The latest Star Trek movie signals a changing of the guard on the big screen
A NEW GENERATION BEAMS UP
The latest Star Trek movie signals a changing of the guard on the big screen
Reporters armed with 23rd-century tape recorders cram the bridge of a spanking new starship—the Enterprise— about to embark on its maiden voyage. Enter Kirk (William Shatner), Scotty Games Doohan) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), retired Starfleet veterans who bemusedly look around the new ship, feeling more than a little like used warp drives. As an opening for Star Trek: Generations, the latest on-screen spinoff of the wildly popular Star Trek saga, the scene plays on the fact that this is a passing-of-the-torch film, from the socalled classic cast of the original 1966-1969 TV series to the younger, hipper, more sensitive voyagers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the scene is also self-reflexive: after months of hype, speculation and rumors among media and fans around the world, a
new chapter of Star Trek is finally out of space dock. Star Trek: Generations, the first bigscreen effort featuring the cast of TNG—as it is widely known—is one of this year’s most hotly anticipated pre-Christmas releases. And it is practically a guaranteed moneymaker.
The reasons have to do with an unparalleled entertainment phenomenon—a 28-year run for a concept that Gene Roddenberry began in the early 1960s. Under Roddenberry’s guidance, Star Trek, starring Montreal-born Shatner as Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, went from a threeseason ratings disaster on NBC to cult status in reruns—largely through the miracle of syndication. Released from the black hole of Fridays at 10 p.m.—where NBC had placed it
in the final season—Star Trek flourished in the late-aftemoon slots where TV stations typically ran it. Kids could now see it every day. And that is when North America really started to grow up on Star Trek.
Sure, it was cheesy—Kirk fell in love (or at least lust) at the drop of a heavily mascaraed eyelid, and the scantily clad space babes loved it. And true, the sets were cheap—how many polystyrene rocks are there in space? But that was the glory of the old Trek, and it took off In the 1970s, Star Trek violated its own “prime directive”—that the crew of the Enterprise may not influence less-advanced civilizations—and went about changing Earth culture. The now-infamous Trekkie conventions popped up all over Canada and the United States, crammed with fans who had traded in their Daniel Boone coonskin caps for Vulcan ears, Starfleet tunics and phasers (total sales of Star Trek memorabilia in 1993 hit $2.2 billion worldwide, with 1994 figures expected to top $2.7 billion). A cartoon TV series followed. Star Trek SF books appeared, and the best-selling works of fiction and nonfiction now number more than 145 in 15 languages.
Then, in 1979, Roddenberry took Star Trek where few TV series had gone before: the big screen. From Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Star Trek VI : The Undiscovered Country (1991) Capt. Kirk and his faithful crew have guided a whole generation of movie audiences through Roddenberry’s vision of the future.
Taking advantage of the continuing popularity of the Star Trek saga, another Roddenberry creation, the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, premiered in 1987. It was bigger-budget, betterscripted and more intelligent than the old series—it would be difficult not to be all three. And there were central differences. The new Enterprise saga, set in the 24th century, was a more thoughtful adventure. At its helm was the quiet, scholarly, balding Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, played by British stage veteran Patrick Stewart. Unlike the “gang of seven”—Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov—Picard and his crew tended to solve the space mysteries that confronted them with brains rather than brawn. “In the Sixties, it was expected for the star to basically have sex with somebody in every episode and to solve problems with fisticuffs,” says TNG executive producer Rick Berman, who worked with the Star Trek creator—who died in 1991—in developing the new show. “That wasn’t true in the late Eighties when we began with The Next Generation. Roddenberry felt very strongly that this show be a kinder, gentler humanity than was depicted in the original series.”
It was, of course, a hit. Through its seven sea-
sons, the weekly series regularly raked in more than 20 million TV viewers in North America. Its final episode, aired amid much hype last May, attracted a 40-per-cent market share. TNG and its predecessor continue to run in syndication around the world, and together they are now aired in more than 100 countries and several languages.
Now, with Generations, the TNG characters are taking over the big screen from their classicseries counterparts. And like the other manifestations of the new Star Trek TV franchise—Deep Space Nine, a space-station drama now in its third season, and Voyager, which premiers in January— its evolution has followed a well-plotted marketing and creative course. The move to cinemas “was all very planned-out by Paramount,” says Berman, who also produced Generations. In fact, the studio began laying the groundwork three years ago.
“The reason for it is multifold,” Berman adds. “TV shows get more expensive as they get older; the formulas that they use to sell them change. And Paramount knew they wanted to make a movie, and didn’t feel that they could make a movie of a show that was available each week on television.”
