Last night I watched Star Trek: Generations. The seventh feature film in the Star Trek franchise, it’s the first movie to feature the cast from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and most notably includes the death of Captain Kirk. With the notable exception of the God-awful Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, it’s also one of the least favorite and most-maligned of the movies by Star Trek fans. I, however, enjoy it mightily and have since the day it came out in November 1994. Without necessarily disagreeing with peoples’ criticisms of the film, I’m going to boldly go where few have dared to go before and defend Star Trek: Generations.
Just to orient those readers who might not be Star Trek fans, Generations was meant as the movie to “bridge” the old (1960s) and new (1990s) eras of Star Trek. The plot concerns an energy vortex called the Nexus, which evidently roams through the universe snatching people and transporting them into a timeless realm where their lives’ desires are fulfilled. This happens to Captain Kirk, but 80 years later when mad scientist Soran (played by Malcolm McDowell) is about to destroy a planet in an attempt to get back to the Nexus, Captain Picard and the new starship Enterprise have to stop him. Kirk comes out of the Nexus, somehow, and together with Picard they foil Soran–but Kirk dies heroically, thus passing the torch to the “new” generation.
Does Generations suck? Well, yes, it sort of does.
First of all, let’s acknowledge why many people don’t like the film. If you say it’s not as visionary or high-concept as some Star Trek efforts, I agree. If you say the script is clunky and sort of limps along, I agree, at least to an extent (see below). If you say the plot is completely illogical, I certainly agree–clearly it is. If you say it lacks a good villain, I also agree with that. In fact, just about all the criticisms I’ve heard I can’t dispute. Seems like it was rushed and hastily-made? Yes. The scenes with the original cast members are corny? Yes. The “Nexus” concept is flawed? Yes. There’s no real chemistry between Picard and Kirk? Correct. It looks like an extended episode of the Next Generation show? Absolutely.
Even many people who participated in the film don’t like it. The writers of the movie were, at the time it was being put together, working simultaneously on the Next Generation series finale, and they admit that the finale was much better than the movie. Reportedly Malcolm McDowell, who plays the villain Soran, remarked he thought the script was “shit.” Leonard Nimoy thought so too, turning down a chance to make a cameo as Spock. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of enthusiasm for the movie from those who created it.
What does Generations do well?
There are some things, however, that Generations does very well. The centerpiece of the movie, for my money, is the lengthy sequence involving the crash of the Enterprise–the tense and frenzied evacuation of the crew to the saucer section, jettisoning the about-to-explode engine pods, and crash-landing the saucer on the surface of an alien planet. This really is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences in any Star Trek movie. It’s worth it to see the film just for this.
Despite the logical deficiencies in its plot, believe it or not Generations hangs together as a unified story much better than many of the other Star Trek movies do. Shifting back and forth over 80 years and the timeless realm of the Nexus, it would be easy to get confused, but the writers manage to weave together the threads of the plot (however silly the threads themselves) into a pretty cohesive whole. I think the charges of weakness in the script are better aimed at weakness of concept, not script. The writing is surprisingly good. It’s the conceptual underpinnings of the script that seem rushed and thrown-against-the wall.
Consider its limitations.
Before we crucify Star Trek: Generations as unworthy of the Star Trek name, let’s briefly consider the circumstances under which it was made. In terms of budget, time and logistical limitations, it stands alone among all the Star Trek films. Paramount Pictures wanted to rush a movie into production so they could have a Star Trek film in theaters for the holiday season in 1994, five months after Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air. By contrast, an entire decade elapsed between the end of the original Star Trek series in 1969 and the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.
I find the crash sequence from “Star Trek: Generations” one of the most exciting passages in the entire franchise. So sue me.
Far from having a big budget to construct new sets, new ships and a bold new big-screen look for the small-screen Next Generation franchise, Generations had its budget slashed by $5 million right before production started, and the filmmakers were forced to shoot it on existing Next Generation sets hastily re-dressed for the movie. Those sets were built in 1987 for a television show. Trying to shoot a big-screen movie on TV sets is a tall order, even taller for relatively new director David Carson, who had never done a big science fiction picture before. There was also the time constraint: Generations had to be in the can in a matter of weeks. It was filmed hastily on the Next Generation sound stages in the summer of 1994 before the sets were torn down. The cast and crew took two “field trips,” one to Valley of Fire National Monument in Nevada to shoot the planet scenes, and five days aboard the reconstructed sailing ship Lady Washington for the “holodeck” sequence. They spent only 50 days of shooting, not even two months.
The “cheese” factor: unwittingly channeling the old show.
I think the best thing Generations does, however, is probably something its makers did not intend. It’s cheesy. With its clunky dialogue, thinly-veiled TV sets and props, and amateurish acting by the regulars–some of whom had never appeared in a feature film before–it harks back to the old Star Trek TV series from the 1960s by giving its best shot within its very obvious limitations. With their larger budgets, longer production times and helms of movie (as opposed to TV) veterans, the limitations of the other Star Trek films just aren’t as visible. I argue that Star Trek does best when it tries to tell a compelling story under serious logistical constraints. Generations does that. The other films, not so much.
Rick Berman, the producer of the new “Star Trek” franchise, confers with actress Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a futuristic bartender in “Star Trek: Generations.”
Let’s face it, the cheese factor was part of the charm of the old Star Trek. The sets were cardboard and plywood, the monsters merely guys in outrageous rubber suits, and the special effects pretty laughable. Yet despite low-rent sets, ridiculous costumes and clunky effects, Star Trek managed to tell compelling, big-brush stories more often than not. Consider “City of the Edge of Forever,” which many fans believe to be the best ever Star Trek episode. That was hastily written and filmed in a week on existing sets on a Hollywood backlot. Kind of like Generations. Yes, different results for sure, but Generations has a foot in the old ways whereas I’m not sure the more lavish Star Trek movie efforts really do.
Basically, there is something perversely enjoyable about Star Trek: Generations, and it’s something the other Star Trek films don’t have in quite the same way. It’s a much inferior movie to most of them (though I would say both Insurrection and Nemesis are far worse). But something about it is endearing, and I’m not entirely sure I can put my finger on it. Star Trek: First Contact is a far better film, but I’ve seen Generations many times more, and enjoyed it in a different way. I know it’s a contrarian opinion, but I stand by it.