Sunday, June 07, 2009

Wasn't Star Trek Generations Ghastly?

Here is the text of an article that I sent to TREK magazine, but didn't see print. Perhaps they considered it more of a slam than an analysis, but, tripe is tripe, I say.


STAR TREK Degeneration

by Mark Alfred




As a marketing ploy, Paramount's pairing of the "old" TREK cast with the Next Generation was effective, stirring up buzz in the tabloids over the question of Kirk's croaking. Both Star (October 4, 1994) and the more trusted Time (November 28, 1994) magazines reported that test audiences were steamed at Kirk's inglorious demise, leading to a reshoot that the November, 1994 issue of Cinescape tagged as costing $4 million. A hefty price tag for what Executive Producer Rick Berman called "a tiny little piece of the film that we're going to fix."
But nothing stopped the juggernaut. The Sci-Fi Channel ran a special; Good Morning America ran a half-week of interviews (though Malcolm McDowell was a no-show); E! _Network displayed Takei and Shatner visiting Howard Stern (on different nights), and broadcast an opening-night-premiere special.
And the whip-'em-into-a-frenzy gambit paid off. The November 21 USA Today reported that "Generations" had "grossed $23.2 million. . . . That is the largest opening for any of the seven STAR TREK films. . . ."
What this tells me is that STAR TREK, as a phenomenon of public attention, has reached the level of public acceptance perhaps equal to those wild-n-crazy-college-kids-on-spring-break-in-Miami, or maybe the Polar Bear Club, who swim outside in subfreezing waters.
Or, perhaps it's not that society is more tolerant of TREK; maybe the popular media have at last realized that TREK is a cash cow; or, more simply, nearly everyone has a goofy obsession. Who's to say that "them thar Trekkies" are weirder than those face-painted guys at the twenty-yard line at the Super Bowl?
Okay, I grant you: Paramount's publicity department, in conjunction with TREK's place in the American psyche as twentieth-century myth, whipped up anticipation to ensure a blockbuster opening.
But I ask, is the film good? Well, here's a clue to the opinion of this Trekker-since-the-60s: Rick Berman won't like me if he reads this article.
I believe that this movie, overall, is a minor film in TREK history. Further, I believe that a major cause for this film's lesser status is the fact that it's a Next Generation movie.
Wait, you say? It does the biggest bucks ever, yet I maintain its impact isn't the biggest ever?
That's right, children, and let Grandpa explain the reasons why.
Old-timers like me recall the stink raised by fandom over the plans to bump off Spock that were leaked out while STAR TREK II was in development. As originally scripted, our favorite Vulcan was to be killed suddenly, with no warning, and no dramatic exit, halfway through the film. You can see my article "He's Dead, Jim," in The Best of Trek #6 and pages 37-40 of Allan Asherman's 1982 The Making of Star Trek II for more information on the background of Spock's demise.
Way back then, fan furor caused the death scene to be moved to the final act, giving Spock's death a deeper dimension of meaning through a purposeful sacrifice to save his ship and friends. Now, in Generations, we also have had an adverse public reaction leading to a revision of original plans, which results in a more dramatic, more meaningful exit for an original cast member.
Next, think back to the early days of preproduction work for STAR TREK III. A huge stink o'erspread fandom when the news leaked out that "our" Enterprise, that gallant old girl, was next in line to be "killed." A lot of us were so steamed that a major reason for seeing STAR TREK III the first time was so we could learn exactly how "they" had killed her.
Back to the present. Now, I saw Generations a whole week after opening day -- see, I do so have a life! -- and was kind of surprised. Not that Enterprise-D was also "killed" -- but that, a whole week after opening, the total destruction of this ship wasn't even important enough to have been mentioned on talk shows, or around the water cooler, or at my local comic-book store, where I heard plenty of discussions from those who'd seen the film before me.
Why? Because, frankly, the general public and (I guess) fans too don't care as much about Next Generation as they do about TREK "classic." To paraphrase our favorite Vulcan, "I would take this as an axiom": Original STAR TREK (episodes and films) constitutes an American icon; later TREK (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, ad nauseam) is simply product.
Fun product, sure. Better than nothing at all, sure. Though unoriginal, this idea is still true: We've been seeing these Next Generation guys every week for seven years. Putting 'em up on the ol' silver screen just does not stir up the same anticipatory salivation.
The movie starts out with an irritating peek-a-boo sequence involving a bottle of champagne in space. More in keeping with TREK tradition, I think, would be to have the christening of Enterprise-B take place in an air-filled space-dock with a real-live person (what a concept) breaking the bottle on the ship's nose.
