Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scripting the Final Frontier: Star Trek Generations

by ScottDS

Star Trek Generations was released on November 18, 1994 to mixed reviews. It was the seventh Star Trek film and the first to feature the TNG cast. This film was seen as an opportunity to “pass the baton” though the results are less than satisfying. I saw the film when I was 11 (my first theatrical Trek experience) and I thought it was the bee’s knees. Not so much today. It’s beautifully shot and the cast gives it their all but it’s often awkward and the script leaves much to be desired. As you’re about to find out, the writers feel the same.

For the Special Edition DVD, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga sat down for a surprisingly candid chat. The two had never written a film before and, with the benefit of 10 years’ hindsight, both wish they could have another crack at it. Paramount had approached Trek overlord Rick Berman with the idea of producing a TNG film. Two scripts were commissioned and the studio went with one by Moore and Braga. They ended up revising the script at the same time they were writing the TNG series finale and both admit the finale should’ve been the movie instead. Braga partly blames this on having too much time to develop a film, whereas they had no time to think when writing the episode, proving Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The creative process of turning a television show into film. . .

As you can see, the process went wrong from the very beginning. The studio presented a list of “requirements” that the film had to have, including: TOS characters could only appear in the first fifteen minutes (Chekov and Scotty appear only because Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley weren’t interested), only Kirk could return later in Act 3, the film needed a larger-than-life villain (“√† la Khan”) and Klingons and a Data comedy subplot, etc. These restrictions made writing the script difficult. Incidentally, Braga initially had a great poster image in mind of the two Enterprises locked in battle (“Kirk versus Picard!”) but that concept went nowhere.

Also, in a true bit of irony, compare these requirements to the restrictions in the TNG series bible, a list of concepts created with the express intent of avoiding (these stories/concepts “don’t work well for us”): mysterious psychic powers, the crew acting as the galaxy’s “policemen,” original Trek characters, treating space as a local neighborhood, war with the Klingons and Romulans, anything with Vulcans (“We are determined not to copy ourselves. . .”), mad scientists, villainous technology, and jeopardy being created from the breakdown of technology or characters doing something stupid. Over the course of 178 episodes, the various writers and producers broke every single one of these rules. . . but that was 178 hours. Star Trek Generations broke most of these in two hours! (Truth be told, the fast-paced nature of TV production usually prevents strict adherence to what is basically a reference work.)

Moore explains that, ultimately, the theme they wanted to explore was “death.” Sure, Spock died in Star Trek II but then he came back. Through the death of his brother and nephew, Captain Kirk, and the Enterprise-D herself, Picard would come to terms with his own mortality. But it didn’t entirely work. Moore: “In my opinion, our reach sort of exceeded our grasp on that level.” Thanks to the studio’s list and all the things they couldn’t do, Braga replies: “I don’t think it coheres into anything. It’s a little all over the place, but interesting nonetheless.”

Even the TNG crew’s introduction was difficult to establish. They were to take part in a big action scene with the Romulans. Moore and Braga showed the script to TNG writer/producer Jeri Taylor who said, “It’s been done a million times.” Her idea for how the crew should be introduced involved Picard rolling an egg along the floor of Ten-Forward (the ship’s bar) with his nose. When asked what that meant, her reaction was, “I don’t know, but it’s an interesting image. . .” (I almost wish they had done this!) They started thinking about other unusual things and eventually settled on a holodeck scene aboard the 19th century sailing ship Enterprise. Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone at the studio understood the holodeck or any other Trek jargon. Star Trek film writers always had to walk a thin line between catering to fans – who would nitpick every detail – and the general public.

The temptation to make changes. . .

Braga mentions what is probably an antiquated concept nowadays: when you’re writing a TV show, you don’t want to make any radical changes because the viewer enjoys visiting the same family every week. But for a film, “you want to do bigger things.” That’s why they introduced Data’s emotion chip. According to Moore, the Data humor in this film received a mix of “groans and laughs” in theaters (I think it works). In any event, the addition of the chip basically ends Data’s character arc and the later films more or less do away with the concept entirely. In the next film, by way of comparison, they give LaForge ocular implants, replacing the VISOR. According to Moore, LeVar Burton had complained for years that it robbed him of a legitimate acting tool: the eyes, and the film gave them the chance to remedy that.

Writing themselves into a corner. . .

