Thursday, January 22, 2004

Next we see the rest of the Enterprise crew (except Spock) assemble around a conference table at Starfleet headquarters. With no Paramount sound stages available, this scene was shot at a nearby church with a not very elaborate set: just the table and an opaque screen behind the dais, surrounded by darkness. But the darkness focused the tension on the table and the emotions expressed around it, and the almost abstract quality of the set placed the story in the land of otherworldly metaphor, the Star Trek equivalent of the simple and symbolic Greek stage.

It is here that the central metaphors of the movie are introduced. Gene Coon introduced the Klingons in the original series as a stand-in for the Soviets to the Federation’s U.S. and western allies, at least as far as serving the function of setting up metaphors for the ongoing Cold War, and at times, for the ongoing Vietnam war.

In the real world of 1985, Soviet Premier Gorbachev introduced various political reforms for greater openness (known as “Glasnost”), economic reforms (“Perestroika.”) and a more conciliatory foreign policy which resulted in détente with the West.

But in the late 1980s, small nations that had been absorbed into the Soviet Union some 70 years before were clamoring for independence, and satellite nations in Eastern Europe threw out Soviet occupiers and re-established their independence. This included East Germany, which then began the process of re-uniting with West Germany. They had been divided since Germany’s defeat in World War II (accomplished by the U.S. western European allies and the allied Soviet Union), but most dramatically separated by the Berlin Wall, raised in 1961 to stop the increasing flow of refugees from East to West. In 1989, even more dramatically, the Wall came down.

It was about this time that Leonard Nimoy was asked for an approach to Star Trek VI, and knowing the original series parallel of the Klingons and the Russians, he came up with a simple but dramatic concept: the Wall comes down in outer space.

This was the idea he took to Nick Meyers, and in a celebrated and, by now, much mythologized walk on the beach, they came up with the major elements of the story. The Soviet Union’s openness to the outside world was facilitated and necessitated by the world’s worst accident in a nuclear power plant ever, at Chernobyl in 1986. Refusing to acknowledge the scope of the disaster, the Soviet leadership kept outsiders out, as had been their usual practice. But radiation began showing up in the air of nearby European countries, and combined with the monumental decontamination tasks that exceeded their resources, the Soviets finally admitted the catastrophe and invited the help of other nations, including the U.S.

So that’s how Star Trek VI begins: with the explosion on Praxis that was contaminating the Klingon home world. Like the Soviets, the Klingons had bankrupted their economy on military expenditures, and needed help to survive. The Enterprise crew listens to Captain Spock, the Federation special envoy (who opened a dialogue with the Klingon chancellor Gorkon, clearly modeled after Gorbachev, at the behest of the Vulcan ambassador: his father, Sarek, who makes a brief appearance in the film.) Spock tells them that because of the Praxis radiation, the Klingons have fifty years of life left. They need Federation help to restore their planet to livable condition.

Though two Starfleet officers speak against helping the Klingons (including Captain Kirk), Starfleet’s Commander in Chief informs them that Spock has volunteered the Enterprise to escort Gorkon’s flagship to a peace conference, because Klingons who also oppose this détente will think twice about attacking the Enterprise under Kirk’s command.

After this brief meeting, Kirk and Spock are alone. Upon reflection, this scene indicates that they have not seen each other in some time. Spock had pursued the Gorkon initiative independently, and apparently had assumed he could count on Kirk’s assent. Kirk is somewhat shocked that Spock acted---and even involved him---without talking to him about it.

It is in this scene that Spock utters the first of a number of Cold War quotes, as a reason that Kirk is the right person to carry the olive branch to the Klingons. “There is an old Vulcan proverb,” Spock says. “’Only Nixon could go to China.’” This was in fact a saying inspired by President Richard Nixon’s visits to China, which established relations between the U.S. and the Communist Chinese government for the first time. Because Nixon had been such an ardent anti-Communist (resorting to smearing his opponent as “soft on Communism” to win his first political office) and Cold War supporter, it was said that his willingness to pursue the relationship gave the gesture particular credibility. (Of course, the opposite could also be argued.)

That Spock refers to this as a Vulcan proverb was the first of a series of droll jokes, playing off the penchant of the Germans and then the Russians to claim that they had really invented whatever other countries were credited with inventing. So Chancellor Gorkon refers to reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon; Spock quotes “an ancestor of mine” stating a famous premise of Sherlock Holmes--one which Data would repeat in TNG. However, some credibility for the Vulcan proverb comment was suggested by the later Trek film, Star Trek: First Contact, and the later TV series Enterprise, which established that Vulcans were present on earth from the 22nd century. It would be possible for Vulcans to take this as a proverb for themselves, though let's face it, it's still a joke.

It is also the first of a series of quotes from contemporary and historical Cold War politics: Kirk refers to “the end of history,” which was the title of a 1989 essay (later expanded into a book) that theorized that the end of the Cold War would end history itself because one side—western liberal democracy—had triumphed. (Another dubious conclusion, but a well-known one when this movie was made.) When the Federation President says “This President is not above the law" it’s a clear reference to Nixon and Watergate of the 1970s, and even when General Chang (Christopher Plummer), acting as prosecutor in the trial of Kirk and McCoy, says “don’t wait for the translation,” it’s a reference to Adlai Stevenson saying the same thing to the Soviet UN ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

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