Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek Generations (1994)

If you were a Star Trek fan during the fall of 1994, you didn't have far to look to get your fix. The Next Generation had ended its run just months earlier at the top of its class, Emmy-nominated as "Best Dramatic Series." The first of the spin-offs, Deep Space Nine had held its own for a season-and-a-half, and another spin-off, Voyager, was being readied for its premiere a few short months hence to help raise the curtain on an entire new network (UPN, RIP).

Trek was at critical mass. Never before had the franchise reached the heights of cultural penetration and popular acceptance it enjoyed then, nor would it reach those heights again. The centerpiece in this embarrassment of riches was the seventh feature, a new beginning for the film series that would, in theory, keep it going well into the next century. Things didn't exactly work out that way, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The then-keepers of the Trek flame had the wind at their backs for The Next Generation's inaugural movie voyage, and no one could accuse them of being unambitious. Produced by Rick Berman, anointed overseer of all things Star Trek (anointed either by Roddenberry or the studio, depending on who you ask), and written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga, Star Trek Generations presented the long-awaited meeting of the follicley-challenged leading men: William Shatner's Captain Kirk and Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard.

As Generations begins, Kirk, along with Scotty and Chekov (Doohan and Koenig, good sports in nothing parts), is a celebrity guest on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B. When an unforeseen emergency forces the less-than-prepared ship (along with its less-than-prepared captain, played by Cameron Frye himself, Alan Ruck) into action, Kirk is lost in space and presumed dead after freeing the new Enterprise from an anomalous energy ribbon that has ensnared it.

From there we jump seventy-eight years ahead into Next Generation territory, where the Enterprise-D is drawn into a mystery involving the very same energy ribbon, which we learn is a naturally-occurring portal to personal Nirvana called the "Nexus." When a madman named Soran (Malcolm McDowall, playing Malcolm McDowall), hell-bent on returning to the Nexus, plans to commit mass murder on a planetary scale to facilitate that end, Picard enlists the aid of the time-lost Kirk, alive and well in the Nexus, to help stop him.

There's more that happens, of course, including plenty of "big" moments specifically engineered to send Trekkie hearbeats a-racing, but fifteen years away from the pomp and circumstance, there's really only one thing you need to know about Star Trek Generations: James T. Kirk dies. Twice, actually.

And that's about it.

There's a veritable wellspring of reasons why the first of the Next Generation movies fails to be memorable on its own terms, which we'll discuss shortly, but before we do, some perspective might be useful on the show that spawned it. While I hadn't intended my thoughts on Generations to turn into a meditation on the relative merits and demerits of The Next Generation, once I started it became clear that you can't really talk about one without talking about the other. So let's just get to the heart of it:

Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't work.

I know, I know, heresy, right? And given the level of success the show achieved during its syndicated run, that might be overstating it a little, but bear with me. When Gene Roddenberry returned Star Trek to television in the late '80s, he had the opportunity to reverse engineer his beloved creation and essentially "fix" it. Thus did we arrive at The Next Generation, which leaped nearly a century ahead of the then-ongoing movie series.

If Star Trek (the original show) was ahead of its time (to its detriment, as it turned out), then The Next Generation was perfectly of its time. Whether it was the egalitarian nature of the ensemble, with the captain as first among equals, or the chair on the ship's bridge reserved for the captain's shrink, the telegraphed intent was to stand apart from the original, demonstrating on a weekly basis just how much things had improved since the franchise's '60s origins.

Of course, as I've said before (both on this blog and to random people on the street), the problem with being of the moment is that the moment eventually passes. Such is the case with Next Generation, which represented the zeitgeist but didn't anticipate it. Twenty years out, its production aesthetic is rooted in an '80s sensibility that feels more quaint even than the original series, while its depiction of perfected humanity is so far removed from anything resembling the actual present day human condition that it's impossible to view with anything but cold detachment.

When you get down to it, opening narration notwithstanding, Roddenberry's revised Enterprise didn't do a whole lot of exploring of brave new worlds, nor did it seek out very much in the way of new life. This was a pleasure ship in disguise, sailing through the galaxy whilst reinforcing Roddenberry's utopian ideal. With the original Enterprise's hard angles and battleship greys replaced by the curvature and colors of a luxury liner, the new Galaxy-class Enterprise wasn't a naval vessel, or even an exploratory vessel, so much as it was a space-based Pacific Princess.

In Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, we had a clear representation of Roddenberry's perfected man. Experienced, wise, diplomat first, man of action second, Picard exemplified what Star Trek had come to represent for its creator. And even though the Enterprise faced real threats (the Borg come to mind, for one), the stakes were continually minimized by the dramatic restraints placed upon the series by the man who dreamed the thing up, and which continued to be enforced long after his death. Star Trek had turned into a lifestyle first and a TV show second.

While there were some tremendous hours of television produced during that seven year run (I can rattle off six or eight episodes right off the top of my head), that does nothing to change the larger point that The Next Generation was mostly formulaic, mostly cookie-cutter, and mostly safe. Great for weekly TV, terrible for movies.

Which brings us, after a lengthy detour, back to Star Trek Generations. In transitioning from small screen to big, Generations embodies the increasingly-insular nature of the franchise, down to the functional, workmanlike direction by David Carson (who previously helmed several TV Treks, including Deep Space Nine's feature-length premiere). The Trek brain trust at that time was far less concerned with observing and commenting on the human foibles than with playing to its own base (sort of like the Republican party circa right now).

For one thing, you'd think they would have made more of an effort to trim the mountainous techno-speak that lent verisimilitude to the fictional universe but also made it nigh impenetrable to anyone on the outside looking in. I consider myself a middle-of-the-road fan, but by the eighth or ninth time I had to hear about "isotronic" this or "trilithium" that, my eyes were making like pinwheels. What's trilithium, you ask? Why, it's like dilithium, only better. Oh, okay. Thanks.

Given the feature's proximity to the just-ended series (filming occurred concurrently with "All Good Things," the finale), I guess you can chalk up the episodic, disjointed nature of the proceedings to the filmmakers being stuck in "TV" mode when production commenced. Still, it must have occurred to someone that leading directly from Kirk's (presumed) death on the Enterprise-B in the prologue, a moment rife with dramatic importance and potential for character development (poor Chekov gets screwed yet again), to the Enterprise-D crew playing dress-up on the holodeck (Worf is getting promoted! Everyone put on a funny costume!) didn't exactly make for a smooth tonal shift.

Apparently a more action-oriented intro to the 24th century was nixed for fear that it would be too obvious, in favor of something a little more cutesy. That pretty much sums up the problem throughout. In trying to make a movie that was unique for that moment, they ended up with a product that's unwieldy in perpetuity. This fixation on the temporal applies, ironically enough, to the temporal Nexus itself. To create the circumstances that could bring Kirk and Picard face to face despite the near-century gap that separated them, Moore (he of Battlestar Galactica fame) & Braga (he of Threshold infamy) outsmarted themselves in trying to concoct a scenario that would involve time travel, but not really.

And so we get the Nexus, a contrivance that fails to make sense on any level, time travel or no. "It's like being inside joy," Whoopi Goldberg's Guinan (who, along with McDowall's character, spans both of the movie's time periods) tells Picard, explaining that once you're inside it, your fondest wish will be fulfilled, and you'll never, ever, ever want to leave, and if you do get out, you'll either spend your entire life trying to forget about it or get back in.

Of course Picard does get trapped in the Nexus, and after five minutes of his "ultimate fantasy," (domestic bliss with a the cast of The Sound of Music), he wants out. From there he meets the similarly-trapped James T. Kirk, also living out his ultimate fantasy (chopping wood at a cabin -- seriously, these Starfleet captains need to get out more), and after a bit of arm-twisting it's off to battle the bad guy ("Sounds like fun," says Kirk). So much for never, ever, ever...

There's a whole other set piece in the middle involving the Enterprise-D, under Riker's (Jonathan Frakes) command, squaring off with a Klingon ship (again with the Klingons!) and an ensuing crash sequence that is pretty spectacular, and there's some business woven throughout with android officer Data (Brent Spiner) getting emotions, but they're mostly distractions. In fact, pretty much everything from the time Kirk leaves to the time he reappears is a distraction.

It tells you something that, even in a glorified cameo (and that's really what his role comes down to here), Kirk remains the center of the action. The added wrinkle of the character's mortality, continuing an arc begun in previous films and literalized thanks to the plot mechanics here, gives his scenes an air of sadness and self-reflection, and imbues them with a deeper meaning that just isn't there on the page.

