Note: I began writing this the day Christopher Plummer died. But depression and uncertainty kept me from finishing it. I finally got back to it.
Way back in the year 2000, my dad was walking past my computer while I was playing a video game. He was standing there fixated on my screen, which kind of freaked me out because he normally didn’t take any interest in what I was playing.
“Is that Christopher Plummer?” He asked.
“Who?” I responded.
My dad was staring at Christopher Plummer as General Chang and the video game was Star Trek: Klingon Academy, and his surprise was understandable. To this day I don’t know how they got Christopher Plummer to appear in a Star Trek video game, or how the game developers could afford it for that matter. Klingon Academy came out in 2000, and I was so excited for it as a kid I did something I hated in order to get it: I actually called my local Gamestop to reserve a copy for me so that when my mom got off work we could go buy it. And by we, I of course mean her, because I was only 12 years old. I still remember the store clerk laughing at me when I asked him to hold a copy for me.
“We have plenty.”
He wasn’t wrong, Klingon Academy was a commercial and critical failure. I never understood why because it had the best capital ship space combat I’ve ever played, to this day nothing has been that satisfying. More than that thought, it had a great story anchored by a terrific performance from Christopher Plummer, an outstanding soundtrack, and better production values than most episodes of Star Trek.
…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.– General Chang quoting Shakespeare
This scene was my first true introduction to Shakespeare. Not by being forced to read it in my middle school English class, but by hearing it performed by a truly great Shakespearean actor. Christopher Plummer became one of my favorite actors, and my adoration for his work began right here with his performance in Klingon Academy. So when I heard that Christopher Plummer had died this past Friday, my first thoughts were of him as General Chang and how he introduced me to Shakespeare when I was 12 years old. So in honor of one of my favorite actors, allow me to praise him for the role I wager most people never saw him in.
Fun fact: I didn’t even realize his character came from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country until years later, and quite frankly Klingon Academy did way better with the story and character.
Star Trek: Klingon Academy has you playing the role of Torlek, son of Ro’Vagh, entering the titular academy to train to become an officer in the Klingon Empire. Torlek never gets much characterization, but then the player character is meant to be a bit of an empty shell in these kinds of games. However interacting with the other members of the Academy, and in particular, General Chang is an absolute pleasure.
General Chang is the chief instructor of the academy, and his lesson plan is leading his students through a simulated war against the Federation. Star Trek as a whole has never done war well, even Deep Space 9 whose Dominion War was a centerpiece of the show, never quite made the war feel real in terms of strategy and tactics. That’s not a criticism, that wasn’t the story it was trying to tell, Deep Space 9 used the war as a backdrop to explore how the optimism of Star Trek and the Federation itself holds up in the face of adversity, and to explore its characters. Yet as someone who loves watching documentaries on various wars, and loves playing strategy games like Waterloo, Stalingrad, and D-Day with my friend BJ, I love the examination of tactics and strategy.
Klingon Academy gives us a look at what a war in Star Trek would probably look like on both its strategic and tactical levels. Strategically General Chang’s plan is quite brilliant, opening with a lighting strike on Federation listening posts along the border to blind them to Klingon fleet movements. This is immediately followed up with aggressive attacks along the immediate border, using small groups of Birds of Prey to quickly attack targets of opportunity. The idea being to make it seem as if the Klingons are merely trying to expand their immediate borders, when in reality the bulk of the Klingon fleet slips past under cloak to strike at the heart of the Federation. Exploiting the Federation’s size to outmaneuver Starfleet’s defenses and stretch them thin, while also driving a wedge between its member planets by specifically targeting non-human worlds so they sue for a separate peace. And ultimately, the final mission of the game is an assault on Earth itself.
The missions you undertake in this simulated war are the tutorial for how to play the game, each one showing you how to use your ship to its greatest advantage. From using your cloaking device to outmaneuver enemies to transporting marines to sabotage enemy systems, as Chang tells you in one memorable speech “Everything on a starship is a weapon.” Unlike most other space simulators at the time, this game didn’t take place just in empty vacuum; you could fly into a planet’s atmosphere, nebulas, and planetary rings. Each one giving you a distinct advantage over your enemy and a disadvantage to work around. Again the richness of this game’s capital ship combat is something that’s yet to be equaled, even by Bridge Commander.
