Star Trek Generations and the end of cinema
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise – and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: Kirk meets Picard. Earlier this week: The end of the Cold War, masterfully rendered via Klingons. Next week: The Borg.
One of the first Star Trek episodes I ever watched was the series finale of The Next Generation. Which is just so completely not the way you are supposed to watch a TV show.
And, looking back 22 years later, it is an especially strange way to approach that specific finale. “All Good Things…” ran 105 minutes across two parts – not counting commercials, which I almost certainly watched, times being what they were. It cuts between three distinct time periods of Next Generation lore, which means there are three distinct versions of almost every major cast member. Next Generation was never a serialized show – though it had cliffhangers and running threads and the occasional intra-crew romance – but “All Good Things…” is a finale in the modern sense, sewing together plotlines from several seasons, ending a story that harkens back to Next Generation‘s first adventure.
The problem: Picard has come unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim-style. He flashes back to his first mission as Enterprise captain, which means much of the episode is a rewrite over the series premiere, which means the episode assumes you have some general fluency with notions like “Tasha Yar” and “Beardless Riker.” Picard is also flashing forward to a future rife with sidelong storylines that nod to some of Next Generation’s central concepts: Riker-as-ambitious-careerist, the Schrödinger’s cat-ness of Picard and Crusher’s infinite almost-romance, the implicit promise that someday LeVar Burton could take off that damned visor.
And while we’re hopping along the space-time continuum, we are also frequently standing aside it: Much of the series finale is about Picard talking to Q, the godlike Gazoo who asks big questions about existence and can bring you back to the dawn of existence just to prove a point. (Q is God if God was a rich brat who loved Terrence Malick.) So “All Good Things…” requires you to understand three distinct variations of Next Generation reality, and also assumes you’ll roll with it when the tabletop of that reality gets flipped on its head.
“All Good Things…” is, in short, not the episode anyone would recommend starting with. Theoretically, I should have been confused. But I loved it. Somehow, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore threaded a perfect knot: They wrote an episode that builds on years of franchise lore, but which never assumes all that lore is more important than telling a good story. “All Good Things…” stands on its own, the way a great episode used to, when TV was episodic. It also stands on its own, the way we used to assume a movie was supposed to.
Helping matters: Patrick Stewart, who plays Modern Picard, Future Picard, Modern Picard Pretending To Be Past Picard, Modern Picard Inside Of Future Picard, and a few other radically different existential modalities. Stewart had back-up: The Next Generation cast members, who always seemed game for anything. Michael Dorn knew Worf only got cooler when the show made him look goofy; Jonathan Frakes maybe preferred playing Riker as a prick; “Data Wears Wacky Clothes” was an emergency button in the writers’ room. Most of the lead cast had been with Next Generation since the beginning, which means that, together, they had survived a difficult beginning, and had joined together while the show gradually climbed to healthy ratings, critical approval.
“All Good Things…” is a perfect thing, I think. It rewards fans, but in its sheer ambition – its hell-for-leather, one-last-time rapacious desperation to fit in everything; the whole sweep of a man’s life; the meaning of Man’s journey through time; the cosmic confusion of whatever life is – the series finale transcends even the trappings of its own show. If you want to show someone what Star Trek can be – if you want to show them what television can be, what entertainment can be, WHAT HUMANITY CAN BE!!!! – you show them “All Good Things…”
We should not forget there is the whole ongoing concern around the show – frequent episode director Winrich Kolbe, producer Rick Berman, man-who-was-Q John de Lancie, the costume designers, the production designers, makeup people, cameramen, whatever – who all deserve some credit for how this episode turned out so well.
Kudos to them all. That same year, they made the worst Star Trek movie ever.
