As we celebrate 50+ years of Star Trek and look ahead to the May release of Star Trek Discovery, CultOfWhatever recently completed a look back at the Final Frontier’s many TV iterations, as well as considered the newest entries in the film franchise. We talked about the Original Series and how, when it was great, it embraced the sixties social revolution. On the other hand, when TOS stumbled, it slipped into every silly cliche that doomed all the sci-fi shows from that era.
The Next Generation took a little while to find its mojo, but when it did it managed to surpass the original show by expanding the franchise’s horizons. Deep Space Nine followed soon after, and though it was the red-headed step-child of the brand, it dared to be different and was rewarded with loyal fans, many of whom still consider it the best of the bunch. Meanwhile Star Trek Voyager tried to be “more TNG” but ended up just being “lesser TNG.”
Finally there was (Star Trek) Enterprise, which spent three years failing to live up to its premise (nevermind its legacy) before finally finding its footing…and immediate cancellation.
On the big screen side of things we’ve seen how JJ Abrams modernized Star Trek, but in doing so sacrificed a lot of what made the TV show so special. July saw the release of the third film in the revised series, and though it was a great ride that paid heartfelt homage to the original series, it has been a disappointment at the box office.
And then there are the original films. Star Trek II-IV offered the most complete cinematic experiences for Trek fans, while the first motion picture brought Trek’s cerebral side to the forefront, with mixed results. Meanwhile, Star Trek V almost killed the series, but thankfully Star Trek VI ended the voyages of the Original Crew in a great way…before Generations shoe-horned them into The Next Generation’s big screen debut.
And though Generations disappointed, First Contact was everything Paramound needed it to be for the film franchise to continue. Insurrection then took all the good will that First Contact had given the franchise and wasted it on a middling movie that was only “okay” for fans, and largely ignored by general audiences.
After Insurrection disappointed with critics and ticket-buyers, producer Rick Berman agreed to let the movie franchise sit idle for a little more than the now-customary two years. It was clear that some things needed to be shaken up but it’s wasn’t clear yet exactly what. Meanwhile on the TV side, Star Trek DS9 was winding down and Star Trek Voyager was past its half-way point (by this time it was expected to go seven years and then end). Berman was already thinking about where to take the franchise and recruited Brannon Braga to help conceive what would become “Enterprise.”
After that, Berman focused on finishing Voyager strong so that there would be enough momentum to propel the fifth series forward as soon as the fourth ended. As soon as Voyager’s final season began, work started on the tenth Star Trek film as well as the Enterprise TV show. Now split three ways, Berman agreed with Paramount to hand over the creative development of the movie to an outsider. The previous three Trek films had been written and directed by Trek veterans but everyone was now busy with Voyager and Enterprise. Instead, John Logan was hired to pen the screenplay.
Logan was a trendy name at the time. He wrote Any Given Sunday (along with Oliver Stone) and then penned the screenplay for Gladiator, which was nominated for an Oscar. “Star Trek X” was his big follow up to that. After writing it, he continued a successful career, writing The Last Samurai, The Aviator (nabbing him another Oscar-nomination), became the writer for both Skyfall 007 and Spectre 007, as well as Hugo (which garnered him his third Best Screenplay nomination). His Showtime series Penny Dreadful (which he conceived and of which he has written almost every episode) is critically acclaimed.
The guy can write, is all I’m saying.
In fact, when you look at his whole resume only one film stands out as a misfire. Guess which one?
Interestingly, despite having never worked on Star Trek in any capacity before, Logan was a huge fan. His involvement in the movie was due to a friendship with Brent Spiner, who called him up right after Gladiator released, and asked him to pitch a Trek story to Paramount. Keep in mind that the cast of The Next Generation had originally signed a three-movie deal and that contract had not been extended. After Insurrection, everyone (except for maybe Michael Dorn who continued to work on DS9), was finished with Paramount and had no obligations to return for a fourth movie.
Obviously Paramount was going to continue with the franchise in some form or another, but they were probably not going to return to the TNG crew, not after Insurrection disappointed. Spiner’s call to Logan put the heat on the studio to pony up and sign the actors for one more movie. Once the film was written, Paramount hired another Trek-outsider, Stuart Baird, to direct.
Unlike Logan however, Baird was no fan of Star Trek. He was as close to a neophyte as one could be. Everything from the lingo to even the most basic elements of the show’s history was foreign to him. Furthermore it seems he did little homework after accepting the
job paycheck . He constantly referred to LeVar Burton (famous beyond Star Trek for his work on Roots as well as Reading Rainbow…AND MEMBER OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS FOR THE DIRECTORS GUILD OF AMERICA) as “Lavern” and thought that Geordi was an alien.
Baird’s aloofness rubbed the cast the wrong way throughout the production and made for a less than enjoyable shoot. His approach to the film was to make it an action story and he edited the movie accordingly. The final cut was nearly two-hours long but there was another hour’s worth of character moments and nods to the franchise history that was left on the editing room floor due to Baird finding it useless in telling the story his way.
And what was the story?
Star Trek II meets Star Trek VI, with a big spoon-full of Data in the subplot.
