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…
It almost became a running joke across Star Trek: The Next Generation… when exactly would Will Riker accept a promotion to Captain and command his own starship?
It’s a question that defined perhaps the most legendary episode of TNG, Season 3’s finale and Season 4’s premiere The Best of Both Worlds, in which Riker has to step up and truly command the Enterprise when Captain Jean-Luc Picard is abducted and assimilated by the Borg, challenged all the way by spunky first officer Elizabeth Shelby. Riker, ultimately, refuses to take the logical next step in his career for many years. For the remainder of TNG’s run on television. Even during the big screen outings, indeed we see Commander Worf, the Enterprise’s chief security officer, captaining a ship before Riker in Star Trek: First Contact, as he commands the USS Defiant against another Borg invasion. Riker resists his destiny right up until the very last moment, the ‘generation’s final journey’, and it comes in tandem with finally tying the knot with the love of his life, Counselor Deanna Troi, after their romance was rekindled during previous film Star Trek: Insurrection.
The fact Star Trek: Nemesis pulls the trigger on these seismic personal events for Riker is further proof of just how final this film was meant to be for the crew of The Next Generation. That show, born as it was of an episodic television structure designed for later syndication and built on many of the episodes being watchable out of sequence, would resist time and again the natural promotion for Riker and relationship with Deanna, both of which almost certainly would have taken place on the serialised, riskier Deep Space Nine at the time. Nemesis has the freedom to change Riker and Troi’s circumstance by virtue of the fact we were never supposed to see them again. Their adventures on Riker’s new ship, the USS Titan, were a chapter meant for tie-in novels and fan fiction, not the canonical Star Trek universe. Nemesis could instigate these developments because it was where the line was being drawn.
Nevertheless, it remains a huge moment for the crew of TNG, the wedding of Riker and Troi, and particularly for Picard himself. He may start his best man speech in jest, yet there is truth beneath his words. “I have commanded men in battle. I have negotiated peace treaties between implacable enemies. I have represented the Federation in first contact with twenty-seven alien species, but none of this compares to my solemn duty today …as best man.”
Picard understands nothing will ever quite be the same again.
Indeed, Picard’s best man speech is filled with jokey but genuine acknowledgments, in his sentiment, of just how much he has come to rely on both his first officer and counselor. “Have you two considered what you are doing to me? Of course you’re happy, but what about my needs? This is all a damned inconvenience!”.
One wonders if Picard had reached a point in his life and career where he didn’t believe anything would change. The Enterprise crew had been together for almost two decades, marked by adventures and personal experiences that would define their lives, and though they were unseen during the conflict, they likely had fought in some of the biggest battles within the Dominion War that had raged across the Alpha Quadrant just a few years previously. Picard is now a Captain in his mid-70’s, one of the leading commanders of the Federation, and mere years away from, as we now know, promotion to the Admiralty, and even in the far flung future of Star Trek where people are still alive at 140 (here’s looking at you, Leonard McCoy), you can imagine Picard feeling comfortable with a crew he describes, in the same speech, as his “family”. Riker and Troi moving on to pastures new is evidence of how the natural order of life on the Enterprise will forever be shook.
Yet at the same time, Picard reveals a constant will replace Riker as his new Number One: Data. “A tyrannical martinet who’ll never, ever allow me to go on away missions!” he jokes, but it is another sign on how the command structure of the Enterprise will be altered by Data’s promotion. Riker offered a relaxed support mechanism behind Picard, learning from the Captain’s moral fibre and iron grit, while also bringing a much needed warmth and familiarity out of Picard’s strict, initial command ideology. Riker was, at times, a bit of a flyboy risk taker in the James T. Kirk mould – just look at the ‘Riker Manoeuvre’ in Insurrection – whereas Data, despite his emotion chip by sheer virtue of his programming as an android, will always stick to regimented protocol. Picard would get the necessary stability and assuredness with Data second in command but the flexibility afforded by Riker would, necessarily, alter. It would not be the same Captain/Number One relationship Picard would have been used to, and this is the source of an underlying anxiety to these otherwise happy, long overdue scenes.
It’s worth pointing out, briefly, that the wedding sequence of Nemesis was meant, originally, to have been far longer and more substantial. We see key characters from TNG’s past fleetingly – Whoopi Goldberg’s mystical Guinan, last seen with any degree of substance in the first TNG movie Generations; and particularly Wesley Crusher, one of the key main TNG cast for many seasons, last seen in Season 7’s Journey’s End when he left the corporeal realm for a universe-bending existence with the mysterious alien The Traveler. It would have been revealed that Wesley has rejoined Starfleet and was serving under Riker on the Titan, but this scene was one of many that ended up on the cutting room floor, including a reference that his mother Beverly was planning to also leave the Enterprise and rejoin Starfleet Medical – where she also worked between TNG Seasons 1 & 3.
