top of page

Alternate History in Star Trek Part 18: The Next Generation on the Silver Screen

By Tom Anderson

1994 was a turning point for the Star Trek franchise. Three years earlier, the original series (TOS) crew had had their last official outing on the big screen in Star Trek VI, though Scotty had appeared in the Next Generation (TNG) episode “Relics” a year after that. Now, TNG itself, the show that had defied the odds and early shakiness to become as popular and beloved as its predecessor, had ended. The spinoff Deep Space Nine (DS9) was struggling, necessitating retools, while a brand new series, Voyager (VGR) was about to launch the following year. The worry in the minds of many, not least Paramount executive Brandon Tartikoff, was that the popular, iconic centrality of the Star Trek franchise among the American (and to some extent, global) public, was now endangered. Test audiences after Star Trek VI had expressed views that ‘Star Trek was coming to an end’.

Tartikoff’s fears would be realised to a certain extent; the widespread popularity of TOS and TNG, a source of recognisable references for average members of the public in the same way Star Wars was, would never transfer to any future incarnation of Star Trek. However, he and his successor Sherry Lansing did manage to ensure that Trek media would be produced on screen for at least another decade of continuation. The first step was to have the TNG crew make the leap to the big screen, and what better way to achieve that link than to finally have the long-teased crossover with TOS? Hence, “Star Trek: Generations”. Or, as every anal-retentive Trek fan (or in other words, every Trek fan, including myself) has ever referred to it, “Star Trek VII: Generations”. Even the Pocket Books editor passive-aggressively inserted the Roman numerals into the list of novelisations in the front of the books.

“Generations” has received a, mostly deserved, reputation as a bad or at least rather underwhelming film. Everything about it reeks of the cautious, half-hearted approach to crossovers common in 80s and 90s Trek media, of which I have previously opined. One early script draft, by TNG writer Maurice Hurley, even reduced the TOS role to ‘Picard recreates Kirk on the holodeck to get his help fighting extradimensional invaders’. (An idea which, in broad strokes, would later infamously reappear in the fake-crossover final episode of “Enterprise”. The final version of the film does have Kirk meet Picard in flesh and blood, but that’s about it.

It didn’t have to be that way. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga tosses around ideas of the two crews meeting and coming into conflict, as in every superhero crossover ever, accurately reflecting that nothing would look better on the film poster. But they abandoned the idea as they couldn’t think of a way that didn’t make one crew look like the bad guys. This is a shame because, while the idea could certainly have been done in a cringey and ‘RUINED FOREVER’ way, it would have been a great idea to set the fandom, already obsessed with ‘Kirk vs Picard’ debates, alight.

No, instead we got the film we got. On the face of it, if I describe it vaguely enough, the plot doesn’t sound inherently terrible. A retired Kirk is depressed and approaching the end of his life (see Star Trek II) but attends the launch of the next USS Enterprise, the Enterprise-B. During her first mission he saves some people on ships stuck in a swirly energy ribbon called the Nexus after answering a distress call. However, in the process he is sucked out into space and swallowed by it. Cut to the TNG crew years later, and it turns out one of the people Kirk rescued, Dr Tolian Soran, wants to get back into the Nexus (which is a fantasy realm without ageing and with wish fulfilment etc.) and is willing to destroy a whole planet of people just to change its course so he can meet it. Picard tries and fails to stop Soran, resulting in the destruction of the Enterprise-D and Picard himself being pulled into the Nexus – where he meets an ‘echo’ of Guinan, who was also one of the people on the ship Kirk rescued. She can’t help him, but he can recruit Kirk from out of his own wish-fulfilment fantasy, persuading him that life without risk is pointless. Kirk and Picard are able to travel back in time to stop Soran and save the planet (though not the Enterprise-D, only her crew). Kirk is finally slain in the process, giving his life to save millions.

All fine and good, to a certain extent, but the execution is dreadful. Part of it is just that the film was rushed, there were issues over budgetary decisions and so on, and all kinds of peculiar choices. They wanted to put the iconic set of the Enterprise-D bridge on the big screen, but then found that on film-quality cameras, all the little imperfections in the sets became visible – so they had to darken all the lights. (Fans typically assumed this was about being EDGY instead, and joked that all the bulbs had burned out on the ship at once). Similarly, the usual model of the ship had to be repainted from scratch to give it enough detail. A Klingon Bird-of-Prey which serves as an antagonist (commanded by the Duras Sisters, recurring villains from the show) is shown being blown up by a clip spliced in directly from the last film, Star Trek VI, to avoid having to refilm it. These are not choices that engender confidence. Then there was the fact that they decided to change the uniforms, slightly, then got cold feet after the action figures had been made and the old uniforms were not all available anymore, with the bizarre result that certain crew members are sometimes wearing borrowed DS9 uniforms, at random, throughout the film. It’s a bit of a miracle we got a finished product at all. At least the new comm badge design survived to appear on later films and series.

