Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
The Star Trek franchise sometimes lucks out on getting a wonderful guest star to jump aboard. Some of these guest stars are relative unknowns; actors and actresses who aren’t household names, but nevertheless gave wonderful, memorable performances. On the other hand, there are a handful of actors and actresses who join Star Trek when they’re already very well-known, either because they’re longstanding fans or because they were offered a once-in-a-lifetime role.
Christopher Plummer, who played General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, was firmly in the second category; an established, renowned star. Plummer sadly passed away yesterday at the age of 91, and I thought it would be nice to take a look at his single Star Trek role, as well as pay tribute to this legend of stage and screen.
Christopher Plummer had a long career, first appearing on television in his native Canada in 1953. He continued to act well into his 80s, and among his final roles were the 2019 film Knives Out and a Canadian television show called Departure which was broadcast that same year. To Star Trek fans, Plummer is iconic for his role as the eyepatch-wearing Klingon General Chang in 1991’s The Undiscovered Country, where he faced off against fellow Canadian William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.
Plummer’s love of Shakespeare was incorporated into the story of The Undiscovered Country – the title of which is itself a quotation from the Great Bard. Chang would go on to quote Shakespeare numerous times throughout the film, appearing all the more villainous for it! There’s something about Shakespearean language that makes for a menacing antagonist.
General Chang was one part of a broader conspiracy to prevent the Klingons and Federation achieving peace – a metaphor, in 1991, for the end of the Cold War. The Klingons had been conceived during The Original Series as the “Russians” to the Federation’s “Americans,” so it was certainly fitting to bring them into a storyline like this.
To continue the analogy, Chang represents the hard-liners – Soviet military leaders who could not conceive of the end of their dominance and place in the world. A few months before The Undiscovered Country would hit cinemas, a number of such men attempted a coup in the Soviet Union. This was the final roll of the dice from the old guard to preserve Soviet communism and wrench control away from the reformer Gorbachev; the Soviet Union would be formally dissolved in December of that year.
Perhaps it’s because of how timely the story was that General Chang made such an impact on Star Trek. The franchise has often looked at the real world through its sci-fi lens, but few stories managed to be as relevant or as timely as The Undiscovered Country was in 1991. The end of the conflict between the Klingons and the Federation represented the end of the Cold War, the explosion of Praxis and its fallout can be seen as an analogy for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and General Chang and Captain Kirk are the respective “old soldiers” from either side who must overcome the way they feel.
Kirk succeeded where Chang could not in that regard, and The Undiscovered Country gave him a meaningful character arc in a way few prior stories had. But Chang’s role is just as interesting, as he represents the many people on both sides of the conflict who were unable to find a way to live in peace. He was a foil for Kirk; a dark reflection of where Kirk’s own biases and mistrust could have led. Chang’s philosophy was that it was better to die in battle than live peacefully with one’s enemies – and he got his comeuppance for it.
But having an interesting real-world message isn’t the only thing that makes Chang’s story so much fun. As I’ve said before, pushing too hard on that front can sometimes lead to a story or character being less entertaining! Instead, Chang was a truly interesting villain for the Star Trek franchise; a Klingon whose motivations were steeped in the concept of honour that his warrior people hold so dear.
Chang’s Klingon Bird-of-Prey could fire its weapons while cloaked, making it a uniquely challenging vessel for Kirk’s Enterprise-A and Sulu’s Excelsior during the climactic final confrontation. This battle, along with the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in The Wrath of Khan, draws on inspiration from war films set aboard submarines, with Kirk and Sulu trying to outmanoeuvre and outthink their unseen opponent.
During Kirk and McCoy’s trial on Qo’noS, Chang was a powerful advocate for the prosecution, insisting they be convicted for the assassination of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon – an act for which he and his co-conspirators were, in fact, responsible. Star Trek has shown numerous times that it’s a franchise capable of some great moments of courtroom drama, and this was absolutely one of them! Chang shouting at Kirk that he shouldn’t wait for the universal translator was pitch-perfect acting.
A complex villain, whose motives were to continue a conflict that he could simply see no way of bringing to a peaceful end, General Chang is absolutely one of the most interesting and entertaining antagonists in all of Star Trek, and is up there with Khan as one of the best ever faced by Kirk and The Original Series’ crew.
Christopher Plummer had a long and varied career, one which touched many different genres and styles of acting, and endeared him to generations of audiences. His one moment in Star Trek was not his defining role – and is not the headline in most of his obituaries in mainstream news outlets today – but I firmly believe it showed what he was capable of at his best: a classic Shakespearean actor capable of transitioning to a wholly new genre. He will be missed.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is available to stream now on CBS All Access (soon to be rebranded as Paramount+) in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.