Somewhere around Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek fans (a.k.a. “Trekkers” – never “Trekkies“) began to notice a pattern: the even-numbered Trek films were good, while the odd-numbered ones were invariably mediocre at best. This pattern continued once the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) took over; of the three TNG films prior to this year’s Nemesis, only the middle TNG film (and eighth film overall) – First Contact – was a hit with fans and general audiences alike. After 1998’s disappointing Insurrection, fans eagerly awaited the next Trek film – which, as number 10 in the series, had to be good.
But the pattern is broken. One would have preferred it be broken by two consecutive good films, but this is not the case. Star Trek: Nemesis was hoped to be the TNG crew’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but it’s not even The Search for Spock.
Nemesis begins with a party celebrating the wedding of Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), as well as Riker’s promotion to the command of his own starship, the Titan. The party has a few cute moments, with a number of in-jokes and references for fans, but it also feels very much like an episode rather than a movie – not a good sign.
Meanwhile, on the homeworld of the Romulans, a number of senators are murdered in a coup. The new ruler of Romulus is Shinzon (Tom Hardy), a very young, very bald lad with big plans for the Romulan Empire. Shinzon sends out a request to the Federation for an envoy to discuss a peace treaty. Given the trailers for the film and its very title, the overtures are an obvious pretense.
It turns out Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) & Co. are the only Federation representatives nearby (thanks to an overly-elaborate scheme by Shinzon involving B4, an apparent prototype of the android Data (Brent Spiner), that the crew stumbles upon). Picard confronts Shinzon and discovers they have much more in common than their shiny pates.
It’s soon obvious that Shinzon is up to no good, and it falls to the crew of the Enterprise to stop him. Though the story may sound complex, it’s surprisingly weak. The screenplay was written by Spiner and John Logan, the man who is mistakenly credited for the success of Gladiator (in fact, the script for Gladiator was written by David Franzoni; Hollywood brought in Logan to dumb the script down to their standards). It seems clear that Spiner and Logan were hoping to channel the spirit of Wrath of Khan, still the best Trek film, but the result is a mess. Worse, when the ultimate Khan-inspired moment occurs – I won’t give it away (though the movie itself does a good job of that) – it seems contrived and arbitrary, completely lacking the emotional power of the same moment in Khan. In fact, the dialogue and acting of the crew’s response to this supposedly awful event is so bad, there was laughter in the theater.
What makes a Star Trek film work are changes – promotions, weddings, the birth of children, character deaths. Unfortunately, these are often constrained by external considerations – bringing back a beloved character like Spock, Kirk’s demotion to captain so he can still command a starship, Worf hanging around the Enterprise even though he supposedly moved on long ago.
It may be that the leap to cinema simply came too fast for The Next Generation. More than a decade separated the end of the original series and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a film which, for all its flaws, worked its ass off to seem like a movie. The majority of the Trek films featuring the original crew feel like movies; the TNG movies feel like extended episodes with slightly higher budgets. Perhaps taking a decade off would have allowed the property to simmer a bit before making the leap to the big screen.
It’s also possible that the problem lies in Next Generation itself. The original series, while it occasionally made a social comment or two, was primarily a scifi-themed adventure series (or, as creator Gene Roddenberry famously described it, “Wagon Train to the stars”). TNG, on the other hand, focused primarily on social commentary or characterization (and usually attempted to give equal share to the entire cast, rather than developing a dramatic pair or trio like Kirk, Spock and McCoy). One wise friend of mine, a Trekker herself, has said that First Contact, with its action-oriented storyline and macho heroics, is actually the furthest from the show in spirit. The original series, packed with adventure and drama, translated well to film; TNG, so much more a product of an entrenched television culture than its predecessor, has not.
But the problems of Nemesis go deeper than the inherent problems of making a TNG film. The movie is loaded with contrivances so obvious they give away the rest of the plot. At one point, a character beams over to an enemy ship and the transporter immediately breaks down. Sure, Trek history is rich with such plot devices – how many times has the Enterprise been unable to go to warp speed, only to be rescued miraculously by Scotty or Geordi? – but by the time the transporter incident occurs in Nemesis, it’s as if the writers have thrown up their hands in helplessness, unable to find a convincing way to build tension. The B4 subplot, abandoned in the second half of the film, serves no purpose other than to reinforce the “duality” theme of the film. Most bizarre of all is the trip to the planet where the android is found, a trip rife with flagrant violations of the Federation’s infamous non-interference Prime Directive (never mind the dorky sight of Picard, Worf and Data in a dune buggy).
Even the acting is sub-par. I doubt this will be remembered as Hardy’s breakout role; he plays Shinzon with such ham, I began to wonder if the actor secretly had it in for Star Trek. Stewart phones in his performance – he’s clearly bored with the role and is just cashing that check. Deprived of his directorial duties, Frakes is back to doing what Will Riker does best – taking up space on the bridge. Only Spiner shows a little life, though this may be due to his stake in the film’s reception (due to his screenplay credit). The only thing I found interesting were the Remans – deformed genetic cousins of the Romulans who look like the Star Trek equivalent of Orcs from The Lord of the Rings.
Speaking of directors, the best credit Nemesis director Stuart Baird can boast is Executive Decision, a.k.a. “the movie where Steven Seagal dies in the first ten minutes” (which presumably sticks out in people’s minds because they were immediately given what they wanted). It may be time to let a more interesting auteur take a crack at Star Trek. Perhaps a Ridley Scott or a Bryan Singer could inject the vitality or vision the Trek cinematic franchise lacks these days. But my suggestion remains: Trek needs to take a nice, long break from the silver screen and regroup. Born at the height of the Cold War and infused with its ideologies (both in endorsement of and in response to them), Star Trek needs to reinvent itself and find a new direction. Until then, the franchise will remain its own worst nemesis.
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