Malcolm McDowell plays the villainous Dr. Soran (with no subtlety whatsoever). The central plot device is a ribbon of energy called the Nexus. Soran had briefly experienced what it was like inside the Nexus – a paradise where a person’s thoughts can shape reality and where time has no meaning – before his ship was rescued by the Enterprise-B. (Future TNG bartender Guinan was on that ship as well.) 78 years later – the timespan between TOS and TNG – we get the plot: Soran is destroying stars in order to alter the trajectory of the Nexus so he’ll be able to re-enter it and achieve immortality. It’s up to Picard and Co. to stop him before the shockwave of one particular star destroys a civilization. The writers admit the mechanics of this were too convoluted but they never hit on the film’s real plot hole: Picard asks why Soran couldn’t simply fly a ship into the Nexus, to which Data replies, “. . .every ship which has approached the ribbon has either been destroyed or severely damaged.” But how did Soran get to it in the first place?

The Nexus was a problem, too. Moore says they were looking for a way to bridge the two generations without resorting to time travel again. That’s how they chose the Nexus but the concept, Braga admits, “was never properly conveyed or exploited enough.” At one point, Picard finds himself “inside” his own Nexus fantasy in which he has a family. While Moore believes this Victorian scene is true to the character, Braga points out that it’s difficult for viewers to watch their captains – who are usually one step ahead of things – be one step behind. They discuss how difficult it was to make Picard realize he was in a fantasy – he ends up noticing a Christmas tree ornament that reminds him of an exploding star, an idea that Moore wonders if people ever understood. And yes, they debated whether or not Christmas still exists in the 24th century. (Moore wanted Picard’s fantasy to be a “Roman orgy.”) Picard then encounters Guinan who had previously entered the Nexus along with Soran, but this isn’t Guinan, only her “echo.” After the film was released, fans started asking, “. . .is there an echo of Kirk in the Nexus?” To this day, neither writer has an answer.

However, one scene they did like. . .

The Nexus plot and Data’s emotion chip subplot both lead to what the writers think is the best scene in the film: Picard and Data plotting the course of the ribbon in the ship’s stellar cartography lab, complete with a beautiful wall-sized projection of space. This scene is, in Moore’s words, “most true to what the series was” given that the other three films would turn out to be big action adventures (of variable quality). A scene like this would cause the writers to ask, “What’s a map in the 24th century?” On that note, Soran carries an antique pocket watch and the writers found themselves asking if pocket watches would even exist in the 24th century and, if so, where would he get one?

Other long-standing problems were never quite resolved either. . .

Neither Moore nor Braga knew what the hell Guinan’s powers were, nor for that matter, what Troi’s powers were. Braga labels Gene Roddenberry’s idea of perfect humans a paradox: in this utopian world, “Why is there a therapist on board? What hang-ups do they have?” Fellow writer Joe Menosky felt the presence of a therapist – sitting next to the captain – would date the show as a relic of the 80s. Moore admits they ended up turning her into a glorified cruise ship social director. During a scene with Troi, Picard grieves over the death of his brother and nephew and starts to cry. Both writers cringe, especially given that it’s Picard’s big-screen debut. They also wonder why there are no seatbelts and why the crew cabins have pictures depicting space hanging on the walls!

“Techno-babble” was always a struggle and Braga – whom some fans label “Public Enemy No. 1” for various reasons – admits they frequently went too far. Moore recalls script conferences with “other seemingly intelligent people” arguing about what the warp drive could or couldn’t do. Here’s what a typical script page would look like:
LaForge: “Captain, I’ve TECHed the TECH but it’s not working. But if I TECH the TECH in a TECH direction, maybe we can TECH.”
Picard: “Very well. TECH the TECH, Mr. LaForge.”
The script would then be handed over to the science consultants who would suggest various options for the TECH placeholders. Braga: “Our show at its worst.”

Kirk’s death(s). . .

The death of Kirk is still controversial and Moore admits to getting misty-eyed as they wrote it (Kirk had been his childhood hero). In the final cut, Kirk is mortally wounded from the wreckage of a collapsing bridge. In the original script and rough cut, Kirk is simply shot in the back by Soran in a rather anti-climactic fashion. Moore says “it was expected” that Kirk would die on the bridge of his ship so they wanted to go in another direction. He cites Sands of Iwo Jima in which John Wayne is shot by a sniper at the end of the film. He also enjoyed “the irony of it.” After a poor test screening, the studio ordered changes. The “Oh, my” was Shatner’s idea. Braga: “I think about the fans and I don’t know that there’s anything we could’ve done to make everybody happy.”

Moore and Braga are actually somewhat disheartened by the meeting of Kirk and Picard. Braga feels they didn’t do enough to exploit the pairing and the only conflict comes from Picard trying to convince Kirk to leave the Nexus to help him stop Soran. He acknowledges the classic time-travel clich√©: Picard and Kirk leave the Nexus and reappear just moments before Soran destroys the star. Braga: “Go back a couple years. Get Soran when he’s in the bathroom!” (Plus we don’t see Picard from before he enters the Nexus.) The scene in Kirk’s Nexus fantasy – at a cabin in the mountains – continues to disappoint them. Braga: “This is just painful!” They admit they wanted to do something charming and offbeat but failed and that Kirk’s speech to Picard about making a difference is nice but really doesn’t fit with anything else in the film.

As an aside, meeting William Shatner was a nervous experience, especially after he looked at the two writers and said, “They’re so young!” Moore mentions “The Kirk Moment” in which they were trying to convince Shatner of some plot point, to which he replied, “He is not! In fact! Integral! To the plot!”

Believe it or not, no one consciously sets out to make a bad movie. While filmmakers are limited by the time and resources available to them, they strive to do their best. Only with the benefit of experience and retrospection can artists look back on their work and see where they went wrong. To use William Goldman’s popular phrase: “Nobody knows anything.” Sometimes they do. . . 10 years later.

31 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Not to intrude on Scott's article, but FYI, my second BH article will post tomorrow morning. I'll post it here as well for those who can't comment over there.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott,

Thanks for an interesting behind the scenes look at the making of Generations. I have a lot of issues with this film and I think the Red Letter Media guys do a great takedown of the film.

That said, it's interesting to see that the recognize many of it's problems. But I wonder if they recognized those at the time they wrote the film and just glossed over them or if they only realized them later?

Tennessee Jed said...

It is an interesting look. I hate to admit it, but probably because of my age, I never quite warmed to TNG cast. As I write this, I can't help but think of a review of TNG done by Mike Myers in his "Wayne" persona on his public access show where he talked about all the reasons it was actually better than the original, but never quite as satisfying for reasons one could not put there finger on.

That said, Generations was made at a time when technology for cinema was really taking off, and I must admit remembering some great reviews of the DVD in terms of it's quality. As far as the story itself, I was disappointed enough I never went back and watched it again nor did I get the DVD. Your review helps explain why.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed (or anyone else),

If you ever want to see how wrong this film actually is, check out the Red Letter Media review of it.

Generations

They really take it apart -- not as much as their Star Wars reviews, but enough that you're kind of left wondering whether anyone on the crew really knew what they were doing.

Tennessee Jed said...

As I look at my original comment, I may not have been clear in pointing out the good reviews I had read were not so much for the film itself, but rather for the quality of the telecine transfer; e.g. it "looked" spectacular on a good home theater system for it's time, and was often used as a "demo" disc to show off one's system.

Ed said...

Andrew raises a good point, did they know these were problems at the time or did they not realize until later?

ScottDS said...

Jed -

The original DVD actually had zero extras and a non-anamorphic laserdisc video transfer which might've looked great for its day but was ill-suited to DVD.

The Special Edition 2-disc DVD featured a new transfer but the sharpness was cranked up to 11, leading to some nasty edge halos and other artifacts.

(There's a science to all this!)

Thankfully, the Blu-Ray rectifies all this.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I actually watched the RLM review of the TNG films a while back but I don't remember much of the criticism - I imagine it's similar to what's written here.

As for recognizing the problems, I don't know. I can only compare it to my film school experience where the stakes were MUCH lower. As much as we tried to plan things, I'd be lying if I said there weren't moments where I said to myself, "Man, I wish we had more time to do this" or "I hope no one notices!"

ScottDS said...

Ed -

To reiterate above, I have no idea. In one of screenwriter William Goldman's books, he talks about the development process of a particular film and how he decided to press on, despite the voice in the back of his head saying, "This is going to be a disaster!" (I want to say he was referring to Memoirs of an Invisible Man... he eventually left the project.)

In this case, the writers admit they were simply young and eager to please.

