Before I begin the examination of the problems with time in this film I have a few quibbles, problems I have had with the movie which have nothing to do with time. And since the time travel aspect of the film plays a minor role (albeit a crucial one), I can use a bit of space to air my complaints before moving on.
I grew up watching Star Trek; I turned eleven in 1966, the year of its birth, and was no doubt in one of its prime audience groups (being not only a pre-teen boy excited about sci-fi but also a baby boomer and a member of the television generation). Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, Chekov--these were heroes to me. Yet I am not among so many who despised Star Trek: The Next Generation sight unseen. I welcomed and embraced the series; and although the first season was a bit stiff, the show from the beginning was always as good or better than the original--watch both in reruns with an unbiased eye, and you should draw a similar conclusion. Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Beverly and Wesley Crusher, LaForge, Worf, Yar created a new set of adventurers, heroes for a new age. And if they still did as many too-thinly veiled commentaries on our social condition, too many episodes which were so contemporary as to become so dated as to be camp in a score of years, that was part of the Star Trek package, some of the risk of science fiction: that your commentary would be too obvious, and fall into history as a pointed comment on a now meaningless controversy. But there was a difference between the two series which I think was not realized by many viewers. The Next Generation of Star Trek was also the next generation of television shows. The original show, as most of television in its day, was a starring vehicle. William Shatner's James Kirk and Leonard Nimoy's Spock were the stars, and figured prominently in every episode; the others were important, loved, necessary in many ways, but in the final analysis merely supporting cast. By the time Next Generation hit the screen, the ensemble cast drama had come into its own, and the new Star Trek was an excellent achievement in that area: it had no star. Granted that Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard is a great character from a great actor, it must be conceded that Brent Spiner is also a brilliant character actor who brought nuances to Data which many would have missed. And as Geordi LaForge, Levar Burton was a more recognized name and face than either, having appeared not merely in a major historic event in television (Roots), but also as host to millions of children on PBS for many years (Reading Rainbow)--and the contributions of the others are no less significant. The scripts recognized this. There were stories in which Captain Picard played an insignificant role (I recall there being episodes in which he did not appear at all, although I could not now say for certain which). Like a great story, it was the interaction and relationships of these characters which gave the show much of its heart. Yet when I sat in the theater watching Generations, I could not escape the feeling that Patrick Stewart was the star of the film, and the other players supporting cast, a feeling alien to anything experienced while watching the series. I was not at all surprised to hear afterward that Brent Spiner was considering leaving the show, although I was anticipatorily disappointed. I have watched it numerous times since, but it ranks low on my list of Star Trek films, primarily because of this impression. With this last viewing, I noticed how much screen time was given to many of the other actors (and it must be difficult to include ensemble character development and action in the same film and still have time for a plot), but it still seemed that much of what they did was peripheral, and that the movie was about Picard. I am pleased that Star Trek: First Contact did not suffer from the same fault, but seemed to include most of the cast in full participation in the story; I hope they can continue to produce that quality in the future.
My second quibble goes into the history of The Next Generation. Few fans will forget the great two-episode feature of the war with the Borg. Star Fleet was decimated--ships destroyed, crew killed, the great defense of earth rendered impotent. Picard was taken prisoner, and refitted to be spokesperson for the enemy. Riker, now in command of the Enterprise, receives a "field promotion" to Captain from one of the fleet's admirals. Then Picard is rescued, and the crew of the Enterprise, working together, finds a way to shut down and destroy the Borg vessel. Now, I want to know what happened to Captain William T. Riker. Under any military protocol, the difference between a "field promotion" and any other promotion is the amount of ceremony involved. General Grant, as a gesture of gratitude, promoted one of his dying commanders to general at the end of one battle, and the man lived and remained a general for the rest of the civil war. Did someone at Star Fleet foul up the paperwork? Was there an objection to his service record? Was he busted back to commander for failing to obey orders? I don't see any of this happening. The production team made a mistake; in one episode they threw a token bone, when both Picard and Riker react to someone saying "Captain", but otherwise Riker's promotion is forgotten. But face the situation: this man and his entire crew have just saved the Federation--a Federation which is right now in sore need of officers and leadership to rebuild itself. Not only he but every member of his crew should be up for promotion and decoration! What is Star Fleet thinking? Unfortunately, it isn't Star Fleet but the Star Trek producers who are thinking. They are thinking that they cannot allow Picard to outrank Kirk (balderdash--Kirk was an admiral); they are thinking that they would have to break up the crew, that they cannot have two captains on the ship, and admirals don't travel (also wrong--aircraft carriers are generally skippered by admirals, and many of the pilots on board are captains). But there was an option within the Star Trek tradition which would have been ideal. Picard should have been promoted to commodore. After all, he is on the flagship of the fleet. And a commodore is, in this series at least, commander of a small fleet of ships. The effect on the show would include increasing the appearances of secondary characters--captains and officers of the other ships under his command--and adding a few ships to some of the special effects. Commodore Picard would be away on one of the other ships from time to time, leaving Captain Riker in charge of his own ship (as it often was anyway), and there would be a greater tendency for the Commodore to tell the Captain what to do and allow the Captain to execute it (as was Picard's command style as it was). I fear that the aftermath of this great episode left me unhappy with The Next Generation for quite some time. I wondered why the Romulans or the Cardassians did not take advantage of the weakened Federation to claim a great deal of new territory. I wondered why the Klingons were not aiding their besieged allies. But mostly, I wondered why Captain Riker was so unceremoniously court-marshaled and returned to duty as a commander.
