The opening scene of Star Trek Generations gets the seventh movie voyage of the starship Enterprise off to a promising start. As we peer into infinity, an object comes tumbling toward us in slow motion. Is it a satellite? A piece of hardware loosened more than a quarter of a century ago in 2001: A Space Odyssey? The thing floats closer and closer until we can see clearly: It’s a Champagne bottle, Dom Perignon, vintage 2265.
What a great idea! In one computer-generated image is encoded everything thrilling, everything grandiose, everything funny and clever and classic and self-perpetuating about one of pop sci-fi’s most renewable — and most lucrative — resources. But there’s another message in this bottle: With Generations, responsibility for the future of the movie outpost of Star Trek’s empire passes from the original cast to that of The Next Generation. And in Generations, Captain Kirk dies. A commemorative toast is in order.
Don’t say you’re surprised: If you’re at all interested in Trek, you’ve known this for months. You probably also know that the 23rd century’s James T. Kirk (William Shatner) meets the 24th century’s Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in an astronomical time warp, allowing the two Enterprise captains to team up in order to stop the evil El-Aurerian scientist Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) from wreaking massive destruction. You know that Data (Brent Spiner), the gold-toned android with the positronic brain, gets an emotion chip implanted in his neuronet, allowing him to experience feelings. You know that original Enterprise personnel Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Mr. Scott (James Doohan) make a brief appearance, allowing Scotty to exclaim, ”I don’t know how much longer I can hold it together!” in his mythic Scottish brogue before holding it together long enough to blast the plot into orbit.
The pleasure of any Star Trek movie lies in experiencing the familiar mixed with the inventive. There’s the deep, nostalgic joy of seeing the faces of old friends — Kirk, now puffed up like a scone and topped with a steel-trap coif, or Picard, now pointy as an almond and sculpted like a futuristic Michelangelo creation. There’s the thrill of the iconic-the bridge, the transporter room, the sick bay, the exotic drinks served by Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), the universe’s hippest bartender. There are the luscious astrophysical possibilities — Soran chases a shimmering ribbon of time called the Nexus, a kind of El Dorado as addictive as a drug, in which a visitor can be anywhere he wants to be, forever. And there is the grandiloquent dialogue, as rococo and as encoded as the language of a college secret society. In one of the movie’s satisfying nods to self-awareness, Jim says to Jean-Luc: ”I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim!”
You bet the situation is grim, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Klingons bare their rotting teeth. Data goes gaga with emotion (he laughs, he goofs around, he cries yellow-matter-custard tears — quite a nice little Spiner repertoire). soran threatens to pulverize a planet (McDowell, looking like Sting’s crazed brother, makes a good fiend, if not as epic as Trek II’s Ricardo Montalban). Shatner (who ambles through his relatively brief on-screen time like the winningest of retired football coaches) and Stewart (who stalks the screen like he personally owns the props) spar bemusedly. But my problem is, this enjoyable journey doesn’t make the chances of success grim enough. These voyagers aren’t exploring — they’re cruising on a Perillo tour of the galaxies.
Consider: The current commander of the Enterprise is a lank weenie called Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck, the nervous tourist on the bus in Speed). He may not be the first less-than-heroic Starfleet Academy graduate to pilot a ship, but would a vessel that bears the legendary name Enterprise really be under the command of such a doofus?
Consider: The concept of time looped upon itself — a perennial favorite of science-fiction scholars and a subject TNG has explored rigorously — assumes that events can be replayed indefinitely, over and over, with a different outcome for each repetition. Thus, to thwart Soran, Kirk and Picard ”rewind” time. But why just once? Why couldn’t Soran rewind time to his specifications, too? Most illogical.
I pick these nits — there are others — not because I’m a Trekologist but because I’m not, and still I can detect an unwonted flabbiness in this enterprise — a middle-aged slouch as surprising as Kirk’s girth in a regulation jumpsuit. As steered by David Carson — a British TV director whose previous Trek work includes the Deep Space Nine TV pilot and episodes of TNG-Generations is fun but not particularly bright, big but not particularly magnificent, loud but not particularly resonant. I’m enjoying the trip. I’m ready to drink Dom Perignon. And the flight attendants are serving Korbel. B