In Star Trek: Retrospective, Edgar Chaput boldly goes on a journey through the Star Trek film franchise.
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
With the original crew of the USS Enterprise officially retired, both within the fictional Star Trek universe and in real life, the film series would have to discover new life on the silver screen. The logical solution was for Paramount to continue the series with the cast that had just completed its own television run on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from 1987 to 1994, although rather than simply start anew, the script would aim for a ‘passing of the torch’ scenario.
James T. Kirk, Pavel Chekoc and Montgomery Scott are ceremonial guests for the USS Enterprise B’s maiden voyage. Shortly after leaving the docking bay, the vessel is caught up in an otherworldly energy ribbon that punctures a hole in the Enterprise’s hull. Kirk, in a heroic effort, saves the crew by performing a last-second repair in the machinery level, but is sucked out into to space…or so it seems. Flash forward a couple centuries and the crew of the USS Enterprise D, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Lieutenant Commander Warf (Michael Dorn), Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), android and Chief Operations officer Data (Brent Spiner), chief engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and ship counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), respond to a distress signal emanating from an observation station. Among the survivors is Soran (Malcolm McDowell). Little does the crew know that Soran is temporarily in league with the Klingons, an alliance that he hopes will enable him to find the ‘Nexus’, the same mystical energy ribbon from the start of the picture. According to Soran, the Nexus transports an individual to their own version of paradise, but in order to be in the Nexus’ path, an entire planet must be destroyed. Picard hunts down Soran into the Nexus itself, where he’ll need the help of a historical Starfleet figure believed to have died long ago…
It’s unfortunate that so many words were required to summarize the plot of Star Trek Generations, but the fact of the matter is it hampered by a mind-numbingly convoluted story. The above synopsis doesn’t even do half of the plot points justice, come to think of it. Therein lies the oddity that is this first feature length adaptation of the Next Generation show, directed by Trek veteran David Carson. The quaint simplicity of Voyage Home is sorely missed, to put it mildly. There are several factors that make this instalment a clumsy affair, and a missed opportunity above all else. Unlike in the original film, no time is spent on really introducing this crew to audiences. It really feels as if the movie is made for fans of the show and no one else. What’s more, the picture’s biggest selling point, the meeting of former Captain James T. Kirk and current Captain Jean-Luc Picard, is handled in the most roundabout, awkward way possible. For that matter, what sort of ‘passing of the torch’ is Generations supposed to be? By this time the Next Generation crew had just spent 7 years on television. Worst of all, the ultimate, actual demise of Captain Kirk, an event that should be of legendary significance to the franchise, is confounding for how anti-climactic it’s presented.
Is it exclusively bad? No. The Next Generation crew, while not as adept at comical banter as the original cast, do represent a breath of fresh air. Brent Spiner is always dependable as Data, the android seeking to become more human, just as LeVar Burton is effortlessly affable as Mr. La Forge, and the two share numerous entertaining scenes together. The big addition, Malcolm McDowell, is a decent villain, but the writing does him few favours. At the center of it all is the inimitable Patrick Stewart. Headstrong, brave if a little brash, his Picard was always one of the great highlights of the show. Stewart the actor is rarely, if ever, to blame, and the sequences of physical heroism Picard must engage in are not of his doing but that of the screenwriting and direction. That said, it’s definitely not one of Stewart’s strengths.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Director David Carson is replaced this time by none-other than Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander William Riker, a fan favourite. At this stage, signs that Paramount was hoping to recapture some of the magic that sprouted for a certain period during the original cast series are evident. Not only does one of the main cast members get to try his hand at directing (much like Leonard Nimoy in III and IV), but this immediate sequel, and second instalment in this crew’s series, features the return of a classic enemy, the Borg, much like II did by further developing the Khan storyline.