Let’s go through it in more detail now. The film was originally planned to begin with a deleted scene (which survives in the novelisation) of Kirk doing some futuristic skydiving, only to feel unfulfilled. Instead, we open with a bottle of champagne hitting the Enterprise-B. Let me digress to say that I saw this film at the age of nine, and while I was not entirely blind to its flaws even at that age, what I really cared about in Star Trek at that point was the ships, and I was VERY EXCITED to finally see the ship that had appeared on the wall display in TNG and so on but we had never actually glimpsed. (I am not alone – back in 1995, a poll of Canadians found this film rated the highest of all of them, which is quite remarkable, even if it was the most recent). Anyway, Kirk is accompanied by Chekov and Scotty – the latter creating a continuity error because in “Relics” Scotty, frozen after this, had thought Kirk might still be alive. Obviously this odd trio is due to Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley not wanting to be involved, and who can blame them. Besides feeling that their characters already got reasonable send-offs in Star Trek VI and not wanting to reopen that chapter, Nimoy also argued that the lines assigned to Spock in the script could have been given to anyone and were not a suitable final appearance on screen for the character. (An argument which carried rather more weight before he decided that Spock’s actual last lines on screen would be ‘Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit of a wrong ’un, you know’).

There’s a distress call and the Enterprise-B is the Only Ship Available That Can Help, despite her being on its first trial mission and the fact that THEY’RE IN ORBIT OF EARTH. Star Trek does this in at least half of its films and it never gets any less stupid. Imagine if someone did a technothriller where the brand new USS Chesapeake is the only ship in Norfolk naval base that can go to a distress call at Bermuda, or HMS Glasgow is the only ship in Portsmouth harbour that can save a boat run aground on the Needles. It’s absurd and writers should stop doing it!

Anyway, the Enterprise-B’s navigator is Sulu’s daughter Demora and it’s commanded by Captain John Harriman. There’s a fun running joke that various things they need (tractor beam, torpedoes) won’t be delivered ‘till Tuesday’ but unfortunately that also seems to extend to Harriman’s ability to command. Yes they obviously want to show Kirk being a hero but again, bit implausible to show the captain of the new flagship dithering. They find two ships stuck in the ‘energy ribbon’ of the Nexus (nice visual effect, by the way) and the only way to free them so they can transport the crews over is for Kirk to do technobabble with the deflector dish, because Star Trek. He does so, but the Nexus collides with the ship and tears a chunk out of the special extra bit the model makers stuck on the Excelsior-class model so they didn’t have to cut into the original model. This takes Kirk with it. Meanwhile on the Enterprise-B we get glimpses of a ‘rescued’ Guinan and Soran (played by Malcom McDowell of Clockwork Orange fame, who agreed to do what he accurately thought was a ‘shit’ script purely so he could be the one to kill Captain Kirk). Like Guinan, Soran is a long-lived El-Aurian, whose planet was destroyed by the Borg. This is pretty much never brought up, even though it would be the obvious explanation for why someone with such a long lifespan is so obsessed with immortality, if he’s also trying to recreate a lost family etc. There are other plot elements that almost makes me think that was the intention and they just forgot about it.

We then get a really nice transition to ‘SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS LATER’ (this scene genuinely gave me a love of putting X YEARS LATER in my own writing) and, as a WTF moment for the audience, it cuts to an eighteenth-century Royal Navy HMS Enterprise on the high seas. Of course it’s actually the holodeck on the Enterprise-D, and our friends in the bridge crew – in period uniforms, at least they remembered to get those uniforms right! – are celebrating Worf (pre-DS9) being promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Riker hazes him by ‘accidentally’ making him walk the plank and everyone laughs, then when a confused Data tries to understand why it’s funny by pushing Crusher in, the crew don’t find it funny at all. (Chuck Sonnenburg accurately pointed out that this scene doesn’t work because the average audience member will have the exact opposite reactions to the crew). Data resolves to finally try the emotion chip he took from Lore in “Descent”, as he discusses with Geordi.