The feeling you get right off the bat from this space-bottle business is just like those ponderous close-ups of Klingon pylon tiles in the first scene of STAR TREK: The Motion Picture. In other words, "Uh-oh. The first image in this movie is a show-off special effect. If they gave all their attention to trick shots, then maybe this movie isn't so hot in the character and plot departments."
And, by golly, I was right!
Still, the first fifteen minutes or so, on Enterprise-B with the old crew passing the torch to the new, is fun and involves you. This I could buy into, especially with a Sulu at the helm, Hikaru's daughter Demora. After a couple of "unseasoned" decisions, Captain John Harriman does the right thing and goes to the aid of those two ships in distress "out beyond Pluto."
And speaking of the "right" thing -- did you notice that directly after someone says the starboard ship is breaking up, instead we see the destruction of the ship on the left, the port side! By the way, the DC Comics adaptation got it right; although the artist drew in Jimmy Doohan's missing right middle finger every time the engineer's right hand was shown.
It's a good thing that the starboard ship holds together, because among its 47 survivors are Guinan (in between Twain and Ten-Forward) and Dr. Tolian Soran. Along with everyone else on their ship, they've experienced the joys of the Nexus. Soran, baddie that he is, decides then and there to do anything he must, in order to get back. So much for an enlightened, "evolved" future society! Soran must not have heard about Roddenberry's drama-throttling decree of a kindler, gentler future. I mean, this guy is evil, but he can't even blame Kirk for the death of his wife!
And, too, we never hear about the other 45 survivors again. How many of them spent the rest of their lives "trying to get back"? Imagine the story the Weekly Galactic Enquirer would make of such a situation!
Meanwhile, that bad ol' Nexus is threatening Enterprise-B. We have already had a few well-aimed digs at 1994's Clintonian ideas of military readiness -- "next Tuesday, don't tell me" -- and now we see a similarly unprepared leader o'erwhelmed by circumstance. Resolving to at last act like a hero, Harriman heads for Deck 15 to work on the deflector relays to perhaps free his ship, leaving good ol' Kirk in charge.
Then comes Kirk's defining moment, one that negates the portrayal of Kirk later on. It's a true-to-the-man moment, as we see Kirk go down below, reminding Harriman, "Your place is on the bridge," effectively and gracefully yielding to "the next generation."
And so, our last view of Kirk reveals him as the hero he is -- working against time to save those he cares about, those whose lives have been entrusted to him, by choice or by circumstance. Then, Z-A-P! goes the Nexus, and it's a fond farewell to Kirk. The pull-back from the figures of Scott, Chekov, and Harriman standing looking out through the hull breach and ending up in space is a very impressive melding of special effects and storytelling. He's Jim, dead.
That's when it hit me, sitting in the theatre. We just saw Scott staring out into space, devastated by the knowledge that Kirk was lost, gone for good.
Now, imagine a three-part timeline, referenced by events in this film and the TNG Sixth Season episode "Relics." 1: Kirk is lost, declared dead (Generations); 2: Scott is recovered alive from Jenolan's transporter by Enterprise-D crew seventy-some years later ("Relics"); 3: Kirk is encountered, alive, by Picard in the Nexus (Generations). What's wrong here?
Here's what's wrong. Before getting onto the Jenolan, Scott had seen Kirk's presumed death in space. Why, then, knowing Kirk to be dead, does he say in "Relics," "The Enterprise? I should have known! I bet Jim Kirk himself hauled the old gal out of mothballs to come lookin' for me!"
Jim Kirk himself. Why, Scott knows Kirk is dead, so why does he think Kirk came after him? No, it won't wash to simply say that "Relics" was filmed two years before the movie was. No, the reason for this temporal foul-up is more simple, and therefore more inexcusable: writers Brannon Braga and Ron Moore screwed up, due to the sloppy writing and plotting that I'm pointing out throughout this article.
You can't even say that the writers of Generations might have been unfamiliar with "Relics." Moore wrote it! And he plagiarized himself, too. Scott to Geordie LaForge in "Relics": "I was driving starships while your great-grandfather was still in diapers." Kirk to Picard in Generations: "I was out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was still in diapers!"
Oh, well -- let's jump forward seventy-eight years and see if the writing improves. Oops! Now our familiar group of Next Generation cutups is having a lark on the Holodeck. Now, I can take in stride the idea that the entire senior crew not only will assemble to enact such an elaborate and silly frolic, but will take the trouble to put on correct 19th-century costumes (they've still got them on later on the bridge).
