I didn’t intend to pair Picard episodes with older Star Trek stories but the first episode had me watching Star Trek: Nemesis and from there the logic of which episodes to watch was fairly easy to discern. Data, Maddox, Hugh, Seven of Nine, Icheb and Picard himself have key episodes that inform the Picard series. I did watch but not review the TNG episode Family, where we meet Jean-Luc’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew while he is recovering from being assimilated by the Borg. It is a relevant episode but I missed the best spot for it and at this point in the Picard series his life in France seems very different.
The question of what happened to his brother was lingering and I was told that the Star Trek movie Generations revealed that he and his family had died in a fire. I had seen the movie when it was released but I didn’t recall that point at all. I was already considering a re-watch of Star Trek: First Contact, a film with a stronger reputation and a more overt Borg connection. However, that point about Picard’s family was bugging me and I realised I could recall very little about Generations other than being vaguely disappointed by it. It was clearly time for a re-watch.
It is a far better film than I remembered. It is far from flawless and what it really lacks is better dialogue for whenever Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Stewart are on screen together because the two of them have an energy that is already lifting the script.
The death of Jean-Luc’s family is far from a passing plot point. I’m surprised I’d forgotten it. It is forced and exists purely so that Jean-Luc will have regrets and an alternative life to imagine when he finally gets sucked into The Good Place, sorry, I mean The Nexus. Quite why a giant energy ribbon has a paradise simulation where you can re-write the regrets of your personal history is never explained and that is a wise choice. It’s just a thing the universe has and I’m glad that the story implies that it is a genuine good thing (i.e. there isn’t a reveal that it is psychic vampires or an illusion to hide some other kind of evil). It makes both Picard’s and Kirk’s rejection of an idyllic afterlife so as to save a planet stronger.
At the time, I suppose making a transitional film between the two versions of Star Trek whose main villain is somebody who cannot let go of the past, may have seemed like lecturing to fans. You love Kirk and his antics? Well you are like this crazy scientist guy! Now, the film’s melancholy tone seems quite novel. Kirk dies (twice), the TNG version of the Enterprise is destroyed.
The Two Death’s of James Tiberius Kirk are not ignominious but they are at a lower scale than the many times he has come close to death. Kirk dies a hero of course, once helping save refugees on a transport ship and then again in the physical fight with mad-scientist Soren. He doesn’t know it but in his second death he also saves the crew of the Enterprise-D who have crash landed the saucer section on a near-by planet. Shatner does what Shatner does but he and Patrick Stewart are very different kinds of actors and quite different kinds of characters as captains. The pairing of the two is the obvious marketing gimmick of the film and here is where the essence of the disappointment lies. They simply aren’t an interesting pairing of characters, they neither compliment nor contrast with each other.
I suppose we could imagine a different story in which Kirk has somehow been pulled into the future and takes on the Soren role of a man so determined to return to the Nexus that he will blow up the star of an inhabited system to do it. That would have meant Kirk being the villain, which would have made for stronger drama but very unhappy fans. As it is, Picard has to convince Kirk to help him win a fist fight with Soren and that’s about it.
It’s sufficient though and while Picard-Kirk isn’t interesting, the character arc for Kirk is better done that I remembered. Dragged on-board a newly commissioned Enterprise-B for a media event, Kirk starts the movie as a man whose glory days are already over. Fate then gives him two chances at a heroic death and he takes them willingly. Only in the second case and surrounded with an opportunity to undo a personal regret, does he hesitate. In the end he chooses to act, to live and die trying to make a difference for others…which does neatly take us back to Star Trek: Picard.
Kirk’s advice to Picard is to never give up the captain’s chair, to never stop making a difference. We know that Jean-Luc rejects Kirk’s first premise without rejecting the second. Instead, he tried to make a difference in other ways (e.g. the Romulan evacuation) and at a bigger scale. In doing so, the difference between Picard and Kirk becomes clearer. Both are moral men who act within but also outside of the formal structures of a military organisation. Picard thinks at a different scale than Kirk and also is more adept at persuasion. The logic of the situation within the Nexus has to be Picard persuading Kirk but it also the correct arrangement of character traits: Kirk does, Picard persuades.
What Generations also demonstrated was the difficulty of translating the Next Generation dynamic to film. Both film series of Star Trek have strong ensemble casts but with the TV shows, there was a greater sense of equality among the core characters. That is harder to maintain in a film where each member of the crew cannot have an opportunity for their own character arc. In Generations Riker, Troi, La Forge, Worf and Crusher all get screen time but only Data gets substantial character development.
In Data’s case it is a kind of literal Deus Ex Machina with his choice to embed the emotion chip he got from Lore (in Descent) in his brain. This gives a great deal of scope for Brent Spiner to act goofy on screen but it also presents a clearer character hierarchy for the Next Generation characters. Picard is the lead and Data is the second, matching the Kirk-Spock levels in the original cast. These posters for both First Contact and Nemesis echo that:
In order of size, Picard, Data and the antagonist.
I wonder how that has re-shaped how I perceive The Next Generation? Picard & Data aren’t Kirk & Spock in the TV show and if anything Geordie and Data where more likely to share screen time. That is still true in Generations as the plot results in very little interaction between Picard and Data but by the final film the two are more inter-linked as characters. That isn’t an inconsistency — after all friendships change over time — but it is an interesting shift.
Now all I’m left with is what final old Trek to watch to cap off the Picard finale on (my) Friday? I think that will depend on whether Q turns up or not…