Whether the look on his face as he eyes the empty command chair on the Enterprise-B, or the hint of recognition that the life he is living out in the Nexus isn't real, Shatner is in fine form, energetic and magnetic, and the final act team-up with Stewart is the unquestionable highlight of the film. The two (characters and actors both) form a quick rapport that would have been enjoyable to see developed further, but such was not to be. Here again, in attempting to give the audience something unexpected, Moore and Braga thought themselves into a corner.

Instead of the legendary hero going out in a spacebound blaze of glory, his exit is decidedly earthbound and underwhelming. Even more frustrating, his presence in the movie has no greater meaning other than it being predetermined that he had to die.

Following a fistfight with Soran (well, he is Jim Kirk, after all) to stop him from launching a device that will destroy a neighboring star (and its neighboring planets), Kirk retrieves a remote control device from one side of a straining metal bridge before it collapses and takes him down with it. Leaving to one side the question of whether Kirk should have been killed onscreen at all (it might have been a good idea to just leave well enough alone after his sunset strut in The Undiscovered Country), if Kirk had to go, it should have been on the bridge and not under one.

As Generations draws to a close, the death of Kirk has firmly closed the door on the prior generation of Star Trek, and the death of the Enterprise-D has firmly closed the door on the TV era of The Next Generation. Although their movie tenure had begun inauspiciously, Generations nevertheless fulfilled its goal of successfully continuing the brand and laying the pipe for Picard and Co. to find an even greater degree of success in two short years by going boldly where at least two movies had already gone before. C-


Ian Sokoliwski said...

I keep forgetting that this film even exists. Which is sad commentary for the film in which Kirk dies.

As you say, twice.

And, what, Starfleet had about eight or nine ships in the 23rd century? How is the Enterprise-B the only ship close enough to the floaty nexus thingy? And how did it get so close to Earth before anyone noticed?

Strangely enough, however, both Picard and Kirk being strong-willed enough to throw off the effects of the Nexus was about the only thing in this movie that I did buy. Picard's revelation was about family that never was, and it made sense that he could see his way through what was happening, what with his analytical approach to the world contrasting with the emotions he was made to feel. And Kirk...well, yeah, I viewed the Nexus as being as compelling as the most amazing video game ever. And Kirk never seemed to be one for video games.

I dunno - I would say that if someone who had never seen Star Trek in any form watched this movie, they would probably think the emotional centre of the film was actually Data's acquisition of emotions. That seemed to be a bigger deal, within the framework of this story on it's own, than the death(s) of Kirk.

Not that it was all that big of a deal, admittedly. Especially when the follow-up flick eliminated the one really cool idea to do with the emotion chip (that is, his inability to turn it off once activated).

Zaki said...

I think the Data thing is exactly what I mean when I say forgettable. It was undone with one line in the next movie, like you say. Enterprise being destroyed, we knew as soon as it happened that it was temporary. That's why I say Kirk's death is the only thing "important" that happens.

And yeah, I get that Picard is heroic because he's able to free the Nexus, but you'd think he'd have had at least a moment of doubt in there somewhere. It was just too easy (not to mention the entire idea of the Nexus makes no sense...)

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I like to think that, were I to fall into a magical space ribbon that could grant me my fondest wish, I would not suddenly find myself being Bob Cratchit. Or Grizzly Adams, for that matter...

A P Leyland said...

Really enjoyed your Star Trek reviews. Keep them coming.

Regarding the transition from Kirk's "death" and the "funny" bit with Worf: The original script had an extensive action scene to (re)introduce these characters but Jeri Taylor (exec on Voyager) said you can't go from one action scene to another - so they changed it!

When I saw this in the theatre I thought it was such a wasted opportunity. Kirk should have (for some plot reason) had to beam up to the Enterprise leaving Picard on theplanet to deal with Soren. Imagine: Kirk in charge of Riker, Data and Worf and Worf wholeheartedly approving of his tactics and Not crashing the Enterprise in a brilliantly realised but pointless scene only there becasue Rick Berman didn't like the design of Enterprise D.

The Mad Swede said...

I have to confess that I do like the movie quite a lot, but also that I fully understand about the forgettable bit. It "reads" as a double episode of the TV show, and to be honest, there are a few TNG double episodes that easily outdoes it (though perhaps not in budget and effects).