Twenty three years ago, on a brisk November night (brisk for California, anyway) a friend and I went out to the first night’s showing of Star Trek Generations (GEN). The theater we saw GEN in was a relatively new multiplex only about a mile and a half from my old apartment, alongside the train tracks. It was one of the first local theaters to have then-lauded ‘stadium seating’ (which is pretty much standard today). It also boasted full-digital sound (again, that was also a relatively ‘new’ thing in 1994). So it would be a better-than-then-average screening, though still on analog 35mm film (pops, occasional scratches and reel changes included at no extra charge; this was a few years before digital cinema became a thing). We waited in a long line, but our tickets were pre-bought (I went to the box office a few days earlier and bought them then, having written down the showtimes from a call to “MovieFone”; the 1990s precursor to Fandango). Even then, I was a fastidious nerd about buying tickets early and getting to the theater on time… and I still am, as my wife can attest.
Now, to give a bit of context, 1994 was a very difficult year for me personally. I’d been through a debilitating motorcycle accident that spring (hit by a drunk driver; long story), and after months of physical rehabilitation, my father had passed away that summer; so 1994 wasn’t exactly ‘the best of times’ for me. Having watched a large chunk of the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation from a hospital television, I was looking (very, very) forward to some of that 24th century optimism.
That old theater by the Amtrak station (Marketplace Cinema 6) no longer exists, but the memories of seeing “Generations” there remain.
* THE STORY
The movie opens with the christening of the Enterprise-B in the late 23rd century; sort of a postscript to 1991’s “Undiscovered Country.” Retired original Enterprise officers Kirk, Chekov and Scotty (William Shatner, Walter Koenig and the late James Doohan) are honored guests. After the launch, a distress signal is received from El-Aurian refugees en route to Earth (El-Aurians are the long-lived species of Whoopi Goldberg’s mysterious “Guinan”). A too-green captain (Alan Ruck) and untested starship are pressed into action. During the rescue, the retired Captain Kirk is seemingly lost in a hull breach to a strange nether realm of traveling space called ‘the nexus.’
78 years later, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) of the USS Enterprise-D is on the holodeck (recreating the deck of the old British frigate, HMS Enterprise) with his senior staff celebrating the promotion of Klingon security chief Worf (Michael Dorn) to full commander. Picard receives terrible news; his brother Robert (French pronunciation) and nephew Rene are lost in a devastating fire. Before Picard can fully process the shock, a distress call is received from the Amargosa observatory. The Romulans have raided the station; searching for a compound called ‘trilithium’, a substance that can stop all nuclear fusion in a star (hey, it’s Star Trek… you either go along with it, or you don’t). A lone survivor of the station, El-Aurian scientist Tolien Soran (Malcolm McDowell) is rescued. During the investigation of the ravaged observatory, android Ops officer Data (Brent Spiner) experiences chaotic emotions as his recently installed emotion chip malfunctions. During his panic, Data’s companion Geordi (LeVar Burton) is kidnapped by renegade Klingons, who seem to be working with Soran (whom they also beam onto their ship). The station launches a trilithium probe at the Amargosa sun, and the entire system is destroyed…but not before the Enterprise-D escapes.
Aboard the Ent-D, another survivor of the Enterprise-B disaster, ship’s bartender/resident-philosopher Guinan (Goldberg) tells Picard that the nexus is a zone of ‘pure joy’; a virtual timeless heaven to anyone who reaches it. She warns Picard that Soran is trying to get back to the nexus, and that he won’t care how he accomplishes that end.
In the Ent-D’s stellar cartography lab, Data is wracked by guilt over his failure to rescue Geordi, but is reminded by the similarly grieving Picard that learning to cope with negative emotions are part of the human experience. Based on available information, the two conclude that Soran will next use his trilithium weapon to alter the course of the nexus and allow it to pass through the planet Veridian III, allowing Soran to safely reach it by remaining on the planet’s surface as it passes through. However, the shockwave will destroy nearby inhabited planet Veridian IV.
Apparently this was Soran’s plan for the past 78 years; to build a ‘stairway to heaven’ (no Led Zeppelin jokes please!) to regain that personal paradise from which he was ripped by the Enterprise-B’s “rescue” 78 years earlier, and has been frantically trying to reach ever since.
