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Star Trek Generations

(David Carson, USA, 1994)


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I have long been fascinated by the ever-shifting hierarchies of cultural taste in our society what's in and what's out, what's considered cool and daggy, what artworks are being rescued and legitimated, or, in the opposite direction, forgotten and damned. You often hear the lazy claim that these days, in our fabulous post-modern world, there are no longer any such cultural distinctions. High art and low culture have blended into one great consumerist soup, and nobody would say anymore that opera is greater or worth more attention than a Jerry Lewis comedy. And of course there are noticeable signs of this kind of transformation all around us.

 

Arts programs on ABC TV cover vaudeville and cartoons and underground rock stars alongside the usual highfalutin' stuff. A recent scholarly book on the philosophy of humanism spent a third of its space, without apology, on John Ford's classic Westerns starring John Wayne. Everywhere there are books and serious articles about TV sitcoms and soaps. There are thousands of computer users on the Internet swapping titbits both trivial and profound about The Simpsons and The X-Files, in between swapping titbits about French philosophy or Oz Lit.

 

But my friends, I'm here to tell you that this claim that there are no cultural hierarchies anymore is a vicious lie. Let's stick with TV for a moment. It's cool to like Seinfeld, to cultivate an encyclopedic knowledge of its tags and tricks. It's cool to like Melrose Place, and to justify one's love with a defence of soap or trashy serial melodrama, and the pleasures it brings. It's cool to like Ren and Stimpy, and to embark on a serious dissertation on the history of animation and the visual design of cartoons and graphic novels. But I ask you, is it cool to like Star Trek?

 

I speak from personal experience. I once wrote an essay about Star Trek: The Next Generation in my 1994 book Phantasms, specifically about its wonderful resident android Data, played by Brent Spiner. A common reaction to this piece among people I bumped into was one of faint bewilderment. Why on earth would I pay attention to Star Trek? Isn't it the nerdy province of that dreaded species known as 'Trekkies'? I realised that to write about Twin Peaks or Reality TV or even thirtysomething was to play by a certain unspoken rule of cultural taste, a rule about what is appropriate and permissible in particular circumstances. But talking about Star Trek was either the height of perversity or the height of madness.

 

Well, perversity is not my alibi. I should declare my hand here immediately and state that I am an obsessed fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. For those of you who are not Trekkies, that's the TV series made between the original Star Trek, with Kirk and Spock, and Deep Space Nine. Star Trek Generations is the first Star Trek movie to use characters from The Next Generation. I admit that I awaited this film with both impatience and trepidation. The Star Trek movies have been, on the whole, pretty unsatisfactory affairs.

 

Where the various Star Trek TV series build their characters and recurring themes over the long stretch, from episode to episode, the movies are abstract, disconnected spectaculars. Sure, they offer the childlike pleasure of seeing familiar heroes, villains and spaceships magnified on the big screen. Star Trek Generations is full of those chintzy showbiz moments where some beloved old character from the original Star Trek crew stirs into action, delivering a line or quoting some mannerism that is meant to induce intense nostalgia in fans of the show. But the Star Trek movies as a whole contain none of the true delight of the TV shows. Star Trek on TV has always been a fascinating mixture of several things. First, there's a classic action-entertainment element, with enigmas and plot twists and heroic derring-do. This element best expresses itself in those stories where the crew of the starship Enterprise have an impossibly short time to achieve something before a star or a planet or an enemy craft or their own craft blows to smithereens.

 

Secondly, there's an intriguing political premise. It's not just facile pop sociology to say that Star Trek was born in the '60s, when the Vietnam war posed for America the sticky problem of its brutal imperial intervention into other countries and other cultures. Almost every episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations is about the problem of intervention, the problem of culture clash, "first contact" and contamination. In many stories, the various Captains of the Federation must ask themselves: will intervening in the course of an alien world save it at a crucial moment, or alter and destroy it forever? Star Trek is not a radical left-wing critique of such imperialism. But neither is it a conservative apology for a conservative status quo. Rather, in the manner of much fine popular art, Star Trek simply worries over the matter, turning it over again and again from one tale to the next.

