Today marks the 25th Anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Trek Generations, the highly anticipated transition of the Next Generation cast from the small screen to the big one. TrekMovie is marking the anniversary with a retrospective from guest author Steve Vivona, who tells us why he has a special place for the film in his heart, and why it’s still significant to him 25 years later.
I should really, really hate Star Trek Generations. At the time of its release (November 18, 1994), my personal life was imploding. I was 24. My girlfriend of four years (who I thought I would marry) kicked me to the curb the day it came out, and my professional outlook was bleak. I was eagerly anticipating its release, knowing it would be the swan song for my beloved original crew, and here I was, engulfed by a bleak pall. Given its reputation among Trek fans, you’d think seeing it would’ve done nothing to improve my dark mood.
I liked it. I still do. That might have something to do with sentimentality and my mental state when I saw it, but I have watched Generations many times over the years, and its themes of mortality, change, and ultimately, hope, still resonate with me. Its execution was somewhat flawed, but I loved the acting. I loved the action sequences, especially the destruction of the Enterprise-D.
Let me be clear: I’ve heard it all. I know (and I agree) that the Nexus is a plot device rife with holes you could drive a Mack truck through. I know the overwhelming majority of Trek fans think James Kirk’s death is as un-Kirk-like as possible. I know Leonard Nimoy passed on acting and directing in the film because he wouldn’t work simply for hire, and deemed Spock’s role perfunctory at best.
Generations was the movie that could have been, but wasn’t, pure and simple. It had the chance to be epic and grandiose, and it failed. However, it contains moments that really bring a tear to my eye.
The film’s entire existence is predicated on the mandate to unite Kirk and Picard without time travel, so from the jump, co-writers Brannon Braga and Ron Moore were somewhat handcuffed. However, the MacGuffin of the Nexus, for all its problems, allowed the pair to write some very touching scenes with Picard and his illusory family, allowing him to glimpse a life he could’ve had, but didn’t.
Let’s cast aside plot holes for a minute. We know they exist. The Nexus raises more questions than it answers. I get that. However, the Nexus provides a (convenient) through-line for the themes of the film: Kirk’s feelings of uselessness upon retirement, the death of Picard’s family, and the subsequent realization his family line dies with him, Soran’s desire to freeze time and live in a paradise where life’s tragedies can be reversed. It’s within the Nexus that these themes play out, and it’s within the Nexus that Picard and Kirk share some introspective moments about the lives they have led, and what could’ve been.
Now I realize that is probably not what audiences expected or wanted. I imagine they wanted something along the lines of “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” an epic meeting of both casts teaming up to save the universe, not some touchy-feely interlude at the climax of what (up to that point) had been a pretty exciting, if uneven, yarn.
For me, Star Trek has always been at its best when it was exploring deeper themes, and while people would probably argue that Star Trek II said everything about aging and mortality that needed to be said (in the midst of an incredibly exciting Shakespearian tale), Generations just works on some level for me.
For my money, this film was a real showcase for Patrick Stewart. By this time, he had already delivered some powerhouse performances in episodes like “Best of Both Worlds,” “The Inner Light,” and “Chain of Command.” What I love about his performance in Generations is his portrayal of a man desperately trying to hold it together in the midst of a great family tragedy, while at the same time fending off the Duras sisters, Soran, and even mentoring Data, who’s experiencing his own existential crisis.
Maybe I was just in the right frame of mind for this kind of tale. I wasn’t upset that the manner in which Kirk and Picard came together was less than epic. In my mind, Kirk had been saving the galaxy since Picard’s grandfather was in diapers. Hadn’t we seen that countless times before? I thought Trek VI was a great way for Kirk to go out, and Generations felt more like a coda.
And how about William Shatner? First off, I loved the opening scene on the Enterprise-B. The old tropes of “no other ship in the quadrant,” “an inexperienced commander,” blah blah, were tired and hackneyed, but the sequence picks up steam quickly, and doesn’t let go, giving Kirk his first of two heroic demises.
