Well, since Quaid got the ball rolling on this Star Trek hoosafudge, let me give you a trip through the last four films of the franchise before they decided to reboot with J.J. Abrams. Let me state at the outset, as Quaid did, that I am not a lifelong Star Trek fan or even an enthusiast. My knowledge of the Star Trek universe is limited to the Next Generation T.V. show and subsequent films. I have to say though, what I did see of the Next Generation did impress me as a boy. My brother was a fan and he would leave taped episodes in our V.C.R. (remember those days?) to be watched at a later date. I remember hitting play on some of them and being whisked away as Picard, Riker, and the rest of the crew had adventures across the universe. These episodes were thrilling and made me excited to see the Next Generation crew transition into film.
They did this in Star Trek: Generations. This is quite a lovely film, but it is the equivalent of a franchise trying to have its cake and eat it too. There is an obsession on the filmmakers’ part with passing the torch between the original crew and the Next Generation crew. This obsession manifests itself most clunkily in the film’s opening sequence, where Kirk (William Shatner), Scotty (James Doohan), and Chekhov (Walter Koenig) accompany the new Enterprise on its maiden voyage. There is a ton of silly, wink-wink camraderie between the three that keeps the film from moving forward at an efficient pace.
Of course, the sequence has to have some relevance to the plot, so the ship encounters an energy ribbon in which two ships are trapped. The retired Kirk intervenes, saves the civilians on board, but is killed in the process (they think). The film cuts to 80 years later, where we join Picard (Patrick Stewart), Riker (Jonathan Frakes), and the rest of the crew as they investigate a disturbance onboard a space observatory. One survivor is the sinister Dr. Sauron (Malcom McDowell) who was also rescued from one of the vessels that Kirk saved. It turns out that the ribbon Sauron was trapped in was actually a doorway into another dimension called the Nexus, where inhabitants live out their happiest moments for eternity. Sauron is obsessed with returning.
In order to do this, he must change the ribbon’s course so that it will pick him up in the Veridian system. This will require the destruction of the Veridian star, which will bring about the deaths of millions! Picard is set on preventing this, but fails in his initial attempt and is ensnared by the Nexus. Once inside, he refuses the utopia in which he lives (yeah right) and commits himself to going back in time to stop Sauron (he can go back in time because time has no meaning in the Nexus and….nevermind), but he can’t do it without help. Who can he turn to other than….James T. Kirk, who wasn’t dead after all but is actually in the Nexus like Picard?
I’m making the film sound pretty silly, and it is on some levels, but the time spent with the Next Generation crew is generally fun. It succeeds largely because of the gravitas that Stewart brings to Picard, who is wounded and anguished over the death of a beloved nephew, and Brent Spiner’s comical turn as the android Data who, in an effort to become more human, has activated his emotion chip and has begun to experience humor for the first time. Though the film unnecessarily goes out of its way to tie the two crews together, there is a cool space battle and some interesting discourse on time and mortality, executed in the solemn, Star Trek tone that we love. Also, this series has cut its teeth on cool villains, and Malcom McDowell, retaining some of the slimy menace that he brought to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, is one of the best.
Next came Star Trek: First Contact, easily the best Star Trek film of the six that I have seen. It is hard to pin down exactly why it worked so well though. There doesn’t seem to be any particular formula or strategy that the filmmakers were following. They seem to have had a good story that simply came together. The film was directed by Frakes who directed much of the T.V. series and handles the film like a really good episode of the show; there are no intricate shots or extended visual flourishes, just smart choices and a solid desire to keep the narrative chugging along.
The film succeeds largely through the use of another great villain, the Borg, who assimilate races into their collective of mindless, robotic beings. Picard, who was assimilated by the Borg six years earlier, has an interesting arc in the film as he is fueled by an extensive knowledge of their methods but a fiery urge to exact revenge. The Borg have gone back in time to stop a wily inventor (James Cromwell) from making the first contact of humans with an alien race. The Enterprise follow the Borg (just go with it) in an effort to intervene and ensure that first contact is made. Meanwhile, the Borg find their way onto the ship and start assimilating the crew. Data is captured by the seductive Borg Queen (Alice Krige) who tries to manipulate him into revealing Enterprise secrets. In the face of all this, Picard must reconcile his need for revenge with the need to protect his crew.
