6.24.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 34: Generations


When I walked out of the theater after first seeing Generations, I was convinced what I'd just seen was a movie about drugs. "I get it," I told my brother on the way home, "the Nexus was drugs. Soran was the strung-out junkie, Guinan was the ex-user, and Data was the drug freak-out character. It all makes sense." 

 
 

"Picard's family has been destroyed, and he has to figure out why. He has to descend into the madness to make sense of it."


My brother didn't buy it, pointing out (quite rightly) that Picard's family wasn't killed by the Nexus, something my metaphor would need in order to be consistent. But I kept going. "What else could it be but a drug metaphor? Wouldn't make sense otherwise. Even the sets: I mean, it's supposed to be the same ship, but everyone's quarters are different, everything's lit differently, darker, mood mood-lighting-ish, and even Guinan's quarters resemble an opium den."

I was only 20, so it just had never occurred to me (despite my love of the original cast films) that a show leaping from the small-to-big-screen would naturally re-do its visual design, costumes, sets, etc.
In retrospect, had they been trying to make the film I thought I was seeing, they might have been more successful. Generations does indeed resemble the before, middle, and after of a drug binge. And what do you have to show for it in the light of day? Your ship's destroyed, your family's gone, and Captain Kirk lies dead at your feet.

Yep... Time to sober up.
I was onto something, here, just not what I thought. The film was about the dangers of simulated reality/ fake-euphoria vs. hard-won reality; it's just not an especially convincing delivery mechanism for that theme.

Despite everything I'm going to get to, it's still an entertaining enough film, and the TNG-style fx look undeniably cool on the big screen. The spaceship battle and ship destruction - while not particularly logical - and Stellar Cartography scene, and even the big set piece on the Age of Sail boat, everything looks great. 



Let's start at the beginning.

Generations began its journey to the screen when Paramount informed Rick Berman that he'd been greenlit for two films. He asked Moore and Braga (then still writing partners,) Maurice Hurley, and Michael Piller to each come up with some ideas, of which he'd pick the best one. (Piller, still wrapped up in DS9 and not liking the idea of having to compete for the job, declined to submit an idea) Hurley's idea was about having Captain Picard conjure up Captain Kirk in the holodeck, to help him and the Enterprise-D through some kind of crisis, but Berman rejected the idea in favor of Moore's and Braga's. Says Ronald D. Moore:

"It was a movie about mortality. It was a movie about Picard reaching a certain age and realizing there are more days behind him than were in front of him. His brother had died, the Enterprise herself died, and this mythic hero would ultimately have a mortal ending as well. Despite realizing we are mortal, you still move on and you still live your life and you still try and the make the most of it. (Pause) Well, that is what the movie was trying to be about."

I think between the two interpretations offered here, I'll take my own. At least "we were trying to make a drug freakout movie" has a wtf factor that, like it or loathe it, you have to admire.
He continues: "I think-Brannon and I were not ready to write that movie at that point in our careers. Our reach exceeded our grasp. We didn't have the maturity and the seasoning as writers, and probably as human beings, to tackle something that grand and marry it to an action-adventure Star Trek film."

I think it's commendable that both Moore and Braga (who had a funny exchange with Shatner and Damon Lindeloff about Generations on Twitter) recognize the shortcomings of Generations. But beyond the muddled themes of the film and the bad cinematic-realization of the script, as with The Undiscovered Country, the fundamental Trek-ness of the film (ship functionality, internal consistency, character arcs and subplot that support a theme, etc.) is just... off. It's a collection of niggling mistakes from start to finish that undermine the whole. It baffles me to this day that Moore, Braga, and Berman, whose Trek acumen was collectively so spot-on for so many years, threw out so much of what worked over seven seasons and seemingly started from scratch.

Thankfully, there are enough reviews/ sites out there that make a comprehensive list of the film's failings, so I don't have to. Perhaps the most amusing is Red Letter Media's, which makes its usual snarky-but-airtight case against the many "Uhhhhh..." moments from the film. (It's a 30-minute video but totally worth watching if you're so inclined.)


