A Tale of Two Captains – Revisiting Star Trek: Generations

Kirk and co. may be back on the big screen, but how about a visit to the next generation? 

With the original crew bidding their farewells in The Undiscovered Country, it was wise that Paramount didn’t undo Nicholas Meyer’s hard work with yet another mission for Kirk and his crew. That said, it made sense for those keen on the films to produce a bridging narrative that saw the baton passed to the characters of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gene Roddenberry’s spin-off spanned seven seasons from 1987-1994 and completely reinvigorated the franchise, making the 90s an undisputed heyday for Trekkers. TNG‘s success not only led to three other Star Trek shows, but a four-film franchise led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Expectations for the appropriately-named Star Trek: Generations were high, and director David Carson couldn’t help but leave a lot of hardcore fans sobbing into their popcorn. As for myself, I’ve always found part seven to be a perfectly serviceable action movie.

Generations begins in the year 2293 with a retired Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) and Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) attending the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B. It isn’t long before disaster strikes, as they are needed to rescue some refugee ships from a strange “energy ribbon.” The Enterprise becomes caught in the anomaly, forcing Kirk down into the bowels of the ship to alter the deflector shields. But his heroism comes at a cost when the ribbon breaks through the hull, sending his body into the deep vacuum of space…

Flash forward to 2371 and the Enterprise-D crew is indulging in a little fun on the Holodeck. In case you’ve been oblivious to Trek for the last two decades, the crew comprises Picard, his loyal “number one” William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), android Data (Brent Spiner), blind engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Klingon warrior Worf (Michael Dorn), medical officer Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden), and ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). They are pressed into action after receiving a distress call from a solar observatory, where everyone except Doctor Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell) has been killed by Romulans. To cut a long short short, Soran is trying to return to what he calls the “Nexus,” the energy ribbon that had claimed Kirk a century before. The phenomena grants you whatever your heart desires, and time has no meaning there, allowing Picard to come face-to-face with a childhood legend. Can they work together to stop Soran’s sinister holiday plans?

There are big problems with Generations on a narrative level, but seeing this crew inhabit the silver screen makes it worth revisiting. Whether you actually watched The Next Generation or not is incidental, as the show is so deeply ingrained in our pop-culture that most people could probably name the main protagonists with ease. That says a lot for the show’s appeal and how truly massive Star Trek was in ’94. In fact, Paramount only took TNG off the air because they didn’t want the movies currying favour. Therefore, Generations had to be a lot of things to many different people, so we get a story that, to some, feels half-baked with a tone overly concerned with nostalgia when it should be warp-speeding ahead. It’s great seeing Picard, Data, Riker and the rest with a budget at their disposal, but the screenplay by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga was clearly compromised by a tight production schedule. If you want to pick holes, you could probably turn the screenplay into Swiss cheese, yet this film also has a cast and crew invested in making the best film possible. My feelings on Generations are therefore mixed.

The biggest problem is definitely the Nexus. The rules of how it works are never adequately explained, and it’s nothing more than a convenient way of getting Kirk into Picard’s timeline. It brings to mind the indecipherable cosmic cloud V’Ger from The Motion Picture in that the script never, ever convinces us that it could exist. And Soran’s plot, which involves the destruction of an entire world, is far more convoluted than it needs to be. While McDowell makes for a fun scenery-chewing villain, he’s simply not a credible threat for the all-powerful Federation. That is perhaps why the screenwriters threw in a ship of Klingons to fire photon torpedoes at.

Indeed, when Generations concentrates on summer movie spectacle, including the sequence where the Enterprise is blown to smithereens, it works wonderfully. The sight of the vessel crash-landing on a deserted planet is still one of the best action set-pieces in Trek history, and the film’s undeniable highlight. If you can overlook the story’s failings, then the blockbuster moments might satisfy you. This is a very well-made picture, with handsome cinematography, a propulsive score by Dennis McCarthy, and some solid direction from Carson. The latter, who helmed his fair share of Next Generation episodes, effectively mounts the action and gives the TV universe a necessary sense of scope.

Generations also thrives on its cast. As before, this is a team very familiar with one another, and the camaraderie that kept the original crew alive manages to seep through here. Never mind that the script often gives them silly things to do (such as Data’s annoying “Emotion Chip”), because these actors are so at ease with their characters. They convey everything non-Trekkers need to know about them with personality alone. Frakes is the loyal second-in-command who is literally willing to go down with his ship, Spiner is the Spock fascimile trying to understand the human mind, and Stewart is the voice of authority doing everything he can to save others and his crew. The Shakespearean thesp has always been more convincing as the leader of a military vessel than Shatner, and Stewart carries the film on his shoulders, never relinquishing command to his toupee-wearing predecessor and giving the material a welcome shot of gravitas.

The last act of the picture is fan-fiction writ large as the two Captains join forces. No matter what Generations‘ failings are, seeing Kirk and Picard work together ticks off another box on the Trek wish-list; it’s frankly hard not to get a kick out of seeing this screen pairing come to fruition. Shatner bows out with some dignity, too, bequeathing the series to his superior in a final reel that is sure to get devout followers teary-eyed. The particulars of his last stand have been criticised by the fanbase for twenty-two years, but the sacrifice gives Generations an unexpected importance in Trek‘s long continuity and a finale with something at stake.

Star Trek: Generations isn’t one of the saga’s best, but it does offer two hours of undemanding entertainment that is sure to please movie fans and less-demanding acolytes of The Next Generation. The crew’s transition from the small screen to the big one could have been smoother, but there’s no denying that these characters were made for cinema. General audiences seemed to agree, leading to a $118 million haul at the box office. This success inevitably brought about the much superior sequel, First Contact, which saw the TNG crew reach new heights of popularity…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This was the first Star Trek film to be produced and filmed after the death of Gene Roddenberry. Following his death, the creative team began using story ideas and concepts that Roddenberry was opposed to, which included the teaming up of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation characters.
  • The first movie to have a web site created specifically to promote it.
  • William Shatner has stated that his line “Who am I to argue with the Captain of the Enterprise?” was the hardest line he ever had to deliver.
  • Leonard Nimoy was originally asked to act in and direct this film, but he declined after reading the script and being told there was not time to fix the parts with which he had problems. According to Nimoy, there was a character named Spock in the script, but the lines were so bland they could have been spoken by anyone (those lines were given to James Doohan as Scotty; Nimoy later pointed to this as proof he was right).
  • The producers asked George Takei to come back and play Sulu one more time, and take the helm of the Enterprise-B. But Takei refused because if Sulu had taken the helm, it would have meant temporarily reducing Sulu’s rank, so that he could serve under Captain Kirk again. He felt that Sulu had worked too hard to earn his command to allow even a temporary reduction. A new character, Demora, daughter of Sulu, was created to speak Sulu’s lines.
  • A new set of Starfleet uniforms was intended to be introduced in the film to be worn by the Enterprise-D crew. These new uniforms would have been similar to the television ones, except the collars would have been the same department color as the rest of the tunic and the rank pips would have been worn on the shoulder with a corresponding rank braid on the wrists. The uniforms were eventually nixed by producer Rick Berman. The decision was then made to use both the uniforms from Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as the uniforms from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. However, Playmates had already made an action figure line for the film with the Enterprise-D crew wearing the aborted uniforms. It was too late to retract the figures, which is the only place the aborted uniforms can be seen.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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