Only instead of working the way Star Trek II did, which played off of a fifteen year old plotline and focused on character as much as it did action (if not more), Nemesis reverse-engineered its “villain looking for revenge.” It introduced a “clone of Picard” that the Romulans planned to grow and use to infiltrate Starfleet only to abandon their plans when the government changed hands. Left to wallow in slavery, the young Picard-clone grew angry and bitter against both the Romulans that abandoned him and the genuine article he meant to replace.
Manufacturing a villain’s motivation happens in movies all the time and with the right story it still could have worked here too, but it would have required a director willing to focus on the character side of the story and turn the movie into a real introspective tale, the way The Wrath of Kahn is a philosophical movie masquerading as an summer action film.
Instead of focusing on his characters (and let’s just pause to note that the characters in question are played by Patrick Stewart and Tom Hardy, ace actors the both of them), Baird and Logan wrote and shot a movie that adds in an unnecessary subplot about seeking peace between the Romulans and Federation and a secret starship that can fire while cloaked. It was hackneyed and did nothing to service the plot in any way. Everything concerning the Scimitar and the Remans could have been sliced from the script and a tighter more dramatic story could have been told (with action scenes peppered throughout). You would have been able to incorporate those character moments that were edited out, too.
BUT, just to ensure that the movie was well and truly over-stuffed, there was also the now-obligatory Data subplot. This time Data discovers a prototype model, B4, and works to bring it up to snuff. Nevermind the fact that TNG firmly established Data’s family tree of androids that were created by Dr. Soong: That’s all gibberish nonsense to Stuart Baird who wants to tell his story his way.
B4…get it: “before!”
It turns out B4 was a plant by the Picard-clone (Shinzon) to lure Picard…or something. Really that part isn’t clear since Shinzon’s first order of business after taking over the Romulan Empire is to call for peace with the Federation, which gets the Enterprise sent there straightaway.
The crew discovers Shinzon is dying (and he goes from seemingly just fine to suddenly near death faster than Yoda in Return of the Jedi) and needs a Picard blood transfusion (like all of it) before it’s too late. Picard is kidnapped but gets away and the Enterprise runs back to Federation space to warn the good guys that the Romulans are actually, shockingly, treacherous liars. They’re ambushed by the Romulan ship, Scimitar, that can fire while cloaked, but unlike in Star Trek VI, this happens without any drama or purpose beyond “let’s blow stuff up now.”
In the end, Troi takes the wheel and crashes the ship into the Scimitar. Data rescues Picard (who had been held captive on board it, again) before heroically sacrificing himself in the process, only to gloriously live on through the B4 model, making Data the real hero in a story based around a clone of Picard.
Because Brent Spiner’s ego is bigger than a Galaxy Class cruiser.
Nemesis was released to very stiff competition in December of 2002. The second Harry Potter movie was released less than a month earlier, as was the 20th James Bond movie. A week later, the second Lord of the Rings movie was to be released, which meant Nemesis needed to be more than good in order to stand out; it needed to be great.
It was not.
However, Rick Berman’s argument that the big franchise movies around Nemesis hurt its box office is highly misleading. First of all, Star Trek is a big franchise too. It shouldn’t have been afraid to go toe to toe with those other giants. Furthermore, on the weekend that Nemesis was released, Die Another Day 007 fell from 1st place to 4th in the box office standings. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets fell to 6th place. Both movies had already made most of their money and were no longer box office behemoths. The Two Towers was not yet out which meant that Nemesis had at least one weekend to make a good first impression, make a lot of money and then hope to hold on to second place the following weekend and turn a profit.
Star Trek First Contact made 30 million on its opening weekend. Insurrection made 22 million on its debut. Though it made less, it was still #1 at the box office for its opening weekend, just as First Contact had been (and Generations, and The Undiscovered Country, and even The Final Frontier, which before Nemesis was the lowest grossing film in the franchise). Star Trek Nemesis opened to only 18 million at the box office and debuted in second place.
It opened behind Maid in Manhattan.
Its second weekend brought in only 4 million and by then it was dead in the water. The movie ended up grossing only 43 million dollars in the USA (against a budget of 60 million). Reviews were mixed between scathing and indifferent. Genre sites and magazines loathed it, traditional critics were bored by it. Roger Ebert summed up both opinions in the opening paragraph of his review, saying, “I’m smiling like a good sport and trying to get with the dialogue … and gradually it occurs to me that ‘Star Trek’ is over for me. I’ve been looking at these stories for half a lifetime, and, let’s face it, they’re out of gas.”
He wasn’t wrong.
After fifteen years of uninterrupted Star Trek on screens big and small, the franchise was out of gas. The release coincided with most low ratings for Enterprise, which spooked Paramount enough to threaten to pull the plug and hibernate the franchise. Instead Berman convinced them to give him one more season to turn things around. They did and Enterprise recovered slightly, and then slightly more once Berman and Braga were effectively relieved of their duties, but the damage was done and the bleeding didn’t stop. Enterprise was cancelled and Star Trek was finished on TV. Fingers were pointed back to Nemesis‘ embarrassing performance as the final straw that did it in.
On the big screen it would take seven years and an entirely new creative team to bring the series back. On the small screen we’re still waiting, though hopefully not for too much longer.
Star Trek Nemesis was conceived with good intentions: They wanted to go out with a bang the way Star Trek VI had ended the Original Series’ missions so tastefully. Instead it—and Rick Berman’s oversight of Gene Roddenberry’s creation—went out with a whimper.