The Klingons arrive at Veridian III to complicate things (of course; that’s what Klingons do). During negotiations, they return the kidnapped Geordi in exchange for exiling Capt. Picard to the surface of Veridian III; the plan is that Picard would be later beamed back into their custody along with their ally Soran, who holds the encryption key to the trilithium weapon (which the renegade Klingon sisters Lursa and B’Etor desperately need to reclaim the Klingon empire).
With Picard on Veridian III, the Klingons use Geordi’s hacked VISOR to launch a torpedo through the Ent-D’s shields. The Ent-D is fatally wounded, but not before destroying her Klingon attackers. With the Ent-D’s warp core about to breach, the crew is evacuated to the ship’s saucer section and the ship is bisected; and (in a spectacularly produced miniature FX sequence) the giant saucer is sent crashing to the surface of Veridian III. Picard tries in vain to stop Soran’s launch of a probe into the Veridian sun, but fails. The probe is launched, and Soran’s plan seems to be working as the Nexus passes through Veridian III, taking Soran and Picard into it.
Inside the fantasy world of the nexus, lonely captain Picard celebrates a warm Christmas with his ‘wife’ and their many children in a large, Victorian manor. Like a dream, this ‘reality’ is immediately accepted as real, though Picard resists. He walks into his study and encounters an ‘echo’ of Guinan there; apparently, this echo is a part of herself that was left behind in the nexus when she was rescued by the Enterprise-B. She tells Picard that this reality can be as ‘real’ as Picard wishes, and that he can return to any time, any place that he chooses. Despite his longing for the idyllic fantasy the nexus offers, Picard is adamant; he needs to stop Soran by going back before he launches the probe. He asks the echo-Guinan for help; she can’t, because she’s not the actual person he remembers. But she knows someone who can…
…Picard finds himself near a rustic cabin where he sees the presumed dead James T. Kirk chopping wood. After a lengthy time spent convincing the ‘dead’ legend to leave the nexus and help him, Picard is ultimately successful only when Kirk realizes that nothing in this idyllic realm has substance; nothing there matters. That’s impetus enough for him to leave with Picard and return to the 24th century. And after a lengthy struggle with the tenacious Soran, they are successful in stopping him and destroying the probe…but at the cost of Kirk’s life. Kirk is pinned under a collapsed bridge and is mortally wounded. His final words to Picard, “It was…fun. Oh my…” Picard gives him a hero’s burial atop the mountaintop in an exquisitely photographed sequence.
The survivors of the crashed/destroyed Enterprise-D are beamed aboard several rescue vessels in orbit over Veridian III. Picard and Riker look over the charred remains of the bridge and ready room, as Picard retrieves his family album. Riker regrets the loss of their ship, though Picard doubts the Enterprise-D will be the last starship to bear the name. They beam aboard the Farragut as the rescue ships warp away.
Okay, now onto the analysis.
First, I’d like to address some of the more common grievances I often read about GEN on message boards, Twitter, and elsewhere.
ADDRESSING SOME OF THE HATE.
* Kirk’s death.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about GEN, and its a valid one (depending on one’s aesthetics) is that Kirk’s final death on Veridian III wasn’t ‘heroic’ enough; personally, I found it very fitting because it defied expectations. Everyone and their kid sister would imagine that James T. Kirk would die fighting off no less than a million Klingon ships, thus saving the Federation and the entire universe.
But that’s not often the way old soldiers (or starship captains) die; sometimes they meet their fates in unexpected ways. There was the tragically disabled (and muted) Christopher Pike’s confinement to a wheelchair in TOS’ “The Menagerie.” General George S. “Blood & Guts” Patton was paralyzed in a car accident after the end of World War 2, and died in bed.
I find it far more interesting that the galaxy’s ‘great, legendary hero’ is buried in a simple cairn on an anonymous hilltop overlooking an alien desert on an uninhabited planet saving millions of people he never knew. There’s a poignancy to that idea that I personally find irresistible. May not be to everyone’s liking, but for me it did the trick.
* Picard’s vulnerability and seeming lack of heroism.
This is one I hear a lot; Picard “cries too much” in the movie. Well, gee whiz, but he DID just lose his entire family in a fire… I think he might be forgiven for not being a steely-eyed missile man for one outing. And having dealt with the loss of my father a few months before, the sight of Jean-Luc Picard breaking down in front of Counselor Troi was moving and cathartic to me at that time.