Interestingly, there's one line in the film that is grammatically incorrect and NOBODY noticed. Picard has a line about a "pretty big margin of error." The only problem is a big margin is good - the line should've been "small margin of error"!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, What I wonder about though are things like the Nexxus. Did they realize how obvious it was that Picard could have just come out of the Nexxus a day earlier and he could have saved hundreds of lives and his ship? That seems like a fundamental problem which really needs some sort of explanation why he can't do it?

Whoopie: "Oh no, JLP, time isn't that specific, you will come out randomly so bring help...."


The RLM guys land some devastating blows, like how Kirk is actually Picard's second choice (after Whoopie) and a lot of things like how they totally abused the episodes, and how Sorin's motive in kidnapping Geordi makes no sense.

ScottDS said...

Yeah, I never thought about that with Soran and Geordi. There's a deleted scene not on the DVD/Blu-Ray which might help. (Keyword: might)

Re: the time travel, Braga does bring up The Terminator and other time travel tales: why not send the Terminator back to kill John's grandmother, great grandmother, etc.? Or why not send more than one back? Ad nauseam.

I think the difference is, if you're caught up with the story, then you won't think of these things. Back to the Future for instance is such a well-written film that you simply don't think about these questions until afterwards.

Braga and Moore admit that another fatal flaw of the "two captains cooking" scene is that is sloooows the film down and the audience starts to actually wonder about this stuff.

Outlaw 13 said...

If they wanted to explore death, they should have just had Westly killed.

I remember the first episodes that included the Borg, that would have made a much better movie than what they ended up with. I know they had the Borg in on of the TNG movies, but it wasn't as well done as the TV episodes were IMO.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw 13, I would have been first in line if they had killed Wesley in the films. I know Scott likes him, but wow was he an annoying character!

I agree about the Borg too. They were really creepy when they were this silent, methodical hive you couldn't reason with. They lost a lot of that in the film when they got a "Borg Queen." What a way to suck the life out of a really cool villain.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's a good point that people had too much time to start thinking about things. But even beyond that, this was really obvious.

Take the Terminator comparison. The terminator went after his unsuspecting mother. It should have been easy except that Rees showed up. So going after the grandmother would have been the same. Here is was SUPER obvious that he could have just said... "uh, let's what would be the best time?" but he didn't.

In other words, while I agree part of the problem was that people had too much time to think about it, but there was also a problem with the time travel device itself just being too defective.

Joel Farnham said...

I liked the movie. It showed something I never expected. The use of the saucer section as a lifeboat.

I have a book dated a few months after the movie premiered. Kirk dying was the writers' biggest worry then. They said Kirk being killed by one phaser bolt wasn't a good enough death for an ICON. I didn't know they changed it because of the screening.

I chalk the awkwardness of the script more to the nature of the game than to the writers. Paramount wanted more movies guaranteed to be big sellers. They asked for and received a script that ends the old franchise while kick starting a new one. Which is why it was okay to kill off Kirk. He was part of the old franchise.

It is amazing that they finished it It was good. Not great. Just good. It did what it was supposed to do.

ScottDS said...

Outlaw -

Yeah, I remember the Borg episodes, though I feel Voyager kinda overused them after a while.

On the commentary for First Contact, they mention it was the studio's idea to create a Borg queen - the idea being a faceless mass wouldn't work for movies. The audience would need a character for Picard to bounce off of. Enter: the Queen.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - I don't like like him but I don't hate him, either. Maybe it's because I was almost that age when I first started watching. I chalk it up to awful writing. Wil Wheaton actually does a PowerPoint slideshow at conventions bashing an early Welsey-centric episode ("Justice") to pieces. Profane and hilarious!

Re: the Borg Queen, see above. I think it was a good idea but it actually kinda unravels in the film. There's this bizarre non-sequitur plot point in First Contact about the Queen needing a "counterpart" or something like that. The writers, again, admit they really had no idea where that came from. (I haven't listened to that commentary in a while but I'm about 90% sure of that.)

ScottDS said...

Joel -

The saucer separation was actually inspired by an illustration in the TNG Technical Manual by Mike Okuda and Rick Sternbach... still in print after 20 years!

The writers had pitched the idea for a season 6 finale - the ship would be recalled, get into a conflict, and the crew would evacuate to the saucer and crash on a planet. This was nixed due to budget issues. (They could probably do it today with CGI - Voyager did a cool ship crash in one episode.)