Anyway, the holodeck scenario is interrupted (leading to another nice WTF moment of our heroes on the bridge in their 18th century uniforms). Picard learns that there’s been a fire back on Earth and his brother Robert and nephew René have both been killed – he has an existential crisis not only at the loss, but the realisation that he will now be the last of the Picards. This was a really misjudged plot point in my opinion. It doesn’t link up well with the narrative purpose (it might have if Soran’s motivations had been more focused on his family, as I said), it feels needlessly cruel to Picard, and nothing comes of it.

There’s a distress call on the Amargosa Observatory (which was attacked by Romulans, but this part was cut by Jeri Taylor because it was too exciting or something). Soran is found in the wreckage and demands he be able to continue an experiment – including a confrontation with a grieving Picard in Ten-Forward where he rambles on about ‘time being the fire in which we burn’. It turns out that Soran’s real goal is to use a trilithium device to stop nuclear reactions in stars (because that’s totally a thing you can do just like that, and certainly wasn’t a fearsome future superweapon in “Captain’s Holiday”) because it will redirect the course of the Nexus. He does so to the Amargosa star, and meanwhile Geordi is kidnapped by the Duras Sisters, Soran’s allies, because newly-emotional Data is too scared to protect him. One of the biggest issues of “Generations”, which we’ll get back to, is how it ruins the perception we had in the series (especially the later run) that the TNG crew exude an atmosphere of calm competence and can get things done. About the only episode I can think of that resembles this film is “Rascals”, where Riker gets outwitted by a bunch of Ferengi flying two Klingon birds-of-prey because plot reasons. At least we get a nice scene of Picard shouting ‘warp one, engage!’ and the Enterprise-D outrunning the shock wave from the star.

We then get another VFX treat for the eyes – one of the most iconic scenes in the film in fact – where Picard and Data (who can’t remove the emotion chip now) try to puzzle out Soran’s plan using a giant planetarium room called STELLAR CARTOGRAPHY, which can make the stars wheel across the sky and show the Nexus’ progress and so on. It’s great stuff. Anyway, they figure out that Soran is blowing up stars to redirect the Nexus so it intercepts a planet called Veridian III – but his last target is the Veridian star itself, and its destruction will also kill 230 million people on Veridian IV. Picard sensibly asks “why doesn't he just fly into it with a ship?” Data explains that “our records show that every ship which has approached the ribbon has either been destroyed or severely damaged.” Aaaand here we have the biggest plot hole in the film, because Picard’s response to that should be “Yes, and?” Why would Soran care that the ship he was on was destroyed? Kirk successfully got into the Nexus by accident despite the Enterprise-B being damaged in the process. For that matter, does that mean that the Enterprise-B actually ‘rescued’ the El-Aurians against their will? (Guinan certainly implies it when she explains the Nexus to Picard). So…why did their ships send out a distress call in the first place and- (head explodes)

But because the jump to film of what was one of the most intelligent shows on TV requires us to turn our brains off, Picard instead concludes that Soran can only have the Nexus ribbon come to him, hence his last target will be the Veridian star. Meanwhile, as Soran prepares a cloaked trilithium missile on Veridian III’s surface, which he doesn’t fire just from the Klingon ship because shut up (at least I got to see it at the Star Trek Exhibition in Edinburgh a few months later), the Duras Sisters offer to return Geordi in return for beaming Picard down to the planet’s surface alone. After planting a bug in Geordi’s VISOR that let them see what he’s looking at. They use this to find the Enterprise-D’s shield frequency so they can shoot through it (which would have been a clever plot idea under other circumstances) because, er, what are their motivations to do so rather than flee now Soran has kept up his end of the bargain? Revenge? It never comes up.

The Bird-of-Prey manages to damage the Enterprise-D to the point of a warp core breach, as much because Riker shoots back like twice as because of the shield frequency trick. Data even has to come up with a clever way to force the Bird-of-Prey to drop its shields just so the Enterprise can destroy it, which she can usually do to a Bird-of-Prey without any trickery whatsoever. Regardless, the warp core breach means that they have to evacuate the crew to the saucer section and separate, before the shockwave from the exploding stardrive section causes the saucer to enter the atmosphere of Veridian III and land on the planet. Now the saucer separation and crash sequence is also great. It’s the big-screen adaptation of something that had been teased as an emergency procedure in the TNG Tech Manual and had fascinated friends ever since. A friend of mine was so impressed by it at the time that she demanded I dig out my VHS tape of ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ so we could see the saucer separation in that. It would, however, be better if it didn’t spawn a thousand ‘women drivers’ joke about Troi taking the helm and involve emotional Data going ‘oh shit’ and ‘yesssss’.

Obviously the whole space-battle sequence is implausibly plot-railroaded to not only give us our cool saucer crash sequence, but also to get rid of the rest of our characters. This is almost the last time they appear in the film: from now on it’s just Picard. Turns out the Duras Sisters did indeed beam him down to the mountain where Soran is (why) but Soran has a magic forcefield protecting him and the missile (why) but it doesn’t cover the space under rocky arches (WHY) so Picard can still try to get through and stop him. Of course, being Picard, he tries the Patrick Stewart Speech, and even pointedly suggests better villain motivations to Soran like he’s a theatre director: “What you're about to do Soran, is no different from when the Borg destroyed your world. They killed millions too, ...including your wife ...and children.” However, Soran refuses to listen to the cliff notes and instead rambles on about time being a predator and death coming inevitably, but in the Nexus the predator has no teeth, or something.

Picard doesn’t get there in time, the missile launches, the star turns black, and the Nexus swallows both him and Soran. Meanwhile presumably this planet of 230 million people whom we never see gets destroyed off-camera. This makes The Force Awakens look good by comparison. Anyway, Picard then finds himself in a fantasy in which he has a wife and children and it’s Christmas, because, er, Robert and René were killed? Shouldn’t he be fantasising that they are alive and he’s having Christmas dinner with them? Did the writers momentarily forget that Picard stereotypically doesn’t like children? (Of course that could just be a bluff brush-off attitude but it’s a bit of a swingeing character swerve!) The one good bit about this scene is that Picard realises something’s not quite right and he’s in the Matrix Nexus because the Christmas tree decorations – well I always assumed one of them looked like a miniature Enterprise or reminded him of the star exploding or something, but it’s not entirely clear.

Anyway, he meets the aforementioned ‘echo’ of Guinan who tells him he can go back and face Soran again, but he will need help. As Phil Farrand observed, this is the second biggest plot hole in the film. If Picard can effectively go back in time, why not go back a few more hours and arrest Soran when he met him in Ten-Forward, or a few more days and save Robert and René from the fire, or…

But no, as Daniel ‘Confused Matthew’ Warren pointed out, none of that matters because the entirety of this film was just a way of getting the characters of Kirk and Picard together. “This had better be worth it”. (Spoilers: it isn’t). According to Guinan, to Kirk it will feel as though he had only just arrived here. We then get to see Kirk’s fantasy setting, which has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH KIRK’S HISTORY OR CHARACTER. He’s in a cabin in the woods (not that sort) where he’s chopping wood, cooking breakfast, greeting his dog who died in real life, riding a horse, there’s a woman called Antonia who he met in like 2282 (so, between The Motion Picture and Star Trek II) and who he left behind when he said he was going back to Starfleet, which he regretted, or something. We have never seen or met any of this before. (Apparently part of the reason for this was Paramount bizarrely vetoing the use of Carol Marcus). He and Picard argue (with the memorable line ‘I was saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers’) and Picard gets him to help after he leaps a chasm on the horse and realises he didn’t feel any fear, because all of this is just a realm of wish fulfilment. And then they go off to tackle Soran. That’s it. That’s the crossover.

Back when I was looking at the original pilot “The Cage”, I joked that the writers of this film had copied the wrong part of it. In that story, Captain Pike is kept captive by the illusions of the Talosians, one of which is just him being on a picnic with Vina near his home of Mojave with his horses. Another is him being sent back to an away mission on Rigel VII on which three of his crew were killed, trying to manipulate him by giving him the illusory chance to save them (or rather Vina taking their place). That second illusion I mention is obviously what should have been done in the Nexus. Kirk back on the bridge of the original Enterprise, maybe with cameos from the rest of the crew, saving the galaxy, but realising there’s no point to it, it’s just an illusion, just a game. They could even have done a GalaxyQuest thing with it like comparing it to fans fantasising about Star Trek vs the realities of naval history in which real people can die etc.

Regardless, Picard and Kirk team up, go back in time just a few minutes and face Soran. This time they’re able to stop him. The original cut of the film had Soran shoot Kirk in the back and that’s how he dies, just because the writers thought it would be subversive or something. Predictably, test audiences reacted, ah, ‘negatively’ and they changed it. As Chuck Sonnenburg joked, they probably misinterpreted a fan request that Kirk should ‘die on the bridge’ by have him instead fall to his death clinging to, yes, a bridge over a chasm. Really. His last words to Picard being “It was fun…oh my.” Yes, very appropriate send-off for one of the most iconic characters of fiction.

