How Star Trek: Generations could have been one of the best

Among the Star Trek movies, Generations has never been one of my favorites. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, but there’s nothing there to make it anything better than a rather middling episode of TNG. Plus, it has the added negative factor of *spoiler alert!* Capt. Kirk dying.

© Paramount Pictures

But I never really gave the film much thought beyond that, until I read a comment, almost an aside, made by one-time blogger Karen Walker (one of the hosts of the now defunct site Bronze Age Babies, and currently podcasting from Planet 8) in her review of the graphic novel adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s original (unaltered) screenplay for the much-lauded first season episode of TOS, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Basically, it’s her speculation about a better story for Kirk in the Nexus.

Since then, I’ve often found myself pondering, or perhaps obsessing over, Generations and how it could have been better. A lot better. In fact, I think that it could have become one of the best- (or at least better-)loved of the Trek films if the story had been tweaked in the ways I’m thinking about.

First of all, it seems to me that the crux of the film is what happens in the Nexus, as this is what brings the two Trek “generations” together. But for both of our favorite captains, their Nexus fantasies (for lack of a better term) seem really superficial, and frankly, sucky. They’re just kind of flimsy plot devices to get Kirk and Picard together, whereas I think they should have had more narrative meat to them.

Let’s start with Picard: his innermost desire was, apparently, to live in a Hallmark Christmas card, married to an anonymous, bland woman who we (the viewers) have never seen before, and with a bunch of little kids dressed for an elementary-school stage production of Pride and Prejudice. Really? (And I just hate the way the kids fawningly called him “Papa.”)

Blech! (© Paramount Pictures)

Personally, I think it would have been better to call back to something from TNG, either a specific episode, or just things we’ve learned about Picard’s personality over the preceding seven seasons of the show. So I think there could have been two options that would suit these criteria:

a) He could have ended up in what was basically another ‘virtual reality,’ but one that seemed very real to him: his other life on the planet Kataan, from the (outstanding) season 5 episode “The Inner Light.” Basically, what he had there was essentially what we see as his heart’s desire in the Nexus, a loving family and a mostly happy and simple life. So it would have made more sense that he would have just gone back to some point in that experience, which for him spanned forty years rather than the 25 or so minutes he was actually under the probe’s control in that episode. That actually had more meaning and resonance to him than the generic happy family scenario we got in the movie. And there could have even been a moment – before Guinan shows up – in which he begins to question his sanity, wondering which is his real life: being a starship captain or a villager on Kataan.

And he could have wowed everyone on Kataan with his rendition of “A Love Supreme” on his flute (© Paramount Pictures)

b) However, a much better Nexus alternate reality for Picard would, I think, not have been much different from the one he’s in already. Remember, in most of TNG we see that despite some occasional expressions of mild regret over his life choices, Picard loves being captain. And one of the leitmotifs of pretty much the entire series was the “will they/won’t they” dance between him and Dr. Crusher. So once he enters the Nexus, Picard finds himself in his favorite place to be, sitting in the captain’s chair on the bridge of the Enterprise, as the ship approaches Earth for some retrofitting or something, and shore-leave for much of the crew. He and his wife, Beverly, beam down to France to visit his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, where they are joined by Wesley Crusher, his adoptive son. A really simple change, but one that would correspond more to what we know about Picard based on previous TNG continuity. He’d be living the life he’s always wanted, one without even a single reason to second guess himself. Once Guinan shows up to tell him he really shouldn’t stay, he’d believably find it much more difficult to rip himself away.

Especially since there probably wouldn’t be any more awkward moments, like whatever’s happening here… (© Paramount Pictures)

For Kirk, I’ll also propose two possibilities, one weaker one that occurred to me as I was (over) thinking this whole movie, and one I think is the home run.

a) Kirk is living happily with Miramanee and their child on that planet from the season 3 episode “The Paradise Syndrome.” This would make some sense, because it corresponds to Kirk’s desire – expressed at the very beginning of said episode – that he sometimes wished he could get away from it all and live a simple life, and also to his Nexus fantasy in the movie, where’s he living a sort of carefree, outdoorsy life in a mountain cabin. However, just in terms of production, there would be some serious problems with this one, mainly because Kirk was a much younger man when he was with Miramanee, and he would probably go back to that point in time rather than being a grandfather. And, of course, there’s just the whole problematic aspect of that episode in general, i.e., the way it presents its thinly disguised Native American population on that planet as some kind of simple, noble savages.

