Does Star Trek: Nemesis Deserve Its Reputation?

A Generation’s Final Journey nearly killed the franchise. But did it deserve to bomb?

Roy Walker gave the best review of Nemesis when he said “it’s good, but it’s not right,” although he may have been talking about something else. Star Trek: Nemesis does not try to do the things you think it should, but what it does attempt it succeeds at admirably. It is a film with the workings utterly exposed, where each part of the film has its own function that is plain to see, it’s just not the function you would logically expect those scenes to have. Star Trek: Nemesis is something of an inverse of Generations: it’s more than the sum of its parts, it’s just not the right parts.

Star Trek: Nemesis had something of a troubled production (which you can read about here), so I will focus on the film we actually got. In this sense Nemesis should be faintly praised. The direction is good. The plotting is good. The editing is good. But each is aiming to achieve different things.

Writer John Logan, it seemed, was reigned in by both franchise head Rick Berman and director Stuart Baird on what backstory he was allowed to include (and much was edited out anyway), the cast were keen on including more of themselves (Spiner it seems won in that regard), and Berman didn’t have a clear vision for who should win. The resulting film is a compromise, aiming to please everybody just enough. At these mediocre aims it succeeds. Perhaps we should be grateful that we got something coherent at all.

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But first, we’ve got to talk about Data.

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Data is probably the most loved and remembered of The Next Generation crew (next to Picard, obviously), but his thoughtful and respectful search for humanity in the series never translated well onto the big screen. A film does not give you the same scope for character development as a series and cannot be approached in the same way. The original series films got this right – highlight one area of character drama and resolve it by the end, whether that be inexperience, overconfidence or a conflict between characters.

The Next Generation did not translate as well to the big screen, but First Contact showed that the characters, if handled properly, could carry a film in such a way. Data’s handling was all over the place because he had a major role in each film, even when the film had nothing to do with him. His emotion chip was a mistake in Generations, and its absence a similar one in Insurrection. By Star Trek: Nemesis, Data had become a full grown plot tumor.

Star Trek: Nemesis shouldn’t be about Data, but it is. Star Trek: Nemesis should be about Shinzon. Picard perhaps. But definitely not Data. From the discovery of the prototypical B4, the crude analogue of the Picard/Shinzon relationship he became to the final, stolen sacrifice, Data usurped every major plot point in the film, and in every case it was less interesting than either the Shinzon story or even Data’s own stories from the past. Unlike Generations or Insurrection, Data isn’t entirely irrelevant to the main story, but his part does nothing to enhance the film.

This is not to say Data’s storyline in Star Trek: Nemesis is bad. In fact, it’s actually quite good. Data makes peace with his quest for humanity by coming face to face with the original version of himself, and sees how he has grown simply through his desire for betterment. Then, at the end, he shows his humanity by sacrificing himself to save his friends – an act B4 could not have done. It’s a great story (admittedly not executed anywhere near as well as I just made out), but it’s not the story of the film, nor does it really relate to it when seen in its best light. Worse, there was a far better and more relevant story that could have easily worked had John Logan delved a bit further into lore: er, Lore.

Data’s evil twin was a much more interesting character than B4 because he was basically Data with emotions. Well, guess what, Data has emotions now. Shinzon and Lore vs Picard and Data? Now that’s a conflict that makes sense. Alas, Data’s emotion chip isn’t even mentioned, which means that Data’s storyline doesn’t even work as a mirror to the Picard/Shinzon story.

Undoubtedly this was done deliberately to avoid confusing casual fans. Much of the malalignment of the film comes from the edit, specifically the character building scenes that were cut, which seem to have been discarded for both pacing reasons and accessibility. Had Lore been included it would have required some sleight of hand scripting to explain who he is and what his past relationship with the crew was. Such exposition worked well in Khan and First Contact as the films were basically designed around that premise, but as Star Trek: Nemesis already had a major villain to introduce it probably wouldn’t have been such an easy task. It’s also easy to forget that this was during the dark ages of the franchise, with continuity lockout a genuine concern, so it’s easy to understand why this storyline was approached this way.

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Of course, it’s the wrong approach. Even if the idea was executed well (and there’s nothing wrong with the B4 storyline as it is), it was the wrong idea. But what compounds it is how Data’s sacrifice is ultimately for nothing. Baird’s inexperience with Star Trek (and Berman’s insistence he remain oblivious to the greater Trek canon) meant that numerous plot holes and oddities surrounded Data’s death. What happened to the shuttlecraft? What happened to the transporters on the shuttlecraft? What happened to the transporters on the Scimitar? Why not use the emergency transporter to beam a photon torpedo into the Scimitar’s thalaron matrix? Why couldn’t Wesley Crusher just bend time with his brain, or something?

Perhaps it is for the best that Data’s resurrection with B4 is teased at the end, even if it does just give it the air of ripping off Wrath Of Khan. Hmm, a main character’s pointless and stupid death reversed by a plot contrivance introduced at the start of the film?

Attention Star Trek Into Darkness: stop stealing plot ideas from the weaker Trek movies.

Shinzon really should be the focus of the character here. After all, he is Picard with another lifetime, and exposing some of the more unsavory aspects of Picard worked so well in First Contact so it should work here. Shinzon also has an interesting backstory, being bred as a spy and then having his entire life discarded due to politics. You can see the individual bits working here even in the final film, but as Shinzon is not the focus, it doesn’t come through too well. Consider how Shinzon’s life is destroyed by a change of government, and how his first act in the film is to destroy that government and the lives of everyone involved.

Had Shinzon’s extreme invocation of Article 50 taken place towards the middle of the film it would have served as a crowning moment of revenge for Shinzon, and possibly even been a moment to root for. But we never see Shinzon in too sympathetic a light, even though he is the real victim and the Romulan Senate is the real villain.