My third quibble actually does have something to do with the movie. As we arrive in the twenty-fourth century, we are on a holodeck simulation of a pre-industrial sailing ship, promoting Worf to lieutenant commander. When Riker, disappointed that Worf made his leap and did not fall in the water, removes the plank to drop the Klingon into the deep, Data does not understand why that is funny. I agree with Data--I have never seen anything humorous about such antics. However, when Beverly Crusher attempts to explain to him why it is funny, and encourages him to do something spontaneous, he pushes her into the water on top of Worf. Everybody goes dead quiet; Geordi tells him that it was not funny. But Geordi was wrong; it was one of the funniest moments in the entire Star Trek history. It is the only time I can remember laughing aloud in the theater, the only time I have ever done so at a Star Trek film. He did what she told him, and she had it coming--it was great. Even she should have seen the humor in it. Perhaps you don't see it--but let me ask you, if it was funny to dump the unsuspecting Worf into the ocean, why was it not funny to send the doctor in behind him? Under the circumstances, it was far more so.
Enough of my irrelevant quibbles. You came to read my analysis of time travel in the movie, not my amateur efforts at film criticism. So let's get into it.
The way in which time travel is accomplished in Generations is, in a word, magical. The "nexus" is some type of super-natural realm, a world in which time is entirely different. Star Trek has always had trouble dealing with the supernatural (they are far better when they deal with natural pretenders at supernatural identity), and would be well advised to stay clear of it in the future. People of science tend to think that because magic does not follow their rules it does not follow any rules; but as with any story, magic has its own rules, and must follow them. I do not pretend be expert in the rules of magic, if it exists (although I have participated in taking a stab at comprehending them in the Multiverser game system rules); but I do expect that such rules would be internally coherent, whatever they may be. The rules concerning time and time travel related to the nexus are not internally consistent as far as they are presented. But that is a minor point: it only makes it difficult to understand what is happening in time travel itself, and not what the effect thereof will be.
Captain Kirk, and a few hundred other people, are sucked into the Nexus in the twenty-third century. A large number of these are pulled back to the material world, including the familiar Guinan, and the movie's villain Soran. The rest are never seen again, except for Kirk, who exits the Nexus eighty years later, at the behest of Captain Picard. As I have said elsewhere, going from the present to the future because of events in the present which are not affected by the future does not create a temporal anomaly. It is the same as spending a few years in Boston: you have gone away, and will come back later. Granted that he would have died in that time had he not taken this vacation, that in itself is not a problem for the time line. After all, Spock and Scotty are still alive; and McCoy was alive at the beginning of the series. It is not a timeline problem if he does not go back again.
Soran wants to get back into the nexus. He has conned a lot of people to get the resources he needs to do this, and has just destroyed a star. Picard needs to prevent him from destroying another; an entire planetary civilization is at stake. But Soran is not a reasonable man, and Picard, working alone, is unable to prevent the firing of the missile which destroys the star. The star explodes, and the nexus hits the planet, taking Soran and Picard into itself. Then the shock wave from the explosion destroys the planet. Story over; this is the end of a timeline.
But it is not the end of the story. Picard finds himself inside the nexus. For a moment, it seems like the ultimate RPG--a role playing game in which you can be or do whatever you desire. It makes the holodeck so much less real. But on examination, it appears to be little more than an amplified daydream--there is no risk (as Kirk will observe), and therefore no excitement. It is different from the RPG because here the outcome of the adventure is never in doubt. There is no chance that things will not go well, so there is no thrill when they do. The game should quickly become boring; it speaks poorly of the hundreds of Allorians still in the nexus that they have not gotten bored and left it.
