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The Next Generation

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | April 15, 2009 | Comments ()

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | April 15, 2009 |


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"They say time is the fire in which we burn." -Soran

Star Trek Generations bridges the gap between the crew of the original series and the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Only three of the original crew are on hand: Kirk in a full role, Scotty and Chekov in what amount to extended cameos.

It opens on that original series trio touring the Enterprise-B on its maiden jaunt around the solar system with the press corps aboard. Naturally, within a few minutes a couple of refugee ships get snagged by an enormous and mysterious energy field and only the Enterprise is within range to help. The big three spring into action the moment it becomes clear that the new crew is only slightly more competent than a cadre of stoned monkeys. Fancy new starship, crew of a thousand or so, most honored namesake of the fleet, and they apparently gave to a bunch of slackjawed kids?

I love the Star Trek franchise, but of the first seven movies, only Star Trek III and Star Trek VI don't get their plots underway with the exact same plot device: distress call, we're the only ship in range even though we're undercrewed, unequipped, etc. Kirk might be the legend of Starfleet, but he's to starship bridges what Angela Lansbury is to quaint New England towns.

Ships blow up, a few refugees are saved, the Enterprise gets trapped in the energy field and Scotty figures out a novel way to break the ship free. The film firmly establishes that it is thematically a Next Generation plot as Scotty's solution involves blowing a wad of technobabble out of the deflector dish. Oh Scotty, we thought you were so much better than that. Kirk appears to die in a last blast of energy from the field, but two of the saved refugees were Malcolm McDowell and Whoopi Goldberg, so there'll be at least another hour of movie, following the "78 years later" placard.

And that's the real problem with the film. It just feels like a long and fairly forgettable episode of "Next Generation," with "big" elements tossed at it like a dartboard to make it seem bigger than it actually is. They snag one of the old actors, throw the holodeck in for good measure, add a couple of Klingons to cause trouble, have a two-dimensional villain with a half-hearted plan that involves the collateral damage of an all but nameless pre-industrial planet. All these elements just feel like standard plot-of-the-week "Next Generation." And almost as if the filmmakers noticed this, they tacked on the death of Kirk and the destruction of the Enterprise almost as an afterthought to make it seem more significant. Where they failed though was in having anything meaningfully change through the course of the film. Sure Kirk dies, but as far as the actual characters of the film were concerned, he had been dead since before they were born anyway. Sure the Enterprise blows up, but it's even pointed out that they will certainly build another one. There is no emotional development, just a plethora of almost disconnected plot elements cycled through one after another.

It's a real waste because there were certainly chances for it. The legendary captain of the past meets the legendary captain of the future. They landed Malcom McDowell as the antagonist and just thoroughly waste his presence. The flagship of the fleet is blown out of the sky by a dinky little ship with a crew of a dozen. Imagine if those pirates in a motorboat last week had managed to sink the U.S.S. Nimitz. Riker would get hung so high you'd need a telescope to see his heels.

There is an attempt at the deeper theme of legacy, but it falls very flat and feels disingenuous in the context of the characters. Picard is devastated at the deaths of his only remaining family members, losing any hope of the continuation of his line. Picard grasps over the course of film that how we have lived is a far more important legacy than what we leave behind. It is his temptation to stay within the Nexus with a family he can never have, just as it is Soran's temptation to get back the family he lost. But the theme really doesn't work as an epiphany because of who Picard is. He's a renowned captain who has saved countless lives over the course of his career. "Our accomplishments matter as our legacy" is a hollow epiphany in the face of being crushed by "I'm leaving behind no family". If Picard is the sort of man to be crushed by the latter, he is not the sort of man to be comforted by the former.

In summary, they managed to make a film containing almost all of the bad parts of the series "Next Generation" without any of the good parts. We got an obligatory holodeck sequence, Data struggling with emotion in some of the most unfunny comic relief ever filmed, Guinan. They should have just brought back Wesley Crusher and shaved Riker's beard. They left out the home runs of "Next Generation": Q and the Borg.

Star Trek Generations is not exactly a terrible film, just a highly mediocre one. Next Generation managed to pull off the cinematic weight in the two part episode "Best of Both Worlds." Skip Generations and rent "Best of Both Worlds" instead since it leads directly into the eighth film.

"Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. 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." -- Picard

Star Trek: First Contact

"I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We've made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And *I* will make them pay for what they've done." -Picard

We open in a spectacular zoom out from Picard's eye, a zoom out through an immense Borg vessel, memories and dreams of Picard's assimilation in the television series. The film moves quickly from there, jumping to news that a new Borg invasion has begun, that the Enterprise is warned to stay away because of Picard's past, that the Borg have reached Earth. The Enterprise returns against orders to Earth and leads an assault that destroys the Borg cube, but not before it launches a smaller ship that appears to travel backwards in time, Earth becoming a fully assimilated Borg colony. The Enterprise follows the Borg backward in time and destroys the ship, but not before it fired on targets on the surface. This all takes a grand total of 12 minutes of run time, which leaves most of the film's running for dealing with the adventure in the past, but it does feel awfully rushed. The ending of the film shares the oddly quick pacing, in which once the timeline is restored, the Enterprise just technobabbles back to the future with neither a delorean or much of an epilogue to show for it. The heart of the movie flows very well though, as if they felt it ran too long and just made cuts at the fringes in order to leave the core intact. I'd prefer it if the movie just ran twenty minutes longer, but at least the main plot is entirely intact.

In the past, it becomes quickly clear that the Borg are attempting to prevent the first test of a warp drive by Zephram Cochrane, the test that drew the attention of a passing Vulcan starship, which marked the first human contact with extraterrestrial life. The film quickly breaks into two main threads: the battle to save the Enterprise from infestation by the Borg, and the struggle on the ground to help Cochrane rebuild his damaged starship.

The film's settings work very well, maintaining a wonderful tension aboard the ship as it becomes increasingly clear that the cause is lost, even as Picard becomes less and less willing to accept the possibility of defeat. The sets and lighting are much darker than usual on Next Generation, lending a palpable claustrophobia to the corridor by corridor fighting. The ship and uniforms have been redesigned since Generations with a more severe and militaristic cut. These elements of setting contrast with the setting on Earth, where people are struggling into communities carved out of nature after the destruction of another world war. It's all nature and libertarian self-sufficiency. There is something refreshing in the face of cyborgs and technobabble about the first starship being cobbled together by an alcoholic out of an old ICBM in the middle of Montana, drawing on the cultural memories of all the inventors in garages.

The theme of revenge runs throughout the film, the driving theme behind Picard's character. His consuming hatred of the Borg drives every action he takes until Lily forces him to confront it for what it is: vengeance, petty and animal. The thematic point falls a bit short though compared to previous Star Trek movies because it is not quite so layered. Everything in Wrath of Khan reflects the theme of death. Revenge is more a thematic element than a true theme, something that is talked about and drives the story, but not something that is present throughout in many layers.

There are several minor problems that do take away from the film really being at the same level of Star Trek II and Star Trek VI. First, the interaction from the crew to the people of the past seems smug much of the time, as if they've got it all figured out and they find the past an overwhelmingly quaint place. The exception to this is the well-developed relationship between Picard and Lily, which propels the thematic development. Also, a subplot of the Borg attempting to rig a communications link to the Borg present in the past (in order to draw the Borg while humanity is still helpless) emphasizes a major plot hole. If the Borg planned to travel backwards in time to destroy the Federation before it could be born, why not just do it? Why launch an invasion just to launch the ship and risk interference, when one could presumably just travel back in time from anywhere else and then call down the Borg of that time period. Finally, the Borg Queen, while terrifically memorable and well rendered by both ILM and Alice Krige, really missed the point of the Borg. Giving the Borg a figurehead controlling entity removed much of what made the Borg so fascinating: all "we" and no "I." These drawbacks aren't enough to wreck the film, but they do tickle at the base of your mind while watching.

All in all, this film works very well and still holds up 13 years later. It is not thematically on par with the best of the original series, but it does hold up fairly well anyway.

"Someone once said 'Don't try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgment.'" -- Riker
"That's rhetorical nonsense. Who said that?" -- Cochrane
"You did, ten years from now." -- Riker


Scorecard!

Star Trek VII: not horrible, but just feels like a mediocre episode. Rent one of the really good episodes instead.

Star Trek VIII: definitely entertaining, and definitely the best of the four Next Generation films. Probably not quite as good as Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, but might be able to hold its own against Star Trek III and Star Trek IV.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego's strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.


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