Star Trek Generations (1994)
The Original Series spawned a cinematic franchise that spanned three decades and six movies. The most well-known and celebrated of them is undoubtedly The Wrath of Khan, and to a lesser extent, its direct sequels The Search For Spock and The Voyage Home. The three of these movies comprise a continuous trilogy within the larger franchise, not just because of their serialized nature (they take place immediately after the previous installment), but because of the unifying themes and motifs. The over-arching ideas that propel the stories (and characters) are life, aging, and death. Though the movies contain many moments of action, suspense, and humor, I think what makes them memorable are the heavy and relatable themes of mortality. We witness an aging Kirk fret about his obsolescence, Spock lose his life, the birth of a planet, Kirk’s son’s tragic death, the destruction of the original Enterprise, followed by the planet, and eventually rebirth – both literal and metaphorical in all sorts of ways (a new Enterprise, there be whales, etc.). It’s all pretty intense stuff.
The Next Generation followed suit in launching its own cinematic franchise, and Star Trek Generations was meant to be a conduit to connect old and new. It’s therefore appropriate that its themes also largely concern the passage of time, life, and death. The emotional life crisis that Picard undergoes is abrupt and like much of the movie, conspicuously incongruous to the TV show that spawned it. One of the eventual weaknesses of the show was its hermetic nature. Aside from a handful of long-running storylines, the characters and their lives were largely static and unchanging. It was peak episodic TV, and at its zenith was a prime example of the story-of-the-week format. But dynamic, exciting character arcs and growth? Not so much.
The transition to a cinematic format necessitated a change in the storytelling and characterization. Star Trek Generations definitely feels like a big screen movie, with its immersive score, dramatic lighting, grand effects, stunning vistas, risky character moves, and big, timeline-spanning ideas. But in each of these ways it moves further away from its original form and feels disconnected from The Next Generation TV show in some vital ways.
Around the time of its release, I distinctly remember the drumbeat of Generations’ billing as “passing the torch,” from The Original Series to The Next Generation. Even as a kid, this descriptor struck me as odd and nonsensical. At this point, TNG had been on the air for seven seasons and had in fact already concluded (with its own very memorable and effective finale) before the release of Generations. The Undiscovered Country, the final cinematic entry in TOS’ adventures, had been released three years prior. Furthermore, the run of TNG was sprinkled with all sorts of connective tissue with the prior series, including cameos (and entire episodes built around) TOS characters like McCoy, Sarek, Spock, and Scotty. It was a deeper, better TV series that pushed Star Trek forward. Not to mention that Deep Space Nine was already chugging along. Exactly what torch needed to be passed at this point?
Well, a torch named “Kirk,” as it turned out.
Sure, Geordi engineering alongside Scotty or Data philosophizing with Spock is all well and good, but as a great man once asked: when are we gonna get to the fireworks factory? When was Picard going to meet Kirk?
Apparently these two legendary captains coming together (and one of them dying) was the final key to the torch-passing puzzle. I won’t deny the geeky thrill this prospect instilled. I vividly remember footage of Kirk and Picard’s horseback chat shown at a Star Trek convention prior to the movie’s release (NEEEERRRRRD), and yeah, it was nuts in there. I don’t fault the movie for bringing these two franchise titans together; it ends up being the high point of the movie. I just think everything surrounding it is kind of a mess and makes for an imperfect but interesting film.
The “passing the torch” narrative may have just been that – a succinct marketing spin to help sell the movie. But blending the two series together was on the producers’ minds from the start and the story is built around it. The film opens with the launching of the implied but never before seen or mentioned Enterprise-B. Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov are there to see her off, and there’s a daring (and genuinely funny) awkwardness to how the moment is played. It’s a media circus, with cameras and microphones shoved in the older crews’ faces, Kirk is the uncomfortable focus of the event, and the new captain really sucks (sorry, Cameron).
The original idea of this scene was to have the entire TOS crew present for the launch, but many of the actors (most notable Leonard Nimoy) were unimpressed with the meager amount of lines afforded to each. The dialogue was thus split up between the three actors in the final version. I have to agree with the late Nimoy in imagining how cheap and thin a scene it would have been with so many memorable faces and so little attention to go around. Decades later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would show that it is possible to blend multiple franchise casts together for balanced and entertaining results, but I’m glad that the original vision of the opening didn’t come to fruition as planned. I certainly would have been game for an adventure that blended the crews together in a more equal fashion, but briefly bringing the entire original crew in for what amounts to an extended teaser is an odd choice (and certainly not the last this movie makes). Plus, The Undiscovered Country already provided such a perfect send-off to that team, and dredging them all up would have cheapened it.