The fact John Logan even attempted in his script to work in these moments, cut ultimately as they had no bearing on the actual plot, further illuminate the constant of change rippling through the Enterprise, and how this further fuels the anxiety this creates. Though in some respects perhaps it is best that we never definitively learn Wesley is back in Starfleet, as it seriously undercuts the mystical conclusion for his character that, oddly, worked very well.
That anxiety almost literalises itself in the concerns about Riker & Troi’s wedding on Deanna’s home planet of Betazed, described by the groom as “No speeches and… no clothes”. Nobody seems particularly happy about observing the traditional social norms of Betazoid culture as part of what is otherwise quite a formal military wedding, and that perhaps reflects the conservative changes in society between the late-80’s and early 00’s. When TNG first laid down the rules of Betazoid culture, largely through appearances by Deanna’s mother Lwaxana Troi (strangely absent from the wedding here), they were leaning into 1960’s counter-cultural ideas Gene Roddenberry had always been interested in.
The Betazoids feel like a progressed version of the Deltan Ilia in The Motion Picture; telepathic, empathic, human looking but deeply in tune with their sexuality and open, due to their psionic ability, about emotions. How many episodes saw the buttoned up Picard utterly pained by Lwaxana’s overt sexual advances, yet unable to fully reject them given she was a Federation Ambassador and Betazoid noble? The fact he now seems more at ease with rocking up at the Troi nuptials butt naked shows, more than anything, how far Jean-Luc has come?
That social anxiety is transposed onto Worf particularly in Nemesis, who appears genuinely terrified at shedding his clothes. “Oh, come now! A big, handsome, strapping fellow like you? What can you be afraid of?” Picard quips. It’s weird how Worf is written in Nemesis, and indeed Insurrection, films which exist after Worf’s brilliant character work as a regular on DS9. He became effectively second lead on that show from Season 4 onwards at times, commanded the respect of his Klingon brothers, married a powerful and sexually magnetic woman in Jadzia Dax… and yet when he’s back with the Enterprise crew, he is snapped back to comic relief. Insurrection had him worrying about a Klingon zit (the gorch) while Nemesis throws at him the kind of stolid repression an earlier Picard might have displayed. It shows Picard’s growth as a more relaxed, naturally comfortable Captain, but it regresses Worf in the presence of his old friends. Making him the focal point of Nemesis’ struggle to square the post-Reagan relaxed conservatism of Betazoid with the post-Clinton era of Nemesis, in which America flipped out at the sight of a bare nipple during the Super Bowl, just doesn’t feel fair.
Change, therefore, is a key theme established in these opening scenes of Nemesis, and it’s underscored by the Enterprise picking up a positronic signal completely out of nowhere. This immediately establishes a key plot element of the film revolving around Data, which was always a requirement of Brent Spiner’s willingness to particulate further in the films, often to the detriment of the other main Enterprise crew getting much of anything to do. Another positronic signal suggests, possibly, another android beyond Data, or his evil twin Lore established during the series, and once again upends what we thought we knew about Data or his creation. “Since positronic signatures have only been known to emanate from androids such as myself, it is logical to theorise there is an android on Kolarus Three”.
Yet again, Nemesis is determined to change the nature of the game, and it almost comes out of left field given we know the primary narrative will involve the Romulans. At this stage, what on earth could another Data have to do with any of that? It’s almost jarring from a plotting perspective. The subsequent Kolaris sequence feels to an extent like the events of a prequel which ended up wedged into the first act of Nemesis.
In some sense, Picard is distracting himself from the growing anxiety of change in his life in these early scenes. He welcomes the Betazoid wedding tradition, quipping about spending time in the gym. He could almost be in the throes of a mid (or late) life crisis in how he sees the mission to Kolaris as an excuse to try the Argo, which we will see to be a land-based vehicle. “Captain’s prerogative. There’s no foreseeable danger… and your wife would never forgive me if anything were to happen to you” he says to Riker, who traditionally would have talked him out of risking his life on an away mission. Here, Picard is the reckless one, given we all know danger is exactly what he is likely to find. He should really know that too but Riker, in graduating to imminent Capitancy, is almost the level-headed one indulging Picard’s determination to enjoy the time he has left with his family. “You have the bridge… Mister Troi!” he jokes, as he leaves. Can you imagine even the Picard of Season 7 of TNG parting ways with a joke like that?
These scenes are evidence of Picard’s mellowing, his refusal to admit to himself the realities of the future, and how the events of Nemesis will bring him face to face not just with change, but also the almost literalised spectre of his past. Data’s wedding rendition of Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’, filled with optimism and hope for the future, feels ominous in retrospect…
Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:
II – Captain’s Prerogative
Or other Scene by Scene movie breakdowns: