We enter the 21st century at last, with the final of four TNG movies, and arguably the one with the worst reputation. But can Nemesis at the very least avoid the blandness of its predecessor?
Pre-Existing Prejudices: Well, as mentioned, I don’t think there’s any movie in the Star Trek canon that has quite the reputation of Nemesis, though Into Darkness will work hard to correct this. As with all movies post-The Final Frontier I have seen this in the cinema, and have… well, you can probably guess but unusual opinions on it anyway.
What’s It All About JG?
The Romulan Senate are all killed. Well, that gets us started. After the events of the last movie Troi and Riker get married, but en-route to the Betazoid part of the wedding they pick up some transmissions. It’s another Data, liberally distributed across a (sigh) desert planet. While retrieving the bits the crew are attacked but get away. And thus, sadly, B4 enters our story. After this, the Enterprise is sent to the Neutral Zone by Janeway (Janeway!) because the Romulans want peace, or at least kid on they do. Shinzon, a clone of Picard created for a project that was subsequently abandoned, wants to destroy Earth, and has a big ship to do it. There are some space battles, the ship is stopped but in the course of defeating Shinzon Data is killed, as Picard gets saved by someone else. Like every other damned TNG movie. But hey, maybe Data lives on in B4? Maaaybe…
Any Other Business:
- Hey, Jim Robinson off of Neighbours is in this one, as one of the Romulan Senate! Oh… he dies here too.
- Troi and Riker’s wedding is appropriately charming, and it’s nice to have a cameo from Guinan that doesn’t rely on her having mystical foresight.
- Those white dress uniforms are ghastly.
- Mind you that wedding and typical jokes about being naked at a Betazoid wedding only highlight the tonal differences in a film that really seems set up to isolate its audience as much as possible.
- Last film on Why Is Mr Worf Aboard? “I just am, captain!” This film on Why Is Mr Worf Aboard? “…”
- After two whole films of not having a desert shoot here we are again, back amongst the sand-dunes with a filter at “unsafe velocities”. Oh well, at least Patrick Stewart looks like he’s enjoying himself.
- And Picard’s ponderous declaration of “this doesn’t feel right” might have been more useful before he decided to race around an alien desert like a punch-drunk petrolhead.
- Neither Kate Mulgrew nor Patrick Stewart are especially good at looking like they’re holding a conversation together when their parts were clearly filmed separately. But I don’t care because I love that Janeway is in this, even just for a few moments. Just like seeing the Defiant in First Contact, or passing references to the Dominion War in Insurrection, it gives a sense of scale to the Star Trek universe and at the same time makes it feel more coherent because even over vast distances the bits of the universe link up and affect each other.
- The make-up for Shinzon’s viceroy is really well done.
- Shinzon’s shiny space-disco costume, however, very much isn’t.
- Brent Spiner is a good actor, but B4 allows him to indulge in his every worst instinct, and for the second film in a row. The great thing about him playing Data is it forces him to be restrained, and he’s a much, much better actor when he underplays. His playing of B4 does an already-useless character absolutely no favours whatsoever.
- Why is he even called B4 anyway? B4 what? He’s the first generation, sure, but if that was how he was named prior to the creation of Lore or Data then it makes no sense. It would be like Apple releasing a product called the Mac Book Not As Good As The One We’ll Release In Three Years Time (Pro). So much stupidity around B4…
- All praise to Tom Hardy in this film, who actually manages to make Shinzon appear much more than the paper tiger the script seems to paint him as. The script seems to thinks he’s a little man twisted by revenge but with a big ship, but he manages to make Shinzon appear… not sympathetic, but relatable at least.
- Ok folks, get out your cliché-ometeres! Bad guys plan is actually a bad guy’s plan, with no nuance! Check! B4 ends up betraying them! Check! The bad guys’ ship will take simply ages to deploy its weapon, giving Our Heroes time to stop it! Check! Earth is under threat again! Check! Picard is saved from a big explosion by someone else! Check! And on and on…
- That’s it, Marina Sirtis wins my “best of the TNG films” award hands down. A clean four-for-four, she is again magnificent here, especially when being attacked by the viceroy (she seems genuinely terrified) and getting her moment of revenge.
