Thursday, August 29, 2019

Star Trek Generations - Review

It's our mortality that defines us.

I find that one interesting trait about the Star Trek movies is that it's really easy to picture the design document that guided each movie. Going from one to the other in sequence as I have done now (or if you're doing a marathon at some point) you can also see where the people responsible have brainstormed to see what went well and not so well with each movie and how to proceed from there. Where the first movie went for an epic scope, all the movies after that acknowledged that Star Trek fans weren't after 2001: A Space Odyssey light, but more Star Trek. The second one delivered fully by grabbing a character from the series and continuing the story where the episode had ended. The third one needed to fix the lore "damages" made by the second movie and the fourth one was yet another successful try at Star Trek fun. The fifth one... ok I don't know what they were thinking for this one. I think that was less conscious thought and more trying to scramble something together from a broken production. The sixth one was built around giving the TOS crew their worthy goodbyes.

And here we are at the seventh one, Star Trek Generations, which is so obviously written around trying to bridge the step between TOS and TNG you can almost hear it whispered throughout the movie. It even has it in the title in case the hint wasn't huge enough already. It's odd really, because at the time of this movie's release, TNG had already been running for several years and was actually wrapping up. The movies were always quite a few steps behind the TV-series in this regard. You could argue that at this point TNG would already have proven to sink or swim with the fans and it's difficult to see what Generations was going to change or add. However that may be, Generations is exactly the kind of movie you would expect in advance of the launch of TNG, while also throwing in some fun for all the people who were already familiar with Picard et al (ie everyone).

In it we are not just presented to the new captain and crew taking over the rather big shoes from, mainly, Kirk, but we're also getting another and very final send-off from the TOS crew Kirk. It's not an easy task and the movie does a really good job making it work. In the desire to both legitimize the new characters and pay respects to the old ones some other key elements get lost however. The story is so busy with making Kirk and Picard a thing that pretty much everything else is secondary, like building a good narrative. The end result feels more like a tool to further a cause than a genuine attempt at telling a Star Trek story. The other movie that has this trait - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - also suffer the same fate, they ends up being highly forgettable.

Men of the hour.

It's fortunate then at least that Generations isn't anywhere near as incomprehensive or boring as Search of Spock, despite it's weak narrative. This is of course exactly because it focuses on two of the strongest characters in the Star Trek lore, Kirk and Picard (while The Search of Spock tries to have a focus on Spock but without Spock, which works less well).

The movie starts with us following a very CGI bottle floating around through space. This doesn't make much sense until it suddenly crashes into a spaceship and breaks apart. The spaceship is the new Enterprise (since the old one was decomissioned as you'll rememeber) and Kirk is there as an honorouble guest. Everything seems to be going smoothly when suddenly some sort of gravimetric distortions appear. Caught in the middle of them are two space crafts about to be destroyed.

Harriman, the new captain, is a bit at a loss as to what to do and Kirk is required to step in. One of the crafts is destroyed before they manage to get to them and they decide to try to teleport the people off the other ship. Something stops working somewhere and needs to be fixed in order to continue the rescue, and captain Harriman offers to go first. Kirk tells him his place is on the bridge and runs off instead. They only get about a third of the people off the second ship before that too is destroyed and the part of the ship where Kirk was is hit by the distortion as well. Kirk disappears and is presumed dead. Among the rescued is a man, Soran played by Malcolm McDowell, who is adamant he wants to be sent back. We've just encountered the villain of this movie.

Fast forward 78 years and we meet the TNG crew for the first time in Star Trek movie history. It is particularly odd then that the scene that takes place is just absolutely bonkers, and unfortunately not in a good way. I'm not sure how to describe it, it really needs to be seen, but I'll give it a shot. Lt Worf is being promoted and for some reason they choose to do this by playing out 17th century pirates and navy in the holodeck. Everyone is on board a ship and Worf is being pulled forward as a prisoner. He is being made to walk the plank to catch his promotion. I... don't know what to say, honestly. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it a metaphor for something? Maybe it is just too many layers of clever for me because to me it just comes off as absurd and definitely not a good way to introduce the new crew who seem like a bunch of raving lunatics.

