Tag Archives: Brent Spiner

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

nemesis

It’s all Ricardo Montalban’s fault.  From the moment that impeccably sculpted chest burst through the screen in 1982, it’s cast a daunting, pectoral-shaped shadow over the creative process of every Star Trek movie that followed.  Let’s have a villain as good as Khan again, say the producers and writers and studio suits as they bat ideas back and forth like so many caffeine-infused tennis balls.  Forget whether the rest of the story makes any sense, let’s make sure we have a bad guy that the audience can boo and hiss and rejoice when he goes to that great villain’s lair in the… well, I guess it wouldn’t be the sky.  After Khan came the boring Kruge, the not-quite-a-villain Sybok, the theatrical Chang, the middling Soran, the eerie Borg Queen, the TV-ready Ru’afo.  As the production of Star Trek Nemesis got underway, producer Rick Berman, while revealing few other details, promised publicly that it would boast the best villain since Khan, forgetting that unlike, say, the Bond series, the appeal of Star Trek as a whole has never been tied to the quality of its antagonists.  The most successful of the Star Trek films to that point didn’t even have one.  But after the deliberately lighter Star Trek: Insurrection underperformed First Contact both critically and financially, Berman and his studio superiors decided that Star Trek worked better when it went dark.  Back to the fastball, then.

As Insurrection had also been taken to task for its TV-episode feel, Berman made a point to staff up with plenty of cinema veterans this time around:  John Logan, who had co-written the Oscar-winning Gladiator, was assigned the script based on a story concocted by himself and Brent Spiner, and as Jonathan Frakes was busy finishing helming the movie Clockstoppers, Stuart Baird was chosen to direct.  Baird had a distinguished career as an editor including the original Superman, and was riding high off directing the hit Kurt Russell/Steven Seagal action movie Executive Decision.  Berman thought that Baird, who had no familiarity with Star Trek, would bring fresh blood and energy to a franchise that was beginning to list and sag a little under the weight of its then-thirty-five year history.  (Prior to Baird, Berman had offered the movie to periodic franchise savior Nicholas Meyer, but like Leonard Nimoy on Generations, Meyer wanted input on the script and Berman had promised full control to John Logan.)  Jeffrey Kimball, the director of photography on smashes like Top Gun and Mission: Impossible II, would handle camera duties; Bob Ringwood (the first three Batman movies) would design the costumes, Jerry Goldsmith would be back for the music.

hardysmiling

Which brings us then to the cast, and although Ron Perlman’s name was announced with the most fanfare (and received higher billing in the credits), he would be taking a supporting part, that of the heavily-made-up Reman Viceroy.  The role of Khan version 8.0 would be played by a little-known English actor named Tom Hardy, who beat out familiar genre names like James Marsters (Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Michael Shanks (Daniel Jackson on Stargate) after first choice Jude Law proved a non-starter.  Of all the many flaws that Nemesis would eventually exhibit, credit must absolutely be given to Rick Berman et al for spotting Hardy’s star potential, even if it’s not overly evident in this movie.  Hardy got the part after submitting what has been described as a “weird” audition tape in which he appeared semi-nude and included oddball home movie footage (anyone who has seen Hardy’s infamous MySpace photos can likely attest to what that footage contained.)  For young and hungry actors, 95% of success is just getting noticed, and whatever the hell it was that Hardy sent in, it was enough to get him cast as Shinzon, the leader of the Reman race who turns out to be a young, unfinished clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  Nemesis‘ promotional campaign featured Hardy heavily, with the teaser poster showing him in shadow raising a knife amidst a field of green smoke, giving off a vibe perhaps more suited to something like The Ring or The Conjuring and certainly light-years removed – pun intended – from the days of Kirk and Spock.

So was the movie itself.

wedding

We know from the outset that this is going to be a darker and more violent entry, as instead of Insurrection‘s pastoral morning stroll, we open with the gruesome murder of the entire Romulan Senate by a cascade of green radiation that turns their flesh instantly to stone.  On Earth, the Enterprise crew is celebrating the wedding of Riker and Troi, complete with cameos by Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan and Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher, and a rendition of “Blue Skies” by Data.  Following a second ceremony on Troi’s homeworld of Betazed, Riker will be leaving to captain the U.S.S. Titan, and Data will be taking his place as first officer.  On the way to Betazed, however, the Enterprise picks up a positronic energy signature from the primitive planet of Kolarus III.  Picard diverts the ship to the Kolarun system, and in the Enterprise‘s new ground vehicle Argo, he, Worf and Data explore the arid surface, where it turns out that the positronic signature is emanating from pieces of an android body – a duplicate of Data.  In what then ranks as the silliest scene ever to appear in a Star Trek movie, Mad Max-type aliens in dune buggies show up and chase our heroes off the planet with the extra android in tow.  It’s a Forrest Gump-esque prototype of Data called B-4, and it is basically the same except for a redundant memory port at the base of its skull.  In an attempt to augment its programming, Data copies his own memories into B-4, but B-4 shows no immediate reaction.

dataandb4

Newly-promoted Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) advises Picard about the coup on Romulus and that the new praetor, Shinzon, who is from the neighboring planet of Remus, wishes to open peace negotiations.  The Enterprise is ordered to Romulus and encounters Shinzon’s massive warship, the Scimitar, in orbit.  Shinzon’s viceroy (Perlman) invites Picard and his crew to beam over to meet with the praetor.  The young Shinzon is not Reman at all, but human, and oddly familiar to Picard, even to the point of having suffered the same rare hearing ailment in childhood.  A DNA scan reveals that he is an exact clone of the good captain.  While Shinzon professes to want peace, not all is as it initially seems; his Romulan allies, including the hawkish Commander Suran (Jude Ciccolella) and the wily Commander Donatra (Dina Meyer) don’t understand his purpose in luring the Enterprise to Romulus, and Shinzon is suffering periodic spasms of extreme pain, which he conceals from all except his Viceroy.  However, Donatra, lingering in the corridor outside after a heated confrontation, notices Shinzon’s discomfort.  Meanwhile, B-4 receives a signal and begins hacking into the Enterprise‘s computer system.