Transitioning into the TNG era, we are met with an avalanche of Big Changes. As I mentioned earlier, TNG the Show seemed almost allergic to making big, permanent changes to its characters. By contrast, TNG the Movie seems psychotically obsessed with Changing Everything about its characters. Again, it does feel very movie-like in that lots of big dramatic stuff is happening, but compared to the TV show, it’s a breakneck 0 to warp 9 pace. In quick succession, we get: Worf’s promotion to lieutenant commander, Picard learning of the horrific death of his brother and nephew, a Romulan attack, Data suddenly deciding he can’t bear to live a life without emotion, Picard coming completely unraveled, Data becoming completely unraveled, a huge chunk of Guinan’s past revealed, the introduction of a villain tied to her past, Geordi is kidnapped, the Duras sisters rearing their ridged heads, and oh yeah, there’s a heaven, too.
Stop the Generations, I want to get off!
So this is all… a lot. The movie could have done with about half of it and been much tighter. As it is, there’s a serviceable flow to the chaotic messiness, with a grand and epic feel. With the exception of the Nexus/heaven (which I’ll get to!), all of these story threads pick up on things introduced in the TV series. Picard’s connection to his family lineage and affection for his nephew, Data’s yearning for emotion (as well as the chip that can conveniently make it all happen), Guinan’s long and storied past, the villainous Duras sisters – all of these established pieces pick up the continuity of the show well and help move the plot along, if inelegantly.
The problem is the clumsiness with which they’re integrated. The tragedy that Picard is suffering is immense, especially as he mourns not only his brother and nephew, but his entire family line. Patrick Stewart sells Picard’s anguish, but the captain coming apart at the seams (especially on the bridge following a Romulan attack) is just a fridge too far and way out of character. Likewise, Data’s ill-advised prank (assault?) on Dr. Crusher seems very out of place (more like Season 1 Data), and deciding to pop in an untested emotion chip during this Romulan incident is tremendously short-sighted (and kicks off a series of events that destroy the Enterprise, so good going). Like Stewart, Brent Spiner does effective work in portraying this new Data and his unstable, uncontrollable emotions. It’s interesting and occasionally entertaining (Data giggling about a joke from 9 years ago is fun). But there’s just something off about it all.
The most glaring aspect of the movie is the Nexus. It begins a tradition of The Next Generation movies: introducing gigantic, game-changing developments that should Change Everything, but somehow aren’t ever dealt with or heard from again. The fact that a literal heaven exists in the form of some crazy ribbon anomaly is huge. I mean, it’s not THE heaven, of course, but it’s a place where time doesn’t exist, you feel indescribable joy, and you can live out whatever fantasy your heart desires most. Star Trek is pretty fantastical a lot of the time, but this still seems wildly kooky. Not only that, but it’s just a regular thing orbiting the galaxy – as confirmed by Data, it rolls around every 39 years. How is this thing not just besieged by ships from all over the universe flocking to it? I mean, talk about a hot market.
From a story perspective, the Nexus exists as a form of temptation for Picard and Kirk, so that they can prove their heroic strength of character by rebuking it. It’s a little much. I mean, Jean-Luc and James T. are colossally strong, brave, and selfless men, but the way Guinan describes the purity of joy the Nexus brings, it seems far-fetched that even these absolute he-men could resist it (she even tells Picard that there’s no way he could be able to leave it…. and then he does like it’s nothing). It blows past allegory into something bordering on silly.
That having been said, what happens in the Nexus regarding the captains is ultimately the emotional core of the film, and despite its inherent ludicrousness, the story does make the best of it and it’s the part that personally sticks with me the most.
The movie is about the regret and pain of the paths not taken, and the longing of old men looking back on glorious but also empty lives. For a big blockbuster movie as well as a Star Trek outing, this is pretty daring. One of Trek‘s focuses is on the humanity of its characters, but it trends more towards the heady, philosophical side rather than the more raw and emotional. Kirk and Picard are epic explorers and adventurers, but they’re both in the latter halves of their lives. Kirk’s adventuring days are over, and he can’t help but see the holes in his life. He’s bewildered that Sulu somehow found the time to have a family (Scotty’s less than sympathetic response is great; Doohan was reportedly not fond of Shatner). It’s this longing that reminds him of Antonia and the life they could have had if he hadn’t chosen Starfleet over her. (Any mention of his son David is conspicuously absent, which seems a lost opportunity as it would go along perfectly with the themes of the film)
Similarly, Picard laments the ending of his family’s lineage following the death of his brother and nephew. His fantasy takes the form of ultimate warmth and family hearth – Christmas. Trek barely acknowledges the existence of our modern holidays (and human religion), so this sequence represents a huge tonal shift in many ways. There’s something intensely forlorn about seeing this inner desire in Picard brought to life – a loving wife and children (all decked out in lush Dickensonian garb), and we see him briefly get lost in it before remembering reality. There’s an emotional intimacy to the scene that Trek rarely ever reaches; we’re seeing the innermost desires of Picard’s heart, and it aches with emotional longing.
