On Star Trek: Insurrection

Continuing from Star Trek Generations and First Contact is Star Trek: Insurrection, which is more like what Star Trek really is compared to the previous films, as according to Trek Today‘s article, “Retro Review: Star Trek: Insurrection“:

I’ve never felt that Insurrection has been given its due. I know it doesn’t have the scope of Generations and First Contact – no major character dies, Earth is never threatened, there are no Klingons or Borg attacking – the major threat is against Federation principles, and even there, we only see one evil admiral directly involved. But it feels much more like real Star Trek to me than either of the previous Next Generation films. Data’s seemingly out-of-character violence turns out to be, in retrospect, entirely in character, not the product of rage from an emotion chip but sincere fury over a profound act of betrayal that contradicts his programming. Picard’s anger arises not from psychological damage from a previous encounter with the Borg, but from the deeply held principles that made him one of Starfleet’s best captains, a man to be trusted with a starship despite his experiences as Locutus. As for the rest of the crew, they actually look, for a change, as though they are having fun, with each other and simply being alive.

Additionally, according to TrekMovie.com‘s “10th Anniversary Review of Star Trek Insurrection“:

A new writer steps in for TNG’s third film.

The story of the creation of Star Trek Insurrection took many turns and twists on its road to theaters. In early 1997, just a couple of months after Star Trek First Contact became a box office hit, producer Rick Berman again tapped Jonathan Frakes for the director’s chair, but approached Michael Piller to develop a script for the First Contact follow-up. Ron Moore and Brannon Braga had written the previous two Trek films, but had other commitments. Piller had never written a feature film, but his contributions to Star Trek were  legion (as a writer and show-runner for Next Generation to his co-creation of Deep Space Nine andVoyager).

Piller’s first treatment, entitled “Star Trek: Stardust,” was completed May 9, 1997 which was a much more serious drama based on the themes of the 1902 novella by Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness.” The early drafts of the script involved Picard going after an old friend named Hugh Duffy who is claiming that the Federation is in collusion with the Romulans (whose leader is a charmer named Joss) to destroy a world in order to gain its precious ‘sarium krellide’ ore. In defiance of Commander Norton of Starfleet (who was later changed to Admiral Matthew Dougherty), Picard realizes that Duffy is telling the truth and he places his four pips on a table to become a rebel fighting alongside Duffy. The early drafts includes a fight between Worf and Joss, Riker and crew helping Picard in his mission, political intrigue, and an ending of Picard standing before the Federation Council to answer for his actions. He is told his career is over until we hear Boothby applauding Picard’s comments and soon a chorus of people chant support for Picard and his mission. Based on this early version, the film wouldn’t have resolved whether or not Picard has his command back (we will have to wait for the sequel Piller promised). Many other drafts would be written during the next year, until the narrative was one with which everyone was happy. In fact, Ira Steven Behr contributed comments and notes about the script. With one of the drafts, Piller tells how he was worried because Ira took his glasses off before offering his opinion, and he never takes his glasses off! Pre-production started in early 1998 and after a quick production and post-production the film was released December 11th.

A return to traditional themes

Star Trek: Insurrection is a return to some of the more Roddenberry-esque themes of Star Trek. The movie, like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, deals with social issues, here the notions of population transfer of the Ba’ku and the cluttering of Picard’s life because of politics and technology. Also, like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the narrative sides with the idea that the needs of the few (the Ba’ku) are more important than the needs of the many (the Federation). Picard carries on the Kirk movie tradition of defying orders he finds morally problematic, and the kind of giddy fun that Star Trek heroes sometimes have when being defiant for a good cause. In many ways, Piller succeeds in creating what may be the most ‘Star Trekian’ of all of the Star Trek films, although it is fair to criticize the film as perhaps too derivative of other Star Trek episodes and movies (such as using the “Sorvino Switch” from the TNG episode. “Homeward”).

The themes of the film are apparent right off the bat with the opening sequence of Insurrection speaking volumes about society. Director Jonathan Frakes films the Baku as slow moving people, whose gestures flow on screen. They take the time to check their irrigation system and stop to smell the proverbial roses. There is humanity in this community, and personal interactions. This is contrast to the Federation and Son’a, huddled with their technology, dealing with each other impersonally and in their ascribed roles. The juxtaposition of the serenity with Data’s technobabble dialog (“Transferring positronic matrix functions…engaging secondary protocols”) serves as a warning about what we might become if we and how much of our daily conversations is impersonal.

A lighter more character-focused film

As the various drafts of the script were being written, both Patrick Stewart and the studio felt that this film should be more about character than the previous TNG films and should be funnier in tone. Occasionally, the humor works, as the scene with Picard and his crew preparing for their reception with the Evora delegates or Data’s reaction to Riker’s notion that his beardlessness is as smooth as an android’s bottom. Other times it is ill advised, especially with Worf and his teenage acne, which becomes slapstick. There are many scenes of inspiring heroics and friendship, especially when the crew will not let Picard deal with the Son’a on his own. However, the ending does not add to much except a confusing space battle (added at the last minute after test audiences didn’t like the original ending) and another Picard faces Chief Villain alone scenes featured in every TNG feature film. Insurrection does take a more ‘ensemble’ approach than other Trek films. All the characters all have something to do that is unique to them, and you don’t get the sense that some of their dialog is interchangeable like you do with some of the TOS era films. For example, Geordi gets to eject the warp core and has his vision restored temporarily, Deanna and Riker have their romance, Beverly gets to act as a doctor and discovers the secret of the Baku and Son’a, Worf gets some battle action, and Data is returned to his more Pinocchio roots and has a nice relationship with the Baku people, especially Artim. And hey, Riker shaved his beard!