At a private dinner on Romulus, Shinzon reveals his origins to Picard:  he was created as part of a Romulan plot to embed a double agent at the heart of Starfleet that was abandoned when a new government came to power.  Shinzon was exiled to the Reman mines to die, but the Viceroy took pity on him and raised him.  Eventually Shinzon was able to rally the Remans, recruit Romulan allies, and take over the Romulan government in order to free his adopted people.  Picard questions how many Romulans had to die to achieve Shinzon’s goals.  Shinzon suggests that Picard would have acted exactly the same way and asks the captain about what it means to be human.  The two find that despite their radically different upbringings, they looked at the stars in much the same way.  Picard opines that he hopes to be able to trust Shinzon, but that such trust will have to be earned.

pcr

Aboard the Enterprise, Geordi advises that scans of Shinzon’s ship have revealed that it is equipped with illegal and deadly “thalaron” radiation, which can destroy organic matter on contact (it’s the same green rays that petrified the Romulan Senate in the opening scene).  They’ve also discovered that the Enterprise‘s computer has been compromised.  Unbeknownst to them, B-4 is abruptly beamed off the Enterprise and Shinzon downloads what the android has learned from the extra memory port.  And that night, as Riker and Troi settle into bed, the Viceroy uses his telepathic abilities to help Shinzon virtually rape her.  As Picard tries to persuade Troi to shake it off and stay on duty, he is beamed away to the Scimitar, where Shinzon boasts of his plan to attack the Federation, aided by the communications protocols and locations of the entire Federation fleet that he has acquired from B-4.  Shinzon has one of his doctors take a sample of Picard’s blood and leaves him there to contemplate “the triumph of the echo over the voice.”

So… yeah, he’s pretty eeeeeeevil then.

As Riker and the Enterprise attempt to penetrate the Scimitar‘s cloak, B-4 arrives in Picard’s cell and tells the Reman guard that Shinzon wants the prisoner.  But it’s not B-4, it’s Data, who has been impersonating the lesser android since the compromise of the Enterprise computer was discovered.  They’ve given Shinzon false information on the location of the Federation fleet.  Data offers Picard a one-man emergency transport unit to return to the Enterprise, but Picard insists that they find a way off together.  They escape from the Scimitar using a two-man attack fighter, and the Enterprise flees at maximum warp.  Beverly reveals that owing to a defect in the cloning process, Shinzon is dying, and only a complete blood transfusion from Picard can save him.  Geordi also reveals that the Scimitar‘s deadly thalaron radiation weapon can consume an entire planet.  Picard orders the ship to meet up with the rest of Starfleet’s battle group, noting they must stop Shinzon at all costs.   Data also deactivates B-4 to avert any more trouble.  However, they do not realize that Shinzon’s ship is directly behind them, and to reach the fleet they must pass through an unstable section of space called the Bassen Rift, where communications will not function.

In the preamble to the battle, the two characters who have encountered duplicates over the course of this story, Picard and Data, contemplate duality and nature vs. nurture.  Picard wonders if Shinzon is truly a mirror for him, and Data disagrees, pointing out that neither B-4 or Shinzon have any desire to grow or make themselves better.  The Enterprise enters the Rift, and is attacked by the Scimitar, firing from behind its cloak.  Warp drive is disabled, shields are damaged, and Shinzon offers Picard a last chance to surrender.  Picard tries to appeal to Shinzon’s human side, but the dying clone is having none of it and the battle resumes.

remans

Two Romulan ships suddenly arrive and Commander Donatra, who cannot abide having Shinzon’s planned genocide of Earth on her conscience, agrees to assist the Enterprise.  But Shinzon’s ship is too strong, and her vessels are swiftly disabled.  A trembling Troi offers her services, using her limited telepathy to locate the Viceroy – and with him, the Scimitar.  The Enterprise is able to finally disable Shinzon’s cloak.  A boarding party led by the Viceroy beams over and engages in hand-to-hand combat with Riker and Worf, and with phasers and photon torpedoes exhausted, Picard decides to do something out of character and rams the Enterprise into the Scimitar.  Both ships are critically damaged and Riker defeats the Viceroy, sending him plunging down an open shaft to his death.  Shinzon activates the countdown on his thalaron weapon, and orders his crew to kill everything on the Enterprise and then do the same to Earth.  Picard beams over to stop it, followed by Data, who – with transporters now down – has to leap across space to access the enemy ship.  Picard and the increasingly decrepit Shinzon have one final duel and Picard stabs his deranged clone with a piece of pipe.  Shinzon drags himself along it, mumbles something Palpatine-esque about destinies being complete, and dies.  Data arrives and beams Picard back to safety with the emergency one-man transport unit.  He then pulls a phaser on the thalaron energy matrix and blows it, the Scimitar and himself into subatomic bits, while Picard appears safely back on the Enterprise bridge.

destinycomplete

Picard and his officers share a quiet toast in memory of their lost comrade, and the Enterprise returns to spacedock above Earth for repairs.  Picard activates B-4 to tell him a little more about who Data was; the prototype does not understand, but as Picard goes to leave, B-4 starts singing a verse from “Blue Skies.”  Thinking that he may not have lost Data after all, a more confident Picard struts out into the corridors of his ship, and the Star Trek fanfare sounds for this particular crew for what would turn out to be the very last time.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat (or, two thousand words in I suppose).

I HATE this movie.

HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT.

I despise it with as much of my being as is healthy to assign toward two hours of celluloid that was designed primarily to entertain me, not to punch me in the stomach or piss on my lawn or strangle my cats.

I went to see it alone on a weekday in December of 2002 and sat there feeling a progression of emotions from bemusement to frustration, disappointment, and downright annoyance.  In grand geek tradition I felt personally slighted that the creative chefs behind one of my favorite franchises had deigned to serve me this thoroughly unappetizing meal after a four-year wait.

This is a really, really bad movie.

To me, everything that is loathsome about Nemesis begins at its conception, with the choice to build the story around the arc of the villain, not the hero.  WRONG.  Wrong, wrong, basic Screenwriting 101 wrong.  You’re supposed to start with the arc of the hero:  what does he want, and what is preventing him from getting it; therein lie the stakes, and the villain should grow organically from that premise as the primary obstacle to the hero’s goal.  Nemesis, by contrast, is entirely about Shinzon’s journey and his struggle to find his purpose in a life that was thrust upon him, a life that but for a far-fetched Romulan cloning plot never should have been.  That’s all well and good and might have been fine in another movie, but as the audience we don’t care one solitary iota about Shinzon.  We care about our heroes, the Enterprise crew, and they have mostly nothing to do here except react to Shinzon’s evil machinations (which make no sense – we never understand why he’s hell-bent on annihilating Earth, given that his main beef seems to be with the Romulans whom he’s already defeated).  The thematic arc of “family” for Picard, his adopted family (the Enterprise crew) versus his “blood family” Shinzon, is a tenuous connection at best.  It bears saying again (especially given what’s coming in Star Trek Into Darkness) that Khan was not the reason for the success of The Wrath of Khan – his total screen time is quite minimal.  It’s how he spurs our heroes to confront their weaknesses, and prove their heroism through the capacity for sacrifice they find within themselves, that makes the movie work.  The emotionally hollow Nemesis gives us nothing similar, and even Data’s grand send-off – particularly given Brent Spiner’s story credit – feels like the dutiful and orderly execution of an out clause in a restless actor’s contract.