It’s during these tutorial levels that Chang also introduces you the “Heart of Virtue,” the name of the sacred symbol of the Klingon Empire.
Chang explains that the Heart of Virtue’s three blades represent Honor, Loyalty, and Duty. And since this is a love letter to Christopher Plummer’s performance in this game, I’ll let him tell you all about it.
In case you can’t or don’t want to watch the video, Chang tells his students that Honor, Loyalty, and Duty make up the core of a warrior’s life. How balancing those three virtues against one another is the struggle that never ends until he meets his death on the battlefield. In one particular training mission, your tasked with making peace with the Tholian Empire, which had been drawn into the war with the Klingons during an earlier mission. The Tholians offer a trade: bring them the commander of the Klingon task force so they can bring him to justice. You can make the choice: do you fulfill your duty and make the trade in order bring peace with the Tholians? Or do you honor your loyalty to your commander, and let the war continue?
No matter what choice you made General Chang summons you to his office after the mission to reprimand you. The first time I played the mission I chose the groveling option, where you beg for forgiveness and are allowed to stay at the school, because I assumed the angry option would fail you. Second time I picked the option where you get angry. Torlek rightly points out there is no way to maintain both your duty and loyalty in the mission, and Chang congratulates you on standing up to him, pointing out that the three virtues come into conflict with one another more than any warrior would like to admit.
More than merely a glimpse into Klingon culture, these virtues let us glean the mind of Chang’s character and ultimately form the basis of its central conflict. Beyond the training and lectures, a conspiracy grows: a usurper named Melkor plans to overthrow the Chancellor and install himself as the new Emperor of the Klingon Empire. As you become the rising star of the academy, General Chang chooses you to go on several covert missions on his behalf. And you graduate from the academy just days before the usurper launches his coup attempt, and the Empire descends once more into civil war.
The new legitimate chancellor, Gorkon, played by the same actor as in The Undiscovered Country, comes to Chang to enlist his support in the civil war. But Chang refuses, stating that Gorkon wants to make peace with the Federation, something Chang can never agree to. Chang launches his own bid to become chancellor, and the civil war turns into a version of the Triumvirate of the Roman civil war under Caesar. The usurper ends up on the losing end, but in a final desperate bid he challenges General Chang to a ship-to-ship duel to settle the conflict once and for all. It’s a trap, and Chang is close to being killed when he hails you asking you to lead his forces when he’s dead. But you instead goes to Gorkon and asks for help rescuing Chang, which he does but that places Chang in Gorkon’s debt. Honor now demands that Chang follow Gorkon’s lead, a state of affairs that he finds unbearable and he sees your actions as a betrayal.
The usurper vanishes, his fleets destroyed, and the war seems won. But as punishment for what Chang perceives as a betrayal, you’re sent to patrol a distant backwater on the Federation border. It’s there, however, you discover a plot by the usurper Melkor to trick Chang into believing the Federation as declared war. Predictably Chang takes most of the fleet and goes on the attack against the Federation. With the fleets now out of position Melkor, and his new Romulan allies, launches an attack on the Klingon homeworld. Gorkon charges you with going to bring Chang and the fleets back to defend the homeworld.
Change refuses, refusing to believe the truth in front of him because he’s so eager to finally be fighting the Federation. If you have the time it’s worth watching the final confrontation, which also has a great performance by the voice actor behind Torlek, and I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to work opposite the great Christopher Plummer.
In the end, you get through to Chang by appealing to his Honor, Loyalty and Duty. Torlek repeats the lessons that Chang taught him and asks Chang to look him in the eye and tell him that his vendetta against the Federation is so consuming that he’s willing to sacrifice his honor, abandon his loyalty to the Chancellor, and derelict his duty to the Empire. Like all great endings, it turns comes full circle back to the beginning.
Chang and Torlek reconcile, and Chang arranges for Torlek to go on a deep space exploration… to save him from being a casualty of Chang’s plans to assasinate Gorkon in The Undiscovered Country.
And that’s it. It’s not the best written video game ever, it won’t move you to tears, but it’s a solid enjoyable story. One elevated by a terrific performance, one that gave me an appreciation of Shakespeare for the first time, and made me lifelong fan of Christopher Plummer; an actor who never gave less than his best, even if it was only for a Star Trek video game.