But somehow, Picard is able to shake this off and he encounters a piece of Guinan’s soul that she left when ripped from the Nexus a century ago. It’s pretty wacky (and heightened by the surreal sight of her just chilling on a carousel inside this house). Conveniently, the Nexus allows you to exit to any point in space and time (which again, just highlights how bonkers this thing is as a plot device). Picard decides to enlist Kirk’s help in stopping Soran’s evil plan, and their meeting is… interesting.
I suppose since one would expect huge, dramatic gravitas in seeing these icons finally meeting, there’s something clever and unexpected about it the scene being so casual and whimsical. Picard is all business about explaining his situation, and Kirk is frustratingly blasé about it all. It’s… not the best look for him. There’s something understandable about his boredom with yet another villain, yet another crisis, yet another planet in peril. It never ends, and at some point you do have to call it a day, I guess. But still, Kirk comes off as selfish and callous at first, which is a far cry from the gallant captain that’s saved countless people countless times.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for Kirk to come to his senses, and there’s a good scene that illustrates the drawback of the Nexus for people like Kirk. Leaping over a ravine on horseback, Kirk finds that he feels no fear from doing it, because he knows everything is a fantasy that doesn’t matter. And it leads him to realize that not mattering is its own kind of hell for him, rather than heaven. His reasons for leaving this paradise are better elucidated than Picard’s. Picard just wants to undo what Soran has done. His motives are immediate, but Kirk’s are more informed by his entire life and who he is as a person, and he ends up stealing the scene as a result.
Their short conversation is awesome, and the high point of the film. The Kirk we know and love returns, and there’s a great chemistry between these two Starfleet captains. It’s all too brief, but then again, all the good times are, aren’t they?
I haven’t talked at all about the film’s villain, Soran. He’s pretty great, and McDowell turns in a memorable performance. The fact that the antagonist is also a white-haired older man is appropriate, since the story is about the ravages of time. Soran’s brief chat with Picard in Ten Forward presents one of the most memorable lines of Trek, or any movie, I’d say. “Time is the fire in which we burn.” It’s a haunting and potent idea, delivered with the crazed intensity that McDowell is so known for (that his face and the entire room is glowing with the light of a nearby sun adds so much to it). Time and age destroy our bodies, but the pain of regret and loss can destroy our perspective and grip on reality if not properly dealt with, as they have done to Soran.
Having lost his family to the Borg (as well as being pulled from the Nexus), Soran’s pain has not been eased by time and he has become just as bad as the Collective. Willing to destroy planets and the millions of lives on them, his genocidal selfishness makes him a very dangerous man and a top tier Trek villain. Like Khan or Annorax, Soran’s obsessive desire to fulfill his own needs renders him an interstellar threat, and a moral opposite to the absolute self-sacrificing heroism and altruism of Picard and Kirk. His tragedies engender some requisite sympathy, but he has become a dastardly and devious mustache-twiriling bad guy. As a villain, it’s the perfect balance. He even gets to win initially, which leads to a chilling sequence of the planet (and crashed Enterprise) obliterated, before Picard winds back the clock to defeat him.
And Picard does defeat him (in an explosively satisfying way), but not without losing his companion. James T. gets to go on one more adventure and be a hero one last time to save the lives of millions of people. It’s a quiet and lonely scene as the life drains out of Kirk, and Shatner gives a great, subdued performance. “It was… fun,” is a triumphantly tragic line for a life of adventure, and pretty meta – because it was fun seeing the two captains teaming up.
Star Trek V was an absolutely cheesy mess (and I love it anyway), but it presented the sad idea that Kirk, for all the good he has done, will die alone. And unfortunately, he does. Picard is there of course, but he’s practically a stranger. There’s no family or long time friends present, just two men set against a desolate, rocky landscape stretching out in all directions. It doesn’t take away any of the heroism from Kirk’s last stand, but it does blanket the death with an extra layer of tragedy.
