Oct 9, 2020
5 reasons the TNG movies weren’t that good
I think it’s safe to say that Star Trek fandom was at its height in 1994. The original series movies had ended on a great note with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, The Next Generation had ended its seven-year run on a high with its final episode “All Good Things…” (which won Trek the last of its four Hugo Awards), Deep Space Nine concluded its successful second season, and the first TNG movie was in the wings.
That movie, Star Trek: Generations, also had the added bonus of teaming Captains Kirk and Picard together on the big screen in the first of what everyone thought would be a successful run of films for TNG.
After all, with the exception of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, all of the movies featuring the original series cast were first-rate (I admit, I found The Motion Picture enjoyable, if slow). So everyone was counting on TNG to reproduce that same kind of magic on the big screen.
There were a total of four Trek movies with the TNG gang. Alas, none of them managed to truly capture the spirit or success of TNG the TV series. Here are five reasons as to why these movies just don’t hold up as well as the TOS films.
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1. The need to “pass the baton”
Let’s start with the first movie: Generations. This was a gimmick by Paramount to “pass the baton” from TOS to TNG on the big screen. As far as fans were concerned, the baton was already passed with the lovely final shot of the Enterprise-A sailing off into the stars at the end of Undiscovered Country. Still, the chance to see Kirk and Picard share the screen could have been something special.
Alas, the final product proved anything but. There was some good stuff in Generations, such as Picard’s torment over the deaths of his family members, the Duras sisters returning, and Data getting used to his new emotions; And while everyone knew Kirk was going to die even before the film was released, the destruction of the beloved Enterprise-D was quite shocking, even if it lacked the drama of the destruction of the original ship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
But the movie’s main selling point, Picard teaming up with Kirk, is handled in such a sloppy way that it basically started the whole TNG movie franchise off on a sour note. In the end, it would seem Kirk’s death ended up hurting TNG more than it did the character of Kirk himself.
2. No character development
One of my colleagues on this site wrote an article which noted that TNG made an effort to give the spotlight to all its regular characters, not simply Picard and Data. At the time of the release of Generations, there was a monthly magazine called Star Trek Communicator, and around that time, I read a letter from a reader in one issue that sadly turned out to be prophetic.
The author expressed concern that the TNG movies would basically leave no room for the character moments that were TNG’s hallmark, such as Picard and Crusher having tea together, or Data and LaForge being BFFs. TNG’s final season also gave us the beginnings of a Picard/Crusher romance, as well as a Worf/Troi/Riker triangle (I know some people disliked the latter, but it’s no worse than the Worf/Dax romance on DS9). However, Generations, like the following three TNG movies, is mainly focused on Picard and Data, pushing the other characters aside. This brings me to my next point.
3. The reinvention of Jean-Luc Picard
One of the biggest reasons that the TNG films don’t live up to the series is that they’re more interested in being action flicks, TNG’s legacy (and in some cases, common sense) be damned. In all four of these movies, there seems to be a tendency to recreate Picard as a swashbuckling hero, engaging in fisticuffs with each of the movies’ villains.
I can accept this in the second TNG film, Star Trek: First Contact, given the character’s history with the Borg, but having him do so in the other three movies in such a contrived manner had me questioning more than once if this was the same man we enjoyed watching on TV for seven seasons.
At the same time, there was an attempt to make Picard more of a romantic figure by giving him pseudo-love interests in both First Contact and the third film, Insurrection. The former involves the character of Lily (Alfre Woodard), Zefram Cochrane’s assistant who’s brought aboard the Enterprise and fights the Borg alongside our heroes. This character is unnecessary, because she does what Crusher had often done on the show: talk sense into Picard.
In Insurrection, we see Picard and his crew inexplicably side with a race of people who, when you really look at the story, are just a bunch of selfish jerks. One of these people, Anij, played by Donna Murphy, proves to be another replacement for Beverly, in that she gets bonding scenes with Jean-Luc. Patrick Stewart got an associate producer credit for Insurrection, so many blame him for trying to make Picard into an action/romance star in this movie, but if the previous two films are any indication, Paramount would have encouraged this direction anyway.
4. All self-contained stories
Although most dislike the slow pace of the movie, The Motion Picture nonetheless did its job of introducing Kirk and his crew on the big screen in a grandiose way. However, it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that ensured their big screen exploits would be as beloved as their small screen ones. A major reason for this was producer Harve Bennett taking a good look at the series before production began, and making two key decisions: he wanted to recapture the character moments between the crew, and bring back a strong antagonist for them.
This decision basically led to how Star Treks III, IV, and VI would play out (it’s an interesting coincidence that the much-hated Final Frontier is the only film of the bunch to not follow upon Wrath of Khan’s storyline). As a result, the way the movies tied in together is part of why they nicely complemented the show itself. In contrast, all four TNG films were simply self-contained adventures with little ongoing significance, much like Voyager and Enterprise would later turn out to be.
Even First Contact suffered from this, from the beginning of the movie when it was revealed that a single Borg ship was launching an attack on the Federation, which was a rehash of the same battle in TNG’s classic “The Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. You’d think that suspense would have increased tenfold if the Borg had sent more than just one vessel this time around. I know some will argue that the attack in the movie was just a ruse to get the Borg’s time travel scheme underway, but then, why didn’t the Borg just use their time travel further away from Earth, so no Federation ships could follow them?
Granted, we saw the Borg in the series, but as DS9 was on the air at the time the first three TNG movies were in theaters, I think the Borg should have been tied in with the Dominion, much the same way that the TOS movies eventually tied in Khan’s storyline with the Klingons.
5. Constantly trying to compete with Khan
Another thing all four TNG movies have in common is their attempt to have the crew battle a specific, evil villain. This was understandable in First Contact, but even that ended up hurting the movie in the end. As unnecessary as Lily is, even more so is the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), a character who appears to be strong proof that First Contact is as much a movie by committee as the other TNG films. What made the Borg unique is that they were all one hive mind, and hence, not like other villains. Giving them a single leader made them simply just another generic foe.
Insurrection didn’t fare any better in this department, as the person we were supposed to hate (played by F. Murray Abraham) turned out to be hammier than a can of Spam (watch how he screams the patented Star Wars “NOOOOOOO!” and you’ll see what I mean).
Rolling Stone had an article discussing the fourth TNG movie Nemesis several months before it premiered. In that article, they mentioned that Nemesis would have a villain to rival Khan. Right at that moment, my mind was screaming for this not to be. Putting aside the fact that TNG already had, for all intents and purposes, its counterpart of Khan with the Borg, this article was basically saying that the film wanted to go the action route again, just like its three predecessors.
That villain turned out be the Reman leader Shinzon (played by Tom Hardy), who via plot contrivance had been surgically altered to resemble a younger Picard. Other nonsense this film gives us is yet another android who resembles Data, which is as bad an idea as giving Spock a brother in Star Trek V. There’s even a big climatic battle in the finale of the movie meant to generate the same emotion as the one in Star Trek VI. Sadly, this film reinforced the fact that “All Good Things…” would have been a better sendoff for the TNG gang.
To summarize, the four TNG movies had some good ideas, but those were sadly overshadowed by the studio’s desire to turn TNG into something it wasn’t, hence invalidating the series the same way Alien 3 invalidated its predecessors. Or to look at it another way, if TNG ended with “All Good Things…”, those stupid “Troi can’t drive” jokes wouldn’t exist.