Captain Picard is still haunted by the memories of having been temporarily assimilated by the Borg back during The Next Generation. After some appalling nightmares bring back horrid memories, the Enterprise is informed that the Borg has set course for Earth. Disobeying Starfleet orders to control and preserve safety in a peripheral zone, The Enterprise E (D was obliterated in Generations) joins its spatial comrades in arms, assaulting the Borg cube before it can terrorize humanity’s home planet. However, just prior to exploding into a million fragments, the Borg cube sends a spherical capsule back in time, assimilating Earth long before the Enterprise’s maiden voyage. What’s more, some Borg have managed to teleport onto Picard’s vessel. While the ship is assaulted with within, a select few of the crew, Riker, La Forge, and Deanna travel back to when space travel pioneer Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) is about to launch the first warp capable vessel that enabled first contact (get it?) with the Vulcans. Meanwhile, Data is taken deep into the Borg hive to meet its queen (Alice Krige)
In many respects, First Contact is an improvement over Generations, imperfect though it may be. The biggest and most pleasant surprise is how proficient Jonathan Frakes turns out to be behind the camera. Much of the film looks great and flows with confidence. The very opening shot, from Picard’s nightmare, has the camera move out of the captain’s eyeball and continuously zoom out, revealing the depths and expansiveness of the Borg assimilation chamber. The new Enterprise bridge is very slick, and the areas of the ship overtaken by the Borg’s bio-mechanical nest are examples of extremely fine set design. Better still, Frakes is rather adept at juggling a duo of critical storylines, one transpiring on the Enterprise that sees Picard try to take back his ship, and another on Earth, shortly after World War III, in which La Forge, Riker, and Deana try to make Cochrane understand his own importance in human history, even though he doesn’t know it yet.
Truth be told, as much as the Borg are considered legendary antagonists amongst fans, it is actually the Earth-bound plot that harkens to the spirit of the show. Cochrane is revealed to be a fame and fortune seeker, no more and no less. Rousing descriptions from La Forge and Riker about how future generations venerate his exploits leave him baffled. While the fact that the crew is completely messing with the directive of not interfering with history goes unexplained, it nevertheless serves as a dramatically hefty story. How would one react if told that in the near future they are going to accomplish something that will change the course of human history, only they haven’t done it yet? Who would embrace the prophecy and who would crumble under its weight?
It’s the Enterprise portion of the film that lets the audience down. The Borg are curiously presented, at first kept unseen during the first third (despite that everyone knows what they look like), only to be finally revealed in a patently ‘matter of fact’ way as Picard and his crew are scrambling through the hive. The oddest inclusion is the queen. Alice Krige is a game actress, and she definitely gives it her all with respect to what the script asks of her, only that said script is disappointingly limp, confused even. Why is she so sexually awakened and humanoid if her army is not? What does she want from Data? Why is it that by defeating her, all Borg go offline? The queen is not a bad idea on paper, but mediocre in execution.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
With the relative success of First Contact (a fan and non-fan favourite, generally speaking), Paramount gave Frakes another vote of confidence for the next chapter, Insurrection. Interestingly enough, it is Insurrection, rather than First Contact, that adheres more closely to the spirit, structure, and tone of the television series. Despite that, Insurrection is the one of the two that got the cold shoulder upon release.
On a remote planet inhabited by the peace-loving Ba’ku, Data, part of a hidden observation team, goes haywire, running wildly through the Ba’ku village, revealing his own presence and that of the entire observational team, led by Admiral Matthew Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe). There goes the Prime Directive. Picard and the Enterprise crew successfully capture Data and re-program him to his usual, peaceful self. Little does Picard know that Admiral Dougherty is in league with Ahdar Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham), leader of a scorned race called the Son’a, who must regularly undergo skin-stretching exercises to counteract a degenerative disease. The Son’a have for the longest time wanted to take over the Ba’ku planet and benefit from its special radiation energy that preserves a youthful look. Much to Picard’s dismay, it seems as though the Federation itself might even be invested in dismissing the Ba’ku to channel some of the planet’s beneficial energy source.