As for his being upstaged by Kirk in the end? I wasn’t terribly fond of that creative decision, but I understood the logistical need to show Kirk as ’the legendary hero’, even to a captain who’s matched (and in many ways surpassed) him in heroism time and again. No matter; it’s Kirk’s swan song, so let him have it. Picard would come back in ‘action hero mode’ for the next few movies (arguably at the cost of some of his vulnerability and humanity, which are traits of Picard’s that I preferred in the TV series, but oh well…).
* The loss of the Enterprise-D.
Well, we knew TV’s Ent-D had to go sooner or later. She was built for television production values and scale (save for ILM’s gorgeous 6 ft miniature of the ship itself, which was made for the first season and pulled out of mothballs for the movie). And despite a beautiful glossy redress of the bridge and other interiors, those old sets (some of which were built for The Motion Picture waaaay back in 1978) were nearing the end of their operational life.
As for the Ent-D’s being destroyed by a renegade Klingon bird-of-prey? Yes, it may seem a bit inglorious, but it also yielded that spectacular miniature saucer crash sequence (which was so utterly amazeballs that they used it twice!). That crash sequence is one of the last big hurrahs of miniature and optical FX at a time when CGI hadn’t yet taken over the FX industry. And according to an old issue of Cinefantastique magazine (aka, my bible in the 1990s), the saucer crash was originally planned for the 6th season finale of the TV series, but was scrapped for budget reasons.
And yes, being taken out by a renegade Klingon ship may seem a bit small after all the Ent-D had been through in seven seasons of episodes, but it’s not all that different than Kirk’s ordering his original (refit) USS Enterprise to self-destruct order to kill a Klingon boarding party in “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.” In a way, it gives the two Enterprises something in common; both of their fates were sealed by a handful of dastardly Klingon renegades.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT GENERATIONS.
* Sir Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard
While many (including Stewart himself, according to interviews) prefer a more action-y Picard, I prefer the melancholy Picard of GEN because he has a genuine emotional arc; and his grief over the loss of his brother and young nephew hit me profoundly at that time (1994; see 2nd paragraph, top). The breakdown in his quarters with Troi was so well acted that it’s downright unconformable to watch. That is, in my opinion, the mark of a good performance; when grief and despair are so well-played they cause the observer discomfort. To see such a regal and commanding figure as Jean-Luc Picard completely vulnerable and broken like that is deeply effective.
I also appreciated how Picard regained his sense of purpose and his optimism for the future by the movie’s end, summarized in this terrific line of dialogue, “I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived.” Life-affirming lines of dialogue like that were just the tonic I needed at that time in my life.
* Gorgeous cinematography by the late John Alonzo
“Chinatown”/“Blue Thunder” director of photography John Alonzo was just the man to bring a genuine sense of cinematic scope and flair to the Ent-D sets, which in the TV series, were often shot with pre-rigged lighting that got the job done, but was hardly cinematic stuff. Alonzo tears up the rulebook on TNG’s stodgy television lighting schemes; he has strong, warm (simulated) yellow sunlight pouring onto the Ten-Forward and Ready Room sets. He also photographs the main bridge in much more shadow than before, changing its entire feel. And his gorgeous photography of the Valley of Fire locations in Nevada are breathtaking. The aerial shot with Picard standing at Kirk’s grave is stunning.
Despite its relatively modest budget, Alonzo really makes the Nevada locations and made-for-television sets come alive.
* GEN is a nice homage (intentional or not) to TOS’ pilot, “The Cage”
“The Cage” was the original original series pilot (written by Gene Roddenberry) which saw a brooding, introspective Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) offered a life of illusion and fantasy which, while tempting, ultimately proved to be no match for reality, as Captain Pike finds his purpose and ditches it all for the life of a starship commander.
A brooding Picard is offered a similar choice by the intoxicating nexus phenomenon; a warm, idyllic home and family life which he ultimately forsakes because of his strong sense of duty, both to his ship and to his crew (and to the universe). Picard then has to convince the similarly trapped Captain Kirk (who seems contented to living forever in his fantasy world of horseback rides and wooing a lost love) into joining him in stopping Soran.
In all cases, Pike, Picard and Kirk are all lured away from their respective fantasy lives because they realize that it offers nothing of substance; none of it matters. As “The Cage”’s Dr. Philip Boyce says, “A man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head on and licks it, or he… turns his back on it and starts to wither away.”
TNG writers Brannon Braga and Ron Moore wrote GEN, and though I’ve never heard it addressed by either of them (in print or on various panels I’ve attended), I find the parallels between GEN and “The Cage” intriguing (however unintentional).
