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…
While Star Trek as a franchise, across all of its television series, has been defined by the philosophical and scientific approach its storytelling has taken to humanity’s future, Star Trek in cinematic terms often feels defined by the antagonist of each film.
When people think of The Wrath of Khan, do they immediately imagine Kirk’s grapple with middle age or his emotional and physical rebirth? Maybe, but they’re probably more likely to conjure up Ricardo Montalban with his buffed tanned chest and wild hair spitting Shakespearean poison. Who can think of The Undiscovered Country, equally, without imagining Christopher Plummer’s General Chang twirling happily in his chair barking lines from Hamlet? Alice Krige’s sultry, mechanical and haunting turn as the Borg Queen is just as synonymous with First Contact, to the point she holds a pride of place position on the film’s poster. In so many Star Trek films, the villain is crucial. The last three pictures have all boasted star name bad guys perhaps even more famous than the main cast – Bana, Cumberbatch, Elba, all A-list Hollywood surnames who people instantly recognise. Think about some of the names who’ve inhabited these roles previously – Christopher Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell, F. Murray Abraham. Legendary character actors to a man. There is almost as much cache in playing a Star Trek villain as there is a James Bond antagonist.
Retrospectively, Tom Hardy sits on that tier of household name bad guy, even if when Nemesis came out he was a youthful, unknown quantity no doubt cast because of a passing visual similarity to Patrick Stewart, but in hindsight Hardy ended up being a ‘get’, even if Shinzon never sits in the tier of the greatest Star Trek cinematic bad guys, some of which have been mentioned above. The truth is, while Star Trek has always engaged with excellent, well-known actors to play these parts, the villains themselves often end up overshadowed by the Starfleet crew themselves. Sybok, Tolian Soran, R’uafu – does anyone really know who these characters are outside of Star Trek fandom? Arguably the only villain to truly break out into mainstream popular culture is Khan Noonien Singh, especially given his lease of life recast in Star Trek Into Darkness more recently. Khan set the bar as a character (and in The Wrath of Khan) that the franchise has been striving to equal ever since. Shinzon, however, is the most unashamed attempt to cash in on Khan’s charismatic mania.
As we start to peel back the layers of Shinzon, learning his backstory and of his bizarre connection to Jean-Luc Picard, Nemesis’ blatant mission statement to replicate what made Khan work becomes ever clearer.
Shinzon is, in many respects, the product of a broader political apparatus in a way Khan never was. Khan was a madman from a different age who morphed into a eugenic terrorist. Shinzon is the unwieldy tool of the Romulan Star Empire.
“We supported you, Shinzon, when you assassinated the Senate. You told us the timing was perfect for an attack on the Federation.” This comes from Suran, a Romulan commander, who boasts his own level of strength given the Romulan military ships that would have been needed to pull off the Reman coup’d’etat, but his wording suggests these hawkish Romulan dissenters believe Shinzon is under their command and control, not the other way around. Shinzon certainly has a weapon of mass destruction in the thalaron radiation, as Khan had the Genesis Device, and he certainly contains the twisted genetics that could pre-dispose him to a level of madness and grandeur, but Shinzon’s power still works within the confines and context of a Romulan state convulsing within itself. Praetor Hiran was more concerned with trade negotiations than Suran, a veritable Pompey, looking to overthrow the old order to attack the Federation. The reality is that Shinzon has played these forces and now believes he holds no sway to them: “You don’t have to understand.” he tells Suran, confused as to why Shinzon has invited Picard and the Enterprise.
In this, Shinzon certainly bears a significant similarity to Khan, in that he has entirely personalised the greater purpose those around him are considering. Khan stole Genesis, and was told by his followers that he essentially had the power of a God to create a new home for them all, but he was more obsessed with punishing and killing James T. Kirk for how he was treated in the past. Similarly, Shinzon sees Romulan concerns about their political hegemony as secondary to his own obsession to know and understand Picard, who he sees in some strange, quasi-father/brother mix up given their shared genetic bond. “Our eyes reflect our lives, don’t they? And yours, so confident!” he says of Picard when they meet and talk through Shinzon’s history, a handy way to visually relay his backstory and the plight of the Reman culture.
Shinzon’s determination to attack Earth is much less about Romulan power in the quadrant and far more about his own personal, Khan-like thirst for vengeance against the forces who created him. He seems to feel only disdain for the Romulans around him, like Suran and Commander Donatra, who attempts to inveigle herself into his orbit through seduction. “You are *not* a woman. You are a Romulan” he spits. Shinzon clearly hates the very people he has been encouraged to rule.
