Thursday, December 30, 2010

Generation Gap

You can see the end of the franchise in the broad outlines of Star Trek: Generations (1994, directed by David Carson). With the original cast retiring after the previous installment and with Star Trek: The Next Generation having ended its seven year run on television on a mostly "up" note, the cast of Next Gen jumped into the movie franchise to take the reigns. The transition was not a smooth one. Paramount clearly had no faith that the Next Gen cast was as beloved as the original cast, else why midwife them into the movie franchise with the movie equivalent of The Big Crossover Story (tm). This is unfortunate, because top to bottom, the Next Gen actors are better. Well, maybe "better" is the wrong word. More in tune with their characters, perhaps. Next Gen had nearly three times the number of episodes as the original show, so by the time it wrapped, the characters had been developed in far greater depths, and the actors had had far more acquaintance with them than the original crew ever did. It shows in the performances. It doesn't hurt that the lead is played by a Shakespearean with a voice that could command armies. But, for some reason, Paramount never trusted them. Pity.

Generations isn't bad, however much one might want to slot it into the curse of the odds, but it is ungainly. Coming so soon after the TV series wrapped, it's more concerned with continuing the character arcs from the series than the previous films ever were. This is especially true for Brent Spiner's Data, who installs an "emotion chip" only to discover that he has no control over his resulting feelings, but you also see hints of the residual storylines concerning Riker, La Forge, and Worf, though none of these character is allowed to really shine. At some point during its run, Next Gen found an equilibrium between its three most interesting characters and, much as the original series focused on the triad of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, Next Gen found its attention drawn more and more to Picard, Data, and Worf. This tendency was exaggerated in the movies. The rest of the crew became more and more marginal in the movies. You see this process begin in Generations.

The story here finds the now-retired Kirk on an honorary tour of the new Enterprise B, he's in the company of Chekov and Scotty (Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly declined to return after Star Trek VI, and who can blame them). As is often the case in Star Trek --see, for instance, Star Trek II--the undermanned Enterprise is the only ship in range of a distress signal from two transport ships who are in the path of some mysterious energy ribbon. The Enterprise effects a rescue, but during the operation, an energy bolt strikes the Enterprises and presumably kills Kirk. Two of the individuals rescued are Dr. Soran, an Elorian scientist, and Guinan, who would go on to become the bartender on the Enterprise-D 79 years later. The Enterprise-D, commanded by Captain Picard, is on a routine cruise when Picard gets word of the death of his nephew. He has no children of his own and he mourns the end of the line of his family. Simultaneous with this news is a distress call from a research outpost that has been attacked by Romulans. The sole survivor of the attack is Dr. Soran, who has some mysterious experiment going and who will brook no delays. His project destroys the star around which the outpost orbits and he makes his escape to a Klingon Bird of Prey under the command of Lursa and B'tor, two renegade Klingons looking to re-conquer the Empire, rekindle war with The Federation, and to whom Soran has promised his star-killing weapon. For his part, Soran is trying to return to the Nexus within the energy ribbon, and to this end, he plans to destroy another star, this time one with an inhabited planet. Picard, in trying to stop Soran, gets sucked into the Nexus himself, where he recruits Kirk--who got sucked into the Nexus in the first part of the movie--to aid him in stopping Soran.

There's a generational theme running through this movie, obviously, as if the filmmakers felt obligated to live up to the title of the film. For all that, it works well enough, and we have an appearance by Sulu's daughter as the new helmswoman of the Enterprise-B, we have the subplot with Picard's grief, and we have the Nexus's portrait of what unending joy would be for Picard, in which he is surrounded by a large extended family of his own. The focus on these elements is surprisingly heartfelt, aided, no doubt, by Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Picard. The fun part of the movie comes from the combat with Lursa and B'tor, two villains from the TV series, who engage the Enterprise in one of the series' better space battles (even if the end of it re-uses footage from Star Trek VI). Where this film stumbles is in shoehorning in the team-up between Picard and Kirk. This is awkward, to say the least, and the sort of thing designed more to pander to fans (and boost box-office) than as an organic element of the story. It also gives William Shatner the chance to act Kirk's death scene, which is also fairly awkward. "It," as a last line may play well on paper, but Shatner overplays it. The stark difference in acting styles between Shatner and Stewart is on full display in the last act of the movie, and I tend to prefer Stewart to Shatner. That might be the Bardolator in me, though; I tend to love Shakespeareans. For that matter, Malcolm McDowell's performance is at odds with both actors, though it's effective enough for being a performance that the actor has given in a dozen other roles. Brent Spiner, ancillary to the main storyline, gets the showiest role, as Data discovers humor, fear, and self-doubt.

As I said, you begin to see the outlines of the end of the Star Trek franchise in this movie, and they start with the big team-up, and they end with the increasingly desperate tendency of the Star Trek movies to destroy the Enterprise. This worked well in the elegiac Star Trek III, but it's played as a stunt in this movie (they do it again, more or less, in Star Trek: Nemesis). You also see the work of an increasingly cheapskate studio at work in this film: I mentioned the re-use of footage from the previous film, but the costumes are borrowed from the then still-running Deep Space Nine (some of them are particularly ill-fitting) and most of the props and models were adapted from existing props and models rather than being purpose built for the movie. Credit director David Carson for making a pretty good-looking film for all that, though Soran's base at the end seems particularly bare-bones for the final bolt-hole of a franchise super-villain. It's a measure of the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood screenwriters that this is yet another film where, despite the world-destroying stakes involved, the resolution of the plot hinges on a fist-fight. These are practices that catch up to the series in the end, though the infusion of the Next Gen crew and the goodwill they generate after their TV run forestalls the end for another several movies, but the writing was on the wall even here. Like I say, Paramount never really trusted the Next Gen crew. When they decided to "reboot" the franchise in 2009, it's significant that they went back to the characters from the original series rather than revisit the other series, or, for that matter, create something new. In the context of the original film series, that distrust proved their undoing.


Darius Whiteplume said...

I never cared for TNG on the whole, though I enjoy individual episodes when the wife watches them. I think all the story arcing in TNG may have been to satisfy Trekkies who love the minutiae; giving them some depth beyond what Kirk had for lunch.

I am not 'dissing Trekkies, btw, even if it sounds that way.

I think the best handling of TNG crew members came from Voyager, when Deanna Troi and Reginald Barclay tried contacting Voyager, finally putting Barclay's holo-addiction to good use.

You might like Red Letter Media's review on YouTube. I have not watched it yet, but his reviews of SW Episodes 1&2 are great. he has some disturbing humor in there too, which I choose to give points for.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Darius. It took me a long time to warm up to TNG. It's first two and a half seasons were atrocious. I don't think I gave Voyager much of a chance, either, given that its first season was risible. I never even bothered with Enterprise. The theme song put me off. My favorite of the Star Trek series was DS9, though it, too, had a rocky first season. I've seen all of DS9, which is something I can't say about any other version of Trek. That says something.

I've seen the Red Letter Media thing before. They're interesting.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Hah! We sing the Enterprise theme song whenever we feel cheesy music would be cued into our lives. The show had its moments, an tried to set the stage. They spent a lot of time early on with conflict over Star Fleet being exploratory or military.

I could never do DS9. Too many children, perhaps, and it always seemed like they were some sort of intergalactic mall. You are not the first to sing its praises to me, so I really need to give it a shot.