Because "time has no meaning here", Kirk has also just arrived in the nexus, and has not had the opportunity to explore it. Logically, Guinan also has just arrived in the nexus, but she has also just left, but since time has no meaning she is still there but she can't leave because she has left already. We can excuse the fact that she knows who Picard is--she met him when he returned to the nineteenth century in a time travel episode of the series (she was hanging out with Mark Twain). However, she seems to know too much about her own (and his) history since that time. She describes herself as "an echo of the person you know", part of herself which she left behind. Of course, that means that there are now two Sorans here somewhere (the one who arrived with Picard and the one who arrived with Guinan, who just arrived, but just left, but is still here, as "an echo of the person you know"), but we will overlook that point for the moment. Picard abandons his daydream family and goes to find Kirk. There is an inexplicable urgency about his manner. Think about this: he has determined that he can leave the nexus whenever he wants, and go to whenever and wherever he wishes in the real world. Meanwhile, anything he imagines will seem completely real (except of course for the missing chance of failure). What is his hurry? Take some time off, recuperate, relax, enjoy yourself. When you step out of this pseudo-holodeck, when you awake from this daydream, it will be the time you need it to be regardless of what time you have wasted. Get together with Kirk, have a cup of tea. Discuss strategy, perhaps even run a simulation or two. There's plenty of time. Do it right.
Now, I don't understand this aspect of the story at all. Picard returns to a time before he left; Kirk returns to a time after he left. But why are there not now two Picards? After all, Jean-Luc was here, and went into a realm with a distinct concept of time, and came back earlier than he left. Logically, he still must enter the nexus in order to come back to this time; and he must also exist independently in order to continue in time after that departure. For Picard, it is not at all like time travel; it is like wishing to be able to go back and do it over again. Yet for Kirk, it most certainly is like time travel: in less than a day of his experience, he has moved forward eighty years, and died in the future, in a time he had little hope to see otherwise. It is magical, certainly--but what are the rules? Are we traveling in time, like so many others we have discussed? Or are we making a wish and having it granted? There is no explanation for why Picard ends up in the same place and time (after all, if he could go anywhere and anywhen, why did he not appear inside the force field instead of in the breach?), but Kirk lands in a time and place completely unfamiliar to him.
Captain Kirk agrees to go back with him, and together they prevent Soran from launching his missile. Soran is killed in the explosion, the population of the nearby planet is saved, and the nexus never hits them. Oops--if the nexus never hits them, then Picard can't get into it; and if Picard can't get into it, he can't convince Kirk to come back and help him defeat Soran. And it is already established that he can't do it alone. Therefore, Kirk is still in the nexus, and Soran can launch his missile; therefore Kirk will come help Picard, and Soran can't. We have a classic infinity loop.
But no, you say. Since time is meaningless within the nexus, once Picard arrives he has arrived, and he is always there. But I'm afraid that won't save you, for two reasons. First, we are not erasing Picard's entrance to the nexus, but his departure from time-space; and in time-space, time does have meaning. If Picard never leaves time-space, then he never arrives in the nexus, and Kirk never comes back from it. But if it is valid to suggest that Picard can at any time leave the nexus and return to any point in his life to alter time, and not eliminate the fact that he entered the nexus in the first place even if he prevents that entrance in that recreation, then it must also be true for Soran. If Soran entered the nexus with Picard, then he's still there, and he can come out at any time to change what has happened to him. The future is uncertain in the extreme--even the present is unknown. Is Soran in the nexus, or not?
And as long as we are attempting to use time travel to undo history (a goal which is at best useless and at worst annihilative, as you by now know from our discussion of other time travel films, especially Terminator and Back to the Future), why choose such a dubious point to attack? We could have stopped Soran back at the space station; we could have ordered him confined to quarters under guard, then seized the torpedo and prevented the explosion of the other star--making Soran's efforts at this point moot, and bringing back the Enterprise from its crash. I mean, if we're going to be allowed to change history based on history, and not pay the price for it, why don't we go all out and do it right? No, I'm afraid that Star Trek Generations fails to provide us with a coherent and logical time line. The Star Trek universe has come to a temporal end; there can be no more.
Mercifully, Rick Berman and the folks at Paramount didn't realize this, and went on to create a wonderful eighth movie, Star Trek: First Contact, which we will examine next. They also missed an opportunity to create an ending which would have inspired trekkies and trekkers for many years. Here is my ending to the Star Trek Generations film. There are, of course, two Picards and one Kirk. Kirk and Picard choose to return not to the surface, but to the Enterprise Shuttle bay. From there, they rush to the surface by shuttle, quickly locating the missile (they know what to look for). Assessing the situation, the two Picards switch places--the original gets into the shuttle with Kirk, and the temporal duplicate repeats his efforts at stopping Soran. Although the missile is still launched, Kirk and Picard are able to intercept it using the warp engines of the shuttle, detonate it prematurely, and are thereby blown into the nexus. For Picard, this allows him to go convince the first Kirk in the nexus to come out with him to stop Soran (he knows that he needs Kirk's help to do it, so he will go convince him). For Kirk, he gets tossed by the blast into the nexus and out again, landing some time in the mid twentieth century, where he quickly qualifies as an airline pilot, creates a history in various computer main frames, and submits a science fiction series to Paramount Pictures, writing under the pen name Gene Roddenberry.
There would be some who believed it was true.