Thursday, 11 February 2010

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. Nicholas Meyer 1991)

I was watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country last night and was amused, as always, by the wonderful revelation of Kirk's middle name.

Now I know, before all the variously named fans of Star Trek start freaking out at me, that Kirk's middle name was established as 'Tiberius' before this film. Tony Keen has written an excellent article about it here, where he explains that the name was originally established in the Animated Series in the 70s, and it was also mentioned in the novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Tony quotes the relevant section from the novel, which is rather intriguing in itself - Kirk, as narrator (though to be honest, the writing doesn't sound terribly Kirk-like to me) says he is 'forever tired of explaining' that he was given the middle name 'Tiberius' because the Roman Emperor fascinated his grandfather Samuel. This is pretty bizarre, since no matter how fascinated his grandfather was, it seems unlikely that he would want his grandson named after him - that's like naming your offspring 'Caligula'. Why the writers of the Animated Series gave him that name in the first place is an even bigger mystery - presumably they just wanted to give him a really awful secret middle name for fun, like Endeavour Morse, and thought 'Tiberius' sounded suitably exotic.

But the Animated Series isn't canon, and isn't repeated anywhere near as often as the other series (I don't think I've ever seen a single episode) and I'm not sure whether the movie novelisations are supposed to be canon or not (if they are, that makes Saavik doing David Marcus canon, which is fairly bizarre) but they're also going to reach a smaller number of people than the series itself. For those of us who mostly watch the five main series and the films, Kirk's middle name is revealed in The Undiscovered Country, and although the Roman emperor is not name-checked, the connection is, I suspect, intended to add something to the scene.

The Undiscovered Country (taken from Hamlet and claimed to mean 'the future', though in its Shakespearian context it means 'death/the afterlife', which should have told them something really) sees the Federation and the Klingon Empire make peace following a disaster at the Klingons' main energy producing moon. Following an interesting dinner with the Klingon Chancellor ('note to the galley - Romulan Ale no longer to be served at diplomatic functions') the Chancellor is assassinated and Kirk and McCoy are arrested and (very quickly) put on trial for the killing.

The case for the prosecution is brought by the wonderful, wonderful Christopher Plummer, delivering lines of Shakespeare in Klingon with great gusto. (Their council for the defence is Worf, entertainingly enough, supposedly menat to be his grandad or something). He accuses McCoy of either being incompetent or deliberately allowing the Chancellor to die, and Kirk of plotting the whole thing because he hates Klingons. In the middle of his interrogation, Plummer's General Chang addresses Kirk by his full name, heard by many people in the audience for the first time, with all the emphasis on the middle name - 'James, TIBERIUS, Kirk!'

Presumably, for anyone who isn't familiar with Roman history, this just sounds like a funny name. But for anyone who knows who it refers to - an emperor notorious for sexual perversions and for allowing one of his subordinates to run the Empire and murder anyone who ticked him off - it has an extra frisson to it. Chang is accusing Kirk of murder and reflecting on his history of insubordination, which resulted, among other things, in his demotion from Admiral to Captain. There's no suggestion that Kirk is, in any way, like Tiberius, but somehow the fact that he happens to have the same middle name as a particularly nasty emperor gives Chang another petty little weapon to throw at him. The reveal is great - hilarious and wonderfully delivered - and poor Kirk just starts to look smaller and smaller. (He looks pretty tiny already, due to the massive Klingon courtroom that seems to be presided over by a character from Labyrinth).

The new movie has kept the name - The Undiscovered Country is one of the best Star Trek movies, well known and loved, so with that, the Animated Series and the novel, it's pretty well established now. (Yes, I know, Kirk was also supposed to be born in Iowa, but it's pretty easy to imagine that his mother went into early labour when her ship was attacked). Here, the name is explained as an unfortunate family name - Mum suggests it as a first name and Dad says no, cause it's terrible. It's mostly just a funny name, though extra terrible if you know the history. By the time we reach the scene in which teen Kirk steals his step-father's car, Kirk is seemingly proud of the name - it marks him out more than 'James' or 'Kirk' and more importantly, in the new mythology, it comes from his now late father's side of the family. Chang hurled it at him as an accusation, but now it's a badge of honour. So we might be hearing it a bit more often from now on.