- As far as I can recall this is the only time in the entire history of on-screen Star Trek that we get to see something of Remus (at time of release, anyway). It’s a minor thing, but it’s most welcome.
- On a similar line, it’s nice to see the Romulan Senate as well, and it’s really, really great that we get to see a portrayal of Romulans where they’re not all backstabbing and duplicitous, actually have some concept of honour and consequence, and all without looking like Klingon surrogates. It’s something that hugely benefits this film.
- I just cannot express how inexcusable that “memory dump” into B4 is. It utterly undermines Data’s sacrifice for Picard and it gives them a way out of Data’s death in the most ham-fisted way possible, had there been another movie. And it looks like the Picard show is indeed going to do this which… yuk. (EDIT: Season One of Picard notwithstanding. It hadn’t been released when this was written originally. Fine, Data isn’t resurrected that way, thankfully, and the way the first season is determined to take the events of Nemesis seriously is one of the few good things that season has going for it).
- The Enterprise crashing into the Scimitar is a really nice idea and pleasingly different from the usual “eject the warp core” or bafflegab-type solutions.
- Does this Enterprise not have a battle bridge then? Because I think if the front of my bridge got ripped off and I was only being kept from an icy death in the vacuum of space by some shields which were being maintained by a ship that’s getting the living daylights kicked out of it I’d probably want to evacuate to somewhere a bit more… airtight. Really great visual though.
- Indeed, there’s a part of me (a small part admittedly, but still) that think’s the film might have been more effective if they’d let Picard die rather than Data. I mean, This Movie’s Handy Transporter Gizmo massively telegraphs what’s going to happen well in advance (which means this film has not one but two clumsy Chekov’s Phaser moments), but it might have been nice if Picard had one last outing where he actually gets to save the day by himself rather than relying on someone else to rescue him. Again.
- Data flying through space is, though, at least fairly well done – so well done, in fact, that a somewhat-expanded version of it will turn up in Star Trek: Into Darkness.
- The most touching moment of the whole film is at Data’s wake when, of all people, it’s Riker who gives us a moment of emotional poignancy, relaying his first meeting of Data by the holodeck, but he can’t remember the tune Data was trying to whistle. It’s a really lovely moment from Jonathan Frakes and very nicely downplayed.
- And we end on one final Picard speech and a note of optimism for the future. It’s probably not the ending to TNG that most people wanted but at least in that they absolutely got it correct. “Never saw things going so right.”
Whatever else you can say about Nemesis – and there’s an awful lot that can be said about it – what it resolutely is not is business as usual. That is the first and most important thing to say about it. Almost nothing about Nemesis is run of the mill. It’s not an especially controversial statement to say that Nemesis has probably the worst reputation of any of the TNG films, and the reasons for that are comparatively obvious. For one, it’s the movie that ended the run of TNG films without especially feeling like things had come to a natural conclusion, as with The Undiscovered Country. And there are just so many obvious mis-steps. I’m not going to catalogue them all here, but just a few of the most obvious ones are, in no particular order, B4, B4 and B4. Honestly, Lore ended very badly, so who thought it would be a great idea to come up with another brother, and give Brent Spiner another chance to ham it up even further, especially in a movie where the public are expected to actually invest in events without endless reams of backstory (oh right – Brent Spiner)? Then there’s the ghastly “memory dump”. And… oh this is silly – the faults of Nemesis have been listed often and with enough frequency for them not to need repeated. The real question here is – is there anything good that can be said about it at all?
