Judges Dave Ryan and Eric Profancik join forces to tag-team an odd-numbered Star Trek film. We're picking up a hypertachyon energy disturbance in the n-fold crosschannel of subspace! Red alert!
"I believe this beverage has triggered an emotional response!"
Produced at what (with hindsight) appears to be the crest of Star Trek's popularity, 1994's Star Trek Generations was the "torch passer"—the on-screen transition between the original-cast-based Trek movies and the Next Generation-based films. (Star Trek: The Next Generation had just finished its run on television; Deep Space Nine was airing; and Voyager was in pre-production.) For fans, it promised a pairing of the two dominant figures in the Trek universe—Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).
But you can't beat the house rules, and the rules state that odd-numbered Star Trek movies must suck. And so Star Trek Generations (technically Star Trek VII), instead of being a triumphant passing of the baton from one crew to another, turned out to be a somewhat muddled problem of a motion picture. Although it was arguably the most visually spectacular Trek film to date, and was definitely the most beautifully-photographed of the bunch (thanks to the work of award-winning Chinatown cinematographer John Alonzo), its convoluted plot and unsatisfying middle act left most fans at least moderately disappointed.
Facts of the Case
It's the early 2200s, and Captain Kirk is doing his Starfleetish duty by attending the highly-publicized launching of the latest ship to carry the Enterprise name, the Enterprise-B, a modified Excelsior class cruiser. With him are old compadres Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig), a noted Russian playwright, and Mr. Scott (James Doohan), who died attempting to reach the Pole. (Actually, I think they were former crewmates…) The new Enterprise is captained by a young and inexperienced high-school student from Chicago named Cameron Frye, using the alias "Capt. John Harriman" (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). The new (and incomplete) ship is barely out of spacedock when the space-poop hits the fan: two refugee ships are being menaced by a giant space energy ribbon, and the Enterprise is the closest ship to them.
The ineffective Captain Cameron quickly manages to do nothing except watch helplessly as one of the ships blows the heck up. Finally, he agrees to let Kirk start calling the shots, which he does with gusto. Unfortunately, he also gets himself killed. Or so we believe.
Fast-forward to 75ish years later. The crew of the Enterprise-D is celebrating the promotion of Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) in a Horatio Hornblower-esque holodeck simulation. Picard gets a message that his brother Robert and his nephew René have perished in a fire, which sends him into an existential funk. Data (Brent Spiner) persuades Geordi (LeVar Burton) to install his emotion chip, whereupon he becomes extremely annoying. Everyone else (Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, and countless extras) goes about their New Generational business as usual.
Meanwhile, Romulans have been causing trouble at a small outpost in Federation space. The Enterprise discovers one survivor—a scientist named Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange, Caligula)—on the outpost station. To make a long story short, he's an el-Aurian (the same species as the Enterprise's bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg)), he was on the transport saved by the Enterprise-B, he's looking to get back into that aforementioned giant space energy ribbon (which is called The Nexus), and he's willing to do absolutely anything to get there. Including blow up stars using "trilithium," something he promptly does with a probe hidden in the outpost. His Klingon buddies—the infamous Duras Sisters (Lursa and B'Etor)—spirit him away (with a captive Geordi) before the entire planetary system explodes from the star's shock wave.
And so begins a tense cat-and-mouse chase through the universe, with two sharp minds contesting a most deadly game. Well…actually…that's not quite true. To be honest, Picard takes about ten minutes to figure things out, stuff blows up, he winds up in the Nexus, and Kirk has to get involved. But there's a really neato crash scene, too.
I'm going to do something I've never done before: start an analysis of a film with the film's commentary track. I can't put things much better than Brannon Braga and Ron Moore, the film's co-writers (and veterans of many Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts), put it therein. In their words: They think the film is not a bad film, but they wish they had another crack at writing it, because they feel it didn't communicate its thematic messages very well.
Bingo. (But it is kind of a bad film.)
Star Trek Generations is ultimately about mortality, and how both captains deal with it. Picard is forced to confront and accept his mortality, and his feelings about it, through two vehicles: the death of his relatives and Data's struggles to control his new emotions. He and Kirk are given (involuntarily) the option to be immortal, but immortal in a way that gives their life no substance and no reality. They both choose to reject this, and accept their mortality as the cost of being able "making a difference" with their lives.
