“It’s a fact,” Tim Bisley’s character in Spaced once said, “sure that day follows night, sure that eggs are eggs, sure that all the odd Star Trek movies are crap .”
In 1999, this observation was an empirical truth. 1998 had just seen the disappointing Star Trek: Insurrection, the number nine film in the decades-long franchise, and the next blockbuster box office film First Contact. Before that, every even-numbered Trek movie, from The Wrath Of Khan to The Undiscovered Country to The Voyage Home, had been a nailed-down classic.
Read more: How Wrath of Khan Changed Star Trek Forever
So hopes were extremely high for Star Trek: Nemesis ahead of its December 2002 release – 20 years ago this week. The fourth film from the Next Generation team and the 10th overall, how could this pair promise fail?
Yet Nemesis would become the movie that effectively killed Star Trek on the big screen. With a turnover of just $67m (£41m) against a budget of $60m (£37m) (to put it into perspective, the Borg-centric first contact raked in 146 million – £90 million), he put a final full stop to a series of films that had been a mainstay of the multiplex since 1979.
In the years that followed, it became fashionable to critique Star Trek: Nemesis. When asked why he thought he bombed, LeVar (Geordi DeForge) Burton simply replied, “Because it sucks!”
Patrick Stewart went on to blast the film as a “pretty weak” finale for The Next Generation team, while Marina “Troi” Sirtis called the film’s director Stuart Baird an “idiot”.
So what was wrong with Star Trek: Nemesis?
Notably, it was the first of the Next Generation films to be written and directed by talent new to the franchise. Certainly, it was Paramount who wanted to direct Stuart Baird, replacing Jonathan Frakes who had supervised the two previous Trek films.
Baird was a British director, best known as one of the finest editors in the business. Although his editing draws spanned a host of cult films, from The Omen to Superman to Lethal Weapon (he was Richard Donner’s scissor guy), he was less accomplished as a director, with just two films on his CV before Nemesis. : Kurt Russell’s action thriller Executive Decision (1996) and the ho-hum sequel to The Fugitive, US Marshals, from 1998.
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Then there was John Logan. While Generations, First Contact, and Insurrection were written by veterans of Generation Next, it was decided to hand the 10th Trek film to someone new to the series. It’s not hard to see why producer Rick Berman’s head was shot by Logan. Nominated for an Oscar in 2000 for his work on Gladiator, Logan was a big deal at the time (he later wrote The Aviator for Scorsese and co-wrote Skyfall), but the screenplay he turned in was, according to Berman, ” too long and much too verbose”.
Although Logan was a die-hard Star Trek fan, Baird had little knowledge of the then 36-year-old series he was joining. Not only did he refuse to watch episodes of The Next Generation before starting the film, but he appears to have done little research on the actors and characters he was working with (Baird reportedly called LeVar Burton ‘Laverne’ and believed that Commander LaForge was an alien).
With Jonathan “Riker” Frakes having directed the previous two films, the cast used to have a director who knew the show and its characters inside out. Still, because Uprising slumped at the box office, Frakes was passed over for Nemesis.
“I think we would have kept a lot more of the Star Trek family in the movie,” Frakes told TrekMovie in 2009 regarding how he would have approached the movie. “It would have been more about us than Tom Hardy [Shinzon]. As great as he is and as great as his character is, people come the first weekend of a Star Trek movie to see their family.
It must be said, however, that Nemesis was, in Baird’s words, “cut to the wire”, prior to its release and much of what was lost were those character moments, often at the expense of the action.
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“I think if there was a real need for an extended edition of any work we’ve done, it would be Nemesis,” Patrick Stewart told Dreamwatch magazine. “It wouldn’t be a Director’s Cut of the movie…which might have been even shorter, but maybe an Actor’s Cut.”
Reportedly, nearly an hour of footage hit the editing room floor. Wesley Crusher made his only Next Gen movie appearance in Nemesis, only all of his dialogue scenes were cut out. Still, at least Wesley could be seen, if only through eagle eyes, during Riker and Troi’s wedding.
Steven Culp did even worse. His character, Martin Madden, was to be Picard’s new first officer, and his one scene would have closed the film, as new Captain Riker passes the baton to his gullible replacement (“If You Want to Ride on the Good Captain Side,” Riker teases, “call him Jean-Luc”) In the end, Culp’s role was cut completely.
In the end, whatever Nemesis’ flaws are, it’s not as calamitous as the sleepy Insurrection or the goofy Final Frontier. There’s a lot to love about his admittedly truncated lifespan, whether it’s Tom Hardy’s icy-eyed performance as Picard’s cloned Shinzon or Data’s valiant death.
But it’s not quite the start the Next Gen Crew deserved after 15 years. While the original Kirk-led crew got a real sayonara with The Undiscover Country, Nemesis suffers from not quite knowing if this is the last hurrah for the crew of NCC-1701-E or just the closing a chapter in the vast history of Trek.
Read more: Takei responds to Shatner’s “bile”
Whatever you think, Nemesis was the movie that finally debunked that theory that every even-numbered Trek movie was a guaranteed champion.
And it turns out that wasn’t the goodbye to the Next Generation team that we thought at the time. Next year, Star Trek: Picard will reunite that cast, hopefully giving them the sendoff they deserved in 2002.
And it will be the third season of this series, proof – if ever needed – that Star Trek has finally overcome its odd curse.
Star Trek: Nemesis airs on Paramount+.
Watch a Star Trek: Picard trailer