Tag Archives: Rick Berman

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek (2009)

startrek2009

On May 13, 2005, the cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise aired its much-maligned series finale, “These Are The Voyages,” and for the first time in eighteen years there would be no new Star Trek on the air in the fall.  Likewise, the box office failure of Star Trek Nemesis had staked the film series through the heart.  Even die-hard fans, weary of repetitive plots resolved by reconfiguring the deflector dish, were pleading that Trek needed a forced rest.  Go away, we cried, echoing Bono, and dream it all up again.  Behind the scenes, life still stirred, as franchise guardian Rick Berman proposed reinvigorating the movies by introducing a brand new crew in a yet-unexplored piece of Trek‘s future history:  the Earth/Romulan war of the 22nd Century.  He hired Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen to pen a script with a World War II movie feel called Star Trek: The Beginning.  In Jendresen’s draft, after a devastating attack on Earth by a Romulan fleet, the disgraced Captain Tiberius Chase, an ancestor of James Tiberius Kirk, would lead his hastily assembled, ragtag crew on what would turn out to be a suicide mission to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of the Romulan Empire and bring an end to the war.  Fans weren’t wild about Berman’s continued stewardship, and this proposed story sounded pretty depressing after the already dreary Nemesis.  And so it was that in 2006, new Paramount chief Gail Berman (no relation) cancelled development on The Beginning and turned creative control of future Star Trek film projects over to an up-and-coming filmmaker named J.J. Abrams.

Abrams had started young, writing the script for the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry at the age of 21 and serving as script doctor on blockbusters like Armageddon before turning to television and achieving success with the series Felicity and Alias.  The latter, starring Jennifer Garner as a spy who has to keep her espionage work secret from her closest friends, attracted the notice of Tom Cruise and earned Abrams a shot at directing the third Mission: Impossible movie, which made $400 million worldwide just as Rick Berman was being advised that his services were no longer required.  M:I-III just happened to be a production of Paramount Pictures, who had signed Abrams to a multi-film contract and realized, well, lookie here, we have this other moribund franchise in need of some adrenaline.  Abrams, who admitted up front he had always been more of a Star Wars fan, signed his Bad Robot Productions on to produce, but wouldn’t commit to direct as well unless the script measured up.  To ensure that it did, he brought along his co-writers from M:I-III who were also veterans of Alias:  Roberto Orci, who described himself as a rabid Trekkie, and Alex Kurtzman, who didn’t.  Immediately they faced the challenge of what to do with Star Trek‘s weighty history:  ten movies, hundreds of episodes and one of the most elaborate – and from some perspectives, creatively suffocating – fictional canons ever assembled.

Their answer:  toss it.

Sort of.

buildingenterprise

Abrams wasn’t interested in chronicling the further exploits of Captains Picard, Sisko, Janeway et al, claiming that the various spinoffs and sequels had “disconnected” him from the franchise.  He wanted to return to the essence of Star Trek, and that meant a new take on the classic characters of Kirk and Spock, and, in an echo of the Harve Bennett “Starfleet Academy” movie that had never been made, going back to look at how they first met to reintroduce them to a new world.  He noted, however, that one of the (many) weaknesses of the Star Wars prequels was that there was little dramatic tension in their foregone outcome – basically, you knew Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t going to die because you’d already seen him in his elder years.  Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci came up with a concept that in their minds would respect the hundreds of hours of Trek that had gone before but still give them carte blanche to craft a fresh and unpredictable story – without throwing away everything a la Batman Begins.  To wit: using a little time travel to go back before Kirk was even born and create a new, unpredictable alternate universe in which all bets as to the fates of our characters were off.  Satisfied with the progress of scripting, Abrams agreed to direct and his participation was confirmed by official press release in February of 2007.

It was then a matter of finding new faces for this new universe.

Casting Captain Kirk’s original crew for the first time since 1966 was a daunting task; the fanbase would rebel, and quite rightly so, if the iconic roles were filled with a bunch of vapid CW flavor-of-the-month types.  Although Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) was interested in playing Spock, and Matt Damon had to call Abrams personally and ask him what was up after reading trade rumors that he would be cast as Kirk, the choice was made to go with actors who had solid experience but remained relative unknowns so they wouldn’t overwhelm the parts with offscreen personality.  Zachary Quinto, who was earning notices as superpowered supervillain Sylar on the TV series Heroes, and looked more like a young Leonard Nimoy than Leonard Nimoy, was the first to be announced in July 2007 – along with Nimoy himself.  The Bad Robot team had visited the retired actor at his home and pitched him their story and the significance of the presence of the elder Spock in it, and, uncharacteristically perhaps for a Vulcan, Nimoy was so moved by their presentation he could not speak for quite a few moments after they had left.  With Nimoy having rejected multiple previous offers to rejoin the cinematic Trek universe, his enthusiastic participation calmed the nerves of fans who didn’t know what to make of these new kids who’d been trusted with the sacred keys to the Enterprise.  After Nimoy and Quinto came the rest:  Zoe Saldana, who had played a Star Trek fan in the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal – where the legendary director taught her the split-fingered Vulcan salute – was cast as Uhura.  Anton Yelchin, who had been born in Leningrad, got the role of Chekov, while John Cho, best known for his comedic roles, took over as Sulu.  After working with him on Mission: Impossible, Abrams cast Simon Pegg as Scotty simply by sending him an e-mail asking him if he wanted the part (would that we could all get jobs so easily.)  And Lord of the Rings veteran Karl Urban was first rumored to be playing the villain before it was clarified that he’d be succeeding DeForest Kelley as McCoy.

