Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Confronting Your (Star Trek) Nemesis

I recently did something foolish: I rewatched Star Trek: Nemesis. Not as part of a marathon, and not because I was exposing someone else to it for the first time.

I had a quiet afternoon to myself, and I chose to spend it watching Star Trek: Nemesis.

Now, I've spoken ill of or poked fun at Nemesis on too many occasions to count, so there was really no rational reason to spontaneously rewatch the film, especially when have a policy of never rewatching a movie unless (a) I really liked it and it just came out on DVD; (b) I'm showing it to someone else for the first time; (c) I'm with one or more friends who want to watch it; or (d) it's part of a marathon or a continuation of a series that I've decided to rewatch. It is exceedingly rare for me to just rewatch a movie out of the blue, let alone one so negatively received.

Still, there I was.

Somewhere between writing about our favorite fandoms that needed to be fixed and mentally prepping myself for playing through Mega Man 8 and Mega Man 10 (two Mega Man games I'm not very fond of) as part of my big Mega Man Marathon, I got this strange idea in my head that it'd be a neat idea to pick one of my favorite fandoms and play/read/watch my favorite and least-favorite installment back-to-back and then write a blog post about the experience.

At some point, that idea morphed into possibly watching Nemesis on its own. Star Trek often talks about redemption and shunning things you don't understand, so I was willing to give Nemesis another chance. I've been watching a lot of Next Generation lately, and there have been a few episodes with some glaring technical errors and some sections that were just a bit painful to watch--no different than some of the issues I had with Nemesis. If I can forgive them and still like the whole series, can't I forgive this one movie that already has some parts I know I do like?

Beyond that, I've been watching Deep Space Nine from the beginning, having given up on it in grade school after a little more than one season; a lot of my initial misgivings about the series have dissipated now that I'm older, better versed in Star Trek, and can appreciate it more. Maybe I could apply that same capacity for appreciation to Nemesis.

Whatever the encouragement, and whatever the rationale, this strange notion to rewatch such a disappointing and occasionally distasteful film kept growing. I had a good chunk of time to do some fairly mindless blog maintenance this weekend, so I figured it might be a nice break from music-listening to have Star Trek: Nemesis going on in the background instead so that I could fulfill this silly whim without actually dedicating any real time to it.

This is where the spoilers kick in, but if you've read this far, either you've seen it or you just don't care.

I sat and watched the first few minutes from my computer chair, just because I like the pretty view of Romulus at the beginning and the cool special effect that disintegrates the entire Senate. I remember liking a lot of the special effects and action sequences and the storyline with the Romulans, but the stuff I liked only accounted for maybe 20% of the movie and was concentrated at the beginning and end. Once the wedding scene started, I could zone out the movie for the next hour or so.

The wedding scene started, and Picard started talking, and that's when the change began. You see, I figured that just tuning in for the good parts would help me to focus on what I liked about the movie, and I could walk away from it with a better overall opinion because I had drowned out all the dull and unpleasant stuff with blogging.

Yet, Picard started to give his wedding toast, and instead of recoiling at how lacking Patrick Stuart's acting had suddenly become, I started thinking about the Picard I'd been watching on the TV series, and about everything I'd heard and read concerning the making of the movie.

From what I had pieced together, the cast of Nemesis was either polarized by director Stuart Baird, or else a few actors are being very polite when they talk positively about the experience of making the movie. Baird had never watched a single episode of any Star Trek before coming on board for Nemesis, and though he got some exposure to Star Trek in the process, he was there to make a movie...not necessarily a Star Trek movie. Baird either didn't "get" Star Trek, or else he just didn't care. (Evidence suggests it might be both.)

The idea to have a complete outsider direct wasn't a completely outrageous one--Baird was cited as a great action director, and as someone able to really bring out the best of the drama in a film. Plus, it probably wouldn't hurt to bring in someone who could potentially make a good movie and not just a good Star Trek movie that might only attract existing fans. After watching an interview with him, however, he seemed fixated on the new villain and the drama he could create with Shinzon. Little or no mention was made of the potential for the already well-developed characters.

On the other side of the creation process you've got a story crafted by devout Trek fan John Logan, longtime Trek producer/writer/co-creator Rick Berman, and Data himself, Brent Spiner. I've heard rumors to the contrary, but what I've gathered is that the trio at least meant well with the script and wanted to do right by both the cast and crew.

