Christopher Plummer appeared in over 200 films during a storied career spanning seven decades. Though he first found fame as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, that ultimately provided a springboard to an eclectic career that surprised and delighted in equal measure. Plummer was an accomplished theatre performer with an uncanny knack for stealing the show in minor yet memorable roles; a magnetic presence you simply couldn’t take your eyes off.
Everyone has a favourite Plummer performance whether it be as Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King or his recent turn in Rian Johnson’s inventive murder mystery Knives Out. Yet for Star Trek fans, the late, great Oscar winner will always be remembered as General Chang from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, an iconic villain and one arguably responsible for rescuing the entire franchise.
Bringing Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to the Screen
After the critical and commercial disappointment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the Enterprise was on red alert, with cast and crew aware another misstep could spell the end for their big screen adventures. A prequel, tentatively titled “Star Trek: The Academy Years”, was discussed yet ultimately jettisoned following objections from fans, core cast members, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself. Discussions were also held over a potential crossover that would see Captain Kirk meet Jean-Luc Picard though that idea was also shelved to return to at a later date.
Ultimately, it was Leonard Nimoy and writer and director Nicholas Meyer who hit upon the idea of using the film as an allegory for the fall of communism with the Klingons cast firmly in the role of Soviet Russia. The film would begin with a Chernobyl-like intergalactic event on the Klingon home planet and their attempts to broker a peace deal with the Federation. It was Meyer who hit upon the idea for a plot that would see Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy framed for the assassination of the Klingon High Chancellor.
Casting Christopher Plummer as Chang
Widely credited with resurrecting the fortunes of the franchise as director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and co-writer on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Meyer only ever had one man in mind for the role of the erudite Klingon general with the penchant for quoting William Shakespeare.
“I had always been a fanatic Christopher Plummer fan,” Meyer told StarTrek.com. “I had acquired a CD of him performing excerpts from Henry V to the accompaniment of the musical score that William Walton wrote for the Olivier movie of Henry V. I used to just listen to it over and over and over again. And Chang came out of that recording.”
An avid Shakespeare fan, Meyer had seen Plummer in several productions through the years. It was an experience that shaped much of what went into the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – right down to the film’s subtitle which is a direct quote from Hamlet.
Meyer began writing his script with the idea of Plummer as Chang – and he was not about to accept any alternatives.
“I said to Mary Jo Slater, who was our casting director, ‘You have to get him [Plummer] for this, because I can’t make the movie otherwise. There’s no other actor who can do this.’”
Even so, Plummer took some convincing according to Leonard Nimoy.
“I had to get on the phone with him several times… he had turned us down,” Nimoy revealed in an interview included on the Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Blu-ray release;
“He was certainly a great choice… but we were turned down. There’s a certain kind of very good actor who’s concerned about taking on this makeup and this persona of a bad guy in a Star Trek movie…He wanted to find some way to say ‘OK, I think I can take this on,’ and make it worthwhile.”
Despite being a fan of the original TV series, Plummer was hesitant to take the role of a Klingon on account of the heavy make-up effects he would be required to wear.
“I didn’t want to look like every other Klingon,” Plummer later explained to William Shatner in the 2011 documentary The Captains. “We ran into great difficulty because … they said it was traditional to have all of this [the usual Klingon headpiece].”
Plummer elaborated further in another interview for the film’s DVD release: “I found a lot of the headgear that some of them wore rather phoney. I could see where the stitches were, so I decided I’d be a little different”
Eventually a compromise was reached.
“Finally, Nicholas [Meyer], who wrote that very witty, tongue in cheek script, he stood up for me,” Plummer explained in The Captains. “The director stood up for me and I got my way — I didn’t have the long hair.”
Donning an eyepatch that hinted at his eventful past as a great Klingon warrior, Plummer threw himself into the role of Chang with gusto, seeing it as a chance for the “upright, glamorous leading man to play a villain.”
It was much more than that though.
The Shakespeare Influences
Shatner and Plummer had a friendly rivalry that dated all the way back to the 1950s, when Shatner was Plummer’s understudy during a production of Henry V at Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
When illness prevented Plummer from appearing one night, Shatner took his place and found a way to upstage him.
“He didn’t do what I did at all,” Plummer recalled during an interview on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. “Where I stood up to make a speech, he sat down. He did the opposite of everything I did. And I knew that son of a bitch was going to be a star.”
The role of Chang offered a rare opportunity to share the screen with his friend and rival and it was one that Plummer relished, imbuing his performance with a sense of theatricality largely lacking in the Star Trek universe up until that point. It wasn’t a case of Plummer trying to upstage Shatner either; his grandiose performance elevated that of his co-star, bringing an extra dimension to the role of Kirk and his prejudice against the Klingon race.
The film’s clever use of Shakespeare quotes – designed to highlight humanity’s gravitation towards conflict – might also have fallen flat were it not for Plummer’s delivery and ability to make them a believable part of his devious warmongering character’s persona.
It’s not all about the famous bard though – one of Plummer’s most memorable scenes comes during Kirk and McCoy’s trial on the Klingon home planet of Qo’noS. Plummer delivers a devastating disdainful cross-examination of Kirk that ends with the memorable line: “Don’t wait for the translation, answer me now!” It’s an exchange that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the kind of courtroom dramas commonplace in the 1990s, with Plummer at his grandstanding, dramatic best.
Even Chang’s final words in the film of “to be, or not to be” – the kind of line that might have sounded cliched coming from anyone else – were imbued with a sense of fatalistic gravitas that only enhanced Plummer’s performance and the character in Star Trek folklore.
It also served to underline the importance of Plummer’s performance. While the concept developed by Meyer and Nimoy helped enliven the flagging franchise, Plummer undoubtedly elevated the material. He delivered the franchise’s most compelling villain since Khan Noonien Singh.
Audiences and critics evidently agreed, with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country garnering positive reviews and improved box office returns to help return the Enterprise to its former glories. It’s a further testament to Plummer’s performance that Chang lived on beyond the film in several Star Trek comic books and the game Star Trek: Klingon Academy – a game he happily reprised the role for.
Plummer later reflected on the experience in his own inimitable fashion during his interview for The Captains.
“I had the most marvelous time,” he said. “I was only jealous of David Warner (Chancellor Gorkon), who had the best line in the whole show, and I wished to hell General Chang could have said it, but it was David who said it.”
The line in question? “You don’t know Shakespeare until you’ve heard it in the original Klingon.”