youngshinzon

In a film riddled with plot holes and convenience – space is really, really, really big, and was dumping pieces of an android on a primitive out-of-the-way planet really the most effective way to lure the Enterprise to Romulus? – there’s one glaring one that really grates:  why is Shinzon screwing around for forty minutes of screen time instead of just going ahead with getting what he needs from Picard?  The audience might not necessarily think about that, but the filmmakers helpfully shine a spotlight on it for them by having not one, but two scenes of Commander Suran asking Shinzon what the hell he’s waiting around for, with Shinzon unable to provide a satisfactory answer either time.  We can only conclude that Shinzon has studied at the same academy that taught Voldemort and Sauron and other like supervillains not to try so hard to complete their heinous plots.  Either that or writer Logan realized his “best since Khan” baddie wasn’t substantial enough to pad out a movie’s expected running time.  I’m also not certain why, unless it was simply that the powers that be thought Marina Sirtis needed something to do, the telepathic rape scene was included.  As soon as it occurs, as we watch Shinzon leer and descend into total creepazoid mode, any shred of sympathy we might have nurtured for him is vaporized, as if by a thalaron radiation blast.  What’s even worse is that without a beat, Picard totally dismisses it and asks Troi to subject herself to additional attacks because it might gain them a tactical advantage.  This is abhorrent, and the point in the movie where you stop caring about anyone in it.  (And in the original cut, believe it or not there was a second tele-rape scene to endure.)

For Shinzon to work as a character at all, you have to buy that he really is a dark mirror of Jean-Luc Picard.  But despite Hardy’s game efforts and innumerable “we are the saaaaaame!” scenes, at no point are you ever convinced that this is the case.  There is no way these two men share any heritage beyond the plastic nose and chin they’ve glued to Hardy’s face (and again, it’s lampshaded for us when Shinzon says “not quite the face you remember, is it.”)  Some have suggested that the movie would have worked better had Patrick Stewart played both roles, but the concept was simply misguided and unworkable from the get go.  Picard never needed to meet his evil twin.  Wouldn’t a greater challenge for him be a run up against the very unknown he had dedicated his life to seeking out, something that would have led him to question the value of that life, the moral certitude that was his defining character trait?  In Nemesis, there is no contest as to who is the better man.  Shinzon is a psychotic rapist; game, set and match to Picard, mic drop.

scimitar

So how can a movie fail so utterly and completely?  Bad scripts can sometimes be rescued by good direction, but Stuart Baird is not the man for the job.  Editors don’t necessarily make better directors as their skill is in assembling puzzle pieces and not having to understand the emotional truth behind the creation of each piece.  Consequently the overall tone of the movie is simply unpleasant, as if that green smoke on the bad-Photoshop-job posters was ripe sewer gas.  Jeffrey Kimball either chose or was told not to use any lights, as most of the scenes are so dim you occasionally have to squint to see what’s going on.  There are also at least a half-dozen insert close-ups of fingers pushing buttons as if Baird doesn’t quite believe the audience will comprehend that an action is being taken.  He proves that the lack of familiarity with Star Trek was not a blessing, as he doesn’t seem to even understand the screenplay and bludgeons home story points by staging repetitive scenes that deliver the same information again and again (and let’s steer clear of discussing the inclusion of the bizarre dune buggy chase).  When X-Men director Bryan Singer gets his 18-frame cameo as a relief tactical officer after we’ve been subjected to one hour and twenty minutes of pretty inept filmmaking, it yanks us out of the moment and has us wishing that he’d been the one behind the camera instead.

In the theater, I always stay to the end of the credits, as I enjoy listening to the score and have an interest in the technical side of film production.  As the lights finally went up after Nemesis had sputtered to a halt, I caught wind of a conversation between an usher and a woman in a row further down.  He asked her if she liked it and her reply was “yes, but I love them all.”  I used to be that person too.  I forgave copious sins because I was enamored of these movies (and associated TV series) simply being Star Trek.

This movie ended that for me.

Taste matures with age and experience, and sadly the things that once made our eyes light up eventually only make them glaze over.  Visible seams once ignored become more obvious, and there just isn’t enough good stuff in Star Trek Nemesis to balance out the blatant awfulness of the bad.  Loyalty to a franchise can eventually only bring you so far, and it should never be taken for granted on the other end either.  It is not that the audience will only accept consistent and innovative quality – remind me how many seasons of The Bachelorette have aired now – but as a storyteller, you should be doing your damnedest to see that we get it, if for no other reason than to stand proudly atop your work.  Don’t give us sloppy retreads of earlier, greater achievements, and above all, don’t ever assume that the bad guy is the sole key to a meaningful story.  That way lies Batman & Robin, about which one could easily say that Nemesis is Star Trek‘s equivalent – an absolute disaster followed by a much-improved reboot.

I’m not the only one who felt this way, as Nemesis opened in second place at the box office behind a forgotten Jennifer Lopez rom-com, ended Stuart Baird’s directing career, and kicked poor Tom Hardy – of whom you can at least say was trying his absolute best here – back into movie purgatory until he hauled himself out again years later with Bronson, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises among others, and just this year got his first Oscar nomination for The Revenant.  (I somehow doubt he looks back on this one with much fondness.)

In summary:  If you don’t feel like reading through 3700 words, this image of Worf from Riker & Troi’s wedding reception says it all.

worfdrunk

Next time:  Over to you, J.J. and friends.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  0 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

firstcontactteaser

You remember that great movie Star Trek: Renaissance, right?  The one where the Enterprise crew fights zombies on the streets of 1400’s Florence and Data teams up with Leonardo da Vinci?  Hmm, not quite.  Yet if not for a series of mindful rewrites and a certain actor’s demands regarding his costume, that’s very possibly the mess of a movie we might have been served in the winter of 1996 instead of what we and the people involved remember as the generally agreed-upon high-water mark of the four Next Generation features.

From humble beginnings, as the saying goes.

Star Trek Generations had the same aim (and issues) as Star Trek: The Motion Picture fifteen years earlier – get the awkward first inevitable stumbles from television to silver screen out of the way in a modestly entertaining fashion, and clear the decks for a carte blanche story going forward through the sequels.  With Captain Kirk laid to rest, the TV Enterprise in pieces and no requirement (or lingering desire for that matter) to shoehorn in the ancestral cast again, Captain Picard’s crew could go, much like in the Nexus, anywhere, any time.  Producer Rick Berman, given the green light to begin work on another sequel just as Generations finished its run in theaters, took this literally.

