Star Trek: Nemesis
Whatever else you can say about Nemesis – and there’s an awful lot that can be said about it – what it resolutely is not is business as usual. That is the first and most positive thing to say about it. Nothing about Nemesis is run of the mill. I don’t think it’s an especially controversial statement to say that Nemesis has probably the worst reputation of any of the TNG films, and the reasons for that are comparatively obvious. For one, it’s the movie that ended the run of TNG films without especially feeling like things had come to a natural conclusion, as with The Undiscovered Country. And there are just so many obvious mis-steps. I’m not going to catalogue them all here, but just a few of the most obvious ones are, in no particular order, B4, B4 and B4. Honestly, Lore ended very badly, so who thought it would be a great idea to come up with another brother, and give Brent Spiner another change to ham it up even further, especially in a movie where the viewing public are expected to actually invest in events without endless reams of backstory? Then there’s the ghastly “memory dump” sequence. And… oh this is silly – the faults of Nemesis have been listed often and with enough frequency for them not to need repeating. The real question here, as I proposed last time, is not what’s wrong with the film but is there anything good that can be said about it at all?
Yes there is. Phew! Otherwise this would end up being a very short redemptive review indeed. Actually there are loads of positive things that can be said about Nemesis. What’s obvious, watching all four TNG films comparatively close to each other, is how much better they flow when separated by a couple of weeks rather than a couple of years. The principal reason I’ve been teasing out the theme of loss that binds the four films together is because, viewed in sequence and close to each other, it stands out clearly, rather than getting lost in the shuffle of the almost-a-decade that stands between Generations and Nemesis. And viewed in this way the move from Generations (shambolic Season One style script), to First Contact (bold, confident, Season Three/Four action-adventure), to Insurrection (bland, somewhat lazy but well meaning, Season Five or Six script) to Nemesis (running out of steam in Season Seven) also feels like it follows the course of the show. Yet even this is a little unfair on Nemesis. Because what is most striking about Nemesis is just how transitional it feels. Jonathan Frakes has vacated the director’s chair this time out, so gone are the accustomed cues, fluid-but-familiar beats, and recognizable style that’s characterized the last couple of outings. Instead we have harsh, jarring synthesizer background music that sounds like nothing Star Trek has ever really attempted before, slow-motion sequences, and ponderous, somnolent cameras that practically challenge the audience to question what they’re doing. It’s hugely discombobulating, especially after all the chummy matey-ness of Insurrection, and it means that Nemesis really feels like it’s striking out in its own direction. The audiences is pushed way out of its comfort zone, and, just as it was a good idea for Insurrection to pursue a different direction from First Contact, so it’s equally good for Nemesis to do the same from Insurrection. Nemesis is many things, but the one thing it can never be described as is “safe”.
The other thing Nemesis has going for it is ambition. The fact that much of its style is brash and confrontation to a certain extent masks what the film is trying to do, because under the surface we have some fairly familiar Star Trek themes. This is the only Star Trek movie, and one of only a tiny handful of occasions throughout the entire show, where we get to see anything of Romulan culture, and it’s genuinely fascinating to spend a little bit of time inside their society, however briefly. Indeed, had all that guff with B4 been dropped in favour of allowing us to spend some time within Romulan culture before we get to see it attacked at its very roots, Nemesis would have been a great deal more effective. Still, what we do get to see is more than welcome, and thematically the idea that the most implacable enemies can come to an understanding and, eventually, peace, seems to be about as in line with Star Trek’s philosophy as we could want. It’s a lovely moment when, after the Enterprise has taken hit after hit that incoming Romulan ships are reported, only for them to turn out to be friendlies. Moments like that are hard-won in Nemesis, and the darkness that lurks at the heart of the movie is far more effective for what isn’t said than what is, so the Romulans ride into the rescue but the implications are left to stand rather than being overly explained (though there is a line about the Federation “making a friend” today). The temptation of peace is, after all, what draws the Enterprise to Romulus in the first place, even as almost everyone is prepared to acknowledge that it was empty hope. Yet one of the great ironies of Nemesis is that Shinzon’s nihilistic, bleak outlook and empty promises of peace actually in the end drive the Romulan Empire and the Federation closer together, united by a common enemy – him. This isn’t the end of the process, but like the Klingon Empire before them, common ground can be found between the Federation and the Romulans, and perhaps the beginnings of a better relationship between the two former enemies can grow.
