Star Trek Generations (1994)

Dir. David Carson. Starring Patrick Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, Whoopi Goldberg

In Somm, one of the candidates, Ian Cauble is a little notorious among his in-group because of the smells he claims to be able to get hints of in a glass of wine; doubtless the most idiosyncratic is the “freshly opened can of tennis balls.” But Ian stands by that one. It’s not like they put that into the wine or anything, he says. But the chemical compounds combine in such a way within the bottle that you might genuinely get that hint of something unusual. Generations’ tennis ball smell is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which is insane! But it’s there nonetheless. You can see the aging commander who’s starting to wonder what he’s done all this for; he’s old enough to look back and wonder if the difference he’s made is worth the sacrifices to his happiness. It ends there, more or less, since Colonel Blimp is one of the greatest movies ever made, and Generations falls into the franchise trap of “Very Special Episode Which Happens to Be Longer Than the Ones You’re Used to Seeing.” Say what you will about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but at least it finds opportunities to be cinematic. (On a less snarky note, there’s something far more poignant about Candy wondering if the honorable way he’s tried to defend is going to last out the year than Picard (Stewart) coming to realize that things must change. The Federation will endure regardless of what happens at Veridian III, but there’s no guarantee that Britain can outlast the evil of National Socialism.) All the same, you can’t unsmell the tennis ball once you’ve uncorked this bottle of wine. The regret, the self-doubt, the questioning is all wrapped up in Generations.

At its heart, Generations is a story about people who are trying to get back in a moment and begin again. And God bless a movie that focuses on men trying to return to the past without making it a story about a midlife crisis. The mysterious Dr. Soran (McDowell, who has been spitting out bits of the Ten Forward set since this shoot) is beamed out of the Nexus and spends the next seventy-eight years trying to figure out how to return. One assumes that his need to make it back to the Nexus makes him insane; certainly he did not intend to commit murder on an exponential scale when he began studying how to make it back, but by the time Picard and his crew come across him he is willing to do just that. As for Picard himself, he is badly shaken by the deaths of his only extant family: Robert, his brother, and René, his nephew. Soran tells Picard that “time is the fire in which we burn.” Robert and René burned more prosaically but also more suddenly, and Picard breaks down. He had depended on Robert and René to carry on the family legacy, to pass on the surname; in a surprisingly moving scene, he admits to Troi (Marina Sirtis) that he is pained by his new and unshakable status as the last Picard. When Picard enters the Nexus, described as being “inside joy” by Guinan (Goldberg), he is surrounded by a family he’s never had in a country home that feels appropriately outside of time. (There’s some distinctively 1800s chic in Picard’s perfect world.) René is there, too. When we find Kirk (William Shatner) in his own domestic situation, likewise imagining that he is going to abandon a brilliant career in Starfleet to stay home with the woman he loves, it’s doubly surprising. How strange and wonderful that the icons of their series about fantasy, discovery, honor, and courage think about happiness as something which is not directed outwards at “new life and new civilizations” but kept within the home. Generations recognizes that one can be brave and be a homebody, too, that virtue is not limited to adventure; it also recognizes that it would be dishonest for Picard and Kirk to choose that route. The Nexus doesn’t show what’s real, and as intoxicating as it is for Picard and Kirk when they arrive, both of them realize separately that it would be a pretend life. Better, the two of them say, to go on with the real life, regrets and all, than indulge in a fantasy that can never be as fulfilling. If the Nexus were real life, if it could pretend better at being real life, then there’s little reason to believe that Kirk and Picard would have left. As it is for the sailors of old Picard romanticizes, happiness is an anchor and desire is wind in the sails.

Conceptually, it’s a stunning premise which would be far more interesting if they didn’t have to bring Star Trek: The Next Generation into it. Of course, what would be left is half an hour of abstract science-fiction without guns or explosions, and they couldn’t even make Blade Runner without those. The Enterprise and its crew, excepting Picard and Guinan, feel basically useless in this movie; they’re a weak B-plot, a distraction from the sci-fi short story going on. In a regular Next Generation episode, I would be interested in Data (Brent Spiner) and his wacky adventures with his emotion chip. I am a huge fan of the life forms song, and the single best line in this movie is a sudden moment of clarity he has as the Enterprise is going down: “Oh, shit.” But Data and his quest to become human are not clean fits with Picard and Soran’s . As an android, time simply isn’t as much of an issue as it is for Picard or Soran or, indeed, any of the mortals in this story. His expiration date is not like Picard’s expiration date. In a movie that, at its best, builds urgency into the story by making time into a fire or a toothy predator, there’s no space for Data’s Mr. Tricorder bit. There’s also no space for the Duras sisters, a pair of so-so villains who had made half-a-dozen appearances in Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. While they’re built into the plot to carry Soran around and cripple the Enterprise, they themselves seem unimportant; as comic villains (B’Etor, channeling Cher Horowitz, gripes about how long it takes Geordi to go to Engineering), they lack menace. There’s not enough room for them to be scary or dangerous, but that doesn’t stop the movie from resting a great deal of pressure on their shoulders. Nor does Riker (Frakes) have Picard’s gravitas as the Enterprise separates its saucer from its doomed hull and takes a plunge into the atmosphere. Little nods to Worf (Michael Dorn) and Crusher (Gates McFadden) at the beginning of the movie ensure that we get the whole cast from the series involved, but they don’t accomplish much to move the story along.

By focusing on time as a major thematic element, death seems less important by the end of the text. The deaths of Robert and René, limited as they are to the beginning of the picture, stand out as especially raw wounds. But the first death of Kirk, eclipsed by the second and rather more permanent death of Kirk, is surprisingly not-sad. It’s melancholy to watch Picard stare at the little pile of stones he’s made on Veridian III to commemorate the death of a great man (though the effect is ruined by the circular track on Picard as he stands on this spot atop his mountain – is he mourning James T. Kirk or Rod Stewart?), but Kirk has already died once. Watching him die again is maybe a tad more final, but Kirk has already made his choice. Like Achilles, he has chosen a glorious ending—saving hundreds of millions of people from the whims of a madman—in lieu of dying in his bed one night. The saddest death, if it can really be called a death, is the Enterprise-D. (Generations is so contemplative that I think it’s easy to misread it as undramatic, but we’re talking about a movie that kills the face of the franchise and its second-most recognizable ship.) Watching people pull everything they can out of the wreckage, from computers to a very frightened Spot, is especially sad. Generations takes away finality, for as long as the Nexus exists and can be charted and manipulated, nothing can really be said to last forever. But at the same time it’s hard to imagine a sequence of events which will spare the Enterprise, which will make its own grave not far from James T. Kirk’s. “What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived,” Picard tells Riker. As the two of them beam up to another ship, never to see the corpse of the Enterprise-D nor the sparkling eyes of Jim Kirk again, it’s the only comfort either man can take along with him.

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