In search of a bad guy

The greatest challenge that Insurrection endured was trying to find an appropriate and worthy adversary for Picard. First Contact’s Borg and Borg Queen were audience favorites and the creators of Insurrection needed to make sure that their villains were equally interesting. The solution for Insurrection was to create the Son’a. The idea of a people obsessed with youth and materialism certainly works with the Star Trek format. However, while Ruafo is intriguing, the film is never willing to make true bad guys out of the Federation leadership, represented by Adm. Dougherty. Like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, whose Sybok character could have been interesting except he wasn’t allowed to be a real villain, Insurrection is too tepid with its villains. Gallatin is nice, Dougherty is only misinformed and Ruafo in the end is a paper tiger. The problem is that while the narrative would be best served with the Federation Council being bad guys, Piller wanted to honor the Gene Roddenberry notion of superior humanity.

While the villains of Insurrection needed a rewrite, the Ba’ku are a very interesting people. Essentially alien Amish, the Ba’ku are a good alien group for playing against the more technological based Federation and Son’a. One of the best features of Insurrection (like First Contact before it) is the inclusion of good roles for female characters. Anij, played with a subtle grace by Donna Murphy,  is an equal for Picard, teaching him lessons about redemption and learning how to appreciate his life.

According to Roger Ebert:

funny thing happened to me on the way to writing this review of “Star Trek: Insurrection”–I discovered that several of the key filmmakers disagree with the film’s plot premise. Maybe that’s why this ninth “Star Trek” saga seems inert and unconvincing.

Here’s the premise: In a region of space known as the Briar Patch, an idyllic planet is home to a race known as the Ba’ku. They are members of a placid agricultural commune, tilling the neat rows of their fields, and then returning to a city whose neo-Greco-Roman architecture looks uncannily like the shopping mall at Caesar’s Palace. The Ba’ku are a blissful people, and no wonder: They have the secret of immortality. The “metaphasic radiation” generated by the planet’s rings acts like a fountain of youth on their planet.

The planet and the Ba’ku are currently the subject of a cultural survey team, which looks down on them from something like a stadium press box, but remains invisible. Then Data (Brent Spiner), the android, goes berserk and makes hostages of the survey team. The Enterprise speeds to the scene, so that Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) can deal with the crisis. The plot thickens when it is revealed that the Son’a race, which is also part of the Federation, was once allied with the Ba’ku. But the Son’a choose a different path and are now dying out–most visibly in the scrofulous countenance of their leader Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham).

The Son’a want the Ba’ku kidnapped and forcibly ejected from their planet. There are, after all, only 600 of them. Why should their little nature preserve be more important than the health and longevity of the Son’a and billions of other Federation citizens? Picard counters with the Federation’s Prime Directive, which instructs that the natural development of any civilization must not be interfered with.

The plot of “Star Trek: Insurrection” deals with the conflict between the desperate Son’a and the blissful Ba’ku and is further complicated when Picard falls in love with the beautiful Ba’ku woman Anij (Donna Murphy). “You explore the universe,” she tells him, “but have you ever explored a single moment in time?” (Picard is so lovestruck he forgets that his answer would be “yes!”) Further complications result when the metaphasic radiation leaks into the Enterprise and inspires Riker and Troi to start acting like horny teenagers.

As the best minds in the Federation wrestled with the ethical questions involved, I was also asking questions. Such as, aren’t the Ba’ku basically just living in a gated community? Since this Eden-like planet has only 600 inhabitants, why couldn’t they use the planet as a spa, circling inside those metaphasic rings and bathing in the radiation, which is probably faster-acting in space than down on the surface? After all, we’re not talking magic here, are we? Above these practical questions looms a larger philosophical one. Wouldn’t it be right to sacrifice the lifestyles of 600 Ba’ku in order to save billions? “I think maybe I would,” said Jonathan Frakes, the film’s director and co-star, when I asked him that question after the movie’s press screening.

“You’ve got to be flexible,” Stewart said. “If it had been left in the hands of Picard, some solution could have been found.” “Absolutely!” Spiner said. “I think I raised that question more than once.” “I had to be very narrowminded to serve the character,” Murphy confessed.

I agree. Our own civilization routinely kills legions of people in wars large and small, for reasons of ideology, territory, religion or geography. Would we contemplate removing 600 people from their native environment to grant immortality to everyone alive? In a flash. It would be difficult, indeed, to fashion a philosophical objection to such a move, which would result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

But what about the rights of the Ba’ku? Shouldn’t they volunteer to help us all out? Especially since they need not die themselves? The plot of “Star Trek: Insurrection” grinds through the usual conversations and crises, as the evil Ru’afo and his men carry forward their insidious plans, and Picard discovers that the Federation itself may be willing to play fast and loose with the Prime Directive. That’s not exactly new; in the previous eight movies, there have in fact been many shots fired in anger at members of races who perhaps should have been left alone to “develop naturally”–presumably even if such development involves aggression and hostility. The overriding principle, let’s face it, has been the Federation’s own survival and best interests. So why not allow the Son’a the same ethnocentric behavior? The movie is a work of fantasy and these questions are not important unless they influence the film’s entertainment value. Unfortunately, they do.

There is a certain lackluster feeling to the way the key characters debate the issues, and perhaps that reflects the suspicion of the filmmakers that they have hitched their wagon to the wrong cause. The movie is shorter than the usual “Star Trek” saga, at 103 minutes, as if the central issue could not bear scrutiny at the usual length. Think how much more interesting it would have been if the Ba’ku had joined an interracial experiment to share immortality. What would happen if everyone in the Federation could live forever? Think how many more sequels there’d be.



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