Clash of the captains: Kirk, Picard and the battle behind Star Trek Generations
Star Trek writers Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga slouched into their boss’s office on the Paramount Studio lot in the summer of 1992 expecting to be fired. But a different sort of bombshell awaited, as they discovered when they sat down with Rick Berman, executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and spiritual successor to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Contrary to Moore and Braga’s suspicions The Next Generation wasn’t about to be cancelled. Instead, it was to take to the skies as a movie. Of course, a movie needed a story, which was where Moore and Braga came in. To set the ball rolling, Berman set some ground-rules. The first Next Generation film would see the original Star Trek crew of Captain Kirk, Mr Spock et al “pass the baton” to TNG’s Jean-Luc Picard and the gang. It was to be a Trek team-up flick.
And so began Star Trek Generations, the 1994 Trek curio that brought together the two iconic captains of the franchise in Kirk and Picard. Received queasily by fans on release – there were understandable misgivings over the decision to bump off Kirk at the end – today Generations is arguably an underrated gem and one of the superior Trek movies.
Nobody would deny it has its flaws. In tone and pacing, Generations feels more like a regular TNG episode than blockbuster cinema. Kirk and Picard could certainly have done with more screen-time together. And yet it is nonetheless a galaxy-hopping romp, packed with gurning Klingons, exploding starships and a scene in which Kirk and Picard bond while scrambling eggs. What Trekkie could resist?
All of that lay ahead as Moore and Braga sat down with Berman. In the meantime, several pressing problems required solving. The budget was comparatively minuscule – $35 million for a film sure to be crammed with state-of-the-art special effects (and that was just William Shatner’s wig). Plus, Moore and Braga had to persuade the original Trek actors to sign up, mere years after they’d bowed out with the final curtain call that was 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Before the project had even left space-dock, a lot of heavy lifting was necessary.
One rare supporting voice was Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart. The actor, who has returned to the role of Picard at 81 in season two of Amazon series Star Trek: Picard, was keen to set warp speed for the multiplex. And he had long argued a Next Generation movie should feature the original Trek cast, so that they could bestow their blessing on the further adventures of Picard’s Enterprise-D.
“For a long time I was alone in this,” Stewart would say. “My colleagues didn’t really share the point of view. I strongly felt that it should be seen to be a transitional movie. Just to cut them off with the last one and then start up us, I thought we’re really going to be missing a golden opportunity.”
Stewart signed up on the spot. As did the rest of The Next Generation cast – Jonathan Frakes’s First Officer Will Riker, Michael Dorn’s Security Chief Worf, Brent Spiner as the android Data and so forth. As well they might given that, with the conclusion of the seventh and final season of The Next Generation in May 1994, they were out of a job. As Moore and Braga quickly discovered, though, bringing around the original Trek ensemble was trickier. And unquestionably a challenge that far surpassed anything they had encountered as lead writers on The Next Generation.
Shatner, 63, was gung-ho about returning as Kirk. But Leonard Nimoy, perpetually prickly about the degree to which Spock had come to define his career, was more problematic. A director of some accomplishment, he had overseen the hit Three Men and a Baby films in the Eighties – which asked audiences to get their heads around the bizarre concept of grown men looking after an infant without burning down the house – as well as two stand-out Trek movies, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (AKA the one with all the jokes).
The problem was that Nimoy had standards. And he wasn’t impressed with the treatment thrown together by Moore and Braga to meet the tight deadline Berman had imposed. Nor was he convinced there was any good reason for Spock to be back on a starship.
“I did not reject the idea of being involved the movie,” he told Cinefantastique. “But, when I went for my meeting with Rick Berman, it was pretty clear that the concerns that I had, with the story they wanted to tell, could not be addressed because, I was told, there wasn’t enough time. And, that being the case, I said, bon voyage.”
The problems started and ended with the script. Paramount executives had decreed the original cast should appear in the first 15 minutes before being bundled off to make way for Picard and his crew. Then, in the final 20 minutes, Shatner could return to team-up with Steward.
This nixed Moore and Braga’s original concept of Picard and Kirk, and their two respective Enterprises, facing off in open space combat. Working under studio directions, the duo brainstormed the alternative idea of Kirk disappearing into a dimension called “The Nexus”, where dreams come true.
Later, Picard would be swallowed up by the same parallel universe. Then he and Kirk would join forces to defeat the alien Soran (eventually played by Malcolm McDowell), who is prepared to destroy entire planets in order to divert the Nexus so that he, too, can be consumed by it and live happily-ever-after in an extra-planar Neverland.
Nimoy wasn’t blown away, to put it mildly. “There were story issues as a director. I simply was not comfortable with the nature of the story that they wanted to tell. I don’t want to be unfair to them either... If you took the dozen or so lines of Spock dialogue and simply changed the name of the character, nobody would notice the difference... It was not 'glorified' and it was not a 'cameo'. It was just a character who spoke 10 or 12 lines of dialogue.”