Recalling that time travel had been an element of some of the most successful Star Trek stories, including all-time top grosser The Voyage Home, Berman approached his Generations screenwriting team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga and requested that they dream up a time travel plot.  The two writers had been contemplating using the Borg instead; a virtually unstoppable cybernetic alien race whose modus operandi was not to kill, but to assimilate other beings and cultures into its hive mind.  They had become The Next Generation‘s most popular, catchphrase-ready villains, thanks largely to the third season’s famous cliffhanger finale episode, “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard himself was transformed into a Borg.  So Moore and Braga wrote a story in which the Borg would travel back to the Italian Renaissance to disrupt humanity’s emergence from the Dark Ages.  The Enterprise crew would pursue them and battle Borg drones in Florence while Data assisted Leonardo da Vinci in his earliest breakthroughs.

This treatment was rejected for two reasons:  first, a survey showed that general audiences weren’t terribly familiar with what the Renaissance was (I’m guessing most replied that they thought it was a hotel), and second and most importantly, Patrick Stewart advised that under absolutely no circumstances would he be induced into wearing tights.

stewartintights
Patrick Stewart in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  Clearly once was enough.

Forced to pick another era, Braga and Moore delved into Star Trek‘s own history instead and selected what they called its birth:  the moment in our immediate future when humanity broke the light speed barrier and contacted aliens for the first time.  The original series episode “Metamorphosis” had introduced a character named Zefram Cochrane, played by Glenn Corbett, who was credited with having invented warp drive; the revised story, now titled Star Trek: Resurrection (because somebody at Star Trek in those days had a fixation with titles ending in “-tion”) would see the Borg going back in time and attacking the missile complex in the town of Resurrection, Montana where Cochrane was assembling his prototype warp ship.  Cochrane would be injured, and Picard and Geordi La Forge would take his place at the controls for his historic first warp flight while Riker and the rest of the crew battled with the Borg aboard the Enterprise in orbit.

There were a few problems with this version; namely, that the character with the most personal involvement and history with the Borg never had anything to do with them over the course of the plot, and that Cochrane was a one-dimensional and disposable prop.  It was a simple matter of switching Picard and Riker’s respective places, and putting Cochrane back in the pilot’s seat of his own ship, with the twist that he starts out not as a divinely inspired legend but rather as a flawed, drunken mess more interested in money and women than achieving a place in history.  A savvy (for once) studio executive also observed that the Borg were essentially zombies (a decade before our collective cultural obsession with them began) and requested that there be a central character who could command them – from that directive arose the Borg Queen, the first (and to date, only) female villain in a Star Trek movie.

queen

Impressed, Paramount boosted the movie’s budget.  While Generations had been made for a modest $26 million, the new movie’s bottom line was penciled in at $45 million, allowing for more location shooting, more imaginative set pieces, more impressive visual effects, and – potentially – pricier, in-demand talent.  But as pre-production continued, a reminder of the Eddie Murphy debacle on The Voyage Home surfaced when the studio requested that the now-major guest part of Cochrane be offered to an A-list star; depending on whose account you believe it was one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks).  Different era, but identical concerns that such a presence would eclipse the regular cast.  Attempts to land an A-list director were equally fruitless, as top choices like Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott and Die Hard‘s John McTiernan were far too expensive or not the slightest bit interested in Star Trek.  Berman eventually assigned the movie to Jonathan Frakes (Riker), who had cut his teeth directing multiple episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and clearly knew Star Trek top to bottom.  Given a hand in assembling the guest cast, Frakes suggested his godmother Alfre Woodard as Cochrane’s assistant Lily, who would act as an audience surrogate for the non-Star Trek fans as she accompanied Picard in his battle against the Borg.  But someone still needed to play Cochrane.

cromwell

It was never a question of going back to Corbett, as he had died three years earlier.  And with neither famous Tom willing, able or available, James Cromwell auditioned for and was awarded the part instead.  At the time, Cromwell was not nearly as well known as he is now; a veteran of decades of small parts across both TV and movies (including three different guest roles in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), his star-making, Oscar-nominated turn as the kindly farmer in Babe was just peaking.  Alice Krige was cast as the Borg Queen, and Neal McDonough (a.k.a. Dum Dum Dugan for you Marvel Cinematic Universe fans) received a plum early role as the unfortunate redshirt, Lt. Hawk.  In a replay of The Wrath of Khan‘s title woes, “Resurrection” was dropped from the movie after Alien Resurrection was announced, and a couple of lousy interim titles (including the particularly uninspired Star Trek: Borg) finally gave way to Star Trek: First Contact.

enterprisee

Aboard the newly-commissioned, Sovereign-class, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-E, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is having nightmares of his assimilation by the Borg several years earlier, triggered by their entry into Federation space on their way to Earth.  Initially ordered to stay on the sidelines because of his personal involvement, Picard disobeys and charges into battle, identifying a key weakness that allows the Starfleet armada (including the Millennium Falcon, which you can spot if you have a Blu-ray copy and a good pause button), to destroy the Borg cube and rescue Worf (Michael Dorn, dropping by from his regular duties on Deep Space Nine).  A spherical escape vessel emerges and plummets towards Earth while opening a temporal vortex to travel back in time, catching the Enterprise in its wake.  The effects are immediate:  the Borg change history, transforming Earth into an entirely Borgified planet.  Protected from the alteration in the timeline by the temporal wake, the Enterprise follows them back three hundred years to the night of April 4, 2063, where the Borg are attacking the Montana installation where the famous Dr. Zefram Cochrane is scheduled to make his warp flight aboard his converted nuclear missile, the Phoenix, the very next morning, which will lead to first contact with an alien species.  A spread of super-duper quantum torpedoes destroys the Borg ship, and Picard and crew beam down to the surface.  Many are dead, Cochrane is missing and his assistant Lily has radiation poisoning from the damaged Phoenix.  Picard leaves Riker in charge of repairs and returns to the Enterprise, where the environmental systems are haywire and crewmembers are going missing.

The drunken Cochrane is finally located hitting on Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in a bar, and he is informed of the importance of his journey in the morning.  A skeptical Cochrane, summing up our heroes as “astronauts… on some kind of star trek,” agrees to help, but is overwhelmed by the attention and adulation he draws from the Enterprise crew – including the nervous Lt. Barclay, in a cameo from Dwight Schultz reprising his character from The Next Generation.  Aboard the Enterprise, as Lily is treated for her injuries, Picard figures out that the Borg have sneaked aboard and are working on assimilating the ship.  Data (Brent Spiner) quickly locks out the main computer and comes up with a plan to stop the invaders by puncturing the plasma coolant tanks around the warp core, which will liquefy the Borg’s organic components and kill them.  But when a team descends to engineering, Data is captured, and a mysterious woman’s voice taunts him as the Borg begin to experiment on him.  The voice is revealed as the Borg Queen (Krige), who, apart from trying to obtain the command codes to release access to the main computer, has a personal interest in Data as well, and offers him the temptations of the flesh – literally, in the form of organic skin grafted to his exoskeleton – to sway him to her side.  Meanwhile, Picard is also separated from the group and runs into Lily, and once he is able to convince the frightened 21st Century woman of her surroundings and the present situation, the two of them ambush a pair of Borg in the holodeck, where Picard’s long-simmering rage against them starts to emerge.  By analyzing a piece of circuitry from a fallen Borg – a former member of the crew now transformed – Picard discovers that the Borg are building a transmitter on top of the Enterprise‘s deflector dish to contact their home system and summon reinforcements.