Unfortunately, the film never really explains this to the viewer. You will eventually get the gist of this, after multiple viewings of the film. But it's hard to grasp the theme of the film in one shot. It's simply not explained well enough. Essential to the plot is the concept of the Nexus, a timeless place where past, present, and future co-exist in a single unreality. You can relive your life, or your fantasy life, or any life you choose to experience, in any way you want. It's heaven and hell at the same time: you can do anything, feel anything, or have anything—which renders everything meaningless and empty. It's almost Sartreian in its philosophical impact. But you never get that from the film. The way it's presented in the film, and the way that the presentation brings the flow of the picture and story to a screeching halt, spoils any intellectual dimension all these themes could have brought to the table.
There are other problems with the film as well. The scenes with Kirk and Picard aren't particularly memorable. The major subplots are fairly uninteresting. The Data subplot, in particular, is atrocious. Who knew Data could go from "annoyingly quirky" to "devastatingly grating"? But the overall lack of thematic impact is what ultimately damns this film to its odd-numbered-Trek-film fate.
Part of the problem, which is mentioned in the Braga/Moore commentary, is the series of restrictions Paramount placed on the story before it was even written. The film, from day one, had to be a TNG-focused product. Therefore, Paramount wouldn't allow the original series cast (except for Kirk) to be in the film beyond the first act—leaving only 15-20 minutes for them. Kirk could return, but only at the end. Kirk and Picard could not be in conflict. Et cetera, and so forth. The basic structure of the film was predetermined, and story considerations came second. This rigid framing by Paramount assuredly contributed to the film's flaws by limiting the kind of story that the film could tell. To be honest, given these ground rules it's somewhat of an achievement that the film turned out even halfway coherent.
All in all, though, I feel that this is probably the best of the odd-numbered Trek films. It's decidedly imperfect, but it did get its job done—it passed the cinematic baton from Kirk to Picard. Some elements of the story do work. McDowell always brings panache to his roles; this one is no different. (Actual quote from my mother: "Is that Sting?") It's a shame he wasn't given the villain role in a better script, though. He really doesn't have much to work with. (His character isn't really evil; he's just obsessed.) The opening segment is pretty well-done, and really does feel like something out of the prior six films.
As mentioned above, it's a visually beautiful film. For the most part, the television show's sets were used for the movie, but the addition of feature-film-level lighting and cinematography make things look as far removed from television as you can get. The disc's impeccable transfer (presented in full 2.35:1 widescreen) captures this visual richness well.
Two scenes stand out from the crowd—a scene in stellar cartography that featured the most advanced use of computer-generated graphics seen in the Trek universe to date, and the big Enterprise crash scene. Especially the latter; probably the most visceral effects scene in the Trek canon. I remember both these scenes being big crowd-pleasers during the film's theatrical run. Details on the creation of both scenes are provided as extras via featurettes on the second disc in the two-disc package.
Paramount packs this "Special Collector's Edition" with extras, as they have done with their similar releases of the first six films. Besides the visual effects featurettes mentioned above, there are additional bits on the history of ships (in real-life) named Enterprise, a bit on the knifemaker who helped create the Klingon blade weapons for both the TV show and the movie, and a tribute to the production artist who designed the first Enterprise, the late Matt Jeffries. Three scenes are "deconstructed" by showing the various raw cuts, effects passes, lighting passes, and raw computer animation segments that were synthesized into the final scene. A handful of deleted scenes are included as well, the most interesting being the original ending of the film. This ending faired so poorly with test audiences that it was completely rewritten and re-shot late in the production schedule.
For fans of Star Trek: TNG, the "Captain Picard's Family Album" featurette will be a highlight. The album, assembled by the TNG art department and briefly seen in the film as Picard reminisces about his brother and his nephew, is far more comprehensive than you'd suspect. It has many art-department-generated bits of Picard history, which are all displayed in the featurette. There are a lot of neat and clever things for fans in there—like an invitation to Jack and Beverly Crusher's wedding. (The album is now on display in the Star Trek Experience attraction at the Las Vegas Hilton.)
Several audio options are provided; for technical reasons I was only able to evaluate the stereo surround mix (in stereo). It was fine.
