How Christopher Plummer Helped Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Be The Best Original Series Movie
This week we lost one of the greatest actors of any generation, Christopher Plummer. From his iconic turn as Georg Von Trapp in Sound of Music to his appearance as Harlan Thrombey in Knives Out, ever Plummer role was memorable. But I’d like to talk about how important his role was as General Chang, a Klingon who loathed peace. He appeared in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, my vote for the best original series movie they made. (Sorry, Wrath of Khan.) In a way, Plummer’s character in this film mirrored William Shatner’s James T. Kirk. They were two old soldiers surprisingly unwilling to let go of their old battles. This film was the perfect ending to this era of Star Trek. (Sorry, Star Trek: Generations.) And it wouldn’t have worked if not for noted Trekkie, Christopher Plummer.
In William Shatner’s 2011 documentary The Captains, he talks with Plummer who confessed to being an original fan of the series in the 1960s. He loved the stories and celebrated that so many of the cast were, like him, Canadians. Long acquainted with Shatner, Plummer jumped at the chance to see off the original crew of the USS Enterprise and help tell a story that paralleled the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Yet, what makes Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country the best of the original series movie goes beyond the story it tells. We’ve talked about the rivalry of Star Wars and Star Trek fans being one of philosophy before. Specifically, Star Trek imagines a future where humans (and aliens) create the perfect system. Yet, no system is perfect, and this movie showcases that, while remaining hopeful about the real-world future.
The Cold War and Star Trek
Image via Paramount
Star Trek almost never happened. If it hadn’t been for Lucille Ball, the actor and producer responsible for the birth of the modern sitcom, Gene Roddenberry’s epic would be just another forgotten TV pilot. As part of the retooling of the series, Roddenberry imagined a future where people of all races and backgrounds worked together towards making a better future. Arguably, Walter Koenig’s Pavel Chekov was one of the most controversial casting decisions. Casting a Russian during the height of the Cold War felt strange, but it was Roddenberry’s idea that the petty human conflicts of our present would be over in the future. Yet, Star Trek did not shy away from the topics of the Cold War, as evidenced by their stories featuring Klingons.
So, in 1991, when both the era of the original series movie run and the Cold War itself were ending, The Undiscovered Country is Star Trek at its best. A sci-fi calamity strikes the Klingon Empire, and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock believes this presents a chance for peace between Klingons and the Federation. Kirk, however, doesn’t agree. “Don’t believe them” he says to Spock in classic Kirk cadence, “Don’t trust them!”
As the movie goes on, we learn that Kirk is not alone in this feeling. Ironically, holdouts in both the Klingon Empire and the Federation are working together to disrupt the peace. So, while we get a classic Star Trek adventure, we also get an interesting journey from Kirk himself as he grows to recognize that peace is the only solution even with his hated enemy.
Why The Undiscovered Country is the Best Original Series Star Trek Movie
Image via Paramount
First, a caveat, when I say that The Undiscovered Country is the best original series Star Trek movie, this is not definitive. If you love Wrath of Khan or, even, The Final Frontier, that’s great. I just think the final film in the series is the best because of how it blends the Star Trek lore, the real-world parallels, and the metatextual commentary on the end of the TOS cast’s run together. It is a meditation on how ending old enmities and aging itself looms over what we do. At first both Kirk and Chang cling to their prejudices and animosities. The looming peace represents a change that is untenable to both leaders. Yet, Kirk sees how his rigid thinking could lead to the destruction of all he holds dear through Chang’s example.
The original Star Trek is a parable about how limitless humanity’s possibilities can be if we just move past this awful desire to destroy each other. Yet, this film shows that even in that environment, people who definitely know better still fall into these old patterns. Plummer’s calm portrayal of Chang, as opposed to Christopher Lloyd’s manic Commander Kruge from the third film, is a brilliant way to show that many “calm” leaders can be very damaging. They say they don’t want war but revel in its perceived glories and fear what peace might bring. (Specifically, a reduction of their own power.)
Captain Kirk vs. General Chang and the Fear of Irrelevance
Image via Paramount
Kirk, on the other hand, is all about his emotional connection to the conflict. He lost his son to this fight. He is not ready to forgive the entire Klingon Empire for that. However, as he goes through the film, he realizes that his reticence is the motivation of the villains in the piece. Kirk and company will always do the right thing, but his emotional journey to acceptance of a possible future without the defining conflict of his life is scary. The end of the conflict coinciding with the end of their careers is poignant.
I now sit on the other side of 40 years old (seven years younger than Shatner was in Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Facing your own irrelevance is often what sparks the worst impulses of older generations. From dismissing the generations that follow to stubbornly clinging things we believed that are no longer (or never were) true, it’s scary. Kirk’s reticence to make peace with the Klingons was borne out of fear. Chang’s reticence to make peace was instead born out of hatred. Both men faced the end of their “war” without a decisive victory, but only Chang was willing to doom his people and the Federation to life without peace.
Christopher Plummer was the only actor able to lend the gravitas needed to Chang’s role to keep the whole film from feeling silly. He quotes Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake! His last line in the film, “To be, or not to be” is the perfect capstone to this meditation on mortality and morality. In another actor’s hands, it would have been a laughable line that undercut the important statement this film wanted to make.
Do you agree that Christopher Plummer helped make The Undiscovered Country the best original series Star Trek movie?
Share your thoughts, reactions, and other favorite Christopher Plummer roles in the comments below.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.