So, a quick introduction. Hello, and welcome to the first of four redemptive reviews of the TNG movies, posting every two weeks here on Priority One. It’s fair to say that, in the panoply of Star Trek the TNG movies do not exactly have the most, ahem, stellar of reputations (sorry about that. I’ll do better). So the purpose of these reviews is to find something in the films that will help to improve them, something that will make spending a couple of hours in their company worthwhile. Some of them will present more of a challenge on that front than others… In general I’m not interested in the behind-the-scenes details or what-could-have-been’s, I’m not hung up on the quality of special effects (unless they’re genuinely outstanding or so bad as to fail to accurately convey in the script what needs to be seen on screen), and I don’t really care about gossip or personalities – I’m just dealing with what we actually have on screen. Anyway, that’s the point of this. There’s plenty of takedowns of the movies all over the internet, and that seems like a kind of obvious approach so, in the spirit of Star Trek’s optimism, let’s instead try to seek out the good. We are all fans, after all, so let’s find something worthwhile and focus on that – the search for redemption (and, obviously, there will be spoilers). First up, the TOS/TNG crossover, Generations.
Right, let’s try that again. Time hasn’t been very kind to Generations, it’s fair to say, and it’s flaws as a movie seem a lot more glaring with the distance of twenty years since its initial release. Obviously the first and most important thing to say about Generations is the big marquee selling point – the meeting of Kirk and Picard. That’s what the film exists for, that’s what it was marketed as, that’s the whole point of the exercise. And Generations does make a genuine effort to build to this and make the appearance of both captains function beyond the handful of scenes Kirk and Picard actually share. Of particular note is the difference in direction between the opening TOS segment and the latter TNG segments. The TOS segments really do feel like they belong to the same series of movies that the original cast rattled about in for six installments. That’s in part because, apart from a couple of moments from Shatner, nobody seems to be trying to act per se but rather have just turned up to do their party pieces – even the guest cast we haven’t seen before – which gives everything a jokey, companionable feeling. So there’s a bit of laboured humour, just like the old films, and then there’s a bit of a crisis, just like the old films, and good old Captain Kirk springs into action, just like the old films. It all seemsvery familiar, so when we’re left with the realization that this time something has genuinely gone very wrong it’s jarring in all the right ways. Shatner running up and down corridors – well we’ve that hundreds of times before while Scotty works another miracle, and the script goes out of its way to call attention to this (“Keep her together until I get back”, says Kirk. “I always do” Scotty shoots back) before delivering the blow of Kirk’s death. It’s an effective subversion, and James Doohan’s one attempt at acting in the movie (his heartfelt “aye” when Chekov asks him if anyone was in Engineering when it was damaged) really helps to sell it. Even the fact of a major character being “killed” is something we’ve seen in the original series of movies so even that feels like it has a resonance with the past. All of this really lets the TOS part of the film feel like it’s part of what came before it, part of the same canon and part of the same continuity. And then…
… we crossfade to the holodeck and there’s a subtle but definite shift in the style. This is, obviously, the most ambitious use of the holodeck to date, and certainly the most expensive. The holodeck has always been a bit of a Magic Cave, owing as much to The Old Curiosity Shop or, to be honest, Narnia, as it does to any meaningful extrapolation of technology. As far as TNG goes it’s been there to inject a bit of variety, something it’s done more or less successfully as long as you don’t think about it too much. Here, though, there’s a real attempt to stretch what can be done with the holodeck in a way that, well, just seems a little bit more ambitious than the TV show ever managed even as it remains perfectly in keeping with it – just as hanging out on the bridge of the Enterprise-B was perfectly in keeping for TOS. That’s appropriate – if there’s one thing that Star Trek: The Motion Picture taught us it’s that just doing the same thing you did on telly but on a movie screen isn’t enough. So seeing the familiar trope of lets-have-a-jaunt-on-the-holodeck but on a noticeably grander scale helps to establish the feel of how a TNG movie should operate but just that little bit bigger and bolder, while at the same time differentiating it from what came immediately before in the TOS section of the movie. So that’s all to the good then. It’s hard not to argue that the whole holodeck sequence is rather self-indulgent – because it is – but there’s at least an attempt to have some degree of thematic resonance with the rest of the film. Beyond acting as a trigger for Data to decide that it’s time to install the emotion chip, it also gives us our very last look at this crew, on this ship, actually taking the time to relax and enjoy being there. This holodeck fantasy contrasts strongly with the fantasy that the Nexus can bring – indeed the holodeck ends up looking rather like a poor man’s Nexus by comparison even though this is the best we’ve ever seen it look. Though no explicit link is made between them on screen, starting the TNG section of the movie with a projected fantasy of limited scope before detailing a significantly greater fantasy generator later in the movie sets up exactly where we’re going to end up going and without seeming like clumsy foreshadowing precisely because we, as the audience, are so used to this being a functional part of the TV show. And of course it’s the holodeck where Picard finds out about the death of his brother and nephew, just as it’s the Nexus where he sees them “resurrected”. The interesting thing about this is that there’s no need to have him find this information out on the holodeck, but by so strongly contrasting between Worf’s promotional shenanigans and Picard’s loss we get a sense of just how powerful the drive that fantasy can provide is, and why this would be so very tempting to Picard once he enters the Nexus. So within the holodeck scene we have the set-up of fantasy, and the set up of loss, which will prove to be twin pillars on which Generations is built, all while gently re-establishing the preeminence of TNG because this is, after all, a TNG film into which TOS crashes and not the other way about.
