Blogging the Next Generation: Picard — NEMESIS rewatch

“It seems as though we are truly sailing into the unknown.”

What, then, of Data? The reason I needed to hit both First Contact and Nemesis on my way into Star Trek: Picard‘s first season was that while the modern incarnation of the captain began in the former, everything else about the Picard series, for some reason or another, begins here — in the fourth and final Next Gen feature film. Star Trek: Nemesis looms darkly over Picard over, and over, and over again. It’s the wound that never healed, not just within the series’ narrative (although Data’s death is so central a trauma that Picard will attempt to solve for it not only once, but twice), but within the entire relationship between Star Trek fandom and Star Trek: The Next Generation. (And let’s not forget: Picard was written, first and foremost, by fans.) A cold, sour fart of a movie, Nemesis has evidently haunted every Next Gen fan’s nightmares for 21 years — an ignoble ending to something we all loved. Whatever else they are, the last few episodes of Picard are a direct and defiant “fuck you” to Nemesis getting to be the last word on these characters.

Myself, I’ve always been somewhat more sanguine about it all. Yeah, Nemesis is bad, but Next Gen also had the best series finale ever made. It’s the inverse of what happened with the Original Series, which went off the air with little fanfare and a bizarre body-swap episode, but synced its big-screen victory lap with the 25th anniversary of “The Man Trap” to conjure a pretty wonderful sixth and final motion picture as a going-away present for everyone who had spent a quarter-century in love the show. I note all this merely to say: you can’t have it every time. Both series had belter send-offs at one point or another; Next Gen‘s was just in the wrong order.

Now: there are a couple of interesting things about Data in the Next Gen feature films. The first is that, having kenned that Data had become a fan favourite during the run of The Next Generation on television, the character is plucked from the crew pool to become the secondary lead in all of the movies. The movies are Picard movies, with Data riding shotgun. He’s the Spock to Picard’s Kirk (there is no Bones), and each Next Gen film gives Brent Spiner something meaty to do, which is more than can be said for literally anybody else in the supporting cast. In fact, Spiner probably gets the most outright character work in the films, eclipsing even Patrick Stewart. He gets to have emotional meltdowns, go rogue (two or three times), fuck a Borg Queen, shoot people and blow shit up, sing, cry over a lost cat, and learn how to play in a haystack. In Star Trek: Nemesis he gets to play scenes against himself in split-screen (a reliable favourite from Next Gen) and execute a death-defying leap across deep space to save the galaxy. Like all the Next Gen movies, Nemesis is a Picard movie; but damn, it’s very nearly a Data movie.

The second interesting thing about Data in the films is that by the second or third installment, Brent Spiner is becoming vocal about the fact that he can not plausibly play Data forever, or even for very much longer. He knows there’s an off-ramp coming, and that if he doesn’t take it, he’s just going to end up looking silly. A similar problem is occurring contemporaneously on television, in the Buffy franchise: workaday Los Angeles character actors cannot play ageless beings who look like they are in their mid-20s indefinitely. James Marsters, David Boreanaz and Brent Spiner all face variations of the same problem at the turn of the 21st century, and it’s a problem shaped like crow’s feet, receding hairlines, and descending wattles.

No one, at this point, knows that aging will shortly cease to be a admissible excuse for not being able to keep playing a character you played when you were young. Brent Spiner was 38 when he was cast to play Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and played young. Data was intended to be 26 years old as the series begins (not that his outer shell need necessarily have been designed to look that age). As Star Trek: Nemesis is being produced, Spiner is 53. Data in Nemesis is, to my eye, admirably similar to Data in “Encounter at Farpoint,” but disbelief must nonethless be suspended. Data does not look 26.

I mention all this not to pick on anyone for their aging, but rather to underline it: aging, the passing of time for the Next Generation crew, hangs over Nemesis like a shadow. Darren Franich has called Nemesis a vampire movie, and in it, Picard comes face to face with a younger, demented version of himself who needs his blood to live. Data comes face to face with a younger (wait actually… older? but dumber?) version of himself, a prototype from before the prototype from before Data. Riker and Troi get married, and leave the Enterprise to start a family on their own ship. (Wesley Crusher, all grown up, swings through for the wedding.) Riker has grey at his temples, and has traded his lean fighter’s body for the broad chest of a man in his fifties. When he makes it out of his fistfight with Shinzon’s Viceroy alive, it feels a bit closer to lucky than any of his fights did before.

And behind aging comes death. Death comes for the crew, having stayed mercifully away for 15 long years. When Tasha died, our heroes had known her for less than a year. When Data dies at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis, his loss rips a hole in the family so ragged and wide it generates a performance moment for Patrick Stewart that I have thought of perhaps monthly for over twenty years. Picard, rescued from the Scimitar by Data at the cost of Data’s life, is so stunned that he stumbles through the process of accepting help from the nearby Romulan ships, finally giving up and striding off the bridge with a muttered “just open the doors.” It’s weird, and kind of wonderful, that in a movie this generally awful, there is nonetheless also somehow the single most human moment Captain Picard ever showed us. A scene later, Jonathan Frakes matches Stewart’s performance almost point for point as he tries, and fails, to remember the song Data was trying to whistle in “Encounter at Farpoint.” Earlier in the film, Shinzon threatened to show Picard the triumph of “the echo over the voice.” Here, at the end of Nemesis, we see the ugly truth: the echo outlasts that which made it, and then even that fades away.

There’s been some falderal in interviews with the cast over the past few months, recasting Nemesis as not having been intended to be the final Next Gen movie, and that lacklustre box office results (the poor thing opened against The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) closed the door on this cast prematurely. Bull, says I. Nemesis is only haphazardly about anything, but it is definitely about endings, and it plays out for this crew. It’s about the fact that sooner or later, two of your friends move across the country to start a family, and you stop hearing from that other guy who got really weird at his new job; and then suddenly, someone too close to you dies, and before you even considered that you had to be ready for it, the group around the table is uncomfortably smaller than it was when you were young and hot and ready to take on the world. If this film wasn’t supposed to be the end for the Next Gen crew, someone forgot to tell John Logan. His screenplay is closing the blinds.

The echo, and the voice, and the exact same reference to the exact same attempt by Data to whistle, will return. Because whatever Nemesis is about, Picard is about to offer it a shaking, 30-hour “fuck you.”

My first presence on the internet was a Geocities site back in 1997, and having nothing better to do with it, I blogged about the new episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager that aired each week. Blogging The Next Generation: Picard is like that – for Star Trek: Picard, every single episode, starting next week.