After the franchise-stabilising success of “Star Trek: First Contact”, fans were once again eager to see the next adventure of the intrepid crew of the Enterprise-E. Never a studio to let a good thing go untampered with, Paramount in its infinite wisdom decided it was time for a change of pace. Perhaps, emboldened by the box office prowess of “First Contact”, they were chasing the break-out feel-good factor of “The Voyage Home”, hoping to expand the audience beyond the loyal (and surprisingly tolerant) fan base. Thus we get “Star Trek: Insurrection”, a small scale story about a big issue, deliberately gentler and lighter in tone than its predecessor.
When Data goes rogue and turns against a Starfleet observation mission on a planet in the ‘Briar Patch’, the crew of the Enterprise-E come to investigate, against the wishes of the Admiral in charge of the mission. When they arrive, they uncover a covert alliance between the Federation and an aggressive alien race called the Son’a, intent on forcibly relocating the resident population of the planet, the Ba’ku, so they can harvest the unique radiation properties its rings possess. With no alternative and unable to call for help, the crew of the Enterprise decide to rebel against Starfleet Command and defend the Ba’ku at all costs.
A frequent criticism of the “Next Generation” movies is that they too often resemble extended episodes of the TV series, and it doesn’t help that “Insurrection” basically begins by copying the popular and acclaimed episode “Who Watches The Watchers” note for note. The early structure of the film also feels quite televisual in nature: the scenes of Data going out of control and revealing the technological duck blind to the Ba’ku feels very much like a ‘cold open’ and could easily have preceded the opening titles of the film. The rest of the crew are then introduced during the middle of a diplomatic reception, where the Dominion War (featured prominently in the excellent and often underrated “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) is mentioned as reason why the Federation is reaching out and recruiting allies at a reckless pace.
To support the change of pace, Producer Rick Berman brought in Michael Piller to write the screenplay from story ideas they had conceived together. In his unpublished (you can’t buy it but you can find it online pretty easily) book ‘FADE IN: From Idea to Final Draft, The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection’, Piller relates in fascinating detail the trials and tribulations of pulling together a script for this Star Trek movie, from the increasing input and requirements of the studio, director and producer to the growing influence of key cast members. It’s quite ironic that the underdeveloped feel of many of the films themes and motifs is actually due to overdevelopment and too many cooks spoiling the broth. Piller makes a sly dig at the bogged-down soapiness of the plot by having Picard ask early on: “Does anyone remember when we used to be explorers?”.
The film juggles a number of interesting ideas and themes, but can’t seem to settle on one to really explore and as such it feels restless and superficial when it should really be landing some good punches. There are swipes at the culture and pursuit of ever more extreme methods to retain the appearance of eternal youth as well as wry observations on the pace of modern life which sit uneasily alongside weightier themes of the forcible relocation of indigenous populations and potential genocide, all wrapped up in the barely touched at dirty politics of convenience and desperation.
The villains of the piece, the Son’a (Piller loves apostrophes in this one), are an intriguing race but we barely get to spend any time with them and when we do, they’re largely just evil stooges for their leader and the morally ambiguous Starfleet Admiral Dougherty. The Ba’ku, on the other hand, are a blandly peaceful agrarian society and little effort is made to flesh them out beyond their idyllic lifestyle in their impossibly bucolic village. Even the eventual revelation of the Son’a’s origins lacks any impact because we haven’t really invested in either group. Of the lead characters, we simply don’t get to spend enough time with Son’a leader Ahdar Ru’afo and despite the efforts of the great F. Murray Abraham, who plays him with a gloriously lack of restraint, there’s little chance to develop the necessary adversarial chemistry between him and Picard for us to really get invested in the conflict. The leader of the Ba’ku, played by Donna Murphy, gets far more screen time and the gently blossoming romance between her and Picard is well written and cutely played by both actors but again the film pulls its punches and there’s no culmination or payoff to the relationship (a filmed kiss was cut from the finished film at the studio’s request), leaving the whole subplot just hanging there.