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As repairs on the Phoenix near completion, Cochrane finds he cannot handle the burden of history and tries to flee the missile complex only to be stopped by Riker with a phaser stun.  He complains that he is nothing like the person that the Enterprise crew have read about, and admits that he built his warp ship only with the hope of financial reward.  Riker quotes Cochrane’s (eventual) words back to him:  “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”  Cochrane grins, shakes off his hangover, and begins readying his ship for launch.  On the Enterprise, Picard, Worf and Hawk suit up and spacewalk onto the deflector dish, where the Borg are assembling their transmitter.  Worf’s suit is punctured and Hawk – befitting his red uniform – is captured and assimilated.  Picard is able to sever the deflector dish and the Borg transmitter from the ship, and Worf, who has tied his suit closed with a cable from a dead Borg’s arm, blows it into a bajillion pieces.  But the Borg are still advancing, and Picard’s officers recommend that he set the Enterprise‘s self-destruct mechanism as a last ditch effort.  Picard is incensed, and even calls Worf a coward for suggesting it.  After a tirade in which Picard reveals his history with the Borg and gloats in how he will exact vengeance upon them, Lily, who is not obligated to follow orders, takes Picard to task and compares him to Captain Ahab.  Picard comes to his senses, activates the self-destruct and orders the crew to abandon ship.  However, he remains behind to try to save Data.  Arriving in the completely Borgified engineering section, Picard encounters the Queen, who reveals their history:  it was she who arranged his assimilation years ago as she wanted a partner instead of another drone.  Picard volunteers to exchange himself for Data, but Data, now with human flesh covering half his face, is having none of it.  He wants to be the Queen’s counterpart.

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On the morning of April 5, as the Phoenix launches from Earth with Cochrane at the controls (blaring a Steppenwolf tune) and Riker and Geordi as his co-pilots, Data releases control of the computer to the Queen and locks torpedoes on the warp ship.  Humanity’s future is on the cusp of vanishing forever when the torpedoes abruptly miss their target, and Data, hissing the Borg’s catchphrase “resistance is futile,” smashes the coolant tanks and floods engineering with the deadly plasma.  Picard climbs out of reach while Data pulls the Queen down into the toxic soup, which tears her to pieces and causes all the remaining Borg to short out and perish.  The Phoenix blasts away into warp speed as it was always intended.  Surveying the remains of the invaders, Picard and a wounded Data contemplate the uniqueness of the deceased Borg Queen, and Data reveals that he had been tempted by her offer for a grand total of 0.68 seconds.  That evening, Picard and his crew witness the arrival of the alien ship that detected the Phoenix‘s warp signature, and its crew – revealed as Vulcans – step out to meet Cochrane and spark humanity’s future.  After Picard exchanges a final goodbye with Lily, the Enterprise slips away in the night sky toward its restored future as Cochrane entertains the Vulcans with his vintage jukebox recording of Roy Orbison, and the camera pulls back and pans up into the stars.

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During filming, Jonathan Frakes was nicknamed “Two Takes Frakes” for his efficiency in getting scenes in the can without the sort of Kubrickian perfectionism (and the emulation of such by insecure and considerably lesser directors) that can have productions dragging on for months and leaving everyone involved hating each other.  This movie, then, proves quite nicely that endless retakes are not the harbinger of quality, as there isn’t a single scene here that rings false or isn’t performed well.  Rather than just shoot the movie with the same subdued TV blocking and pacing as David Carson did on the previous installment, Frakes did his homework by screening Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and borrowing some of those techniques to bring much more life to his camera, assisted by his DP Matthew Leonetti.  Indeed, First Contact is full of dynamic shots and imaginative sequences that you would never, ever get on the TV series, and everyone involved from the screenwriters to the last guy clicking the last CGI pixel into place seems to be much more aware that they are making a movie on this go-around, and consequently giving each moment their all.

I remember seeing it for the first time, arriving at the scene when Picard says the Borg are building a transmitter on the deflector dish, and thinking okay, there’s no way they’re going to show that, they’ll probably just talk about it on the bridge and push a few buttons, problem solved.  I was gobsmacked to see the characters put on spacesuits and actually walk outside on the hull of the ship for the very first time, and when they put a button on a wonderfully suspenseful scene by having Worf do his best Schwarzenegger and growl “assimilate THIS!”, you couldn’t wipe the grin from my face.  We’ve become accustomed to Star Trek letting us down when it comes to the idea of spectacle, but this movie never does; instead, it doubles down every chance it gets.  The benefits of an expanded budget and an experienced crew are all there, bursting from each and every frame, with none of the obvious cost-cutting measures like re-used sets and recycled effects shots we so often find ourselves shrugging at over the course of these films.  And there are so many little treats for folks in the know:  Barclay’s cameo, for one; Ethan Phillips’ (Neelix on Voyager) uncredited appearance as a holographic maitre d’, Robert Picardo showing up as the Enterprise‘s version of Voyager‘s sardonic emergency medical hologram.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and the energy radiates from the screen.

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Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore’s screenplay is so sharp and cracking after the plodding effort of Generations that I was certain – no disrespect intended – that someone else (maybe Carrie Fisher?) had done an uncredited polish.  The story benefits immensely from the characters of Zefram Cochrane and Lily as the outsiders and foils to our regulars, never afraid to poke a few sarcastic holes in the immaculate conception that is the Star Trek universe as we understand it (“Borg?  Sounds Swedish.”  “Don’t you people in the 24th Century ever pee?”) and Cromwell and Woodard are both perfect, especially the former as a revered Professor Stephen Hawking revealed as more of a crazed Doc Emmett Brown, who is wisely allowed to retain his lead role in history rather than being replaced by perfect people who’ve already saved the galaxy a hundred times over – as was the intention in the original draft.  Krige is very good as well, with the Borg Queen ranking ahead of Chang but just a shade shy of Khan in Star Trek villains, and certainly the most unique, bringing an unsettling mix of ice-cold technology and red-hot sensuality to what in lesser hands could have been a dreadful cliché.  And there is little more to be added to the copious esteem reserved for Sir Patrick Stewart, who carries the movie on his surprisingly muscular back (seriously – check out the guns in this movie) and gets to own the camera with some tour de force acting and character development as he reveals to us the flaws in the heart of our intrepid starship captain.  (I do wish, given that Moby Dick had been so notably employed in The Wrath of Khan, that Moore & Braga had gone to another text for Picard’s big emotional scene, but Stewart sells it so well this is a minor gripe.)

