Re-watching Star Trek: Generations for the first time in three years, two things soon became apparent to me:
- Data's emotion chip is a horrible idea.
- So is nearly everything else in this movie.
It's strange. Like I said, it's been a few years since I last watched this (Netflix conveniently marks the date as sometime in March '08, which would've been about a month after I wrote my first ever review for the A.V. Club, and now I feel old), and I remembered it was deeply mediocre. But when I watched the opening scenes this week, with Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov serving as honorary chaperones for the new Enterprise-B's (with captain Alan Ruck!) maiden voyage, I wondered if I'd been off in that assessment. Maybe Generations was due for a re-examination. Sure, Kirk dies a dull, flat death, but maybe that works. I was prepared to mount the sort of defense Whedonites often bust out during arguments about the later seasons of Buffy: Sure, this was dreary and kind of grim and deflating, but that's how life works, after all, and that's what great drama is about, and isn't it refreshing, then, to see the hero of a pulpy TV series and big screen franchise die like the overweight, tired old man he really is? Isn't it—
Yeah, I didn't get very far with that line of reasoning. (I'm also not a big fan of the later seasons of Buffy.) But my point is that, watching those opening scenes, I could almost see myself making that argument work. The beginning of Generations isn't high art, but it's credible enough. Yes, it's contrived that Ruck immediately panics in the face of danger, when the Enterprise-B finds two El-Aurian refugee ships stuck in a strange energy ribbon, and turns to Kirk for help. And, okay, I'm not sure I buy that after saving as much of the day as he can from the bridge, Kirk volunteers to go to main engineering to jerry-rig some doohickey, just in time to get sucked out of the ship when the energy beam rips a hole in the hull. I mean, there are a dozen other people on the bridge, all of them (excluding Scotty) in much better health than Kirk, and it does seem like an ability to run for more than ten feet without getting winded might be useful here. Also, Guinan turns out to be one of the forty-seven people the Enterprise-B manages to beam off the refugee ships. Because Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) was also one of the forty-seven rescued, and he's going to be our villain later on, and we'll need someone to explain who he is, as well as explain the crazy energy ribbon which caused all the trouble. Explaining is what Guinans do best, I guess.
It's not an amazing start to the movie, but it feels like a Trek movie, and the little we see of the characters, they're behaving as we've become accustomed to see them behave. Then we jump ahead eighty years, and everything goes to hell.
And quickly, too. The first scene we get with the TNG crew is on the holodeck. Everyone's done up in naval uniforms, they're on an old-fashioned ship, and Worf is being promoted to Lieutenant Commander. The group is real chummy, right up till the moment that Riker "accidentally" drops Worf in the ocean. The ensemble laughs while Worf sputters and rages, and Data asks Beverly Crusher what the joke is. She tries to explain, with the end result being that Data, in an attempt to replicate the original humor, pushes her in the water as well. This is greeeted with stony silence. Then Picard gets a message from Starfleet, looks terribly upset, and we're moving to the next scene.
I don't want to spend too much time on this, but it is fairly indicative of the problems the movie on the whole has with translating its small screen heroes to big screen, larger than life stars. The original franchise never really had this problem; the central trio, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, were strong enough that, even in the worst films of the franchise, they held their own (they weren't always good, mind you, but you never questioned they should be on a movie screen), and the rest of the crew filled in the spaces around them quite nicely. Here, though, while the actors are game enough, there's no central relationship holding everything together, no trio to focus our attention. Of the TNG cast, the two who make the biggest impression are Picard and Data, and they only share one scene of any significance together. (It's one of the movie's best scenes, too.) TNG benefits as a series from having a much stronger sense of ensemble than the original show, but the movie doesn't bring that across. We know who Picard is, we know Data and Geordi are friends, and everyone else just sort of melds together in a vague, affable blur.
Well, theoretically "affable," anyway. Here, they just come off like a bunch of smug jerks. The promotion sequence is cute enough, and helps show the sense of camaraderie that TNG did so well, but Riker's prank on Worf doesn't come off as friendly. It comes off as the cool kids mocking the outsider. These are our heroes? A bunch of smarmy creeps, picking on a minority? Not to mention how Data's apparently still struggling with the concept of "slapstick," despite having access to a thousand years worth of writing and examples to draw from. I understand wanting to introduce Data's "otherness" quickly, but this makes him stupid, not different, and when he throws Beverly into the water, there's a strange Frankenstein's monster vibe that doesn't really suit him. The rest of the crew's astonished horror at his behavior makes them even less likable then before, because honestly, what is the difference between embarrassing Worf and dunking Beverly? Beverly stays pissed off at Data for days, too; considering the small amount of screentime the character gets, this does her no favors, as she has no real reason to be angry, beyond the fact that she needs to be angry to motivate Data to finally install his emotions chip.
