Christopher Plummer’s win for Best Supporting Actor in Beginners made me pull out my copy of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and watch it for his role as General Chang. Chang, chief of staff to the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, is part of a conspiracy to assassinate Gorkon to disrupt peace negotiations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. In his spare time, Chang enjoys quoting Shakespeare (“I’d give real money if he’d shut up,” Dr. McCoy groans at one point).
This time watching it, though, something about it really, really, really bothered me. I’m not quite certain why I never quite noticed it before.
The movie hit theaters in 1991. I remember seeing it three times on the silver screen. I bought the VHS when it came out, and I owned the laser disc, and I’ve owned the special edition DVD for several years. I’ve probably seen it at least two dozen times – possibly more. While I think Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a great film, Star Trek VI has always been my favorite of the Trek films.
Most importantly, it’s the most topical of the films. Star Trek’s best episodes were a reflection of the times in which they were produced. So it’s fitting that Star Trek VI used the Federation and the Klingons as a mirror for the United States and the Soviet Union as the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War thawed. From references to Adlai Stevenson’s “Don’t wait for the translation, answer me now!” from his appearance at the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Chekov’s “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” after Kirk invites Gorkon’s delegation aboard the Enterprise for dinner, to a speech made by Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockinbird‘s Tom Robinson) as xenophobic Admiral Cartwright that was so painful the actor required multiple takes to choke it out.
As the climax of the film approaches, Kirk & McCoy have been rescued from a Klingon prison planet, and the Enterprise is presumably being hunted by Starfleet as the ship has refused orders to put back to space dock. The character of Vulcan Lieutenant Valeris, introduced for the film and portrayed by Kim Cattrall, has been exposed as a member of the conspiracy to disrupt the peace talks. Under interrogation she refuses to answer questions pertaining to who is part of the conspiracy and what their next steps are.
Spock refuses to accept her refusal to speak. He forcibly applies a mind-meld. Vulcans are telepaths (primarily contact, i.e., they have to be touching you) and the mind-meld is a technique to read someone else’s mind. There are two occasions that I can recall of a non concentual mind meld in Star Trek. In the episode Mirror Mirror, “evil” Spock mind melds with Dr. McCoy to determine the intentions of “our universe” Kirk, Scotty, and Uhura who are trying to return to the correct universe.
This scene in Star Trek VI is the second instance.
It’s always been disturbing. This time more than I remember it in the past. Valeris tries to resist Spock’s mind-meld, but she breaks. She reveals the names of the conspirators: Admiral Cartwright … General Chang … the Romulan ambassador …
Here’s the scene:
In the audio commentary with Director Nicholas Meyer (who also helmed Wrath of Khan) and writer Denny Martin Flynn, one of the two — I think Meyer — remarks that the scene was supposed to be “erotic.” Um. Or just excruciatingly painful. Also bizarre that a scene of, basically, invasion of privacy and torture would be considered “erotic.”
Spock is Valeris’ mentor. Earlier in the film he tells her that he plans on leaving Starfleet, and he intends for her to succeed him as the Enterprise’s science officer. She tells him she’s scared of an unknown future, but he does not listen to what she’s really saying: she’s afraid of a Federation without the Klingons as an adversary. So here he is – betrayed by someone who didn’t listen to him when she should have, and now the two powers are on the verge of war, his friends Kirk & McCoy have just barely not been killed, and he’s probably up for charges of desertion if Starfleet ever gets their hands on him.
So he … what? Rapes her? I mean, not sexually. But if Star Trek is an allegory for the modern world, what is the mind meld an allegory for? And isn’t rape about power, not sex?
Does Spock violate Valeris? Yes. Does it project his power and cause her pain? Yes.
Maybe Star Trek VI took literary cues not only from Shakespeare but also from the work of John le Carre. Neither sides are innocent, and even a moral man will stoop the lowest of the low to achieve his goal. Hey – but Chang dies and the Federation and the Klingons become fast friends. All’s well that end’s well, right?