Yes, I can swallow that. Runaways of the jaded ultra-elite and all that. But what really makes me queasy about this scene is that Paramount, in "real reel" life, threw away who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars to film this throwaway, "precious" scene. By "precious" I'm thinking of a rich dowager who feeds her silly poodle better than the hired help. Where were Harve Bennett and his bang-for-bucks expertise when Paramount needed someone to blue-pencil this scene?
I'm reminded of the money thrown away when a big "star" like Eddie Murphy requires in his contract that a studio "hire" dozens of hangers-on whose sole support is the star's largesse. By golly, that studio is Paramount, too!
Actually, I'm willing to wager that a reason for this scene, actually discussed around some Paramount let's-do-lunch table, was that THIS scene would really show those awestruck Treknerds that this ain't no TV show, they're watching a really-live MOVIE.
There. I feel better now, having that off my chest.
In a macabre nod to Picard's family met briefly at the beginning of the Fourth Season, now they're dead, including Picard's nephew, with whom he'd shared a love for the stars. Now, I feel sympathetic for him (considering this is just fiction, folks), but read what The Official Movie Magazine has to say in its synopsis: "Low hangs the head of this sorrowed man." KLUNK! I guess lame writing can be found at Starlog Press, too. Of course, this sequence and Troi's later consolations are introduced solely to justify Picard's Nexus fantasy -- which they don't -- but more on that anon.
Enterprise has arrived to the aid of the Amargosa Observatory, attacked by Romulans who want their trilithium back. At the same time, Data decides now is the time to try out that emotion chip he's had kicking around since the closing scene of "Descent II." Whoops! In "Descent II," Data comments that if having emotions means that he could harm Geordie as he had just done under Lore's influence, then he doesn't want emotions. And in this film, what's the first thing that happens when he gets emotions? Why, he lets Geordie be harmed, when Soran kidnaps the engineer! Further, at the end of the episode, Data says that the emotion chip was damaged upon removal from Lore, and maybe he doesn't want it at all, installed or not. It's LaForge who says, "Wait a minute, I'll hold it for you until you're ready." Now, in Generations, suddenly it's Data who has possession of the thing, and LaForge who counsels caution? Just Example Number 417 of sloppy writing. All it would have taken was a couple of lines wherein LaForge would say, "Y'know, Data, since you asked me to give back Lore's emotion chip and you repaired it, I've been having second thoughts about your using it." Whereupon Data would reply, "No, Geordie. I appreciate your concern, but I believe now may be the proper time to try it."
At any rate, through the ham-handed machinations of the scriptwriters, we're treated to an appalling misuse of Brent Spiner's overacting abilities. If you agree with me that only one episode -- "This Side of Paradise" -- was enough to take of an emotional Vulcan, then you may agree that destroying Data's main behavioral difference from humans was not worth a couple of cheap laughs. I can imagine some future "expanded" version (a la The Motion Picture) with an added scene after the saucer section has crashed onto Veridian 3. The scene would show Data hanging upside-down from a tree branch doing his imitation of Spock imitating a chimpanzee.
See, the big problem with the writers' view of Data in this film is one of misperception. It's been plain to me, at least, that all along Data has had emotions, even if he has difficulty expressing them, as some autistic children do. Even in the last scene of "Descent II" as he's rejecting the emotion chip, he's talking of "our friendship" with Geordie. He already treats Spot as a loved pet. He already has shown discomfort in iffy situations and loyalty to his superiors. If you'll recall his actions in "Redemption II," you'll have to admit, as Captain of Sutherland, Data showed proper command skills, even when facing down an insolent subordinate. As someone whose name I should recall once said, "A difference which makes no difference is no difference." The fact that Data WANTS emotions is proof that he ALREADY has 'em. And if you don't agree, I may have to write a whole sentence in capital letters!
Now, maybe I missed a line somewhere, but the next scene confuses me. The last time we saw Soran was in Ten-Forward, where Picard was denying him access to the Amargosa observatory. Now, suddenly, he's there to beat up LaForge and terrorize Data. Which makes no sense, since, emotion chip or no, Data has never been a coward before, and he knows he's well-nigh indestructible. In this case, Pinocchio's strings show very plainly, running right back to Moore and Braga.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Troi gets Picard to explain his moodiness, caused by the message received in the Holodeck. And, boy, don't Picard's actions in this scene reek of more character manipulation? Now -- after seven years -- we (and his empathic friend) suddenly learn of Picard's deep urge to spawn -- er, I mean his deep allegiance to perpetuation of the family name. Now, I could see a scene where he mourns the loss of his like-minded nephew. But all this "Oh I wish I'd had a home and family" business is kind of sudden. After all this time of supposedly getting to know the star of this show, gosh-wow we didn't know him? No -- this is just another ham-handed introduction of something that happens because the writers said so -- not as an outgrowth of an established character's traits. This less than moving scene is what we get when a great dramatic actor is given wooden, unconvincing dialogue.