I'll only focus on a few of the more egregious gaffes here and try to cut the film some slack for things that aren't quite gaffes, just very odd choices, such as when Geordi celebrates Worf's promotion by breaking into the high-pitched "hul-li-li-le-lee-li-li..." cheer typically associated with Muslim women (and only Muslim women) saluting their men going off into battle. (At least according to the movie Three Kings.)
In the pre-TNG sequence - where Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov are VIPs aboard the launch of the Enterprise-B - the new crew is rather unbelievably incompetent. They're untested rookies and all/ everyone had a bad day, fine whatever; would Starfleet really staff its flagship vessel with such folks, though? And here is where the problems start: What are we to make of when the Captain (Alan Ruck) tells the press (who seem more 20th century than 23rd) that they're taking the ship on a quick "run around the block," i.e. to Pluto and back, yet, seconds later, when the Nexus appears, they're the only ship in the vicinity? 


Even if you're being pretty forgiving, this one is hard to square.
Next we have the killing off of Picard's family. It's a pretty lazy way of motivating Picard to think about mortality, though the strong presence of Robert and the gang from "Family" certainly lends the scene some power. They're not nameless off-screeners, but folks we got to know a little. And I admire the fact that they wanted to introduce Picard in the movies in an anti-traditional-action-lead way, i.e. showing vulnerability and sobbing grief. Which Patrick Stewart pulls off, no problem. (And I guess Trek has done this sort of thing before, so I can hardly single out Generations. Still.)

Does the film lack a strong director? David Carson directed some of the best episodes of the series, but it's no insult to look at his imdb and see him as a (perfectly competent) director-for-hire. Which is bully for him, career-wise, but would the film have been better-served with someone else? Back to Ronald Moore: (from here)
 
"Leonard Nimoy turned down (directing) the film, and I knew he didn't like the script. It is hard to say at this point he was wrong. I didn't meet with him, but I remember after he met with Rick, Rick conveyed to us his reservations and why he didn't like it. He put his finger on the right problems. The Nexus was a problem. The Nexus was a difficult concept that we were never able to crack and Kirk's death didn't pay off the themes in the way we wanted it to pay off."

Let's talk about The Nexus for a second.



I like the idea of a mysterious energy-ribbon that appears like Halley's Comet every so often and wreaks havoc. But as the bridge between the two eras, it has major problems, not the least of which is what we learn about it from Guinan. i.e. Once you've been in it, you remain as an echo/ ghost, and you can leave whenever you want. 

Wouldn't Soran still be in it, then? (And how does Guinan's ghost even know this? Granted, she has extra-sensory perception, but both the Nexus and Guinan's presence within it to talk to Picard come off a little maguffin-y.) As for the leaving whenever you want aspect, this has been criticized elsewhere and often, but good God, man, why go back to seconds before the sun blows up, then? And why does Picard even need Kirk? To help punch the bad guy? And how is it so easy for Picard and Kirk to break out when everyone else has to be torn kicking-and-screaming from it? (For my drug metaphor, I rationalized this as the way different people are hard-wired for drugs. Soran would be the guy chemically wired to become a full-blown addict after one shot of vodka, while Kirk/ Picard aren't, or something.) 

I'll get back to the Next Gen cast momentarily, but let's talk Kirk/ Shatner.


 

They originally had trouble getting Shatner to come back for his Trek farewell, as Shatner relays in Movie Memories. (Says Moore) "Brannon was explaining why he thought Kirk was integral to the story, and Bill suddenly bursts out, sounding exactly like Kirk, "Well... in fact... he's NOT... in-te-gral... to the story!" Brannon's head snapped back, I flinched, and Rick (Berman) looked startled. But I thought (seeing Shatner channel Kirk spontaneously) was really, really cool."



As undeniably cool as an in-person Shatner Kirk-ism must be, practically nothing in the film, Kirk's arc or otherwise, is integral to the story, because there's really just not much of a story. Sometimes, Trek can pull this off, but does it here? Given Kirk's stature, it is for me the weightiest problem sitting on (and crushing) this script's chest. Whether it's the death of Picard's family, Data's emotional chip, Kirk's death itself, the destruction of the Enterprise, or the Klingons, all of these things seemingly exist only to prop up the conceit of getting the Captains together.


