Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Week: Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Can one bad concept, executed poorly, scuttle an entire movie?

That's the primary question to ask regarding the seventh feature film to boast the Star Trek name, 1994's Generations.

As Trekkers no doubt recall, Generations offers the irresistible lure of combining two generations of franchise characters and two exceedingly popular casts.  The film's prologue is set in the 23rd century days of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and crew (in this case meaning Scotty and Chekov), while the movie proper is set some seventy-eight years later, in the era of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his stalwart crew (Riker, Data, Worf, LaForge, Crusher, and Troi).  The film's climax stirs the ingredients together and brings forth both Kirk and Picard to double-team the film's nefarious villain, Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell).

This sounds like a slam dunk formula for space adventure success, no? 

It is, perhaps, until you consider the mechanism by which the two generations are combined.  While all Star Trek films feature flaws of one type or another, Generations endures seismic contortions to bring together two captains from disparate eras, in the process creating a narrative sinkhole from which little emerges unscathed. 

That sinkhole is called "The Nexus" or "the energy ribbon," and the script -- in true TNG techno-babble fashion -- generically describes the outer space phenomenon as a "conflux of temporal energy" that passes through our galaxy every thirty-eight years or so. 

Alas, the Nexus is perhaps the most inconsistent plot device to feature prominently in a Star Trek film, thus causing many more problems than it solves. And because it plays such an important role in the film, logical questions about it are not easily side-stepped or avoided.

In addition, the screenplay by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga feels schizophrenic.  The book-end scenes involving Captain Kirk  are filled with wit, nostalgia, pathos, and real humor, but the middle sections of the film are slow, tedious and lugubrious. Brent Spiner's delightful Data is transformed into a clown and a coward by the addition of an emotion chip, and the script badly mishandles the noble Captain Picard too, making him seem emotionally unstable and a sexist prude.  As a feature film introduction to these beloved franchise characters, Generations serves both heroes poorly.

Yet despite such problems, Star Trek: Generations features many memorable and enjoyable moments. The exciting prologue reveals the inaugural flight of the U.S.S. Enterprise B,  and there's also an impressive action scene involving a saucer separation and planetary crash.  Generations also presents a laudable thematic leitmotif about mortality.  It's not what we leave behind that's important, establishes Captain Picard, but "how we've lived" that matters.  Picard, Kirk and Soran -- in various ways -- all embody this search for meaning in life. 

In terms of its cinematic appeal, Generations re-uses the familiar TV sets, but cinematographer John Alonzo does a brilliant and beautiful job of up-fitting them for the silver screen.  The cinematic lighting of these familiar sets lends a beautiful and affecting sense of melancholy to the dramatic proceedings.  Some scenes are literally bathed in apricot sunlight, as though a golden age is burning out, coming to a rapid end.  This too fits both the movie's narrative (which witnesses an end to Enterprise-D) and the thematic drive, which suggests that "time is the fire in which we burn."

I've re-watched the first five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the last year or so as part of my continuing retrospective of the series, and discovered a new appreciation for the I didn't expect to find, but did.  Yet love The Next Generation or hate it, Generations is not a high point in the franchise, rather a testament to the difficulty of moving beloved characters from one format to another.

The New York Times' Peter Nichols noted that Generations is "flabby and impenetrable in places, but it has enough pomp, spectacle and high-tech small talk to keep the franchise afloat."  I largely agree with the reviewer in terms of the movies flaws and strengths.  Generations really is flabby  (feeling overlong and confusing) and impenetrable (largely because of the Nexus), but the film is also, often, quite spectacular in visualization.  

"A quick run around the block..."

In the 23rd century, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Captain Scott (James Doohan) and Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig) board the U.S.S. Enterprise-B for its maiden voyage, a short sojourn around the solar system.

Unfortunately, two El-Aurian ships carrying refugees to Earth have become caught in "The Ribbon" -- a dangerous space phenomenon -- and require rescue.  The Enterprise, under Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) is not prepared to meet the challenge, but Kirk and his team step in.  Several El-Aurians are rescued, including Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) but during the rescue attempt, Captain Kirk is lost and presumed dead.

Seventy-eight years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D celebrates the promotion of Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn).  Even as Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) receives grave news regarding his family on Earth, the android Data (Brent Spiner) attempts to become "more human" by installing and activating his emotion chip.

