29 May 2013

THESE ARE THE VOYAGES: THEY SAY TIME IS THE FIRE IN WHICH WE BURN

When I sit down to watch Star Trek: Generations, there are three different people involved: the grown-up version of a young boy who watched the 1987-'94 TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation with awe-inspired, rapt attention bordering on worship; an adult who regards original 1966-'69 Star Trek to be, in all sobriety, one of the finest adventure shows ever aired on television; and a film critic who has no skin in this whole Star Trek thing anymore, but wants for all movies to be well-crafted with tight scripts that express interesting concepts through compelling characters. Impressively, Generations is able to piss off all three of them in equal measure.

We begin some months after the U.S.S. Enterprise-A was decommissioned and her crew mostly sent into retirement at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, at the first flight of the Enterprise-B, an event attended - with much enthusiastic press response - by former Enterprise officers Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Pavel Chekhov (Walter Koenig), and Captain James T. Kirk himself (William Shatner). Faced with a movie that spends virtually all its nearly two-hour running time trivialising or cheapening almost every character and event it depicts, I can nevertheless be this fair to Generations: large amounts of this extended prologue work for me. The patronising air of the whole thing, particularly when the new captain (Alan Ruck) earnestly forces Kirk to give the order to leave spacedock; the embarrassment and irritation felt by the old legends; the sense of validation when Kirk springs into action after the crisis starts, because of course there's a crisis, and of course the rattly Enterprise-B is the only vessel that can possibly get there in time; these are all well-observed and entertaining and reasonably true to the character.

Of course, the downside is that the original script called for Spock and McCoy to join Kirk, not Scotty and Chekhov, but both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley declined (Kelley was in poor health, Nimoy felt it was a cheap, gimmicky use of the characters). When Doohan and Koenig stepped in, it was plainly not following an extensive re-write: outside of one or two lines per character, it's quite obvious that these parts were written for different characters, by writers who didn't know them terribly well (those writers being Next Generation vets Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga). So even if Kirk gets some fun material to play and a noble bit of self-sacrifice in saving the next Enterprise from destruction, he's surrounded by ghosts. But still: it's a decent, playful sequence, and it gives Kirk the best death he'll have in the movie.

78 years later, the movie goes to hell. We are now onboard the Enterprise-D, under command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), in the holodeck: the command crew is celebrating the promotion of Chief of Security Worf (Michael Dorn) from Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander on a 19th Century tall ship. Awesomely, two of those three inner viewers I mentioned have two completely different reasons for hating this sequence.

The TNG fanboy: Why the hell does Worf's promotion have to be on a holodeck boat? Is this how they celebrate every single promotion? With tortured dialogue that serves no functional purpose other than to confuse the audience into thinking- actually, I don't even know what we're supposed to think. It's a strange feint to begin with that does absolutely nothing for the movie. Anyway, Worf's promotion doesn't even need to be a plot point - it doesn't end up mattering. Just trying to be fair to the lowest-ranked of the seven main cast members, I guess.

The critic: Holodeck? Worf? You're really just going to drop us right in and not even pretend like you're catering to any audience other than those who already care about Star Trek? This is, by any definition, deliriously bad exposition, introducing the characters out of their element and acting entirely out of character, just to set up character arcs that could have been dealt with in a hundred different and better ways. Anyway, Worf's promotion doesn't even need to be a plot point.

That Generations ends up as mostly fanservice isn't all that big of a shock: there is a problem in the Star Trek films as there is in the Harry Potters, that they expect you to come in already knowing quite a lot that a more objectively solid, self-contained screenplay would find some clever way to insinuate. But even by that standard, this is shocking: almost certainly the Star Trek movie that most relies on our already knowing the characters and liking them, and out being able to identify references and pre-existing character stories on the fly. The film's big B-story revolves around the Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) deciding to install his emotion chip to become more human, a development which is expressed so murkily that you pretty much have to take it on faith that it's meaningful; the second-tier villains are TNG stalwarts Lursa (Barbara March) and B'Etor (Gwynyth Walsh), the latter of whom isn't even identified by name.