What Nimoy may have sensed, but didn’t say outright, was that Star Trek was slightly at sea in the early 1990s. Roddenberry, the saga’s creator and father figure, had passed away in 1991. With him gone, Paramount was running Star Trek by committee. Hence the instructions from on high as to how much screen-time the original cast could have in Generations– and whether or not Picard and Kirk were allowed join forces. A corporate dead hand was pressing down from above, as Michael Dorn, aka The Next Generation’s Chief Security Officer Worf, would explain.
“When [Roddenberry] died everything didn’t go into disarray necessarily because the show went on and we turned out good episodes. But there was no longer the guy to go talk to. It turns into the franchise... It’s a little more frustrating now because you have to go to a number of people to get answers.”
Nimoy wasn’t alone in refusing to beam back abroad the Enterprise. George Takei declined to reprise the role of Lieutenant Sulu, feeling the part written for Sulu was perfunctory. In the end, only Shatner, James Doohan as Chief Engineer Scott and Walter Koenig’s Ensign Chekov signed up for the prologue. They were cast alongside Alan Ruck, aka the future Connor Roy from Succession, who plays wide-eyed Starfleet Captain Harriman. In a foreshadowing of Succession, Ruck was told his character was from a wealthy family and had joined Starfleet as preparation for a career in politics.
With Nimoy passing, the director’s job went to Englishman David Carson. Having started out working on Coronation Street, he had little experience of big budget movies. Still, after overseeing several memorable episodes of The Next Generation, he knew his Romulans from his Klingons. The expectation was nonetheless that he would have his work cut out, given Shatner’s reputation for possessing the largest ego in Starfleet. There were justifiable concerns, in particular, that Shatner and Stewart, himself no shrinking violet, would butt heads.
The good news for Carson and the rest of the crew was that Stewart had done the preparatory work and was already chummy with Shatner. A few months prior to shooting, the actors had shared a private jet returning to Los Angeles from an industry convention in Las Vegas.
“The two of us spent 60 minutes in the air in what was ideally luxurious surroundings,” said Stewart. “In that hour we got to know each other. We talked about a lot of personal things to do with our lives. What had happened to us as a result of the show. I was delighted to find what a sensitive, intelligent and very gentle man Bill was... It proved to be one of the most beautiful experiences in the movie because we worked very well together. We certainly got on.”
Stewart was aware of Shatner’s reputation. And of rumours the original Captain of the Enterprise saw Picard and colleagues as usurpers. However, none of that was an issue once cameras started rolling, he insisted. “There have been all kinds of legends about what Bill’s attitude towards the new generation was supposed to be. That he was opposed to it and not happy with the series. I don’t really know about that because we never discussed it. Also, often it’s said he had a nasty reputation about being difficult and so forth. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Bill and we had a lot of fun. We had a lot of laughs.”
Laughter there may have been, but shoot was nevertheless demanding on the Next Generation actors. To save money, Paramount had decreed Generations be filmed immediately after the series’s seventh and final season. And so Stewart and his colleagues went straight from a tearful farewell to small-screen Trek to a baptism for the big-screen incarnation.
And yet, despite the budget pressures, Paramount tried not to cut corners. The studio hired Chinatown/Scarface cinematographer John A. Alonzo to give the film a cinematic sheen, and green-lit extensive location shoots. An early sequence in which Picard and his underlings dress up as 18th century sailors was staged on the Lady Washington, a full-scale replica of an American Revolution sloop-of-war. And the climactic final struggle between the Kirk-Picard tag-team and Soran was shot in Nevada's notorious Valley of Fire, where temperatures can soar as high as 49°C.
Here, under the withering desert sun, problems arose. Generations, as originally scripted, ended with Soran shooting Kirk before Picard saved the day. Alas, in test screenings, diehard Star Trek fans judged the conclusion unsatisfactory. Kirk’s death felt pointless. And so Shatner, Stewart and McDowell were dragged back to Nevada for a reshoot, in which Kirk sacrifices himself so that Picard can defeat Soren and spare the lives of millions.
The new ending was a distinct improvement. Audiences also appeared to enjoy the sequence in which the Enterprise-D crash-lands on a planet. All of which propelled the project towards a healthy box office of $118 million. Moore and Braga still had reservations, though. If only they’d been allowed to pursue their original idea of the two captains doing battle.
“I always felt that these two guys needed to be on their respective bridges fighting each other, and then working together. And although Kirk dies on a bridge, it should have been on the bridge of his ship. And that’s the only way Kirk should have gone,” Braga would say. Moore agreed: “At the time we were so concerned about not doing what was expected, that we over-corrected and did something that wasn’t as satisfying”.
As authors of the screenplay, Moore and Braga are entitled to their views. But nearly 30 years on, it can surely be argued Generations is Star Trek at its finest. It has Klingons on the starboard bow. A heartfelt sub-plot in which the android Data comes to terms with his new “emotion chip”. And Captain Kirk telling Picard he was “out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers”. It’s flawed, yes. But it’s also one of those Star Trek films where, from start to finish, phasers are set to thrill.