I can understand that's it's cheaper just to introduce someone new, but did anyone else find it weird that there'd be this random love of Kirk's life, "Antoniya?" (Which Shatner's accent distorts into "Antonio" in a couple of scenes.) I'm not saying it's a mistake or a bridge too far, just kind of random. Personally, I'd have chosen to make it Edith Keeler and just never name her; I mean, we only hear her offscreen/ see her in this long shot; wouldn't that have been much, much better?
Much has been made of Kirk's rather-offhanded death, which unravels the "Kirk dies alone" thing from Star Trek V. (Not that anyone really minds. I mean, you could say he died alone on the Enterprise-B, but even that seems not what was meant by this bit in STV.) I was amused by Frank Miller's reaction to this, though: "That's not how James Kirk dies! He dies leading the fragmented remains of Star Fleet into one last battle against the entire Klingon armada. And winning." The original version had Soran shooting Kirk in the back, but the test audience/ Sherry Lansing at Paramount insisted on a re-shoot. So, they had it more of an action/ heroic sacrifice thing. Not the most original/ epic. I mind this the least, though, as I don't even buy that this guy is Kirk. I think it's a transporter double. Unless it's a prequel to the Shatnerverse. In which case, well played.


I have my problems with the whole set-up on Veridian III, but the scenes between Shatner and Stewart are fun. At the time, much was made of the friendship they'd formed on-set, and I thought that was just a bit of marketing. But the years since have demonstrated that the two did indeed become friends, and despite some of the unflattering reviews at the time of the movie's release, I quite enjoy seeing the two actors play off another.
Shatner's ad-libbing and line reading of "Oh My..." is actually pretty cool, and fitting. I approve.
I am baffled why Picard covers the bodies with rocks and leaves it there, though... uhhh... it's not like a shuttlecraft isn't on the way; can't they just bring the body back/ give it a decent burial? I suppose it was a "buried at sea," thing. Like Bin Laden. (Hi, NSA!)
Malcolm McDowell, in Shatner's Movie Memories and almost everywhere else on the web that his involvement in this movie is mentioned, was downright gleeful about his being the guy to kill Kirk. He brags about it. I've never understood his excitement. The only thing memorable about his character is that he gets to kill Kirk, in a very un-Khan like fashion, and with no purpose. This is a guy who wants to slaughter billions so he can get back to his drug zone? Let's not even get into the absurd mechanics of how people enter the Nexus... as with how people exit it, it just falls apart immediately under questioning.


McDowell slags off not just the film but his co-stars, these days, as evidenced here, though I'm not sure how seriously we should take him.
He gets a couple of good lines, but his character is poorly motivated and just not very interesting. For Kirk's death to have the kind of impact it deserves, it needs to be in service of a strong plot and a strong villain. Otherwise, it's a whole different type of film. Take The Wire: Omar getting iced by that mouthy kid from the corner works because of the whole five seasons of context. Soran's entire scheme rests on some nonsensical motivation and wonky science (his rocket takes 8 seconds to reach the sun? a 50 gigawatt force field? The Rube Goldberg-like contraption to re-enter the Nexus?) and it cheapens what should be among the most powerful farewells of the whole Trekverse.

So, okay, Trilithium/ Nexus = Red Matter/ Genesis Device. Big deal. I can hang with some magical technobabble with a passing nod to science. Is that it? Unfortunately, no.


Let's talk about Data.
Data's emotion chip deserves a special mention. Normally, a subplot serves some kind of purpose to the support structure of a film. Does Data's? I realize there is an attempt made in this direction during the admittedly beautiful-looking scenes in Stellar Cartography:


 

But is it enough? I honestly don't think so. Worse, it sets the stage for a retread of Spock's own emotional journey in the films, settled in TMP but resonating through at least TVH. Spiner is not very well-served in Generations. He gets some funny lines (I do quite enjoy his "No problem!" response to Riker's suggestion about the phase coils (rather than just modulating the f**king shields, like they did every other f**king episode of TNG... But I digress.) but both the direction and performance and purpose of his emotional freakouts, here, is just damn odd. (Unless, of course, it was meant to convey the "bad trip / drug freakout"ness. But let's face it, 20-year-old Bryan, it wasn't.) Data seems to just decide to pop in his emotional chip, as if this was an episode in need of a b-story. But big-screen fare doesn't support that kind of stuff; it needs to better serve the a-story.