After the prologue, Generations is functionally nothing but an added series finale to The Next Generation, in fact, and it doesn't do nearly as good a job of it as the actual series finale, "All Good Things..." (also written by Moore & Braga, who had an issue keeping the two scripts separate consistently). The one is a high-stakes story about the space-time continuum - good old Star Trek stuff - that ends on a surprisingly and thrillingly intimate note: the final scene is 100% character-driven, based solely on one man deciding that the time has come to shift his priorities. It is, even absent its quality as a finale (and it is one of the absolute best series finales ever aired), one of the best episodes of The Next Generation.

Generations, meanwhile, is a dumb finale that assumes that a good place to step away from the characters is not at all the same thing as closure, which is here presented by destroying the Enterprise-D in an appallingly silly way, doing the sort of the thing that the series did two or three times a season, only this time, for whatever reason, they couldn't fix it.

The point being, it woudl rather be a series finale than a standalone movie, and it is good at neither of them. It's not much of a secret anymore than the whole project was driven by undue expediency: TNG went off the air in the spring of 1994, and Generations HAD to premier that December, I imagine because Paramount wanted it to be out before the January, 1995 premiere of the late United Paramount Network and Star Trek: Voyager. Rationally, a summer of '95 release would have made more sense in every regard, but that wasn't to be. Worse yet, for no readily obvious reason, Paramount and Star Trek dictator Rick Berman insisted on the movie combining the crews from both generations of the franchise, and this caused a great deal of stress for the writers: two different stories were prepared, with Moore & Braga's being greenlit not because it was good, and not because they had solved the problem of getting Kirk and Picard in the same place, but because they had come closer at the point that a script had to be chosen.

Accordingly, the script is pretty well broken at pretty much every turn. Moore & Braga did figure out a way to combine the generations, but not an elegant one: the "temporal nexus" that's a gateway a pocket universe where you feel nothing but pure joy is a crystal-clear example of everything that people who dislike science fiction point to as the reasons why. It is arbitrary and its existence makes no rational sense. A great deal of effort is used to explain its rules, which are not remotely clear. Even as a "fuck it, we need a time travel thingy" stopgap measure, it introduces one of the most obvious plot holes in the Star Trek franchise: the glaring question of why, in the climax, Picard didn't go back in time e.g. to his ship a week earlier, rather than five minutes before he had to stop a madman from exploding a sun.

In addition to being just random, nonsensical storytelling, Generations is emotionally hollow, despite two separate emotional throughlines (like most of The Next Generation in its last two seasons, and the three following TNG movies, Generations suffers by limiting itself to "The Adventures of Picard and Data. Also their five buddies") that are explicitly about feeling emotion. Data's emotion trip wackiness is played for strained comedy, of a sort that the show had a tendency to fall into with Data plots; Picard's great heaving misery that his brother and nephew have died in a fire, ending the family line, is merely mawkish and contrived, and erratically referenced in later scenes. Stewart, maybe the best actor ever involved in a Star Trek production and certainly the best regular cast member in any iteration, manages to hoist the "mourning Picard" material over into scenes where it wasn't written, and give the film the illusion of having a smooth, meaningful arc throughout its entire run, but the whole thing feels awfully hollow, and the subplot ultimately feels like filler, not like a driving force for the script.

Then, of course, there's the matter of killing Kirk: what should be a legendary moment in the franchise reduced to a totally unnecessary shock moment (and idiotic one: how great from a storytelling and business standpoint to have Jim Kirk out in the 24th Century, available to future movies and series?), and I'm certainly not the first to suggest that his fake death in the prologue is far more meaningful and characteristic than his silly little death scene, hastily reshot from something allegedly even more trivial (I haven't had the guts to seek it out, in all these years), and barely worthy of a 25-minute supporting character, to say nothing of one of the most iconic figures in the franchise.

Everything about the story and emotion in Generations feels shallow and hasty, because that's really what the movie was: a cheap film knocked out in a hurry, solely as brand extension and not because the story was yearning to be told. The quick, cheap production is visible in every frame: the random switching between the costumes in the Next Generation style with hand-me-downs from television's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; the paucity of the visual effects (the highlight of the entire movie is an explosion from The Undiscovered Country; the shitty, shitty lighting, with everything appearing harsh and flat, and shadows cropping up where you'd much prefer there not to be shadows (and John Alonzo wasn't exactly a nobody cinematographer, either). Director David Carson, making his first theatrical feature, exacerbated all of this by leaving the aesthetic grounded at the level of a TV episode, so we never have a sense of grandeur or increased scope: it feels cramped and dialed down, resting on the visual familiarity of the locations and too many medium close-ups for comfort.