Generations‘ themes of aging and death are consistent with the core of TOS‘ film series, and we get another important death – the Enterprise-D. The details of how this come about are ridiculous and feel glaringly forced – even if the Duras sisters’ dinky little Bird of Prey have the Enterprise’s shield frequency, they’re still outgunned 100 to 1, and the battle is visually dynamic, but logically dumb. Plus I absolutely loved the Galaxy-class Enterprise and hated to see it go. Oh well. The evacuation, saucer separation, and crash landing is an exciting sequence that uses the cinematic budget to full effect (as well as the PG-13 rating with Data’s “Oh shit!”), but feels a bit like padding.
Surveying the wreckage of the Enterprise bridge with Riker, Picard rejects Soran’s perspective on time. He doesn’t view it as a predator or a destructive force, but as a companion that can help us appreciate the ephemeral nature of our cherished times. Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the air for seven years and it represents an all-too-brief flash of enjoyable, creative lightning. Nothing lasts forever and change is a constant, so as much as I may have disliked the decision, it’s fitting that the film says goodbye to the setting/ship that carried our heroes.
The film’s theme boils down to “cherish your life.” It’s a remarkably emotional message for an arguably intellectually distant franchise like Star Trek. The film is a memorable, if imperfect experience. The Next Generation film franchise unfortunately did not rise to the overall quality and cultural impact that the Original Series‘ franchise did. Generations and First Contact represented some exciting potential that did not pan out, but that makes them all the more valuable in a way.
Generations came out during what I would consider to be the golden age of Star Trek. TNG was over, but Deep Space Nine was finding its footing, and the rumored Voyager was on the horizon. It all seemed like limitless potential and way more wins than losses. I love this period of Trek dearly, and I’ve found it difficult to muster up enthusiasm for the current renaissance the franchise is undergoing. I think that’s made me appreciate this age of Trek all the more (as well as doing this feature). Like all of life’s best moments, it was temporary and wonderful. The streaming services we have nowadays are their own Nexus where we can forever dwell, reliving the same moments and memories again and again. I will leave it at some point to experience what is going on with Star Trek right now. But I’ll still cherish this age and the feelings I had during it, because as Picard says: it will never come again.
- Dennis McCarthy’s soaring score really elevates the film and captures a feeling of big adventure as well as mysticism and emotional intimacy the film exudes.
- I really loved the look of the Enterprise-D in the movie, with the shadowy lighting and enlarged bridge. It’s a huge departure from the brightly-lit nature of the TV show and a little conspicuous, but I like how dramatic and cinematic it looks.
- The Enterprise-B receives a distress call, and they’re The Only Ship in the Area. They’re like two minutes from Earth!
- Everyone starts transitioning to the DS9-style jumpsuit uniforms here (except in the end Picard is back in his old one). Not sure how I feel about that; I kind of liked the separation between the two. The jumpsuits seem appropriate to the more down and dirty nature of the Cardassian station, and by contrast I liked the formality of the TNG uniforms for starship personnel.
- Soran’s plan seems unnecessarily circuitous. Every ship that approaches the Nexus gets severely damaged or destroyed, but why is that not true of the planet he built his base on? You can beam people out of the Nexus, so why can’t you beam people in?
- Data wishing to be relieved of duty and Picard refusing seems really iffy. Like, the guy is clearly unstable, mentally/emotionally ill even. Of course, the movie needs to have Data in it, but there’s something callous about how Picard just yells at him to get a grip. Because that’s how emotional crises get resolved?
- So, obviously Picard chooses the wrong moment to leave the Nexus to. He could have just gone back a few days and arrested Soran while he was on the Enterprise. Or hey, how about going back to Earth and saving your family from the fire?
- Does Picard go back into his body? Because there aren’t two Picards when he travels back.
- Picard’s brother Robert isn’t in his fantasy. I know they didn’t get along, but still…
- The movie doesn’t explicitly state it, but the fact that Guinan has a piece of herself outside of time in the Nexus is why she has a sixth sense about the space-time continuum. It’s not a feature of her species, as was speculated up to this point.
I don’t know why that piece knows Picard. They met briefly back in the 1800s, but she seems way more familiar. Maybe it gets regular updates and newsletters from the real Guinan?
- I never noticed until I rewatched how little Dr. Crusher is actually in this movie. Ditto for all movies, unfortunately. Poor Bev.
- Kirk’s death scene is great, but Picard dragging his body to the top of the mountain and covering it with rocks is… I’ll say “far-fetched” and leave it at that.