As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…
When the Star Trek universe was created in the mid-1960’s by Gene Roddenberry, the Romulans very quickly, following The Original Series Season 1 episode Balance of Terror, established themselves as an iconic race within the science-fiction tapestry of the series.
There was long some debate about who exactly created the Romulan species but it has over time roughly been attributed to staff writer Paul Schneider, who based the Romulan people on the Roman Empire, naming their twin planets Romulus and Remus after the creation myth of Rome itself; the twin children abandoned on the River Tiber and found by a wolf who raised them to go on and found Rome. While many of the races in Star Trek are based on human cultures, be it the Bajorans on the Jews or Klingons on the Russians, never in Trek was a species so literally devised to connect directly to an ancient human myth as the Romulans. Had they not been as deftly characterised, they could well have been consigned to the litany of strange races in TOS who are now considered kitsch – the Zeons in Patterns of Force, for instance. Thankfully, the Romulans were carried through into The Next Generation and developed into an allegorical Chinese or even North Korean state; a shadowy, secretive species who sit behind their ‘Neutral Zone’ between Federation space and occasionally incur on missions of espionage and devious plots to interfere in other species politics – particularly the neighbouring Klingon Empire, as seen in TNG’s Redemption.
Yet throughout TNG, and even Deep Space Nine where they were eventually embroiled in the galaxy spanning Dominion War and the machinations of Starfleet’s sinister spy organisation Section-31, we never truly came to know who the Romulans were, seldom visited their home world—we only see it in TNG’s Unification and DS9’s Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges—and Remus, beyond the initial mention in the 1960’s, was never explored. Nemesis, therefore, in re-contextualising Remus, and the Reman people, as a monstrous, toiling slave race for the Romulan Star Empire, adds a level of mythology previously unexplored in Romulan culture. While they are, to an extent, a narrative means to an end in Nemesis, the inclusion of the Remans as a key factor in Shinzon’s backstory gives Nemesis that added Star Trek factor – a new world and species to discover and explore. The only downside is that, ultimately, the promise Nemesis might have in truly revealing Romulan culture after all of these years is smoke and mirrors.
It is never really a story about the Romulans at all.
Nemesis establishes the Remans as, essentially, a monstrous aberration within Romulan culture. “Due to the extreme temperatures on that half of their world, the Remans live on the dark side of the planet” Data explains in a staff briefing, on the journey to Romulus, after explaining half of Remus always faces the Romulan sun.
You wonder if John Logan was in some fashion inspired by the iconic, monstrous form of the Morlocks from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, so memorably brought to life in the classic 1960 George Pal adaptation; cave-dwelling troglodytes who are forced into an engineering slavery by the privileged, child-like Eloi living a utopia on the surface of a far future Earth. “Almost nothing is known about the Reman homeworld, although intelligence scans have proven the existence of dilithium mining and heavy weapons construction” Data continues, adding the hierarchical structure of Romulan society considers the Remans “undesirable”. Given how visibly unlike they are to their Romulan counterparts, were the Remans always this way? Or did subjugation by the Romulan state over many centuries transform them into toiling monsters, and indeed “cannon fodder”? Riker describes how the Romulans sent them in as soldiers during the bloodiest engagements in the Dominion War, not unlike how the Changelings engineered legions of Jem’Hadar. Nemesis doesn’t have the space or time to explain the deeper historical backstory of the Reman people, but it establishes the key broad strokes, and why Beverly is confused at the idea a Reman could have ended up as Praetor.
This is where Beverly’s assumption is also are own at this stage as a viewer. We have no reason to believe Shinzon is anything but a traditional Romulan before we meet him, despite the promotional material for Nemesis heavily featuring Shinzon as a bald, distinctly human looking figure, and Starfleet’s relative lack of intelligence on him back this up. “We can infer he is relatively young and a capable commander. He fought twelve major engagements in the war. All successful. Beyond that, we know nothing” Data describes. The inference is clear – Shinzon, a Reman who looks nothing like the rest of his race as typified by his monstrous looking Viceroy (played with guttural menace by the great Ron Perlman), was a Dominion War veteran who managed to seize control of Romulan military forces, following the murderous coup we witnessed in the opening scenes. Riker suggests this: “The Praetor’s power’s always been the Romulan fleet. They must be behind Shinzon for him to have overthrown the Senate” but which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was Shinzon effectively a Reman terrorist who is holding the fleet hostage at the barrel of a gun?
