Ever since the success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, subsequent films in the Star Trek universe have largely been judged by their villains (with STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) being the obvious exception). And like Shinzon in STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) and Nero in STAR TREK (2009), many often feel like pale imitations of Khan himself.
However, this is not the case for Klingon General Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, which in my humble opinion is the only film in the series to challenge WRATH OF KHAN for the top spot among all Star Trek films. Chang is a big part of why I love the film so much, and a lot of that is due to his portrayal by Christopher Plummer.
As an actor who comes from theater, Plummer was the ideal choice to play a Klingon general with a penchant for quoting from the works of Shakespeare (even if they are not, as he remarks in the film, in the “original Klingon”). Unlike some of Trek’s more one-note villains, Chang is at various times cordial, cunning, or ruthless. Plummer’s theater background is most evident in the trial scene, where Chang is called upon to prosecute a case against Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy for the assassination of the Klingon chancellor. He shows tremendous range here, from quiet and almost chatty when he discusses the amount of Romulan ale consumed by McCoy prior to the attack to bombastic when, in perhaps the most famous exchange in the scene, he evokes Adlai Stevenson II’s famous remark to Russian Ambassador Zorin by yelling at Kirk, “…don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!!!”
Because Chang is not (deliberately) set up as the villain of the film, Plummer also has the added challenge of portraying someone who might be a reluctant ally to the Federation when he comes aboard the Enterprise for an ill-fated diplomatic dinner. His initial encounter with Captain Kirk is not one of hostility but one of admiration, as Chang sees himself and Kirk as two sides of the same coin. Plummer plays both his arrival and departure scenes with the perfect balance of relish, comradeship, and menace so that, despite the good intentions of Chancellor Gorkon, you’re not quite sure what to make of this bald fellow with the bolted-in eyepatch.
His attitude also serves as an interesting mirror on the character of Captain Kirk. Of course, Kirk is portrayed as the hero in these stories, but how would that hero be viewed by his long-time adversaries? While his deeds may not be celebrated, he certainly deserves respect as a warrior, particularly from a race like the Klingons. One gets the sense that Chang has had a similarly distinguished career as Kirk, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his appearance to Kirk and his crew is not dissimilar to how Kirk is viewed by the Klingons. The fact that both Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are classically trained Canadian actors makes the parallel even that much closer.
Both characters also carry with them considerable prejudices as well. While some of Kirk’s is rooted in the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons, there is also the ingrained distrust built up over years of conflict that is shared by both. This is most apparent during the dinner scene, where a comment by Chang is attributed by Kirk to Adolf Hitler just prior to the Nazi invasion of Europe. It also helps that Plummer’s delivery when he responds, “I beg your pardon?” is absolutely perfect. Ultimately though, Kirk is able to overcome these prejudices (admittedly only after being sent to a Klingon gulag) and recognize that it is possible to make peace with one’s enemies.
Chang, of course, isn’t able to make this leap, and because of how he sees Kirk as a mirror of himself, he believes that Kirk is right there with him about there being, “no peace in our time.” It is here during the final battle that Plummer lets loose, chewing the scenery with incredible gusto as he mockingly quotes Shakespeare from his cloaked bird of prey. While I suppose this aspect of his performance could be considered hammy, I just enjoy it so much that I can’t find fault. Chang is clearly having a wonderful time, slowly toying with his adversary, and his shocked expression upon realizing that Kirk has beaten him along with his subdued, “to be…or not to be,” final line is the perfect way for him to go out.
A couple of minor character issues aside — I was never convinced that Chang was anything BUT the bad guy, and his reveal as such in the film is more of a “well duh” moment than a surprise — Christopher Plummer certainly belongs up there with Ricardo Montalban when discussing the best villain portrayals the Star Trek franchise has produced. I cannot imagine another actor in the role, which is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give.
Finally, Christopher Plummer also made his mark in a different role: narrating the first teaser trailer for the film. Set to clips projected over the surface of the Enterprise, it’s probably my favorite Star Trek trailer of all time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Plummer, Chang, and the trailer, and thanks again to Sean Munger for the chance to revisit one of my favorites.