a review of Star Trek: Generations
by Susan Bredon-Smith
first published in ORION 35, July 1995
Sarek: "Kirk, I thank you. What you have done is"
Kirk: "What I have done, I had to do."
Sarek: "At what cost? Your ship? Your son?"
Kirk: "If l hadnt tried, the cost wouldve been my soul."
This dialog at nearly the end of Star Trek: The Search for Spock encapsulates the drama weve just experienced in the third movie and in the previous Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. By the end of The Search for Spock, Admiral Kirk has paid a heavy price indeed for the return of his best friend. Not only has the Enterprise been destroyed (and by his own hand!), but his son was murdered, he has broken Starfleet law and will soon be demoted, he has led his crew into committing the same crimesregardless of their willing participation, he is still their captain), and he has probably severed the rekindled relationship between himself and his sons mother (although we never see this in the films). Additionally, Kirks actions have also strained the ties between the Klingon and Federation governments even as they begin tentative peace talks, the reverberations of which will sound again in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.
How could another movie match the drama at the conclusion of The Search for Spock? What strengths remained to be tested? What prices were yet unpaid? When I cast my mind back to that 1984 viewing, I had wondered how in the Federation Kirk and crew could dig themselves out of that hole and reestablish the status quo that has thrilled audiences since 1966. What do you do for an encore?
The encore, of course, was the wonderful ride that was Star Trek: The Voyage Home (aptly titled) and subsequently the dark intensity of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. As those signatures filled the screen at the end, I cried with the realization that the ride had finally ended. Who didnt?
My point here is that all those sacrifices in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock were worth the cost. Kirk lost essentially everythingincluding Spock, at one point and his need to save his soul and his friends soul was worthy of the cost. The soulor katra or paghis what makes us unique, and is what Star Trek celebrates in its infinite diversities. One could successfully argue that the deep friendship between Kirk and Spork, sown over three years of the television series, the animated series, and the first movie, was the soul of the original series. Certainly it was of critical importance to fans as we wrote stories over the years, as our stories inevitably focused upon the deep relationships between Kirk and Spock, and to McCoy, too (although he is not my focus here, we cannot omit him). Thus, by the beginning of The Search for Spock, we have been set up (characterization-wise) to expect that when Kirk loses Spock to the terrible threat of Genesis, that the enormous cost to Kirk was worth it. And during the movies, the continual foreshadowing about "the needs of the many" and "the best of times" primes us to believe in no other possible outcome when Spocks sacrifice saves the spirit that is the Enterprise. We cried like crazy when Spock died, but we believed. And we believed it when, in the next movie, Kirk set out to save his soul (i.e. Spock) regardless of that personal cost. The reward was clearly greater than the cost.
Let the writers, producers, et cetera, kill David Marcus, destroy the Enterprise, destroy the careers of Kirk and company...we dont mind. It was worth it, just to have Spock again.
And then came Star Trek: Generations.
We all knew that Kirk would die in this one. As I entered the theater, I wanted Kirks death to be worth the price. To be the noble sacrifice. For what price would he exchange his life? The Klingon peace treaty? An agent that would destroy Life As We Know It? The unity of the Federation?
No. It was done for a self-absorbed little man who missed his family and really just need to be trapped with the ships counsellor for a decade or two.
All right (says the critic), even though Soren was self-absorbed, perhaps Kirks sacrifice would be worth it because the alternative would be that his wave device would destroy Life As We Know It. Or the Romulan homeworld. Or the Solar System. Or even just Earth, although after Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Voyage Home, thats been a bit overdone.
An experienced writer would have set up the audience and given them an emotional investment in the planet and its people. It would have required only a minute or two of screen time, or a few sentences of throw-away dialogue; why not threaten Betazed, or Cardassia, or Alpha Centauri, or any of the other bizillion planets/races weve encountered? No.. .Soren just wanted to destroy a little pre-industrial planet with a few million people on it. A planet that the producers didnt bother to show, such that we the viewers had no personal investment in that planet. (This omission is even sillier an you consider how much money was spent building the flashy set where Picard and Data discover which planet will be destroyed.) If this planet and people are so important that Kirk and Picard and the entire crew will make The Ultimate Sacrifice, then show us why its important. Give me that emotional investment. (Yes, yes, I know that we Federation thinkers are supposed to care about all peoples, but thats a logical and not an emotional response. The function of storytelling is to emotionally manipulate the listener.)
So, what is the price that our charactersand we the audiencemust pay to preserve this planet that we know nothing of?
The Enterprise is destroyed. Twice. In slow motion. (I tuned out during the second tedious version. Let it crash, already!) We kill off Luxor and Betor (the twisted sisters and my absolutely favorite Next Gen villains). We make Soren not just a villain, but a Listener (and goodness knows why, because it never factors into his character or behavior). We burn down Picards ancestral home, and just for good measure we kill off Robert and little Claude, too. (This vicarious heart-jerker is to create Picard-angst so that he wont want to leave the Nexusbut cant we create a simpler motivation, such as hes just getting old-especially after "All Good Things"? Or that Robert is ill? And just who is this woman with the Christmas tree that Picard longs for so badly?) And we kill James T. Kirk.
Jim Kirk dies while battling a rather pathetic man who only wants to be with his family, at the incidental cost of an unknown planet.
It wasnt worth it.
The writers and director failed to engage my sympathies with the cause, failed to make me care about the risk the characters faced. Insufficient set up of plot, inadequate characterization, and wild overwriting. It was a classic beginning fan-writer mistake, but without the Mary Sue (and how did they miss her, or was that her with a Christmas tree?). It was as if the producers looked at their jump from the television to the big screen and said, "Wow! Look at this huge budget! Look at the two-hour time slot! How much can we cram into the alotted time?"
Generations left me so cold that, in contrast to every other Star Trek movie (well, except maybe Star Trek: The Final Frontier), I found myself mentally rewriting the script even as I watched it unfold. It wasnt until Kirk actually died that I was drawn into the movie, and that was because after an almost thirty-year relationship, his death had damn well better move me! Unintentionally, the writers/producers helped me to feel a greater grief, because the loss of Kirks life was so meaningless.
In The Search for Spock, the price for damnation was Kirk and Spocks souls.
In Generations, the price for all the destruction was the self-absorption of aging men (Soren, Picard, Kirk) who really ought to have known better after all their (and our) experiences.
The moral of the story?
Well, I think its...never let Troi drive the ship. Ever.
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