And seriously, we all know that even the then 63 year-old Shat would have insisted on strutting around shirtless to reprise this scene (© Paramount Pictures)

b) So now we get to the scenario that sparked this train of thought for me, which is basically Karen Walker’s suggestion in the blog post I mentioned above, which is rooted in “The City on the Edge of Forever“. In fact, here is what she wrote back then:

(…) one thing I would have loved to see is that when Picard went to find Kirk in the Nexus, he arrived in New York City, circa 1960. He sees Kirk, playing with some kids in the street. They are talking excitedly about the nascent space program, and Kirk tells them some day all the nations will work together and travel to the stars. A woman’s voice comes from a doorway, calling for Jim. He turns and we see Edith come out. They have been reunited, and are deeply in love. This makes it even harder for Kirk when Picard tells him he needs his help and he has to leave the Nexus. But Edith herself tells him he should go – and she’ll be waiting for him. (…)

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll let Lt. Cmdr. Data express my feelings about this proposal:

“Yes!” (© Paramount Pictures)

The only thing I would do is expand this whole scene, so that we not only see Kirk and Edith (played again by Joan Collins, naturally), but also his best friends, McCoy and Spock (maybe they’re visiting for Kirk’s birthday or something) – and Spock would be his own Vulcan self, because this is the Nexus, where everything is possible, so of course an alien could be living in mid-20th century New York without anyone batting an eye. While I like the idea of Edith being the one who tells Kirk he should go, I see the scene unfolding like this: McCoy and Spock each tell him that he already knows what he has to do, so he goes to Edith, thinking she’ll insist that he stays, but then she also tells him, perhaps tearfully, to be true to himself and go save the day yet again.

So Spock wouldn’t even have to wear the touque this time (© Paramount Pictures)

Before anyone mentions it in the comments, yes, it also occurred to me that David Marcus should probably show up, because one would think that Kirk would want his son back – his death was in fact something that tore him up and was a plot-point in Star Trek VI as well – but it would have required recasting the role, since the actor who played him, Merritt Butrick, quite sadly died in 1989.

Anyway, I think in both of these ‘b)’ scenarios would really make it hit home for viewers as to why it would be so hard for Picard and Kirk to leave the Nexus, because they would throw their truly specific desires, and lifelong regrets, into sharp focus, far better than the abstract, and unconvincing, ones that we got. Yeah, but screw all that, because we got to see Kirk and Picard have a horse race! (In that aforementioned post, Walker referred to that whole scene as “the Shatner horseback-riding ego-stroke”).

‘Ego-stroke’ is, in fact, a charitable turn of phrase (© Paramount Pictures)

Obviously, in my vision for the movie, the parts that take place in the Nexus would last much longer and really be the heart of the story – while some of that other crap that I thought was extraneous, like the whole sub-plot with the Duras sisters and the Enterprise crash landing on that planet (why do they keep blowing up Enterprises in the movies?), could have been cut out.

In the end, though, despite all of this speculation, I have to say that ultimately I think Generations probably never should have been made. To me, the final scenes of Undiscovered Country were a perfect send-off for the original cast, as they figuratively rode off into the sunset. That should really have been it for them, with the exception of cameo appearances in later Trek productions, whether in the movies or the various TV shows.

For god’s sake, Jim, you know it’s true! (© Paramount Pictures)

Also, and to some extent contradicting what I just said, I think a Trek movie featuring Capt. Sulu should have been made, but that might be a discussion for another time…

10 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    OK, that’s a title line that will get one to read something. Though I confess I wouldn’t have thought before reading this that the Nexus was the top 5 of the movie plot issues, beyond it being a completely unneeded thing in Kirk’s storyline (as VI was a fine ending) and was simply done to cover the studio’s bets that the Next Gen guys couldn’t carry their own movie.

    But after reading it, it is a big problem. Really Kirk’s first love was his ship even more than Picard. He would have done everything to fight to get back to it for eternity. So that should have been the imaginary setting for him. But DAMN if I don’t love the City on the Edge of Forever angle. It would have added so much history and heft to the story. A classic Trek episode that would always seem impossible to reference in a movie and this would do it beautifully with no issues. Recast his son; if you can do Saavik around him you can recast him.

    Of course the biggest problem will still be the lame death of Kirk because he ate too many danishes to hang on, rather than some heroic finish. Maybe one of the 20 times they crashed the Enterprise he should have been in and an going down with his one true love for the last time for both of them. (That sounds more dirty than it should).

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I like the City on the Edge of Forever idea; but, can’t say much about the Picard angle. No matter how much I tried, I really never warmed up to Next Generation. I gave it a lot more attention than any of the subsequent series; but, it just wasn’t “my Trek.” The film suffers for that as much as anything else, for me, as I found the Next Gen cast to be really bland. I liked First Contact better; but, it still didn’t compare to original crew movies.