Sigh. Let's just skip over the chips origins on the TV series (we've seen it introduced in "Brothers," but in regular TNG coverage, we haven't gotten to the point where Data gets it back from Lore)(um, spoiler alert, I guess?), and talk about how it works in the movie. It doesn't. On a character level, it's a horrible choice. I can see the writers (Brannon Braga and Ron Moore did the screenplay, and Rick Berman contributed to the story) wanting to throw it in as a sop to fans, the supposed culmination of Data's seven season long journey towards humanity. After all, this is the big screen, and if there was any time to pull out the stops, now is that time. But that means sacrificing what makes Data unique, and what makes him so compelling. Data is always the most interesting when the show successfully managed to portray his attempts at finding a soul without resorting to "What is kiss?" type moments. He's at his best when his mechanical origins make him what we aspire to be, even while he wishes he could be less.
I suppose, with the emotion chip installed, this still could've been the case. A Data struggling with a rush of new emotions could've been just as unusual and dramatic as the emotion-free Data. (Although, as others have noted, this is a shortcut that does a disservice to the years of growth Data's gone through on his own, providing him with an easy fix for a problem that really should've been solved within.) Or maybe this concept was doomed to failure from the start; a person overcome by passions they don't understand is basically a teenager, and despite years of TV shows and young adult lit to the contrary, teenagers aren't all that interesting. Whether or not this could've worked, though, is irrelevant. It doesn't work. Brent Spiner is, as we've seen time and again, deeply creepy when he tries to play up Data's "human" side, and, despite the fact that Data is one of the show's most inherently likable figures, his film debut is flat out horrible. He comes off as a shrieking, gibbering lunatic, a Lovecraftian shambles dressed up as comic relief. Am I overstating? Probably. Data isn't bad at all in his one big scene with Picard, as he deals with the realization that having emotions doesn't necessarily mean controlling them. But that's one scene. The rest is just… awful. I hated Data in Generations, wincing nearly every time he came on screen. And that is just no fun at all.
Picard is better served, but still problematic. Patrick Stewart is a better actor than Spiner, and the script doesn't call on him to behave as wildly out of character as Spiner is forced to, and yet there are a few scenes that even Stewart's talents can't entirely save. The standard, accepted contrast between Kirk and Picard has always been that Kirk is the more forceful, aggressive captain, while Picard is more thoughtful and taciturn. (I've brought this up more than a few times myself.) But Generations, intentionally or not, goes out of its way to make Picard seem weak and soft-hearted. We see him maybe five minutes before he gets the news about his brother and nephew (burned to death in a fire), and ten, twenty minutes later he's sobbing to Troi about their deaths, bemoaning all that the now dead Rene (nephew) won't get to experience. It's clearly supposed to be moving, and Stewart sells it with all he has, which is much to his credit. But the speech is shallow, and unconvincing. It reads more like a Hallmark commercial than honest grief.
Picard is supposed to be taking the mantle from Kirk in Generations, and instead, he's sobbing over characters which most of the audience have never seen before—and even if you've been watching the TV show from the beginning, it's not like we've had many opportunities to get emotionally invested in Rene or Robert. For a someone who's at his best when he's thinking through a problem, Picard's grief is too much. He's just too broken Compare this to, say, Kirk's reaction to Spock's death, and Picard looks like a show-boating ninny. (And really, having his relations "burned to death" is incredibly cheap. The death is made intentionally horrible to try and goose our response; even if we don't give a rat's ass about the ones who died, "burning to death" is an inherently horrible way to go.) All of this is done to give him more of a reason to want to stay in the Nexus when the time comes, but it's unnecessary. It takes hardly any effort at all for Picard to get away from his "ideal life," and there's certainly no catharsis between his earlier grief and the later sequence. Despite being arguably the film's central character, Jean-Luc hardly makes an impression, and that's because of muddled choices like this.
Then there's the plot. The core idea is… not terrible. Soran, the gentleman we met during the opening sequence, is basically crazy. He lost his family to a Borg attack (ah, the Borg), and those brief moments he spent stuck in the energy ribbon—which is the Nexus mentioned above, a place which provides absolute peace and joy to anyone under its influence—were, as far as we can tell, the only happiness he's experienced since the death of everyone he loved. So in the eighty years since that opening sequence, Soran has been doing everything possible to get back to the ribbon, finally coming up with a plan that involves the destruction of multiple stars in order to shift the path of a ribbon onto a planet where he can get back inside. He can't just fly into it in a ship, you see, because the ribbon destroys any ship that comes too near it, and-
Okay, maybe "not terrible" is stretching, because already, I've got some problems with this. As much as I like Malcolm McDowell (and I do!), Soran is ill-defined. Apart from a few hammy lines about time being a "fire" that destroys everything (a line which had me flashing on that awful Firestarter made-for-TV sequel McDowell starred in, the ads for which had him intoning, "Some say the world will end in fire," etc), and the backstory we get from Guinan (sigh), we're not given sufficient cause to understand an individual willing to kill millions just to get back to his happy place. The pursuit of paradise is a goal anyone can grasp, but the cost here is extraordinarily high, especially considering that, since we see Kirk residing happily in the Nexus later on, it's not like Soran couldn't have just flown a shuttlecraft into the ribbon, and who cares if the craft was destroyed. Or, hell, why not just beam himself directly inside? Admittedly, neither of these methods is entirely foolproof, but we're never given a clear enough sense of Soran's desperation for him to rise above just another one-note, sneering villain. He has a relationship with the Klingon Duras sisters, because he needs their help to get the material he needs to blow up the stars to shift the ribbon, and it all seems like it should be interesting, but it isn't. At one point, he tortures Geordi, because, I dunno, I guess that's a thing.
