Friday, December 09, 2022

20 Years Ago: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

A “generation’s final journey” begins in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the film that finally took the crown of “worst” (and lowest grossing…) Star Trek film away from The Final Frontier (1989).  

And much like that fifth franchise film, Nemesis is a movie that saw some severe post-production cuts and tinkering. Fifty-minutes have been excised from the Stuart Baird film, and many fans to this day feel that those missing fifty minutes could make a huge difference in terms of the film’s quality, not to mention reception.

The theatrical release of Nemesis, however, fails to please for a variety of reasons.  

First, the film veers wildly from irrelevant fan service (pleasing the base demographic) to head-scratching discontinuities within the existing Star Trek universe. The film ping-pongs between these disparate poles, and, roughly, pleases almost no demographic whatsoever.  

On top of that enormous deficit, the film’s photography is relentlessly, woefully dark. And I don’t mean the film’s tone, either. I refer to the underwhelming, uninspiring visual palette. We go from one dimly-lit chamber to another, to another, ad infinitum -- even aboard the Enterprise -- and the result is a subconscious feeling of fatigue, or even emotional oppression.  

The familiar story-beats from The Wrath of Khan don’t help Nemesis succeed, either. Been there, done that.

Here, another deadly villain who is a mirror image of our hero (literally, this time…) attempts to use a weapon of mass destruction. In stopping this terrorist, a beloved Enterprise crew member is killed…and the seeds are planted for an emotional resurrection.

Overall, Star Trek: Nemesis feels, well, worn-out and exhausted. And this impression arises despite the herculean efforts of lead actor Patrick Stewart, who connects with the Picard character again on a very human, almost world-weary level. He delivers a fine, thoughtful performance, in Nemesis – one of his finest, actually -- and he almost succeeds in anchoring the movie.

Following the wedding ceremony of Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) on Earth, the Enterprise-E crew heads to outer space to ferry the happy couple to Betazed.  En route, however, “positronic” readings are discovered on the world of Kolarus III, near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

Upon investigation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) discover a disassembled android prototype on the planet, a dead ringer for Data.  The android’s name is B-4 (Brent Spiner), and he is a less-sophisticated machine, but one that Data nonetheless accepts immediately as a brother.

After leaving Kolarus III, the Enterprise is re-routed by orders from Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). A coup has occurred on the planet Romulus, and a mysterious new leader, Shinzon (Tom Hardy) has swept away the old government with the help of his loyal Reman shock-troopers. Now, Shinzon apparently desires peace…

Upon meeting Shinzon, Picard learns that he is human…and a clone of Picard, one originally designed for espionage. He was created some years earlier to infiltrate Starfleet Command and replace the real Picard, but the plot was abandoned and Shinzon was consigned to the Dilithium Mines on Remus. Now, an angry, revenge-driven Shinzon has delivered his vengeance upon Romulus, and Earth is next in line for the same treatment.

To that end, Shinzon has developed a powerful “Thalaron” weapon which can decimate living cells on a colossal scale, and even render a planet lifeless.  

A grim Picard commits the Enterprise to a battle against Shinzon’s super vessel, the Scimitar, but in the process must put his own life on the line, as well as the life of one of his dearest friends…

Before I enumerate this film’s flaws, I should comment on its virtues. Because, hating to the contrary, they do exist.  

First, Nemesis stands virtually alone among the Next Generation films in the way that it confronts time’s inevitable passage. 

One persistent glory of the feature films featuring the original cast members is that they acknowledge the reality for the characters’ mortality.  

People age.  

They grow old, they grow apart, and they move on with their lives. Chekov changed jobs for The Motion Picture (1979), took a posting on Reliant in The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Sulu assumed command of the Excelsior in The Undiscovered Country, for example. The universe didn’t remain static, like a TV show...which hopes never to end.

Nemesis works really hard to get to the same place of “reality” for the characters, and should be commended for the attempt. 

The film’s opening wedding scene -- while generally horrendous in terms of dialogue, tone, editing and overall execution -- reminds us that we have known these characters for fifteen years, and that the times are indeed changing. Riker and Troi are finally getting married, and Riker is headed off to command the Titan…after a decade-and-a-half serving in Picard's shadow. Data is moving up to the role of first officer.  Worf is just visiting (conveniently, again…). 

Secondly, Nemesis ambitiously attempts to shed “TV thinking” by allowing its characters to experience -- how shall I say this? -- sexual impulses.Here, there is a scene involving Riker and Troi in bed, making love. I certainly appreciate the scene in concept, revealing a more grown-up side to the characters, but again, bad execution scuttles a move towards character realism. For one thing, Jonathan Frakes is in no shape to do a love scene at this point in his career, and for another the fact that the scene ends in a weird rape/dream ruins the intent of showing normal love and sex in the future. What should have been a good character moment become, instead, icky and sort of embarrassing.