    The Captain Sulu film should have been a no brainer; but, Hollywood has no brains.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    The Captain Sulu film should have been a no brainer; but, Hollywood has no brains.

    I know, right? I can’t count how many times I’ve went down the rabbit hole of watching the Capt. Sulu clips from Undiscovered Country on YouTube, always wondering why no one at Paramount at the time could see the obvious direction for the subsequent ST film…

  4. M-Wolverine

    Story wise the Sulu thing does seem like a no-brainer; but business wise does it seem like as sure a bet? Star Trek films have never been huge huge successes. And Undiscovered Country and Generations are 10th and 9th in Star Trek earnings (same adjusted) so would that seem like a good financial bet? Plus you have to think of the time, you’d be putting your money on an Asian man lead, which still in 2000 frickin 18 is still super rare. And odds are while he could keep it quiet as 6th most important crew man or whatever, if he was leading a big budget motion picture some tabloid would let out the not super secret fact he was gay. And gay icon today, but back then that could have tanked the movie, and I can’t imagine the studio didn’t know about it.

    What might have worked was instead of Deep Space Nine* they had the show starting to replace Next Gen be a Captain Sulu series. Then you’re handing off the movies to the Next Gen guys, while bringing the OS guy(s) back to TV. And it’s still fairly cheap because you don’t have to pay Takei a lot, and everyone else can be new characters. (Sure you’ll piss off the ten continuity buffs who know it isn’t the same crew from the movie, but whatever). Not nearly as much scrutiny for a syndicated tv show.

    *Note I’m not knocking Deep Space Nine; I know a lot of people feel that’s the best. I am just figuring out how a Sulu series might have worked. And my one flaw could be the heat they take with having a series with an Asian man as the lead before they have one with a Black man as the lead (if we’re replacing DS9).

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Let Nicholas Meyer do it and it would be fine. i think just being Trek would have sold a movie or tv series. Meyer would make it a great film, as writer and/or director. Takei has proven he had the chops and I think he would have surprised a lot of people, especially with some great visuals and a good supporting cast.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Um, yeah. What Jeff said…

        Otherwise, given how popular TNG was at the time, Paramount could have kept the series going for another season or two easily before ‘graduating’ that crew to the movies – creating some space for a Capt. Sulu movie.

  5. Louis Bright-Raven

    Edo:

    The novelization of the movie addresses much of this and actually shows Kirk marrying Carol Marcus with son David giving her away at the altar, as well as him finding a way to save Edith Keeler and spending time with her, as Kirk experiences a number of desires in the Nexus. The original movie script was to be the Marriage to Carol Marcus idea. It was not done in the movie because both Merritt Butrick had passed on and Bibi Besch who played Carol Marcus was in dire health at the time as she was battling breast cancer and I think in the hospital perhaps when the movie was being scripted and filmed, and so Paramount cut it entirely instead of recasting both roles. Had Bibi been healthy, I believe they would have gone ahead and done that storyline with a recast David.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Actually, Louis, without having read the novelization, the idea of Kirk and Carol Marcus being happily married also occurred to me as I was (over)thinking about my hypothetical improvements for this movie. If handled properly and written well, it could have been a really nice storyline. However, I think for Kirk’s Nexus experience, the “City on the Edge of Forever” scenario would still have been the best choice, because it’s a callback to a much-loved episode, and it would have featured Joan Collins, who unlike in the mid-1960s, was at that point a household name. I think it would have made the movie much more, well, cinematic, rather than what we got, which – as I said in the post – was basically an extended episode of TNG guest-starring Shatner.

  6. Hey Edo, excellent post, thanks for bringing it to my attention over at our Planet 8 blog. I had been so focused on original Trek at the time I wrote my post that I hadn’t given much thought to Picard in Generations, but you make a great point regarding his Nexus fantasy or other life. He is just as committed to a life as a starship captain as Kirk ever was. “Hallmark Christmas Card” family indeed! It is so saccharine to be sickening. Another reason I can’t stand the film. It is difficult to imagine Picard finding that existence fulfilling. Your two ideas are both far more plausible.

    Louis, that’s interesting that they explored Kirk’s relationships with both Edith and Carol in the novelization. I may have to see if I can find a copy at one of the used books stores around here. I would still posit that Edith was the greater love for Kirk, in that it was also in many ways unfulfilled -he had a short time with her and it likely seemed idyllic. Whereas his situation with Carol was quite grounded and did not end up happily, as they parted and then kept his identity a secret from their son (geez, so much for progress in the 23rd century!). But I could see the Nexus as a chance for him to fix that too.

    All in all though, Generations was just a weak film for me, and a terrible way for Kirk to go out.

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