Some Odds and Ends

Christopher Miller plays Rene Picard in the Nexus sequence, but months earlier, he'd played Shatner's son in the SeaQuest DSV episode "Hide and Seek."
I am not a fan of the whole blowing up the Enterprise-D business in general, (though I am greatly amused by it happening almost immediately after Troi takes the helm) but specifically:

 
Shameless.
I can understand re-using expensive footage, but the explosion of the Klingon ship is the same shot from the end of The Undiscovered Country.
Beverly is fairly ill-served in each of the NextGen movies, unfortunately.

 
 
Says McFadden: “Making Generations was fun, even though I wasn’t very involved. Everyone got on well and was energized by the experience, and I think we all look forward to the next one (...) Speaking for myself, I would like there to be more Crusher in the next film, and I’m hopeful that will be the case.”

Hopes denied.
Though her character gets a pretty sound farewell in "All Good Things," so at least there's that. (And the totally bizarre genre deconstruction madness of "Sub Rosa.")
I don't want to go on too much about this one, but in terms of what it set out to do (be a tale of Picard wrestling with mortality, illuminating the dangers of simulated-reality vs. reality, and send Kirk off as the pantheon deity he is) it fails. 

CODA

"Time is not a predator but a companion on our journey. What we leave behind is not as important as what we live." This isn't a bad line, but it's kind of an anvil dropped on the film. I don't buy this as a reasonable wrap-up for Picard's experience in the story we just saw.

It is a nice wrap-up, though, for some other sentiments, and I'll close this blog with these remarks from the end of Shatner's Movie Memories:

"For years now, Leonard has been telling me about how difficult it was for him to film the death of Spock, and I have to admit, I never really understood what the hell he was talking about. I mean, he'd sit there telling me about how he spent the entire preproduction period on TWOK as well as our early days of production in total denial, blocking the character's death from his mind. Only later, he said, as the actual shooting day approached, did the full depth and consequences of his actions begin to set in. That's when he began having second thoughts, which continued to plague him right up until the cameras were ready to roll, at which point he began looking for any excuse to storm off the set and avoid playing the scene at all." 


"I too spent many months blissfully denying to myself that this simple death scene merited any serious thought, any analysis, any grief, only to later find myself swept under a flood of last-minute anxiety and soul searching in regard to Kirk, Shatner, and both our lives.

"The Kirk I knew is not the standard issue amalgam of fiction, imagination and hype. Instead, the actor's Kirk grew out of memorizing ten pages of dialogue every day and studying scripts in advance, always struggling to come up with the creative ideas that might eventually allow the actor's performance to complement and enhance what already existed on paper. In short, the character was first and foremost a combination of writer's concept and actor's experience.

"The Kirk I knew was bonded to cast and crew by hours of tedium and occasional moments of creative glow.

"What laughs and sorrows had gone into the totality of this fictional character! (...) He's changed my entire life, and he's fulfilled a lot of my boyhood dreams along the way. I owe him a tremendous debt. (...) Every once in awhile, that kind of awareness will sneak up on you and clobber you over the head. For me, filming Kirk's death marked one of those occasions. 

"It was clear now that, for me anyway, Star Trek was coming to an end."

R.I.P. James T. Kirk. Until we meet again.


"Live life like you're gonna die... because you are." 

15 comments:

  1. This movie sucks balls. Okay, it's maybe not as bad as STV but it's not very good, either. The crew of the Enterprise-B sucks. Come to think of it, the Enterprise-B itself sucks, too. Okay, I can probably believe no tractor beam or photon torpedoes, but no medical staff??? And since when is Checkov so well-versed in medicine that he can run a triage? That scene was written for McCoy but bless Deforest Kelley, he declined to appear in this walking abortion of a film.

    Remember when Checkov could call up starcharts on the main viewer on the bridge and it would take 10 seconds? Here, we get stellar cartography and a scene that feels like it takes 10 hours. Very poor pacing throughout this movie.

