It’s been said of the Star Trek movies that you can determine their quality by the number in the title. All the best ones are even-numbered: Star Trek II was the highlight of the series, IV was goofy and likable, and VI was a fine adios to the crew of the old Enterprise. And all the odd-numbered ones — the bloated premiere voyage, dubbed by many Star Trek: The Motionless Picture; III, in which Spock returned from the dead, Kirk’s son joined the dead, and nobody cared; and V, which offered the ghastly spectacle of William Shatner directing himself — well, they all sucked. So where does that leave the numberless Star Trek Generations? Is this actually Star Trek VII? Or is it meant to be Star Trek Volume II: The Picard Years? There hasn’t been this much confusion among those of us who actually keep track of these things since The Empire Strikes Back came out and was called Episode V. Oy.
Well, not to worry. The new Star Trek film isn’t nearly as numbing as the 1979 movie that ushered the previous crew to the big screen; it’s lean and purposeful. But neither is it a particularly compelling demonstration of why there should be more movies with this crew. Not being a Next Generation fan (I’ve seen it a couple of times), I hoped the movie would tell me why the TV series gained a rabid cult. Here, 18 years after the cancellation of the dear departed original series, was this pretender to the throne, with new people on the Enterprise (sacrilege!), among them a Klingon (blasphemy!). Has there ever been a TV show with more potential ill will going against it? Yet Next Generation outran the original series, and some dared say it was even an improvement — more thoughtful and complex. I have no special feelings about Trek in general, and I think people who memorize Klingon conjugations and carry on vituperative debates over which episode is the best are hopelessly twerpy. But I rooted for Generations to be good. The Trek movies are comfortably familiar; you can count on them to be either terrible or better than you expected. It’s no fun when they’re just sort of competent and not-bad.
Generations has a headache-inducing plot that I’d just as soon not go into. The gist of it is that the evil Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell in a fluffy white brush-cut) has found something called the Nexus, a “ribbon” in space where “time has no meaning.” Tap into it, and you get to spend eternity in your own private paradise. Unfortunately, the only way Soran can access it is to blow up a star (destroying a planet inhabited by some 250 million people), which will alter the course of the Nexus so that it swings by and scoops him up. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), captain of the Enterprise, disapproves of this plan. To stop Soran, Picard must cross into the Nexus and find Kirk (Shatner), who was swept into the Nexus when the Enterprise entered it 78 years ago …. I’m starting to feel the throbbing behind my left eye.
The hard sell of the movie — an unnecessary hard sell, given any Trek film’s built-in audience — is the historic meeting of the two captains. Yet they don’t do anything together that Picard couldn’t have accomplished with Data or Worf. We’re meant to sit there and think, “How neat — look at the two of them on their horses,” the way comic-book fans are tickled when Superman teams up with Batman. You also get the feeling that Paramount didn’t trust the Next Generation crew to draw the crossover audience by themselves — Kirk was needed as a link to the familiar Trek. And he’s not the only link. The script schleps out Scotty (James Doohan, failing to hide his contempt for Shatner) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), and introduces Sulu’s daughter; Generations is too stuck in the past to look to the future. Kirk gets to die heroically not once but twice; even Spock didn’t get that honor. (Spock is absent here, and he’s missed.)
Generations, I bet, will come to be regarded as a transitional movie — a shaky passing of the torch. Some of it is fun, though. Malcolm McDowell, whose Caligula embarrassment had seemingly doomed him to direct-to-video schlock, comes through with an icy, malicious performance that recalls his glory days in A Clockwork Orange; the real team-up excitement for me was seeing Alex the droog versus Kirk the gasbag — the collision of two very different kinds of sci-fi icons. As written, though, Soran is lame and easily the most confusing villain of any of the movies. I wanted to see what Soran’s Nexus paradise looked like, for example; Kirk’s and Picard’s are idyllic — Soran’s dream world might have been a psychotic fantasia out of William S. Burroughs. I wanted more of the wonderfully bitchy Klingon women in cahoots with Soran. They’re hysterically nasty, like rude biker chicks in a Mad Max movie, and they show more humanity than most of the women aboard the Enterprise. The character development everyone’s talking about (Trekkies either love it or hate it) occurs when Data (Brent Spiner), the stoic android, inserts an “emotion chip” and goes completely goofy. But that’s about it for innovation.
The opening scenes are a fair indication of where the movie goes wrong, though there’s some humor in Kirk’s pained expression as he watches the Enterprise’s callow new captain (Alan Ruck) occupy the legendary chair on the bridge. When this rookie loses control, Kirk expertly takes over. There’s never a moment in Generations when Picard shows comparable authority (he seemed plenty authoritative on TV); mostly he just mourns his dead brother and nephew — the boy who had become the son Picard never had. How sad. How dull. Where is this man’s much-hyped intellect? Everyone else does his thinking for him.
Sure, some of Data’s antics were funny, but for me the biggest laugh in the movie was a title reading “78 years later,” which you don’t see in every movie. That goes to show how much screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga have to stretch to get to the hard sell — to get Kirk and Picard together somehow. It all seems rather gimmicky. Nicholas Meyer, who directed the two best Treks (II andVI) as well as the time-travel fantasy Time After Time (in which H.G. Wells, played by McDowell, faced off against Jack the Ripper), could have goosed some wit out of the tired legend-meets-legend premise. He might have had the newly irreverent Data (who’s accustomed to the cue-ball Picard) say upon meeting Kirk, “Hey, nice rug.” Or he might have digitally inserted Shatner into footage from the old Star Trek show; somehow we know that would be his true dream world. But Generations is helmed by David Carson, a dutiful captain who takes you somewhere, but not too far. Nobody even utters the immortal, ungrammatical line “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Maybe because we have gone here before.