Star Trek: Discovery's Klingons Were Born In The Undiscovered Country

Essential Star Trek To Watch Before DSC Premiere #8
  • Blu-Ray
  • Science Fiction
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country poster.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country poster. Paramount Pictures

As the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery approaches, Player.One will profile essential episodes to watch for a better understanding of the characters, species and history informing the first Star Trek series in over a decade.

While the previous five Star Trek movies and 79 episodes featuring the original cast took many opportunities to tell political stories, either about society or turmoil between nations, never was Star Trek as ripped from the headlines as in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Beloved by former showrunner Bryan Fuller, The Undiscovered Country became a “taking off point or touchstone” for his version of Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek VI writer and director Nicholas Meyer said after Fuller brought him onboard DSC as consulting producer and writer. Though Fuller’s contributions to Discovery have been partially effaced, nucleotides from The Undiscovered Country will still be found in the show’s DNA.

The 1987 premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the critical and financial failure of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier could have meant the end of the original Star Trek crew. A proposal circulated to do a Star Trek prequel movie set at Starfleet Academy, with cheap, unknown actors replacing the aging Enterprise crew. When Paramount Pictures’ parent company’s president shot down the Starfleet Academy movie, Paramount turned to Leonard Nimoy for ideas.

Nimoy proposed a Star Trek adventure running directly parallel to Perestroika, Russia’s ongoing political reforms, pushed by General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. In Nimoy’s story, the crumbling of the Soviet bloc in a wave of revolutions — Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania — became the collapse of the Klingon Empire. Nimoy, who had directed the script Meyer co-wrote for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, called on the Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan director to help with his new Star Trek idea.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country opens with an explosion on the edge of the Klingon neutral zone — a 23rd century Berlin Wall dividing one empire from another. An accident on the Klingon moon of Praxis cripples the economy of the Empire, so they turn to the Federation for a cessation of hostilities. For the neutral zone to come down, Captain Kirk must rendezvous with the Klingon High Chancellor and bring him to the table for peace talks. The chancellor’s name, Gorkon, a blend of Gorbachev and Abraham Lincoln (he even has Lincoln’s beard), should indicate just how explicit The Undiscovered Country is in its parallels with real-world history.

More controversially, The Undiscovered Country darkened Gene Roddenberry’s utopia with widespread racism and prejudice against the Klingons. Starfleet members complain about their smell, while an Admiral argues against peace, claiming “Klingons would become the alien trash of the galaxy.”

Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) says ruefully, “guess who’s coming to dinner?” explicitly analogizing Klingons to the 1967 film about a black man (Sidney Poitier) meeting his white fiancée’s parents. (Nichelle Nichols refused to say the line.)

Star Trek VI shows us a United Federation of Planets led by prejudiced old men, uncertain of their footing after decades of Federation-Klingon cold war. Some conspire to sabotage the peace talks. Others, like Kirk, rage privately about what the Klingons took from them and their inability to see through to peace.

Rather than an exploratory and scientific body, Meyer’s Starfleet is a military first. And, darkly mirroring the United States’ own dilemma after the fall of the Soviet Union, Starfleet fears losing its purview and place in society absent a monolithic threat. Star Trek VI offers a solution: fight for peace, accept change. George H.W. Bush must not have seen the movie, since the United States instead pivoted to its current policy of arming and crushing the same people in cycles tight enough for military contractors to profit off both ends.

But most relevant to Star Trek: Discovery is The Undiscovered Country’s depiction of Klingons. The Next Generation was midway through its fifth season on the Star Trek VI release date, so the Klingons had already come a long way since their introduction in Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Errand of Mercy.” TNG episodes like “Sins of the Father,” “A Matter of Honor” and “Reunion” explored Klingon government and the deep-seated honor culture governing the disputes between the warring Great Houses, elements that will also be a big part of Star Trek: Discovery.

But whereas TNG ’s Klingons are rough-and-tumble, prone to drunken fights and tall tales even in the highest echelons of power, The Undiscovered Country refused to diminish or trivialize the Klingons. If anything, Gorkon comes across as far more impressive, urbane and open-minded than Kirk. “If there is going to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it,” he tells Kirk, ending a disastrous dinner party with conciliatory words even after Kirk showed his whole ass comparing the Klingon mentality to Adolf Hitler’s.

Star Trek: Discovery looks to be attempting to provide their Klingons a similar dignity. This time a stand-in for demagogues and unyielding extremists — Meyer compared Discovery ’s unyielding Klingons to Donald Trump and ISIS DSC aims to take the Klingons more seriously than ever, delving into the politics between the 24 Klingon Great Houses. Even the Klingon costumes, with their spiked shoulders, look closer to The Undiscovered Country than TNG.

“I understand what VI is about. It’s about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s about change and fear of change and ‘Have we reached the end of history?’ as Francis Fukuyama wrote when the wall came down,” Meyer said in an interview with the official Star Trek site, alluding to Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which argued the Cold War marked the conclusion of “mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Events since have not borne out Fukuyama’s thesis, providing Star Trek: Discovery every opportunity The Undiscovered Country took in boldly confronting its present moment. “All works of art,” Meyer says on the Star Trek VI commentary track, “are ineluctably the product of the time in which they were made.” The choice for artists is to participate willfully or blindly in history’s dialogue. Which version of Star Trek: Discovery would you prefer?

More Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before Star Trek: Discovery

  1. Star Trek: The Original Series “The Cage,” model for DSC protagonist Michael Burnham.

  2. Star Trek: The Original Series “Errand of Mercy,” our introduction to the Klingons.

  3. Star Trek: The Original Series “Journey to Babel,” the first Sarek episode.

  4. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Sarek" and the decline and death of Spock's father.

  5. Star Trek: The Animated Series "Yesteryear" reveals what life was like for a young Michael Burnham as a human on the planet Vulcan.

  6. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Lower Decks" explores stories and characters away from the bridge.

  7. Star Trek: The Next Generation “Rightful Heir” resurrects Kahless, the most important Klingon religious figure.

  8. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the best-yet depiction of Federation-Klingon relations.

  9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Trials and Tribble-ations” explores the limits of nostalgia.

  10. Star Trek: The Original Series "A Private Little War" takes Kirk, Bones and Spock to Vietnam.

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