 

There's something perhaps even more important than these factors of classic entertainment and contemporary politics. I'm thinking of a certain lofty, philosophical element underpinning the entire Star Trek universe. This was undoubtedly part of creator Gene Roddenberry's intention from the very start. The very best episodes of The Next Generation, for instance, tend to be those about time warps where vast questions of destiny and identity are played out. Characters meet their evil or benevolent twins in a parallel world, wonder what might have been possible in their lives, or what they're really capable of in the present. Or time winds itself backwards and forwards either side of a great global catastrophe, and our heroes must decide whether it is right to alter the course of history if it means saving their own loved ones. In the Holodeck, a super "virtual reality" leisure centre for the Enterprise crew, characters come face to face with thwarted desires and repressed memories. And with the android Data, it's the classic philosophical question of what it truly means to be human, what can actually distinguish a human being from an animal or a machine or an amoeba.

 

In a nutshell, I'd argue that the Star Trek movies minimise this crucial philosophical or reflective ingredient, and try to soup up the entertainment angle, the action plots and the comic possibilities. It's a strategy that rarely pays off, but Generations follows this strategy all the way. Some Next Generation fans will be highly disconcerted by this film. Central characters from the series appear such as Commander Riker, Doctor Crusher and Worf the Klingon warrior but they hardly figure in the story. Generations tries to ritually "pass the torch" from the first Star Trek crew, who have been hogging the movie series up till now, to the Next Generation team. It does so by contriving an encounter between the ageing Captain Kirk (that's William Shatner) and the Enterprise's new Captain, Picard (played by Patrick Stewart). Together, Kirk and Picard fight the a villain created especially for this story, a Dr Soran, whose personal obsession threatens to kill multitudes.

 

A mid ‘90s episode of The Simpsons showed computer nerds feverishly arguing about the relative merits of Captains Kirk and Picard. In Generations, Picard clearly comes out the winner. Yes, I guess Patrick Stewart's stoic, very British theatrical manner may be a little fruity at times. But William Shatner is a horror. Determined to play every scene in a wry, camp manner, Shatner almost sabotages the film's high dramatic moments.

 

There are certainly elements in this movie that are rich in possibility. Like on TV, there are various exciting games with time, leaping time as in Kirk's case, and reversing time when cataclysm looms. There's also a fantasia about space and place at work here. Dr Soran's deadly obsession is fixed on a Nirvana-like world called the Nexus, which strongly recalls the planet of Solaris from Tarkovsky's 1972 film of that name. Here, in the nexus, Kirk and Picard can step into their fantasies and dreams, be anywhere, anytime with a single thought. It's like the Holodeck combined with the old Hollywood fantasies of heaven that you see in Shirley Temple's The Bluebird (Walter Lang, 1940) or the Gary Cooper romance Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935). And another Next Generation regular the cameo role created for Whoopi Goldberg of the wise, mysterious and ageless Guinan pops up to tell us about her tantalising history with the Nexus.

 

But, sadly, there's not much going on in this film. None of the possibilities of time travel or the Nexus are really explored. The plot moves uncomfortably in stages, giving us a long Captain Kirk prologue before introducing the Next Generation team, and then abruptly shuffling most of this team out of the picture, along with a curiously all-female band of evil, conniving Klingons. David Carson's direction is limp, and the action clinches are very basic when compared to the kind of thing you see these days in the Terminator or Die Hard movies. Most disappointing of all for me is the treatment of Data.

 

Viewers of the Next Generation on TV will know that, at one point in the mid ‘90s, Data experimented with implanting in himself a chip giving him access to the complete range of human emotions. After an interesting but disturbing experience, Data decided to put this chip away, for the future. In Generations Data inserts the chip. We see him experience confusion and panic, we see him laugh out loud and cower in fear, we see a touching moment of gentle sentiment. OK. But where's Data's love, his desire, his anger, his evil, his sorrow, his tenderness? We saw ambiguous glimpses of all these dark and sublime emotions on television, when Data was still nominally an android. Now that he's human, at least in this movie he's suddenly a whole lot less interesting, and the scriptwriters seem to have precious little idea about where to take him next.

MORE Trek: Insurrection

© Adrian Martin April 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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