What remains clear is that Picard, still operating from the point of view of a commander assured in his role and ready to embrace the unexpected, is excited at the possibilities of what Shinzon represents. “It seems as though we’re truly sailing into the unknown” he states, with a certain relish. He remains unfrazzled in orbit of Romulus as the ship is kept waiting, the anxious Worf keen to raise shields, and in the shadow of the terrifying Scimitar battleship. “Diplomacy is a very exacting occupation. We will wait” Picard assures. This is a man who has, as he stated at the wedding earlier, explored the galaxy, fought wars and negotiated treaties – Shinzon is just another Tuesday to him, at this stage. He isn’t sharing the nervousness of his crew. He is revelling in the mystery.
Said mystery still revolves around B-4, the Noonien Soong android being studied by Data and Geordi, whose inclusion still remains like a sub-plot that feels distinctly unconnected to the main action. Geordi is surprised that Picard has allowed Data to download his positronic matrix into B-4. “If my memory engrams are successfully integrated into his positronic matrix, he should have all my abilities”. Aside from this plot giving Brent Spiner a key role in a story that otherwise could have remained unconnected to Data, these actions also telegraph the possibility that Data might not survive the film. There is still some debate as to whether Data’s sacrifice, which we’ll discuss later, is a shock or an inevitability, yet it is hard not to see Logan beginning the process of paying homage to The Wrath of Khan here, which he will do in far greater detail in the main narrative later. Data transferring his memory feels similar to Spock transferring his ‘katra’ into Bones, even if that was reactive whereas Data’s transfer into B-4 is proactive, and not at this stage about preservation as Spock’s actions were.
Data is trying to improve B-4’s quality, in essence, though as Geordi points out. “Maybe he’s not supposed to be like you, Data. Maybe he’s supposed to be exactly the way he is”. This is a moral question it’s surprising Data and Picard don’t grapple with in greater detail, and you sense had the B-4 storyline existed in a one or two-part episode of The Next Generation, we would have explored the idea that perhaps Data is wrong for trying to ‘improve’ B-4 who is presented as, essentially, the robotic version of someone with learning difficulties. “Why does the tall man have a furry face?” B-4 asks earlier, spotting Riker’s beard, and his speech and actions typify a childlike persona inside an adult body. Should Data not be attempting to help B-4 develop naturally, or care for him as an elder brother who would for a sibling with learning needs, rather than working on an ‘update’ to his memory and personality? It’s a story element with troubling implications you wonder if Logan, Spiner or director Stuart Baird truly thought through, because it leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth.
Speaking of sour tastes, Picard’s hubris is tested when he, Riker, Troi and Worf beam down to Romulus and finally meet Shinzon. Perhaps in parallel to B-4, there is an immediate childlike aspect to Shinzon’s personality, brought to bear by Tom Hardy – in the first role of prominence for who would grow into one of cinema’s most iconic modern stars. Like an adolescent boy, he flirts with Deanna. He comments on Picard’s height and asks to touch Riker’s hair, showing a fascinating with stature and personal power. There is something boyish about him, teenage, as if he has never quite naturally developed into a full adult—which will of course be born out in subsequent scenes. He seems equally as fascinated by human beings, having been raised among disempowered aliens. These Starfleet beacons must seem like impossibilities to him, curiosities, and he treats them as such. His overtures of peace, equally, sound wholly unconvincing, not to mention jarring and unerring. “Right now, you’re thinking this all sounds too good to be true?” He suggests. Well, duh.
And then Shinzon delivers the piece de resistance, raising the lighting to reveal… a bald guy. Now while Baird intentionally highlights the visible shock displayed on Patrick Stewart’s face, it doesn’t quite communicate as easily to the audience that Picard is looking at himself, and it forces Logan’s script to spell it out in Shinzon’s dialogue, explaining his hypersensitivity to sound as a genetic disease inherited amongst family members, which Picard also had. Yes, he’s bald. Yes, he’s British (or sounds British). No, this doesn’t automatically read as “he’s related to Picard!” and surely doesn’t read as “he’s a clone of Picard!”. If the film had begun with a flashback of Hardy as a young Picard in Starfleet (like the picture we later see on the Enterprise), this moment would have landed far more powerfully and we would have been right with Picard when his jaw drops. Nemesis, however, has to do the leg work through description to bludgeon us with the point. “Come to dinner tomorrow on Romulus! Just the two of us. …Or, should I say, just the one of us.” Shinzon asks Picard, just in case the people at the back aren’t getting it!
There is no doubt that Shinzon intrigues in these scenes, with many questions as to how a young human man, claiming to be Reman, could have seized control of the entire Romulan Star Empire. But while it may be Star Trek sailing into the unknown, it also suggests we are simultaneously heading back into safe territory. A foe for Picard. An emotional arc for Data. And, ultimately, little about the Romulans we didn’t already know…
Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:
Or the rest of this series to come:
V – A Better Way
VI – A Violation
VII – The Echo Over the Voice
VIII – Waiting for the Dawn
IX – Goodbye
X – Blue Skies