The Rebuttal Witness: Judge Eric Profancik
I really loathe Star Trek Generations. People prattle on constantly about the awfulness known as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek Nemesis, but rarely is enough venom spewed on this abomination of a Trek film. Suffering from the kitchen-sink syndrome, where everything but the kitchen sink is tossed into a film to try to make it work, Generations is almost a perfect failure from start to finish. Following the chronology of the film, allow me to show you why Generations, the spawn of the evil Berman and Braga, is the worst film in the Trek universe.
(ALERT: If you haven't seen the film, don't read this, as it's 100% pure spoiler.)
• The End of The Next Generation: For some unfathomable reason (okay, it was money), the highly successful Next Generation was yanked from the television airwaves after seven seasons. From 1987 through 1994, we enjoyed the travels of Picard and the Enterprise-D on the little screen. But that wasn't enough for Paramount, and on November 18, 1994, the wretched creation that is Generations was unleashed upon us. The quest for the almighty dollar led to this abomination.
• Enterprise-B: I said earlier that this film was almost a perfect failure. The only reason it isn't perfect is the opening 18 minutes with Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov on the Enterprise-B. These three know it's not their film, and they are absolutely relaxed and having a lot of fun. They take dialogue not even written for them and make it work. If only the rest of the film had captured this same energy and enthusiasm, there might have been hope. (Even Shatner's inspired performance (for Shatner) at the end of the film isn't enough.)
• The Green Captain Harriman: Nobody that green would ever be given command of a starship, let alone the Enterprise. It was humorous when everything would arrive "Tuesday," but for him to collapse when things got a bit tough is absolutely ludicrous. And for him not to charge to the rescue the instant the distress call was received would have immediately gotten that lad demoted to ensign.
• The Nexus: What exactly is the Nexus? Trek is replete with mindless technobabble, but this energy ribbon makes even less sense than most. The most obvious problem: how can an energy ribbon tear apart a spaceship, but not a person? When the Nexus rams into the Enterprise-B, it tears a chunk out. When the Nexus "rams" into Kirk, Soran, and Picard, they're sucked inside. Must be some silly reason based on their organic structure or something.
• The Humor of Dr. Crusher: Data, you were right—pushing Crusher off the boat was hilarious. Why Geordi got on your case and told you it wasn't is beyond me. Keep up the good work! Besides, Crusher appreciated the extra screen time you gave her.
• A Death in the Family: Picard's brother and nephew die in a fire at their vineyard in France. Why? So we can hear Soran later utter "Time is the fire in which we burn" and have Picard act shocked and surprised? So we can have Picard get all moody until he eventually finds happiness in the Nexus? These rather inconsequential developments could have been handled without killing off the Picard family. And why didn't we get the same actors who portrayed these people originally on TNG in "Family"?
• Dr. Soran: I have no complaints with a rather subtle performance from Malcolm McDowell, but his character is a weak villain in the Trek universe. I'll actually go one step beyond and posit that Soran isn't even a villain. He has no specific grudge against our characters; he has no intention of taking over the universe; he simply wants to get back into the Nexus, which will incidentally lead to the destruction of a planet. The Enterprise-D and Soran cross paths, and that's the source of the conflict. Soran is completely fixated on the pleasures of the Nexus; he doesn't care about anything else. That's nothing compared to the efforts of the quintessential Trek devil, Khan Noonien Singh.
• Data's Emotion Chip: Because Geordi lied to him on the boat, Data felt he was so "out of it" in regards to understanding human nature that he had to finally put in his emotion chip. The last time we saw this chip, it was inside Lore and damaged very extensively. So how did Data figure out how to fix this chip all of a sudden? Furthermore, we liked Data without emotions on the TV show, so why did he need them here? We didn't need the chip.
• Lighting on the Enterprise-D: I'm sorry, but did someone forget to pay the electric bill? Wait, they don't use money in the 24th century. I'm sorry, did someone forget to brew the dilithium crystals? Whatever the reason, the dark, moody (warm?) lighting just doesn't work. For seven years, the Enterprise-D had been a starkly lit, bright environment. Furthermore, every other starship shown on the big screen—except for the Saratoga in The Voyage Home—has had lots of lighting.