Feel free to disagree, or to say that it’s too close to call. Search for Spock ain’t great, and more horrors await ahead. Truthfully, I don’t want to relitigate Star Trek Generations. (ASIDE: If we’re to believe the lawyers representing Paramount/CBS in the Axanar lawsuit, Star Trek Generations has no colon, which actually makes a certain amount of sense if you choose to read “Star Trek” as a two-word adjective, while the current no-colon films use Trek as a verb. END OF ASIDE.) Moore and Braga are both successful enough to look back on the film with bracing honesty. In an interview two years ago with Yahoo TV, Braga said, “There were many masters to serve on that movie. And quite frankly, I don’t think it had a good concept driving it.” After happily participating in the film, William Shatner launched an implicit broadside on the movie’s central conceit – Captain Kirk’s Last Ride! – by reviving his character in a series of books where Kirk fights gods and Emperors and Romulans and Kirk. The whole Next Generation cast would soon reunite for First Contact, a better movie in every way simply because First Contact is not Generations.
Truthfully, I don’t want to nitpick. Yes, Generations wastes every good opportunity baked into its premise. Picard was always so different from Kirk, but the film briefly focuses on some vague notion that they’re the same archetype – great hero, no time for family – but even that commonality doesn’t really matter, since their great act of collaboration is to punchfight with Malcolm McDowell. Yes, Generations is a structural mess: Endless prologue, middle muddled with go-nowhere subplots, a final act that depends on an unconvincing godlike space-dust thing in a film franchise that never does well with godlike space-dust things. Yes, the film so misunderstands the nature of its own iconography that the first meeting of Kirk and Picard is first and foremost an opportunity to showcase William Shatner, Mountain Man:
If you want to debate the specific failures of Generations, check out this week’s Vidiots Video Store Show, where two grown men spend over an hour yelling about trilithium and space-ribbons and the cruciality of bad Deanna Troi scenes and the narrative ethics of killing Picard’s nephew in an off-screen fire.
Let’s leave Generations alone, for a moment, and ask a simple question: What makes a movie different from a TV show? Or, to ask a simpler question: What makes “All Good Things…” so much more complete of a thing than Generations?
There are several hundred ways to answer that question, some of them outdated and all invariably asterisked with “generally speaking.” Movies play in movie theaters and TV shows play on television – but plenty of people don’t go to the theater, and many fine films go straight to VOD, and at least one generation of humans has maybe stopped watching TV shows on television.
Movies do cost more, usually, and usually have a longer production cycle. There are obvious exceptions: Shane Carruth’s Primer is one of the best movies ever made, and probably cost the lighting budget of a Next Generation episode. But let’s accept that the longer-and-costlier paradigm applies here. In that Yahoo interview, Moore recalls (with some bemusement) that “All Good Things…” took a month to write while the Generations script took a year. And, by a conservative estimate, Generations cost around $30 million more than “All Good Things…” – although some of the finale’s cost was presumably amortized into the 26 episodes comprising the seventh season of Next Generation, and anyhow, any serious study of money in Hollywood invariably must conclude that our whole financial system is a fragile illusion.
We have already established that more money does this franchise no favors. (How To Make a Good Star Trek Movie, In Two Simple Steps: 1. Hire Nicholas Meyer. 2. Cut his budget in half.) Generations uses the added budget on more special effects – most notably the Enterprise crash scene – but also on location shoots. In the climax of the film, Malcolm McDowell – playing the kind of mad scientist who says things like, “You must think I’m quite the madman” – builds a rocket launchpad on a rocky planet.