The result of that long road to the silver screen is a fast-paced, entertaining movie that is unlikely to disappoint fans of the TNG series. The premise, linking up the two generations of Trekdom, is cleverly realized in the movie’s plot. In the 23rd century, the new Enterprise’s maiden voyage goes horribly awry as it encounters a weird time distortion field—which looks a bit like an electrified noodle in space. Kirk, Scotty and Chekov creak their bones into action, eventually saving the ship. In the midst of his derring-do, however, Kirk gets blasted—along with a big chunk of the Enterprise—by the distortion field. He is presumed dead.
Cut to 78 years later, when there is another Enterprise and another crew, the men and women of The Next Generation: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), the android Data (Brent Spiner), Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), sultry psychic Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), perky Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), Klingon security chief Worf (Michael Dorn) and visorwearing engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton). The TNG bunch is hot on the trail of a devious bad guy named Soran (Malcolm McDowell) who plots to destroy whole solar systems in his demonic quest to find the same time-distortion field, now known as the Nexus, that “killed” Kirk.
The Nexus, as the crew learns from the ship bartender, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), is in fact a soma-saturated realm where people live in peace, happiness and hallucinogenic wonder. By an unforeseeable turn of events—what would Star Trek be without those?—Picard ends up being sucked into the Nexus, where he encounters—who else?—Capt. Kirk. With some difficulty, the new captain convinces the old one to give up his illusion of immortality, and the two join forces to fight Soran.
Generations, despite the title, is very clearly centred in the universe of TNG. Besides Shatner, the only original-cast members in the movie are Doohan and Koenig, and then only in the opening sequence. No Sulu (George Takei) or Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and most noticeably no Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) or Spock (Leonard Nimoy). ‘We were kind of hoping to have all of them on board,” says Berman. “But the story developed in such a way that only Kirk was going to bridge both the 23rd and 24th century.” Nimoy, who was originally asked to direct the movie, bowed out of the project—as did Kelley—because his scripted part was little more than a cameo. After that, Berman says, Takei and Nichols were not even invited on, the producers instead casting only the rotund Doohan and the diminutive Koenig. “We picked Jimmy and Walter,” says Berman, “simply because it seemed fun to pick the biggest and the littlest.”
And there were logistical considerations: with the entire original cast, there would not have been enough time to properly develop the TNG characters within the limits of a feature-length film. As it stands, amid the crashes, the phaser fire and the special effects, there is barely enough character development in Generations to keep the movie interesting.
Much of that chore falls on the shoulders of the android Data, a Pinocchio figure who dreams of becoming human. In the movie, Data implants his “positronic” brain with an “emotion chip”—and the effect, as actor Spiner takes his character through a tumult of human feeling, is very funny. “Scanning for life-forms,” Data hums at the helm. “I just love scanning for life-forms.” After seven seasons as the deadpan Data on television, Spiner says, the movie metamorphosis “was an opportunity for me to cut loose.”
That sense of fun seems to come from the actors as much as the script. Unlike the well-known antipathy among some members of the original crew, good-feeling seems to permeate the TNG cast—the sense that these people really like one another is clear throughout the movie. “They are the best group of people I have ever worked with,” declares Stewart, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “We continue to be as happy in
each other’s company socially as we ever were on the set of the series.” Adds Spiner: “Basically, we all looked forward to going to work every day, because we were going to have fun with our friends. And not too many people can say that about their jobs.” And how did Shatner—a type-A personality if there ever was one—fit into that saccharine mix? “Bill had something of a reputation of being tough to work with,” says Stewart, “and there had also been suggestions that he had been making negative remarks about our show. But we resolved all of that, and I found him a delightful and o| entertaining person.” In the
movie, Shatner delivers his swan song admirably. His legendary overacting is kept largely in check, although in the closing sequences he lets out all the stops. And the scenes between him and Stewart are a delight to watch—two veteran actors trading barbs. “I was out saving the galaxy,” says Kirk to Picard at one point, “when your grandpa was still in diapers.”
In the end, of course, it does not really matter whether Generations is good (it is) or terrible, because devotees of the Star Trek phenomenon will have to see it anyway. And while the cast may differ, the movie’s humanist, optimistic vision of the future remains basically the same one that Gene Roddenberry created in the 1960s. “He’s always sitting on our shoulder,” says Berman. “We’re always thinking, Would this be right for Gene? Neither the 23rdnor 24th-century versions of Star Trek are my visions of the future. They’re all Gene Roddenberry’s. And those of us who do this are all kind of signed on to portray that vision.”
Another movie featuring the TNG cast is practically inevitable—Berman says that he is already “starting to toy with some ideas.” And with the launch of Voyager next year and the continuing success of Deep Space Nine, there is no indication that the allure of the Star Trek mythology is fading. Star Trek in all its manifestations seems destined to, as Spock might say, live long— and profit. □
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