This might be a good time to reveal that I am not a huge TNG fan. Unpopular opinion time: TNG is not in my top 3. I've written a bit on why that is before, but the short version is that there are so very few likable characters in TNG. I pretty much don't like watching anyone but Picard and Data and that makes every episode about Riker, Worf and Wesley a chore. And there are plenty of them. Not to mention Crusher and Troi who also are huge snore fests (I was so happy when Crusher was swapped out for Pulaski, who is way better if you ask me. But apparently no one else agreed and Crusher came back). I could rant on about exactly why, but suffice to say I think the characters in the Animated Series look more alive than most of the TNG cast.

Fortunately, this movie decides to focus on the two captains, and rightfully so. In both series they are the star of the show, though in TNG the crew gets a lot more screen time than in TOS (which although the characters are badly written, I am all for).

The better doctor.

In the middle of the festive celebrations aboard the holoship Picard gets a message. As he takes off, they also get a distress signal from a Space Station orbiting the star Amargosa that is under attack. Picard is being very unlike himself, suddenly grumpy and aggressive, and let's Riker do the commanding as they go to Amargosa to find out what happened. When they're there they find Soran, who definitely doesn't look like he's 78 years older. Did he time travel, just not age or what is going on here? Soran quickly kidnaps Geordi Laforge and destroys the star Amargosa. Now why was that necessary?

Also, what was the deal with Picard? Well, he just got a message that his brother and nephew died in a fire so he's definitely got reason to be upset. He reveals to Troi his qualms about being the last in the line of Picards and this isn't the only thing that hints at the fact that there must be a series already behind this character for us to care enough about this kind of background information. The is a whole subplot about Data trying out a chip that gives him emotions, him trying to get rid of it and it getting stuck in him. It's all the episodes of us knowing how Data struggles with being human a la Pinocchio that makes this subplot interesting and worthwhile.

Well, Soran turns out to be an El-Auran just like Guinan, so he ages differently from humans. He also has not abandoned the idea of getting into the gravimetric distortion. Guinan tells Picard that she was among the crew who were rescued from the ship by Kirk and friends 78 years ago, and apparently the gravimetric distortion is some sort of paradise. It's not something you ever want to leave (though as this movie soon will make us see, Soran seems to be the only one who has experienced it and seems hellbent to return).

Soran's reasons for kidnapping Geordi are a bit unclear at first, but eventually he is going to send him back with his visor modified to allow them to spy on the Enterprise crew. Was that Soran's plan all along or was he just lucky enough that his kidnap victim happened to have a hackable visor? Soran is also collaborating with two Klingon women called Lursa and B'Etor. Sound familiar? Probably not. But because I am currently watching through DS9 I recognized that they are in the episode Past Prologue. Since they die in this movie, that episode must take place before this movie. Apparently they are also in some TNG episodes, but it's been too long since I saw them for me to remember them. Fun though that these sisters get a pretty big send off by being part of the main villain team in a movie like this.

Unfriendly sisters.

Picard and his crew manage to figure out that Soran's reason for destroying the star was to alter the course of the gravimetric distortion. This way they will pass close to a planet in the Veridian star system. By destroying that star the distortion will actually pass through one of the planets, allowing Soran to get back to them. The fact that one of the other planets is inhabited with millions of people who will die seem to not matter much to him. It is obvious that he needs to be stopped. The Enterprise chases after the Klingon Bird of Prey that Soran and the sisters are on all the way to the Veridian system.