The Enterprise receives a distress call from a nearby Federation facility, and discovers that it has fallen under attack, apparently by Romulans.  A lone survivor is Dr. Soran, who is now working on a powerful Trilithium device -- a weapon that can destroy stars -- to shift the path of the Ribbon.

As Picard learns, Dr. Soran actually wishes to return to the Ribbon, so that he can enter into an alternate dimension called "The Nexus," a world of fantasy and bliss where his family still exists.  Allied with Klingon renegades Lursa and B'etor, Soran hopes to destroy the sun in the Veridian system even though it means the deaths of millions of intelligent life forms, and thus rendezvous with his loved ones.

Picard attempts to stop Dr. Soran on a desolate planet surface while Riker battles the Klingons in orbit.  After Picard enters the Nexus, he realizes he must enlist the help of the legendary Captain Kirk...

"Time is the fire in which we burn..."

Star Trek: Generation's problems begin with the concept of the Nexus.  It is a ribbon of energy that travels the galaxy.  If you happen to be touched by the Nexus, you are transported to an alternate reality without time in which your thoughts dictate reality.

The Nexus/ribbon is incredibly intriguing in concept, and I've always appreciated outer space mystery films that deal with altered realities, such as Solaris.  Indeed, you get the sense that this kind of depth is precisely what Generations was aiming for.

The problem is that the rules governing the Nexus are inconsistent.  Follow the logic with me:  According to Guinan (Whoopi Goldbeg), you can't go to the Nexus.  The Nexus must come to you.  This is why the film's villain, Soran, is using Trilithium, a quantum inhibitor, to destroy stars.  The accordant changes in gravity in the aftermath of the star's destruction offer the opportunity to re-direct the ribbon to a planet where Soran is waiting.  There, he can be absorbed by the Nexus and returned to his family.

Yet, at the beginning of the film, Captain Kirk is absorbed into the Nexus (and assumed dead by the rest of the galaxy) after the Enterprise-B enters the Ribbon.  So in this case, you can go into the Nexus.  You can get to it by ship, directly contradicting Guinan's spoken testimony and Soran's belief that there's "no other way" to get inside the Nexus. 

As has been asked by many fans on many discussion boards, why can't Soran merely fly a ship, or a thruster suit into the Ribbon, just the way the Enterprise B flew into the Ribbon?  If, for a moment, I were to buy this whole "it has to come to you" deal, why not park a spaceship in front of the Ribbon, turn off your engines, and let it just happen.  Same thing with a thruster suit. 

Bluntly stated, there is no need for Soran's over-complicated plan to put millions of lives in danger by destroying stars.  It's all a false threat and a contrivance. The film demonstrates, through Kirk's disappearance, that you can go to the Nexus, and that it doesn't have to come to you.  Are we supposed to believe Guinan and Soran, or our own lying eyes?

The next inconsistency arises over the use to which the Nexus is put.  Apparently, since the Nexus can shape reality according to thought, those trapped in the Nexus can choose to leave it any time, and return to any point in the timeline.

In the film, Picard solicits the aid of Captain Kirk and opts to return to the point five minutes before Veridian III is destroyed, to stop Soran.  Why would he choose this particular time, and not a day earlier, in Ten Forward, when he first meets Soran aboard the Enterprise?  Worf's security men could thus arrest Soran, and two star systems would survive.  There would be no casualties, either.  The Enterprise wouldn't get destroyed. End of story.  Why would any person in his right mind -- let alone an incredibly intelligent starship captain -- choose to return to a point  in time wherein Soran already holds all the cards, and the die is cast, as they say?

And there's more. When Picard and Kirk return from the Nexus, they are very quickly outmatched.  In short order, it appears that one of them will have to sacrifice their life on a rickety bridge atop a hill to stop Soran from destroying the star. Thus, I submit, Kirk and Picard should have put their heads together for about five seconds and determined to let Soran win, and permit the Nexus to take them again.  Why?  They're losing.

They can go back into the Nexus, leave again, pick another time to return to the real universe, and make a second, hopefully better-planned run at Soran.  The Nexus, in fact, offers the possibility of infinite do-overs.  It seems criminal to lose Kirk permanently in this story, when the Nexus allows characters to rewrite time again and again.  I have a difficult time believing that the two best Captains in Starfleet history couldn't engineer a solution, together, that would spare both their lives and save the universe, given the Nexus's unique temporal properties. 