    And thanks for mentioning how everyone on the Enterprise-D gets amnesia at the same time when the Klingons launch their attack. No one even suggests rotating the shield frequencies. This problem, like many others in the film, could have been fixed with one line of dialogue. All you needed was for Worf to say the shield generators were taken out by the first Klingon torpedo. But instead everyone forgets the strategy they used against the Borg. Pitiful.

    Speaking of the Klingons, they suck in this movie, too. I'm glad Lursa and B'Etor are dead.

    The whole plot point about the destruction of the Enterprise was supposed to be the TNG season 6 finale but the FX shots were too expensive so they did it here instead. It might have had a bigger emotional kick if we hadn't seen pretty much the same thing 4 movies ago.

    I don't like this movie. (Can you tell?) Best to forget about this and get to First Contact. It was way better.

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    1. That's a good point about the star charts vs. the long scene in Stellar Cartography. I don't mind that one too, too much, as it's probably the visual highlight of the film for me. And since I don't like practically anything else about it, I need to hold onto SOMETHING.

      The pacing is indeed a mess, throughout.

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    2. I love the stellar cartography scene. It probably doesn't make much actual sense, but I'm more than willing to not worry about that in this particular instance.

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  2. I'll be blunt about my biggest beef with this movie: how the FUCK do all those people so acquainted with Trek for so long not see how underwhelming and, ultimately, trivial, Kirk's death was as they were making the movie? How did they sit through dailies and script conferences, pre-production dinners and meetings, and not look at it at some point and say: "this is lame"? How does it get to the point that they film an even worse demise - shot in the back, no less! - and have it in front of test audiences? It boggles my mind. This is especially true given that Trek managed to kill off one major character, Spock, in a way that was pitch-perfect. It fit everything about the character, and what we've come to expect from Trek.

    I had a much more negative reaction than you did to the death of Picard's brother and nephew. True, it drew on established backstory, but something about it seemed cheap and easy to me, as a NextGen viewer...and what about non-Trek viewers who went in to the movie cold? All they would know is that some offscreen characters were said to be dead and the ostensible hero of the film was sobbing. In my opinion, that's a shitty way to introduce Picard, and NextGen, to a new, larger audience. I'd love to know what a Trek or NextGen newb who was introduced to the characters and franchise via Generations thought.

    Speaking of fan service that may have been baffling to Trek newbs, how about Data's emotion chip? It was a WTF? subplot for me, so what about a newb? I mean, I get that he was unable to control the emotions caused by the chip because he wasn't used to it yet, sort of like going on Zoloft for the first time. But is the first NextGen movie really the place to have that happen? Maybe have it play out in the next film, after moviegoers have gotten acquainted with the character.

    Spock and the other TOS characters were ingrained in the culture long enough that it can be reasonably expected that even people who never watched the show know the basics about them. That's just not so with NextGen, including Picard and Data.

    You are so right about that Enterprise-B beginning. You'd think Starfleet would crew it with the cream of the crop, just as modern, professional navies do with their capital ships. Can you imagine the US Navy crewing a new Nimitz carrier with fresh-out-of-the-Naval-Academy cadets?

    I never got the drug reference vibe out of the movie that you did. I can see how you arrived at that conclusion the way you explain it, but I'd never have come up with it on my own. I did get the sense of it being about mortality, though, of course, the entire movie is a muddle.

    The first trailer I saw for this movie was in a theater. It was the teaser with Picard and Kirk meeting on horseback. I can tell you that trailer gave me goosebumps back then when Kirk said "sounds like fun!"

    http://youtu.be/JV8ushOaJi8

    Could I see that movie? That movie looks really, really good.

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    1. Jeff, I absolutely loathed the deaths of Picard's brother and nephew. It took maybe the greatest closing shot in the entire series (Rene looking up at the stars) and completely shit on it. Even though almost every scene before that one sucked, I think that was the scene that made me really dislike this movie.

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    2. Oh hell to the yes on all of these points. I couldn't agree more. Personally, Generations works for me as a prequel (an offscreen prequel) to the Shatnerverse and that's pretty much it.

      My original version of this blog had much more swearing, ha - I toned it down a bit. But yeah, this one pisses me off. And for one of the reasons you specifically mention: how the hell did this pass through so many gatekeepers (and three of them had proven they were exceptional gatekeepers! Were they just intimidated by the big screen?) with all of these problems intact?