Picard beams down to the planet where Soran is setting up the rocket that will destroy the star. The Enterprise engages the Bird of Prey in combat, and while the Bird of Prey has the advantage of being able to cloak, they are otherwise outgunned. Remember the Laforge spy though? Because of that the sisters can get the shield configuration which for some inexplicable reason is in the open on a screen in engineering. You'd really think one such vital piece of tactical information would be under quite a heavy layer of security somewhere, but no. With the shield configuration they can shoot right through the shields of the Enterprise, so you see? Really not something you should have out in the open. Worf, you have one job.

Everyone evacuates to the saucer section, and Enterprise is one of those ships that goes on these kinds of missions yet carries tons of children. I realize this specific mission wasn't exactly planned, but there really should be some rules regarding what kind of space ships children should be allowed to live on. Enterprise must've proven itself to be one of those ships that finds itself in a lot of trouble quite frequently. Through a cunning plan where they force the Bird of Prey to cloak, thus dropping shields, they destroy it. Unfortunately the Enterprise had already sustained too heavy damage to stay space born and crashes into Veridian III.

Some duct tape and she'll fly again.

And what a crash it is. It really looks quite spectacular and they have earned showing it from all the angles that they do. The hilarious thing it that it looks a billions times better than the same crash from Star Trek Beyond, but then nothing about that movie was particularly good... (but that is matters for another post!).

I haven't mentioned it before but you know what else looks really cool? The gravimetric distorsions. They are practically just swirly things rolling across the sky, but they're really well made. Whoever was the art director, hats off. Even though none of us has ever seen gravimetric distortions, these really give you the impression of looking real. In science fiction half the challenge is having people go "yeah, I guess that is how it could look/work". And they are beautiful.

So now that the Enterprise is stranded on the planet, let's get back to Picard. He tries to stop Soran but not so long story short, he fails. The star is destroyed and they are both whisked away into the distortion. In it we see him as a family man at Christmas, which apparently is Picard's version of paradise? It's been foreshadowed but it's so far removed from the Picard we see in the TV series it's both interesting and a bit unbelievable to think that this is what Picard wants most of all. Picard fights the feeling of being content and happy though and leaves his family. As he does this he stumbles into. He's as surprised as us to see her there, but she explains that she is the memory of Guinan.

She explains to him that just like a dream, he can pretty much decide what happens inside the distortion. Picard remembers that Kirk disappeared in the distortion and sets off to find him. Apparently one quirk of the distortion is that time doesn't pass. So when Picard gets into Kirk's slice of paradise, it's as if he just got there himself rather than that 78 years have passed. Kirk's paradise is his cabin in the mountain-woods, where some sort of Antonia woman he ditched "11 years ago" is still waiting for him.

This character never made sense to me.

I have a couple of questions regarding this idea of Kirk's paradise. First of all, is this Antonia woman ever mentioned anywhere else? If she is she's lost from my memory at the moment. Secondly, it would've been neat of them to throw in some mention of Kirk's son David still being alive in this version of Kirk's paradise, but nothing. Also, there is a tune playing while Kirk is riding around on a horse that sounds so much like the intro tune to Voyager. Or is it DS9? Well one of them at least. Same thing with the credits to the movie.

Either way Picard manages to convince Kirk to leave the distortion as well, to go "make a difference" rather than dreaming a pretty dream. It does fit with Kirk's character, so I don't have much trouble with the ease with which Picard persuades Kirk. But like I mentioned before, after Guinan made a big show of how this place makes you never want to leave, we've just got two examples of people who clearly didn't think it was all that. Maybe it has an extra strong effect on El-Aurans?

What follows is Kirk and Picard working together to redo whatever Picard tried and failed, but this time succeed in thwarting Soran's plans. The idea is to be respectful to both captains and also hand over the torch between them. I think it actually works really well. Kirk gets a nice self-sacrificing moment in which he... actually dies. Watching it, while I didn't cry, it really felt quite odd to see this character being ended then and there. It also means that since no one in the past knew he was still alive of sorts inside the distortion, according to actual Starfleet history Kirk died with the distortion 78 years ago.

