As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…
‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins…’
That was the uniquely ominous strap line for Star Trek: Nemesis at the end of 2002. The promise of closure.
After fifteen years, since The Next Generation launched on television in 1987 and triggered the second era of Star Trek, the voyages to go where no one has gone before for Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E (formerly D) would be coming to an end in the fourth and final film for a dynamic new crew slipping gracefully into middle age. Voyager had just ended on television after seven years but Enterprise was in its second season, and there was every indication more spin-off shows would eventually line up alongside it. To Paramount, franchise producer Rick Berman, and the cast and crew, it felt like the right time to bring the curtain down on these characters.
Many remembered how just over a decade previously, The Undiscovered Country had quite naturally retired the crew of The Original Series. It felt apt, with a group of characters born in the heart of Cold War detente and futuristic optimism, to see Kirk, Spock et al warp off into the sunset as the Soviet Union fell and the geopolitical paradigm changed. Nemesis struggles to replicate that same feeling of finished business. The Next Generation crew never entirely gelled with the cinema in the way The Original Series crew had, and arguably only First Contact stands out with time and distance as a truly great Star Trek movie. Kirk & company found each other again in middle age and discovered a creative renaissance, triggered by the success of The Wrath of Khan. Picard and his crew went immediately from the end of their series into Generations and a movie saga, stuttering across a decade in which the world changed around them.
Nemesis, released in the long shadow cast on all American storytelling by the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 in New York, as a result feels like the reluctant last gasp of Star Trek’s second era, wedged amidst the embers of Reaganism and the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ that 9/11 blew out of the water.
It feels, oddly, like a crew who aren’t quite as ready for retirement as everyone thinks.
Nemesis wasn’t necessarily even on the drawing board, either, not at first.
The Next Generation’s last cinematic outing was before the traumatic events of 2001 in 1998’s Insurrection, a film which very much reflects the safe, late-90’s space the franchise at that point inhabited. Voyager was established, Deep Space Nine was in its glory years, and while Insurrection makes flickering mentions of DS9’s devastating Dominion War which was cascading across the Alpha Quadrant, Michael Piller’s screenplay is far more interested in the light, romantic adventure of a Heart of Darkness-style journey up river for Picard and the Enterprise, taking a moral stand against an opportunistic race of nomads and a Starfleet ‘Badmiral’ to defend a small, utopian population on a paradise planet. It was the most quintessential TNG story this crew were ever given on the big screen and, in its own way, could have worked as a less definitive, more hopeful and comfortable send off for The Next Generation.
Money talks, however, and while contracts for the majority of the TNG cast were up, Berman didn’t feel like Insurrection was enough of a conclusive ending for the crew, a la the aforementioned The Undiscovered Country. Jonathan Frakes’ second film as director was a fun affair but with Gladiator screenwriter (and Star Trek mega fan) John Logan drafted in to work on what would become Nemesis, Paramount wanted a darker, more dramatic outing for Picard and his crew. What is painfully obvious from Nemesis is that they wanted their own The Wrath of Khan, as Berman himself described to Star Trek Communicator magazine in 2001:
It is more of a heroic Picard vs. the evil villain type of picture as compared to some of the previous films. I think there is more action in it and it's a film that takes place primarily in space. We have wonderful villains, wonderful species both known and new and I would describe the film as being in the same style as John's film 'Gladiator'. The film has a real epic quality to it.
Perhaps the only downside to the otherwise fantastic The Wrath of Khan was the subsequent belief that Star Trek films always needed a dastardly villain for the main hero to defeat, when in reality Nicholas Meyer’s film was so creatively rewarding because it *didn’t* have that traditional battle. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh never fight each other physically. It is a battle of wits designed to reaffirm Kirk’s own worth in middle age.
We will discuss this further when Picard faces down the villain of Nemesis, Shinzon of Remus, toward the end of the film, but the mistake made by films such as Nemesis, or The Final Frontier, or Generations, and even Insurrection, was to intentionally try and craft a diametrically oppositional villain with a devastating plan in each movie. The trend is especially brought to bear in the Kelvin Timeline, JJ Abrams produced movies, in which Khan is of course revived in Into Darkness. Nemesis is the most directly egregious example of this trend with Shinzon, who is designed as much as a Bond villain than a Trek bad guy. A lot of Nemesis, in how it was constructed, is quite cynical in its attempts to use The Wrath of Khan as a template in which to define The Next Generation’s concluding adventure. It’s ironic that a film which gave Star Trek the spark of life which birthed the conditions of the second era would be the catalyst for a limp, disappointing finish of that same generational journey.