• Trilithium: Time to invent yet another fictitious material that could destroy the universe. How many mad scientists live in the future? Protomatter. Trilithium. Thalaron…
• "Time is the fire in which we burn.": A rather cool sounding line, but what exactly does it mean? Can Soran read Picard's mind? Where did this perfect intuition come from? Soran is an el-Aurian; they're a race of listeners, not telepaths.
• Data's Breakdown: Once we get past that incessant laughing, Data succumbs to fear on the observatory. Really? An android who has been functioning for decades is suddenly going to cower in fear while his best friend is abducted? He's going to forget his duty and honor and hide in a corner? Let's just completely disregard the character's history for a little faux drama with a shoddy explanation: a fused emotion chip. Of course, we'll "forget" that Data decided to not have Crusher remove it at the end of the film.
• Mystery Transporter: Anyone else wonder how Soran magically appeared on the observatory? Picard said he'd look into it, but he wouldn't have let Soran over during the early stages of an investigation.
• Geordi's Abduction: If I remember correctly, didn't this already happen to our poor engineer in "The Mind's Eye" and "Descent Part II"? Why yes, it did. It was also done better in the series. His abduction is a minor, and easily omitted, detour in the film.
• Lursa and B'Etor: Why are these "ladies" in this film? To show off their Klingon kleavage yet again? There is no reason or purpose behind their presence in the film, other than the fact that they were relatively popular characters in the series. Anyone else, some new unknown person, could have shuttled Soran around just as easily. Furthermore, having Soran selling trilithium to them is an unnecessary plot extension.
• Phaser Lock: If a missile is launched from the planet, odds are good that the Enterprise won't be able to acquire a phaser lock before it reaches the sun. Well, why are you in orbit around Veridian III? Why not leave orbit and get closer to the sun? Put yourself in a direct line of sight between the planet and the sun, giving you more time to make that lock, thus destroying the weapon.
• Shield Modulation: It's possible, but why do you have the exact shield modulation displayed on one of your panels? Is that something you need at a moment's notice, or is it just another plot contrivance? Further, wouldn't the fine crew of the Enterprise and her superior sensors pick up the transmission from Geordi's visor?
• Enterprise versus the Klingon Cruiser: Yes, the Klingons have discovered your shield modulation, but you are the best ship, the flagship of the Federation—except you forgot to modulate your shield frequency like you do in almost every other battle (especially those against the Borg). You're telling me that your ship, which outguns the Klingons ten to one, can't take them out before they get you? They get off a couple of phaser and photon shots and you have to abandon ship? And I thought the Ferengi incident in "Rascals" was just a fluke.
• Death of the Duras Sisters: Not only shouldn't they have been in the film in the first place, but there also wasn't a good reason to kill them off either. And to reuse the same explosion from The Undiscovered Country? That's unconscionable. Since when does "a spread of photon torpedoes" equal exactly one torpedo?
• Destruction of the Enterprise: The ship survived seven years on the show, and it goes down in one pathetic little battle with an old Klingon battleship? To add insult to injury, you then crash the saucer into the planet? (Granted, it did look cool; but those poor people on the bottom of the saucer must be paste! Incidentally, who thought it was a good idea to put sickbay and children in the battle section?) Why did you have to destroy the Enterprise-D? You didn't. It was a fantastic ship, and you just wanted to shed the last vestige of ties to the television show. What a waste. When the Enterprise was destroyed in The Search for Spock, that was a fantastic and poignant moment in Trekdom. This is just a shame. (And poor Deanna has been the butt of jokes ever since.)
• Christmas in the Nexus: So the epitome of happiness for Picard is to have a Victorian Christmas with a bunch of rugrats around him? Seriously? The man who hates kids and doesn't think they belong on his starship? Where does this sudden transformation come from? Oh, that's right, from that stupid plot complication of killing his brother and nephew. Stupid! We're supposed to believe his "pure joy" would be a recent development and not an extension of his lifelong love of space exploration? And please, stop spinning the camera 'round and 'round, so I won't puke and can see what's going on.
• Horseback Riding and Old Flames: So, the epitome of happiness for Kirk is to chop firewood, make breakfast, and ride his horse? Seriously? The man who loves being in the stars suddenly wants to settle down? Where does the sudden transformation come from? And, who the devil is Antonia? Where did she come from? You'd think we'd have seen Edith Keeler in the Nexus with him, not some unknown random hookup from who knows where.
