Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Generations. Minor spoilers may also be present for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
The Star Trek franchise has featured some absolutely terrific villains across its fifty-five year history. Characters like Khan, Gul Dukat, the Borg Queen, and many, many more have gone on to play significant roles in the franchise, cranking up the tension and drama while giving fans someone to truly despise. One of my all-time favourite Star Trek villains comes from what may – controversially – be my favourite Star Trek film: Dr Tolian Soran from Star Trek: Generations. It’s this character that I want to talk about today.
Although their motivations are very different, I feel that Dr Soran fills a similar role as an adversary for Captain Picard specifically as Khan did in The Wrath of Khan for Captain Kirk. Khan was motivated by vengeance and hatred for Kirk in particular, whereas Soran sees Picard as little more than a bump in the road on the way to completing a scheme he’s worked on for decades, so there are clear differences, yet in their two films the characters play similar adversarial roles for Star Trek’s first two captains.
One of Dr Soran’s lines has stuck with me ever since I first watched Generations in the cinema in 1995 (which is when the film was released here in the UK). The line is this: “Time is the fire in which we burn.” Delivered with menacing clarity by actor Malcolm McDowell, Soran’s view of time as an all-consuming fire is dark, yet beautifully poetic at the same time. Though Captain Picard would argue against this notion at the end of the film, the line, and the way it was delivered, is permanently etched in my memory. At times, it has been a motivating factor in my life, which may seem strange for a line delivered by a villain! As I said last November when I commemorated this website’s anniversary, the notion that time was catching up to me was one of the motivating factors I had in setting up my website and writing about Star Trek and other topics.
What I love most about the fire analogy is the way in which it describes the one-way flow of time. When an object is burned in a fire, an irreversible reaction takes place at the molecular level, and no matter how much we might regret burning something or wish we could undo a disastrous fire, doing so is impossible. The same is true of time – going back in time, changing the past or reliving a moment isn’t possible. (Except when Star Trek does time travel episodes, but that’s a different subject altogether!)
Although Soran was an obsessive, desperate to get back to the Nexus, his philosophical side shines through at several key moments in the story, and the way this side of his character comes across elevates him. No longer a one-dimensional villain with a singular purpose, Soran is a thinker, someone who has an understanding of the world and his place in it. His interpretation of the world, or rather his reaction to it, may be extreme, but nevertheless the mere existence of this deep-thinking aspect of his character makes him feel a lot more significant and a lot more well-rounded. Soran has clearly considered the implications of what he’s doing, even if it means sacrificing millions of lives for his own benefit.
The attacks of September 11th, 2001 brought religiously-motivated terrorism to the fore in a way that was new for many people in the western world. Yet even before then, the idea of sacrificing one’s life in order to reach paradise, or heaven, had been a significant force. Soran’s quest to reach the Nexus at any cost can be seen through this lens; a dangerously obsessed man willing to do whatever it takes to reach his version of paradise.
At the same time, the Nexus storyline rebuffs the idea of religion in general, at least insofar as Soran is concerned. If Soran believed in an afterlife – a belief which is not uncommon even in Star Trek’s 24th Century – then his quest to re-enter the Nexus wouldn’t make sense. He could be comforted by the belief that the afterlife would be just as good, if not better than, what he experienced there. The fact that Soran is a scientist and he’s chasing an interstellar energy ribbon that is observable and definitely exists (within the confines of the story, of course) seems to pour cold water on the idea of Soran as a religious fundamentalist; his desire to reach the Nexus is based on his own experience of the phenomenon, and not simply on the nebulous concept of “faith.”
Star Trek’s history with religion is complicated. The Original Series once showed a “chapel” aboard the USS Enterprise, and in Deep Space Nine Kasidy Yates claimed her father was a minister, so human religion definitely still exists in the 24th Century and the franchise hasn’t tried to erase it. At the same time, however, Star Trek has often tried to offer alternative explanations for gods, miracles, and other religious experiences. The Final Frontier depicted the “god” at the centre of the galaxy as a beligerent alien. Q fills a similar role on occasion in The Next Generation. The Prophets in Deep Space Nine are noncorporeal aliens. And so on.