Still, that darkness is one of the most defining features of Nemesis, and unlike previous attempts at “darkness” here things really feel like they’re in deadly earnest. First Contact had some darkness in it (beyond its colour palette, obviously), but, while it still remains the most straight-up entertaining of the four TNG films, the darkness at its core wasn’t really expanded on. There’s a chance that all of humanity could be wiped out by the Borg, and the Federation could be lost forever! Well yes, but First Contact is, and I don’t mean this pejoratively, a romp. For all the sense of danger (and it does have a sense of danger), it’s still a fun outing, fighting the Borg on the big screen while Our Captain Wrestles With Issues. The darkness that Nemesis works with is much bleaker, and it feels much less like Just Another Outing as a result. There’s something properly nasty about what Shinzon wants to do – Earth is threatened all the time, but there’s a certain remove when it’s being threatened by time traveling techno-zombies from the future. Shinzon’s weapon is much closer to having a real-world analogue – a dirty bomb, say – and thus seems much more realistic as a result, especially as we’ve already seen the Romulan Senate dying in agony as a direct result of the weapon. The fact that the direction is also strikingly different to what we’re used to leans in to the idea that this isn’t business as usual, and the result, tonally, is probably darker than anything TNG has achieved before. And then of course there’s the Troi rape. Mind-control-as-rape isn’t exactly a new concept in science fiction, or even Star Trek – the same thing basically happens to Troi in “Man Of The People”, after all. But again here there’s a realism and a… well, darkness, to what’s going on. The fact is that Shinzon only does this because he was “curious” – not even for pleasure, but just idle curiosity to wile away some time, just makes it all the nastier. This isn’t the cozy, brightly-lit old Enterprise–D with Beverly swooping in at the last moment to save the day with blue space-cardigan a-flapping, this is a ship of shadows and gloom, and what happens here is much more visceral. To the film’s credit, though, the fact that she’s raped – and Troi explicitly states that it’s a “violation” when reporting the incident in sick bay, even if it is a sci-fi mind-rape – isn’t played as a weakness on Troi’s behalf, and she’s allowed enough agency to be able to not only recover from this incident (and what’s really important here is that she actually addresses what happens to her, it’s not brushed off) but also to use it to her advantage later in the film. It’s a bold, strong piece of characterization for Troi, and the first and only time the movies actually do something progressive with her character. This gives us some indication of where Nemesis’s ambitions actually lie. By taking a character that has thus far been largely neglected in the sequence of movies, putting her through the wringer, but having her come out stronger and more resilient because of her experiences and, crucially, have her recover from them, we see the film making a proper attempt to do what TNG should do – use sci-fi allegories of real-life situations to aid understanding of those issues. But, and this is also extremely important, it means that the darkness of Nemesis doesn’t simply exist for its own sake – it’s not self-indulgent or just there to push buttons, but is used in a way that informs the characters we know and allows them to grow as a result. This is essentially a mirror of what Shinzon wants – his darkness is at its heart nihilism, so even when he realizes he can’t survive his own plan he still wants to destroy the Earth because ultimately he’s the embodiment of self-indulgent dark impulses – and the film’s script actively refutes this as a workable philosophy. That’s why the film is bookended by two much lighter scenes, the wedding and the wake (themselves mirrors of each other, of course, the beginning of a journey together, and the end) – the darkness never overwhelms the light, even when it threatens to do so.
Loss drips through Nemesis like water from a slime-covered pipe in a rusting hulk. Loss is everywhere here. If it is in loss that we find the binding theme of the TNG movie then it is in Nemesis that it finds its ultimate expression. We have loss of hope, in the idea that B4 could in some way be Data’s equal. We have the loss of belief from Picard, in Shinzon never being genuine about his desire for peace. We have Shinzon’s loss – his loss of purpose at his original mission (which is to say, the very reason for his existence) being discarded as just another failed policy from an uncaring government. He has everything stripped away from him, and it is his loss that drives the events of the film, forced to seek revenge for an injustice that it seems nobody even remembers any more. There’s a long scene between Picard and Shinzon about how different their lives might have been had their positions been reversed, and it’s telling that, even here, Picard can never quite drop his veneer of civilization just as Shinzon can never quite manage to maintain his. We all have a choice in how we behave, and Shinzon’s choice – to pursue his vengeance at all costs – is of course the mirror of Picard’s. Mirrors are very important in Nemesis – indeed there’s an argument that Nemesis is really about mirrors – and the script goes to some lengths to expand on this. Picard and Shinzon are mirrors of each other, naturally, just as Riker gets his own mirror-nemesis in his battle with the viceroy late in the movie (and “viceroy” is an interesting rank for Shinzon’s second-in-command to hold, given the colonialism issues of the last movie). We are told that Shinzon will be the “triumph of the echo over the voice” (more reflective surfaces, and a lovely expression). There’s the conceptual mirroring I mentioned earlier. All of this works to Nemesis’s advantage too – it gives a focus and dimension to the script, but does it on its own terms rather than, say, by quoting Shakespeare (The Undiscovered Country) or Moby Dick (First Contact, The Wrath Of Khan) as a way to add extra depth to proceedings. This means that the drama of Nemesis is actually the drama of Nemesis, not something that’s been ported over from another source. Whether this is entirely successful or not is a separate question, but Nemesis stakes out its own position and stick to it. This gives it both its own internal thematic unity and a thematic unity to the other TNG films. This is the end of the line for TNG but it crosses the finishing line under its own steam, not under borrowed steam from somewhere else.