everybody

The guest cast began to fill in with interesting names as well:  Ben Cross, as Spock’s father Sarek, became the second actor from Chariots of Fire (after Alice Krige) to take on a Star Trek role.  Jennifer Morrison from TV’s House and Once Upon a Time signed on to play Kirk’s mother Winona, her presence in the movie confirmed after paparazzi snapped a picture of her walking to the set in a bathrobe to conceal her costume.  A more famous Winona – Winona Ryder – would play the cameo part of Spock’s mother Amanda.  Bruce Greenwood got the role of Captain Christopher Pike on the strength of his work as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days.  After trying his hand at being a superhero in 2003’s controversial Hulk, Eric Bana decided to err on the side of villainy as the embittered Romulan captain Nero.  Some other Australian guy no one had really heard of at the time named Chris Hemsworth was cast as Kirk’s father George.  The crew needed its captain, though, and while Mike Vogel, who had worked for Abrams before on the 2008 shaky-cam horror movie Cloverfield, was said to be a front-runner, the successor to William Shatner was ultimately announced as Chris Pine.  Pine’s father Robert was a veteran TV character actor who had guest-starred on Enterprise as a Vulcan, and Chris’ most prominent role to date had been alongside Lindsay Lohan in a 2006 rom-com called Just My Luck.  Pine looked not to create an impression of Shatner but rather to Harrison Ford’s roles as “accidental heroes” Indiana Jones and Han Solo as inspiration in his interpretation of Jim Kirk.

Shooting began in November of 2007, just as the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike.  As a result, for fourteen weeks of production, Abrams could not make any changes to the screenplay (very, very few scripts are “locked in” once shooting begins – on-the-fly rewrites and polishes may be required as stuff that seems brilliant on the page often doesn’t work when the cameras finally roll and the actors have to say the lines).  But the overall impact on the production was minimal, and because writers Kurtzman and Orci were also credited executive producers, they could be on set the entire time and provide indirect assistance in shaping scenes without violating their union rules.  Of course none of that would have mattered to those of us who were awaiting this new take on Trek with equal measures of excitement and apprehension; thrills at the spare-no-expense blockbuster treatment balanced with fear that the entire affair would be a trendy Hollywood dumbing down of what was still thought of as the more cerebral of the world’s two leading cinematic space franchises.  The first teaser trailer, which showed the Enterprise under construction to echoes of the sounds of the early American space program, did much to heighten our enthusiasm that perhaps this would finally, after a string of false starts, be the Star Trek movie we were waiting for.

May 2009 arrived, the theater lights dimmed, and we held our breath…

hemsworth

In a prologue set in the year 2233, the starship U.S.S. Kelvin encounters an enormous, spider-like vessel, the Narada, emerging from a lightning storm in space.  Quickly crippling the outmatched starship with their advanced weapons, the Romulan crew demand that the Kelvin‘s Captain Robau come aboard to discuss surrender, leaving first officer George Kirk (Hemsworth) in command.  The Romulans want to know the location of a strange jellyfish-shaped ship and its pilot, an Ambassador Spock.  When Robau admits he does not know of either, the Romulans’ leader Nero (Bana) kills him in a fit of rage and resumes the attack on the Kelvin.  Kirk orders the entire crew to the shuttles and escape pods, including his wife Winona (Morrison) who has just gone into labor.  With weapons gone, Kirk sets the Kelvin on a collision course, but the autopilot is disabled and he must remain behind.  He hears the first cries of his baby son, and he and Winona agree to name the boy Jim.  The Kelvin cripples the Narada and allows the shuttles to escape, but George Kirk is killed, leaving the newborn Jim fatherless.