In true Star Trek style, the script grappled with big themes--family, parallels, and what it means to be human. Kinda deep if you think about it, actually. A lot of material was cut out, though, so a few of the explanations I would've liked to hear about Shinzon's origins and how B-4 got dragged into this mess were removed.

It was helpful to read up on what had been cut or insufficiently developed. Once it's been explained very clearly that Shinzon was a Picard clone designed to infiltrate the Federation but never fulfilled his destiny, and if you can imagine that he truly is a mirror of Picard as he would be 25 years ago and with a radically different upbringing, then he's no more out-of-place than Sela ever was.

Once you realize that B-4 was one of Dr. Soong's three failed android prototypes (actually referenced in an episode of TNG, though not by name), his presence seems much less contrived. If you can believe that C-3PO and R2-D2 went from a Rebel starship to an escape pod to a huge desert to a junk-lugging Sandcrawler into the hands of Luke Skywalker, ending up on the Death Star via the Millennium Falcon before finally showing up on Yavin IV just to deliver those stupid plans, then it's plausible that B-4 was hauled around the galaxy on all kinds of freighters before Shinzon heard about him, realized he'd be great bait to lure Picard, and acquired B-4 from the Cardassians.

Regardless of what ultimately was cut, John Logan especially seemed dedicated to crafting a script of the highest quality--in one interview he talks about getting the meter of Shinzon's lines to mirror Picard's speech patterns so that they sound even more alike. It's so, so subtle, but you notice it once you know about it, and that kind of attention to detail makes it easier to appreciate the film. Well, parts of it, at least.

In retrospect, I never had much problem with the script, save for the lack of explanation of a few points, and that one scene with Deanna Troi that had already been done more tastefully on the TV show and did not need to be repeated ever again. It was the feel of the movie, and not the casting or the dialogue or the plot, that I took issue with.

I'll surely continue to read and hear more of the inside story over time, but right now I'm envisioning a very divided production process where Brent Spiner basically had ultimate approval over everything that happened with Data and B-4, while Stuart Baird worked closely with Patrick Stuart and Tom Hardy to bring out as much drama as possible while changing or ignoring everyone and everything else to get the feel he wanted to the movie, while Rick Berman made sure that nothing too huge caught on fire except the stuff John Logan really really wanted to set on fire.

If this is anywhere close to the truth, the movie makes a lot more sense. If you want to appreciate Nemesis, you can't just view it as a Star Trek story; you need to understand the vision of the creators and see how Star Trek was a vehicle for that vision.

I also got the impression that the cast from TNG could tell this would almost certainly be their last movie together--I'd wager the uncharacteristically casual camaraderie emanated more from the actors than the characters, and if I'm not mistaken, Patrick Stuart requested to drive the Argo dune buggy because he could. This was everybody's last chance to do stuff in Star Trek that they never got to do, after all.

With all that in mind, I actually paid attention to Picard's wedding toast rather than going back to blog maintenance. This was the point where the movie previously began to feel a little "off," and I found myself analyzing why Patrick Stewart was delivering such alternating glib and heartfelt lines in such a stiff way. I also began analyzing whether it was just the acting, or whether there was something more.

One thing that originally made the film feel less like Star Trek was how visibly different the cast members were from the TV show, or even from Star Trek: Insurrection just four years earlier. A little more weight, a little grayer hair, and in some cases, bags under their eyes that I'd never noticed before anywhere else. That in and of itself is not a problem; it's the look that I thought they were trying to achieve--these people were trying to be younger people that no longer resembled them so exactly.

The moment I realized that the characters had aged along with the actors, everything suddenly felt different. Don't ask me why this didn't dawn on me sooner. From this new perspective, the crew hadn't just been together for seven years and four movies; they'd served together for fifteen years. They were no longer crewmates--they were family. We just missed all the character development that took place in the six seasons between First Contact and Nemesis, only catching one episode (Insurrection) during that time. Suddenly the increased chumminess didn't feel so "off."

During that toast, Picard was having trouble letting go of two of his best officers while still trying to put on a good show in a social situation that would've been a little awkward for him to begin with. It's a fine line between nuanced and lacking, and whether or not I was totally making things up and seeing what I wanted to see, the acting this time around felt more natural because all of a sudden these people were at a different point in their lives than I thought they were.