Right from the off, Nemesis establishes its credentials as a film with more substantial aspirations than Insurrection. That film began in pastoral fields, displaying the Ba’ku villain. Nemesis kicks off in the Senate of the Romulan Star Empire, no less. One of the key planets in the mythology and lore of Star Trek, Romulus is seldom ever visited in any of the series, and only Star Trek 2009 utilises it in the movies outside of Nemesis (and then only to destroy it), but the Romulan Empire has always been as ubiquitous to Star Trek as the Klingon Empire, if less iconic. If the Klingons were the analogous Russian bear, the Romulans were always the reclusive, insular, enigmatic Chinese; positioned behind an intractable Neutral Zone, with an active, sinister intelligence network called the Tal Shiar all over the galaxy, and cloaked Romulan Warbird ships that would often, particularly in TNG episodes such as The Defector, be getting up to all kinds of subterfuge behind enemy lines.
Nemesis affords us a deeper peek behind their Iron Curtain than any Star Trek story before, even Romulus-focused episodes such as TNG’s Unification or DS9 Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. This is a Senate facing a new, existential challenge, as described by the still-unseen Shinzon’s acolyte Suran, with the unification not of Romulus and their distant cousins Vulcan (which Spock had long worked toward) but it’s smaller sister planet Remus, long mentioned but never directly explored in Star Trek mythology. It is a possibility, with Suran promising their combined power could challenge the United Federation of Planets, that is not welcomed by the Romulan orthdoxy. “The military does not dictate policy on Romulus!” he is told by the ruling Praetor Hiran, which immediately establishes Shinzon as a veritable Pompey banging on the gates of Rome with an army at his back.
“He and his followers will be met with all deliberate force and sent back to that black rock they came from!” Hiran declares, admitting Shinzon did submit a formal proposal for a military alliance, establishing himself as a leader of the Reman people, but the Senate rejected it. He doesn’t see Shinzon as an equal but rather a barbarian at the gate, a savage challenging the established order. Hiran’s refusal to conscience a change to the status quo is interesting both in the context of the Star Trek universe at this point, and beyond it. In universe, the Romulans have just emerged from being dragged (or as DS9’s Into the Pale Moonlight reveals, tricked) into the Dominion War, allying with the Federation for the first time, and their other long-time neighbouring Klingon enemies, to defeat a common, geopolitical enemy. Hiran feels like a Praetor with little thirst for another open conflict, more interested in opening up trade talks and the traditional business of government. The Federation will never be allies but the Romulan Senate here, at least, appear to value a return to the geopolitical certainty of a Cold War paradigm in the Star Trek universe that the Dominion’s near victory almost tore apart. They may not have turned the Romulans and the Federation into allies, but they perhaps reaffirmed they don’t have to be warring enemies.
Hiran, and almost the entire Senate’s subsequent, horrific and immediate death from thalaron radiation (more on that down the road...), which ossifies him and his staunch conservatives into statues that collapse and shatter into nothingness on the floor, speaks to how Nemesis wishes Shinzon to be one of the most incendiary, daring villains ever to exist in the Star Trek universe. In the opening scene, he quite literally brings down one of the most powerful empires in the galaxy and seizes control in a coup’d’etat so vicious, sudden and daring, it would have seemed impossible to countenance in the old days. This just could not happen to the powerful, shadowy and monolithic Romulan Empire. Yet it does, and in that sense Logan’s script seems not just determined to provide The Next Generation with an antagonist to define their final adventure, but also reflects the immediate shock and trauma of 9/11 in Shinzon’s act of bioterrorism.
After all, Shinzon stages an attack on a foundational pillar of Romulan society, in the heart of the capital, with a deadly weapon of such terrifying intensity it is banned not just across the Federation but other questionable races who might be inclined to immoral and dangerous activities. Logan admittedly wrote the Nemesis script before 9/11 took place but he was already thinking in terms of a Trek film for a new decade which was willing to rip up the galactic playbook and create some new rules, at least temporarily. Later Star Trek films, and movies, would be deliberately more incendiary in this regard, with Star Trek 2009 changing the geopolitical landscape forever with the Hobas supernova which destroys Romulus entirely, but Nemesis ends up reflecting the surprise, shocking trauma of the established American order after 9/11 in these opening scenes. The film never truly capitalises on that, or the daring promise of re-framing the Romulan Empire as under the yolk of a conquering, crazed warlord, but it is worth remembering how differently the story begins to the other Next Generation movies, even the darker First Contact.
Nemesis, as it introduces the characters we have grown to know and love over the previous decade and a half, will immediately establish itself as a film pulling in two directions. On one hand, a challenging step forward for the Star Trek universe. On the other, a safe, predictable retread of glories long passed. It will end up skewing more toward the latter than the former...
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series to come:
II - Captain’s Prerogative
III - Unsafe Velocities
IV - Sailing Into the Unknown
V - A Better Way
VI - A Violation
VII - The Echo Over the Voice
VIII - Waiting for the Dawn
IX - Goodbye
X - Blue Skies