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In its latter years (seasons 5 to 7), the Next Generation‘s music was notorious for relying solely on repetition of bland, undulating, occasionally atonal strings, with percussion considered verboten by Berman.  But after a two-film hiatus, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith is back at the podium, assisted by his son Joel, and what a pure delight to the ears it is to have his music backing the twists and turns of this crew, from the surprisingly low-key yet melodic main title theme to the pulsing, metallic clangs of the relentless march of the Borg, and a welcome return of the Klingon fanfare to give Worf his very own taste of heroic leitmotif.  Goldsmith pere et fils deliver the scope and sweep that we’ve been so desperately craving, and was a bit beyond the reach of the well-intentioned Dennis McCarthy (who was perhaps still too locked into the style of the series in his thinking) on the last movie.  Thankfully, Goldsmith would continue scoring Star Trek movies until his death in 2004.

If there is fault to be found in Star Trek: First Contact, it’s that the movie is much darker than its predecessors, with scenes (and an enemy) that can be genuinely frightening to younger viewers, and that quite a lot of people die in pretty awful ways before the triumphant and hopeful conclusion (in the time-honored tradition of Star Trek, most of these are unmourned extras without dialogue).  If memory serves, it was the first Star Trek movie to be rated PG-13 for that very reason.  But for someone who grew up with these movies and watched them rise and sink in both their quality and ability to reach beyond their ambitions, this is a true peak in Star Trek‘s cinematic history, an occasion where everything went right and you are left wanting nothing more.  Until 2009, Star Trek: First Contact ranked second only to The Voyage Home in total Trek box office earnings.  The wild and snaking creative process that began with zombies on the streets of Renaissance Florence led us to the best Next Generation movie ever made.

And thank whomsoever you want to thank that we didn’t have to see Patrick Stewart in tights.

In summary:  I’m deducting half a point for the cribbing of Wrath of Khan, but otherwise, yeah, they nailed it.

Next time:  Building on the revelatory success that is First Contact, the Star Trek production team goes and does the exact opposite.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Generations (1994)

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Back in 1991, as the Presidency of George H.W. Bush wound into its final year, and Canadians were still grumbling about Brian Mulroney and smarting that the Toronto Blue Jays had choked again in their third League Championship Series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country made just shy of $100 million worldwide against a budget of $30 million and proved to the folks who track such things that Star Trek was a fairly dependable, if not exceptional, mid-grade box office earner.  Its fans were a solid bloc who could be counted on to swarm the multiplexes in regular numbers every couple of years as long as there was something with the Trek name on it to entice them.  As ’91 rolled into ’92, the movie series looked certain to continue, but the question was, with whom?  Shatner, Nimoy et al were considered too old and too expensive now, and The Undiscovered Country had been deliberately designed to close the book on their adventures.  With Gene Roddenberry dead and gone, and Harve Bennett alienated after his aborted Starfleet Academy project, the title of franchise guardian drifted to Star Trek: The Next Generation executive producer Rick Berman.  He was approached in the middle of TNG‘s fifth season to begin planning for Star Trek VII, to feature Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew transitioning to the cinema.  Paramount was not keen on releasing a movie while people could still watch new episodes of the show for free on television, so the series was capped at seven seasons, to conclude in the spring of 1994, with the movie to follow that same Christmas.

Berman wanted to include the original cast in some capacity to make this event a true passing of the torch, and for the story he commissioned two different scripts, written independently, from which he could select the best.  Maurice Hurley, who had been the showrunner for TNG in its first two tumultuous seasons, penned one, while the prolific young team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, who wrote TNG‘s series finale “All Good Things,” collaborated on the other.  (A third was to be written by Michael Piller, but disliking being pitted against friends, he declined the invitation; Piller would write the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection four years later.)  Moore and Braga’s script was the winner.  Their original concept was based on an imagined poster of the two Enterprises battling each other, but, finding themselves unable to make that work, the duo instead came up with the idea of a mystery that would begin in Kirk’s time and end in Picard’s, with the character of Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) – already established on the show as an enigmatic, extremely long-lived alien – as the link between the two.  The movie’s prologue would feature the entire original cast (pared down through budget-conscious rewrites to only Kirk, Spock and McCoy), and then Kirk would return to team up with Picard at the film’s climax.  Of course, that would depend on whether or not the old gang was up for yet another “last ride.”

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Leonard Nimoy was sent a copy of the script and presented with an offer to direct as well, given his sublime track record.  However, this time Nimoy was not being invited to contribute to the story; he was being asked only to come in and shoot somebody else’s finished script, which were hardly his ideal creative circumstances.  After all of his extensive proposed changes were vetoed by Berman, Nimoy declined both the top job and the chance to wear the pointed ears on camera again, citing that Spock didn’t serve much of a purpose in the movie.  DeForest Kelley also turned Berman down, feeling that he’d already said his farewells in The Undiscovered Country.  James Doohan and Walter Koenig were hired in their place and Scotty and Chekov were assigned Spock and McCoy’s respective lines (which is why Chekov is the one to take charge of the unstaffed sickbay in the prologue despite no hints he’s ever had medical training).  But William Shatner was in, intrigued by the notion of playing Captain Kirk’s final hurrah, and admittedly flattered by Moore & Braga’s deliberate inclusion of several horseback riding scenes, Shatner being known for his love of horses and his expert riding skills.  At the request of the studio for a dastardly villain to rival Khan (a recurring theme, you’ll start to see), A Clockwork Orange‘s Malcolm McDowell was enlisted as an alien mad scientist, and David Carson, who had helmed several acclaimed TV episodes including “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and the two-hour pilot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was named the movie’s director.  To help set it apart from its predecessors, the number VII was dropped from the title and it became Star Trek Generations.