And now Lursa and B'Etor have arrived to spirit away Soran and Geordie, and we see that Soran will ally himself with whomever will take him one more step down his chosen path.
Dr. Crusher finds that Data's chip can't be removed. This is just a thought, but perhaps it was designed by Dr. Soong to "grow in" after a time, and made to be not removable. After all, it was removal from Lore that damaged it in "Descent II."
Next we come to the big explanation of the Nexus, described by Guinan as "like being inside joy," and by director David Carson in Cinescape #3 as "something that affects you like a drug; it's like a hallucinogen into which you can sink and be happy within the confines of it ... it has a sort of addictive pull."
The addictive pull of a lame plot device, I'd say. The whole spurious concept of the Nexus doubtless springs from TNG producer Rick Berman's giving in to the reported requirements for Shatner's inclusion: no time travel, and for God's sake no old-age makeup like in that "Farpoint" thing. So what else was left but some sort of Neverland?
This land of enchantment reminds me of the dark fantasy story about a sailing ship that picks up a drifting man who tells of his escape from an island where dreams come true. A mad dash towards the island ends abruptly at the realization that not all dreams are happy dreams -- nightmares, too, would find fulfillment there. Likewise, this description of "being inside joy" is a nightmare -- of slack writing. None of it makes sense.
On the brighter side, the scene between Picard and Data in stellar cartography is at the other end of the inanity scale. It has good character interaction, sound reasoning, and emotional openness. Maybe it's a scene left over from an series episode.
But seriously, accepting the goofy given of the emotion chip's effects on Data, his soul-searching is involving and affecting. But, as I maintained earlier, he was already introspective and conscious of his shortcomings. In "In Theory," he admits ineptitude at love. But who doesn't mess up their first few flings? As Kirk says in STAR TREK II, "We learn by doing." I bet Data could improve his woo-pitching, given time and experience, without that ol' chip.
Picard's response to Data's request for deactivation is well played by Stewart, and a real contrast the mush we heard him say to Troi earlier. Yes, emotions have their pull, but an adult must resist their lure when they tug at you inappropriately. The "feeling" we get for Picard's earnestness hear is what we missed during that my-family-ends scene.
The deduction of Soran's mad method is fun to watch. Only problem is, once again the plot's basic logic is faulty. Picard asks why Soran simply doesn't fly a ship into the Nexus. Data's response does not answer the question! So what if "every ship which has approached the ribbon has either been destroyed or severely damaged"? It's like this. If he could get there from a ship, he probably would have, making all these big-bang dramatics unnecessary. But if he couldn't get to the Nexus from a ship, then he didn't get there the first time either -- which means he wouldn't have experienced anything to want to get back to! Soran and Guinan and 45 others (and presumably the 265 on Lakul's sister ship) did make it into the Nexus once already, before being yanked away by Enterprise-B's transporter.
This would have left the Powers That Be without a long trail leading to the blowing up of Enterprise-D. And speaking of that, how did the modulation frequencies of the ship's shields just happen to be a necessary display function so the spies inside Geordie's VISOR could read it? And besides, I would think that after the various disastrous encounters with the Borg, it's only logical to expect that Enterprise's computer would regularly, and randomly, change that modulation -- especially in a battle situation. And surely, after the first Klingon photorp got through the shields, the first action should be to change the obviously ineffective shields!
For that matter, why not jettison the warp core? Even in the original series, they knew about jettisoning dangerous equipment -- check out "Court Martial." Sure enough, check out page 74 of the TNG Technical Manual, which even gives diagrams showing how the ship's computer will automatically dump the warp core. Another sloppy plot problem.
But thanks to a little Nick-Meyeresque kind of trick, Enterprise tricks the Klingon ship into dropping its shields, and phht! they're history, thanks to a recycled explosion of the destruction of Colonel Chang's ship from STAR TREK VI.
Down on Veridian 3, Picard tries talking Soran out of his scheme. That's Picard -- when action is required, try boring your opponent to death. But it doesn't work, and Picard's years of Starfleet physical training and his years of experience in more dirty hand-to-hand tactics, unbelievably, don't work either. So the Nexus gulps 'em down.
Now, if home and hearth are Picard's deepest desire, why, by Todeus, hadn't he given us some indication of it by now? And why hadn't this strongwilled leader of men, this commander of destinies, at least taken some steps to do something about these deep urges?
And since when is Guinan's "ghost echo" part of the fulfillment of Picard's joy? Since lame scripting demands it.
