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Tom Hardy as the bad guy Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis Image: Paramount Pictures

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The largely unloved Star Trek: Nemesis is due for a critical reappraisal

Tom Hardy’s starring performance and its importance for Star Trek: Picard are good reasons to revisit the film

The 2002 theatrical feature Star Trek: Nemesis, the Trek franchise’s 10th film, defied the conventional wisdom that the even-numbered Trek movie installments are the series’ strongest ones. Largely dismissed by both critics and fans, Nemesis struggled at the box office. And while director Stuart Baird hoped for a sequel, Nemesis wound up being the final big-screen outing for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The movie’s reputation hasn’t improved much in the past 17 years, even though Tom Hardy, who plays the villain Shinzon, became a massive star, and though Star Trek itself has continued to evolve, from the J.J. Abrams-produced Kelvin-timeline movies to the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard.

But Picard’s reliance on key events and themes from Nemesis offers fans the perfect chance to reassess the movie, not only for what it brings to franchise continuity, but also as a standalone Trek story and a science-fiction blockbuster. Fans typically rate the first even-numbered movie featuring the Next Generation cast (1996’s Star Trek: First Contact) as the best. But Nemesis builds on a lot of the elements that worked well in First Contact, and draws from other successful Trek-movie traditions, starting with Hardy’s grandiose, Shakespearean villain, who stands alongside figures like Ricardo Montalban’s Khan from 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Christopher Plummer’s Chang from 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Like those villains, Shinzon is a noble but misguided relic from a marginalized society — in this case, the Remans, the slave caste of the Romulan Empire. Although he grew up alongside Reman slaves, was forced to work in dilithium mines, and led Reman troops in the Dominion War, Shinzon himself is not a Reman. He’s human, and as the film reveals in a delightfully sinister introduction, he’s also a clone of Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), created by the Romulans as a tool to infiltrate Starfleet, only to be discarded into the dilithium mines when the Romulan leadership changed and those plans were abandoned.

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard faces his bald, rubber-suited, veiny-faced clone Shinzon (played by Tom Hardy) under dark green lights in Star Trek: Nemesis. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Shinzon’s origin is silly, but it’s silly in the classic Star Trek manner, and it gives both the villain and the hero (Nemesis is Picard’s movie from start to finish) a personal stake in the story, beyond the requisite fate of the entire galaxy. Shinzon stages a brutal coup of the Romulan senate in the movie’s opening scene, as one of his loyalists deploys a doomsday weapon that turns the senators to dust. The massive destructive potential of that weapon hangs over the movie. It’s your basic megalomaniacal villain scheme, but Hardy, in one of his earliest roles, gives it a sense of grand tragedy, another lost cause in a life full of lost causes.

“I hope you’ll forgive the darkness. We’re not comfortable in the light,” Shinzon intones in his first scene. His dialogue remains similarly florid throughout Nemesis. The Remans live entirely on the dark side of their planet, and they look like alien versions of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok from Nosferatu. Shinzon has the smoothness of Bela Lugosi as Dracula, though, and his rapport with Picard rivals the dynamic William Shatner’s Captain Kirk has with Khan or Chang. Before Shinzon reveals the full extent of his evil, he invites Picard for a one-on-one dinner meeting, and the two engage in a vintage Trek philosophical discussion, speculating on how their lives have diverged, in spite of their identical genetic makeup.

Nemesis isn’t just about heady intellectual debates, though. After the hokey, low-stakes story of 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, which marked the narrative low point for the Next Generation movies, Nemesis raises the stakes with its humanity-threatening weapon. It features far more large-scale action, including various shootouts in starship corridors and an epic climactic space battle between the Enterprise and Shinzon’s ship, the Scimitar. There’s even an actual car chase, with Picard behind the wheel of a dune buggy being pursued by inhabitants of a primitive planet wielding old-fashioned machine guns. Later, Picard and Data are both eager to pilot a hijacked shuttle through the interior of Shinzon’s ship; even as they’re desperate to escape, they’re still having fun, like a pair of longstanding action-movie cops.