The final scenes of the film have Picard and Riker picking over the damaged bridge of the Enterprise crashed on the planet (which Picard seems remarkably blasé about, all he cares about is his family photo album) and an admittedly sweet scene where Data finds his cat Spot and is happy, but because he is crying, wonders if his emotion chip is malfunctioning. Then the crew are taken from the surface by three other Federation ships. The end.

You can see why I was at worst, ambivalent about “Generations” when I was a kid, as we got to see the Enterprise-B, a nice energy ribbon effect, Stellar Cartography, and the awesome saucer separation crash sequence. When you think the characters being on screen in Star Trek is often something akin to a commercial break, and you feel more emotional attachment to the loss of the Enterprise in Star Trek III than Spock’s death in Star Trek II, then you can overlook the flaws. As an adult however, this film is a mass of wasted opportunities. Braga and Moore might have worried about making one crew look like baddies, but instead they made the TNG crew look like idiots. If this is the best end they could come up with for Kirk, it’s not surprising that William Shatner promptly embarked on a series of self-insert Mary Sue novels (ghostwritten by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens) in which Kirk comes back to life. In any other context, this sort of thing would be the most cringe exercise imaginable, yet in this case I find it quite hard to condemn it.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that “Generations” was nonetheless a box office success – the wider audience still felt some goodwill towards Star Trek. It was enough for a sequel, originally titled “Star Trek Generations II” (visible on some clapperboards on-set) to be made. Originally, the creators envisaged an Enterprise-E with the same design as the D, but with a new interior that would look better on the big screen. In the end, however, they ended up with a whole new design, new uniforms and much else.

That film would, of course, eventually become “Star Trek: First Contact”. I am not going to discuss it here in detail because I have already gushed – I mean written an article about it for another purpose. “First Contact” is widely, and accurately, viewed as not only by far the best TNG film, but one of the best Star Trek films full stop. Even the elements of it that look questionable or seem daaark and edgy so we can do Die Hard Picard, actually remain consistent with the values of Star Trek – in contrast to some more recent efforts. However, “First Contact” was in some ways only that good by accident, with many terrible ideas rejected at the planning stages, and the same creators went on to make the awful “Insurrection” (which we’ll discuss another time)

“First Contact” sees the return of the Borg, with Picard consumed by fury for revenge but also with keen insight into them which allows him to help Starfleet defeat them. However, a Borg sphere travels back in time and we get a brief glimpse of a changed alternate timeline – Earth assimilated by the Borg and populated by 9 billion Borg drones, including bridges from North America to Cuba and all sorts. The Enterprise-E follows the Borg back and manages to stop them before they completely destroy their target – Zefram Cochrane’s warp ship attempt in 2063 on an Earth ravaged by World War III, which will lead to the titular First Contact and change history. I never fail to be impressed by how this film (like DS9’s “Past Tense”, but more snappily) does a ‘changed history’ plot with a Point of Divergence that happens in the future compared to us, so the film has to explain what it is – and yet does it so well. I well remember Jonathan Ross, a great Star Trek fan at the time, trying to explain the plot with a blackboard “They start in 2373, but then go back in time to 2063, then Picard goes into a holodeck simulation that’s set in 1941, while I’m watching it here in 1996”…yet, somehow, it works.

The plot is split into two major strands – a team led by Riker on Earth’s surface helping Cochrane rebuild before the launch, and coming to terms with the fact that their idolised hero is an ordinary man who partly did it for the money (possible subtext on how Gene Roddenberry is seen); meanwhile, Picard and company in orbit find the Borg managed to escape to the Enterprise and are taking it over. This involves easily the film’s stupidest concept, the Borg Queen, but it did give us memorable scenes of Data being assimilated and seeming to betray the crew before, of course, he doesn’t. Where the film successfully threads the needle of being dark without being un-Star Trek is that Picard has to explain the utopian future of Trek to Cochrane’s confused friend Lily Sloan, while she has to be the one to point out that he isn’t living up to those values as he becomes consumed with hatred against the Borg.

In the end, the Borg are defeated and Cochrane’s first warp mission is a success, attracting the attention of a passing alien race, who land in a very ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ manner – before we see it is the very familiar (to us) Vulcans, and we understand part of the beginnings of the Trek setting for the first time. Going from “Generations” to this was a remarkable leap which, sadly, did not continue in quality.

Next time, we will cover the beginnings of the fourth incarnation of Star Trek, which debuted in 1995 to much fanfare but soon was found to have its own problems: “Star Trek: Voyager”.



bottom of page