Re: killing Kirk - it was so last minute that the hardcover novelization features the original death. It was rewritten for the paperback.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've got nothing against Will Wheaton, but the writers really did him no favors. Lines like: "why would anybody want to do drugs?" sound like they came right out of an after school special.

On the queen, I actually disagree entirely that it's a good idea. What made the Borq so creepy was their lack of personality. By giving them a queen who runs around foaming at the mouth and kicking Datas, they rob the Borg of the very thing that makes them cool.

T-Rav said...

Okay, I guess I'm going to have to watch the RLM review now so I can avoid looking like a total idiot.

On the Terminator thing, though, if I remember right, Reese said that all the records from before Judgment Day had been largely destroyed, which could be why the Terminator couldn't go after more distant ancestors--no way of knowing who they were. Remember, Ahnuld had to kill two other Sarah Connors before finding the right one.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, That's my point -- with the Terminator, they offered explanations. It may be that none of them really hold up, but there is more than enough there to think "ok, I see why they did what they did." But with the Nexxus, you never get an explanation and the only one that comes to mind is "he didn't think about it."

To me, it's a huge mistake to leave something so glaring in a story without at least tossing something in there to try to explain it away.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I understand the objections to the Borg Queen but, as a necessary evil for the film, I think it works. Plus, you have the whole bee colony caste system thing going on. If anything, it was an interesting concept ike the Nexus what wasn't explored enough in the film.

(It's been a while since I've seen the film so I don't have tons to add on the subject.) :-)

ScottDS said...

T-Rav and Andrew -

I don't recall the specifics from The Terminator (it's been a while), but I agree with Andrew. At least they attempt to explain it. The problem with the Nexus is that it's a nebulous concept to begin with and there are no rules: all Picard has to do is think his way out.

T-Rav said...

Okay. Yeah, that looks stupid. I've seen a little bit of the newer Star Trek movies or TV shows or whatever they are, and Data just should not have emotions. That was the most disturbing part of all that to me, and I don't even know anything about the Picard era.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Don't say that so loud! Do you want to be sent to a re-education camp?!



Scott, I really think the Borg were cooler when they were just a Republic rather than a Constitutional Monarchy. (A little political humor for ya!) :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

They're actually an anarcho-syndicalist commune! (To borrow from Holy Grail.)

T-Rav said...

Did you see those Borg being repressed? Just more violence inherent in the system!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott and T-Rav, I haven't seen Holy Grail in YEARS! LOL! Great film!

My favorite line: "build a bridge out of her!"

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Nice review, Scott!

I actually liked this one to a point if I didn't think about it too much.

It's good to know a bit of background of the how's and why's, however.

My biggest disappointment was that Kirk and Picard never had an opportunity to really work together for long and I think that hurt the movie (studios are their own worst enemies when they come up with insane restrictions like you mentioned).

Plus, I never bought that Kirk would initially turn down Picard's plea for help. It just wasn't in character based on what we have come to know about Kirk.

I did like McDowell's work and he came across as a somewhat sympathetic madman who only wanted to be united with the love of his life, so killing millions of people that got in the way was never personal to him.

The DATA thing was too cute by far and looked like they were looking for laughs but didn't have anything funny to write so they threw in the emotion chip idea which also wasn't funny even by Jar Jar Bink standards (or whatever that stupid alien was called in the second Star Wars trilogy).

I don't blame the writers completely, given the wet blanket studio demands and it was their first effort but one would think that such a film ushering in a new ST cast would have more proven veterans on board.

Writers and directors can make a huge splash if they would learn from previous writer's and director's mistakes (as well as their own).

Regardless, they face a lot of challenges and not all of their own making.
But that's what seperates the best from the rest.

All in all not the worst ST flick, IMO, but it did have some serious problems. I will still watch it occasionally.

ScottDS said...

Ben -

Thanks! I'll chime in later this evening with a reply.

ScottDS said...

Ben -

That would be Jar Jar Binks. :-)

Thanks for the kind words. Re: the studio demands, despite making millions of dollars for the studio, they always seemed to keep a tight leash on the various Trek productions for one reason or another.

The only Data humor I cringe at today is when he curses. Of course I loved it when I was 11 but today, it doesn't sit well with me for some reason.

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