I left my computer chair to sit on the couch and give Nemesis my full attention for a while.

There were still parts that lost my attention a little, and I returned to tinkering with the blog during those segments, but it wasn't long before something happened to draw me back. I wasn't so interested in the Shinzon/Reman-centric bits, but all the scenes with the Enterprise crew gave me a chance to analyze their validity as authentic Star Trek canon, and I'm just naturally attracted to cool spaceships and things blowing up.

In the end, I came out liking Nemesis. I know; I'm as shocked as you are. Nemesis still has its flaws, and it's not the ideal conclusion to the Next Generation saga, but I appreciate what the creators were trying do do, and I understand some of the internal struggles that made Nemesis turn out the way it did. You can't expect a clone of Picard to turn out the same way with such a rough upbringing, but you can recognize the qualities that make him like the Picard you know and love.

I paid more attention to the soundtrack, and I liked it. I've always liked the design of the Scimitar. I looked more closely at the costumes and makeup and found that a lot of creativity went into making the Remans look truly alien and suited to their environment.

I appreciated how the script tried to satisfy fans by tying up some loose ends and doing things that had never been done before (like blowing a hole in the bridge and making the crew go through the rest of the movie without a viewscreen!). I think it's brilliant that the entire third act is one big space battle that still weaves in normal plot progression the entire time.

I also like the focus on the Romulans--they've always been my favorite Star Trek villains, and the fact that we get to see a bit of their homeworld, a bit of their politics, some new ships, and the promise of finally attaining peace with the Federation...well, those are all things I was glad to see.

I noticed the subtlety in the exchanges between characters. I even caught references to all five Star Trek series--the Remans played a part in the Dominion Wars, and of course there's the obvious cameo by Admiral Janeway--and though some of the references are a tip-of-the-hat at best, they all help to integrate Nemesis into the greater Star Trek continuity. The film fits with the rest of the franchise, even if the explanations as to why aren't always found in the film itself.

After seven seasons of getting pushed around on TNG, Worf finally got to blow lots of stuff up. Between the dune buggy cannon, the phaser battle in the corridor, and firing EVERY WEAPON ON THE SHIP, Worf got to be the tactical officer he deserves to be.

Data's sacrifice didn't upset me because (a) it was a heroic way to go, and (b) he had just uploaded everything he is into B-4. If we can put Spock's katra back into his regenerated body, we can put all of Data's programming into a nearly identical android. Star Trek: Countdown confirms what the ending hints at: the memory upload is successful, and Data lives on while simultaneously giving his narrow-thinking prototype brother a greater purpose than he would have otherwise served. The problem isn't that Data was blown up--the problem is that you don't get to see what happens next, whether it really turns out OK or if they were just foolin' with you.

Once again, it's what Nemesis doesn't show that hurts the film.

Nemesis should have been a wholly satisfying conclusion to the Next Generation saga, but so many of the good parts were too subtle, left out of the film entirely, or overshadowed by the faults caused presumably by a lack of internal cohesion and a failure for certain decisions to pan out as well as anticipated.

Nemesis wants to be a good movie, but it tries too hard to be too many different kinds of "good movie," and never fully succeeds in any arena. It wants to be a compelling drama. It wants to give Star Trek fans everything they've wanted to see. It wants to be a mainstream action movie. It wants to be The Wrath of Khan. It wants to be a fun last outing for the cast. It wants to be the satisfying final chapter of The Next Generation. It wants to have a sequel.

Nemesis is not evil. It's just not the movie you want it to be. With a little imagination about what is, was, will be, and could have been, Nemesis might just end up being halfway enjoyable.

Though, as a side note, I find it really, really amusing that this is post #666 on this blog.


Matt said...

Overall, I didn't find Nemesis to be too bad. For the most part, I agree with your point - it had too many things to live up to at that point to be enjoyable to a good level in any one of them. Though I stand by my assessment that there was nothing at all redeeming about Insurrection. Blah.

That being said, I only watch Nemesis when it randomly shows up on TV, so it's that great apparently.

A Philosophical Nerd said...