Yet while the two principal character in the film, Kirk and Picard, are defined by their loss (and feel free to draw a line between the TOS “family” losing Kirk while the TNG Picard loses actual family, gently hinted at during the TOS section when it turns out Sulu, of all people, found time for a real family), in what’s very much the C-story here, Data is defined by what he gains, namely the emotions he’s spent seven seasons of TNG trying to acquire. In a film steeped in losses of all scales it’s important to have some kind of counterpoint and Data’s acquisition of emotions is a significant step forward for him in terms of his character development as well as providing that counterpoint that the film needs. Indeed, one of Data’s principal defining features is the fact that he basically can’t have character development – while it’s obvious the way Spiner plays him has changed over the years the character himself has, odd exceptions like “Descent” aside, been more or less preserved in aspic. We see in “All Good Things…” a possible-future Data with his emotions fully realized and here we see how that process would begin. This is the first significant, but more importantly, permanent change to the way Data behaves, and in something that’s becoming a hallmark of Generations we again see that they’ve taken the time and effort to get the details correct. Inserting the chip was always going to be more that a Microsoft-esque “I see that you want to experience the full range of human emotions – would you like some help with that?” but the overloads, the brief borderline-insanity, and abject terror at facing off against Soran all give shading to his experiences in a way that gives the character a genuine expansion of what it’s possible to do with him (and we’ll see more of this in First Contact). Even his guilt when he’s reunited with a freshly-tortured Geordi plays well when it could have been cloying simply because from this character it’s a whole new facet we’ve never seen before. This gives the film at least a degree of emotional balance, and manages to find a role for Data that informs and supports the principal narrative without taking away from it.
One of the things that Generations very clearly benefits from is a direct, obvious villain in the shape of Professor Soran, played with some degree of gusto by Malcolm McDowell. Well, he’s great, isn’t he? It’s kind of a pity he’s stuck in a film like Generations, really, because it does mean he tends to get overlooked. This is something of a shame, since he turns in a wonderful performance, slightly camp, always controlled, and yet full of steel when the moment requires it. That he and Patrick Stewart don’t get more time face to face – rather than bellowing at each other over some rocks, for example – is also a bit of a shame, but every single time they face off together the air is electric, and it provides a huge spark the film needs (yes, even when bellowing at each other over some rocks, for example). What makes Soran so successful is that he’s got such a clear motivation, yet the simplicity of what drives him as a character never seems shallow or contrived. A lot of this is down to McDowell, who’s able to invest a huge amount in what is, on paper, a comparatively thinly sketched character. Just look at the way he delivers his lines to Stewart while hopping about prepping his rocket – “you must think me quite the madman,” he declares as he skips down the rocks, yet he then makes it clear that he’s aping being quite that insane, before lapsing into bitter regret, then actually being quite mad as he informs Picard that, “the predator has no teeth,” chewing his way through the scenery like a thing possessed yet never seeming over the top or ridiculous. Someone who can eat that much scenery yet never become ridiculous is a huge boon. That whole sequence takes around two minutes but it’s a terrific performance, and it gives scope and depth to Soran’s suffering, even as he seeks to explain it away and justify his action. Since Soran is, ostensibly, the principal driving force behind everything that happens here it’s absolutely vital that his credibility stands up, so it’s an immense relief to be able to say that it does. He’s got enough physicality to make the action sequences work – well, enough to make it look like he could slap about a portly Shatner and a pre-action star Stewart anyway – and enough dramatic heft to sell the character. If the part is a bit under-written – and it is – then McDowell is more than capable of making up the shortfall.