A decade later, we peek in on our two lead heroes:  teenage Jim Kirk is leading a rebellious life in Iowa, while on the planet Vulcan, young Spock is bullied over his half-human heritage.  A college-aged Spock (Quinto) is eventually accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy, but rejects the honor after the Vulcan elders refer to his human half as a disadvantage.  In Iowa, a group of Starfleet cadets are celebrating before shipping out to the Academy, and townie Kirk (Pine) makes a drunken attempt to flirt with Uhura (Saldana) before getting his ass kicked in a fight that is stopped by Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood).  Pike talks about Kirk’s father and how he represented an element of daring that Pike feels Starfleet has lost.  He notes that in George Kirk’s twelve-minute captaincy, he saved 800 lives.  Pike dares Jim to do better and suggests that he enlist in Starfleet.  After a late night bike ride to contemplate the U.S.S. Enterprise being built in a cornfield, Jim accepts Pike’s challenge and boasts that he will complete the four-year Academy program in three years.  On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, Kirk meets up with the man who will become his dear friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy, who laments that his recent divorce has left him with nothing but his bones.

nero

Three years later, Nero’s crew, which has been waiting out in space for a quarter century, captures the mysterious jellyfish ship when it emerges from a second lightning storm, with Nero growling “welcome back, Spock.”  At the Academy, Kirk is taking the no-win Kobayashi Maru simulation test (first mentioned in The Wrath of Khan) after failing it twice, this time beating it by reprogramming the simulation.  A disciplinary hearing is convened and Kirk is dressed down by the test’s programmer, Spock.  But judgment is interrupted when a distress call comes in from the planet Vulcan, which says it’s under attack.  All cadets are assigned immediately to different ships, with the exception of Kirk, who is grounded pending a decision on his status.  McCoy injects Kirk with a vaccine to make him ill and invokes a regulation regarding transportation of patients to bring him onboard the ship to which he has been assigned – the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise.  A Starfleet armada warps out of orbit headed for Vulcan, with the Enterprise delayed a few moments as its helmsman Sulu (Cho) forgets to disengage the inertial dampeners.  But when a woozy Kirk overhears Chekov (Yelchin) talking about the appearance of a lightning storm in space preceding the attack on Vulcan, he makes the connection with the lightning storm that occurred on the day of his birth prior to the arrival of the Romulan ship, and realizes the Enterprise is heading into a trap.

nuship

The Enterprise drops out of warp into a scene of carnage:  the entire fleet of starships destroyed by the Narada’s advanced weapons, and its laser drill carving a deep bore into the surface of Vulcan.  Nero orders his crew to destroy the new arrival too until he realizes what ship it is.  He hails the Enterprise and addresses Spock, advising him that they will know each other quite well in the future.  Nero also demands that Pike surrender himself by shuttle.  Pike agrees, leaves Spock as acting captain and promotes Kirk to first officer.  He assigns Kirk, Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to space-jump to the drill platform to try to disable it.  The thrill-seeking Olson (dressed appropriately in red) waits too long to deploy his chute and is killed, and the explosive charges he was carrying are lost.  Kirk and Sulu still manage to overpower the Romulans on the platform and disable the drill, but not before Nero’s crew launches a probe filled with mysterious “red matter” into the drilling site.  The probe detonates inside Vulcan’s core and a singularity begins to form – a black hole that will consume the planet.  Spock beams down to locate his parents, but his mother is lost as the group beams aboard, and Vulcan is destroyed.

spacejump

Left in command of the Enterprise with the death of his mother and his planet weighing on his mind, Spock decides to retreat to join the rest of Starfleet in the Laurentian system.  Kirk objects, insisting that they should be hunting Nero down.  Frustrated, Spock renders the combative Kirk unconscious and dumps him on the icy world of Delta-Vega.  There, Kirk is saved from a ravenous local monster by an oddly familiar old Vulcan:  the original Spock (Nimoy).  Spock Prime explains everything:  one hundred and twenty-nine years from now, a star will go hypernova and threaten to destroy the galaxy.  Spock was sent to use red matter to swallow the nova with a black hole, but he was not able to act in time before the planet of Romulus was destroyed by the cosmic explosion.  Nero held him responsible and chased him down, but both ships fell into the black hole and were transported back in time, with Nero arriving first, and changing history by destroying the Kelvin.  Nero now has Spock’s ship and the red matter and intends to destroy every remaining planet in the Federation in retaliation for the loss of Romulus.  Spock Prime knows he has to get Kirk back to the Enterprise and takes him to someone who can help:  Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), who has been assigned to a derelict Starfleet observation post on Delta-Vega.  Spock completes Scotty’s formula for transwarp beaming and transports Kirk and the engineer back to the Enterprise, where Kirk forces the younger Spock to relinquish command to him after provoking him into a wild display of anger.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to chase after Nero, who is on his way to Earth after obtaining the system’s planetary defense information from a tortured Pike.