12 comments:

  1. [ insert Picard picture here ]There are FOUR series![ /Picard ] We do not speak of the extended alternate reality episodes of Quantum Leap.

    I had no idea that Kirk's middle name was established in TAS. I just always assumed it was already there. Of course, I saw TAS in the original run, when I was a tween. Well, except that I lived in Southern California, so for a while there I didn't get to see any episode with Sulu, because George Takei was running for LA City Council and somehow airing anything with Mr. Sulu was free electioneering or something.

    Anyway, I always just accepted it without really thinking about it, since I probably heard the name in connection with Kirk first, but it is rather odd. There just really aren't any other Tiberii he could be named for. A handful of minor Eastern Roman/Byzantine emperors and a Greek rhetor. I mean, yeah, it was an ordinary praenomen, but the connotations are really unavoidable.

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  2. Re: the number of series - at least you let my beloved Voyager in :)

    Weirdly, I remember hearing it for the first time and knowing who Tiberius was... and yet I know I didn't know who Tiberius was until I saw I, Claudius, when I was 12 or 13, and I know I saw ST6 before that. I think I must have just ignored the name when I saw it on telly as a kid, then we must have got the video after I saw I, Claudius, and I've found the name hilarious ever since.

    I thought about mentioning that Tiberius let Capt Picard run his empire for him, but that seemed an in-joke too far...

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  3. I must admit to being rather ashamed of myself for never 'noticing' that Kirk wasn't given his middle name (officially) until ST6. Like DemetriosX, I just asumed it was always there.

    I knew about the 'James R Kirk' thing of course, and that Roddenberry had admitted it was a mistake and even came up with an excuse, which just made me assume that there was an official middle name much earlier.

    I think a few things were first mentioned in the animated series, and later canonised, such as a few details about Spock's childhood.

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  4. Voyager wasn't that bad. It probably had the weakest writing of TNG/DS9/VOY, but all of the series suffered from that to a greater or lesser extent. They did have an unfortunate tendency to kill Harry (it seemed like once a season) and calling Nick Locarno Tom Paris just to save a few bucks was a little underhanded, but on the whole it wasn't bad.

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  5. The Undiscovered Country (taken from Hamlet and claimed to mean 'the future', though in its Shakespearian context it means 'death/the afterlife', which should have told them something really)...

    I've actually given this some thought, and my theory is that in Klingon culture, perhaps the afterlife is the only future worth looking forward to. After all, they are all noble warriors seeking to die in battle, and then have their spirits enter Sto-vo-kor.

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  6. Hmm, that's a good point, especially considering the ritual suicide they also have...

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  7. Do you like star wars at all? just asking because I honestly am a wars fan more then a trekkie. Wars just appealed to me more. Plus there's the fact that wars tech would kick trek tech's ass in battle. I'm not trying to judge, I'm just rather curious.

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  8. Star Wars is all right, but I've never been a huge fan to be honest. I keep meaning to do a post on the Senate in the prequels, but I'd like to re-watch the movies first. I like Return of the Jedi, and my favourite Star Wars movie is Revenge of the Sith, which I really enjoyed. I like all of them to some extent, except maybe Phantom Menace.

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  9. cool. One of my best friends is also a bit of a trekkie. And i honestly liked rotj more after revenge of the stih, because it was nice to watch palpy get his comeuppance. The star wars eu is a bit of a mixed bag though. LEt's just say that your millage will vary alot.

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  10. I see The Undiscovered Country more as a metaphor for the end of the Cold War. With elements of both the Federation and the Klingons wishing to continue the conflict. Even addicted to it and in odd way the movie is more relevant now than when it first came out.

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  11. Yes I agree, the film is obviously a metaphor for the end of the Cold War - I was just focusing on the Classical elements.

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  12. There's an additional dimension to "Tiberius". The emperor was the victim of a smear campaign, and Kirk essentially emulates him in the movie.

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