This is how Captain James Tiberius Kirk dies: he jumps across a broken bridge to retrieve a device--whose function is too complicated, and frankly too unimportant, to describe in any detail--the bridge gives way, and he falls into a ravine. Yes, Captain Kirk, the man who cheated death a million times, who saved the universe a thousand more, dies by tumbling down a few feet of rock. Somebody call McLean Stevenson and tell him all is forgiven.
The producers of Star Trek: Generations often said, in justifying the death of Kirk, that it was beginning to be a "cheat" not to address what had happened to the Enterprise's most famed commanding officer. At some point, they reasoned, they would need to forever exorcise the ghost of Kirk if the new series of Trek films, based on The Next Generation, was going to succeed on its own merits.
And yet the anticlimactic death of the franchise player only underlines their worst fear. Without William Shatner (not to mention Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, both of whom begged out because their parts were poorly defined), the Enterprise is a rudderless ship--the Titanic without even a band. They're just cash-machine movies now, kiddies, and not very good ones at that.
When Star Trek journeyed to the big screen in 1979, the characters had reached some sort of bizarre legendary status. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Enterprise crew had existed for 13 years (mostly in syndication, the place where fame lives on forever), and it had been a decade since they were last seen on screen (not counting the animated series, in which Shatner never looked better). Their return to Starfleet satisfied those fans who felt cheated by the show's abrupt end. Not only did The Next Generation bow out just months ago--with a two-hour time-travel episode far more thrilling and ingenious than Generations--but it airs several times a week. There simply is no need for a NextGen film, not now and not ever.
What made the original series and first six films so entertaining wasn't mere mention of the name Star Trek, but the characters who inhabited the ship. Without Spock or McCoy and the interplay between them and Kirk--a relationship built over 28 years, and one dissected throughout the films--the new cinematic Enterprise is left to fly on the shoulders of such bland, whiny, sensitive new-age sorts as Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Troi (Marina Sirtis), Jordi (LeVar Burton), and the android Data (Brent Spiner, who says "Oh, shit," and gets the only laugh in the film).
Generations does begin well enough. Kirk, Scotty (James Doohan), and Chekov (Walter Koenig) join a new crew of the Enterprise for a brief test run through the solar system. And for the first time, you get the sense that Kirk is a part of the past: the ship is filled with unfamiliar faces, and as the new captain (Alan Ruck, the dorky pal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the dorky passenger in Speed) says upon their initial meeting, "I remember reading about your missions when I was in grade school."
But as always happens during test-runs in these films, the Enterprise is called into action, and a desperately willing Kirk must take command of the ship to save the inexperienced new captain's hide. Seems a rip in the time-space continuum is chewing its way through the galaxy, and the Enterprise is called in to rescue several transport ships being torn apart by the energy wave. But--wouldn't you know it?--the Enterprise ends up being dragged into the energy disruption and only Kirk can get them out, sacrificing his own life in the bargain a la Spock in The Wrath of Khan. Trust me, you can see this coming a thousand light years away.
But Kirk doesn't die. Instead, as we learn later in the film, he is snapped up by the wave and sent in to the Nexus, a sort of time-warp Fantasy Island where time has no meaning. You can live a thousand lifetimes, each better than the last, revisiting past moments or creating brand-new ones. So 78 years after the "death" of Kirk, Dr. Soran (the sadly underused Malcolm McDowell) attempts to enter the Nexus, bringing Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) with him even if it means destroying 230 million lives in the process.
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The plot is standard Trek fare, no better than an average episode. And its one tiny grasp at theme--that Enterprise captains regret not having had time for families--seems like a throwaway. When Kirk and Picard both get that chance, when they find themselves in the Nexus surrounded by families and lovers, homes, and horses for "all of eternity," they quickly choose to go back in time and fight Soran and save the galaxy. And why not? They're men who choose to live as warriors rather than die as fathers and husbands--two-dimensional heroes instead of three-dimensional men.
Without Star Trek, Shatner could no more carry a feature film than, well, McLean Stevenson. He is a walking parody of an ac-tor, his delivery growing more affected with each new hairpiece. Yet as Captain Kirk--as mythic hero, as gallant warrior--he is an icon whose presence elevates it from a bland episode of The Next Generation into a monumental event for Trekfans who have, yawn, always awaited a meeting between Kirk and Picard.
Kirk might as well have been offed by a Gorn. Where The Undiscovered Country offered him a chance to bow out with honor and grace, here he winds up buried by Picard on a mountaintop underneath a grave of boulders. Some dignity.
Star Trek: Generations. Paramount. Patrick Stewart, William Shatner. Script by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Carson. Now showing.