First of all, Matt, I would say there's a lot of redeeming value in Insurrection -- the show was off the air and we got a brand new Next Generation adventure. My favorite crew is the Next Generation crew, and my favorite Star Trek show is The Next Generation. A major objection critics had to the film was it felt too much like an episode of the show. But that's probably why I loved it so much -- I love the show, and I thought Insurrection lived up to what could have been one of the best episodes of the show. But that's just me.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nemesis as a movie and as a new entry into the franchise. As I've mentioned before I love the crew of The Next Generation. Perhaps that's why I didn't mind the "duller stuff" so much. I've always felt like the crew of the Enterprise-D were members of my own family. Watching Troi and Riker getting married was like watching two of my best friends getting married. It felt like I was there with the crew, watching them during a pivotal moment of their lives. I can only get that in a show/movie, I can't get that in real life. So I enjoyed watching it. I realize that not everyone would have that outlook on it, but that's why I, personally, didn't mind scenes like that. :)

Now, from what I've always read there has never been a guarantee of a Star Trek sequel. Obviously, several of them ended being left open for a sequel (e.g. The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock), but there's never been any guarantee a sequel would be made. Of course, it was always great when a new sequel was greenlighted. The cast and crew of The Next Generation would have loved to make another movie (I remember reading that the cast would have enjoyed returning for another outing), so they left certain things unanswered in case a sequel was made (e.g. whether Data's memory transfer into B-4 was successful or not). Unfortunately, Nemesis didn't do so well in the box office, so a sequel was never greenlighted. Instead, they decided to reboot the franchise to "give it new life" (while alienating a good number of its longtime fanbase).

I enjoyed a lot of the insight you gave into the movie. What you mentioned about the crew aging, this is actually nothing new to Star Trek. The Wrath of Khan, in particular, dealt with the crew coming to grips with getting older and dealing with death. It was inevitable that the Next Generation crew would have to grapple with it, as well.

As much as I enjoy reading Star Trek books and comics, the reason I don't read very many of them is because they're not considered to be canon. Since Star Trek: Countdown was written by the writers of the Star Trek reboot, that might lend credibility to its canonicity. What do you think about that?

Matt said...

I think the dynamic of the movies definitely did change over time. And I think it left a lot of us not sure to make of it. But maybe I'm making a lot of something that wasn't really big of a deal.

In my mind, the movies were better closer to the time when the series had been on the air. Generations and First Contact felt like really epic movies to me. And one good reason was that they were ALLOWED to be that way.

When fans aren't pining for episodes of a series, they don't have to make movies that are both epic and down-to-earth. The show was for daily adventures. The movies were for huge explosions and conflicts. You knew what you were going to be watching and that's why you went to theaters. At least, that's what I got out of it.

I think that's what got me a bit about Insurrection. I don't feel like I got my epic fix on it. Nemesis did much better. I want starship crashes and full-out battles now and then.

That being said, the series was indeed amazing - no arguments it was a sad day when that ended.

Flashman85 said...

It makes me really happy to see such rich discussions here. :) I feel like I need to write a new post just to address these comments!

I'll just go down the line.

Matt: That's really interesting, and a little surprising to hear about Insurrection. I've heard the complaint about it feeling just like an episode, and Wil Wheaton told me it "sucked," but I've never heard that it had "nothing at all redeeming."

I liked Insurrection as another installment of TNG, but my biggest issue with it relates to what both you and APN said: It's too far removed from the TV show, and it feels like just another episode.

When there's no guarantee that there will be another sequel, I want a movie to make the most of its time on the big screen. As a feature film, the stakes weren't high enough, the action wasn't big enough, and the pretty panoramas weren't quite breathtaking enough to take full advantage of the medium.

It's like choosing four games that can exemplify the power of your incredible gaming PC and the third one you chose is Half-Life, not Half-Life 2. Or something.

As an installment in the Next Generation saga, it failed to develop the characters or the broader Star Trek universe in as meaningful a way as I feel it should have. Even when I throw a one-shot D&D campaign, I like to tie a few things in with previous quests.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single way in which Insurrection significantly furthered what Star Trek had already begun to develop, aside from helping to reignite the spark between Riker and Troi. When there's no promise of a sequel, I want to see what the Enterprise-B was like, or the Borg getting their comeuppance, or the promise of peace with the Romulans.

Don't get me wrong--I like Insurrection well enough. The humor is what I remember the most about it (Inflate-a-Data was pushing it, though).

