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Nicholas Meyer Explores Star Trek’s Literary Roots

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By Skyler Romero

UCI Illuminations welcomed special guest Nicholas Meyer director of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” to discuss the influence of William Shakespeare’s work on the latter film last Tuesday, May 15.

The film, which takes its name from a line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” also includes many other references to the author, including a villain who incessantly quotes his work. Meyer explained that this stems from his own deep and abiding respect for Shakespeare, which began when he was a young man with a self-described “man crush” on actor Laurence Olivier, who appeared in numerous films based on the author’s plays, including “Henry V” and “Richard III.” Eventually he became a fan of any film based on Shakespeare, fondly recalling his first viewing of the film adaptation of King Lear as his greatest theatrical experience. The young Meyer came to believe that there hadn’t been anything written about by any other author that “William Shakespeare had not expressed first and better.”

Somewhat surprisingly, while Meyer was a big fan of Olivier and Shakespeare, the same cannot be said of “Star Trek,” which Meyer said he found “simply impossible” to watch as a kid. To him, the franchise depicted, “a world I didn’t understand, and a philosophy to which I was unable to subscribe.” Meyer repeatedly referenced a disconnect between his own personal pessimism and the inherent optimism of the Star Trek franchise, at one point stating flatly, “I don’t know how to be optimistic.” However, Meyer was able to connect with the material with some inspiration from Leo Tolstoy’s definition of the purpose of art as, “to teach you how to love life,” a goal which Meyer felt both he and Star Trek had in common.

In addition to the insights into Shakespeare’s influence on Meyer, and how he came to be involved in the Star Trek franchise, the talk also provided a wealth of behind-the-scenes information, to the delight of Star Trek fans in attendance. Among the most interesting pieces of trivia was the revelation that Meyer originally wanted, “Wrath of Khan,” to be titled, “The Undiscovered Country,” but was overruled by producers until the sixth installment of the franchise when he finally was able to use the title. Meyer also talked about the influence of another classic author, Herman Melville, on the character of Khan, and later on, “The Undiscovered Country”s villain General Chang. “It seemed fitting to borrow Shakespeare via Melville,” Meyer said, speaking of Melville’s own borrowing from Shakespeare. “It seemed fitting that their dialogue be operatic, that they be granted arias.”

Another major focus of Meyer’s talk was the political landscape that inspired, “The Undiscovered Country,” which Meyer directly based on the Cold War and the impending fall of the Soviet Union. Referencing the fall of the Berlin Wall, Meyer said that his pitch for the film was, “What if the wall came down in outer space?” with the Federation standing in for the United States and the Klingon Empire for the Soviet Union. Meyer hoped that the allegory would prompt audiences to view the events from a new perspective. “By setting something out there away from us,” Meyer explained, people watch in a way that, otherwise, they might be too excited by bias to observe “dispassionately.”

Looking back on “The Undiscovered Country” 27 years later, Meyer regards the film with a critical eye, at one point commenting that, “in retrospect it looks a little naive; maybe it doesn’t wear so well,” given the differences between today’s geopolitical climate and that of the Cold War era. Where in those days, Meyers said, the threat of nuclear disaster was tied to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, today, “individual bad actors have got [nuclear weapons].” To Meyer, “The Undiscovered Country” represented an era when it seemed as if our destiny was in the hands of governments more so than it is today.

Speaking of the future, Meyer hinted briefly and coyly about a new Star Trek series that he had been hired to work on for CBS All Access before noting that, due to a power struggle between CBS and Viacom, the project is, “not going anywhere in a hurry.”