I was watching Star Trek: Generations awhile ago. It’s not a great movie. It pretty much follows the every-other-movie Star Trek rule. That is to say, it’s an odd-numbered Star Trek movie.
The odd-numbered are the ones that suck.
The every-odd-numbered Star Trek movie rule goes like this: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (number 2 in the film series) = great movie. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (number 5 in the film series) = steaming pile.
The problem with Star Trek: Generations has mainly to do with the plot. It just doesn’t make sense. I haven’t made a formal count, but I’d guess there’s about 89 equally baffling subplots going on in the movie. There are plots involving Data and his emotion chip, the ample-bosomed, Klingon Duras sisters and their plan to destroy the Enterprise, the usually-entertaining Malcolm Mc Dowell and his quest to get back to something called the Nexus, and a not-so-successful meeting of Enterprise captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard.
There’s also some mumbo-jumbo about Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) and her relationship with Malcolm Mc Dowell (his character, that is), an opening flashback scene that introduces us to Sulu’s daughter and Kirk’s replacement, the inept Captain Harriman, the crash and explosion of the Enterprise in which the entire Enterprise crew is killed, and some GAWD-AWFUL attempted humor in the holodeck that takes place on the deck of a pirate galleon.
Whoever thought it would be funny to see a Klingon walk the plank was wrong. It’s not.
Now, any honest Star Trek fan will tell you that they’ve not been entirely impressed with every TV show or movie plot line. As much as I was forced to hold back bile while watching the Enterprise crew’s pirate ship shenanigans, if I wanted to be honest, my vote for the worst of the subplots – the worst subplot in any Star Trek movie – has to be the Nexus.
The Nexus is the biggest WTF plot line in Star Trek history.
Although strangely enough, it’s one of the most philosophical.
If you’re not acquainted with the Nexus, the Nexus is a kind of alternate world where you can manifest your ideal reality. Once you’ve entered the Nexus, you can spend an eternity in your ideal world. For Captain Jean-Luc Picard, ideal reality looks like a Charles Dickens novel; equipped with English-accented children (never mind that Picard is supposed to be French) in proper period attire. According to Captain Kirk, ideal reality is riding horses, chopping wood, and making eggs for his unseen girlfriend.
I mean, the audience doesn’t get to see Kirk’s girlfriend. But we’re told that she’s in the bedroom upstairs.
We’re told her name is Antonia.
Who TF is Antonia?
As a Star Trek fan, I gotta say that this Antonia thing is upsetting. Not as upsetting as the new Carol Marcus’ British accent, but upsetting. I mean, every Star Trek fan knows that in an ideal world, Kirk would chose to be with his old love Carol Marcus*.
Maybe even chose to be with Edith Keeler.
Or maybe, since Star Trek is supposed to be philosophical, Kirk or Picard might have chosen a world that included having a little chat with Robert Nozick. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I get the feeling that the film’s writers were trying to squeeze in some experience machine talk to the audience. The Nexus is Robert Nozick’s experience machine.
Robert Nozick’s thought experiment was an argument against hedonism.
Hedonism, according to the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), is the moral theory grounded on the principle that pleasure is the greatest good. Bentham wrote:
“Nature has placed mankind the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure… They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think… By utility is meant that property in any object, good or happiness… to prevent the happening of mischief, pain , evil, or unhappiness…”
Nozick argued that Bentham’s emphasis on pleasure as the greatest good presents us with a problem. Namely, that if we value pleasure for pleasure’s sake, any pleasurable experience will do; we won’t bother to ask if pleasure is what’s really good for us. That is to say, some pleasurable experiences do us more harm than good.
This is precisely what Nozick’s experience machine shows us.
Nozick describes the experience machine as follows:
“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired… you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to your brain.”
If you’re feeling that this is the idea behind The Matrix and/or Total Recall, give yourself five bonus points.
You have seen this one before.
Although Nozick knows that some people would not hesitate to climb into the experience machine, he tells us that the wrong choice would be to climb inside. You see, Nozick says that there is more to life than mere pleasure. We should value the quality of our life experiences, not just the quantity of the pleasurable ones. Nozick argues that only is life worth more than pleasure, Nozick also says that the artificial experiences we live in the experience machine lacks authenticity. Nozick says:
“We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them… we learn that something matters to us in addition to experience.”
In the movie, Picard realizes that he can’t stay in the Nexus. He feels the urge to leave his ideal world, even though the Nexus’ “reality” is exactly the life that Picard wants. Picard knows that the Nexus isn’t real – that life inside the Nexus is, in reality, a denial of life. Picard eventually convinces Kirk to leave the Nexus (Kirk is also aware that life inside the Nexus isn’t “real”), and the two men rush to save the Enterprise from – well, you see, this is where the plot of the movie gets really convoluted.
Anyway, long story short. Kirk dies.
But here’s the thing: even though Kirk dies, it was better that he left the Nexus. According to Nozick, Kirk’s life in the Nexus was kind of living death. Since Kirk wasn’t actually chopping wood, riding his horse or making eggs for his girlfriend, he wasn’t really experiencing anything. We’re tempted to say that Kirk’s authentic death outside of the Nexus was qualitatively better than any thing he had experienced inside his artificial reality.
I guess unless you’re Thomas Nagel. You’d probably think Kirk’s death was pretty messed up.
But then, Nagel said any death is pretty messed up.
Ok, we get it. Nozick wants us to value authenticity over pleasure and we shouldn’t want to hook up to the experience machine. Nozick’s argument works fine if all we want to do inside the experience machine is to avoid the real world or to fulfill our desire to get tag-teamed by Megan Fox and Mila Kunis.
Or if you’re Kirk, shagging a couple of Orion slave girls.
But, if the quality of our experiences matters in the real world, why wouldn’t the quality of our artificial experiences matter as well?
If we choose to take private philosophy lessons from Socrates or to sit on a meeting of the Vienna Circle or choose to spend our time in the experience machine in deep philosophical contemplation, would we say that we wasted our lives away doing nothing of real value? If the circumstances of our lives prevent us from doing what we want to do, why should we reject an offer to spend time in the experience machine?
Would Nozick say that a person who is physically incapacitated shouldn’t want to experience climbing a mountain or taking a long walk along a beach? Would it be wrong if a woman living in a nation that oppresses women uses an experience machine to have a kind of life she is not permitted to have at home?
Is there ever a circumstance when good, albeit simulated, experiences are preferable to one’s shitty, all-too real existence?
I don’t know what Nozick would say about that, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for jumping into the experience machine if it meant you didn’t have to watch Star Trek V.
* It would also seem correct that Kirk’s ideal world would have included, along with Carol Marcus, Kirk and Marcus’ son David. Kirk did not meet his son until David was an adult (in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Unfortunately, David Marcus was murdered by Klingons in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It seems quite reasonable that a man would want to spend an ideal eternity with his long-lost son.
Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. 1974. NY: Basic Books.
Jeremy Bentham. “The Utilitarian Calculus”. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 2007. 5th edition. Ed. Louis J. Poijman. Belmont CA: Wadsworth. p. 143.