The sequence is thrilling enough though and I try to not think of the plot hole that if they fail they'll go into the distortion again which would allow them to try to stop Soran again, and so on and so forth forever until they succeed. So either they are doomed to never succeed or they are guaranteed to succeed, there isn't just a one shot chance like they make it out in the movie.

Soran dies in an explosion, Kirk dies a hero and the torch has been successfully handed over to the new generation of Star Trek. That doesn't just go for actors and writers, but also for fans obviously. My first real venture into Star Trek was with Voyager in the mid 90's when I would've been around 10. I remember the feeling when a new episode was being aired, those times were holy to me. So while I had seen some TOS before that, Voyager is what got me to fall in love with the series. That is probably a big reason to why it is still my favourite of the lot. But no one got to follow their favourite captain as long as the hardcore TOS fans have followed Kirk. I can't imagine what it must've felt like when after almost 30 years of joining them on the adventures of him and his crew, Kirk dies. It's not just retirement and goodbye, it is ended. Kirk is no more.

Movies with such a specific check list to follow really have an unenviable task. "Generations" shows that it can be done with heart and respect for the source material however, without leaving the viewer confused and indifferent. The movie is not without its flaws though. The villain feels more like a tool (and I mean that in the writing sense and not in the derogatory sense) than a fleshed out character to care about. They do a brave attempt by tying Soran to Guinan to give him a bit more weight, but in the end we don't know enough about him or the distortion to make him a truly interesting character, like Khan. It is similar to what happens in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier when they try to make the villain more interesting by making him Spock's brother. If we still know nothing about the character it really does little to increase my interest. The Data subplot is a smart way to not make it all about the captains, and quite necessary because the lack of other crew would've otherwise been a much sorer spot for me.

I would've loved to see Kirk and Picard get more time together. I get that it's supposed to be the climactic ending of the movie, and I think that works too for the most part. But I can't help but think that it would've been a better movie if they had been able to play the two characters differences off each other for a bigger portion of the story, rather than just shoehorning Kirk in as an extra pair of hands at the end. Some potential was definitely lost there.

And that is also the feeling that stays with me when the credits roll. The writers were up against a heavy task and pulled some clever moves to bring us what in the end still is a movie with some really entertaining parts. But in the end Star Trek Generations will still leave your memory quickly, and the only thing that remains is the image of Kirk burning some eggs.

Who leaves eggs on the hob anyway?

Thoughts I had while watching this movie;
  • The first scene on the new bridge of Enterprise is pretty interesting because there are a lot of recognizable faces:
  • The new captain Harriman is played by Alan Ruck who also played Stuart in Spin City (and I know he was also in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) so I can't see him as anything but a goofball.
  • One of the crew is played by the woman who plays John Connor's stepmom in Terminator 2. That really threw me off because she looks exactly the same.
  • Tim Russ who goes on to play Tuvok in Voyager plays the operator of the teleporter - he gets brushed aside by Scotty because he can't do his job right.
  • There is an "Ensign Sulu" at the helm. Not Hikaru Sulu though, but a young woman. Interesting? Related perhaps? Yes, she is in fact Demora Sulu, daughter of Hikaru Sulu (who I think we briefly get to see in the background in one of the Abram's Star Treks if I remember correctly?).
  • Why is Dr Crusher treating Data for his emotion ship? Does she also have a PhD in engineering? I know Laforge is kidnapped, but surely they must have someone more qualified than someone who really isn't?
  • There is absolutely no attempt made at explaining what the distortion is or how it works. It was clearly just the first best thing the writers could come up with that would allow Picard and Kirk to cooperate, and then they wrote the whole movie around it.
  • Did they really have to kill Kirk? Was that the only way that character could go perhaps? I don't recall any other captain dying, so maybe he was the one that "deserved" the finality of that kind of ending.

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