Arts Desk

Wherefore Shakespeare in Klingon? Elementary, My Dear Watson

David Warner as a Shakespeare-loving Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

David Warner as a Shakespeare-loving Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

This, this is the problem, this right here: "In one of the Star Trek movies," which I, Steve Inskeep, won't even go to the trouble of naming, but HINT, it's the one with the Hamlet quote cleverly buried in the title of frakking film: It's the original-cast Trek finale, No. 6, The Undiscovered Country.

And do you know what? I am tired of being ostracized for knowing this. Why should people who like to dress up in funny costumes and congregate at bizarre events to converse in their own private nerd patois be viewed with bemusement, pity, and suspicion?

More simply: Why do Shakespeareans get no respect?

As you've doubtless already know if you care to know, tomorrow night, Washington Shakespeare Company, a 20-year-old troupe known for boldness and occasionally for bare-ness, will host By Any Other Name: An Evening of Shakespeare in Klingon. Appearing in person will be Mr. Sulu himself, George Takei.

The Washington Post's Peter Marks wrote about the invention of the fictional Klingon tongue by linguist Marc Okrand weeks ago, but omitted the name of the writer we have to thank for it, Nicholas Meyer.

There are good reasons I left the quotation marks off of "thank" back there: Before he wrote and directed The Undiscovered Country, Meyer made the best of the Trek movies, 1982's The Wrath of Kahn, which saved the series from itself with scenes like this one, and with copious shots of titular villain Ricardo Montalbán's glistening but, Meyer swears, all-natural chest.

Ricardo Montalbán as Kahn: He meant to write, I SHALL BE REVENGED UPON YOU, JEFFREY!

Ricardo Montalbán as Kahn: He meant to write, I SHALL BE REVENGED UPON YOU, JEFFREY!

Before that, he renewed book-buyers' interest in Sherlock Holmes, writing The Seven Percent Solution and The West End Horror, both of which did long stretches on the New York Times bestseller list in the 70s. (To be fair, The Undiscovered Country is a pretty hokey movie, but some of the best moments in it come when Meyer has Mr. Spock quote Holmes. Another very Meyer-esque joke: Mr. Spock cites "only Nixon could go to China" as "an ancient Vulcan proverb." You also get a pre-Sex in the City Kim Cattrall padding around in pointy Vulcan ears and eyebrows; insert Botox joke here. But I digress.)

Anyway: Meyer published his memoir last year. He's admitted he did it mostly because the writers' strike kept him from penning scripts, and he needed the money. Meyer had made a long and varied career for himself in showbiz since Kahn, working mostly as a writer, sometimes as a director, on films from the 80s zeitgeist-trappers The Day After and Fatal Attraction to the failed 2003 Philip Roth adaptation The Human Stain. But of course he knew the Trekkies would be the main audience for his book, which is why he called it The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.

He retells in that book a story he's told before — like, on the Wrath of Kahn DVD director's commentary, for instance — about how he made the Trek flick most beloved by geeks and civilians alike mainly by having landed the job with little prior knowledge of, and zero prior interest in, the cultural commodity known as Star Trek. He simply wanted to direct a movie for a major Hollywood studio — something he'd done only once before, with an adaptation of his novel Time After Time. Trek was the gig on the table in front of him; no more, no less.

Paramount forced Trek creator Gene Roddenberry out of the franchise after the first, dull big-screen installment underperformed. The studio's main question for the unproven Meyer seemed to be, could he make a Star Trek flick for roughly a quarter of the prior film's then-astronomical $45 million budget? He did that, but what has always fascinated me, as a fair-weather Trek fan (I haven't even seen all the movies), but more broadly as a fan of storytelling pragmatism, is how Meyer essentially hijacked Trek to make it about what he was interested in, alienating Roddenberry but not the community of fans.

The novels Meyer had loved best as a boy were the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester — high seas adventure with the British Royal Navy. And what was Starfleet, Meyer reasoned, if not the navy? And thus Trek became seasoned with fun, weird stuff that had never been there before, but just seemed to fit: new, more British-looking crimson uniforms (one of very few indulgences the penny-pinching studio permitted), nautical terminology on the bridge, quotations from Melville and Dickens, ships in bottles in Captain Kirk's quarters . . .

I could go on, but that would only embarrass us both. My point is this: Meyer got his grubby paws on Star Trek, a known quantity, repurposing and enlarging it into something that made sense to him. In the process, he built a new audience — one that included five-year-old me — and gave a creaky, corny franchise another three decades of life. I've always felt there was a lesson in there, somewhere, about finding one's way into a role or subject you think can't possibly interest you.

Nine years later, in 1991, he wrote the joke about Shakespeare in Klingon.

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