ksfaceoff

After a conversation with his father in which he realizes that his emotions can be a source of strength, Spock returns to duty and makes amends with Kirk.  The Narada arrives at Earth and begins drilling into San Francisco Bay, while the Enterprise conceals itself in Saturn’s rings and Kirk and Spock beam to Nero’s ship, where Spock obtains the details of Nero’s scheme and the location of Captain Pike from a mind-meld with an unconscious Romulan.  They locate the jellyfish ship and its supply of red matter, and the ship recognizes Spock as its pilot and permits him to steal it.  Kirk confronts Nero, who brags that he will deprive the young captain of his future just as he did Kirk’s father.  But their fight is interrupted as Spock uses the jellyfish ship to destroy the drill, and Nero orders his crew to pursue it.  Kirk defeats Nero’s second-in-command and heads off to rescue Pike.  Spock sets the jellyfish ship on a collision course with the Narada, and Nero fires everything he has – only to be surprised by the Enterprise, which destroys Nero’s missiles and allows the jellyfish ship to complete its kamikaze run, with Kirk, Spock and Pike beamed to safety.  The red matter ignites on impact and a black hole begins to form inside the Narada.  Nero refuses assistance and quietly closes his eyes as his ship is crushed.  The black hole begins to pull in the Enterprise as well, but Scotty ejects and detonates the warp core to push the starship clear.

spocks

At a ceremony on Earth, Kirk’s field promotion to captain is made permanent and he is assigned the Enterprise in relief of Pike, who assures him that his father would have been proud.  Spock encounters his future self, and Spock Prime promises him that his friendship with Kirk will come to define them both.  The Enterprise crew is reunited and sent off on its first formal mission, and the elder Spock narrates the famous “space, the final frontier” speech as the grand ship hurtles into warp, and sequels.

Well then.

Star Trek was always popular, but not that popular, really – it had consistently been a moderate box office performer, a sort of useful pinch-hitter who comes off the bench every few innings for a single up the middle right when it’s needed, but never sets any records or makes the playoff roster.  There had been attempts to lure non-fans, but both production and marketing for each film release tended to linger on the conservative side of the ledger, operating from the perspective that “we know we’ll get the Trekkies, and if we get a few other folks wandering in too, hey, that’s gravy.”  Never had there been a concerted effort to really strive for that glittering true blockbuster ring hovering like a tantalizing tempter just out of reach, the gilded echelon achievable only by those who dare to leap for it with both feet.  It was a credit to Paramount’s confidence in J.J. Abrams that they gave him and his team the resources with which to try.  While previous entries relied on story and performances to create a sense of scale, the truth of the matter was that most of the time you still felt you were watching a TV production shot on cardboard sets, and what should have been a massive universe still seemed very small and confined.  The Wrath of Khan got away with this because the people and the stakes were larger-than-life; The Search for Spock could have stood comfortably alongside a two-part episode of MacGyver.  The Voyage Home created scale by being able to shoot in real locations without having to hide the cars driving by, but The Final Frontier whiffed with alien environments resembling nothing more exotic than anything you’d find ten miles from the Los Angeles studio gates.  Progressively bigger budgets and more exotic location shooting followed, but the final results remained artificial and hopelessly Earthbound.  It was, perhaps, a failure of ambition.

sanfran

The worldbuilding of Star Trek has never felt immersive until the release of this movie, which finally had the resources and the determination to pay that critical exacting attention to every blessed detail; to make us feel as though you could wander through any door and find evidence of the 23rd Century in every conceivable nook and cranny.  If Abrams borrowed this approach from Star Wars, so be it – but it works, and works well.  And what we wanted from Star Trek in 2009 was not more of the same.  So here are the thousands of extras that William Shatner couldn’t get for The Final Frontier.  Here is the “future with a past” –  fleets of ships both large and small that look banged up by years of re-use and not as though the paint dried five seconds before the cameras rolled.  Here is a movie-caliber Enterprise that looks like the grand old lady we always imagined she was, with dozens of massive decks to get lost on.  Here is an alien threat that doesn’t come off like one guy in a tiny room pushing plastic buttons.  Here are exotic worlds with unifying cultural themes evident throughout their architecture, their costuming and even the lay of their landscapes; aesthetic details that you don’t notice on your first viewing but are saturated in each frame, pushing the experience into your mind on a subliminal level.  And here, finally is the broad and extensive marketing campaign that sells a Star Trek movie as a can’t-miss event.  Not a mere curiosity offered meekly for a small, enlightened clique, but the explosion of a globally inclusive phenomenon that makes you feel foolish for even considering giving it a pass.  Maybe some Trek purists preferred the idea of a protective, hipster attitude towards it – this thing that is ours and that you mainstream people don’t get – but the economics of entertainment don’t always favor that attitude, and Star Trek was stagnating toward the brink of demise.  It needed the kind of movie that would explode and introduce it to a new audience, and it simply couldn’t do that by staring at its own navel through a haze of impenetrable continuity.  “Not your grandfather’s Star Trek,” proclaimed the ads, to the derision of more than a few.