Yes there is. Phew! Actually there are loads of positive things that can be said about Nemesis. What’s obvious, watching all four TNG films comparatively close to each other, is how much better they flow when separated by a couple of weeks rather than a couple of years. The principal reason I’ve been teasing out the theme of loss that binds the four films together is because, viewed in sequence and close to each other, it stands out clearly, rather than getting lost in the shuffle of the almost-a-decade that stands between Generations and Nemesis. And viewed in this way the move from Generations (shambolic Season One style script beholden to an earlier style), to First Contact (bold, confident, Season Three/Four action-adventure), to Insurrection (bland and somewhat lazy but well meaning, Season Five or Six script) to Nemesis (running out of steam in Season Seven) also feels like it follows the course of the show.
Yet even this is a little unfair on Nemesis. Because what is most striking about Nemesis is just how transitional it feels. Jonathan Frakes has vacated the director’s chair this time out, so gone are the accustomed cues, fluid-but-familiar beats, and recognisable style that’s characterised the last couple of outings. Instead we have harsh, jarring synthesizer background music that sounds like nothing Star Trek has ever really attempted before, slow-motion sequences, and ponderous, slow-moving cameras that practically challenge the audience to question what they’re doing. It’s hugely discombobulating, especially after all the chummy matey-ness of Insurrection, and it means that Nemesis really feels like it’s striking out in its own direction. The audience is pushed way out of its comfort zone, and, just as it was a good idea for Insurrection to pursue a different direction from First Contact, it’s equally a good idea for Nemesis to do the same from Insurrection. Nemesis is many things, but the one thing it can never be described as is “safe”. Like the Swiss flag, this is a massive plus.
The other thing Nemesis has going for it is ambition. The fact that much of its style is brash and confrontational to a certain extent masks what the film is trying to do, because under the surface we have some fairly familiar Star Trek themes. This is the only Star Trek movie, and one of only a tiny handful of occasions throughout the entire show, that we get to see anything of Romulan culture, and it’s genuinely fascinating to spend a little bit of time inside their culture. Indeed, had all that guff with B4 been dropped in favour of allowing us to spend some time within Romulan culture before we get to see it attacked at its very roots, Nemesis would have been a great deal more effective. Still, what we do get to see is more than welcome, and thematically the idea that the most implacable enemies can come to an understanding and, eventually, peace, seems to be about as in line with Star Trek’s philosophy as we could want. It’s a lovely moment when, after the Enterprise has taken hit after hit that incoming Romulan ships are reported, only for them to turn out to be friendlies.
Moments like that are hard-won in Nemesis, and the darkness that lurks at the heart of the movie is far more effective for what isn’t said than what is. The temptation of peace is, after all, what draws the Enterprise to Romulus in the first place, even as almost everyone is prepared to acknowledge that it was empty hope. Yet one of the great ironies of Nemesis is that Shinzon’s nihilistic, bleak outlook and empty promises of peace actually in the end drive the Romulan Empire and the Federation closer together, united by a common enemy – him. This isn’t the end of the process, but like the Klingon Empire before them, common ground can be found between the Federation and the Romulans, and perhaps the beginnings of a better relationship between the two former enemies can grow.
Still, that darkness is one of the most defining features of Nemesis, and unlike previous attempts at “darkness” here things really feel like they’re in deadly earnest. First Contact had some darkness in it (beyond its colour palette, obviously), but, while it still remains the most straight-up entertaining of the four TNG films, the darkness at its core wasn’t really expanded on. There’s a chance that all of humanity could be wiped out by the Borg, and the Federation could be lost forever! Well yes, but First Contact is, and this isn’t meant pejoratively, a romp. For all the sense of danger (and it does have a sense of danger), it’s still a fun outing, fighting the Borg on the big screen while Our Captain Wrestles With Issues. The darkness that Nemesis works with is much bleaker, and it feels much less like Just Another Outing as a result. There’s something properly nasty about what Shinzon wants to do – Earth is endangered all the time, but there’s a certain remove when it’s being threatened by time-travelling techno-zombies from the future. Shinzon’s weapon is much closer to having a real-world analogue – a dirty bomb, say – and thus feels much more realistic as a result. The fact that the direction is also strikingly different to what we’re used to leans in to the idea that this isn’t business as usual, and the result, tonally, is probably darker than anything TNG has achieved before.
And then of course there’s the Troi rape. Mind-control-as-rape isn’t exactly a new concept in science fiction, or even Star Trek – the same thing basically happens to Troi in “Man Of The People”, after all. But again, there’s a realism and a… well, darkness, to what’s going on. The fact is that Shinzon only does this because he was “curious” – not even for his own gratification, but just idle curiosity to wile away some time, just makes it all the nastier. This isn’t the cozy, brightly-lit old Enterprise–D with Beverly swooping in at the last moment to save the day with blue space-cardigan a-flapping. This is a ship of shadows and gloom, and what happens here is much more visceral. To the film’s credit, though, the fact that she’s raped – and Troi explicitly states that it’s a “violation” when reporting the incident in sick bay, even if it is a sci-fi mind-rape – isn’t played as a weakness on Troi’s behalf, and she’s allowed enough agency to be able to not only recover from this incident (and what’s really important here is that she actually addresses what happens to her, it’s not brushed off) but also to use it to her advantage later in the film. It’s a bold, strong piece of characterisation for Troi, and the first and only time the movies actually do something progressive with her character (it’s also a thousand times better handled that when the same thing happened to Valeris in The Undiscovered Country).
This gives us some indication of where Nemesis’s ambitions actually lie. By taking a character that has thus far been largely neglected in the sequence of movies, putting her through the wringer, but having her come out stronger and more resilient because of her experiences and, crucially, have her recover from them, we see the film making a proper attempt to do what TNG should do – use sci-fi allegories of real-life situations to aid understanding of those issues. But, and this is also extremely important, it means that the darkness of Nemesis doesn’t simply exist for its own sake – it’s not self-indulgent or just there to push buttons, but is used in a way that informs the characters we know and allows them to grow as a result. This is essentially a mirror of what Shinzon wants – his darkness is at its heart nihilism, so even when he realises he can’t survive his own plan he still wants to destroy the Earth because, ultimately, he’s the embodiment of self-indulgent dark impulses – and the film’s script actively refutes this as a workable philosophy. That’s why the film is bookended by two much lighter scenes, the wedding and the wake (themselves mirrors of each other, of course, the beginning of a relationship and the end) – the darkness never overwhelms the light, even when it threatens to do so.
Loss drips through Nemesis like water from a slime-covered pipe in a rusting hulk. Loss is everywhere here. If it is in loss that we find the binding theme of the TNG movie then it is in Nemesis that it finds its ultimate expression. We have loss of hope, in the idea that B4 could in some way be Data’s equal, or even a member of his family. We have the loss of belief from Picard, in Shinzon never being genuine about his desire for peace. We have Shinzon’s loss – his loss of purpose at his mission (which is to say, the very reason for his existence) being discarded as just another failed policy from an uncaring government. He has everything stripped away from him, and it is his loss that drives the events of the film, forced to seek revenge for an injustice that it seems nobody even remembers any more. There’s a long scene between Picard and Shinzon about how different their lives might have been had their positions been reversed, and it’s telling that, even here, Picard can never quite drop his veneer of civilization just as Shinzon can never quite manage to maintain his. We all have a choice in how we behave, and Shinzon’s choice – to pursue his vengeance at all costs – is of course the mirror of Picard’s.
Mirrors are very important in Nemesis – indeed the film is basically about mirrors – and the script goes to some lengths to expand on this. Picard and Shinzon are mirrors of each other, of course, just as Riker gets his own mirror-nemesis in his battle with the viceroy late in the movie (and “viceroy” is an interesting rank for Shinzon’s second-in-command to hold, given the colonialism issues of the last movie). We are told that Shinzon will be the “triumph of the echo over the voice” (more reflective surfaces). There’s the conceptual mirroring mentioned earlier. All of this works to Nemesis’s advantage too – it gives a focus and dimension to the script, but does it on its own terms rather than, say, by quoting Shakespeare (The Undiscovered Country) or Moby Dick (First Contact, The Wrath Of Khan) as a way to add extra depth to proceedings. This means that the drama of Nemesis is actually the drama of Nemesis, not something that’s been ported over from another source. Whether this is entirely successful or not is a separate question, but Nemesis stakes out its own position and sticks to it. This gives it both its own internal thematic unity and a thematic unity to the other TNG films. It’s the end of the line for TNG but it crosses the finishing line under its own steam, not under borrowed steam from somewhere else.
Now, I would be remiss in my duties in as a reviewer if I didn’t question how effective all of this is. The unusual atmosphere, the darkness, the challenging aspects of the film, those are all things in its favour, even if they don’t always sit comfortably with each other (and indeed one often gets the feeling watching the film they’re not meant to, that they clash as a deliberate stylistic choice). But still, I’m dancing round the obvious subject. The biggest flaw in the movie, by far, is B4. B4 is a terrible idea badly executed. That’s honestly about the best thing I can think to say about him. Oh you could go on and say that just as Picard has his mirror younger self so Data has his mirror younger self, implying more thematic unity within the film, and indeed this is a perfectly valid reading of B4. However, it’s also a reading predicated on the idea of taking B4 seriously, and sadly that’s basically impossible. Just as the Ba’ku are the big failure squatting in the middle of Insurrection, so B4 fulfils the same function in Nemesis. He’s awful. Not just because of Brent Spiner going over the top. Not just because of the massive, Dickensian co-incidence of Shinzon finding the android and using it as a lure (and knowing how). Not just because we really don’t need another brother for Data to be betrayed by. Not just because of the incalculably clumsy way in which he provides a Chekov’s Phaser workaround for Data’s “death”, thus undermining the whole point of his sacrifice in the first place.
No it’s not just because of any one of those things, it’s because of all of them. Just as Generations would be greatly improved by having the Duras sisters and Guinan cut out and replaced by about one and a half lines of bafflegab, so Nemesis would be greatly improved by the removal of B4. B4 is a huge, distracting presence all the way through the film and the worst, the very worst, thing is that his existence is completely pointless – he improves nothing and actively detracts from other aspects of the film. We could save about twenty minutes of our collective (but not Collective) lives if he was edited out and instead we had a throwaway line from Shinzon about how “we can control the android now” and then later have Data declare “Captain, I have overcome Shinzon’s control”. It would actually parallel Troi’s rape (thus providing a pleasing male/female counterbalance), the plan of impersonating B4 on the Scimitar would still work with Data pretending to be controlled instead of pretending to be B4, and it would make his ultimate sacrifice mean so much more. Still, I’m supposed to be reviewing what we have, not what we should have so let’s just say he’s terrible and leave it at that. It’s not that Nemesis doesn’t have other flaws, but B4 is glaringly representative of everything that should have been avoided.
It’s not difficult to see why Nemesis is a divisive, even hated, film. There are many aspects of the script that, despite working hard to define itself in its own terms, never cohere into anything more than the sum of its parts. It’s as stylistically far away from what we’re used to TNG looking like as we’ve ever seen, even in the dark days of Season One, and it has an intensely alienating effect on viewers expecting another typical outing from our friends on the Enterprise. Even now, all these years later and with full foreknowledge of how it’s produced, it still seems like a strange, alien take on the familiar, set in a universe noticeably more sombre and more twisted than the one we’re used to exploring. This isn’t a universe that would have the time for the fripperies of Q or another holodeck-gone-wrong story, there’s something about this setting that feels wrong and out of place. It’s a nasty, dirty place, full of deep pits people can plummet silently into and weapons of mass destruction that are genuinely unpleasant. It’s a brave effort, and there is much here that really deserves to be commended, because at last we get a TNG film that manages to be something which none of the others are – we get a film that’s challenging.
It was a good try, and the truth is that Nemesis doesn’t quite work on its own terms at all, but the most unfortunate thing about Nemesis is that it feels like a transitional film but the problem is that there’s never anything that comes after it for it to transition into (again, Season One of Picard notwithstanding). The strange atmosphere, the haunting corridors, the shadows – they feel like they’re questing out a new direction for TNG. If there was another film in the sequence it would give more definition to Nemesis and we would be able to see it as either a step down the path of a road not taken, or the first step to a new way of doing things. As it is, everything just dead-ends until the whole movie series gets rebooted in 2009, and that does Nemesis no favours at all. That’s not specifically the fault of this film, but it’s still terribly unfortunate. In the end there’s just too much wrong for Nemesis to completely succeed, despite its best intentions. The script is put together with little sense of pacing, so we get one action sequence, followed by a lot of talking, then another action sequence, then a lot of talking, and so on. It never really builds to a climax either, just carries on at one speed, then stops. But still, for all its flaws I’d absolutely take this over Insurrection. Clear, conspicuous ambition is always more interesting than par-for-the-course neutrality, and Nemesis certainly demonstrates ambition. The sad thing is how manifestly short of its ambition it falls.
Oh, and Data dies. Ah well.
How Much Of This Movie Can Be Cut?
Anything to do with B4 can go. It’s just such a staggeringly pointless idea, and there’s no investment in the idea from either Spiner or the writers/director to find a spark that would make it come alive. As mentioned in the review, B4 isn’t even necessary to the story, which could be told just as well by Shinzon being able to temporarily take control of Data (maybe during the “beam over for dinner” scene) then Data subsequently being able to overcome that control (or have Geordi do it, so he gets more to do than that assemble-the-robot jigsaw). If you are going to have a character like B4 – and you really, really shouldn’t – then he should at least accomplish something. Let‘s say that means we lose around 20% of the film – we ditch the drunk petrolhead stuff, and just have Janeway divert the Enterprise on the way to Betazoid. Yeah. That’s much more satisfying.
How Rikered Is Riker?
He’s at his own wedding reception. I’m guessing sobriety isn’t going to be much troubling him.
Data’s Annoyingometer Scale:
Well to be strictly fair, it’s not really Data that’s annoying here, it’s B4. And Brent Spiner. But guilt by association and all that. Data himself gets to make the Big Noble Sacrifice, so what a pity that this is both a) telegraphed by the stupid transporter thing and b) howlingly cliched. Now strictly speaking that’s not Spiner’s fault but.. *checks scriptwriting credits* … oh turns out it is his fault after all. So broadening the scope of this section out for its last appearance I’m giving this 8/10. B4 is annoying as fuck and I’m holding Spiner responsible.
At the conclusion of The Undiscovered Country I gave MVP to everyone, because that film was a perfect summary of everything that TOS did while at the same time still finding space within the show to do new things with. Nemesis tries very hard to do the “new things” angle as well, but can’t pull it off. So MVP is not going to be Stewart, Frakes, Spiner et al (especially not Spiner after inflicting B4 on us). It is, however, going to be – oh brace for the shock of your lives – Marina Sirtis. Tom Hardy – early in his film career and so sweetly young looking – does good work as Shinzon and he gives a strong performance opposite Stewart, but just look at how amazing Sirtis is both during the scene where she’s attacked and when she gets to take her revenge. It’s hard to believe this is the same character that had to put up with all those bullshit Lwaxana episodes. “Face Of The Enemy” – rightly seen as likely her strongest TNG episode – showed she had the goods for this kind of material but the show didn’t especially follow up on it. It’s true that from that point onwards she got more to do (and stronger episodes), but they were things like “maybe I’ll do command training” or whatever – they never stretched her in the same way. Hark, then, at Nemesis at long, long last finding something worthwhile to do with a regular female character in the movies. About. Damn. Time. Although, sadly, also better late than never. Sirtis is never less than great in the movies, and here she is substantially more than great. She’s awesome, so she’s getting the last MVP of the TNG era.
- The Undiscovered Country
- First Contact
- The Voyage Home
- The Search For Spock
- The Final Frontier
- The Wrath Of Khan
- The Motion Picture
And that’s us done with the TNG crew! Come back next time as we wade into an alternate timeline, alternate actors in familiar characters, and continuity-disrupting events, as we dip our toes into the Abramsverse.