Star Trek Re-Freshers: Star Trek VII: Generations and Star Trek VIII: First Contact

Star Trek: Generations

The contention I’ve heard most often is that Star Trek: Generations shouldn’t have mixed the original crew with The Next Generation, because it makes the TNGcrew seem like they couldn’t carry their own movie without at least including Kirk. While it’s true that James Kirk is instrumental in the outcome of the film, it by no means relies on him to anchor any of the performances or bring credibility to the story. Generationsmay be flawed in its execution, but it makes up for its shortcomings by upholding the thematic standards Star Trek has been known for for almost fifty years.

Generations is basically a movie about learning to accept growing old and the fact that we all have to face death. The Nexus is a kind of temporal anomaly, and whenever someone is trapped inside it, they’re able to literally live out eternity doing whatever they wish. Think of it as a personal heaven. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) is a man hell-bent on returning to the Nexus no matter what the cost. His plans invariably intersect with the crew of the Enterprise, and Picard has to stop Soran in his madness before innocent lives are lost.  I suppose the plot sounds a little generic, and that’s fair enough. The quest for immortality has been done over and over again in every medium known to man, but that’s because it will always be relevant. It doesn’t matter what year it is; nobody wants to die, and science fiction affords those hungry enough for eternal life the infinite space with which to construct all manner of amoral schemes. Such is the case with Generations, as Soran would even destroy an entire solar system if it means he’ll be able to cheat death.
In order for Picard to win the day, he ends up enlisting the help of one Captain James T. Kirk. 78 years before the events of the movie, Kirk was presumed dead after a chunk of the ship he was in got sucked out to space. As it turns out, he was actually caught in the Nexus, and that’s where he is when Picard meets him for the first time. I don’t have any problems with the two Enterprise captains working together; in fact, it’s pretty damn sweet seeing them on-screen in the same movie. Touching on what makes finite life so special, Kirk agrees to help Picard after he realizes that nothing matters in the Nexus. Once death is rendered moot and time is no longer a boundary that can’t be crossed at will, Kirk opts to make one last, real difference. If the story was more contrived, I’d feel differently about how this plays out, but Kirk and Picard’s meeting just feelsright to me. The director, David Carson, should get a lot of the credit here, since he’s a veteran television director who has eight Star Trek episodes (4 TNG, 4 DS9) under his belt.
Running alongside the main plot are two side-plots: One is the continuing journey of Lt. Commander Data to become more human, and the other shows Picard in the middle of a family tragedy. In the show, Data was given an emotion chip capable of eliciting in him genuine, human emotions. It proved too unstable to be of practical use, but Generations explores what happens to him as he reintegrates the chip with the rest of his programming. The result has to deal with controlling emotions and learning how to live with fear and regret. It’s a fitting arch for one of my favorite people on the Enterprise bridge, plus his sketchy humor is in full swing (“You could say I have a…magneticpersonality!” Ugh, Data. Ugh.)
Picard’s situation also has something to do with regret, as he learns that his brother, Robert, and nephew, Rene, died in a house fire. In reminiscing, Picard finds that his decision to never have children has come back to haunt him, since the only heir to the Picard name (Rene) has passed away. It’s a sad story that flows nicely alongside the main narrative, and it gives the entire production a little more meat to it.
While Data and Picard’s experiences are great to watch, the main concern of the movie is with the Nexus. Sadly, it’s also its most unexplained element. It’s only ever loosely described as a ribbon of space-time that doesn’t conform to anything. For some reason, the past, present, and future have no meaning inside the Nexus. You could go from attending your child’s wedding to the delivery room when they were born in the blink of an eye. That’s all well-and-good, but there’s never even an attempt to explain why or how this is possible. Worse still, an “echo” of a person can be trapped inside the Nexus even after the actual person has left it. Again, that makes no sense, and the movie doesn’t bother reasoning it away. Such disregard might seem like a deal breaker, but Generationsis strong enough outside of this particular stumble to recover from the lack of insight.
It does, however, suffer from a bigger problem. Toward the end, Picard is thrust into the Nexus as he fails to stop Soran. Inside, it’s explained to him that he can leave whenever he wishes, and he’s not restricted by things like the past, present, or future. If that’s the case, if he were to fail again, what’s to stop him from just continuously entering the Nexus and resetting until he gets it right? The ability to infinitely correct your mistakes kind of lowers the tension a bit once you realize how it works, and this problem pops up every so often in movies that use time travel. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact also have similar elements within their stories.
Despite the time travel ridiculousness, Star Trek: Generations starts The Next Generation crew off with a bang while also giving Kirk one final mission to complete. His fate might be a little unnecessary, but it was handled well and seems a good enough ending for a great character. I was always a TNG guy, and even though their time in theaters never fully lived up to the series, its first attempt is one that’s worth watching.
Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: First Contact has long since been a favorite of mine. Maybe it’s because I love seeing the TNG crew on the big screen. After all, I can say without reservation that more TNG is better than less. Having just finished my latest viewing of it earlier today, a lot of the nostalgia holds up, but there are some glaring issues that keep First Contact from being the be-all-end-all TNG movie it could have been.
For starters, time travel. Again. Dammit. I’ll just get it out of the way early: First Contact fares no better than The Voyage Home when it comes to traveling back through time. In The Voyage Home, Kirk tells Spock to “just do it,” so he does. In First Contact,they follow the Borg’s coattails though a time portal thingamabob and ride it back to the 21st century. So far, I’d say The Voyage Home is winning the contrivance war between the two of them. Oh, but wait! How does the crew of the Enterprise get back to their present in First Contact? With the literal wave of a hand, Picard tells Worf to recreate what the Borg did. “Just do it” appears to be the operative phrase when figuring out how to create rifts in time, and the TNG crew has now tied the score in the battle for which movie can piss me off more. Drinks on the house, guys. Good job.
