Review: STAR TREK GENERATIONS (Blogging The Next Generation Christmas Special)

“You know, there was a time when I wouldn’t hurt a fly. Then the Borg came… and they showed me that if there’s one constant in this whole universe, it’s death.”

We conclude our backwards tour of the Star Trek: The Next Generation feature films with the instalment that is far and away my favourite of the lot, Star Trek: Generations. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Generations sucks. It does kinda, I know. But of the four feature films produced by Rick Berman, it’s the only one that even marginally hews towards what I enjoyed about the show; and further, with this film going into production days after “All Good Things” wrapped, it’s essentially the television cast’s victory lap, having concluded their seven marvellous years, and still coasting on their final momentum.

Sure, Generations looks and behaves pretty much exactly like a Star Trek: The Next Generation TV movie, and as scripts go, it isn’t even a patch on the genuinely brilliant “All Good Things.” (Ron Moore would lament, on one of the blu-ray releases, that he and Brannon Braga spent a year writing Generations – only to then find themselves tasked with writing “All Good Things” in two weeks. Even he admits the latter effort was superior, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that they had no gas left in their tanks.) When I watch Generations, though, I can still get swept up in the 1994 excitement of watching my favourite crew transition to the big screen. Photographed by John A. Alonso, beautifully scored by Dennis McCarthy, and mutely directed by David Carson, Generations ekes out just enough added production value over its source material to look spiffy and impressive. And it’s got one of the best scenes in any of the Star Trek feature films, ever.

I’m not, of course, referring to the death of James T. Kirk (or the entirely silly mountaintop fistfight by which the original captain’s doom is forged); I’m talking about the crash of the Enterprise-D, which – for my money – is a more memorable and emotional onscreen “death” than Tasha’s, Data’s, or Kirk’s. The model work looks a bit creaky, twenty years on, but at the time – and on the big screen – it was the sort of Big Screen Moment that this otherwise rather small-screen movie sorely required. As a “burn down the house you grew up in” move, of course, destroying the Enterprise is a bit impish (and let’s face it, the Enterprise-E was a sore substitute), but boy, it plays terrifically in context. The shot of Riker and the crew looking up at the glass dome at the top of the bridge – broken open on the way down, regular daylight peering through – is visceral and haunting.

The Kirk thing, of course, is far trickier. The opening twenty minutes of the film, set in the 23rd Century, vacillate from inspired to awful in equal measure. I love the champagne bottle gag that underlines the opening credits, and think the use of the Enterprise-B nicely toes the line between storytelling and fan service. (It was, till then, the only Enterprise about which we knew absolutely nothing.) Much has been said, of course, about the sheer implausibility of Alan Ruck’s heartily incompetent Captain Harriman, and the bizarre flock of futuristic reporters that follow Kirk around the bridge; these elements remain as stupid as you remember, if not more. As Greek choruses to Kirk’s end-of-life crisis, too, Chekov and Scotty remain really weird choices. (Of course, they were the only Original Series crewmembers willing to sign up.) But Shatner, as usual, delivers a better – if greasier – performance than you’d expect. His brief pause before relinquishing the command chair to Harriman is nicely done, and the sequence with Sulu’s daughter remains lovely.

But all of this is setup to the main event, of course, wherein Picard and Kirk unify the generations by meeting up in the Nexus. At which point, they make eggs together. This is so daffy – “Cooking with the Captains” – that it nearly flips back around to being great, but at the end of the day the dilemma at the core of the Nexus sequence is unsupportable. No matter how sorry he was feeling for himself on the Enterprise-B’s launch day, James T. Kirk wouldn’t, for a second, contemplate staying in the Nexus’ timeless nirvana if there were a way out, especially if there were an adventure to be had and peoples’ lives to save. This puts the conflict between Kirk and Picard into contrivance territory, and although their horseback sequence has its element of fun about it, and just seeing the two fellas together is fairly gleeful, there’s no way to come away from Generations without a feeling of missed opportunity. And: as Shatner’s final appearance as James Kirk (well, as of this writing), Generations is the Indy IV toThe Undiscovered Country’s Indy III.

What works about Generations, thankfully, is the Next Generation stuff. Sure, the usual laundry list of Next Gen feature film issues applies – most importantly, that the female characters, Troi and Crusher, are utterly sidelined. Further, the film uses Next Gen’s favourite lazy writing trick, shoehorning Guinan into a position where she can explain the mystical temporal elements at work, so that they can just be taken as written and not questioned intelligently.

Otherwise, though, the movie gives its fans just about everything you’d want to see from an utterly flyweight Next Gen victory lap. Primarily, it has more fun with the characters than the series regularly did, which ups the film’s silliness quotient considerably (never more so than with Brent Spiner’s extensive scenery chewing as an emotionally out-of-control Data), but makes for a fun, familial ride.

I remain offended to the core that the script uses Picard’s brother and nephew as offscreen death bait to fuel the story; but aside from this oversight, Generations is more weirdly on-theme than many of the Star Trek movies. It’s not very deep, but it quietly addresses the place of emotion in the human condition, by way of the various strategies with which characters deal with emotional difficulty and loss. In this, the death of the Enterprise is a central metaphor; and even Data’s stupid emotion chip is relevant to the overall story. This makes it hard to invalidate the emotion chip as a plot point, even though it essentially destroys the character forever after.

The Data who turns on the emotion chip ceases to be the Data of the seven-year TV series almost immediately, and even when he gets his feelings under control (Data’s arc for this movie), the character never quite gets back to where he was at his most intriguing, and the next three films suffer as a result. Growth is important too, and I recognize that, so perhaps it’s a fair play. There was a lot of that sort of writing in Generations, and in its “throw for broke” mentality, at least, it differentiates itself from the “reset button” approach of the series.

My favourite scene in the movie is probably one that most people utterly dislike. The brief, strange scene of Picard’s Nexus dream – a Christmas scene, with the family he never had, along with his (deceased) nephew – is so pitch-perfectly performed by Patrick Stewart that it genuinely communicates, in moments, a vast cauldron of yearning, loss, ambition and maturity that has been bubbling away inside our captain for most of his life. It’s complex, and that’s why I like it; we are miles beyond the one-dimensional assertion in “Encounter at Farpoint” that Picard just doesn’t like kids. We’ve come a long way with Captain Picard in seven years, and he is as rich and complete a character as Star Trek has ever produced.

For fun and sentiment, I give Star Trek: Generations three Enterprises out of five, ere I drive out of sight. Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Blogging The Next Generation ran on my Tumblr for several years, as I worked my way through every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation on blu-ray. The Star Trek: The Next Generation feature film series is also available on blu-ray.