I loved his interaction with Walter Koenig and Jimmy Doohan. Knowing full well they were meant for Dee Kelly and Leonard, there was still a touching warmth on display, especially with Koenig. I love the shorthand with which they speak when the Nexus rears its ugly head, but most importantly, I love that Kirk realizes it’s not his ship; his time is past, yet he can still contribute.
The sense of loss when the pair realizes Kirk is gone is palpable. Walter Koenig gave a gut-wrenching performance reacting to Kirk’s death in a deleted scene not included on the DVD, but easily found on YouTube. I can remember him telling an assembled audience at a convention back in ’94 that he was channeling the recent death of his brother in that scene.
When Kirk reappears in the Nexus, he’s obviously transfixed by this idyllic experience, and it takes Picard some time to snap him out of it (having already done that for himself). We see a restrained Kirk ruminating on the course of his life, much like Picard, and as the two of them argue about duty and obligation, we pull back the veneer both these men have worn for decades. At the end of the sequence, both of them realize what needs to be done.
I am well aware of the vitriol reserved for Kirk’s death. I have no issues with it. I like it far better than the original death scene, which I felt was cheap. The bridge sequence is pretty suspenseful (it’s no escape from the Mutara Nebula) but it works. Kirk’s actual death is poignant. Shatner has explained (ad nauseam) over the years what he was trying to achieve, and it makes sense to me.
I liked the fact he died alone as he foreshadowed in Star Trek V, even if that was a “happy” coincidence. Shatner was restrained. He was with someone he had no history with, connected only by their captaincy of a certain ship, and they have a touching exchange that really got to me.
I loved Malcolm McDowell as Soran. It may be his most well known “paycheck job,” and he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of the whole “Killer of Kirk” thing over the years at cons and such, but he gives a great performance that was reminiscent of Khan in some ways. Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting he eclipses Khan in any way, shape, or form. However, he’s a tragic villain, driven to the brink of madness by the great loss he’s endured. He engenders a fair amount of sympathy from me, perhaps even more than Khan did.
I met Malcolm McDowall at a convention in 2007, and I gave him a photo of Soran beckoning the Nexus on Veridian III (you know the picture), and he looked at it admiringly. He said, “Time is the fire,” and proceeded to inscribe that on the photo. I love that line, and obviously he did too.
David Carson, who helmed some of Next Gen‘s foremost episodes, does an admirable, workmanlike job bringing Trek to the big screen, with a huge assist from cinematographer John Alonzo, who did an incredible job lighting the existing sets for the big screen, giving them a theatrical scope I never thought possible. It’s understandable they destroyed the ship so they could design one more appropriate for films, but it was great to see how good the Enterprise-D could look, just once.
I really want to single out the work of composer Dennis McCarthy, another Next Gen veteran, who creates a wistful mood that permeates the film. So many of the film’s themes possess an ethereal, otherworldly quality that does more for the concept of the Nexus than the actual script. I honestly believe McCarthy was the man for this particular job, and not the mighty Goldsmith (who I adore).
Generations is rife with death and destruction, but it ends on a hopeful note. It ends with Picard realizing that, yes, he is going to die. We all are, but he comes away with that realization secure in the knowledge that we need to treasure every moment; that we need to move forward even after we’ve been beset by hardship and tragedy.
I was 24 in 1994. Today, 50 looms large on my radar. There truly are fewer days ahead than there are behind. Generations has become more prescient than ever for me. And at any given moment I can think, like Soran does, that time is a predator that stalks us all over lives. It’s easy to think that way when we lose loved ones, or bemoan the loss of youth and vitality. However, at other times, when recalling the many good things in my life, both past and present, I feel like Picard—that time is a companion on the journey, reminding me to cherish every moment.
Generations is not the best Trek film. It might not be the best two-part episode, but as silly as it may sound, it contained the right message at the right time for me, both then and now, and maybe for that reason alone, I love it.