The connection between Picard and Data forms the other central thread in Nemesis, and it provides the android with a storyline that draws on his melancholy longing rather than the comedic misunderstandings that fueled his role in Insurrection. Before being drawn into the conflict with Shinzon, the Enterprise discovers the remains of B-4, a prototype version of Data with a sort of naive, childlike demeanor, and the movie draws rich parallels between the mirror-image pairs of Picard/Shinzon and Data/B-4.

Yellow-skinned android Data, played by Brent Spiner, faces his flawed prototype B-4, also played by Brent Spiner, in Star Trek: Nemesis. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Both Shinzon and B-4 are something like unformed versions of their respective doubles, alternate-universe dopplegängers who weren’t afforded Starfleet’s structure and guidance. Shinzon came after Picard, while B-4 came before Data (of course), but both of them were left on the fringes of the galaxy, treated roughly and cast aside. They both behave immaturely and childishly, even as they view Picard and Data as parental figures in some ways. And when faced with evidence of duplicity and danger from their doppelgangers, both Picard and Data are reluctant to give up on them entirely.

Spiner, who receives story credit alongside longtime Trek producer Rick Berman and screenwriter John Logan, gives Data a sort of tragic honor as he continues to strive to better understand humanity, and eventually dies to save Picard and the rest of the Enterprise crew. Stewart brings his typical gravitas to Picard, and the character’s wistful regret infuses the story, from his best-man speech at the opening wedding of Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) to his debates with Shinzon, whom he continues to encourage to find redemption, even as Shinzon openly threatens to annihilate humanity.

That same sense of reflection is what defines Picard’s character in Picard, with a plot that relies heavily on the character’s emotional connection to Data and his diplomatic connection to the Romulans. “You have earned a friend in the Romulan Empire today, captain,” says Romulan Commander Donatra (Dina Meyer) near the end of Nemesis. The Romulans’ long history in the Trek universe is another factor that gives Nemesis’ plot its weight and resonance. While Klingons, Ferengi, Cardassians, and even Borg eventually became beloved cast members of Trek TV series, the Romulans remained enigmatic and menacing. But Nemesis expands on Romulan society and gives Picard a personal stake in its continuing existence. Everything that happens in this movie comes from a defining aspect of Picard’s life, which means it’s something he’s carried forward into Star Trek: Picard.

Nemesis’ focus on Picard and Data means that other Next Generation characters get left behind a bit, and Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn), Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) all have very little to do. Riker and Troi get their wedding spotlight and a pending transfer to a new ship where Riker will be captain, and Troi is the focus of a muddled subplot that involves Shinzon entering her mind and essentially mentally raping her, one aspect of the movie that’s far too heavy and consequential for the couple of scenes Logan and director Stuart Baird devote to it. “It was a violation” is the most Troi gets to say about it. And then her connection to Shinzon is used like a Ouija board to track the location of his cloaked ship, with little regard for the attack’s emotional impact on her.

Yellow-skinned android Data, played by Brent Spiner, sits under a harsh overhead light, staring into the camera and petting his yellow tabby cat Spot, in Star Trek: Nemesis. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Star Trek movies are always imperfect, though, attempting to serve large ensemble casts and mix meaningful character moments with action setpieces and appropriately imposing threats. Nemesis accomplishes this balance better than many other Trek movies, and it feels like a satisfying ending for many of the Next Generation cast members. Riker and Troi are married, more settled than they’ve been in their tumultuous personal history, and Riker finally has his own command. Data’s legacy lives on in B-4, and those closest to him (especially Picard and LaForge) will have a way to honor their friend and colleague. (Dr. Crusher’s appointment to Starfleet Medical unfortunately is left only in a deleted scene, but it’s a deserved advancement for her.)

Even for those characters who end the movie merely continuing in their existing positions, there’s a sense of one era ending and a new one beginning. One of the best things about Trek is that the overall franchise provides a complex, multilayered history of a theoretical future world. With Star Trek: Picard actively paying off many of the ideas Nemesis launches, the film may finally take its deserved place in that history.

Star Trek: Nemesis is currently streaming on CBS All Access.