Trek – The Next Generation has begun its fifth season, drawing top ratings as always. And now comes this newest star burst of cinematic excitement as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the sixth entry in the motion picture series.
As always with a new Star Trek movie, there’s been much anticipation among Trekkers for another high-tech, action-strewn science-fiction epic with the familiar crew of the Starship Enterprise . . . and that anticipation has been extra-keen because early publicity about the picture described it as “the final adventure of the Starship Enterprise.” Indeed, it does appear in 1991 A.D. that the old crew is retiring to make room for replacements. (Would that by any chance be The Next Generation gang, such as Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Jonathan Frakes as Commander William Riker and other prominent members of the cast?)
The new Star Trek is darker than the earlier films. The basic premise: Just when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are scheduled to retire, they are among those assigned to escort the Klingon High Chancellor into peace talks only to see the elder statesman assassinated instead. They are captured and face execution. It’s going to be up to the rest of the USS Enterprise crew to help them escape and to prevent a conspiracy to destroy all hopes for peace.
Its heavily textured plot was first conceived by Leonard Nimoy himself and director-to-be Nicholas Meyer. Then it became a screenplay by Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn. Ultimately it would feature less of the playful bantering between cast regulars and some of the buffoonery that earmarked the previous entry, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). There are Shakespearean touches in its dialogue and a sense of tragic doom about its characters that even reaches out and touches Captain Kirk, who is forced to look within himself and face his own deep hatred for Klingons.
This time out the major catalysts – ramrod co-writer/director Meyer and executive producer Leonard Nimoy – have done much to preserve “the franchise” (a phrase Meyer uses to describe the continuing series). Meyer was responsible for writing-directing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – an act that in 1982 got the series back on a popular footing with those who had hated the first film so much. And Meyer, although he had refused to work on the third film in the series (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) because he thought bringing Spock back to life was a “cop-out,” had been instrumental in shaping up the excellent script for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
As popular as the films have been since 1979, when Star Trek – The Motion Picture got the series moving again after a decade of inactivity (the original TV series left NBC in 1968), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country faces a basic problem that was expressed recently by Meyer in his modest office at Paramount Studios. Dressed casually in blue jeans, blue shirt and Nike running shoes, bearded Meyer was in his customary no-nonsense mood.
“Let’s face it,” the director continued. “Not all of the Star Trek movies have been great. And when you follow a lesser entry you have a problem of building the faith of the fandom audience again.” The new adventure (star date 8679.14) is, according to Meyer, “about the future and how we face that future, but it also relates to things that have been happening recently in our world.” In Meyer’s own words, “Futuristic perestroika.” (The term “perestroika” was a political movement within Russia during the 1980s brought on by Soviet master Mikhail Gorbachev.)
The Klingon Empire, after an energy explosion reminiscent of the Chernobyl disaster, is on the verge of collapse, its economy drained by military over-indulgence. (Hey Russia, does that sound familiar?) A Klingon figurehead (a parallel to Soviet President Gorbachev?) wants to forge a new alliance with the Federation, a long-avowed enemy, and a wary Starfleet sends the USS Enterprise to spearhead peace negotiations.
David Warner plays Gorkon, the benevolent alien ruler. Other guest stars include Christopher Plummer as Chang, a fierce Klingon warrior, Kurtwood Smith as the Federation commander in chief, and John Schuck as the Klingon he first portrayed in Star Trek IV. Michael Dorn, who portrays Worf in the current TV Star Trek series, appears as Lieutenant Worf’s great-grandfather, a trial defense attorney.
All the regular crew members are back – Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols. In setting the film up as a “finale,” the Enterprise is three months from being decommissioned and its crew on the verge of retirement. Meanwhile, former helmsman Sulu (Takei) has taken his own command aboard the Starship Excelsior.
“After the last film,” said Meyer, “[producer] Harve Bennett decided the cast was costing too much. He thought the answer to keeping the budget down was to make a prequel – that is, a film about Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy in their younger cadet days. A gimmick that would have required the casting of inexpensive unknowns. But the idea never got off the ground, and Bennett resigned from the film series.”
Enter Nimoy, who contacted Meyer from Cape Cod, where he was vacationing in June 1990. “We walked along the beach together,” Meyer recalled, “while Leonard told me his idea about linking a Star Trek adventure to current events. We kept walking up and down that stretch of beach, exchanging ideas. It was all very solid in our minds.”
Meyer returned to London (where he has lived since 1988) and developed the mixture of ideas into a story line. Then Meyer turned to his assistant, Denny Martin Flinn, for a first draft. “Then I took that and worked it over to finish it off. Leonard and I kept probing to make it better. He’s relentless, close to a perfectionist. And his dissatisfaction with the early versions is responsible for this Trek getting to a better place.”
Meyer, a onetime movie publicist for Paramount who went on to write the best-selling The Seven Percent Solution (a spinoff on the Sherlock Holmes character), broke into a more creative part of Hollywood by directing 1979’s Time After Time.
He directed Star Trek VI at Paramount on sets that had been recycled from the current TV series. (Estimated cost is said to be around $27 million, including the special effects carried out by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic shop in San Rafael.) “I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better as a director since Star Trek II. I do know I’m more precise than I used to be. I’ve learned that the more time you spend setting up the shots, the more you achieve in terms of what you envision yourself achieving.”
Meyer believes it’s the actors who have keep the series so popular, despite its ups and downs at the box office, and despite a mixture of critical opinions. “They’ve created characters that have become American icons. Icons that have seduced us. We feel we know them so well. We feel comfortable with them. And it’s a challenge as writer and director to discover nuances about Kirk and Spock and Scotty and the rest of them. Creating new bits of business is like adding pieces onto the legend.”
After Words: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country made around $75 million in American box office and received excellent reviews. It came to be considered one of the best entries in the series and made up for the weaknesses of the previous entry. Patrick Stewart would continue in the Next Generation series through 1994, and later make four feature films as Captain Picard. Fifty years on, Star Trek continues to survive as a movie series.
Gene Roddenberry, wherever he is, has to be smiling.