Word of mouth and fan reaction can be a funny thing. Fans know their material more intimately than anyone, Trek fans especially, so when word on the street sets your expectations about a franchise, chances are pretty good they’ll be met. That has been evident throughout this marathon, when this Trek neophyte’s views have fallen almost exactly in line with Trek fandom’s. The one major exception has been with the very first Trek movie.
And now the last.
Because despite the middling reviews and lukewarm word of mouth, I think Star Trek: Nemesis was pretty outstanding and a fitting end to the Next Generation saga.
Admittedly, it starts off rather questionably. Hints of The Undiscovered Country, with the Romulans now in the mood for peace instead of the Klingons, and yet more Data weirdness as we meet a near replica of our favorite artificial Spock (and engage in a ridiculous dune buggy race in the process), only this one a little … slow. Not an auspicious start. And that’s not even to mention the comically-directed Romulan senate assassination scene, which is just bad, bad, bad.
Once Tom Hardy’s delightfully imperious Shinzon enters the scene, however, things change for the better.
Of the four best Trek movies prior to this one, all except The Voyage Home were cemented into place with memorable villains. Khan, General Chang, the Borg Queen, these were charismatic baddies who chewed up the screen and stole every scene they were in. To the howls of protest from Trek fans everywhere, I submit that Hardy’s turn as a Trek Big Bad deserves to be mentioned alongside them. Shinzon is simultaneously arrogant and in over his head; aloof and yet broken inside; ready for conquest, but driven by internal pain (both emotional and physical). This is a complex character, made all the more interesting because he serves as a reflection of what Picard could have been. Yes, the “dark reflection” character is an old cliche used many times, including in the Trek franchise — Spock with a goatee is now a running joke in geek fandom — but cliches are only as bad as their execution, and I’d argue that Hardy’s was superb.
This is the reason why Nemesis works. Unlike Insurrection, the stakes are pretty high, reaching genocidal levels, yet despite the high stakes and gigantic action the true stakes are intensely personal. The big & loud stuff is cool, to be sure, but the story remains about the people and their internal struggles. This is true on two fronts.
First for Picard, who must confront this funhouse mirror reflection of himself and come to terms with the man he might have been. This makes him consider his own nobility and, with the help of his friend Data, come to understand what has driven him all these years: the recognition of his own flaws and the desire to be a better man than he was yesterday. Considering he is facing the departure of his right hand man and his own mortality in the process, the timing for dealing with this rather reflective theme is appropriate.
The same friend who helps him face these issues is the second of those ‘this time it’s personal’ pillars, because Data has a similar journey. The other android they found is an earlier model of himself, nearly identical in look but not as intelligent or capable of understanding the world around him. Data struggles to come to terms with the potential in this “brother,” or lack thereof, and must eventually confront the reality that there may be no hope in him, not even when Data’s own memories are uploaded into the new android. In coming to accept this, Data gains an even greater understanding of what it means to be human – a monumental step for a character whose entire journey has been about coming to understand humans and his place among them.
This newfound understanding comes just in time for his Spock moment, of course. Fitting that they use the Next Generation’s version of Spock in the same sacrificial manner, and also built a way to bring him back right into the story, just as they had with Spock. Were it not handled so well, I’d gripe about how cheap and lazy it was to rehash that storyline, but it WAS handled well.
Nemesis also gets the big spectacle right. The final half is full of starship combat, tricky tactics, sweeping outer space vistas, and not a single goofy fistfight in sight. Great special effects, a clever ship maneuver or two, and the action itself was guided by those intensely personal stakes mentioned earlier. It ain’t just explosions, it all has MEANING.
By the time we get to the end, we’ve not only seen some terrific action that plays like a faster-paced version of the Khan nebula battle, with behemoth starship crews trying to outwit one another and two captains locked in an intensely personal struggle, we also wrap up with two quiet but moving scenes: Riker and Picard saying goodbye to one another, and Picard taking the first tentative steps towards rediscovering his friend Data in the mind of a new but identical android.
All of this adds up to a Trek movie that surprised the hell out of me.
The reviews are pretty bad and people whose Trek views I trust even suggested I skip it entirely, and yet here I am saying the opposite. While I don’t put it in the lofty company of Khan — that movie is a science fiction classic — Nemesis is a worthy Trek film by any measure, and against all odds might be my favorite of the Next Generation films. (Yes, I just said that.)
A fitting end to the saga, says I.