To assist Carson, Berman brought most of the behind the scenes personnel from Star Trek: The Next Generation onto the movie with him, including line producer Peter Lauritson, production designer Herman Zimmerman (who had designed the last two Star Trek movies, so he was not entirely new to features), makeup designer Michael Westmore, costume designer Robert Blackman and composer Dennis McCarthy.  Several actors and extras who had appeared in TNG as guest characters over the years were given bit parts in the movie, notably Tim Russ, the runner-up for the role of Geordi LaForge and the future Lt. Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager, who played a human member of the Enterprise-B bridge crew.  (Completing an interesting circle, Jenette Goldstein, best known as uber-tough space marine Vasquez in James Cameron’s Aliens, was cast as the Enterprise-B’s communications officer; during the development of The Next Generation, Vasquez had inspired the creation of the Enterprise-D’s security chief Macha Hernandez, who then became Tasha Yar when Denise Crosby got the part.)  In fact, the only member of the lead crew with significant feature film experience (but no Star Trek experience) was cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who had received an Oscar nomination for lensing Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown and had also shot such notable films as Harold and Maude, Norma Rae and Scarface.  Alonzo’s list of credits was so long and his work so esteemed that he could get away with calling Shatner and Stewart “Billy” and “Patty” on set.  He was hired to ensure that although this was essentially an expanded TV production made by TV people featuring TV stars, it would at least look as much like a movie as it possibly could.

Whether it felt like a movie was another matter…

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In the late 23rd Century, Kirk, Scotty and Chekov are invited to the dedication of the U.S.S. Enterprise-B, under the command of freshman Captain Cameron Frye… er, John Harriman (Alan Ruck), and piloted by Ensign Demora Sulu (Jacqueline Kim), daughter of Hikaru.  Kirk himself is invited to give the order to get underway, but he is feeling restless and out of place on a bridge that clearly no longer needs him.  A few moments into the Enterprise‘s “quick run around the block,” a distress call comes in from two transport ships trapped in a strange, pulsing ribbon of energy that is traveling through the galaxy at high speed.  Harriman’s inexperience leads the young captain to set pride aside and ask for Kirk’s help.  Kirk advises the risky maneuver of moving the Enterprise into transporter range, where Scotty manages to beam forty-seven survivors aboard, including a wild-eyed man who pleads to be allowed to go back, and a silent, shaken woman we recognize as Guinan.  The Enterprise is caught in the wake of the energy ribbon, and without photon torpedoes, the only chance to escape is to reconfigure the deflector dish to simulate a torpedo blast.  Kirk volunteers to descend to the lower decks to carry out the last-ditch repair, and he succeeds in helping break the Enterprise free and clear – but a last charge from the ribbon blows apart the section of the ship in which Kirk was working, and he is sadly presumed lost.

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Seventy-eight years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D is celebrating Worf (Michael Dorn)’s promotion to Lieutenant Commander on a high seas holodeck simulation when Captain Picard receives a message advising that his brother Robert and nephew Rene have been killed in a fire.  The Enterprise also intercepts a distress call from a stellar observatory in the Amargosa system that is under attack.  The only survivor is the same wild-eyed man who was rescued in the prologue:  Dr. Tolian Soran (McDowell), a 300-year-old scientist who lost his family when his world was destroyed by the evil cybernetic Borg.  Soran asks to be allowed to return to the observatory to complete an experiment he is running.  Picard is reluctant until his crew’s investigation is finished, but Soran preys upon Picard’s obviously troubled feelings (“They say time is the fire in which we burn”).  Aboard the observatory, android commander Data (Brent Spiner) and chief engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) have uncovered some mysterious equipment hidden behind a secret panel when they are interrupted by Soran, who knocks LaForge out and pulls a weapon on Data.  Data, having recently undergone the implant of a chip that allows him to feel emotions, is frightened into submission.  Back on the Enterprise, an equally emotional Picard is confessing remorse over his lost family and his increasing feelings of mortality to ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) when the Amargosa star abruptly goes nova.  First Officer Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Worf beam over to the observatory to rescue their comrades, but Data is scared and cannot help.  Soran and LaForge are beamed away aboard a Klingon vessel that appears out of nowhere, the others return to the Enterprise and Picard orders it to warp speed as the shock wave from the dead star blows the observatory to atoms.

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Soran has allied himself with the nefarious Klingon sisters Lursa and B’Etor, bargaining transportation and equipment in exchange for information on how to make a weapon capable of destroying stars.  Guinan, who is from the same alien race as Soran, tells Picard that Soran’s true ambition is to return to the Nexus, a timeless dimension that is accessed by way of the mysterious energy ribbon and feels like being enveloped in perpetual joy.  By destroying the Amargosa star, Soran has altered the ribbon’s course.  It will pass through the Veridian system, and if Soran destroys the Veridian star, come into direct contact with Veridian III, allowing Soran to be swept into it since flying into it with a ship is impossible.  However, the star’s destruction will obliterate the entire system and its population of two hundred thirty million.  The Enterprise warps to Veridian, where the Klingon ship is already in orbit.  Picard proposes a prisoner exchange whereby the sisters return LaForge and Picard agrees to be their hostage provided he can speak with Soran first.  The Klingons agree, Picard heads to the surface, and LaForge is sent home – but the visor that allows him to see has been reprogrammed to transmit his field of vision to someone else.  The Klingons use it to discover the frequency of the Enterprise‘s shields and begin firing directly through them, battering the ship irreparably.  Our heroes manage to exploit a technological vulnerability and destroy their attackers, but not before the Enterprise’s warp core is critically damaged.  While the saucer section separates safely, the explosion of the warp core knocks it out of orbit and sends it down to a spectacular crash landing on the planet’s surface.

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Elsewhere, on a mountaintop on Veridian III, Picard attempts to talk Soran out of his plan, and when that fails, to fistfight him out of it, which also fails.  Soran launches a probe into the Veridian star, which goes dark, and the energy ribbon blankets the mountain, whisking Soran and Picard into the Nexus just before the star’s explosion destroys the planet and what is left of the Enterprise with it.  Picard awakens on an idyllic Christmas morning, with a loving wife and family and a very much alive Rene.  The illusion is seductive given Picard’s recent losses, but he soon realizes that something is not right, and suddenly Guinan appears; an echo of herself left behind when she was beamed away in the prologue.  Guinan explains that time has no meaning here, and Picard declares his intention to return to Veridian III and stop Soran – but he knows he can’t do it alone.  Guinan’s echo can’t return, but she knows someone else who can:  James T. Kirk, who survived the mission of the Enterprise-B after all.  Kirk is also initially reluctant to leave the Nexus, where it seems that he can right all the wrongs he ever committed in his life, and have a future with a woman named Antonia whom he wished he had married instead of returning to Starfleet.  But a leap on horseback across a gully that sparks no emotional response makes Kirk realize that the Nexus is an ultimately empty experience.  He agrees to help Picard to try to make a difference one last time.