Now I would be remiss in my duties in as a reviewer if I didn’t question how effective all of this is. These are, of course, redemptive readings, so I’m always questing for the good inside the bad, but there are plenty of times that Nemesis really makes this a challenge. The unusual atmosphere, the darkness, the challenging aspects of the film, those are all things in its favour, even if they don’t always sit comfortably with each other (and indeed one often gets the feeling watching the film they’re not meant to, that they clash as a deliberate stylistic choice). But still, I’m dancing round the obvious subject. The biggest flaw in the movie, by far, is B4. B4 is a terrible idea badly executed. That’s honestly about the best thing I can think to say about him. Oh you could go on and say that just as Picard has his mirror younger self so Data has his mirror younger self, implying more thematic unity within the film, and indeed this is a perfectly valid reading of B4. However it’s also a reading predicated on the idea of taking B4 seriously, and sadly that’s basically impossible. Just as the Ba’ku are the big failure squatting in the middle of Insurrection, so B4 fulfills the same function in Nemesis. He’s awful. Not just because of Brent Spiner going over the top. Not just because of the massive, Dickensian co-incidence of Shinzon finding the android and using it as a lure (and knowing how). Not just because we really don’t need another brother for Data to be betrayed by, and the nagging feeling that we’ve seen all this before. Not just because of the incalculably clumsy way in which he provides a Chekov’s Phaser workaround for Data’s “death”, thus undermining the whole point of Data’s sacrifice in the first place. No it’s not just because of any one of those things, it’s because of all of them. Just as Generations would be greatly improved by having the Duras sisters and Guinan cut out and replaced by about one and a half lines of bafflegab, so Nemesis would be greatly improved by the removal of B4. B4 is a huge, distracting presence all the way through the film and the worst, the very worst, thing is that his existence is completely pointless – he improves nothing and actively detracts from other aspects of the film. We could save about twenty minutes of our collective (but not Collective) lives if he was edited out and instead we had a throwaway line from Shinzon about how “we can control the android now” and then later have Data declare “Captain, I have overcome Shinzon’s control”. It would actually parallel Troi’s rape (thus providing a pleasing male/female counterbalance), the plan of impersonating B4 on the Scimitar would still work with Data pretending to be controlled instead of pretending to be B4, and it would make his ultimate sacrifice mean so much more. Still, I’m supposed to be reviewing what we have, not what we should have so let’s just say he’s terrible and leave it at that. It’s not that Nemesis doesn’t have other flaws, but B4 is glaringly representative of everything that should have been avoided.
It’s not difficult to see why Nemesis is a divisive, even hated, film. There are many aspects of the script that, despite working hard to define itself in its own terms, never cohere into anything more than the sum of its parts. It’s stylistically as far away from what we’re used to TNG looking like as we’ve ever seen, and it has an intensely alienating effect on viewers expecting another typical outing from our friends on the Enterprise. Even now, thirteen years later and with full foreknowledge of how it’s produced, it still seems like a strange, alien take on the familiar, set in a universe noticeably more somber and more twisted than the one we’re used to exploring. This isn’t a universe that would have the time for the fripperies of Q or another holodeck-gone-wrong story, there’s something about this setting that feels wrong and out of sorts. It’s a nasty, dirty place, full of deep pits people can plummet silently into and weapons of mass destruction that really feel unpleasant. It’s a brave effort, and there is much here that really deserves to be commended, because at last we get a TNG film that manages to be something which none of the others are – challenging. It was a good try, and the truth is that Nemesis doesn’t really work on its own terms at all, but the most unfortunate thing about Nemesis is that it feels like a transitional film but the problem is that there’s never anything that comes after it for it to transition into. The strange atmosphere, the haunting corridors, the shadows – they feel like they’re questing out a new direction for TNG. If there was another film in the sequence it would give more definition to Nemesis and we would be able to see it as either a step down the path of a road not taken, or the first step to a new way of doing things. As it is, everything just dead-ends, and that does Nemesis no favours at all. That’s not specifically the fault of this film, but it’s still terribly unfortunate. In the end there’s just too much wrong for Nemesis to work, despite its best intentions. The script is also put together with little sense of pacing, so we get one action sequence, followed by a lot of talking, then another action sequence, then a lot of talking, and so on. It never really builds to a climax either, just carries on at one speed, then stops. But still, for all its flaws I think I’d take this over Insurrection. Clear, conspicuous ambition is always more interesting than par-for-the-course neutrality, and Nemesis certainly demonstrates ambition. The sad thing is how manifestly short of its ambition it falls.
Oh, and Data dies. Ah well.
Any Other Business
Prole Hole is a not-especially-small robot of European descent, based grudgingly in Amsterdam, NL. Indoctrinated into the Star Trek way of life from a very young age by a father who would use having a child as a bit of an excuse to watch TOS himself, it has proven a hard habit to break, so here we are. Prole is currently undertaking a redemptive review of the entirety of Star Trek:Voyager – yes, really – which can be found at http://tolerabilityindex.freeforums.net/board/41/star-trek-voyager
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