kirkolson

One thing you can certainly never accuse J.J. Abrams’ films of is lacking in energy.  In Star Trek the characters are alive and bursting from the screen in a way they never have been before; perhaps it is their immediate juxtaposition against the more languid Next Generation characters who had preceded them in the drab Nemesis, that makes them seem so vivid and colorful.  As he would later show in The Force Awakens, Abrams always has an excellent eye for casting, and Pine, Quinto, Urban, Pegg, Cho, Yelchin and Saldana slip very comfortably into the roles originated by Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Takei, Koenig and Nichols and are not burdened by the responsibility.  They never make you forget about the original seven, but, armed with snappy, punchy (and mercifully bereft of technobabble) dialogue, they each bring something new to create complete characters for this new timeline instead of merely doing glorified impressions (Quinto and Urban veer closest to this dodgy tactic in their respective approaches but never quite tip over the line).  Pine in particular is absolutely nothing like William Shatner, and the story’s decision to reinterpret James T. Kirk as a maverick, Beastie Boys-loving bad boy who stumbles into his captaincy by sheer, inherent “chosen one” awesomeness, instead of the dedicated, by-the-book career officer he had been in the original series – in effect playing Kirk as the exaggerated Zapp Brannigan version of himself – is perhaps the most jarring element of this reinterpretation, but to paraphrase The Dark Knight, this Kirk may be the hero we need, not the one we deserve.

That latter statement may be the best pronouncement to be made on the entire movie.  Criticism at the time, of which there was relatively little, opined that this was an action movie, or a Star Wars remake, masquerading as a Star Trek film – that social commentary had been eschewed in favor of gags and broad action sequences.  It was ironic that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was lambasted at the time for having “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars,” and 30 years later the reboot was slammed for being too much like it.  Whose verdict matters most?  The moviegoing public, who decided to the tune of a record-obliterating $257 million in ticket sales that this was the movie they needed:  exciting, optimistic, and fun instead of measured, ponderous and dry.  Star Trek starts to buckle if you apply too much analytical pressure to its weaker points; the science is slapdash, the plot relies on too many encounters of convenience, and the screenwriters don’t seem to understand the process of advancement in military ranks, among many others, but there comes a point where you just say screw it, this is a flat-out great time at the movies and none of that stuff matters.  It is not cerebral, but it does have a genuine heart, and more emotion in its scenes than the last five Star Trek movies combined.  Perhaps it’s to the credit of Star Trek as a franchise that there are so many options on its menu to suit every taste and mood:  some days you want to watch Stewart-as-Picard pitted in heated debate with a recalcitrant admiral and other days you prefer to watch Pine-as-Kirk bounce around in bed with sexy green girls.  The big tent of Star Trek spans the galaxy, and this was the first time it got the proper big-screen treatment it had perhaps not needed, but always deserved.

In summary:  Points for the cast, the boundless energy, the scale of the worldbuilding, stellar special effects, heck, even the lens flares.  Deductions for a plot relying on coincidence, convenience and very suspect pseudo-science, but look, if you can make me tear up in the first ten minutes of a Star Trek movie then I’m cutting you a heck of a lot of slack.

Next time:  Cinematic karaoke goes way off-key as the new crew matches wits against a bad guy who totally isn’t Khan… or is he?

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

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: Insurrection (1998)

insurrection

What does the ninth Star Trek movie have in common with Apocalypse Now?  Would you believe they were based on the same book?  Those of you who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be pained to recall any stretchy-faced aliens in it, but the concept of going up the river to find a long-lost colleague who has gone native is indeed what sparked the imaginations of producer Rick Berman and screenwriter Michael Piller as they bandied about concepts for what Captain Picard and company, triumphant in their victory over the Borg, could do next.  The dark tone, elements of horror and catastrophic stakes in the previous film had proven very successful, but no one on the production side, studio side or even the acting side wanted to explore down that alley any further.  (Piller, in his unpublished book Fade In, likens it to pitching.  No successful pitcher can get away with only throwing fastballs; sometimes you have to throw a curve.  Patrick Stewart, for his part, used a cricket analogy of a shot straight back at the bowler.)  Early discussions were geared more towards emulating the tone of The Voyage Home, which remained the shining pinnacle that every subsequent Star Trek movie had attempted and failed to reach.  Piller wanted to tap into Star Trek‘s optimism, and, inspired by the Rogaine he was spraying on his bald patch one morning, decided to do a Fountain of Youth story and blend it with Heart of Darkness – “Heart of Lightness,” as he called it.

