Wednesday, July 20, 2016

TNG Flashback: Generations

Star Trek: Generations marked a "handing over of the baton" in the Star Trek feature film franchise, the first starring the cast of The Next Generation.

In a prologue, Captain Kirk is presumed dead after the Enterprise-B rescues a ship from an interstellar energy ribbon called the Nexus. 78 years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D comes into conflict with Dr. Soran, one of the survivors of that event. With the help of the Duras sisters, Soran is destroying stars to alter the course of the Nexus so he can get back inside. Waiting inside is a timeless utopia where all things are possible... and Captain Kirk, the one man who can help stop Soran.

Paramount gave the order to begin developing a Next Generation Star Trek film while the series was still in its sixth season. Former Next Gen staff writer Maurice Hurley was contracted to develop one story, while current staff writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga were told to create another; the stronger script would become the movie. (Executive producer and Deep Space Nine showrunner Michael Piller declined the chance to develop his own script, objecting to the competition.) Hurley's version reportedly used Kirk only as a holodeck character, which I imagine gave Moore and Braga's use of "the real thing" the inside track.

In a commentary track for the movie done by Moore and Braga, the duo recalls that several mandatory plot elements were handed to them. The original Star Trek cast would appear in the opening, while Kirk alone would figure in the finale. There had to be a Khan-like villain. But also Klingons (because people love Klingons). There had to be a humorous subplot involving Data. If these recollections are accurate, it's pretty easy to understand the form of the resulting movie, and the reason for most of its flaws.

Let's look at the mandates one by one. First, the original cast had to appear. Moore and Braga conceived of the Enterprise-B prologue to address this, and on paper I think it was a solid idea -- all seven of the original characters were written into the script. But there were two problems in executing that vision: with only 10-15 minutes for the entire sequence, some of the characters got only a couple of lines; moreover, Star Trek VI had already served as a quite effective sendoff for the original crew.

Leonard Nimoy was thus already reluctant when the production approached him -- not only to return as Spock, but as the first choice for the director's chair. Furthermore, after enjoying a lot of creative control on his previous Star Trek directorial efforts (III and IV), he wanted script revisions. In particular, he felt "there was no Spock function in the script," that the lines "attributed to Spock [...] had nothing to do with Spock." DeForest Kelley also passed on returning as McCoy. Just like that, the dream of reuniting the crew, or even just the classic Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio, died.

When you watch the Enterprise-B prologue, you can see moments that were clearly intended for other characters. Chekov pressing reporters into service as nurses is pure McCoy, and the pride he takes in introducing helmsman Demora Sulu would surely have felt better coming from her father. Scotty makes some very Spock-like leaps in logic, while ribbing Kirk at times in a very McCoy-like manner. Despite clear hints of "what might have been," a lot of the prologue does work. The actors we did get deliver solid moments, from the way William Shatner's hand lingers longingly on the captain's chair, to Walter Koenig's delivery of "I was never that young," to one of James Doohan's best ever moments as Scotty -- the hollowed out "aye" he gives when he realizes that Kirk is dead.

The Enterprise-B crew is a who's who of faces from genre television (and often, past Star Trek in particular): there's Tim Russ (just months before being cast as Tuvok on Voyager), Glenn Morshower (known for 24), Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Jenette Goldstein (most of James' Cameron's movies, including the role Vasquez in Aliens), and Thomas Kopache (numerous Trek roles, including Kira's father on Deep Space Nine). Sure, Captain Harriman is spineless and incapable, and Shatner gets a bit hammy squirming in his chair, but the sequence as a whole is filled with good action and visuals.

The next mandate, that Kirk return for the finale, is less successful. Really, the third act of the film in general is flawed, largely due to the plot device of the Nexus. Moore and Braga say they arrived at it because they didn't want to have "old Kirk" in their movie, but neither did they want to use straight-up time travel. They envisioned the Nexus as a mingling of past, present, and future, and rightly admit that the film doesn't do the best job of conveying that. In my view, the problem isn't just that the Nexus is a confusing idea, it's that what we do see is just plain silly. There's Picard's Dickensian family (with an unfamiliar wife instead of Vash, Jenice Manheim, or any of the TV series characters that might have resonated). There's the notion that Kirk's ultimate dream is to chop wood for eternity (and not to remain forever in command of a starship). Or the laughable fact that both men are wearing their Starfleet uniforms in their fantasies.

Most problematic is the notion that you can leave the Nexus simply by willing it, and go to any time and place you want. First of all, if what you want is to leave the Nexus and save the day, how do you know you're really doing that and not just being conned by another Nexus fantasy? Second, if you do leave the Nexus and anything goes wrong with your plan, why not just throw up your hands, get sucked back into the Nexus, then leave again to have another go at it? And thirdly, why exit the Nexus at a moment you're in dire peril, as opposed to any of countless earlier and opportune moments? (This last flaw, Moore and Braga acknowledge in their commentary. They half-heartedly defend themselves by saying that most time travel stories -- "even Terminator" -- have this problem, and that hopefully you just get caught up enough in the story not to let it bother you.)