So – the big meeting. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Kirk and Picard are going to butt heads a bit, then there will be a bit of tension, they work it out and ride off (sadly, rather literally) to save the day. And that’s what we get, pretty much to the letter. The strongest aspects of the meeting is how ineffective both captains are when they try to resort to their default modus operandi. Picard tries hard to give Kirk a big lecture on the importance of duty and responsibility, and it falls on completely deaf ears. We’ve seen Picard give this speech dozens of times – to Worf in “The Drumhead”, Riker in “The Pegasus”, even to Data right in this very film – and it gets him nowhere. Kirk defaults to his stereotype – always with a beautiful woman, bold outdoor activities and so forth – and it gets him nowhere either. This is important in establishing just how wrong the Nexus is. We never get a bafflegab-y explanation for the Nexus, so it basically exists as an abstract concept-space, and the concepts Kirk and Picard have of themselves continue to exist within that space but cannot function within it. That goes a long way to establish the more discombobulating nature of what the Nexus is more than any speeches about the perfect family or leaving Starfleet does because the characters we are so familiar with are unable to function within such an environment. This is where the shifting of TOS to TNG style I mentioned earlier pays dividends and we finally get the two colliding alongside the meeting of the two captains. The acknowledgement of the fiction of the Nexus is what allows them to break free of its grasp and, as they do so, the correct order of things reasserts itself. But it takes that acknowledgement, and an explicit rejection of the power of fantasy over their lives, for them to achieve that escape, in what is perhaps the film’s sharpest piece of observation. Fantasy is important, just as we’ve already seen on the holodesk, but it cannot become predominant otherwise we lose who and what we are and how we function. The release of the characters from the concept-space of the Nexus is at the cost of the knowledge of the futility of over-arching fantasy, but it finally allows normality to be restored. Even death is seen to be better, to be more important than just drowning in the waters of fantasy, because at least it’s something real. And of course death is exactly what it leads to.
So the day is, naturally, saved, but at the very highest price imaginable. With the loss of both Kirk and the Enterprise-D the film has real consequences of the kind that it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen in Star Trek. Indeed, while something like, say, “The Best Of Both Worlds” has a larger cost in terms of the number of ships destroyed and lives lost, and even though we get to see the Enterprise flying through the remains of the battle at Wolf 359, it still feels rather abstract in a way that the death of Kirk and the shattered remains of the ship we’ve spent seven years tooling about the galaxy in doesn’t. There’s an immediacy to both these events, and if the message of the Nexus was the need to embrace reality rather than living a fantasy simply for the sake of it then the final few minutes are of the consequences that making that choice brings. It’s also made clear that this can be a heavy burden to carry, and the film makes no attempt to try and soften the blow of this or soft-soap it, even though it presents this as being meaningfully the only option. For Kirk, the cost is his life. For the crew, it’s the loss of the Enterprise. For Soran it’s the cost of his own life. Everyone pays the price for his delusions and self-importance. The matter of consequences will go on to be one of the most resonant aspects of the TNG films, with each building on the idea that the actions of the past have relevance and impact on the present, in very real and concrete ways. In First Contact that will mean revisiting Picard’s experiences with the Borg, for Insurrection we have the consequences of unchecked power, and in Nemesis we have Soong’s arrogance on one side and Shinzon’s evocation of the past on the other. This helps to give the TNG films a degree of thematic unity, and it’s in Generations that we first see this being built. In truth, Generations had a huge mountain to climb as the first TNG film out of the gate, and by choosing to conjure up consequence and loss as its most important thematic statements it makes this film feel like it’s of a piece with the more philosophical aspects that we already associate with TNG while still acting as an extension of them and giving the remaining films in the sequence space to play with similar themes, but without repeating them. It is in this that Generations gains real traction as a film and it is in this, ultimately, that the film finds its greatest expression.
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
Copyright © 2013 Priority One Podcast.
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