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Monday 16 December 2002

Star Trek: Nemesis

Directed by Stuart Baird
Written by John Logan, Rick Berman, Brent Spiner
Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Whoopi Goldberg, et al

by John Shirley


The Star Trek concept grows as aged and hoary as its principal actors, but it still has some juice. The idea of a multiracial crew was important in its time, even courageous; the ensembles of the various series were a savory soup of stock personalities. We shrugged off the utterly baffling non-economy of the Federation in which machines can materialize anything, the holodeck where you can walk a long ways without bumping into the wall, the 1960s style mini-skirted uniforms that lasted way beyond their period; the irritation of the first Star Trek movie being based on a fairly lame TV episode, the maudlin sentimentality that sometimes stood in for drama, the ridiculous tech-talk that stood in for science ("the frammistatic posinexus field is overcharged with blidderbung radiation, Captain").

All this we endured, because the adventure, the exciting visual realization of science fiction ideas, the likable family of characters, and the well-meaning humanism of the series, kept us interested — up to a point. I stopped watching the shows halfway through The Next Generationís increasingly tiresome run, but I kept going to the Trek movies. Gradually, the pristine set-design surfaces and un-nuanced characterizations of the earlier films have given way to some texture. Star Trek: Nemesis, while suffering from a kind of series metal fatigue, has some grit and detail that gives us something to grip.

The main idea for Nemesis has the odor of the pitch meeting. "Okay, Picard, see, was cloned by the Romulans and they raised his clone to secretly replace him and it does replace him — oh, thatís too much like the Borg one? Okay, it ...it doesnít replace him, instead the plan to replace him is abandoned, the clone grows up separately and hates him, becomes his nemesis... Yeah, we could call it Nemesis!"

The movie actually starts out with Counselor Troi and Commander Riker getting married — something Trek fans always wanted to see happen, and very enjoyable the scene is, too, with Picard showing an engaging wittiness. En route to taking Riker and wife to Rikerís new command as a captain, the Enterprise is diverted by a positronic signal to a desert planet — one that looks exactly like the Mojave Desert, as so many Star Trek planets have, except that they put a filter on the lens to try to make it look otherworldly. Here they forget centuries of technological development and fall back on driving dune buggies, albeit ones equipped with energy weapons. They find robot limbs and a robot head identical to Dataís. The head talks. Then comes the heavy hand of the studio demanding more James Bond-type action. So theyíre pursued by Remans, from Remus (why the Romulans have named their planets after Terran characters, Romulas and Remus, is a mystery perhaps only Trekkies understand), also driving dune buggies. Since the bad guys in both Trek and Star Wars movies are all apparently cross-eyed, they canít hit anything with their energy weapons, even though dozens of them are shooting; so our heroes escape, in a highly improbable but fun-to-watch maneuver I wonít spoil by describing. Aboard ship they reconstruct the robot (whose joints are surprisingly low-tech looking, with actual gears in them) which turns out to be an early version of Data, named B-4. Heís been planted by the evil Picard-clone warlord, whoís scheming in uneasy collaboration with the Romulans: one of the endless Hollywood stream of oily but highly articulate and vaguely British-sounding villains, and rather like the one in the under-rated film The Last Starfighter.

B-4 develops some rapport with Data, but it turns out heís there to set up Picard to be kidnapped to the spaceship of the evil clone who needs to sacrifice Picard in order to restore his own damaged body so he can move along with the business of destroying Earth. Why exactly heís bent on destroying Earth is explained, but not convincingly; if they explained how he went from being a slave in the mines of Remus to developing super-weapons allowing him to take over the planet and destroy Earth, well, it went by too fast for me to catch. The filmmakers do make the clone seem like a real person, complete with tragedy and unrealized longings, and the script, which often works better than Iím making it sound here, makes us feel that mingling of sympathy and revulsion that characterizes our encounters with the best fantasy villains. The wicked clone uses some kind of mind-link to sexually violate Deanna Troi, when she should be on her honeymoon, but this interesting wrinkle is mostly a set-up for a means to get around the new Romulan cloaking device, and is not explored; we never get a clear sense of her feelings about it, nor Rikerís.

The film is top-heavy with awkwardly inserted action scenes. The producers seems to have decided to put in lots of Star Wars type ray-gun fights in the twisty corridors of ships and, as in Star Wars, the bad guys — once again — canít hit the broadside of a barn, while the good guys rarely miss. Apparently neither the storm troopers of Star Wars nor Star Trekís Romulans ever developed optometry.

The spaceship battles, though, are neatly handled, even dazzling, and are internally logical enough. Thereís lots of excitement, as in a great scene where the Enterpriseís bridge is ruptured and people are sucked into space.

I wonít spoil the story any further — there are some striking turns in the plot, involving space-action you always wanted to see; thereís a series regular who dies rather touchingly; there are some wonderful shots of Romulus and of the Remus dilithium mines. Thereís some pleasing Data-humor. Brent Spiner is not only funny, heís gotten very good at seeming consistently androidian while conveying subtle angst and doubt.

Patrick Stewart seems born to play Jean Luc Picard. His deep, resonant voice gets him a lot of work, but heís not a great actor — witness his strikingly inadequate portrayals of Scrooge and Captain Ahab. Yet heís utterly believable as Picard. Maybe from lots and lots of practice. All the actors are aging, though Deanna Troi is still quite foxy, but even Data has aged, though heís not supposed to. Maybe he makes himself appear to age so as not to show up the humans.

Bairdís directing is deft, and the editing is sharp, and together they hold the slightly confusing plot together. A bit more character development, a little less gratuitous action, more thought given to premise and internal logic, and this would have been something more than just the fun, pretty-good Star Trek movie that it is. Star Trek fans will enjoy the hell out of Nemesis, though, and they donít give a good goddamn what I think, and I say more power to them.


John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is www.darkecho.com/johnshirley.

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