Much of Nemesis plays like this, like a good idea gone horribly south in the vetting, and the result is a remarkably schizophrenic film of a few ambitious highs and many incredible lows.  

The film’s first action scene is a prime example of the latter. Captain Picard, Data and Worf visit the planet surface of Kolarus III and immediately go out driving the harsh terrain in not-at-all-advanced-looking vehicle called the Argo. It looks like a kitted up dune buggy, and runs on…wheels.  

Fucking wheels?

Certainly, by the 24th century, cars would be out-of-fashion, and wheels wouldn’t be employed when a hover-craft would so, so this vehicle looks and feels terribly out-of-place in terms of the franchise continuity and history.

Secondly, we already know from Star Trek history (“A Piece of the Action”) and Star Trek: The Next Generation history (“The Big Goodbye”) that automobiles are relics of another, bygone age. In fact, in the aforementioned TNG episode, Worf can’t even pronounce the word “automobile” correctly.  

The result is that the Argo sticks out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, the Starfleet officers tool around in their new…car, and end up fighting the inexplicably hostile life-forms of Kolarus III, a pre-warp planet.  

Disregarding the Prime Directive entirely, Picard, Data and Worf utilize their advanced phaser technology to fight back, and also deploy their advanced shuttle craft. The scene evokes the Road Warrior (1982) in a kind of bad way, but primarily raises so many questions. Why does Picard ignore the Prime Directive? Why are the inhabitants hostile to our heroes? If Data can scan for positronic life signs, why can’t he also scan for the aliens ahead of time, and avoid contact with them? Why can't the Enterprise just beam everyone (and all the tech...) up quickly, and minimize the cultural interference? 

This whole interlude exists in Nemesis for only one contrived reason, to introduce B4.  

Yet it is never explained in the film how Shinzon found the android, or why he chose to drop him off on a hostile planet for Picard to find, or even why he felt the need to dissect B4 into his component parts.  

If Shinzon had wanted to bring the Enterprise and Picard to Romulus for peace negotiations, he would have had to merely request Picard and his ship. He is now a recognized Head of State, after all. He can pretty much negotiate with anyone he chooses. Instead, the excuse seems to be that Picard was in the area (Kolarus III), and thus the closest ship available for peace talks. It’s all terribly trite and poorly-written, and worse, unnecessarily trite and poorly-written.

The terminally-conflicted Nemesis continues in this vein. It reveals a young bald Captain Picard, when the TV series established that he was not yet bald when he entered Starfleet (“Tapestry.”)   

It makes another Data-type android a major plot-point, but doesn’t once bring up Lore (“Datalore,” “Brothers,” “Descent.”)

It is set on 24th century Romulus, but doesn't make even a passing comment about Amabassador Spock and his unification movement, which we remember from the series.

At one point in the narrative Data also mentions that he feels "nothing," and yet no notation is made of his emotion chip, which enables this android character to feel emotions, and which played a crucial role in Generations (1994) and First Contact (1996), and even got a passing mention in Insurrection (1998).  So has Data elected not to use it anymore? Was it destroyed? A major character issue is just dropped like a hot potato.

All these inconsistencies contrast mightily with moments of extreme “fan service” in Nemesis, such as the appearance of Spot, Data's cat, a mention of a Kirk Maneuver, a nod to Enterprise’s Captain Archer, and so forth. The film simply can’t decide if it wants to break free of franchise history or wallow relentlessly in it, a fact which validates J.J. Abrams’ alternate Kelvin universe approach to the new films starting in 2009.

As for Shinzon, he is an interesting enough villain, thanks mostly to the efforts of a very young (but also very impressive) Tom Hardy. Unfortunately, the film’s conceit that Shinzon is actually a younger version of Picard simply doesn’t work. It doesn't past muster in terms of our lying eyes.  

In the scene during which Picard and Shinzon meet for the first time, there is no psychic shock as Shinzon makes his revelation of identity. Even with prosthetics and a bald head, Hardy does not resemble Patrick Stewart very much. The gulf between years is simply too great to bridge with our eyes, and so the visuals can’t inform us that Picard and Shinzon are indeed one-and-the-same person. Thus one of the major beats of the movie simply doesn’t work successfully.

Shinzon’s motives don’t bear close examination, either. 

I can understand why he would seek revenge against the Romulans, of course. They created him for their own purposes, and then they enslaved him. He is their “son,” their Frankenstein monster, essentially.

But why should Shinzon lash out at the Federation in general, and the Earth in particular? What grudge do his Reman soldiers have against Earth? The Viceroy (Ron Perlman) is constantly pushing Shinzon to attack Earth. What the hell?

Because these questions are not answered, or adequately addressed for that matter, the film’s central threat falls flat. It’s fine that Shinzon is dying of an illness and needs Picard’s blood to survive, but that point doesn’t explain the character’s desire to destroy Earth.