In Piller’s initial treatment (called Star Trek: Stardust after the Hoagy Carmichael song) the movie would open with a flashback to a young Picard at Starfleet Academy with his libertarian best friend, Hugh Duffy, and then fade to thirty years later, where, in the midst of a galaxy-wide shortage of an important medical ore called “sarium krellide,” Duffy has gone rogue on an alien planet and begun attacking Romulan ships and colonies.  Picard is assigned to hunt him down through a treacherous area of space known as the Briar Patch, accompanied by a smarmy half-Romulan, half-Klingon named Joss who likes to leer at Troi and pick fights with Worf.  When Duffy/Kurtz is found, he looks as young as he did at the Academy, because the entire planet is made of this sarium krellide stuff and it turns out the Federation has made a deal with the Romulans to exploit the planet for its ore, displacing the natives that Duffy is trying to defend.  Picard and crew turn their backs on the Federation and help the natives repel the Romulans and kill Joss, at the cost of Duffy’s life, and in an epilogue Picard has a speech-off with a Vulcan admiral (whom Piller hoped could be played by Ian McKellen) about morality and so on, fade to credits.  Berman didn’t like the politics in the story and requested that Duffy be changed to Data to keep the drama within the established family.  He also worried that the de-aging story might be offensive to Patrick Stewart, as it was essentially telling him that he was an old man.  Piller’s rewrite eliminated the fountain of youth aspect and instead played up the aliens on the planet, a race of telepathic mutes without immune systems who are protected from illness by the much-needed sarium krellide.  This version was more warmly received by almost everyone… except the man who was going to have to say the lines.

stewartonbridge

Patrick Stewart, named an associate producer on this movie in thanks for his work on First Contact, was uncomfortable with almost everything.  He did not want Picard in deep emotional turmoil for a third straight movie (this time about possibly having to kill Data), he thought the Romulans (and particularly Joss, as conceived) were uninteresting villains, he didn’t think there were any compelling guest roles to attract decent actors, he criticized the sarium krellide concept as asking the audience to get excited about a bunch of rocks, etcetera, etcetera.  Ironically, Stewart turned out to be tremendously excited about the dropped fountain of youth idea, and the actor laughed off any concerns as to how his age would be portrayed.  The Romulans and the widely panned character of Joss were replaced with a race of tremendously old aliens called the Son’i (ultimately changed to the Son’a to avoid sounding like Sony Pictures) and their leader Ru’afo (played by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham), the telepathic mutes were made plain humanoids called the Ba’ku, and the magic rocks became the more intangible “metaphasic radiation” present in the rings of the Ba’ku planet which would create a fountain of youth effect.  The plot would now revolve around a “Sorvino Switch” (a reference to a Next Generation episode, “Homeward,” where Worf’s foster brother played by Paul Sorvino tries to save a doomed alien culture by beaming them into a holographic recreation of their planet).  The Federation would be conspiring with the Son’a to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku in order to exploit the rejuvenating properties of the planet’s radiation.  Data would discover this and go rogue trying to protect the aliens, and Picard would disobey direct Starfleet orders to do the same.  With Jonathan Frakes back as director, and an increased budget of $60 million in place, the ninth Star Trek film was ready to go, even if no one could agree on a title yet.

datasings

Fade in on a Vietnamese forest that explodes into flame as Jim Morrison sings “this is the end…”  sorry, no.  Wrong Heart of Darkness.  Fade in on a utopian lakeside village on the world of the Ba’ku, where the inhabitants are tending to their morning chores while a beautiful woman strolls about and children play in the fields.  The pastoral scene is being observed in secret by Starfleet in invisible isolation suits, managed from a “duck blind” concealed by holograms.  The Starfleet crew are being supervised by aliens we have never seen before:  the Son’a, beings with sagging skin stretched taut over aging faces.  A sudden explosion, and panic, as one of the crew begins attacking the others.  It’s Data (Brent Spiner), who rips off his invisibility suit and fires his weapon at the duck blind, exposing it for the frightened villagers to see.  In another sector of the galaxy, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, including Worf who has stopped by from Deep Space Nine, are hosting a reception when they receive a message from Vice Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) aboard a Son’a ship in the middle of a turbulent area of space known as the Briar Patch, advising that Data has taken the planetary observation team hostage.  Picard decides to bring the Enterprise into the Briar Patch to see for himself.   Descending to the surface in a shuttle, he and Worf are attacked by Data in a scout ship.  Picard tries appealing to Data by engaging him in a singing round of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “A British Tar,” which distracts the android long enough for Worf to subdue him.  Picard then leads a “rescue mission” to the Ba’ku village, finding both the Starfleet personnel and their Son’a allies sitting down with the Ba’ku for a cordial dinner.  He is introduced to Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the friendly leader of the small settlement of 600, and the lovely Anij (Donna Murphy), who is suspicious of off-landers.  The Ba’ku are as technologically sophisticated as the Federation, but have chosen to eschew such advancement and live a simple agrarian life instead.  Admiral Dougherty is satisfied that there has been no violation of the Prime Directive, and is eager for the Enterprise to be on its way, even though he and the Son’a will be remaining – to tie up “loose ends,” as Dougherty puts it.

