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…
One of the criticisms of the recent revival series, Star Trek: Picard, is that Jean-Luc is not acting at points in the manner one would expect from Starfleet’s most reasoned, compassionate Captain. While there may be some truth to this in places, the new series contains nothing as egregiously out of character as we see in Star Trek: Nemesis.
I’m referring, of course, to Picard’s insistence that his trusted Counselor, Deanna Troi, in the wake of a particularly traumatic sexual assault committed on her by villain Shinzon—via the mind powers of his Viceroy—through powerful telepathy, allow herself to go through the ordeal again as part of the bigger picture. The ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, is strangely dismissive for starters. “Aside from slightly elevated levels of adrenalin and serotonin, you’re completely normal”. When Deanna, understandably shaken and rocked by what she’s experienced, requests to be relieved of duty, Picard does not just deny it but doubles down. “If you can endure more of these assaults, I need you at my side now, more than ever”. Yes, you read that right. The hero of Star Trek: The Next Generation actually asks Deanna Troi to let herself be raped, again, in order to try and deal with Shinzon, his only reasoning seemingly being that they are “far from Federation space”.
This goes beyond a mere mishandling of character. Troi describes her assault as “a violation” but Picard’s response is without doubt a violation of everything we know about this man. Granted, he always traditionally struggled with inter-personal relationships across the run of TNG, but Movie Picard—a distinction we have discussed—is markedly more open and relaxed around his crew. Nemesis presents him as anxious about their departure, about the immediacy of changes to the “family” he discussed in the wedding speech at the beginning of the film. So would he really, at this point in his life and career, ask a dear friend—someone who counselled him through his own violating trauma after assimilation by the Borg, and someone he has just helped marry—to open herself up to a deep psychological and sexual assault after having just experienced one?
The answer is, of course, no. It is without doubt the most unpalatable and insensitive aspect of Nemesis as a film, which here uses serious sexual assault as a stepping stone of narrative in a troubling and even flippant way.
Let’s face it, Riker and Troi should probably have jumped ship and got on the first transport for Betazed the moment Picard laid in that course for Romulus. “Some honeymoon” Riker moans before Troi’s assault, almost in prophetic terms.
There is a real problem using Deanna in this way, for multiple different reasons. Only really the rebooted JJ Abrams-led Star Trek movies treated the crew of the Enterprise as an ensemble, giving each of them character moments and a stake in the narrative, whereas the Original Series and Next Generation movies relegated the TV series players to largely expositional, functional roles – characters like Sulu or Chekov getting next to nothing in TOS films, or in TNG movies Beverly Crusher or Geordi La Forge often play incidental roles. To an extent, Riker falls into that bracket in Nemesis, given how accentuated it is on Picard and Data and how they relate to the Shinzon/B-4 plot line – he has nothing like working with Zefram Cochrane in First Contact, or battling the Son’a in Insurrection. Deanna plays more of an integral role to this aspect of the plot, but even then it is so poorly handled, you wish they would have gone down a different route.
This feels like a consequence of Nemesis darkening the palette, intentionally. Insurrection was in many places light and comedic, and Riker & Deanna’s resurgent romance was one of the character-centric plus points of that picture. Even First Contact had both of these characters on Earth engaged in lighter exploits, contrasting the intense action in space with the Borg (I’ve always felt that film, as great as it often is, is two films in one). Nemesis is just dark and bleak, exchanging that light character touch for playing Worf for a fool, and finding humour in the ‘retardation’ of B-4. That’s it, bar some early fluffiness at the wedding. Much of the tone of The Next Generation is sucked out of the airlock in Nemesis and Deanna’s ‘mind rape’ is the perfect example of how severely misjudged this film, conceptually, is. I’m not saying they should avoid this subject in science-fiction adventure fare, rather it should be accorded the import it deserves. That doesn’t happen. Deanna is just violated and—oh, off we go, action plot ahoy! It’s very tasteless.
It is also incredibly hard to get past the sticking point that maybe all of this is simply designed as a crude way of Shinzon detecting the Enterprise so the Scimitar can get a transponder lock and—shock—beam Picard out, out of nowhere! Surely John Logan could have found a different solution to that problem. Deanna didn’t have to be so casually raped to both resolve and plot point and give her some stake in the narrative. TNG would have constructed an entire episode around Deanna going through this – even if maybe they would have forgotten about it by the next week.
Nemesis just throws it in as a consequence of getting close to Shinzon, and to perhaps extenuate his villainy, less he become too sympathetic as the mistreated, orphaned clone child of the dignified Picard. It’s almost working to instantly ameliorate the possibility, as witnessed in his conversation with Picard, that Shinzon might actually be redeemable. He crosses a line here with no way back. From here on in, he is just a one-dimensional, as it turns out dying supervillain, without any nuance. Deanna’s suffering ends up, ironically, stripping Shinzon of his layers as a character, so it works badly in two ways.
Nemesis, of course, is working hard to personalise the villainy, The Wrath of Khan-style as we’ve discussed previously, for Picard in constructing Shinzon as a youthful reflection of the man Jean-Luc was. Picard describes himself, looking at an image of his youthful form (or Tom Hardy in TOS-circa cadet uniform), as “He was a damn fool. Selfish, ambitious”. Beverly tries to draw out these comparisons which Picard seems to agree with, but this is all framed within the context of learning Shinzon has access to thalaron radiation, a banned substance across the Federation based on its biogenic properties. “It has the ability to consume organic material at the subatomic level. A microscopic amount could kill every living thing on this ship in a matter of seconds.“
Beverly claims of what Shinzon has in his arsenal, and at that point it’s hard to really equate him in any way with Picard. This is a revolutionary cum terrorist cum supervillain mass murderer, but it lacks the emotional complexity of Khan, the fallen, genetically enhanced prince who with Genesis had a device of creation that could be morphed into a weapon of mass destruction, with religious allusions abound. Shinzon just has a variant of any kind of technobabble biological weapon from the Star Trek universe and a death-defying wish to wreak destruction upon humanity. There’s an emptiness to these comparisons.
Nemesis, at this stage, is attempting to build stakes. Though it was clear as a bell from the very beginning, Shinzon is not to be trusted. He has a weapon capable of galactic destruction. He is, oh by the way, also a rapist. Yet the script seems to fundamentally lack the power and nuance to either make these revelations or plot developments work or convey them with any real sense of style or structure. Troi is violated because the plot demands it. Shinzon has thalaron radiation because he needs a devastating weapon and a big ship to truly sell him as a threat worthy of the Enterprise crew. Picard needs that emotional and personal connection to the man because the plot falls down like a house of cards without it.
And oddly, while Data and B-4 are key to Shinzon’s plot, they’ve actually done remarkably little at this point in the story. That begins to change now, as Picard and Data get up to adventures on the Scimitar, but it’s striking how threadbare B-4 has been thus far on the plot as it vacillates between attempting to service character and establish the narrative structures which will sell the final act of, basically, one extended, long Enterprise and Scimitar face off.
In the end, while no piece of drama should be afraid to place key, even beloved, characters in a place of turmoil, Nemesis cheapens both Picard and Deanna Troi in these scenes. Neither of them deserve the material provided as we reach, roughly, the halfway point of the film.
Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:
Or the rest of this series to come:
VII – The Echo Over the Voice
VIII – Waiting for the Dawn
IX – Goodbye
X – Blue Skies