• Nexus Egress: During his talk with Guinan in the Nexus, Picard states he'll need help to defeat Soran. He asks for Guinan's help, but she states she cannot join him because she's "already there." Interesting. Let's follow that line of reasoning a bit more closely. If Guinan can't help out, then that explains why Picard can't recruit anyone else from his crew, who were probably swept into the Nexus. However, it doesn't explain how he can go back. Isn't Picard already on Veridian III as well? How can he go back if he's already there? Time may have no meaning in the Nexus, but it does seem to have to follow its own rules outside of the Nexus. Such balderdash!
• The Fight for Veridian III: Two captains against one psycho? And the psycho almost wins? And he doesn't have a phaser? This hand-to-hand fight is so choreographed, rehearsed, and fake that there's little tension derived from the climax of the film. Stunt doubles wearing bad wigs on the top of a rock isn't the most inspired ending to a film. Give us something epic, something beyond belief for this, especially if you're going to…
• The Death of Kirk: Killing Kirk is the absolute worst part of this film. There is no explainable rationale for killing off the ultimate hero of Star Trek. Kirk defines the show, even at this point in time. And to top it off, it's not an especially poignant death. Wow, the bridge collapsed and he's dead. I'm stunned. The lack of respect shown here is unbelievable—made all the worse considering his death in the first ending came when Soran shot him in the back! This is insanity! Kirk is a grandiose character, and his death should be as grand as his life. For him to be killed off on some desolate rock in this manner is dishonoring the character. Berman and Braga should forever be shamed for doing this. And his final words—"It was fun. Oh my…"—are as bereft of passion as his death. The idea of "I'll die alone" should have been followed. His "death" on the Enterprise-B was far more heroic and moving.
• The Nexus, Part 2: What is so fantastic about the Nexus? Guinan gets all gushy when she talks about it, and Soran is ready to kill millions to get in there. But when we see it, Kirk is chopping firewood and making breakfast and Picard is having a faux Christmas. Wow, that sounds like great stuff. It really is the happiest place in the universe, until Picard and Kirk suddenly realize it's lame and leave.
• Where's Soran?: Did Soran ever make it into the Nexus? Is there some "echo" of him in there? Just because Kirk and Picard could hop out and alter events, does that mean that Soran never made it in? Can you change time in an energy ribbon that defies the rules of time?
As I said, they tried to put as much into this film as possible. Let's bring these people in, blow this up, kill him, and do that. Let's do as much as possible in two hours, and that will satisfy the audience. We'll do everything that we couldn't do while the show was on television. It all turns out to be style over substance.
Did we need to kill Robert and René Picard?
Did we need to kill Kirk?
Absolutely, positively no!
The real problem with Generations is the lack of a good story. There are too many unnecessary setups and contrivances in this film. Things are altered too often just to make something happen. We didn't need all the convenient coincidences to propel the film forward. Take out a few pieces, trim back the extravagance, and there may be a decent film hiding deep down inside. Then again, maybe we should have stuck with the classic crew for one more film and started the next generation with First Contact.
In spite of all this, I do own the DVD and do watch the film from time to time. Any good Trekkie has to take the good with the bad.
Before closing, the court would like to remind the good Justice Profancik that Star Trek V featured Uhura doing a fan dance. A FAN DANCE! The court can't comprehend Generations being considered worse than that abomination. But the court digresses.
At best, Star Trek Generations is problematic. I'm pretty sure that no Trek fan would list it as their favorite film; it might not even crack the top 5. It arguably has its charms, but it also has some undeniably grating aspects to it. It was unquestionably a disappointment, however. With Trekmania at its all-time peak, the combination of Kirk and Picard, and the glittering promise of a new generation (pun intended) of Trek films, all Generations could deliver was a hash made out of loosely-connected Trek elements. Although Paramount once again provides a solid "Special Collector's Edition" package for a Trek film, you just can't dress up a pig and make it a beautiful woman, even if it is rather attractive by pig standards.
Split decision: one vote for "eh…," one vote for "Die—die horribly, die painfully, and die visibly." All parties are sentenced to a minimum of three weeks of non-stop listening to Data laughing and singing his little "life forms" song.
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