Like that other major sci-fi franchise bearing a stellar prefix, there's something about the hauntingly slow, brass section rendition of the theme's opening bars that brings neck hairs to attention and quickens the heart. Failing to deliver this potential has often nagged the feature length forays of the good ship Enterprise, but it has boldly come a long way in two decades, and with Stewart and Frakes at the helm (associate producer and director respectively, alongside acting duties), Star Trekking has never seemed in safer hands.
In the nearest thing outer space has to an Amish community, the happy babble of contented, techno-free village life amid leafy nature is abruptly ruined by Commander Data (Spiner), for mysterious reasons revealed much later, going berserk. And we're not talking comic-relief, more the phaser-drawn, shooting shit to bits. It soon becomes apparent - thanks mostly to Data's blasting - that the peaceful Ba'ku community is being observed by Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) and Ru'afo (Abraham). Some two days away, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) gratefully breaks a diplomatic function short to race to the scene just in time to prevent his android commander from being reduced to blobs of molten circuitry. Dougherty praises his intervention and the Enterprise is all set to depart, but we know something's up because shifty looks are starting to fly, and the ever-vigilant Picard begins to smell a rat. A spot of Sherlock-work reveals a plan to dupe the planet's 600-strong population onto a holodeck (that's a spaceship-cum-hologram for non-Trekkers) and off into space. And the reason becomes apparent as Picard learns of the planet's extraordinary rejuvenating properties, sees his crew begin acting in sprightly and vigorous manner, and realises that the rather lovely villager he's been eyeing up is about 900 years old.
Frakes may be suffering that common affliction of long-serving Federation officers, "Shatner-belly", but his experience is now really telling, and this exceptionally well-crafted movie is paced and edited to perfection. Star Trek has always worked best when used as a canvas for mythical themes, and the elixir of life/desire for eternal youth is a classic.
Upon such a plot, Frakes embellishes with some romance, a flash of drama here, a dab of comedy there; perpetuating running gags, adding the odd novelty, and above all letting his cast have fun. So, under the planet's influence, Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn - seconded from Deep Space Nine) wrestles with sudden, adolescent cravings, Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) sees a sunrise for the first time, while Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) comment that their boobs are firming up again. Picard bemoans lost youth, but pulls on a natty black leather jacket for some adventure, and enjoys a moonlit walk with the foxy Anij (Donna Murphy). Even Riker (Frakes) scrapes off the beard and finds time for hot-tub shenanigans with Troi, before getting bloodied and battered on a besieged Enterprise bridge, defiantly spitting, "We're through running from these bastards!" (which is pure Kirk), and steering the starship by old-fashioned, joystick control.
Such fun more than conveys to the audience - an outrageous Gilbert And Sullivan singalong sequence is irresistible - and what's probably most praiseworthy is the movie's sheer feelgood factor that'll keep you buoyant for days. For devotees, this is a strong, sure-footed instalment; but those indifferent to the franchise (and the genre) should take note, this is a good deal more than just another sci-fi movie.