This set was built in Nevada’s Valley of Fire, and some of the shots in that sequence are really quite beautiful – although it’s the kind of beauty where you look past the actors and admire the lovely, lovely mountains. And I almost think you could even say there are are shots that are “beautiful” like nothing in Next Generation was ever beautiful, that are visually “stupendous” even if the staging is so flat:
Does that beauty make this scene “better” than anything in Next Generation? God, no. Picard arrives at that set around the one-hour mark, and the movie hangs out there forever, even though nothing happens until the same thing happens twice. There’s a force field Picard can’t get through, so he sits around. Stewart, as aforementioned, is a fine actor, and this is what it looks like when a fine actor has to spend a considerable portion of a movie sitting around waiting for the movie to happen:
Generations has two climaxes, both of them expensive the way no TV show in the ’90s could ever be expensive. The Enterprise crashes into a planet – one of the last great pre-digital effects created by ILM. But the final three-way duel between Soran, Kirk, and Picard was maybe more time-consuming, requiring copious reshoots and some elaborate work across collapsing bridges and rocky hills. Absolutely nothing in that three-way duel is remotely effective, and maybe that tells us something about this movie and TV problem. A lot of action scenes in Next Generation look pretty silly – but part of the show’s brilliant renaissance was to steer away from that skid, to make a series more interested in personalities and thoughtful concepts than fightin’ man frontier action.
Oddly, probably accidentally, the whole conceit of Generations is an explicit counter-attack on what defined Next Generation. Picard the cerebralist must beam down to a planet where he’s called upon to be an action hero; instead of outwitting the bad guy, he calls upon man-of-action Kirk to help him physically overcome Soran. Never mind the fact that none of these fine 50-plus actors look particularly physically threatening. Film can make you believe anything. (Film can make you believe William Shatner has a full head of hair.) But this film sends Patrick Stewart crawling through a rock crevasse and demands him to pretend to be “trapped.”
But this is the anxiety of Generations, and it dates back to The Motion Picture, and it hasn’t gone away in the last couple movies. How do you take this thing that was a TV show and make it into a movie? This anxiety sometimes leads directors to bigness of style (Motion Picture‘s huge sets and gloriously endless special effects sequences) or a hugeness of emotional substance (Kirk’s dead son = Picard’s dead nephew).
Generations is the first Trek movie to begin with a true action scene – not a fake-out Kobayashi Maru ship fight, an actual space adventure with Kirk jumping through engine corridors and a space nebula-thing crackling energy over exploding spaceships. And Generations ends with a climactic hand-to-hand action sequence – a more elaborate sequence than Kirk kicking the Klingon in Search for Spock. Actually, the Generations climax is a recognizable predecessor to the climactic scenes of Trek ’09 (Kirk fights the bad guy while someone else overloads the bad guy’s technological whatever) and to the final action scene in Into Darkness (Kirk “dies,” leaving his brainy co-hero to take on the bad guy).
But weirdly, none of this makes Generations feel “bigger,” nor particularly “cinematic.” There are expensive things happening onscreen – but nothing matches the moment in “All Good Things…” when Admiral Riker’s future-Enterprise triumphantly decloaks, a special effect that doesn’t look as good as the effects in Generations but which unquestionably looks a hundred million times better.
The Star Trek movies seem to get smaller when they try to get bigger. Maybe that is a lesson about movies – and maybe it’s a lesson for TV shows, too. I very much enjoy Game of Thrones, a show which has filmed very cold actors fighting fake ice zombies on real ice glaciers – yet nothing Game of Thrones has done has ever felt half as genuinely freezing as the scene in Sopranos hall-of-fame episode “Pine Barrens” where Christopher and Paulie huddle for warmth in the carcass of a van and almost kill each other out of frozen madness.
Maybe Kirk and Picard needed something like that: More huddling, less battling. Maybe you could have switched all the time and money from “All Good Things…” to Generations, and the quality would have swapped, too. Lacking the budget for an action scene, Kirk and Picard would have actually gotten to talk for a little while; required by Faustian bargain to show more space battles, “All Good Things…” would’ve had a 10-minute spaceship crash, would’ve reduced Q to a cameo, would’ve maybe chopped off a whole timeline.
And so there are lessons to take away from Generations, and the series finale that preceded it. Bigger isn’t better. Faster isn’t better. “More explosions” aren’t better. This summer’s Star Trek Beyond reportedly cost $150 million, making it roughly one Star Trek Generations cheaper than Into Darkness. That might be good news. In Star Trek – in television, in movies – less really is more.