I recently read an ad for the Hollywood Theater, a refurbished old cinema in Dormont, just outside of Pittsburgh. In a few days, the Theater will screen Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
When I read this, my jaw actually dropped, and my pulse tripled. For real? Star Trek VI on the big screen?
I knew I couldn’t attend. This is another year of congested calendars, where every evening seems booked. But the listing brought a nostalgic smile to my face. For this retired Trekkie, Star Trek VI is not only my favorite film in the franchise; it is among my favorite films of all time.
1991 was an incredible year for me. I transformed from an awkward, lazy, unlikeable sixth grader with no sense of humor into a snarky, fun-loving, well-liked middle-schooler. The fog of grade school cleared up; the world showed shape and texture. Pop culture references started to make sense. I started reading longer books and watching Tom Brokaw. I started making jokes and talking to girls without hyperventilating. For this pimpled pubescent, seventh grade was awesome.
On a global scale, 1991 was the year that humanity sighed with relief. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and the Soviet Union had bloodlessly dissolved—events that I was just old enough to appreciate. I had survived the final days of the Cold War, appreciated what they meant, but now that era was over before I really had to worry. Communism seeped away from the Other Superpower. I started the 1990’s with the thrill of unbridled peace and prosperity.
On a smaller scale, Star Trek was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and I was in love with Star Trek. I liked the original series, despite the weird chorus at the beginning and the silly sets and the hazy cinematography. Meanwhile, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a weekly ritual, often viewed with pizza and soda (a rare luxury in our remote woodland home). I can credit Star Trek with nearly all of my early values—curiosity, non-violence, cultural sensitivity, the scientific method, and the joys of diverse populations working together.
I collected models. I had numerous books, including novels and the magnificent Star Trek Technical Manual. I ended up with The Klingon Dictionary, a novelty item that my parents still bring up around significant others (“Remember when you used to speak Klingon?”). This 12-year-old lived a charmed life of Romulan Warbirds and Captain Picard action figures. What could possibly be better?
But that was also a time of ill-timed deaths. Jim Henson died in 1990, preventably, at the age of 53. Isaac Asimov died shortly thereafter. And in the middle of these tragic events, Gene Roddenberry died of heart failure. Three of the greatest imaginations—also three humanists, philosophers, and tireless creators—extinguished almost simultaneously.
And I knew all their works, I loved and worshipped everything they’d ever done. I knew the value of their oeuvres, because their engines had ceased, and there would be no more. Now I wanted to read all of Foundation (which I did), see every Henson film (which I’ve nearly done), and commit every last second of Star Trek to memory (which, unfortunately, may have been true at one time).
Then there was Star Trek VI. The first trailer on TV made me want to scream with excitement. I had never seen a Star Trek film in the theater, and now, at last, the time had come.
I should mention that nearly every Star Trek film at that time was considered mediocre or even table. The first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was so unwatchably boring that it has since become a joke; only a sheet of LSD could bring any sense of meaning to that first feeble film. Everyone loves Khan, although it’s still a little slow; Star Trek III is considered bad, and it never ends. IV is simply known as “the one with the whales,” and it worked because it was funny and took place in the mid-1980’s, which makes it even funnier today. V, also known as “the God one,” was directed by William Shatner himself, and might be even worse than the first one.
From the first take of space, with stars drifting past and ominous music playing, Star Trek VI blows them all out of the cosmos. The score is darker, tenser; as the orchestra swells, a chorus swells with it. It is both powerful and spine-tingingly terrifying. To this day, it is among my favorite symphonic pieces, although I can’t find an mp3 of it for any price. The opening is serious and un-ironic, exciting, thrilling, mysterious. If the movie stopped there, I’d still walk out satisfied.
And then BANG! A massive explosion—the explosion actually made me yelp in my seat. A planet flies apart, rippling debris into open space. Now that is an opening.
What follows is, at its core, the story of (then) the most current events: A Klingon moon has exploded, due to unsafe “mining practices,” nearly identical to Chernobyl. The Klingons are panicking, because the pollutants might destroy them. The Federation reaches out to them, despite their warring past. Their Cold War starts to thaw.
But not everyone likes this arrangement. What follows is a story of assassination, a frame-job, wrongful imprisonment (a big issue in the early 1990’s), aging Cold Warriors, espionage, double agents, and, in the heart-stopping finale, a retirement-age Captain Kirk trying to fight an enemy that he literally cannot see.
Like, seriously—does it get better than that?
For me, half the joy was understanding what the movie was about. Yes, saving the whales was topical, but children love whales. This was a movie for a young adult. Star Trek VI was about our changing lives; a graying generation (Kirk and Spock) could tell me a story about this giant paradigm shift—a story about the world they had helped create, and that I, as a young citizen, was now inheriting.
After that, Star Trek slowly faded from my dreams. Deep Space Nine briefly entertained me and my friends, but I couldn’t stick to it; Voyager was awful from the get-go. I never saw more than a minute of Enterprise before changing the channel, and I actually like Scott Bakula. These spinoffs felt increasingly like inside-jokes, the stuff of serials and soap operas. I shrugged my shoulders through the movies, accepting them as two-hour nostalgia trips.
Even in this way, Star Trek VI is strangely metaphoric: The tagline, The Undiscovered Country, is a Shakespeare reference. What is the undiscovered country? It’s the Future. What will happen to us? Who lives in this country, once we’ve found it? Who are the citizens of the undiscovered country, and who are its enemies, and who will never even find it? Star Trek VI taught me to look beyond the 24th Century backdrop, because “the Future” did not really take place there. At 12, I finally grasped the present, and I could finally look forward—not to the future of phasers and warp speed, but, for the first time, to tomorrow.