Everything about the film is so little: and what is not little, is ill-conceived and emotionally inert. The joy of watching a TV show jump to the big screen is meant to be the sense of grandeur it creates; but Generations is exactly the opposite, feeling like all the worst aspects of its parent series stretched out on a wider screen and with a longer running time. It is Star Trek at its geekiest, and cursory filmmaking at its blandest.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)

8 comments:

Regular GeoX said...

Hard to argue with this, but I will admit, back in the day the line "I just...love scanning for lifeforms" (combined with Riker's bemused reaction thereto) really cracked me up, and it kind of still does--though, admittedly, the whole little song rather badly overplays the joke.

Tim said...

That's my feeling about pretty much all the Data material in the film - it's all great, cute stuff, and all goes too far and too broad. The song is a great example; I'm also hugely dismayed by the "oh shit" line.

Surly Duff said...

Holy smokes, this movie. This movie killed any desire I had to watch more Star Trek. So much about this movie drives me crazy. Instead of focusing on creating a movie focused on the new crew and a new story, they shoehorn in part of the old cast that happened to be available and had nothing to do. Don't give them anything worthwhile to do, just use them as props to get non-Star Trek fans some ridiculous sense of familiarity by putting Shatner in the film. James Doohan, you're not doing anything? Sure, you can some along!

And sure, it's science fiction (emphasis on fiction), but why can't they try to attempt being logical? Firing a rocket from a planet with an atmosphere similar to Earth's into the sun to destroy it, in order to more an energy ribbon(WTF?), but that process only taking 10 seconds? Seriously? That must be the fastest rocket ever.

And the Nexus? Jesus, how stupid is that? Why and how did Guinan (whoopie) get in there with Picard? The "I'm in the Nexus and the ship, but I'm also not real" explanation was ridiculously obnoxious. However, I think you hit on the biggest aggravator; why wouldn't Picard, if he can go anywhere/anytime, why go back five minutes before it all ends? Why limit yourself to a video-game time limit to save the planet? Why not just go back to when Sauron was one your ship, you know, earlier in the movie, and kill Sauron then? You wouldn't even need Kirk. And why would Kirk, after knowing that he would/could go anywhere in time would he choose to go to a time and location after his entire crew and ship was killed in order to punch Malcolm McDonald on a strange planet? Wouldn't he go choose to go back and save the Enterprise B? Maybe go back even further and make sure that Khan was killed or imprisoned instead of abandoned on a planet where he could escape and wreak havok? So basically, I am supposed to believe that both James Kirk and Picard are both so stupid to not recognize that they could alter significant past events, but should only focus on one event that occurred five minutes ago? And neither one thinks, hey, maybe five minutes is a little quick, why not make it ten? or even 15? For fuck's sake, we have the two greatest Starfleet captains in the history of the Federation and they can't even come up with a better plan they this? I hate you Generations!

Surly Duff said...

Sorry, I've got more. I'll add that the promotion scene on the ship was ridiculous and an embarrassment. It was definitely the most embarrassing moment in a Star Trek movie. However, that was remedied in Nemesis with the more embarrassing wedding scene, so I am really looking forward to that upcoming review.

Not Fenimore said...

The original death was worse than "dropped a bridge on him"? The hell? What was it, Kirk and Picard defeating Soran and then Kirk tripping on a lose rock and breaking his neck?

KingKubrick said...

And so the epic adventures of Captain Kirk, a man who at one point fought God himself, ends in the only way imaginable...falling from a bridge.

David Greenwood said...

I believe the original death scene had Soran shooting an unaware Kirk in the back, in an "even I can't believe I died in such a stupid way" final moment. At least that had the potential to be an emotionally stirring call-to-arms for Picard. Not that it probably would have delivered on that promise.

Surly Duff said...

Dammit Malcolm McDowell, Not Malcolm McDonald. I do know the difference. I think I was combining McDowell with Doobie Brothers Michael McDonald. Frankly, I would have preferred the version if the villain was Michael McDonald, and he sang "Sweet Freedom" after he shot the rocket into the sun. "Yah Mo B There" would also have been an acceptable choice, but probably best included in Star Trek 5.