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Star Trek’s TNG movies were doomed to fail, and it was always obvious

Star Trek The Next Generation might just be the best TV series ever made. But the TNG movies? Not so much, and their failure really should have been obvious.

Picard face palm and Riker in Star Trek First Contact

In the mid-90s, Star Trek was at its zenith. The TOS-era movies had ended with a pitch-perfect conclusion thanks to The Undiscovered Country. Star Trek: The Next Generation dominated television, earning a place in the pantheon of the greatest shows of all time; it bowed out with arguably the best TV finale ever. DS9 was hitting its stride, and Voyager was about to make its debut. Fans were blissfully engulfed by an overwhelming glut of quality.

In that context, no one would have bet against the success of the TNG-era Star Trek movies. How could you have? The William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy films seemed to have cracked the formula after one or two bumps, and the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast was still on top form, at the height of its power. Translating its chemistry and brand of adventure onto the big screen should, certainly, have been no harder than bringing Kirk, Spock, and Bones into the multiplex.

Fast forward to 2002, and the TNG Star Trek movies – as well as the lackluster Enterprise – had shoved the franchise into a freezer, knocking it into temporary (and nearly terminal) dormancy. But here’s the truth: that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The TNG movies were always destined to fail, and it really ought to have been obvious.

Perhaps the single biggest difference between TOS and TNG is the fact that the latter is undoubtedly, unequivocally, an ensemble piece: Picard, Riker, Dr. Crusher, Data, Geordi, Troi, and Worf, are all the main characters of the series. In TOS, the main characters are indisputably Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Their relationship was the engine that pushed the series and the movies onward. Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekhov, and Chapel are all firmly in the supporting cast, side players within the main trifecta’s adventures.

Picard and Data in Star Trek First Contact on Enterprise bridge

For TOS, this lent itself neatly to a cinematic format. The trio’s relationship, inter-weaving and interconnecting, is the heart of the six movies, allowing space for side characters, new and old, to dip in and out. Kirk, Spock, and Bones each had their time in the spotlight, with their own arcs, and their growth: the building blocks of cinematic storytelling. The result was at least three of the best science fiction movies of all time.

The brains behind the TNG movies recognized this, understanding that TNG’s septuple could not all share the screen equally. For there to be focus, satisfying arcs, and new relationships, this group of seven needed to be whittled down, and whittled down it was. Worf, Geordi, Troi, and (most of all) Crusher were the sacrificial lambs, left to fight for measly scraps and weak sub-plots, made bit-players in what should have been their own movies.

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Picard, Data, and Riker (to a lesser degree) grabbed the spotlight instead. Maybe this was necessary. Unless you’re a three-hour movie like Endgame, it’s hard to have seven main characters and do each of them justice. But, the price of this compromise was the loss of TNG’s magic, and the attempt to turn Picard and Data into TNG’s Kirk and Spock was an unmitigated failure. The knock-on effect was movies that felt insincere, and incomplete: like tomato soup without any tomatoes or grilled cheese without any cheese.

With Generations, the TNG movies began by trying to stitch two eras together with the kind of ‘Picard meets Kirk’ plot that fans had been dreaming about for years. It should have stayed as a dream because it ended up being a nightmare, simultaneously sullying two perfect endings and neglecting the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast at the same time. Picard season 3 did some fixing, but if you’re really looking for the complete TNG experience, it is, truthfully, still found just in the series.

For more on the adventures of the USS Enterprise, check out our ranking of the Star Trek captains and our picks for the best Star Trek characters. You can also check out the breakdown of the full Star Trek timeline, and our thoughts on the best way to watch the Star Trek movies in order. Or, see what’s new on Paramount Plus this month.