Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: Generations' (1994)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Sandwiched in between the well-regarded finale of the original Star Trek cast in The Undiscovered Country and the even more well-regarded (and commercially very successful) first solo adventure for the Next Generation cast in First Contact, Star Trek: Generations is sort of a forgotten Star Trek movie. It's stuck fulfilling a bunch of logistical tasks that take a back seat to the storytelling and character development, and it has to serve two fan bases, both eager to see their favorite characters represented respectfully and favorably. Given that, I think it works out pretty well, even if it won't go down as one of the best Trek movies. Like The Search for Spock, which was similarly constructed from external mandates (it was actually written with the ending first), Generations at times strains to fit its various plot elements together logically, but it holds them together thanks to strong performances and character dynamics.

Obviously the big deal here is the meeting of the two Enterprise Captains, Kirk (William Shatner) and Picard (Patrick Stewart), and even though the characters don't have any particular personal connection, Shatner and Stewart successfully convey their mutual respect and teamwork. Picard stands a bit in awe of someone he knows as a major historical figure, and Kirk clearly recognizes an equal in Picard. The villain they team up to fight, Malcolm McDowell's Soren, may be kind of underwhelming, but their dedication to defeating him and saving lives feels genuine. Similarly, Kirk's death scene may not have the impact of Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan, but it does bring out some real emotion. Kirk saying, "Who am I to argue with the captain of the Enterprise?" did get me choked up a bit. And Kirk's death has managed to mean something, never undone or retconned in any of the movies or TV series that followed.

All that stuff happens in the last 15 minutes or so, though, and the rest of the movie is decidedly uneven. It's nice to see Kirk, Scotty (James Doohan) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) trotted out as figureheads to launch the Enterprise-B at the beginning of the movie, and their presence continues the theme of obsolescence and torch-passing from The Undiscovered Country. And it's exciting to see the Next Generation crew graduate to a feature film, even if the final episode of their TV show had just aired six months prior to the movie's release. The subplot about Data (Brent Spiner) installing an emotion chip is kind of silly, although it does afford the amusing opportunity to hear Data say, "Oh, shit!" I had forgotten how central Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) is to the plot, and I liked seeing her integrated into the wider Trek mythos.

The plot, however, is mostly nonsense, with a vaguely defined pocket dimension that somehow exists outside of time, and an obsessed, near-immortal scientist (McDowell's Soren) determined to return to it at any cost. A pair of Klingon sisters from a few Next Generation TV episodes show up as secondary antagonists, continuing the movies' tradition of mostly squandering the Klingon characters. The Enterprise gets destroyed again (albeit in a slightly more spectacular fashion than it did in Search for Spock). Soren is meant to be a tragic villain in the vein of Khan or Chang from The Undiscovered Country, but he doesn't have their sense of melancholy or hubris; he's just a selfish asshole. Really, he's mainly a plot device, an elaborate continuity patch to get the two titans of the franchise into the same scene together. For all the hoops that the creators had to jump through in order to make that happen, the effort turns out to be mostly worth it.

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