* The spectacular Ent-D saucer crash sequence.
As I’ve said above, this is one of the last great hurrahs of miniatures and motion-control FX photography before CGI became the norm. Seeing that HUGE saucer fly down in real sunlight and crash into real dirt with tiny, miniature trees breaking like twigs is just breathtaking to behold. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the actual saucer miniature used in this sequence in person at the 2008 Star Trek Exhibit in Long Beach, and it was at least eight or so feet wide (!). These days that whole sequence would probably be rendered in CGI and look nowhere as gritty or realistic.
They really don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
* Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Tolien Soran.
Unlike previous mad-men-with-superweapons Khan (The Wrath of Khan), Shinzon (Nemesis) or Nero (Star Trek 2009), McDowell’s Dr. Soran is a mad man with a purpose beyond politics or revenge; he simply wants to get back to a place of eternal solace and peace; a solace and peace he was robbed of when the Borg assimilated his (and Guinan’s) people. He briefly knew this peace for a moment until he was ripped from it by the Ent-B’s ‘rescue’ in the opening scenes of GEN. While Soran talks tough when dealing with his Klingon allies-of-convenience, or when verbally sparring with Picard, he is a tragic figure at his center. In many ways, he’s like a drug addict; not fully responsible for the acts that his addiction informs (in Soran’s case, an addiction to a euphoria he once briefly knew and longs for again).
He also gets some of the best lines in the movie, “They say time is the fire in which we burn,” or “Time has no meaning there (in the nexus)…the predator has no teeth.” Truly great stuff, and McDowell delivers those lines with aplomb.
* The Stellar Cartography scene
Wow… on the big screen this sequence was like a planetarium show. It gave a sense of galactic scale to the movie, and even a bit of awe. The interplay between a grieving Picard and a guilt-stricken Data adds some nice dramatic fireworks as well.
AND A FEW THINGS I’M NOT TOO FOND OF…
* Data’s emotion chip subplot.
Brent Spiner is a marvelous actor, and Data is one of TNG’s strongest and most appealing characters. But the emotion chip subplot is a bit too broadly written/played. Arguably Data’s infantile emotional outbursts in GEN make sense because the character has no experience handling emotion, but it’s also kind of annoying for the audience. This subplot would’ve been more appropriate in a TNG movie that wasn’t already so chock full of story and plot. As it is, the emotion chip story feels a bit shoehorned in for Data fan service.
* The Chekov/Scotty cameos in the 23rd century prologue.
Once again, nothing personal against actors Walter Koenig or the late James Doohan, and both are fine doing what they do in this movie, but I can’t help wondering how much more emotional impact could’ve been squeezed from the prologue if it were Spock and McCoy accompanying their (presumed) doomed captain on the maiden flight of the Enterprise-B. I realize that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley wouldn’t sign on the dotted line (both actors felt they made their goodbyes in Star Trek VI), but Chekov and Scotty feel a bit like second stringers in their absence.
* The Klingons
The Klingon sisters, Lursa and B’Etor (Barbara March and Gwynyth Walsh) are both broadly played for fun, but some of their lines are so silly that they undermine their credibilities as genuine threats (“I hope, for your sake, you were initiating a mating ritual…”). The Klingons in this movie, despite their lucky shot at destroying the Ent-D, are played as little more than lumpy-headed Keystone Cops.
* The Enterprise-B’s Captain, John Harriman (Alan Ruck)
He’s a bit too much of a numb-nuts to be truly believable as a starship captain. I realize it’s his first voyage and his ship is ill-prepared, but he’s played like a kid out of college rather than a person who rose through the ranks to command a starship. I realize he’s set up to be the butt of Kirk fan jokes, but did he have to be so utterly inept?
Those are some minor nerd-picks in a movie that I otherwise enjoy very much.
I freely acknowledge that “Star Trek: Generations” has its share of flaws, and is arguably not among the very best of the Star Trek film canon, but I also think that it’s gotten a lot of unwarranted shade thrown its way.
I would class it as a comfortably, middle-of-the-road Star Trek movie, and that’s not at all a bad thing; as even an average Star Trek movie is still a helluva lot better than some other TV-show-to-movie offerings (1993’s “Beverly Hillbillies” movie, anyone?).
As with 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, I would hope that Generations finds its deserved cult audience someday…