I apply the same principal to the less-popular Star Trek movies as I do to the Mega Man games: I already know I like Star Trek, so my opinion of the movie is affected more by what I don't like than the things that are good about it. Insurrection isn't as much of a cinematic triumph as I'd like, but I don't really see anything specifically wrong with it, therefore I like it.

But, yeah, I get the feeling about it not being so "epic."

Flashman85 said...

APN: I dig what you're saying. To clarify about the "duller stuff" I mentioned, that mostly pertained to Shinzon-centric sections and explanations that were more informative than interactive between characters. Basically, the non-actiony, non-character-focused stuff.

Plus, I'm really not a big fan of weddings. There, I said it. Marriage is great, but one real wedding, no matter how fun, is enough to last me a year or two, at least. But that's neither here nor there.

I'd like to add that a few actors mentioned they'd like another chance to don their uniforms again, but at least one (Brent Spiner) said they'd visibly aged out of the role they'd be playing. I'll note here that TNG says it's possible for Data to age, and that'd be an interesting plot point to weave in; if nothing else, we could say that Data got integrated with B-4, and B-4 looked like that all along (which would be true).

As far as canon is concerned, Star Trek contradicts and amends itself all the time within the official continuity; that being the case, I see no reason why the comics can't be valid as well, unless they flagrantly go against something major.

As I see it, anything that's no longer on the air can canonically continue in another format. That's why I love the Serenity graphic novels--it's the only continuation of the series that we may ever get, and I definitely want more. The Star Trek comics that are the equivalent of random episodes don't feel so canonical to me, but plot-heavy installments like Mission's End and Countdown need to be canon for me, as they fill in some very important gaps. Countdown especially.

A Philosophical Nerd said...


I completely understand where you're coming from on the "lack of epicness" angle. I was just excited to get another, brand new installment of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But I'm not really much of a movie goer. I don't really go just for ship battles and huge explosions (though don't get me wrong, I do appreciate those, too). It's nice to go to a movie and see things that a relatively modest television budget wouldn't allow you to do.


Rich discussions are one of the great things about Star Trek (or really, any fandom). I, too, thought the inflatable Data was pushing the humor to ridiculous lengths. But I don't necessarily agree that the stakes weren't high. For the crew of the Enterprise-D, the stakes were their careers in Starfleet (sacrificing them to save the inhaitants of the planet), and for the inhabitants, the very planet was at stake. They were going to be forced into relocation. I'd consider those some pretty big stakes. :)

I do, however, agree with you that there wasn't any real character development going on (beside the Troi and Riker romance which pretty much came right out of left field). In fact, I had no idea they'd continue with it in the next film, Nemesis. I figured it'd just be a "childhood romantic fling" due to the effects of the youth particles in the planet's rings.

Believe me, I do get what you're saying about weddings. I think in one year, five of my best male friends were married off (meaning, of course, I spent less time with them due to be married). I started to consider it good luck to be friends with me because you'd end up finding someone and getting married. All my life, I've had really bad luck in the romance deparment so it's kind of strange I like weddings so much. Maybe it's because as a professional musician, I've had opportuntities to play weddings so if nothing else, they help pay the bills.

And that is true about Star Trek contradicting and amending itself (Klingon forehead ridges being an obvious example of this). I had joined a great Star Trek forum some time last year and some of the discussions I had with people got into pretty bizarre territory. Now I love to believe that this is where our future as a race is headed, but I had discussions with people about the inconsistencies in Star Trek (e.g. how Spot changed gender and species through the course of the show). The obvious answer to some of these is that the writer wasn't as familiar with Star Trek or just made a simple goof, and no one caught it. But he couldn't accept that. He saw Star Trek as "real," and so "writer error" was an unacceptable answer to him.

But part of the fun, for me, is to try and explain away some of the inconsistencies that turn up (e.g. how Khan recognized Chekov in Star Trek II, although "Space Seed" was a first season episode and Chekov made his first appearance in the second season).

I guess my concern with canonicity is I'd like to be able to use information from these sources in discussions with other Trekkies. Nemesis left us uncertain as to whether or not Data's memory transfer would work (though it hinted that it did at the end), but the only way to make an assertion that it did is if you consider to be Star Trek: Countdown to be canonical. I guess that's all I'm concerned with.