In short, never has a gimmick in a Star Trek movie been quite so...gimmicky. The Nexus is a black hole of plot contrivance that sucks away all the good will the film generates.  And it's not like that good will is that abundant in the first place, in part because of the film's sour and off-key depiction of the hero.

The Measure of a Man: The depiction of Captain Picard in Generations.

What I appreciate so much about Captain Picard is that his character was conceived as a man and as a captain very different from Captain Kirk.  We didn't need an imitator...we needed a successor with his own style, approach and personality.  That's  precisely what the writers and Patrick Stewart gave us in the TV series.  That fact established, Captain Picard as he was in the series is not an easy fit for a Star Trek movie.  He is introspective, occasionally morose, emotionally detached from his crew, and not at all the standard action hero type.

In the series, Picard was always much more effective as a traveling diplomat and mediator than as a starship commander in combat situations.  He surrendered the Enterprise in two of the first four episodes of the series ("Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Last Outpost"), and got his clock cleaned by an eighty year-old, broken-down starship in a war game scenario against Riker in "Peak Performance."

But Picard's admirable intellectual and diplomatic qualities don't really get audiences behind the character in a bigger film setting.  When a Klingon Bird of Prey de-cloaks off the port bow of the Enterprise, Picard's response here is simply a befuddled "what?!"  He can't even conceive of the possibility that a Klingon ship could be lurking nearby.  He thus appears unimaginative.  Just compare Picard's confused, ineffective response in Generations with Kirk's decisive reaction to a cloaked Klingon Bird of Prey in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).  Kirk spots the ship before it de-cloaks, and gets in the first licks with photon torpedoes.  Is competence in the center seat too much to expect of Picard?

In Generations, Picard is also handily defeated in hand-to-hand combat with Soran. He fails to stop the scientist's dastardly plan, and must resort to cajoling Kirk back into action.  Then, Kirk fights Soran and ultimately dies trying to reach a remote control (yes, a remote control).  So not only does Picard fail against Soran once, but the second time around he also gets a Starfleet legend killed because he can't handle himself in a fist-fight.   Remember, he's supposed to be the film's hero, and again, the portrayal isn't very flattering.

To top it all off, when at film's conclusion Riker notes that he never had the chance to captain the Enterprise, Captain Picard says, essentially, "don't worry...we'll get another one!"  (Really: "I doubt this will be the last starship to carry the name Enterprise).  Again, contrast Kirk's feelings of guilt and remorse over the destruction of his beloved starship in The Search for Spock with Picard's nonchalant, off-handed response in Generations. The impression is that Picard couldn't give a damn that the Enterprise is destroyed. He's lost ships before (the Stargazer), has done so again, and well, he certainly appears confident he'll get another shot at command, I guess.  The script provides Picard not one word of regret that the Federation flagship has been destroyed.  And he doesn't tell a soul, either, at least on screen, of Captain Kirk's noble sacrifice.

Then, bafflingly, after the moving death of Kirk and the destruction of the Enterprise, the film stops for an emotional scene in which Data cries after discovering that his cat, Spot, still lives.  I wonder why the film could not have stopped, long enough, to feature a memorial service for Captain James T. Kirk, with a moving eulogy delivered by Jean-Luc Picard.  Picard is a man more of words than action, and such a moment would have played to his strengths as a character; his intellect, his ability to contextualize a situation in terms of history and philosophy.   If we get tears and sadness over a cat, why not tears and sadness over a legendary starship commander's sacrifice?

I maintain that the reason so many fans hunger for the return of William Shatner as Kirk today is because Generations failed so spectacularly to bring adequate closure to the character.  He dies in virtual anonymity -- as if he were never there -- on a distant, unheard of planet.  Had Picard eulogized him in a formal service, describing how he had "made a more time," the fans would have felt that their hero had been treated with at least some decorum and respect.  His life could have been contextualized and rendered meaningful.