The reason the Borg needs to go back through time in the first place is so they can prevent humanity’s initial contact with the Vulcans, which happens during our first warp-capable flight. Led by Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell), that flight ushers in a new era as we finally realize we’re not alone in the universe. If it were to never happen, the results would prove disastrous for our future, so it’s up to Picard to once again set things straight.
First Contact does get some things right, such as showing the disparity between humanity in the mid-21st century and those aboard the Enterprise. In the year 2063, the effects of World War III are still being felt, and the environment surrounding the warp flight is suitable to that kind of situation. Let’s just say they’re not using world-class facilities to build the ship. Cochrane himself isn’t the consummate explorer history has made him out to be, as he admits he’s in it for the money. His motivation is interesting, because in the 24th century, we’ve evolved to the point where personal wealth has long since been abandoned in favor of the pursuit of knowledge and other, nobler concepts.
Then there’s Picard’s character arc, which is wholly satisfying when put into the context of his previous encounters with the Borg. When he was rescued from permanent assimilation six years before the events of First Contact took place, he was left with a lot of emotional trauma. One of my favorite episodes takes place not long after his rescue, as he attempts to heal by traveling home to his family’s vineyard in France. He ends up totally breaking down in front of his brother, Robert, and revealing how difficult it’s been reconciling the fact that he was powerless and not himself while under the Borg’s influence. In First Contact, the Borg’s presence aboard his ship stirs up those old wounds and clouds his judgment. Picard wants to dish out to the Borg what the entire Federation has been taking ever since their first encounter with them. In the second use of Moby Dick in the Star Trek movies (Khan likens himself to Ahab in The Wrath of Khan), Picard realizes he’s behaving like Ahab, relentlessly and foolishly searching for the white whale. Contrary to some criticism I’ve seen, this behavior is not due to a poorly-written movie version of Picard. I’d say he acts the way he does precisely because of what has happened to him in the past, and the persistence of the Borg finally tore down his wall of rationality.
On the opposite end of the quality spectrum, Data gets the shit end of the character development stick. For whatever reason, he’s now able to just switch off his emotion chip whenever he wants to, and that’s a giant problem for me. The entire point of using the chip in Generations was so that Data would be forced to confront and deal with basic human emotions. In First Contact, that crucial awareness is sidestepped in order to facilitate a climax that’s more concerned with having an action sequence than it is with character resolution.
Another example of someone on the writing staff being completely incompetent is when the Borg Queen tempts Data by grafting organic skin onto his arm in hopes of winning him over. She says that she’s given him everything he’s ever wanted–flesh and blood. I’m sorry, but I fail to see how the hell a patch of skin is anything remotely like what Data’s journey is about. If he had wanted to, he could have gotten skin grafts at any point, but he didn’t. To suggest that the kind of emotional awareness Data is after is limited to sensations brought about by touch is just plain stupid. Emotions come from many different places, one of which is physical touch. But that’s only one aspect, and it’s the one that First Contact seems to think is above all. When Data ultimately refuses the “upgrade,” it’s supposed to show his solidarity and ethical code, but all I heard inside my head was “Damnsonofaaaaaaa blarrrghh.”
Going back to the scene where Picard realizes his resemblance to Ahab reveals another horrible miscue. The movie introduces a new character, Lilly, when the Enterprise crew travels back through time. Before she became entangled in the Borg shenanigans, she was building Cochrane’s ship. Once she’s on the Enterprise, though, she gets a lot of screen time that should have been reserved for actual members of the bridge crew. When Picard breaks down and lays his emotions bare, it should have been Beverly on the other end of the conversation, not Lilly. In fact, most of the scenes between her and Picard should have been re-worked and done with the doctor. Their relationship deserves more coverage, and instead of handing it to the fans on a golden platter, First Contact says “meh” and gives the coveted role to some chick Picard found in the past. The more I think about it, the more insulting it becomes. Picard even says “I’ll miss you, Lilly,” even though he knew her for all of a couple of hours. Give me a break.
The Borg Queen is one of the most perplexing things I can think of in Star Trek lore. Her first appearance is in First Contact, and the concept is (unfortunately) continued in the Voyager series. The Borg function as a collective, and the idea behind the queen is that she’s the hive mind’s queen bee. That analogy fails when you consider that the Borg is nothing like actual bees. They’re essentially the largest computer network in existence, but they somehow need a figure head with emotions and personal ideologies to regulate necessary functions? I’m not buying it. Why are they allowing an emotional being like her to be their leader? She incorporates feelings into her decision-making process, which is an obvious non-starter for a Borg drone. The whole thing smacks of the need to put a face to the villain for mass audiences even if it means screwing up everything the show put in place.
There are a lot of things about First Contact that irritate me. All the flaws I’ve mentioned so far have always been downplayed in my mind in favor of the joy I get from seeing Picard, Data, Riker, and the rest of the crew in a feature-length film. But after having seen it at least half a dozen times, First Contact is finally showing its cracks. It ignores or changes things about the show that should be no-brainers and inserts pointless “movie” stuff whenever possible (Phaser rifles? Since when is that a thing?), and while it’s still enjoyable as two hours of Star Trek, the bits they get wrong are reallywrong. The more I think about its missteps, the more I realize how much of a wasted opportunity First Contact is. If you’re starving for Star Trek, have at it, but otherwise, you’re better off with the television series.
George Bell 

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