bubblebath

As the Enterprise lingers in orbit around the Ba’ku planet, the crew start behaving oddly:  Worf gets zits and oversleeps, Riker and Troi flirt like teenagers and even Picard notices a spring in his step.  Geordi discovers that Data’s odd behavior was triggered when his program was reset to function on strict interpretations of right and wrong – by being shot by a Son’a weapon.  Data is returned to normal and he and Picard head back down to the surface.  Journeying to the last location Data remembers, and accompanied by Anij, they discover neutrino emissions coming from the middle of a lake, which turn out to reveal a cloaked ship.  Inside the ship is a holographic recreation of the Ba’ku village, the purpose of which seems to be to move the Ba’ku off the planet; they would go to sleep one night and be beamed into this holo-ship, then flown to another, similar planet and left there without ever knowing what had happened.  Picard does not understand why, and the camera lingers on Anij’s face just as they are attacked by Son’a soldiers.  Picard and Data overpower them, and Picard orders them taken into custody until he can speak with Dougherty and the Son’a leader Ru’afo, who are on their way back from the outer rim of the Briar Patch.

picardanij

A midnight walk with Anij reveals the reason why the Federation and the dying Son’a are so interested in this planet:  she and the other Ba’ku are centuries old.  They came to this world from the ruins of their warring civilization to establish a new life, and found that the metaphasic radiation from the planet’s rings slowed their aging and led them to develop tremendous mental acuity; Anij herself has the power to slow down time.  Picard is envious of the existence that the Ba’ku lead and suspects that someone is planning to take it away from them.  After watching Geordi witness a sunrise with restored eyes for the first time in his life, Picard confronts Ru’afo and Dougherty aboard the Enterprise and is informed of the truth:  the Son’a have developed a method to collect the metaphasic particles from the planet’s rings for individual medical use, but the process will render the planet itself uninhabitable.  The Ba’ku world is in Federation space, and so the Federation Council has authorized Dougherty to transport the Ba’ku off the planet aboard the holo-ship before collection begins.  Dougherty argues the revolution in medical science that metaphasics could bring, doubling lifespans and curing disease.  Picard says that forcibly relocating the Ba’ku will destroy their culture.  Dougherty says that they are only moving 600 people; Picard asks how many people it takes before it becomes wrong.  Dougherty shuts down the debate by ordering Picard and his ship out of the Briar Patch.  A chastened Picard returns to his quarters and removes the pips from his uniform, deciding to betray his government to save the Ba’ku.

ruafodougherty

Picard leaves Riker and Geordi to take the Enterprise to the edge of the Briar Patch to call for help, while he and the rest of the crew descend to the surface aboard the captain’s yacht.  Figuring that the Son’a will not begin their procedure while the planet is still populated lest a public relations disaster result, Picard’s people set up transport inhibitors and lead an evacuation of the Ba’ku village.  With Dougherty’s consent, Ru’afo sends drones to tag the villagers with homing markers that will allow them to be beamed up, and orders two of his ships to stop the Enterprise before it can reach communications range with the outside.  A battle in space leaves the Enterprise without its warp drive, but some fancy maneuvering by Riker destroys one of the Son’a ships and leaves the other crippled.  On the Ba’ku world, Sojef is taken by the drones, leaving his young son Artim (Michael Welch), who fears technology, in the care of Data.  The Ba’ku are shepherded into caves where the mineral deposits will blind the Son’a sensors, but the Son’a begin dropping charges on the mountainside to force them out, and a resulting cave-in crushes Anij.  Picard helps her to use her time-slowing power to keep her alive until medical help arrives.  Anij is saved, but shortly afterwards she and Picard are tagged by drones and beamed aboard the Son’a ship.  There, Picard reveals the final twist to Dougherty and the assembled group:  the Ba’ku and the Son’a are the same race.  Sojef says that a century earlier, a group of Ba’ku youth eager to embrace technology again tried to take over the colony, and were exiled when they failed.  Those youth have become the decrepit Son’a.  Dougherty has been unwittingly helping the embittered Son’a take revenge on their forebears – in the name of the Federation.  Ru’afo decides to go ahead with collecting the metaphasic radiation even if there are still people on the planet, and murders Dougherty to keep him from telling anyone.