Okay, here comes the clash of the Titans -- I mean, the meeting of the Captains. Except -- I think that what really happened is this: In truth, Picard didn't meet Kirk at all -- but only a Nexus-fulfillment image of Kirk.
I mean, get real! The Jim Kirk whose last recorded action was sacrificing his life for others; the Jim Kirk who escaped "the alien's graveyard" in STAR TREK VI to save the Federation; the Kirk who saved Earth from STAR TREK IV's Probe; the same Jim Kirk who turned his back on Paradise on Omicron Ceti 3; the Captain who was offered the universe for love in the "City on the Edge of Forever," and refused it; that James Tiberius Kirk is NOT ! ! the "person" encountered by Picard in his Nexus fantasy.
Yes, I think the whole rest of the movie is just a Nexus dream of Picard. Just think how he -- Picard -- talks Starfleet's biggest legend from wimphood to heroism. Think how the great Picard figures how to keep Soran's launcher from working, and how it all comes out fine in the end for Picard -- Kirk conveniently dies, and his crew is shown their ineptitude by the ship's destruction: "I turn my back on you for one minute, and you crash my ship into a planet?!?" But that's all right, for in this Nexus fantasy he'll only get a newer and better ship, I betcha.
Don't you think I've argued my case well? Still, let's pretend that Picard really does get back out of the Nexus. As a more perceptive man than I has asked, then why doesn't Picard just go back to Ten-Forward, point to Soran, and bellow, "Arrest that man!"? And, as TREK's own Walter Irwin points out, Picard brings Kirk to the site of his, Picard's, own failure. Kind of reminds me of a roughed-up kid bringing back his big brother to take care of the school bully. And, boy, when I saw Kirk's legs stomp into frame facing Soran, I was sure reminded of the opening credits of the old Gunsmoke series, wherein the exact same shot of Marshall Dillon stepping into frame meant doom for the guy at the other end of that street.
Anyway, we have here these two Captains ganging up on this poor Soran guy. According to background information in Cinescape #3, Soran originally just shot Kirk in the back. Once more, "He's Jim, dead." But the disastrous reaction of preview audiences led to that $4 million reshoot, as mentioned at the top of this harangue -- I mean, in the opening paragraph.
In the final version we have Kirk swan-diving into history from a collapsing bridge, muttering "It was fun -- oh, my." Another indication that we're in Picard's Nexus fantasy is that Picard is there to "hold his hand" at Kirk's end. The real Kirk, you'll remember, "always knew . . . I'll die alone."
While all this ersatz drama is taking place, elsewhere we have a thirty-minute sequence of the Enterprise-D saucer smashing down miniature trees like King Kong trying to stomp Robert Cabot. Actually, since the sound effect track on the soundtrack CD for "Enterprise-D Bridge / Crash Sequence" only runs for three minutes and twenty-one seconds, it only seems to take half an hour.
By the time Farragut's shuttle has rescued Picard, Enterprise-D's survivors are picking through the mess for souvenirs. And who knows how many people of Picard's crew died in the disaster? Who cares? Braga and Moore don't: Spot is safe, all's right with the world.
On a more humorous side, Riker's closing comment strikes me funny, because I can imagine a silly "outtake" of this scene. Think of it: Striking a dramatic pose amidst the ruins of the bridge, with sunlight pouring through the demolished roof, Riker sets an arm across the back of the command chair and says, "I always thought I'd have a crack at this chair someday." Then Picard turns around, yanks the chair from the splintered floor, and throws it at Riker. "You want it? There! Here it is! Take it!"
And that final image of a ruined ship kind of sums up my opinion of STAR TREK Generations. Berman, Moore, and Braga did to the STAR TREK franchise what this movie does to the actual starship -- they tore it apart and drove it into the ground. All that's left is, in Shelley's words, a "colossal wreck."
But take hope, maybe the roller coaster is on its way back up! The December 20, 1994 issue of that journal of repute, Star, reports, "Producers are trying to figure out how to resurrect the immensely popular Capt. Kirk after killing him off ... The Paramount Studios brass is having second thoughts about killing off Kirk."
Well, why not, since (I maintain) Kirk only died in Picard's Nexus fantasy?
A couple of friends have observed to me that this film's lackluster substance may be due to the STAR TREK films' strange odd/even jinx. It's the seventh movie, so there's your excuse. Well, that may save Berman's job, but only an intelligent script for the next film can save STAR TREK movies for Paramount. Perhaps the next film will live up to Shatner's nickname for this sad affair: STAR TREK Regenerations.
Well ... there are always possibilities, yes?

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