Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt III – ‘Unsafe Velocities’

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 seemed a direct, deliberate counterpoint to the stripped back, low-fi prequel aspect to Star Trek: Enterprise, the dune buggy in Star Trek: Nemesis. Captain Jonathan Archer barely had room for a dog, let alone an indulgent race car, not to mention a personal Captain’s yacht, which we saw in previous film Star Trek: Insurrection.

Enterprise was in its second season when Nemesis premiered in cinemas and was by then flying the flag for Star Trek on television, and was in a diametric position to the crew of the Enterprise-E. If Nemesis in 2379 represented, at that point, the top end of the timeline, Enterprise was positioned over 200 years earlier at the other – the beginning. Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s two Enterprise’s were galactic, diplomatic cruise ships. Archer’s was a submarine in space. In Enterprise, androids were centuries away and Romulans were enigmatic to the point no human had ever seen their face. In Nemesis, B-4 represents how central the idea of synthetic life has become to 24th century Star Trek, a factor which will heavily influence and continue in Star Trek: Picard beyond this. This is a film which opens Romulus and it’s people up, more directly, than any Star Trek story in history.

The existence of the Argo is the most potent example of how Nemesis strives to fuse together The Next Generation-era’s futurism with the near future modern aesthetic of EnterpriseStar Trek historically replaces the motorised vehicle with the shuttle or hover vehicle, a symbol of Trek’s utopian future, but Picard seems gleeful at the opportunity to test drive a ground based car with wheels and an engine – though no doubt one powered with some kind of fossil fuel free zero point energy or such. “I will always be puzzled by the human predilection for piloting vehicles at unsafe velocities” Data remarks, an acute observation for the fact Picard has never historically appeared to be a ‘petrol-head’ interested in vehicles like this. You believed it when child Kirk stole his stepdad’s Chevy at the beginning of Star Trek 2009 for the thrills. It’s less in character for a measured Captain such as Picard.

It perhaps further establishes how Nemesis, and particularly the two films before them, provide a clear delineation between ‘TV Picard’ and ‘Movie Picard’, while at the same time nudging Star Trek—at the end of the 90’s era of the franchise—toward the retro-futurism the franchise would employ once it reboots itself.

The entire scene featuring the Argo, and Picard driving the buggy as Data and Worf help him escape with the recovered B-4 android parts from what we will later learn are Reman attackers, is primarily an attempt to place within Nemesis an action ‘set piece’, as befits the action adventure blockbuster Star Trek is deemed to be.

The entire run of Next Generation films wrestled with their place in the grand scheme of blockbuster cinema. Star Trek: Generations was in many ways an extension of the TV series, arriving as closely as it did to the TNG finale All Good Things… but in destroying the Enterprise-D and presenting a megalomaniacal villain in Dr. Soran, it framed that story around ideas and movie concepts the TV show would never have been able to accomplish. Star Trek: First Contact took this one step further, rebooting TNG’s most legendary episode, The Best of Both Worlds, and combining elements of it with the time travel lightness of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, with more than a liberal sprinkling of Alien. It was a muscular action film, in Trek terms, that cemented ‘movie Picard’ – stripped to his vest, buffed and dynamic, battling a horde of Borg. Jean-Luc McClane. Hence why it was such a surprise when Michael Piller intentionally moved the franchise with Insurrection back to a lighter, gentler, TV-style story, though even that defined Picard as more of a wisecracking, romantic hero than he ever was on the TV series.

Come Nemesis, then, and you have an expectation that the final outing for the Next Generation crew will push the boundaries of action and spectacle beyond what any previous Star Trek film has delivered. It is the only way to explain the Argo, the name of which stems from Greek myth as the supposed first ship to sail the seas, which Jason and the Argonauts used in their legendary voyage to find the Golden Fleece. The Argo here is less auspicious, merely designed to indulge the newly-adventurous side of Picard and allow director Stuart Baird—who by all accounts didn’t really understand the tone and style of Star Trek—to stage a sequence which would be more at home in Mad Max!

While on the surface fairly enjoyable, and certainly different from what Trek has given us before, it lacks the invention of, say, Picard and Worf chasing Data in Insurrection while bellowing our HMS Pinafore, which blended TNG’s classical whimsy with big screen thrills nicely. The dune buggy sequence is just an exercise in pandering to the perceived notion that audiences need spectacle, else they won’t show up, when all it does instead is alienate the built-in Star Trek audience who understand Picard speeding around in a buggy isn’t particularly in the spirit of the franchise, certainly up to this point.

