Now comes the moment of transition: a pictorially beautiful one. The camera pulls back from the devastated trio, swoops around the wounded Enterprise-B to return to the star field of space. And slowly, the small white points in the blackness fades into the rippled blue of the ocean. The title says “78 years later.” So it is moving forward into the future—yet the images are from the distant past: a sailing ship, called Enterprise.
There is a certain elegance in this, as time takes on another dimension. The past is about to become an important element, as it relates to family, to personal meaning, to the vicissitudes of life, and to death.
It is a ceremony on the holodeck of the Enterprise-D, although that is not immediately apparent, especially to those unfamiliar with TNG. What we see is a sailing ship at sea against a brilliant blue sky, where we are introduced to the TNG crew, all in 18th/19th century naval uniforms (the Horatio Hornblower era.) As a set piece, it is gorgeous to look at, and it’s well-written, acted and edited. The ceremony—an initiation marking the promotion of Worf (Michael Dorn )-- illustrates a deference to naval tradition that has emerged now and again in Star Trek films, which tells us something about Picard’s own feeling for tradition that will soon become important, as well as illustrating the romance of exploration that Star Trek takes into space (In jump-starting the U.S. space program, President Kennedy referred to space as “the new ocean.”)
It is a daring and even elegant way to introduce the TNG crew—but is it effective? I recall my response to the film the first time I saw it. I loved the opening sequence aboard the Enterprise-B. But I was puzzled by the choice of this scene as the transition to the 24th century. It’s when I started feeling a bit uneasy.
In their commentary, Moore and Braga admitted that in writing this movie they were “concerned with not doing what was expected.” They’d originally written a very different scene, in which a couple of bored and somewhat comic young 24th century Starfleet officers at an isolated outpost are complaining about how nothing ever happens there when a Romulan Warbird drops dramatically out of warp and attacks, with the Enterprise-D in hot pursuit.
The writers say that TNG series producer Jeri Taylor thought it was too standard a scene, and she suggested something very offbeat, like a closeup of Picard pushing an egg across the floor in Ten Forward with his nose. They essentially took that suggestion, and though they don’t admit it was a mistake, they more or less imply that it was. And it probably is. Because what we don’t see in the transitional scene is Captain Picard as a hero, as the 24th century descendant of Captain Kirk.
Though it’s not a fatal flaw, I don’t think Picard as a character ever quite recovers for the rest of the film. This failure to establish Picard as a hero in the first scene has an immediate consequence to the theme: though we are about to see the impact death and regret has on him, we don’t see the contrast of the theme as the writers state it: we don’t see a hero being forced to confront mortality, because Picard isn’t really established as a hero. TNG fans of course know that he is a hero. But it hasn’t been established in the film, and even fans can feel the lack of that emotionally.