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Such a treatment of Shinzon would have amped up the Shinzon/Picard dichotomy when it emerges in the second half of the film. Who knows, perhaps it could have been the deconstruction of the self-righteous Federation that Insurrection definitely wasn’t. This was the intention at one point, but, like so much, it was cut. It would have been a bold move to dedicate so much of the runtime to a new character, but Wrath Of Khan benefited from devoting such development to Khan, and there could be no one better to carry such a burden than the wonderful Tom Hardy. After all, he made a film about concrete pouring utterly compelling.

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Another example of how Star Trek: Nemesis would have been improved by either more or less character can be seen in Riker and Troi. Their wedding was the culmination of 15 years of will-they-won’t-they so fans were pleased to see it, but there was a function in the story as well. The final of the three nemeses in the film, Viruk (Ron Perlman’s Viceroy who is never named in the film, for some reason) is presented as one for Riker and Troi.

Shinzon and Viruk’s rape of Troi required some character development for maximum impact. More time for Riker and Troi would have strengthened this conflict no end (this was the intention, with a second rape scene cut for pacing reasons), providing character drama that fuelled the story, rather than being somewhat separate. That way, there would have been a true emotional pay off as Riker finally kicks the Viceroy down one of science fiction’s inexplicable bottomless pits.

Alternatively, this entire plot could have been dropped, allowing development in other areas. After all, Shinzon is already planning to kill billions so we know he’s not very nice, and the payoff of Troi using telepathy to find the Scimitar despite being cloaked could have been passed to Picard, to show his relationship with Shinzon as similar to his relationship with the Borg. That may have made the ramming of the Scimitar seem less as foolish abandon and more as a calculated risk. Both approaches would have allowed for a much more satisfying story, but instead we have a halfway house approach. It succeeds but only at mediocre aims.

Star Trek: Nemesis really is a film broken by the edit, but you can at least see why the film was edited in such a way. Every scene has a purpose, and the pacing really is quite good. Strangely, though, it doesn’t work. The purpose of each scene is so singular you can almost see the cog wheels grinding together in the background.

Let’s take the Argo scene as an example. The capabilities of the Argo are demonstrated. Individual cuts go on slightly too long to build suspense. The parts of B4 are found in order of least importance to help build for the reveal of B4 being a copy of Data. Worf is grabbed by surprise to increase the tension. And then the payoff, as the angry natives cause a car chase. Textbook execution and the action is very well directed. But it’s utterly pointless, because the car chase adds nothing save a car chase. It makes for an entertaining film and it would not be as entertaining without it, but when character is cut for action, it’s a bitter pill to swallow no matter how fun a scene it is. It is possible, albeit difficult, to have both.

In a greater sense, then, Star Trek: Nemesis suffers from a lack of world building. It exists in a halfway house between trying to cater to fresh viewers but appeal to long time fans. For me, it succeeds at both, but only because it aims are so small. For non-fans there’s plenty of exposition and action, and for fans there’s Riker and Troi’s wedding and a glimpse at the inner workings of Romulus. Nemesis succeeds at the world building it attempts, but in order to please everyone it spreads itself too thin. Fans wanted much, much more of the character development that was cut, but few casual fans really would have cared.

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Anyone watching the film gets caught in the crossfire between director Baird’s desire for a tight action film, and screenwriter Logan’s desire to please everyone. Neither approach is wrong but they don’t go together at all. Frakes’ style would have worked well with Logan’s, and Meyer’s writing would have complimented Baird’s tight direction. I find it difficult to fault either Logan or Baird without it being an arbitrary decision. Interestingly, a lot of fans blamed Brannon Braga, who had nothing to do with Nemesis.

Fan perceptions certainly harmed the film, fuelled by a number of continuity oddities throughout the film. Worf’s presence is never explained and directly contradicts the ending of Deep Space Nine, Wesley Crusher is back (blink and you’ll miss him) but what the hell happened to him is never explained. The Enterprise uses photon torpedoes again, despite being outfitted with quantum torpedoes before (admittedly, it is shown to use both). Janeway is now an admiral despite being nothing but a liability for seven seasons. Picard thinks nothing of violating the prime directive in antagonising a primitive society. Nothing that is particularly egregious or couldn’t be explained with a single line of dialogue, but when you’ve got a film already making some odd choices, these problems get significantly magnified.

There are some highlights, though. The special effects shots are really quite good. It’s not quite the level of First Contact and is obviously shown up by its successor, but what the CGI lacks in fidelity it makes up with flair and inventiveness, and Baird deserves credit for the spectacular action set pieces he conjures up without the kind of effects budget afforded to previous Trek films.

The music too is wonderful, with Jerry Goldsmith returning to the franchise for a final time. He manages to give the film series a sense of closure that the story could not, bookending the beginning of The Motion Picture and the ending of Nemesis with his Enterprise theme, but presenting an air of finality with a haunting, funereal march. One must only admire the man for once again turning in a score deserving of a better film. In fact the entire sound mix deserves credit. If you have a working Blu-ray disc then it really is demo material.

Nemesis exists in a strange world all on its own. Taken on its own terms Nemesis is actually a really entertaining action movie, but you can never escape the feeling that it really should be something more. It isn’t deserving of its reputation as a franchise killer all on its own – Insurrection and Voyager started the rot – but it certainly isn’t the worst film in the franchise.

Removed from its poor box office gross (Nemesis has actually turned a profit) and its coincidence with the nadir of the franchise, Nemesis is, on balance, a film that has gotten better with age. While we will never see the fifth Next Generation film that truly would have been a Generation’s Final Journey, which is Nemesis’ fault, and while it falls very, very short of the send off given to the Original Crew, there is at least a little joy to be had in this big, dumb action movie.

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