So if the Nexus represents heaven or the afterlife for the sake of Soran’s story, it’s still a scientific and secular take on the concept. Soran isn’t like Sybok, a man on a mission with faith at its core. He’s a scientist, trying to solve a scientific puzzle. The fact that it has religious comparisons is neither here nor there for him; he sees the Nexus as his one shot at paradise.
Though we don’t see anything on screen of Soran’s life prior to his encounter with the Enterprise-B, given what happened to the El-Aurians and Generations’ focus on Picard’s family, there are the building blocks to see Soran through a semi-sympathetic lens if we’re so inclined. The Borg destroyed or assimilated the El-Aurian homeworld, and during the attack they killed Soran’s family, including his wife and children. When Picard visits the Nexus, he sees a version of the life he could have led, as did Kirk. What Soran sees in the Nexus – and what he wants so desperately to recapture – is his family. At a personal level we can understand and even empathise with that, even if it doesn’t come close to excusing his actions.
A villain that we as the audience can relate to is something the best stories manage to have, and a villain who isn’t simply evil for the sake of it also makes for a much more satisfying and fulfilling narrative. Soran ticks both of those boxes. We could even argue that Soran isn’t “evil” in the strict sense of the word; he’s merely uncaring and ambivalent to the lives of others due to his single-minded dedication to his quest.
For Trekkies, Soran is perhaps most significant and best-remembered for being the character who killed Captain Kirk. Star Trek’s first captain carried the torch for the franchise for more than two decades prior to the inception of The Next Generation, and while characters like Scotty, Spock, Dr McCoy and others all had their fans and their moments in the spotlight, Kirk was the most significant character from The Original Series. His death in Generations arguably marked the end of an era, and the definitive passing of the baton from one set of characters to another.
Though we have since had a version of Captain Kirk back in the Kelvin timeline films, and Star Trek has of course returned to the 23rd Century with Discovery and Short Treks, the death of William Shatner’s Kirk is an incredibly significant moment in the history of the franchise. While it’s true that Star Trek had already moved beyond The Original Series by 1994 thanks to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the gentle yet clear ending to The Undiscovered Country, there was still a sense that any of the main characters could return – something epitomised by the return of Spock in Unification and Scotty in Relics. Captain Kirk did get the chance to make a triumphant return to the franchise – but doing so led to his death.
Kirk’s death is clearly a hugely emotional moment, especially for Trekkies who’d been with the franchise since the beginning. But his sacrifice stopped Soran and prevented the deaths of millions, as well as the deaths of the crew of the Enterprise-D. Even though the film doesn’t really acknowledge his death in this way, he died a hero.
It was Soran’s scheme that killed Kirk, but it also brought Captains Kirk and Picard together. Between them they had to figure out a way to prevent Soran going through with his plan, and thus Soran became the unintentional catalyst for what has to be one of my favourite moments in all of Star Trek. Marvel films have shown that a good team-up story can be emotional and exceptionally fun, but putting together two of the most significant characters in the entire Star Trek franchise? It’s a moment that’s very hard to beat even more than 25 years later!
Without Soran, none of this would have come to pass. While we may lament Captain Kirk’s death, in a franchise that runs as long as Star Trek and where the in-universe timeline spans centuries, characters are eventually going to die. Maybe Captain Kirk would have preferred a quiet retirement, but as a satisfying story beat, making the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the lives of millions and a crew of Starfleet officers could not be more quintessentially Kirk.
I find Dr Soran to be an absolutely fascinating character in his own right. But more than that, he’s responsible for perhaps the most ambitious crossover that the Star Trek franchise has yet attempted, and brought together Captains Kirk and Picard for an amazing adventure in a truly excellent film.
It’s hard to pick a fault with the way Soran was brought to screen, too. Malcolm McDowell put in an outstanding performance that was intense and riveting to watch. Even Soran’s lighter moments, such as his conversations with Geordi and the Duras Sisters, have a distinct edge to them. McDowell makes it clear with every syllable and every movement that Soran doesn’t care about any of them or their goals, and would hurt or kill them in a heartbeat if they got in his way. He comes across as a powerful, intimidating adversary thanks to this no-holds-barred approach.
So that’s about all I have to say, really! I find Dr Soran to be one of Star Trek’s most compelling villains.
Star Trek: Generations is available to stream on Paramount+ in the United States, and is also available on Blu-ray and DVD. The Star Trek franchise – including Generations and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.