While it is safe to argue that Insurrection’s setup is rather clunky (it’s not at all clear why Data is not himself at the start, nor what Admiral Dougherty is trying to accomplish by observing the Ba’ku), director Frakes’ second crack at the director’s chair is ultimately his superior effort. Yes, First Contact looks to have the bigger budget and features more traditional action sequences involving the Borg, many of which look cool, but traditional action sequences are not what Star Trek is all about. The Enterprise explores strange new worlds, new life, for the betterment of the Federation and, when possible, for those newly discovered cultures. That is exactly what Insurrection is all about. Not only are the Ba’ku the culture at the center of every party’s attention, the film adds another layer by revealing that the Son’a were, many years ago, of the same race as the Ba’ku and wish to once again benefit from what the Ba’ku currently have, very much nuancing their own subplot, which on first glance comes across as purely evil.
Insurrection arguably has Patrick Stewart at his best in the film franchise. Up until now he has been saddled with the role of the action-man hero, not something he was regularly tasked with pulling off during the show. This time, the pacing and methodical nature of the plot, as well as its themes, allow Stewart to preserve an air of heroism whilst displaying a cooler, diplomatic head. Picard’s coupling with Ba’ku native Anji (Donna Murphy) is also rather sweet, even though we know that their love will not last.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
After a four-year hiatus, Paramount gave the Next Generation crew one last kick at the can. Insurrection, while not a flop per say, performed below expectations, both critically and at the box-office (a shame, for many of the reasons argued above). Oddly enough, directing duties were awarded to Stuart Baird, someone with no affiliation with the Trek franchise, albeit with many action movie credits to his name, predominantly as an editor. To be fair, the last time Paramount gave the reigns to a filmmaker with no Trek allegiance, fans got Wrath of Khan. Would lightning strike a second time?
The Romulan senate debates whether to agree to peace terms with a slave race known as the Reman and its leader Shinzon (Tom Hardy, looking much younger and skinnier than he has recently!). When the motion is rejected, the senators are unexpected killed by a biochemical substance unleashed into the room. Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise, following the marriage of Commander Riker and Counselor Troi, are called into action when an energy reading is picked up on a remote planet. Once there, remnants of a precursor to the Data android are discovered and brought aboard. This is but a ploy set in motion by Shinzon himself, who has big plans for not only taking over Romulus, but coming face to face with the man who served as the basis for his own genetic engineering: Jean-Luc Picard!
In answer to the aforementioned query, as to whether lightning struck twice regarding a non-Trek filmmaker helming an entry in the movie series, the answer is unequivocally ‘no’. Nemesis is not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, yet it never seems to settle itself into anything resembling a Star Trek adventure. Insurrection’s aspirations to explore an alien culture and the potential effects of the Federation’s meddling are replaced with basically the Enterprise portions of First Contact, only not as interesting. Stuart Baird did indeed come from an action movie background, therefore it is understandable that the studio would want to take full advantage of his talents and proclivities as a filmmaker, but those talents simply don’t translate well to Star Trek. That’s not to say a director that loves action can’t make a good Trek film (more on that later…), but Baird clearly wasn’t the best choice.
Nemesis is a dreary affair, dimly lit, with a seemingly endless series of shootouts in blandly designed corridors, or hand-to-hand contests between actors wearing too much makeup and actors that don’t have fighting skills. The film’s saving grace, so to speak, is young Tom Hardy, who does have a few delicious verbal tête-à-tête’s with Captain Picard. It’s very interesting to see him play the villain at a time in his career when worldwide fame was still a few years away. Suffice to say, his talents as a thespian were present very early on.
It feels simultaneously apt and sad to compare Nemesis with The Undiscovered Country. Both are the final cinematic chapters for their respective casts, and both put a lot of emphasis ostentatious antagonists. Incidentally, both also deal with plots involving peace negotiations between long-time warring factions. Where Country moves with vim and verve (with an incredibly old cast), showcasing impressive gusto and, most importantly, a classy send-off for the original crew, Nemesis ends on a whimper. There was reportedly a script in the works for a fifth and final Next Generation film that was to serve as a proper finale, but Nemesis’ lackluster performance killed any hopes for the project.
Fans would have to wait 7 years for Star Trek to grace the silver screen again. In 2009, everything old would be new again…