This is a complicated story, but it comes off extremely well as an exciting sci-fi adventure. All of the threads are interwoven skillfully and the viewer is never confused. The arcs of Picard and Data are both fascinating, and prove that focusing on these two characters has always been the best path for a Next Generation project. First Contact grossed $93 million and left fans in giddy anticipation for the next film.
Oh how disappointed the Trekkies must have been. The next film, Star Trek: Insurrection, is true nonsense. Not only that, but it is pedestrian nonsense; no one in this movie seems to care very much about the situation that they are in. The film centers around a utopian colony exposed to radiation that keeps them forever young and the desire of the Federation to relocate the colony’s inhabitants and use the radiation for themselves. Fans accused Insurrection, also directed by Frakes, of being little more than a glorified episode of the show, which it is, and it also feels incredibly frivolous; none of the Enterprise crew have any interesting emotional baggage to sift through. Picard has a sweet romance with a fey colonist (Donna Murphy), Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Riker spark up an old romance, Warf (Michael Dorn) starts Klingon puberty, and Data learns the virtues of rolling around in the grass as a form of play. There just isn’t much of great substance here. Talk about squandering momentum.
Star Trek: Nemesis, the last film before the reboot, made up for some of Insurrection‘s blandness. The filmmakers were obviously obsessed with giving Star Trek a grand scale, epic treatment again, and this helps give Nemesis a level of scope that the previous two films lacked. Stuart Baird (U.S. Marshalls) directed, and does a good job of making the Star Trek world more visually stimulating: there are lots more hard closeups, a saturated color palette, and a few more intricate camera moves that in films previous. This is the Star Trek that needs to live on film.
I enjoyed this movie. It is pretty complex on a psychological level as it involves a confrontation between the Next Generation crew and the new ruler of the Romulan empire (Tom Hardy), who is actually a clone of Picard. This makes for a lot of interesting shots of Patrick Stewart standing with his mouth slightly agap, uncertain whether or not he should kill or embrace this new foe. The movie also wraps up the Next Generation story nicely, as Troi and Riker marry and decide to leave the Enterprise for new command posts on the Titan. Spoiler ahead: though Data’s death is an obvious rip-off of Spock’s sacrifice at the end of Wrath of Kahn, it feels appropriate that the Next Generation story should end after his death.
Though Star Trek: Nemesis is a quality film as Star Trek movies go, audiences clearly didn’t agree with me, as the film grossed only $43 million and motivated, it would seem, a reconception of the franchise. I started out cold on the new Abrams film, but after seeing the second trailer (the one with the super-dramatic shot of Kirk sitting in the chair for the first time), I have to say I am pretty psyched. I just hope they retain the jovial energy of the original crew and don’t make them overly austere; the film should be fun and optimistic, celebrating the mythology of Kirk, Spock, and their sidekicks.
Since Quaid has laid down the question of who is the better captain, Kirk or Picard, I feel the need to address it. And you aren’t gonna get one of these wishy washy, they-both-have-great-qualities answers. I truly think it is Kirk. He just has the killer instinct and the inner fire to take on any one in a space battle. He’s a true action badass with all the tale-chasing proclivities of James Bond. He is also undeniably passionate about what it means to be a commander in Starfleet. Though I’ve criticized his presence in Generations, there is a great speech where he tells Picard “don’t let them do anything that will take you away from the bridge of that ship because when you’re there, you can make a difference.” If there is one speech that represents what is best in Star Trek, it is this one, as it most movingly conveys the hope and optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
While Kirk is the better captain, I have to say Picard is the more interesting character. The casting of Patrick Stewart was the masterstroke of the Next Generation show as it allowed the writers to really swing for the fences and take the character to extremely complex, dramatic places. Stewart doesn’t disappoint, and gives us a complex hero who possesses Kirk’s passion but also his own great inner torment.
Well, I hope we have given you an interesting trip through Star Trek lore. I’m sure the new movie won’t need any of our help in order to become the highest grosser of the year, but I have no problems shelling out my money for this flick. It’s gonna be cool.