Captain Kirk’s Final Star Trek Villain Was His Real Life Mentor 

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the villain General Chang is played by Christopher Plummer, for whom William Shatner understudied early in his career.

By Chris Snellgrove | Updated

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Christopher Plummer and William Shatner in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Part of what made those early Star Trek movies so captivating was that they told a very personal story that centered around William Shatner’s iconic Captain Kirk. Instead of just saving the day and warping away, we saw him dealing with getting older, losing his best friend, rediscovering his family, and even resolving his anger toward the Klingons. That resolution happened in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where Kirk squared off against Christopher Plummer’s General Chang, and Variety reports that Shatner ironically once understudied Plummer and saw him as a mentor.

Well before Captain Kirk squared off against General Chang in the last of the films focusing on the Star Trek: The Original Series crew, Shatner was an understudy for Christopher Plummer on a production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Shatner vividly remembers a time that Plummer got sick and Shatner had to fill in for him in the title role “with no rehearsal whatsoever, and it was kind of a big deal for me.” Shatner also saw the slightly older man as a mentor, mentioning how he “admired him enormously for his great talents and his sophistication.”

After their time in theater ended, they wouldn’t get a chance to work together again until the producers of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country cast Christopher Plummer as General Chang, one of the most memorable franchise baddies. In a fun bit of “art imitates life,” the script called for this Klingon warrior to inexplicably be a major fan of William Shakespeare, allowing Plummer to go big on his theatrical performance and even bring in some great Shakespeare quotes. Notably, this was the Trek film that gave us the wonderful gag in which Chancellor Gorkon tells Kirk “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

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Christopher Plummer as General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

One way that Star Trek helped to channel Plummer’s experiences as a stage actor was by including quotes from several different Shakespeare plays throughout the film. Only one of the quotes (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”) comes from Henry V, the play which Plummer and Shatner worked on together. General Chang also quotes Julius Caesar when he famously declares “Cry havoc, and let slip the Dogs of War,” and he quotes Hamlet shortly before getting killed, asking the famous rhetorical question: “To be or not to be?”

When Paramount began putting together the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard, they decided to honor Christopher Plummer in a very unconventional way: by casting his daughter Amanda Plummer as Vadic, a shapeshifter and one of the primary villains of the season. She is a character actor with many memorable performances, especially in the classic Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. And while she didn’t spit out Shakespeare quotes like General Chang did, many fans agree that she instantly became one of this franchise’s most frightening villains.

Ultimately, Shatner’s story of working as an understudy with his mentor before they got a chance to work on a Star Trek movie as equals reminds us of the wisdom of Mr. Spock. He frequently reminded Kirk and crew that “there are always possibilities,” which was his very Vulcan-like way of saying that anything was possible. Nobody could have guessed that Shatner would later work on Star Trek with Plummer in a film that perfectly utilized their mutual Shakespearean training, but in a galaxy full of possibilities, we can all agree that Paramount made the perfect casting choice to help end Kirk’s feature film voyages with both style and grace.

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