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Time resets itself, the Enterprise crashes again, and the two captains emerge on Veridian III before its destruction, tag-teaming their wits and fists against Soran.  Kirk makes a daring – and real – leap across a chasm to retrieve a control pad from a collapsing bridge, giving Picard the chance to reprogram Soran’s probe to destroy itself on launch, and take the mad doctor with it.  The Veridian system is saved and the Nexus ribbon passes by harmlessly.  But what finally defeats the seemingly immortal Captain Kirk is rusty steelwork and gravity, and Picard bids him a thankful goodbye as he contemplates the undiscovered country and whispers an awed “oh my” before breathing his last.  Picard buries Kirk on a hilltop.  Later, he and Riker comb the ruins of the Enterprise‘s bridge for Picard’s treasured family photo album, and Picard speaks of time not as a predator but as a companion who reminds us to cherish our memories.  They beam away from the wrecked captain’s chair, and three starships carrying the survivors of the Enterprise careen away at warp speed to the triumphant sound of the Star Trek fanfare.

When I was fourteen, and Star Trek V had just come out, I tried writing a fan fiction story where Kirk and Picard’s crews would meet each other in a dimension outside space and time, and collaborate to defeat some Klingons and escape back to their respective eras.  It was called Star Trek: The Two Generations, and I don’t mind admitting that it was pretty dang bad.  I’d also be willing to bet that there were hundreds of fans just like me over the years prior to the release of this movie writing their own fan fiction versions of “Kirk meets Picard,” and no doubt the quality would vary from exceptional to barely literate.  It is a great disappointment that this movie, written and assembled by the professionals, also feels like fan fiction, pegged squarely in the middle of that range.  The best you can say of it is that it is competent, that it hits the marks you would expect it to hit, but it does so much like a puppy led by a leash from point A to point B, begging with wide eyes for an approving belly rub.  The screenplay bears the obvious trait of the committee approach, resulting in so many mandated events to plod on through that nary a single scene has the chance to breathe and register any emotional impact.

Not that any scene would anyway, given that the arcs for our characters are perfunctory and come off as though they were written by people who have only studied emotions rather than felt them (a common issue with young screenwriters).  In this series I have lauded the depth and literacy of the Star Trek screenplays written or co-written by Nicholas Meyer; Moore and Braga are simply not in his league.  They’re the Lansing Lugnuts to his Toronto Blue Jays.  We get technobabble about gravimetric distortions and confluxes of temporal energy instead of meaningful allusions to Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes – dialogue that is so hard to render truthful that the otherwise skilled cast are left flailing and sounding like amateur dinner theater hams.  (We are left to wonder at the substance of Leonard Nimoy’s extensive notes on the script as mentioned earlier.)  In syndicated television like The Next Generation, writers are generally not allowed to write serial arcs where a story builds from one episode to the next because the networks buying the episodes want the freedom to air them in whatever order suits them.  As a result, characters in syndication usually deal week-to-week with basic, surface problems that will have no lasting effect on them (Billy needs to study for his test but wants to go the baseball game instead!  Dad wants to have a romantic dinner with Mom but keeps getting sidelined by his boss!)  While Star Trek Generations tries to give us big events like the destruction of the Enterprise (in a sequence that is way too long and doesn’t advance the plot one millimeter) and the death of Captain Kirk, it handles them with all the gravitas of Marcia Brady worrying that she can’t go to the prom because she’s having a bad hair day.

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We felt the death of Spock.  It hurt.  Even in hindsight when you know he’s coming back, The Wrath of Khan hits hard.  That movie lets the emotions play out and follow us to the end of the credits and even into the theater lobby.  With Kirk’s death, we just shrug and get on with it, as do the other characters, who are back to wisecracking in the very next scene as if the loss of the great and storied hero was no more relevant than the loss of a pesky hangnail.  (Worse – Kirk’s death is juxtaposed with and given the emotional equivalence of Data finding his lost cat.)  I don’t know whether the movie would have benefited from an extended eulogy and funeral scene, given that nothing in the preceding hour and thirty minutes had legitimately led us to that.  Indeed, Star Trek Generations is a movie absent of consequence, refraining in every frame from asking us to dip deep into the emotional well, either because the storytellers simply aren’t that skilled, or because in its blatant desperation for the pat on the head, it’s afraid to.  Spock’s sacrifice meant something because it was to save people we knew and loved.  Kirk’s sacrifice (and that of the Enterprise herself) is to save two hundred and thirty million aliens we don’t know, don’t ever see, and can’t get worked up about.  Generations also owes too much to the continuity of the TV series, dragging arcs like Data’s emotion chip, the Klingon sisters and even Worf’s promotion in front of audiences who should not be expected (or even asked) to remember exacting details of episode five of season four in order to understand the plot.  Combine that with TV director Carson’s TV pacing and you get, sadly, what many critics of the time referred to this movie as:  an extended episode of The Next Generation, and not even one of the better ones at that.

In his review in 1994, the late Roger Ebert made special note of the extreme low-tech climactic battle between Soran and the two captains, observing that it seemed to be drawn from old Westerns, and accusing the writers of a failure of imagination.  And this was actually the second ending to the movie, re-shot in pickups months after principal photography after the first version, in which Kirk took a phaser blast from Soran to the back, blew chunks with test audiences.  It does seem strange that with the broad canvas of the entire galaxy to choose from, this was the best they could come up with for the long dreamed-about meeting of our two storied captains, shoving it out in front of us and hoping that the spectacle of “SHATNER!  STEWART!  TOGETHER!” would be enough to keep us from picking out the numerous flaws (including the legitimate question of why, if Picard can leave the Nexus and go anywhere at anytime, he doesn’t go back a month and have Soran arrested, instead of only giving himself a ten-minute window?)  Maybe Star Trek Generations was never going to be that great because there was too much riding on it; too many people with their own opinions of Kirk vs. Picard and how an onscreen meeting should unfold.  The movie is not entirely without its charms:  Brent Spiner is very funny as Data gets his emotion chip and becomes the comic relief, Stewart is typically brilliant and sells flimsy dialogue as though it were the most weighty words ever assigned to paper. The production gets more than its money’s worth out of John Alonzo who creates some lovely color palettes and brings fresh life to old cardboard sets.  And as weak as the overall execution is, only the irredeemably cynical Star Trek fan doesn’t feel a few goosebumps seeing Shatner and Stewart together.  But that old adage holds true:  if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.  Poor writing is the downfall of Star Trek Generations, and we shudder to think at how bad the Maurice Hurley version was if this script was the one that beat it.

In summary:  Watch “Yesterday’s Enterprise” or “All Good Things” instead.

Next time:  The Next Generation crew stands on its own as Moore and Braga get it right on their second try, ably aided by actor-turned-director Jonathan “Two Takes” Frakes.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  1 1/2 out of 4 stars.

P.S. Happy Canada Day!  🙂