Which goes back to how Shinzon is, at first, the puppet and product of a particular arm of the Romulan state. “The Romulans had somehow gained possession of your DNA and I had been created, and when I was ready they were going to replace you with me. Put a Romulan agent at the heart of Starfleet.” Shinzon tells Picard, adding when Picard asks what went wrong “As happens frequently here on Romulus, a new government came to power. They decided to abandon the plan. They were afraid that I might be discovered and that it would lead to war”. There are a number of things to unpick here.
Firstly, fans have speculated that this Romulan plan to replace Picard could have been born in The Next Generation episode The Defector, which established changes in the power vacuum of Romulus, or indeed when Picard was Captain of his previous ship the Stargazer, but neither fit perfectly in terms of Star Trek chronology. The Romulans certainly popped up in TNG as ideological antagonists to the Federation, spewing espionage plots against their rival power with abandon, but their involvement in the Dominion War as Federation allies during the later years of Deep Space Nine would have changed the paradigm somewhat. As Shinzon says, governments change, and likely Hiram represented a movement less inclined toward open conflict following the battle against the Dominion, even with a weakened Federation over their border. Suran, therefore, can be seen as an extremist within the Romulan system himself, who with his allies banked on a reckless, abandoned human clone like Shinzon who had fought his way to power amongst the Reman underclass, to help them realise their ambitions to destroy the Federation before they had a chance to respond. Shinzon is, in that sense, still being used, even if he believes he remains in control.
The fact, in the wake of Nemesis, the Romulan Empire doesn’t immediately fall apart, and remains monolithic enough as an apparatus to struggle with accepting Federation help a few years later in the events leading to Star Trek: Picard when their sun begins to go supernova. Shinzon is just a child bred among the sundered slaves considered cast offs by the Romulans until it was politically convenient. “In those terrible depths lived only the damned. Together with the Reman slaves I was condemned to an existence of unceasing labour and starvation under the brutal heel of the Romulan guards. Only the very strongest had any hope of survival.” Shinzon therefore hardened his resolve against the Romulans, and attempts to convince Picard that his rationale for seizing control of the empire is to liberate the Remans. “That is the single thought behind everything I have done. From building the Scimitar at a secret base to assembling my army. Finally coming to Romulus in force. I knew they would never give us our freedom. I would have to take it!”
Even here, years before the supernova, Picard anguishes about the amount of Romulan lives who perished in Shinzon’s overthrow of the current order. He cannot square the man he sees before him with the young man he was, who looked identical, at the same age, a man he later describes to Beverly Crusher as “very much in need of seasoning”. The Wrath of Khan didn’t have a scene such as the one between Picard and Shinzon, whereby they quite urbanely discuss their ideological positions, but arguably Space Seed back in The Original Series would have had something similar between Kirk and Khan before their relationship brewed into violence and bitterness. Picard, ever the optimist for long-lasting piece between the Federation and the Romulans, nevertheless hopes that Shinzon’s words about teaching the Romulan people “a better way” to live alongside the Federation holds water. “If there is one ideal the Federation holds most dear is that all men, all races, can be united. …What better example. A Starfleet captain standing in the Romulan Senate…”.
This is one of the lovelier moments of Nemesis, set to some beautiful music from Jerry Goldsmith, which typifies Star Trek’s mission statement of exploring new worlds, which in many senses Romulus is – even if the film never gives us the kind of look into their culture that Star Trek: Picard will later afford. In the end, Picard and Shinzon’s conversation comes down to trust. Shinzon believes they are the same, that Picard would have made the same decisions as he in his position, and sees the man as key to connecting with some level of his fading humanity. Picard, conversely, sees a reflection of his younger self who he can guide and mentor, who just happens to be the key to a galaxy-changing peace with the Federation’s oldest ideological enemy.
The problem is that Nemesis never entirely convinces you that Shinzon is on the level. We already know his Romulan forces want him to attack the Federation. There is no ambiguity. Ultimately, as he recounts to his Viceroy, he admits “I was merely curious about him”. It’s hard to entirely believe this about Shinzon either, that Picard was just a passing interest within the broader plan, but Nemesis would have engendered more in the way of dramatic tension by leaving the question open, for a while at least, as to what Shinzon’s real plan was.
As it turns out, Shinzon is as crazed as Khan, yet he has oddly more to lose. Khan was a fallen prince in command of an empire but Shinzon has the Romulan Star Empire in the palm of his hand. The fact he squanders it through an obsessive revenge, under the guise of peace, is more proof that instead of being the greatest Star Trek adversary the series had produced up to Nemesis, he rather feels the pawn of a much bigger zero sum game.
Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:
Or the rest of this series to come:
VI – A Violation
VII – The Echo Over the Voice
VIII – Waiting for the Dawn
IX – Goodbye
X – Blue Skies