The Nexus itself isn't all that compelling, either. It's just this vague space thingie that we've never heard about, the sort of "Eh, magic" sci-fi crap which TNG largely eschewed in its best seasons. Apart from giving Soran a motivation, and providing Kirk with a chance to prove one more time how he'll sacrifice anything for the sake of "making a difference," it's useless. Why does it give you your heart's desire? Where do you go when you're pulled inside it? There are no consequences to the perfection it provides, which presumably makes Kirk's (and, to a lesser extent, Picard's) sacrifice more meaningful, but also makes the Nexus itself horribly unspecific. I'm not asking for a twenty minute discourse on its origins, but at least give it some reason to exist beyond simply, "Well, we had to have something, eh?" Remember the probe in Star Trek IV? On one level, it's basically just a MacGuffin to force the Enterprise crew to travel back in time. But at least, even in the little we know about it, it's clear it has a purpose: it's a probe that communicates with whales. We don't know why, and we have no idea what the whale eventually says back ("These assholes murdered all of my kind, so feel free to waste the lot of them."), but at least that's something. The Nexus is that laziest of MacGuffins, the sort that doesn't even bother to pretend its anything but a distraction. Which is both insulting and tedious.
After a complicated series of events (some of which involve Data—shudder—grinning), the Enterprise ends up in orbit around Veridian III, the planet Soran intends the ribbon to pass through once he finishes his sun-destroying. While Picard trades himself as a hostage for Geordi (um, why? Oh forget it), beaming himself down to the planet to confront Soran directly, the Klingon Bird of Prey that transported the bad doctor squares off against the Enterprise, using a secret camera installed in Geordi's VISOR to find out the Enterprise's shield frequency. I like space battles well enough, but this is grafted on; whether or not the Enterprise defeats the Klingons isn't anywhere near as important as whether or not Picard can stop Soran from launching the final missile and destroying the sun. The ship-to-ship combat is exciting in theory, with lots of tense faces and twists, and hey, the saucer ends up crash-landing on Veridian III, but… well, it feels mostly like like this is a scene put in the movie because this is a Star Trek film, so of course it has to have photon torpedoes and so forth. (I think we've seen the shot where Klingons stare in frozen horror through their view screen as a torpedo hones in on them at least three times before in this franchise.)
Which isn't to say the climax on the planet is much better. I'm not sure what the ideal finale of a Trek movie should have, but I can say with reasonable confidence that it shouldn't have two near senior citizens squabbling over a bunch of rocks. There's nothing visually exciting here, the fight choreography is understandably limited, and it goes on for ages. The fact that Picard loses the fight the first time through is, admittedly, very clever. I've seen this movie too many times now to know how I first reacted to it, and any savvy audience member would've realized that the story wasn't quite at the end yet, since Picard and Kirk hadn't met up, but I'd like to think it was at least a little surprising when Soran's plan succeeds. And then Picard wakes up in the Nexus, and we find his perfect life is apparently a Charles Dickens Christmas, where Renee is still alive (and younger than he was when he died, I think), and Picard's wife has been pumping out the kids in earnest.
I'm neutral on this. Idealized fantasy worlds are almost always bland in fiction, and, as mentioned above, it's not like Picard's emotional journey is of much interest here anyway. Echo Guinan shows up to explain the situation, and give Picard the hilarious news that, if he wants to leave the Nexus, he can return to any time and any place. Because, y'know, Space Heaven wasn't convenient enough as a device, so now it has to be capable of limitless travel. Picard realizes he's going to need help to fight Soran, because paradox dictates that he can only go back to a few moments before he… Wait. How does this work, exactly? Picard only went into the Nexus after Soran succeeded in blowing up the sun. So if he wants to stop Soran from blowing up the sun, he has to go back to a point before he entered the Nexus, which means that while he and Kirk are running around the rocks, there's another Picard lying down on the ground below. Who doesn't ever get to go into the Nexus, so I guess the present Picard ends up shooting him in the face after the battle is over, or something. Not to mention the fact that Picard isn't tempted even for a moment to go back far enough in time to warn his brother and nephew about the fire. Hell, Kirk's been missing for all these years, why not just send him back to the past—maybe a few months before, to the space station where the Enterprise finds Soran earlier in the film. Kirk can take Soran out then, and send a quick message to Picard's family, and Picard himself can go to his present without fear of bumping into himself.