There’s a lot of technobabble and scientific mumbo jumbo to explain away how the planet’s rejuvenating metaphasic radiation works, but suffice to say it somehow manages to keep you from aging but also will regenerate lost or damaged bodily organs and make you feel younger if you’re beyond a certain age. Oh, and it doesn’t affect you until after you’ve finished puberty. That sure is some conveniently particular radiation. There’s a few jokes mined from the crew getting younger but many of them rely on the characters having some gratingly dumb conversations, such as Data discussing the firmness of his boobs with Worf. A positronic brain so advanced it’s been impossible to replicate and he isn’t aware of the inappropriateness of the conversation? That’s just bad writing.
Once again, Data gets the short end of the stick in terms of character development. Remember the emotion chip that was irremovably fused to his brain in “Generations”, then gained the ability to be switched on and off in “First Contact”? Well, in this one, he didn’t even take it with him on the Ba’ku duck blind mission. As a result, we’re back to normal Data and that means we get a ‘cute’ subplot about him learning what it means to be a child. Again. Likewise, Worf is mainly used as the butt of jokes involving Klingon teenage acne and pubertal aggression. There’s almost no mention of why he isn’t on Deep Space Nine and no acknowledgement of the recent death of the character’s wife. The sloppy treatment of plot elements isn’t confined to the regular crew, either. The Ba’ku are established early on to have the ability to slow down and nearly freeze time but it’s never used for anything more significant than some nature documentary shots. While it is used later, improbably by Picard who masters the technique within days, it still begs a more obvious question: how can a population who can manipulate time, or even the perception of time, possibly be overcome by conventional force?
Patrick Stewart gets some good moments as Picard, although his request for mambo music to reflect his feeling younger and friskier is the closest thing “Star Trek” has ever managed to the soul-shrivelling embarrassment of ‘dad dancing’. With LaForge and Riker confined to the Enterprise, the others, including Crusher and Troi get to have a bit of action and fun on the surface, leading the surprisingly heavily armed (phaser bazookas?) convoy of fleeing villagers. On the ship, Riker gets to play at cat and mouse with a couple of Son’a ships in a battle sequence which is actually pretty good but culminates in a truly spectacularly misjudged finale where he pilots the Enterprise using an old ‘Thrustmaster II’ joystick.
Anthony Zerbe is suitably ambiguous as Admiral Dougherty and his death by plastic surgery is one of the films better moments, recalling his sticky end in the James Bond film “Licence To Kill”. Donna Murphy and F. Murray Abraham are both far better than the material and screen time they’re given and if it weren’t for the studio neutering the story, Anij would be counted as one of the great loves of Picard’s life.
By this point, it sounds very much like I don’t like “Star Trek: Insurrection” but that’s not true, it’s a decent, if unremarkable entry in the series. Jonathan Frake’s direction is good and he gets the most out of the stunning locations. He manages the pacing well, ensuring that the story maintains momentum despite a rather sluggish narrative. Production design-wise, the “Star Trek” tradition for recycling is in full effect, with many sets being redresses of the then-filming “Star Trek: Voyager” TV series. Like “Voyager”, all the special effects and space-based action is computer generated, the first “Star Trek” film to have no starship model shots at all. The only disappointing aspect is the interior set of the Son’a radiation collector. From the outside, before it unfurls its sails, it looks a little like V’ger (hey – it’s an apostrophe alien party) but inside, apart from the superstructure, it looks like a blue screen set that was forgotten in post-production. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is suitably mellow, echoing the overall feel of the film while still finding opportunities to revisit his now iconic themes and motifs from previous scores.
In the end, the title promises much more than the film delivers. The title conjures up the idea of a full-scale rebellion within Starfleet, pitching friends and shipmates against each other in a desperate battle of ideals whereas the actual film delivers a pleasant enough pastoral romp which really doesn’t amount to much more than a little local difficulty. When your first film had 230 million lives at stake and your second had 9 billion lives in the balance, 600 anonymous back-to-nature pacifists feels like a huge step down. “Insurrection” does nothing to undermine the belief that odd-numbered Trek films are a bit disappointing, but it’s not terrible, it’s just a little too mild mannered for its own good. If the same situation and characters had been realised with the attitude and darker approach of “First Contact” it could have worked, Gilbert And Sullivan and all. As it is, having read everything Michael Piller went through, I’m inclined to be lenient.