I'm still not through complaining about how Picard is treated in this film, either.  Early on, he is given the news that his brother and nephew have died, and indeed, how awful.  We get a long dialogue scene wherein he weeps and discusses at length the end of "the Picard line."  This is why we see a Star Trek movie, right?  To watch a character weep in his quarters over the death of family members.  Is Picard so hopeless at interpersonal relationships that he's given no thought to the idea that he could still have a child?  And isn't it rather selfish to be worrying about the end of the family line when his sister-in-law has lost something a lot less abstract, namely her husband and son?  Something about this whole scene is way off, in terms of Picard's character.  He comes off as inappropriately concerned with himself.

And then the final straw is Picard's Nexus fantasy.  Here, he visits a nineteenth century world, where a prim and proper Victorian woman -- one we've never seen before -- is his wife.  She wears a traditionally frilly 19th century dress and pretty bows and ribbons in her hair, and she dutifully dotes on Picard and his brood of children.  So, we are meant to believe that this brilliant man of the 24th century secretly longs for a demure woman of the 19th century; one to keep his home clean and raise his kids,  You wouldn't know that he was such a traditionalist from his previous attraction to the rogue, Vash, or from his relationship with Lt. Commander Nella Darren (Wendy Hughes) in "Lessons."  Do the writers here remember the episode "Family," wherein Picard was defined as the brother who looked to the stars and the future, while his brother was the conservative traditionalist who looked to the past?

In the choice of fantasy mates for him, Generations transforms Picard -- the intellectual renaissance man of the future -- into someone who appears sexist to us, now, living here in the 21st century.  It's a ridiculous choice of fantasy for the character, and one that suggests the writers -- after writing for him for so many years -- have no absolutely no idea who he is.  The woman in Picard's fantasy should have been a woman that he respected: Dr. Crusher.  She is a match for him in terms of intellect, opinion and physicality. Why wouldn't Picard imagine her as his dream woman, particularly after the events of "Attached?" More importantly, why wouldn't the writers think of Beverly Crusher, now that they were now longer constrained by the "no change" edicts of a weekly series, where you must keep everyone available for future dalliances with sexy guest stars?   Frankly, in this Generations scene Picard comes off as infinitely more sexist than Captain Kirk ever did.  Kirk may want to screw every woman that moves, but Picard apparently desires a chaste doormat for a life partner.  Again, it doesn't ring true of the man we'd known for seven years and over a hundred adventures.

I also submit that Data is done a grave disservice in the film, begging for his life from Soran, and cackling like a madman.  His belief that his "growth as an artificial life form has reached an impasse" is an interesting element on which to hang a story, but making the android a court jester and sniveling coward hardly does the character a service.    What's the point?  That to be human is to be an obnoxious, smug jerk?

Again, this judgment is not a reflection on Brent Spiner or on the character of Data as seen in the TV series overall; just a comment on the quality of writing and decision-making that informs Generations.  

"You know, if Spock were here, he'd say that I was an irrational, illogical human being by taking on a mission like that. Sounds like fun!" 

I haven’t pulled many punches here regarding Star Trek: Generations.  The film doesn’t work in terms of science fiction premise, in terms of internal consistency and logic, or in terms of the main characters, primarily Picard.  But, the film does succeed on at least two other  specific fronts: spectacle and commentary on human nature.

It’s funny that Trek fans dislike Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) when, in many ways it felt true to the almost tongue-in-cheek spirit of the original series.  But that film also committed the cardinal sin of being very poor in terms of special effects presentation.  By contrast, Generations doesn’t really capture the spirit of The Next Generation, but proves absolutely thrilling in terms of visual presentation.  The section of the film devoted to the Klingon gambit to destroy the Enterprise is absolutely enthralling, and as jaunty, fun and engaging as any moment in the movie canon.  Furthermore, the separation of the saucer section and subsequent crash on the planet surface is rendered in breathtaking and tense terms.  These moments capture the Star Trek spirit beautifully, particularly Data’s unexpected expletive (“Oh shit…”) as the sequence begins.  A sustained set-piece, the crash of the Enterprise is something that fans have desired to see dramatized for years, and Generations doesn’t disappoint.

William Shatner and Patrick Stewart also prove delightful together in the film.  It really is great to see these two men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, working together and playing off one another.  I only wish the script didn't have to go through so many contortions of believability and logic to bring Picard to Kirk.  People can criticize Shatner's acting all they like, but I find his final moments in the role -- his acceptance of death -- immensely moving.  