briarpatch

Picard manages to sway Ru’afo’s second in command, Gallatin (Gregg Henry), who was once known as Gal’na when he lived among the Ba’ku and clearly has misgivings.  With the assistance of Gallatin, Data and Worf, Picard has Ru’afo and his crew beamed to the holo-ship and presents them an illusion of the collector activating and draining the metaphasic particles.  But the savvy Ru’afo realizes it is a trick, and figures out a way to escape the holo-ship and transport to the collector to restart the countdown for real.  Picard beams over as well and the two leaders battle it out with fists, with Picard quoting Danny Glover, saying “we’re getting too old for this.”  Ru’afo’s crew manages to recapture his ship’s bridge and take Worf and Gallatin prisoner, but the Enterprise returns from the edge of the Briar Patch and disables them.  Picard activates the collector’s self-destruct just in time for the Enterprise to beam him off and leave the mad Ru’afo to be consumed by the explosion.  The remaining Son’a surrender before their air supply gives out, and Riker advises that the Federation Council has called an indefinite halt to the Ba’ku relocation project.  On the surface, the aging Gal’na is reunited with his still-youthful mother and they share a tender, forgiving embrace.  Artim bids goodbye to his new friend Data, Picard promises Anij that he has nearly a year of shore leave he’d like to spend with her, and the Enterprise crew beams away to head home as Marlon Brando whispers “the horror, the horror…” – sorry, I did it again.  Bad reviewer.

Something has puzzled me ever since I first saw this movie in December of 1998:  why don’t I like it more?  It captures and reflects the optimism that makes Star Trek endearing, it has an intelligent script, it tells a fast-paced adventure story without racking up an enormous body count, it asks ever-timely and relevant questions about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, it has good performances, it has villains but not people being nasty just for nasty’s sake, it has a lot of sweet and funny and even touching moments, it has a Jerry Goldsmith score, and the gorgeous Donna Murphy steals breaths in every frame she’s in (and you get to see Marina Sirtis covered in soap bubbles, if that isn’t additional inducement!)  But for some reason the entire affair falls a bit flat.  I’ve wondered if it’s perhaps because there’s nothing here that is surprising, and it raises the question of whether surprises always require the risk of making people uncomfortable.  This movie, by contrast, was designed from the outset to be light-hearted and breezy, and anything that could have represented audience discomfort was snipped out.  (A scene was filmed where Riker and Troi went to the ship’s library to do research on the Son’a and were shushed by an elderly, glasses-wearing caricature of a librarian; deeming this possibly offensive to real librarians, director Frakes deleted it from the final cut.)

Making audiences uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean assaulting their senses and morals with blood and guts and sex and swears, but it does mean thwarting expectations by introducing irrevocable changes to the characters and the universe they inhabit, consequently leaving the audience actively guessing at what could possibly happen next.  This movie never does that.  It has the visual aesthetic and sweep of a major motion picture, but the play-it-safe mentality of an average TV episode.  When Picard, Data and Anij find the holo-ship and Picard describes the “Sorvino Switch,” we’re deflated because what is supposed to be a major plot twist turns out to be a retread of an episode we just saw a few years ago.  We don’t want the movies to recycle the TV plots; we expect better, more consequential events than that.  We’re paying to be here, after all.

Even the final title of Star Trek: Insurrection is a promise not kept.  I hear “insurrection” and I’m thinking wide-scale galactic rebellion among dozens of starships across hundreds of worlds, not just Picard and his crew disobeying the orders of one misguided Starfleet admiral – especially when there is never any legitimate doubt that Picard is in the right (wouldn’t it have been a more gripping  ethical dilemma if the audience were to question if the “insurrection” was valid?)  Part of the problem could be that, Donna Murphy’s beauty aside, the Ba’ku are not really that compelling an alien species to spin a story around.  We don’t always have to put Earth itself in jeopardy to have drama – witness Avatar – and we don’t even have to make the aliens eight-foot-tall and blue either, but they should have a little more meat to them than just coming off like a commune of well-manicured hippie California Democrats.  Call it a failure of worldbuilding, as my fantasy-writing friends will appreciate.  It’s unfortunate too that the Ba’ku were cast all white, which represents a deep valley in Star Trek‘s otherwise proud tradition of diversity, and I can’t find a logical reason as to why it was done that way.

Look, to echo Michael Piller’s baseball analogy, sometimes a curveball finds the strike zone, and sometimes, as Brett Cecil of the Blue Jays could tell you, the hitter smacks it over the left-field fence.  That doesn’t diminish the worth of the pitch, nor does it mean the curve won’t be more effective the next time you throw it.  Star Trek‘s curveball, Insurrection, isn’t a bad movie, but it never risks enough to potentially become a great one.  Yet you can’t bring yourself to hate it or its creators.  Everyone is trying very hard, and the effort is obvious.  But its greatest sin is in wanting so much to make us smile that it trips over its own good intentions.

ruafoscreams

In summary:  This curveball, sadly, veers too far off the plate.

Next time:  The world gets its first major look at an up-and-coming actor named Tom Hardy.  Pity it’s in one of the worst Star Trek movies ever made.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 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.

spacesuits

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.

dataqueen

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.

vulcangreeting

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.

magiccarpetride

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.)

drawtheline

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)

generationsteaser

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.”

thethree

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…

yessssss

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.

picardriker

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.

soranbetor

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.

crashedenterprise

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.

breakfast

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.

kirkdeath

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!  🙂