The original series of “Star Trek” lasted for only 79 episodes and by the time it returned to the big screen there hadn’t been any new live action adventures for Kirk and Co for ten years. The intervening years had seen massive improvements in the areas of special effects, and of course the crew of the Enterprise had entered the public consciousness and become part of popular culture. When it returned, it came back with vastly improved special effects and a cast of characters we already loved but still wanted to learn more about and who, crucially, still had aspects to explore.
By contrast, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was a successful television show which had run for 178 episodes during which time it had exhaustively explored all of its principle characters in a wide variety of stories. It enjoyed state of the art effects and a loyal following. Although it hadn’t made the cultural breakthrough that its forebear had, it did generate two spin-off shows which enjoyed their own successful runs. Towards the end of its run “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was showing signs of fatigue, with the quality of the stories starting to suffer as the writers began to run out of interesting things to do with or say about the characters.
Keen to keep the franchise alive, Paramount put a “Next Generation” motion picture into fast turnaround. Already facing an uphill struggle due to the required premiere date, it was also burdened by a wish list of studio expectations. It had to somehow pass the torch from the original crew to the new crew and had to be achieved on a modest budget (of course). Producer Rick Berman, making the leap from television to feature production, commissioned rival scripts from different teams of writers, eventually choosing a winner but incorporating elements of both into the finished project.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise-D find themselves up against renegade El-Aurian scientist Tolian Soran who is willing to commit murder on a planetary scale in order to change the path of a mysterious energy ribbon called the Nexus. The Nexus is the portal to another world, a world of bliss and joy and to get back Soran will have to kill hundreds of millions of people. Trapped in the Nexus, Picard needs help to defeat Soran, but the only man who can help him has been dead for seventy-eight years after he was lost saving the Enterprise-B: James T Kirk.
It starts brightly enough, with a lovely opening shot of a tumbling champagne bottle in space, which eventually christens the Enterprise-B. Unfortunately the ship is commanded by the hapless Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) and quickly gets into trouble on its maiden voyage. The opening sequence features cameo appearances by Walter Koenig and James Doohan as Chekov and Scotty in addition to William Shatner reprising Captain Kirk one more time. Although the supporting roles were clearly originally written to be Spock and McCoy (both Nimoy and Kelley declined the invitations to appear and Nimoy also declined the offer to direct), Koenig and Doohan do well enough in the brief time they are on screen. There’s a throwaway reference to Sulu in the form of his daughter Demora (Jacqueline Kim) and an appearance by Tim Russ (making his second of four appearances in “Star Trek” before landing his role as Tuvok on “Star Trek: Voyager” – you have to admire his persistence) but the preamble serves one purpose: to get Kirk into the place the story needs him to be so it can pick him up later.
Whether deliberate or not, there was clearly a decision taken to abandon attempts to broaden the franchise’s appeal and instead cater to the core Trek fan base. As such, there is little effort to introduce the characters of the Next Generation, especially Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) – who is integral to the plot – or any of the new technology such as the holodeck. The enduring mystery of “Star Trek: Generations” is that, given the production crew and writers were taken directly from the TV show’s staff, how could they get so many aspects of the story, characters and continuity so wrong?
Eschewing the strong, character driven, thematic arcs of the previous trek films (even the less successful ones), this film-making by contest and committee feels less like a coherent story and more like Berman and co-writers Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga trying one thing after another as they desperately try to keep the story moving. Ultimately, the film doesn’t really know what its key themes are, or what its characters’ motivations might be so it laboriously slogs its way through a dull and unengaging story with little enthusiasm or momentum.
The characters are buffeted around at the caprice of the script instead of the other way around, with everybody but Picard and Data left with little to do but stand around and occasionally react to the latest plot contrivance. Picard is poorly served by a script which sees fit to burn his entire family to death simply to give him a reason to bristle at Soran’s line about time being the fire in which we burn. A maudlin Picard then reveals a sentimental longing for a family of his own which was largely absent from the character through seven years of television. There’s a terrible moment where we see him disconsolately looking through a photo album at pictures of his nephew, brother and his wife. A paper photo album, but you can tell it’s the future because the photos have silver holographic paper borders around them. The whole event is crass and obvious and Picard’s reaction is deeply uncharacteristic, undermining the impact. On a continuity note, they don’t even bother to get the same actor back to play his nephew. If Picard is poorly catered for, I’m not sure what term should be used to describe the treatment of Data. The emotion chip arc is simply terrible, and results in poor Brent Spiner having to mug and gurn his way through most of the film until Geordi gets kidnapped and then he gets to look sad. The writers seem confused as to what emotions are. For the record: gagging on a drink because of the taste is not an emotional response. Thankfully, the emotion chip arc just kind of fizzles out but in doing so, it underlines its irrelevance to the main plot and joins a host of dead-end or truncated subplots which go nowhere.
There’s Geordi’s kidnapping, for example, which was truncated in the final edit, leaving dialogue referencing torture kind of hanging there without real explanation or context. The ludicrous highlight of this aborted storyline sees Dr Soran interrogating Geordi about trilithium, a subject on which he is already the foremost expert in the galaxy.
When the film finally stumbles to its grand finale, the structure and the pacing are terrible. In theory there are 230 million lives at stake but we never get to see or care about them much. Instead, we’re treated to repeated smug posturing about how a twenty year old Klingon Bird of Prey is no match for the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise, right before the Klingon ships kick’s the Federation flagship’s ass. Okay, so they manage this by re-tuning their weapons to penetrate the Enterprise‘s shields but the whole battle is where this film loses all credibility and momentum.
I’m about to get all nerd-ragey here so bear with me.
Picard trades himself for Geordi on condition that Lursa and B’Etor first transport him to the surface of the planet to try to reason with Soran but there’s no real reason for them to comply with Picard’s condition once they have him save that the story needs them to. Meanwhile, due to their hacking of Geordi’s visor, Lursa and B’Etor are able to spy on the Enterprise, essentially seeing what the chief engineer sees. Finally, he happens to glance at a display which shows the shield frequency. They then adjust their torpedo frequency to match and for no real reason, open fire on the Enterprise. Did nobody detect the warbird arming its torpedoes? In a potential combat situation, was nobody monitoring the enemy vessel? When the first salvo breaches the shields, the Enterprise sluggishly begins to move and returns fire. At this point, the rest of the crew have had a discussion that they don’t know where Picard is, and they can’t detect him on the planet’s surface but they’ merrily fire away at the Klingons without knowing if their captain is still on board. Fans of the series will also remember that the Enterprise has a standard protocol to continuously randomly modulate the shield frequency from their battles with the Borg yet nobody thinks to activate it here. Although they manage to overcome the Klingons by tricking the vessel into lowering its shields (rather than, say, using the massively superior firepower they were banging on about earlier) the damage is done and the Enterprise suffers a catastrophic warp core breach, destroying most of the ship and sending the saucer section crashing to the planet below. Whichever way you cut it, the Enterprise-D is only lost due to the gross negligence of its command crew. At least we get the obligatory traditional re-use of an effects shot from a previous film as the bird of prey explosion from “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” is used again.
On the surface, Soran has fired a rocket – a rocket – which somehow manages to reach the planet’s sun in a few seconds and the Nexus sweeps over the surface, scooping up Soran and Picard just before the whole planet is destroyed, leading to…an extended dream sequence.
Yes, that’s right, just as the film had finally built up a sense of urgency and action, it slams on the brakes for an extendedly twee fantasy sequence where we get to see Picard’s heart’s desire. It’s like The Mirror of Erised by way of Hallmark. It comes as something of a surprise to discover that the fondest wish of our dashing Captain, whose heroic exploits and interest in archaeology have been well documented, was to have had a family in the 19th century and be father to children who can’t act very well. Fortunately Guinan shows up convinces Picard to abandon Hallmark Victoriana fantasy and return to the real universe and stop Soran. But to do it, he’ll need help. Well, hey – guess what? Captain Kirk didn’t actually die in saving Enterprise-B – psyche! No, he also got trapped in the Nexus and is currently living out his ultimate wish fulfilment of…chopping wood and cooking eggs. The fact Kirk’s version of the Nexus is a log cabin where his breakfast is burning flies in the face of everything the past six “Star Trek” films have been telling us and cuts right to the heart of why this lacklustre film fails so much. The production team seem utterly ignorant of who Kirk is and what the differences between him and Picard are. As a result, the film fails to use him well at all. Kirk even lectures Picard about staying in command because he can make a difference. Oh yeah, so how come you were dreaming about eggs on toast?
The film never really recovers from the sudden, crushing inertia of the Nexus scenes and the problems are compounded by the fact that Picard chooses the worst time, literally the worst possible time, to return from the Nexus, giving him and Kirk only seconds to save the day when they could easily have had hours – weeks even. I’m not going to dwell on the way Kirk was killed off. I mean, why should I? The film certainly doesn’t. It’s shoddy, ill-conceived exit for an immense, culturally iconic character whose eventual end would probably have been better never actually seen. It carries so little emotional impact that the sense of anti-climax reaches back retrospectively throughout the movie, emphasising the mediocrity of the whole thing.
The direction, by TV veteran David Carson, is humdrum and lacks any real flair and the lighting is downright awful – the sets are so dimly lit it laughable. It may have been an attempt to create a moodier aesthetic for the film but I suspect the real reason was the TV sets simply weren’t up to the standard needed for a feature film (hence the decision to destroy the Enterprise so they could have a new one for the next film. There’s an unexplained mish-mash of uniforms throughout which is somewhat distracting and the score by Dennis McCarthy is very poor indeed. It’s not all bad, though: the special effects are good and the set for the stellar cartography scene is pretty cool.
Intended to be about new beginnings, the film seems obsessed with endings, as it trashes everything in a vain attempt to provoke some kind of audience reaction. “Star Trek: Generations” is a barely adequate Trek movie which insults both the original series and “The Next Generation” as well as the audience’s intelligence. The story is dull and inconsequential, the execution muddled and Data is annoying as fuck, for no real story payoff.
It’s such a disappointing step down from the quality of the previous film and it also didn’t help that the TV series had ended a mere six months previously with “All Good Things…”, a double episode finale which would have made the perfect “Next Generation” movie. I honestly hadn’t remembered it being this bad. In fact, I think this film provoked an emotional response. I think I hate it. Yes, I hate it. More? Please!