But even bigger than the plot holes is the problem that Kirk's return really doesn't amount to much. His death feels perfunctory, and totally avoidable if they'd gone in with anything like a plan. (And that's even after reshoots; originally, Soran simply shot Kirk in the back.) It feels like Picard saves the day, while Kirk merely (arguably) saves Picard. Which is maybe what you want for a Next Generation movie, but certainly isn't great for the "last ride of James T. Kirk." Even his last line feels off. William Shatner was reportedly insistent about the final "oh my" (where the writers preferred "it was fun"), and it's hard to know what to make of the moment. Is Kirk seeing a glimpse of hell just a split second before he heads there? Is he having an Arrested Development-esque "I've made a huge mistake" moment? He's not going out swinging, as Captain Kirk should, that's for sure.

As for the mandate for a Khan-like villain? If you realize that what made Khan Khan is his personal vendetta against Kirk, then it's clear Soran falls short on that mark. His conflict with our heroes is completely beside the point to him, and his plot makes no sense. He's blowing up stars to reach the Nexus, claiming no ship can take him there. But how did Guinan and Kirk -- and Soran himself (the first time) all reach the Nexus? From a ship! But at least Malcolm McDowell does make the character fun and urbane villain, quoting literature and shrugging off the annihilation of billions while effectively stealing the spotlight from the mandated Klingons. Lursa and B'Etor succeed in destroying the Enterprise, which should make them great villains. But they're comic relief at best, second fiddles at worst. B'Etor's name is never even spoken aloud in the film.

How about that Data subplot? Well, it does generate some laughs... though getting there seems so glib. "Oh, we didn't mention that the emotion chip was mysteriously repaired at some point, and that Data could have just put it in at any time?" It feels like exactly what it is: something the writers chose to do only because it was the movie, to help this feel more like a movie than a regular episode. But Brent Spiner really sells it, from the hilarious Ten Forward drinking scene to the fist-pumping bridge celebration to the actual use of the word "shit" on Star Trek. He even makes the final discovery of Spot in the Enterprise wreckage a meaningful moment -- though he reportedly begged Moore and Braga to do something else, saying: "Does he have to find the cat? Can't he find, like, Geordi or something?"

And while Spiner is the standout in this film, you really can't fault any of the performances. (Not even Shatner, who secured a Razzie nomination for this film.) A lot of moments that could be goofy instead play perfectly straight. The intended jokes work, and there are several good scenes. Still, despite the cast's efforts, I feel like Generations doesn't quite focus on what it's trying to be about. There's the sense that it was supposed to be about "mortality," but most of the moments that touch on this theme are half-baked or muddled, swallowed up by the movie's need to check all the prescribed boxes. Soran's quest to return to the Nexus seems driven not out of fear of death, but out of desire to achieve nirvana. Kirk doesn't pine for his youth as such; he simply wants to keep adventuring, to be back in command of a starship again. Picard tells Troi that he regrets not having his own family, but his reaction to the death of his brother and nephew seems much more about grief than regret (and when the Nexus actually gives him that family, he gives it up quite easily).

But if the theme meanders a bit, I'd say at least the movie stays consistently feeling like a "movie," as opposed to an episode of the TV series. The scope of the problem is inflated, with a villain destroying entire stars. The Enterprise is destroyed! Captain Kirk dies! There's lots more filming on location: at sea for Worf's holodeck promotion, in beautiful mountains for Kirk's Nexus "heaven," and in the desert for the finale. Visual effects take a big jump up, particularly in the saucer crash sequence (though a few shots, such as the exploding Klingon ship, are stolen from earlier Star Trek movies). It's definitely a "big screen adventure."

This is already longer than my typical Star Trek reviews, so let me start wrapping things up with "other observations":
  • The lighting in this movie drives me absolutely nuts. Everyone was eager to do something more than the TV show, on its tight timetables, could achieve. But dammit, we know what the Enterprise looks like, and it's not this. Every scene is drenched in moody shadows, to a point where you can't even see some of the characters when they speak. It feels like it's supposed to be capital-I Important, but it's capital-D Distracting.
  • Dennis McCarthy scores the movie, continuing in his role as composer from the series. His music here is still a bit too steeped for my tastes in the "musical wallpaper" ethos sanctioned by producer Rick Berman. But he does cut loose here and there, with a new heroic anthem, and a poignant choir used to symbolize the Nexus.
  • Marina Sirtis often poked fun at the writers during convention appearances: after letting both a blind man (Geordi) and a child (Wesley) drive the ship, the first chance she gets to do it, she crashes it.
Generations doesn't hang together like the great episodes of Star Trek, but it is -- despite its flaws -- more coherent than many action movies. I'd grade it a B overall.

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