“They say time is the fire in which we burn.”
I can’t say that I clearly recall seeing Star Trek: Generations at the cinema but I can assure you that I did go. I would have been eleven years old and just entering arguably the most intense years of my Star Trek fandom. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had only started the year before and the characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who had become familiar friends through the years of my childhood, were set to appear on the big screen for the first time. My whole family undoubtedly made the pilgrimage to the cinema to see this film.
Eighteen years later, and in the year that marks Star Trek: The Next Generation’s twenty-fifth anniversary, I still find Generations as enjoyable to watch as ever. Coming straight off the back of the television series, it is perhaps not as action-packed as Star Trek: First Contact nor does it feature the same whizz bang effects of later films but it has a familiarity that is comfortable. Production on Generations began before filming on The Next Generation had actually finished and scenes featuring non-regular cast members were filmed first while the series itself was wrapped up.
Generations set itself a number of challenges. It had to thematically form a bridge enabling the characters to transition from the small screen to the big. Like Encounter At Farpoint did for the television series, the first Next Generation film acted as an opportunity for Star Trek (the original series) to pass the ‘big screen torch’, as it were, to a new crew and a new group of actors. Additionally, it paved the way for a new USS Enterprise in place of the ship we had seen, week after week, on our television screens. But despite all of these changes it had to remain true to the spirit of the series we as viewers loved.
Directed by David Carson with story by Ronald D. Moore, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, Generations had a good, solid Star Trek creative pedigree. Having already directed four episodes of The Next Generation as well as Emissary, the pilot of Deep Space Nine, Carson was no stranger to Star Trek although Generations was his first crack at a feature film. Moore, Berman and Braga were all veterans of the Star Trek franchise who would continue to be involved with it in its various forms. The crew of the Enterprise D were in good hands.
The first thing that struck me when re-watching Generations was the opening sequence. It’s classic science fiction, hopeful but also a little frightening, it speaks of the unknown and the great emptiness of space but also of the anticipation with which humans approach its mysteries. Then the bottle smashes against the hull of the USS Enterprise B and we are left to enjoy the juxtaposition between the ancient maritime tradition of christening a new ship with champagne and the futuristic setting of (presumably) Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards. This sequence neatly captures one of the major themes of the film, the intersection of old and new, the past and the future.
The film goes to great lengths to create a sense of continuity, not only within the Star Trek universe but also with our own reality. This idea of time catching up with the captain of the Enterprise forms a thematic link between the films of the original series and this first Next Generation motion picture. Like Kirk in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Picard is beginning to get a sense of his own mortality and to reflect on the road not taken. It is fitting then that this film incorporates Kirk’s own story, seen in his struggle to take a back seat on the Enterprise B in the opening scenes and in his dreams of making different choices in his relationship with Antonia. The two character arcs neatly connect when Picard and Kirk meet in the Nexus, two captains of the Enterprise facing the same unavoidable reality.
Similarly Generations can be seen as a continuation of All Good Things… as it explores the idea that everything must eventually end. The indomitable, always larger-than-life Kirk finally meets his death, the Enterprise D is destroyed, and Picard reflects on the remaining years of his own life. Even the most intrepid adventurer must eventually stop seeking the horizon.
A criticism that has been levelled at all the Next Generation films (and at times at the television series) is that Beverly Crusher doesn’t get enough screen time or a more in-depth role. Certainly this is something I will discuss when I talk about First Contact. Many fans were disappointed that it wasn’t Crusher who portrayed Picard’s wife in the Nexus. Instead the role went to Kim Braden who, as a little trivia, also played Janet Brooks in the fourth season episode The Loss. I suppose since the creators had decided not to take the Crusher/Picard romance any further they decided not to complicate matters by having her appear as his wife in the Nexus. Still, as it was something that had been alluded to on and off throughout the series I think it might have actually worked quite well in the context of ‘what might have been’.
Similarly, as someone who always rather liked Deanna Troi but felt she was a character who didn’t date well, I felt some disappointment that she was chosen to be at the helm when the Enterprise went down. On the one hand it was great to see her taking a more active role on the bridge and see that she had the skills to take the helm but on the other the ship then crashed which undermines her character. Even Marina Sirtis used to joke at conventions that first they gave the keys to the blind guy, then they let the kid drive and finally, finally they let her behind the wheel and she crashes the ship. Any other character wouldn’t have been held responsible but for Troi it was just another nail in her credibility’s coffin.
Obviously, aside from Picard and Kirk, the next most significant character journey in Generations is Data’s as he makes the decision to try out the emotion chip. In many ways, Data’s struggle to cope with his emotions while trying to perform his duties makes a nice parallel to Picard’s own devastation at the death of his bother and nephew. He too obviously has difficulty remaining stoic under the pressure as he is ravaged by grief and existential torment. Picard maintains an iron grip on is emotions while Data completely falls apart. This is a nice contrast to the usual Data who would, of course, be the last to lose his composure.
Visually, one of the more questionable choices, in my opinion, made by the team behind Generations was to make drastic changes to the lighting used on the Enterprise. Where on the television show the ship was always brightly lit, suddenly the characters were swimming in gloomy shadow in every scene. Perhaps this was an attempt to give the familiar sets a more ‘cinematic’ feel but instead it was at times distracting and felt contrived. It was so different from the show but so clearly the same sets that it looked as if the characters kept entering rooms and forgetting to switch the lights on.
Another thing that has always puzzled me about this film is the way in which the change over in uniforms was made. Clearly, if was felt that, in order to establish the film as contemporary to Deep Space Nine, the Next Generation characters had to make the change to the new uniform. But instead of just having everyone switch uniforms they make the change in an odd staggered fashion with some being in the new version from almost the beginning and others never making it out of the old style costumes.
Overall, Generations was a good solid introduction for the Next Generation characters to the big screen. The story had a genuine emotional resonance and felt thematically linked to the series. There was a nice mix of action, comedy, and tragedy with no element feeling overplayed. The inclusion of James Kirk in the storyline worked well and didn’t feel shoehorned in or awkward in any way. The performances were all excellent even though not everyone got as much screen time as may have been preferred but that’s the nature of a two hour film working with a large ensemble cast. For some reason Generations often gets relegated in my mind to the status of a bland first crack at a Next Generation feature film but it doesn’t deserve such an ambivalent classification.