These are all considerable problems, but the film’s desire to repeat, almost verbatim, the story beats of Wrath of Khan diminishes the final product even more. Insurrection took the same route. Shinzon gets the jump on Picard, like Khan did with Kirk, and then Data helps Picard get the jump on Shinzon (as Spock did in TWOK). Then, there’s the final battle of starships, with use of a WMD at stake, and – finally – the death of a major character. Here, Data dies, but not before transferring his katra -- I mean “data engrams” -- to the conveniently-located B4. 

I know plenty of people love The Next Generation, and rightly so, but it is absolutely the wrong approach to shoehorn the people and places of TNG into the mold established by the Original Series and its characters.  

The interactions are different, the storytelling-modes are different, and the feelings we have about each crew are also different. The reason most of The Next Generation movies are not very strong is that the producers and writers keep trying to make TNG characters as jaunty, colorful and funny as the Original Series characters, and the fact of the matter is…they never were. They were different, and had other strengths worth featuring. Picard’s thoughtfulness is certainly one of them, and it is to Stewart’s credit that he still projects that intelligence and thoughtfulness…even in as lame a vehicle as Nemesis.  

To ape Wrath of Khan is bad enough, but to do it badly, and with a short attention span, is worse.  

In 1982, fans had to wait for two whole years for Spock’s return in The Search for Spock. There was no instant gratification at all in that case. By the end of Nemesis, B4 is already whistling Irving Berlin tunes, and there is no doubt that Data lives. This short-period of mourning manages to take away from Data’s noble sacrifice. We have a replacement right here, for the beloved crew member who died...

Nemesis’s intellectual terrain involves “family.” Data is connected with a brother (or double), B4, that is untrustworthy. This journey is reflected in Picard’s experience with Shinzon, a clone and brother/son figure.  

The point, showcased via Data’s sacrifice is that sometimes the brothers and sisters we choose (siblings like Riker, La Forge, Worf, Crusher, and Troi) become more important or significant to us than those boasting a biological connection.  

This is a strong idea, and one that augments the relationships between the crew. Yet the idea fails somewhat because the film’s form doesn’t reflect the narrative's conclusions about the brothers and sisters "you chose." Nemesis focuses on Picard and Data to the exclusion of almost all other characters. Though Troi gets a larger role than usual here, Riker, Worf, Crusher, and La Forge all feel like after-thoughts. A chubby, Shatner-esque Riker battling the Viceroy mano-e-mano is hardly a substitute for meaningful time spent with the character.

I should also add that Nemesis is very 2002, either by design or happenstance. The film was released in November 2002 just as George Bush 2 (the sequel) and his administration were making their big marketing push to invade Iraq and take down the regime of Saddam Hussein. The reason behind that invasion of Iraq (which ultimately came four months later…) was Hussein’s (believed) possession of WMD. The plot line of Nemesis reflects this reality because it is the tale of the Enterprise battling a tyrant who has just such horrible weapons in his possession, and the will to use them.   

Of course, reality and fiction differ rather drastically. Saddam Hussein actually had no such weapons, whereas Shinzon clearly did. Picard made the right choice to commit resources to destroy him. Unlike real life, movies can tread in absolute certainties, and it’s easy to pick out the bad guys and the right "battle" to undertake. This movie reflects none of the complexity of the real life issue.  

Twenty years on, I wish there were more positive things to write about Star Trek: Nemesis, but it is abundantly a case of the echo (Nemesis) over the real voice (The Wrath of Khan), to roughly-quote Shinzon. I’m all for a new release of the film featuring the excised footage, and restoring some moments that would have made the Next Generation’s last voyage a bit more successful. 

I hasten to add, it would have been a letdown to end the original cast films after the failure of The Final FrontierThe Undiscovered Country righted the franchise ship, and gave that beloved crew a proper send-off.  

Today, the Next Generation crew is arguably just as beloved as the original crew, and it deserves a proper send-off too. Nemesis just isn’t that movie.  

Not by half-a-galaxy.

So...I guess in 2023 we get Picard Season 3 to finish the task that Nemesis began? Let's hope they get it right.


  1. Anonymous12:19 AM

    John, based on those few that have seen it in advance, PICARD Season 3 will indeed be the sequel to NEMESIS that we have been waiting for, finally.


  2. David Penn7:35 AM

    Well l written and thought out John. As a long time Trek fan ( from the original series first run ) I had looked forward to each of the movies with hope and anticipation. I felt sick the first time I saw Trek V, and although probably nothing could top that letdown, the first viewing of Nemesis was a close second. I knew something was off the moment I saw that Mad Max-esque dune buggy, and my enthusiasm just sank when they found yet another Data clone. The plot was simply too convoluted and contrived to have any real impact, although the sacrifice of Data was touching. I’ll give it this; the space battle effects were good.


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