Only Kirk Could Go To Qo’noS: Cold War Allegory and the Title Theme for Star Trek VI

By Michael W. Harris

Note: This post is part of The Music of Star Trek Blogathon hosted by Film Music Central.

Star Trek VI movie poster

Coming off the critical and commercial failure of The Final Frontier, the future of another big screen adventure for Kirk and Crew was in doubt. Sure, The Next Generation was setting ratings records in first-run syndication, but would anyone go to see another big screen adventure of the Original Series crew? Indeed, the first idea batted around for a Trek VI was something that is much more like what became the 2009 reboot: a younger version of crew set during their days at Starfleet Academy. But with the 25th anniversary of the franchise looming, along with negative fan reaction to this early pitch, the decision was made to give Shatner, Nimoy, et al, the big screen send-off they deserved.

Enter the savior of film Trek Nicholas Meyer, who took the rocky reception of The Motion Picture and gave us Wrath of Khan. Could he do it again, though? While the status of Undiscovered Country is nowhere near the universal acclaim of Khan, Meyer did succeed in producing a more profitable film on an even smaller budget than Final Frontier, so in that respect he did succeed. And one of the ways in which he was able to achieve this was by once again tapping a young, unknown composer to score his film. But while Khan launched the career of James Horner into warp drive (pardon the pun), not much was heard of Trek VI’s composer, Cliff Eidelman, afterwards. Indeed, including Undiscovered Country, Eidelman has only 35 film and TV credits to his name, with his last coming in 2012.

However, this was not for lack of quality of his score for Star Trek VI. Like Horner’s score, it is steeped in the feeling of Trek past, while also demonstrating an awareness of the film’s big ideas. Undiscovered Country is a bit of a mess in terms of plot—it is an allegory about the end of the Cold War, it is a murder mystery, and it is an escape film—but Eidelman draws out the big themes of the Cold War and endings (both of the Cold War and of the original cast’s last voyage) in his score. It is a dark and brooding score whose main title draws on two giants of 20th century Russian music: Igor Stravinsky and Dimitri Shostakovich.

While Eidelman himself has acknowledged the inspiration of Stravinsky’s Firebird in his composition of the main theme for the film, I believe that the opening of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is also being tapped in it. Have a listen:

All of these works begin with somber, almost funereal, string melodies pitched in the lower instruments. While this is nothing remarkable or unique, the shape of the phrases are strikingly similar: a slow rise and fall (albeit inverted in Stravinsky), almost like a someone trying to push against an unyielding system only to fail and end up where they began. But it is also noteworthy that both inspirations come from the Russian school of composition. Stravinsky, a famous expat who made his name in Paris ballet, and Shostakovich, whose status as either a dissident protected by his celebrity or party mouthpiece is still subject to debate, though I will not debate his status at these proceedings.

The fact that the score was seemingly inspired by these two Russian composers is all the more interesting because of the clear Cold War allegory that was at play in Trek VI. Kirk must try and help broker peace between the Federation and its long time nemesis the Klingon Empire, all the while Kirk is still haunted by the specter of his son’s death at the hands of the Klingons in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The parallels to the ending of the US and Soviet Union’s nuclear standoff could not be more obvious, especially in 1991. And Spock hammers this home with his recitation of the “Old Vulcan Proverb” of how “Only Nixon could go to China.”

But the sources—the allegory, and the finished score—all work together to give the film its moody tone, matched by the dark set lighting and cinematography, that makes the film so atmospheric and brings out a sense of foreboding and an impending end. Eidelman’s main theme strives and builds, but always seems to come back to its original starting point. Despite the march that it builds into, and the major mode contrasting secondary theme, the title theme always returns to its beginning. As Kirk might ask: can anything really change? Can peace be achieved? Can we overcome our old prejudices and enter into the undiscovered country? This is what the main theme begs us to consider before the movie proper even starts. It sets up these questions from its very first note.

However, by the end of the film, it is the more optimistic secondary theme that has taken over. As Kirk states in the film’s last scene, “Once again we have saved civilization as we know it,” followed by the original crew signing off for the last time.

But what of that allegory? Undiscovered Country is both similar to and quite different from another Russia v US Trek entry: “Balance of Terror.” This seminal Original Series episode was inspired by classic submarine warfare films and was couched in the rhetoric of the Cold War combatants’ technological race. But where the music for that episode was typical for TOS, VI revels in its darker tones. It was a film of endings and of a universe on the brink of either war or peace. A single nudge could send it tilting either way, much like our world was during the decades after The Original Series aired. This was a film born of the ‘70s and ‘80s when nuclear proliferation had reach insane levels and it was only through the courage of “the diplomats” that world-wide annihilation was averted. And it is this mindset that is reflected in Eidelman’s main theme for Undiscovered Country.

What is also interesting is that if we take the dark main theme based on Stravinsky and Shostakovich to be the Soviets/Russians (and thus the Klingons) in our allegory, then the major secondary theme is the US (Federation), which makes sense hearing how that is the theme that plays at the end of the film in the final cue. And while that might seem a bit heavy handed, it fits in Star Trek’s long held tradition of the Federation being the cosmopolitan, utopian vision for the United States that Roddenberry established back in the 1960s. This is also a view wonderfully skewered, and also upheld, in a conversation between Quark and Garak in Deep Space Nine…a conversation that took place right after the Klingons went to war against the Cardassians and in the process withdrew from the peace treaty that was brokered thanks to the efforts of Kirk and crew: the Khitomer Accords.

There is much more that could be said about this score and its other themes, but I’ll leave those to the care of another crew. They will continue the voyage I have begun and take us…oh well, you know the rest.

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