      And why they need to make these things so Western-oriented (which I assume is the shot-in-the-back thing, a nod to the Westerns - a bad one, but I'm assuming that's where the motivation came from) and/or Hornblower-oriented (TUC) is beyond me. It seems like such an odd thing to insist upon/ graft onto every other story.

      Anyway - I think TUC pisses me off a TAD more, but at least that one has the excuse of being written by two clueless non-Trekkies and directed by a guy obsessed with Holmes/ Hornblower, all of which account for most of its problems. This one was approved of by people who should've known better and had demonstrated it on so many occasions, it's baffling.

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    3. Oh, just to clarify: I don't think the drug-reference/vibe was actually in there. I just bring it up as my younger mind's attempt to make sense of it all. It's kind of funny, tho, how the theory sort of works. (Like the moon landing stuff in The Shining or the Paul Is Dead stuff re: Beatles tunes: not really there, but it's interesting to dissect like that. I'd love to read an interview on Ronald D. Moore's deathbed where he admits "Yes... Generations... was about drugs..." then drops the snowglobe.

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    4. Truth to tell, I wasn't gonna drop the f-bomb above, and took it out and replaced it a couple of time before I finally realized I had to add emphasis to make it clear just how godawful I thought the portrayal of Kirk's death was. If I'd been thinking more clearly, I suppose I should've just given the production team a good ol' "double dumbass on you!"

      It wouldn't surprise me if that drug reference wasn't in there, even as just a template to give structure.

      Looking at that teaser trailer again, how did we not get that fun of a movie? All the elements were there to draw from. Too bad the trailer editor wasn't given the whole movie to cut (and if I find out said editor DID cut the movie, well, then, I'll know the whole production was snake-bit).

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    5. I meant "it wouldn't surprise me if that drug reference WAS in there" up there...

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    6. The deaths of Picard's family never bothered me much, but I'm starting to wonder if maybe they will the next time I watch the movie. It really DOES cheapen "Family," now that you guys mention it...

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  3. Oh, and I have to go on about Data's emotion chip again...ummm...how about taking care of that shit on your own time, Data? Take leave for a couple of months (you've earned it!) and get used to the chip so it doesn't interfere with your duties on the FRIGGIN' FEDERATION FLAGSHIP! "Good Lord," I can imagine Starfleet's Fleet Admiral saying, "is this amateur hour, people? Use your heads!"

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    1. Oh, I would absolutely love to read a fictional dressing-down of everyone in this movie by Admiral So-and-So. Someone should write that.

      What a good idea. I wish I'd thought to do it for this blog, actually...

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    2. You could make it the next entry.

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  4. I don't think the drug-metaphor ought to be taken off the table just yet, and especially not for the supposed reason that Picard's family dying doesn't fit the metaphor. It fits the metaphor just fine: some people are prompted to begin drinking/drugging by a personal tragedy, which is exactly what Picard experiences here. It is his catalyst.

    My biggest problem with the movie is the incredible ineptitude of the crew of the Enterprise-B. There is no way Captain Ferris-Bueller's-Best-Friend is that incompetent. Not even as a junior officer could he be that incompetent. It is there ONLY to give Kirk a lame bit of heroism. And here's the thing about Kirk: if you need to trump up reasons to make him look heroic, you actually make him look less impressive than he is. That is bad, awful writing.

    I also don't quite understand why you would make a movie wherein Kirk and Picard are together if the best you are going to do with that concept is what they actually DID with that concept. Again: bad, awful writing. And as somebody else said in the comments, how that sort of thing got out of committee is a mystery to me.

    Apart from that, I've always really enjoyed the big chuck on the film between the opening sequence and Picard's entrance of the Nexus. All the strictly-Next Gen stuff, in other words.

    I have to say, though: this review and its comments are making me think I've been too kind to the movie over the years. Reassessment commenced!

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    1. The real trick will be seeing if I can get you to re-assess Insurrection!

      Glad the drug-metaphor seems to work, even if it is more than likely not there. (But still!)

      And totally agreed on the writing-gaffes.

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