"It’s a fact,” the character of Tim Bisley once said in Spaced, “sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is s***."
Back in 1999 that observation was an empirical truth. 1998 had just seen the underwhelming Star Trek: Insurrection, movie number nine in the decades-running franchise, and the next film on from the box-office busting First Contact. Before that, every even-numbered Trek movie, from The Wrath Of Khan through The Undiscovered Country via The Voyage Home, had been a nailed-on classic.
Read more: How Wrath of Khan changed Star Trek forever
So hopes were skyscrapingly high for Star Trek: Nemesis before its release in December 2002 — 20 years ago this week. The fourth film for the Next Generation crew and the 10th overall, how could this even-numbered promise fail?
Yet Nemesis would become the movie that effectively killed Star Trek on the big screen. Grossing just $67 million (£41 million) against a $60 million (£37 million) budget (to put it in perspective, the Borg-centred First Contact raked in a cool $146m - £90m) it put a final full stop on a run of movies that had been a multiplex mainstay since 1979.
In the years since it’s become fashionable to bash Star Trek: Nemesis. When asked why he thought it had bombed, LeVar (Geordi DeForge) Burton simply said, "Because it sucked!"
Patrick Stewart later lambasted the film as a 'pretty weak' finale for The Next Generation crew, while Marina ‘Troi’ Sirtis branded the movie’s director, Stuart Baird, an 'idiot'.
So what went wrong with Star Trek: Nemesis?
Notably, it was the first of the Next Generation movies to be written and directed by talent fresh to the franchise. Certainly, it was Paramount who were keen on Stuart Baird directing, replacing Jonathan Frakes who’d overseen the previous two Trek movies.
Baird was a British director, better known as one of the sharpest editors in the business. Though his editing prints had been over a host of lionised movies, from The Omen to Superman to Lethal Weapon (he was Richard Donner’s go-to scissors guy), he was less accomplished as a director, with only two films on his CV before Nemesis: the Kurt Russell action thriller Executive Decision (1996) and the ho-hum sequel to The Fugitive, U.S. Marshals, from 1998.
Then there was John Logan. While Generations, First Contact and Insurrection had been scribed by Next Generation veterans, it was decided to entrust the 10th Trek movie to someone new to the series. It’s not hard to see why producer Rick Berman’s head was turned by Logan. Oscar nommed in 2000 for his work on Gladiator, Logan was a big deal back then (he went on to pen The Aviator for Scorsese and co-write Skyfall), but the script he turned in was, according to Berman, 'too long and way too wordy'.
Though Logan was a dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek fan, Baird had scant knowledge of the then-36-year-old series he was joining. Not only did he refuse to watch any episodes of The Next Generation before he started on the film, it appears he did little research on the actors and characters he was working with either (Baird reportedly called LeVar Burton ‘Laverne’ and believed Commander LaForge was an alien).
With Jonathan ‘Riker’ Frakes having helmed the previous two movies, the cast had been used to having a director who knew the series and their characters inside out. Yet because Insurrection tanked 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 film. “It would have been more about us than about Tom Hardy [Shinzon]. As great as he is and as great as his character was, people come on the first weekend of a Star Trek movie to see their family.”
It has to be said, however, that Nemesis was, in Baird’s words, 'trimmed to the wire', before its release and much of what was lost were those character moments, often at the expense of action.
“I think if there was ever a real need for an extended edition of any work we have done, it would be Nemesis,” Patrick Stewart told Dreamwatch magazine. “It wouldn’t be a Director’s Cut of the film… that may have been even shorter, but maybe an Actor’s Cut.”
According to some sources, nearly an hour’s worth of footage hit the cutting room floor. Wesley Crusher made his only appearance in a Next Gen movie in Nemesis, only all of his dialogue scenes were scissored out. Still, at least Wesley could be seen, if only by the eagle-eyed, during Riker and Troi’s wedding.
Steven Culp fared even worse. His character, Martin Madden, was to have been Picard’s new First Officer, and his only scene would have closed the movie, as the newly-christened Captain Riker passes the baton to his credulous replacement (“If you want to get on the Captain’s good side,” Riker teases, “call him Jean-Luc”). In the end, Culp’s role was cut completely.
In the end, whatever Nemesis’ faults, it’s not as calamitous as the soporific Insurrection or the blundering Final Frontier. There’s much to love in its admittedly truncated running time, whether it’s Tom Hardy’s frosty-eyed performance as the Picard-cloned Shinzon or Data’s valorous death.
But it’s not quite the send-off the Next Gen crew deserved after 15 years. While the original Kirk-led crew got a proper sayonara with The Undiscovered Country, Nemesis suffers from not quite knowing whether it’s the final hurrah for the crew of the NCC-1701-E or just the closing of a chapter in the vast Trek story.
Read more: Takei responds to Shatner's 'bile'
Whatever you think of it, Nemesis was the movie that finally disproved that theory that every even-numbered Trek film was a guaranteed champ.
And it turns out that it wasn’t the au revoir to the Next Generation crew that we thought at the time. Next year, Star Trek: Picard is reuniting that cast, hopefully giving them the send off they deserved back in 2002.
And it’ll be that series’ third season, proof – if ever needed – that Star Trek has finally gotten over its odd-numbered curse.
Star Trek: Nemesis is streaming on Paramount+.
Watch a trailer for Star Trek: Picard