I also must acknowledge that Moore and Braga have done an admirable job weaving together some of the thematic, human elements of this particular tale.  In one way or another, Kirk, Picard and Soran all grapple with their mortality, and their legacy in Generations.  For Kirk, he’s done nothing in the Nexus that matters, and to him a life without meaning is not worth living.   It is better of him to die having achieved something important.   

Picard, meanwhile, has never devoted his considerable energies to family, and now he wonders if upon his death, he’ll be remembered at all, or if the Picard name will be consigned to dead (rather than living…) history.  And Soran, of course, wants to escape the bounds of mortality and live forever with his loved ones in the nexus.  His legacy is to be remembered here, in reality, as a monster.  Each one of these characters must contend with life and death in Generations, and a viewer can see how that thread affects each of them.  Again, I’ve been tough with the writers here, but in having three primary characters grapple with aging and mortality, Generations certainly aspires to be Star Trek at its best.  The film has something meaningful and true to convey to all of us.  How do we look at the passing of time?  Are our lives burning up as the days and hours pass? Or are we building up a legacy that will inspire those who come after us?

So Generations is visually gorgeous (perhaps second only to The Motion Picture in terms of cinematic appeal) and certainly, it hopes to be more than just another movie chapter in Trek history.  Yet the film stumbles over Kirk’s legacy. How can we know that Kirk’s life meant something important if Picard doesn’t share his sacrifice with his own crew and contextualize his sacrifice for us? Generations also trips over Picard’s character, making him seem selfish, incompetent, and sexist.  And the contrived nature of the Nexus damages the film’s sense of credibility and logic almost beyond measure.  The concept is confusing and confused, and Generation suffers mightily for it.  As I noted above, the film feels schizophrenic, lunging from a weeping Picard to a psychotically-humorous Data, and back again.

I am now and shall always be a Star Trek fan.  But Generations is not the franchise’s finest hour, and in fact, I rank it very near the bottom of the movie pantheon despite the occasional moments of tremendous spectacle and the worthwhile message regarding mortality. Good thing First Contact (1996) came next.


  1. James Kerr9:09 AM

    Very insightful review - my problems started right whenever the film switched to the Next Gen section. Worf is humiliated in the holodeck - surely a this is a more serious matter for his culture? Then the whole of the TV episode where Picard recovers from Borgdom with his family is ruined forever as they are casually killed off screen (same reason Alien 3 was a no starter for me with Hicks and Newt dead off camera after living through Alien 2). Plus, Malcolm McDowall.

  2. I agree with your views on this film John. For me this is the low point of the film franchise, and like you said, it all comes down to the writing. It's just a mess of a script and feels like it was warped and mutated to try to get certain plot points to work. The end result is a film that is really a slog to get through, no matter how visually appealing it is.

    And the Data emotion chip subplot- it hurts to watch.

    I've heard that the writers were given a set of guidelines by the studio and it really limited what they could do with the story. If that is true - it is very evident here.

    I agree also, given the choice between Star Trek V or "Generations" - all always pick "Final Frontier". It may have its flaws, but it feels more true to the characters and feel of the Star Trek universe than this film does.

  3. I've immensely enjoyed your Trek film reviews this week and wondered how you'd feel about both this and ST V, two of the absolute weakest entries in the entire franchise. My issue with all the Next Gen films is that none of them, not even "First Contact" ever seem to rise much above their television origins and they all ultimately feel like longer episodes with a slightly larger budget. The TOS films all FELT like films, with a wide scope and higher stakes for the characters. I wonder how much of the discrepancy between the TOS and Next Gen films has to do with the differing time spans between the shows and films and the fact that the same creative team(s)helmed the Next Gen films while the TOS films had fresh creative input. There was a gap of at least 20 years between TOS and "The Motion Picture" and so the characters aged significantly and had less of a fixed idea going into the films who the characters were and how they would be fleshed out, and in fact had a huge opportunity to reveal new facets of the characters. The Next Gen films arrived immediately after a 7 year run of the show and the character relationships, personalities, and idiosyncrasies were already very much there. I thought that many of those relationships were actually diminished in many ways by the films and so many of the crew characters seemed like background players. There were huge opportunities missed in all of the Next Gen films to truly elevate them above their source material and to make them truly great, make them true FILMS.

  4. But I enjoyed watching it with you, nonetheless...


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