Of course, there's that danger of paradox I mentioned, but it's not like Picard ever appears to consider any of this. (It's flat out absurd that he doesn't at least entertain the possibility of warning his relations.) And there's still the extra Picard that nobody ever mentions again, because I guess he just vanishes when the present Picard travels back in time. As if that weren't enough, there's another problem to all of this, one that kills the urgency of the finale, despite all the sweatiness and desperation: if Picard and Kirk do fail, then Soran will succeed same as before, the Nexus will hit the planet again, Picard and Kirk will get sucked inside—so they can repeat the process anew. The problem with Soran's plan is that once Picard's beamed down close enough to get into Nexus himself, he's won. All he has to do is keep going back in time and fighting till he gets it right.
As for Kirk's death, well, it's weak. The whole fight sequence is weak, and then Kirk dies by sliding a broken bridge down to the ground, where he's crushed, although not quite crushed enough to get a few final words out to Picard. (That he doesn't say, "Ship… out of danger?" is a goddamn crime.) This isn't the first version of Kirk's death the movie tried; originally, Soran shot James T. in the back, but then audiences didn't like that so much, and we got this instead. I'm doubt the back-shooting would've been much of an improvement compared to what we got, but at least it would've been visually shocking. There's not much drama in this version, and it doesn't feel like an appropriate send off for a legend. In a better movie, that might've been on purpose, might've been a way of doing the character right; there's something melancholic in the idea of Kirk ending his days on some anonymous planet in a future he doesn't understand. (You could even ret-con his Star Trek V prediction to work with this—in a sense, he does die alone, since he has no friends here that he knows of.) But as is, it's just the ultimate example of how misguided this entire project was: you wait the entire movie to see Picard and Kirk team-up, and all they do is double team some crazy guy.
There's more to pick apart here, I'm sure, but I think it's best I leave it at this. Generations looks pretty enough, and and it's not as egregiously awful as, say, Star Trek V. But it is lousy, and throughout, it shows a thorough inability to understand what audiences want in a good Trek movie. We don't want to see our favorite characters repeatedly humiliated and turned shrill (have I mentioned Data still has that frakin' emotion chip installed at the end of the movie? Normally I'd congratulate the writers for not hitting the reset button, but come on). We don't want to see subplots that have nothing to do with the main action. (I should've gotten into this more, but another issue with Data's emotion chip is that it's utterly extraneous to the rest of the film. There's no real attempts to connect it to the Soran story, apart from the fact that Data's "cowardice" lets Soran kidnap Geordi. That's not enough, and it's a clear sign that the writers really didn't know what they were doing in bringing TNG to the big screen.) And we certainly don't want to have a 2-on-1 climax. (Um, so to speak.) This is just a waste from beginning to end, and for a group of actors who deserved much, much better. Here's hoping their next big screen outing will be an improvement.
- SPOILER: Yes, First Contact is a better movie than this, although I don't think it's flawless. I expect to be writing about it after I get through season six of TNG, and then punishing myself by doing Insurrection and Nemesis after season seven, before moving on to DS9.
- Dialog Class: Soran tells Picard, "I have an appointment with eternity, and I don't want to be late." The first half of this line is okay—cheesy, but Soran is a cheesy dude, and villains are always spouting crap like this. "I don't want to be late," on the other hand, is flat out horrid. It's not funny, it's not a pun, it's not a riff, it doesn't clarify or change the meaning of the initial statement. It's over-writing, plain and simple, and infuriating to me because it would be so easy to fix. Sorry. Just had to get that off my chest.
- I don't buy that Kirk's perfect life isn't on the Enterprise. That goes against just about everything we know about Kirk.
- The final words of James T. Kirk: "Least I could do for the captain of the Enterprise. It was… fun. Oh my."
Next week: After much soul-searching and discussions with my family ("What?", "Next who?", "I didn't know you wrote about Star Wars!", and "I'll call the cops if you come back here again."), I've decided to stick with Next Generation over the summer, instead of switching to another show. I'm really not that burnt out on the series, and it's easier for me to write about something I'm familiar with. (And I'm sure you'll understand that I'm feel very familiar with the Trek-verse by now.) Plus, the 1000+ comments on last week's review are nothing to sneeze at. So, be back here next Thursday, as we dive into the sixth season of TNG with "Time's Arrow, Part 2" and "Realm of Fear." Make it so!