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…
The so-called Battle of the Bassen Rift is designed, pretty unashamedly, to recall the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with Nemesis even determined to sacrifice a major character at the end of it in a shock way to save the ship and crew.
When you think about the climactic battle in The Wrath of Khan, do you remember it riven with tension? A pitched, submarine or maritime fleet tet-a-tet in space between the Enterprise and the Reliant which was more about the aspect of quiet suspense and tactical superiority between Admiral Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh? We don’t come anywhere close to that in Nemesis. The Bassen Rift is a fairly routine, thunderous ship to ship battle, with a few Romulan ships thrown in for good measure, with the only unique selling point being Jean-Luc Picard’s decision to crash the saucer section of the Enterprise-E into the Scimitar, having exhausted shields, weapons and the self-destruct system. Even this, however, felt better done in Star Trek: Generations, when the separated Enterprise-D saucer slams into Veridian III.
Nemesis almost feels designed to be the culmination of every space battle Star Trek has delivered thus far in the 90’s era of the show, given they steadily built from a few skirmishes in The Next Generation to an entire war in Deep Space Nine or a horde of Borg Cubes battling bio-synthetic, inter-dimensional beings in Voyager. Everything about that ugly sword in space, the Scimitar, is a representation of how Nemesis simply relies on the dark, explosive set-piece when this crew, and these actors, are capable of so much more. Just look at that hilariously embarrassing Will Riker/Viceroy action set-piece, seemingly designed to give Jonathan Frakes one last run at Action Riker (or even something to do in a film where he’s done naff all). Apparently Riker was supposed to quip: “Don’t worry, hell is dark” before kicking the Viceroy to his death, though it was vetoed because they felt Riker would be enjoying the murder a bit too much. It’s a shame he didn’t. Some unintentional levity at this point would have been welcome.
By now though, the stakes are supposedly high. Shinzon has a WMD. He’s headed for Earth. The fleet are nowhere. The Romulans aren’t enough help. How, in the end, do you solve a problem like Shinzon?
To the credit of John Logan’s script, he does at least have one last run at Picard and Shinzon conversing, and the former trying to convince the latter that he doesn’t have to succumb to his evil side – plus Shinzon gets the fun nod and wink quip of “Captain, will you join me in your ready room?”.
It is, however, as Shinzon says, too little, too late. We have exhausted the psychological underpinnings of this relationship in previous pieces so I won’t labour the point, but Nemesis takes forever and a day striving for the point when Picard tells his cloned abomination that it’s really all about him. “The man who is Shinzon of Remus and Jean Luc Picard could never exterminate the population of an entire planet! He is better than that!”. How can Shinzon in any way come back from what he’s already done, by this point? Are the audience really expected to buy that he’d just turn around and say “okay, I’ll stop!”? It might be a necessary beat for Picard in the story to try and turn Shinzon here but it feels like a waste of time. Kirk knew better than to try and appear to the angels of Khan’s better nature. Picard hasn’t realised he’s wasting his time.
Though to Logan’s credit, perhaps that’s precisely the point, and why this *is* in character for Picard. Kirk would have just punched the guy in the face when he couldn’t reason with him, but Picard still truly believes his earnest Federation belief in humanity means Shinzon can be saved from his own abyss. “Buried deep within you, beneath all the years of pain and anger there is there is something that has never been nurtured. The potential to make yourself a better man, and that is what it is to be human”. This is a very Star Trek message amidst a film which is appealing far more to the base desires of the Hollywood action picture, the potential box office receipts, in the kind of cynical manner certainly Star Trek: Insurrection wasn’t. That may be a mixed bag but it is probably the most acutely *Star Trek* of any Next Generation picture, in tone and texture.
What is Nemesis? What’s its legacy? We’ll consider this more in the final piece about the film, but Shinzon’s painful, quite pathetic belief he will burn bright in the future almost echoes how many people will think of Nemesis itself down the line. “I’ll show you my true nature. Our nature. And as Earth dies, remember that I will always, forever, be Shinzon of Remus! And my voice shall echo through time long after yours has faded to the dim memory” he tells Picard, but… no. We know he will die. We eventually know that all future Star Trek series quietly pretend Shinzon never happened. Michael Chabon, show runner of recent sequel show Star Trek: Picard, in an Instagram Q&A even flippantly suggests the entire film was a bad fever dream. He wouldn’t be the only one keen to write this out of canon.
That would, of course, erase the signature moment of the film, for which Nemesis has been principally remembered: the death of Data.
However you slice it, this is a big deal. Data was always the breakout star of The Next Generation, even more so than Picard, in a similar way to how people remember Spock before Kirk on The Original Series. The show leant into his childlike determination to feel emotion and be human from the get go and every movie intentionally gives Data a key story within the picture. In Generations he gets an emotion chip. In Star Trek: First Contact, he gets abducted and tempted by the Borg Queen. The entire plot of Insurrection is based around Data’s programming fritzing and he going rogue. This was partly due to the demands of Brent Spiner, and likely because the writers knew the Picard/Data relationship had become key to the entire series.
So who, by that logic, would have the most dramatic and emotional impact if they died? And here lies the rub… do you feel *anything* when Data slaps that transporter onto Picard and blows up the Scimitar? Be honest. Because the film is so desperately trying to ape it, think back to Spock’s sacrifice at the end of The Wrath of Khan. Remember how sad and painful that still is to watch. Granted, it would not ring true having Picard weeping over Data’s body, and it perhaps does work better that he never gets that resolution—plus it does provide some dramatic meat for the character down the road in the Picard series–but on the flip side, Data’s death is so sudden, and in the end so arbitrary, that it struggles to have any real meaning. Spock’s death was thematically layered in across The Wrath of Khan. Data seems to die because Nemesis, as ‘the final adventure’, needs dramatic punch.
It just feels empty and you feel Data deserved better, whether surviving or with a death that had greater personal meaning. Nemesis suggests it’s precisely the kind of thing Data would do, as a commitment to his captain and the selfless aspect of his programming as an android, but the best character deaths in fiction *mean something*. They feel either complete or the incomplete nature of their passing is the point, and serves another character or situation. Had the film been about Data coming to terms with death, beyond having to deactivate B-4, it might have worked better. Nemesis is so fixated on Picard & Shinzon’s conflicting duality, for the most part almost nobody else gets a look in. That’s the irony. In the film Data dies, he has the least compelling story arc in any movie he appeared in.
Nemesis may bring the climactic conflict to a dramatic close, but it pulls you into a shell shock of an epilogue which, like Shinzon’s personal development, feels too little, too late…
Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:
Or the rest of this series to come:
X – Blue Skies