Could it point to the signs Picard is inside some kind of existential crisis? We’ve explored already his clear anxiety at the change taking place around him with departing friends and changing crews, but if you stack up Picard’s action man buff-ness in First Contact with his mambo-dancing pleasure at the de-ageing process of the Baku planet in Insurrection alongside his vanity about the impending naked Betazoid wedding and his determination to recklessly drive motor cars on dangerous alien planets, then this can only point to an emotional reaction to age and change and the growing realisation his best years could be behind him, which is certainly born out come Remembrance, the next time we see him in Star Trek: Picard.

He certainly seems to welcome the possibility of uncharted adventure still when Admiral Kathryn Janeway calls him up with the mission to travel to the Romulan home world and meet with Shinzon. “Just lucky, Admiral” he pithily responds when Janeway sarcastically points out previous conflicts with the Borg and the Son’a from Insurrection and how he gets “all the easy assignments”. There is a sense he perhaps takes these journeys into danger for granted after so many years on the Enterprise, with his crew, surrounded by the relative security of people he knows and trusts. Nemesis will certainly upend this reckless complacency and it’s telling the tone changes quite immediately once Picard meets Shinzon from a fairly light and breezy, dare we say carefree first act of weddings and buggy driving hijinks, into a dark and troubling night of the soul as Picard meets the sinister reflection of his youth. When Janeway calls, at this stage, it’s just another assignment.

It’s worth stopping to pause and reflect on this cameo from Kate Mulgrew as Janeway. To casual watchers, she would just be another Starfleet boss figure, but to Star Trek fans this is a delightful Easter egg paying reverence to the broader franchise. Janeway was, of course, Captain of the USS Voyager for seven years lost in the Delta Quadrant in the fourth Trek series, Star Trek: Voyager, before in series finale Endgame (which aired around 18 months before Nemesis) she finally gets the crew home and, subsequently, has received a much deserved promotion for her efforts.

No mention is made of Voyager or her significance but there is the suggestion of a pre-existing friendship, or at least acquaintance, between Picard and Janeway one can only hope Star Trek: Picard one day explores – indeed it is a crying shame that Janeway wasn’t drafted in, in Maps and Legends, as the Starfleet CnC who gives Picard a frosty reception some twenty years hence, as it would have made for some wonderful symmetry with this brief scene. Here, Janeway is the advocate for building bridges with Shinzon and the Romulans, in the wake of the Dominion War. “I want you to go and hear what he has to say. Get the lay of the land”. In Maps and Legends, she could have been the staunch defender of, post-Shinzon, the Federation pulling out of helping the refugee Romulans in their greatest hour of need. Alas, it was not meant to be…

Nonetheless, Starfleet via Janeway here are justifiably cautious at the sudden rise of Shinzon, a Reman no less, to power. “Believe me, we don’t understand it either”. In some sense, their shock at Shinzon’s appearance in such a powerful geopolitical role prefigures the shock politics of the late 2010’s and the populist rise of authoritarian, reckless leaders in the West. The Romulans have always been a fairly stable Alpha (or Beta) Quadrant presence, however sly and dangerous they might be. The Federation might always have been permanently locked in a Cold War of sorts with them but they understood their system of governance and place in the political arena, as they understand the Klingons or the Cardassians.

Shinzon’s coup, his seizure of absolute power, throws all of these geopolitical certainties into chaos. “If the Empire becomes unstable… it could mean trouble for the entire Quadrant.” Janeway warns, seeing in Picard the perfect arbiter for representing Starfleet to an enigmatic and potentially problematic new leader, though she also remarks that the Enterprise was the “closest ship” which suggests choosing Picard was more advantageous in terms of brevity rather than choosing him for his diplomatic skills, which is strange. Who else would you want facing down a potential new dictator than someone as measured and experienced as Picard?

Little does Picard realise quite what he is walking into, of course, as surprised as Riker and his helmsman are when he orders they plot a course directly to Romulus, but you get the sense Picard nevertheless thinks this mission won’t take long. “I’m afraid the Opal Sea will have to wait, Number One” he tells Riker, referring in fact to a deleted scene in which Riker discusses he and Troi’s honeymoon on the Opal Sea on Betazed. This somewhat reckless and casual mindset about the Enterprise’s galactic and diplomatic mission—a character trait much more defined by ‘movie Picard’ than ‘TV Picard—is about to be challenged in the most unexpected of ways.

Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:

I – A Generation’s Final Journey Begins

II – Captain’s Prerogative

Or the rest of this series to come:

IV – Sailing Into the Unknown

V – A Better Way

VI – A Violation

VII – The Echo Over the Voice

VIII – Waiting for the Dawn

IX – Goodbye

X – Blue Skies

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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