Does Star Trek: Generations Deserve Another Chance?
The first cinematic adventure for the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew might be better than you remember.
This article contains spoilers for a movie that is over 20 years old.
It seems difficult to believe, but Captain Kirk has been dead for over 20 years. Bummer. As you are doubtlessly aware, the good Cap’n met his fate in the closing moments of Star Trek: Generations, a divisive film that finally paired Kirk and Captain Picard together (a move that still leaves Trekkies debating whether or not it could have been handled better).
When Star Trek: Generations initially hit theaters, the Star Trek franchise was at the arguable peak of its success. Star Trek: The Next Generation had finished its wildly successful run the previous spring, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really began to find itself by introducing the Dominion threat into its mythos and the upstart UPN television network was preparing to center their programming around Star Trek: Voyager (for better or for worse). Meanwhile, Trek VHS releases enjoyed brisk sales, and toy aisles everywhere showcased Playmates’ terrific line of action figures based on the long-running franchise. It was, to paraphrase Captain Kirk quoting Charles Dickens in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the best of times.
In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, we thought we’d take a look back at the film, its frantic production, the controversial death of Kirk and its current fan ranking (nowhere near as good as Star Trek: First Contact, but not the nadir of Trek that Insurrection is either). You may not think it’s the perfect space adventure, but there’s enough great material in it that you have to agree that it was, as dying Kirk reminded us, fun.
Films: The Final Frontier
The corpse of Star Trek: The Next Generation was barely cold when word spread that the Enterprise-D crew would, um, boldy go to the big screen. Sorry. While production on the seventh and final season of the show was underway, Trek executive producer Rick Berman conducted a meeting with longtime Trek writers Ron Moore (later of Battlestar Galactica fame) and Brannon Braga to write a script that would bridge the gap between the classic series and Next Generation. Another script written by Borg creator Maurice Hurley was commissioned and rejected.
Moore and Braga wanted to craft a screenplay that would be large on adventure, and feature some of the original cast members and a memorable villain. But more than that, they sought to create a tale that would chronicle the final adventure of Captain James T. Kirk, a not too subtle move that symbolically illustrated that the past was over and the future was Picard and his crew. It was a dangerous and daring move for Trek, one that foreshadowed the type of edginess that would go on to be the hallmark of Deep Space Nine. Adding to the potential pitfalls was the fact that bringing back Kirk after he gracefully said goodbye in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country threatened to undermine the goodwill that film’s ending left with audiences.
Yet things didn’t turn out too well. Initial test screenings left audiences feeling largely indifferent. Originally, Captain Kirk was essentially shot in the back by Malcolm McDowell’s Soran character. It was decided that the death of one of popular culture’s premiere icons deserved a more noble, heroic death, and costly reshoots were ordered. Then a mere six months since “All Good Things…” aired, the crew of the Enterprise-D was ready for their feature film debut.
Scanning for Lifeforms
On November 18, 1994, Star Trek: Generations opened in American theaters to uneven reviews…which is quite fair given the unevenness of the film. Let’s start with the positives. First and foremost, Malcolm McDowell shines as the villain of the piece, Dr. Tolien Soran. Years after the Borg killed his family, he has crafted an (admittedly somewhat incomprehensible) plan to destroy stars in order to alter the path of the Nexus, a celestial McGuffin that is described by Guinan as “like being inside joy.” So space heroin, really.
McDowell brings a likeability and genuine menace to his character, especially in an early scene where he is emotionally manipulating Picard – whose brother and nephew were just killed in a blaze – by reminding him that “time is the fire in which we burn.” He’s easily the most formidable Trek foe since Khan, but you can’t help but feel for the guy. Ultimately he just wants to do whatever it takes to reconnect with those who were ripped away from him. The Nexus will allow him to find the happiness that he so desires. Too bad that doing so comes with a body count.
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Regardless of your thoughts on Generations as a whole, it’s hard to deny that the film is beautiful to look at. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo (who was also the director of photography on indisputable classics like Harold and Maude and Chinatown) makes the Enterprise look like an actual lived-in starship. Gone is the hydroponics bay-brightness of the ship, replaced instead by moody shadows that subtly echo the story’s dark themes. For the first time ever, the crew of the Enterprise-D looked like they were truly in outer space, something the TV budget never quite allowed for.
And then there’s Data. His arc allows Brent Spiner to flex his acting muscles and garners the biggest laughs of the film while taking the character to the next level by finally giving him emotions. Yet while this move gives us the great scene of Data being paralyzed by fear (which in turn causes Geordi to get captured and subsequently tortured by Soran), it also results in his scanning for lifeforms song, a forced moment of wackiness that foreshadows some of the painful “humor” that would plague the character in Insurrection and Nemesis.
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While everybody’s favorite android threatens to steal the show at times, other characters barely register, with Worf, Crusher, and Riker given nothing to do for most of the film’s 118-minute running time. In fan-pleasing moments, Lursa and B’Etor, Spot, and Nurse Ogawa appear, so that’s something at least.
Then there’s the matter of the film’s extended prologue, in which Kirk, Scotty and Chekov help christen the Enterprise-B. Thrown together with the utterly inept Captain John Harriman (Alan Ruck of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), the three characters have no real function in the story other than some ham-fisted torch passing—again, something that was handled with much more skill at the end of Star Trek VI. If this combination of characters seems odd to you, it’s because they were the only original cast members who agreed to appear (and yes, we’re just as lost as you are as to why they made Sulu’s never-before-mentioned daughter helmsman).
“A Very Confusing Concept”
On the audio commentary track, Ron Moore candidly admits that the Nexus is “a very confusing concept,” and it’s impossible to disagree with that assessment. In the battle between suspension of disbelief and contrivance, the latter defeats the former with a quick KO. The whole concept of an energy ribbon that somehow sucks people into it and places them in their biggest fantasy as opposed to, say, immediately eviscerating every molecule in their body, is profoundly stupid. It is further complicated once the concept of “echoes” is brought up by a carousel-riding Guinan in Picard’s super lame Christmas celebration inside the Nexus. Then, the long-awaited meeting between Kirk and Picard deflates itself by turning into an impromptu Food Network show that gave Shatner and Stewart the opportunity to pitch their idea for a Cooking with the Captains program on talk shows throughout the fall of 1994.
Things get much better when Kirk and Picard have their horseback conversation, but you can’t help but think that their initial meeting should have been compelling instead of strange. Here’s an interesting promotional featurette from 1994 entitled Your Guide to Star Trek: Generations. Although it sadly doesn’t answer the question of why Kirk and Picard chose to go back to Veridian III a mere five minutes before Soran hatched his masterplan, but Patrick Stewart does at least awkwardly try to explain the Nexus by calling it a “place where all of ones dreams and imaginings come true.”
Kirk Is Dead. Long Live Kirk
In his final moments, Kirk proves himself a hero one last time. Yet even with the reshoots his death feels lacking. The DVD commentary tells us that Kirk’s “oh my” was added at Shatner’s insistence, a move the writers weren’t thrilled with as it had the Captain’s last emotion being fear instead of pride. Director David Carson’s vision of this scene is far too antiseptic. The death of Captain Kirk should have been an epic moment packed with crushing drama. Instead Starfleet’s greatest captain goes out with a near-literal whimper, a move that pleased no one.
But don’t take our word for it, hear what Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner himself have to say about Kirk’s stale fart of a death:
The Human Adventure Is Just Continuing
As the film hit theaters so did some tie-in merchandise, the most notable being tie-in figurines by Applause, a movie magazine with a lenticular cover (which, weirdly enough, could still be found at some K-Mart stores as late as 2002), and a line of Playmates action figures that were memorable in that they featured a toy based on a deleted scene featuring Kirk doing some “orbital skydiving” and the fact that the remaining figures were modeled after preliminary costume designs that weren’t used in the completed film. After all was said and done, Star Trek: Generations was a box office success. It cost an estimated $35,000,00 and had a worldwide gross of $118,075,125.
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Despite middling critical and fan reaction, the film did nothing to damage the Trek love that was running rampant in the fall of 1994. A sequel was immediately greenlit, resulting in the rousing Star Trek: First Contact in 1996. Yet these days, the movie is largely ignored with the general consensus being that Kirk’s death was lame and the film is largely just a middling curiousity at best. Given the downward slide that defined each post-First Contact film, it’s something of a surprise that Generations has never been given a revisionist boost. It isn’t even remotely as bad as its reputation suggestions. The film has real moments of adventure and emotion…as well as plenty of bad decisions and contrivances.
The final word? Brannon Braga summed it up best on the commentary track: “All Good Things…is better.”
Chris Cummins is a Philadelphia-based writer, producer, and comics historian. Read more of his work here. You can find him on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion