Captain's log, stardate: Just the other day. I was driving back to the newspaper after a screening of Star Trek: Nemesis, the 10th feature film installment of the saga, letting its polysyllabic techno-gibberish roll around my head, wondering if I should have brought along a translator who knew why the Enterprise's discovery of a “positronic signal” was important enough to solicit a big dum-DUM of timpani on the movie's soundtrack.
Or maybe I should have brought an expert on intergalactic economic theory for when the Romulan Imperial Senate opened its lively discussion about trade negotiations on Remus II. It's a good thing I once had a thing for the progressive rock band Rush, or I wouldn't have even heard some of the Radio Shack-ese thrown around in this movie.
Fans - Trekkies, or the more politically correct, Trekkers, take your pick - talk about how the characters and the relationships and the grand themes keep them coming back. And yes, Star Trek has always shown a commendable commitment to empathy and ideas over effects and explosions. Although this film is more action-oriented than recent entries, the most ambitious moments of Nemesis involve Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his resonant voice intoning about the necessity of change, the bonds of family, and the price of sacrifice.
That Star Trek, more or less, tends to merely nod at deep thoughts, and shrink from exploring them beyond a few lines of dialogue and a hushed conversation, is part of the deal. When Picard stares at his evil twin, we are supposed to think something about the duality of man, and so on. This is a timid film series often mistaken for possessing the patience of a subtle one.
No, what I like about Star Trek is its obliviousness to clear storytelling, its tireless commitment to bad costumes and wooden actors and alien makeup that a 9-year old wouldn't leave the house wearing on Halloween night. After two decades in the Next Generation cast, you'd have thought someone would have discovered a way to apply makeup to the android Data (Brent Spiner) that wouldn't leave his face looking like an overheated mannequin. And yet there he is in Nemesis with his own subplot (about a prototype Data named B-4) and his own close-ups, two stories high on the silver screen, every pore in his supposedly-synthetic noggin big enough to climb into.
I find Star Trek endearing. I mean that: Why is it that the Enterprise crew members always get blasted out of their chairs, land on their bellies with their hands splayed before them to soften the fall, then comically climb right back in place, anxious to be knocked down again by another blast? After four decades of saving the universe, can't the Federation spring for seatbelts? Why do all their computers look like those soft-touch cash registers in any fast food joints?
And why do these people have to ask if the spaceship parked before them, guns itching to shoot, is threatening when it is sinister and dark and shaped like a falcon? Or whether the bald hideously scarred man who talks in riddles and dresses in a Ziggy Stardust fetish gown (which creaks, incidentally) is to be trusted?
Wait, why is the crew of the Enterprise out in space again? Not that it matters. I'll love Star Trek whatever the reply, and I am not being cynical or glib; I love it for its goofiness, and its sheer indifference to outsiders. This is the world's biggest inside job, but it's not impossible for the novice to enjoy Star Trek: Nemesis - it's a rather simple good vs. evil tale, after all, stolen wholesale from the series' best film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
As I walked into the screening, one critic, a fan herself, explained that the even-numbered Star Trek films are always better than the odd-numbered ones. Why is that? I asked.
It just is, she answered.
I love that answer.
And I love that she's right. Star Trek: Nemesis is better than the ninth film, Star Trek: Insurrection, and way better than the seventh, Star Trek: Generations, in which Malcolm McDowell built a tall platform in the middle of a desert and tried to leap up into a swirling space vortex. Wow, what a nut.
Star Trek: Nemesis goes back to the formula that has worked best: The crew takes on a madman, and the fate of billions is decided by a fistfight, this time between Picard and his evil clone, a punk Mini-Me Picard called Shinzon (Tom Hardy). That is, of course, before Picard tries to talk sense into the guy: “The man I see could not exterminate the population of an entire planet. He's better than that.”
Picard is part commander and part motivational speaker. His big existential theme this time is self-determination. No, really. “A lifetime of violence,” is how Shinzon explains his upbringing. He is a creation of those fearsome Romulans, who wanted to oust Picard and install their new marionette version. But Shinzon escaped his creators and led a rebellion and set out to make his own way in the universe; this involves destroying humanity with his big gun. He is, he says, what Picard would have been if he was raised differently, and while thoughtful, it's a pretty whiny motivation for a villain.
Star Trek: Nemesis feels like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and while I don't have a problem with that so much, I have a big problem with this: Time after time, the Star Trek films are never big enough, never final enough. In the past films when the Enterprise is destroyed, they just built a new one; when Spock dies, they find a loophole to resurrect him; Capt. James Kirk died a few years back, but I doubt he's gone. Campiness aside, this is an epic that ignores its scale and never lets anything stay permanent, and preaches morality but never practices it. The poster says: “A Generation's Final Journey Begins.” Which is code that something big happens in Nemesis. Maybe I missed it.