What worked and what didn’t work in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies

I recently rewatched Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time in a long time, and I concluded with a rewatch of the four TNG movies. Two of these movies hold up very well; two do not.

Star Trek: Generations has a solid theme about “the road not taken” and how that relates to time. The forward march of time devours the road we have taken, making it increasingly difficult to backtrack and course-correct as we get older, something both Kirk and Picard must come to terms with during the course of the movie.

Early on in the movie, Picard learns his brother and nephew died in a fire, and he’s now the last of his line. He struggles to keep his grief in check, and he questions his long-ago decision to not start a family. (As a nice contrast, this is at the same time Data is opening up a whole new world of emotions within himself, thanks to an emotion chip.)

The movie’s villain doesn’t accept any road not taken. He craves access to a Nexus where time is meaningless and all his desires will be granted. As the name implies, it’s all roads at once. In this place, both Kirk and Picard realize how it’s pointless to dwell on alternate paths. What matters is what they do now.

A lot of people don’t seem to like this one. It’s got only a 6.6 rating on IMDb at the moment. It’s not perfect (the Enterprise-B is a disgrace—heads must have rolled at Starfleet after that debacle), but I still like it a lot.

Star Trek: First Contact remains the best of the bunch, and it succeeds by balancing darkness and hope. Picard once again begins the movie in pain, as he’s still traumatized by his experience being assimilated by the Borg several years earlier. This wound has festered into a desire for vengeance, and he eventually must confront the fact that something so base and ugly lurks within him.

This is all juxtaposed with humanity’s advancement to the stars, as the crew time-travels back to just before the first warp-speed flight and first contact with aliens.

Just before that historic event, the world seems pretty bleak and perhaps headed deeper into a new Dark Age. Zefram Cochrane, the man whom history has recorded as ushering in a wondrous new era, is just a self-centered drunk who doesn’t nearly live up to his historical reputation. But once he sees the Earth from a vast distance for the first time, the seeds are planted for him to possibly become the great man future generations believe him to be.

Star Trek has always depicted a better future, but in First Contact, we’re shown what’s needed to maybe get there someday—how we have to wrestle with the worst aspects of ourselves and then aspire for something greater.

Star Trek: Insurrection is basically the cast and crew going, “Let’s just have fun with this one.” It is fun at times, but it all feels flat.

Picard does not start this movie in any pain. He’s actually in quite a good mood, and he continues to feel great throughout most of the movie. He even finds love and parts on amicable terms.

The main plot involves a Starfleet admiral teaming up with a group of aliens to forcibly relocate another group of aliens. They want to steal this planet’s regenerative properties for the supposedly greater good, but they’re so obviously in the wrong that it winds up just lowering the stakes.

If the Enterprise crew is going to defy Starfleet, it should feel brave and risky, with some uncertainty as to whether they’re really doing the right thing. But instead, it’s just, “Yeah, I would certainly hope they rebel against that.”

Generally, Star Trek—or any fiction—excels when it shows us how good, reasonable people can stumble down the wrong path. Deep Space Nine was especially great at this, such as when the Dominion War challenged the Federation’s values.

But there’s no complex morality in Insurrection. We don’t see a variety of sympathetic characters displaying multiple points of view and struggling to figure out what’s actually right.

In the TNG episode “The Drumhead,” for example, Worf fell for Space McCarthyism. It completely made sense for him to make that error, and it was all the more satisfying when he realized his error. “I, Borg” presented an interesting ethical conundrum when the crew brought a lone Borg drone on board and realized he still possessed some humanity, and characters changed their minds as the episode progressed. “Preemptive Strike” showed us Ensign Ro torn between her loyalty to Picard and her sympathy to the Maquis terrorists.

There’s no nuance in Insurrection, though. But it does have the best use of Gilbert & Sullivan in a Star Trek film, so that’s certainly a point in its favor.

Star Trek: Nemesis is basically the dumb action movie version of Star Trek. It starts to have an interesting idea about mirror-image versions of ourselves, with Picard confronting a younger clone of himself on an alien world, and Data discovering an android who’s an earlier prototype of himself. But neither Picard nor Data learns much of anything about themselves while confronting these doppelgängers.

There are some nice moments, but also so many missed opportunities, making the whole thing feel pointless.

Also, this is the second time Troi takes the helm, and the second time she crashes into something. But at least this time she crashes on purpose, so that’s progress.

Picard is in pretty good spirits for most of this movie, too, beginning the film as the proud best man at Riker and Troi’s wedding. He also gets to have some fun driving around an alien planet, plus additional fun piloting a shuttle through a ship during a daring escape. Except for at the end, he’s not especially troubled by much.

So, the formula seems to be:

Picard in pain = good Star Trek movie

Happy Picard = not a good Star Trek movie

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