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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

One of the great myths of the modern pop culture landscape is the idea that franchises deserve to be venerated and treated with unquestioning respect, that the worst thing that a studio can do is to dismiss or belittle the fans, and that those involved behind the scenes should be avowed fans of the source material. This is largely due to the rise of geek culture at the turn of the twenty-first century, when the internet made it easier for fans to connect with one another and for studios to connect with fans.

In modern pop culture, there is a recurring suggestion that franchises are to be treated like sacred cows, deserving of fanatical (and radical) devotion both from those producing and from those consuming. This is why “for the fans” has become such a frustrating rallying cry from publicity interviews for terrible franchise installments, and why the idea of “the canon” has become a standard piece of pop cultural discourse. This is why modern adaptations and reimaginings tend to put a lot of weight on cameos granting “legitimacy.”

Taking it as read.

This larger framework makes it very difficult to tell stories using these properties that could be considered critical or subversive. There is a need to be respectful and dignified, to ensure that the objects of these narratives are properly venerated. No fans should be offended, and no beloved characters should have their honour besmirched. It is an approach that tends to embalm franchises while they are still breathing, turning them into horrifying zombies shuffling forwards no matter what the price.

After all, it is difficult to imagine any modern franchise film being as unequivocally critical of its protagonist as The Wrath of Khan was of James Tiberius Kirk. The Wrath of Khan is an extended cavalcade of errors in judgement made by its protagonist, decisions made in arrogance that result in the death of children and the loss of his best friend. In its own way, The Wrath of Khan holds Kirk to account for some of his more consistently problematic character traits, particularly a disinterest in exploring the consequences of his actions.

A confident lead at the helm.

The Wrath of Khan was notable for being overseen by a director who was not a fan of the franchise to begin with, who was able to examine the franchise with a critical eye. Nicholas Meyer could approach Star Trek as an outsider, from an objective distance. It is telling that his two Star Trek feature films were very controversial with the fan base on initial release, but came to be accepted as two of the best films in the franchise over time. There is nothing wrong with a little distance from the source material.

Insurrection is completely missing that sense of distance. It is a movie about what it means to grow old that is unwilling to confront or explore the realities of that process. It is a film that plays very much like an extended midlife crisis, one in which a group of mature performers act like twenty-something action heroes and play broad comedy. It is a film that pays lip service to the idea of age without acknowledging the maturity that should come with time. It is a movie about growing old that stubbornly and unironically insists that age is just a number.

Dressed to impress.

A large part of this is down to the key creative decisions made early in the production process. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, who had written the script for the well-received First Contact, opted not to return to write the follow-up. In The Fifty-Year Mission, Braga acknowledges that his refusal caused some tension with Rick Berman:

He didn’t speak to me for two months, he was so pissed off at me. By the way, I don’t blame him and it sucked. I would get notes from him on scripts sent over, but he wouldn’t talk to me. It took a while for him to talk to me again. I know Rick went to Michael Piller, but the film suffered from Michael wanting to do a really serious meditation on mortality for Picard and Rick wanted to do a romp.

As a result, it was a strange movie and not really successful. I wish I’d done it. I would have made a better movie, but on a personal level, I do feel like I let Rick down and shortchanged myself in the process.

To be entirely fair, Braga’s argument is far from water-tight. Braga and Moore were undoubtedly two of the stronger writers in the thirty-odd year history of Star Trek, responsible for countless classics between them. First Contact had been a success by any measure. However, they were also the creative team responsible for the mess that had been Generations, and there is every indication they would have hit the same creative barriers that sunk Michael Piller.

“Mister Worf, rev the thruster assembly.”

Still, with Braga and Moore both declining to return to write the feature film, Berman made a conscious effort to keep the creative team on Insurrection in-house. Jonathan Frakes returned as director, perhaps the second most accomplished actor-turned-director in the history of the Star Trek franchise. However, the biggest shock was in who Berman would recruit to write Insurrection. With two of his hotshot current writers having turned down the assignment, Rick Berman turned to Michael Piller.

Piller was a hugely influential figure in the history of Star Trek, being credited as a co-creator on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager. However, Piller’s most lasting contribution to the franchise was undoubtedly his role as executive producer on the third season of The Next Generation. Piller was thrown in the deep end when executive producer Michael Wagner abruptly stepped down after “a very short time”, between the beginning of production and the start of the broadcast season. Piller took charge of what had been a notoriously troubled Hollywood production.

Hitting all the familiar beats.

Over the course of that third season, Piller pretty much single-handedly turned The Next Generation around. He drafted in writers like Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore, who would become key figures in the evolution of the franchise. He insisted that the series become character-focused rather than plot focused. He implemented a model of writing Star Trek that lasted long beyond that season, and even beyond The Next Generation itself. Piller’s conclusion to the third season, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, is rightly regarded as a stone-cold Star Trek classic.

Piller had gone through something of a divorce from the Star Trek franchise following the end of The Next Generation. While he remained on good terms with Ira Steven Behr, the writers on Deep Space Nine had politely decided to go their own direction and make their own decisions, with Piller politely ceding the stage during the production of Life Support. Around the same time, when Paramount declined to assign Piller scripting duties on Generations, insisting that he pitch against his proteges Moore and Braga, Piller decided to step back from the larger franchise.

A font of knowledge.

Piller moved away from Voyager during its first season, at some point shortly after Prime Factors and State of Flux. Instead, Piller focused on developing his own television show for UPN, Legend. The science-fiction western only lasted twelve episodes before it was cancelled. Piller found himself drawn back to the second season of Voyager, suddenly finding himself at odds with the writing staff on a show that he had helped create. There were tensions in the writers’ room, and Piller would effectively be ousted after finishing Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. (His final script was heavily rewritten.)

With all of that in mind, Piller was an intriguing choice to write Insurrection. At this point, he was clearly a voice from the show’s history. He undoubtedly had a clear understanding of these characters and their perspectives. He was very much an insider, perhaps as close to Star Trek royalty as possible, even if his position was now more akin to that of a constitutional monarch than an absolute ruler. If Insurrection was to be a story about growing old and facing mortality, Piller certainly had a unique vantage point. However, could Piller resist the siren call of his own golden age?

There is something fishy here.

As it turned out, Insurrection would feel the pull of Piller’s mythic third season. As much as Insurrection is a feature film about growing old, it also feels the nostalgic weight of history. The “duck blind” and Prime Directive concerns that open the feature film recall the plot of Who Watches the Watchers?, an influential early third season episode. The focus on a potential romance and action hero status for Patrick Stewart evokes the reconceptualisation of his character in late third season episodes like Captain’s Holiday. The nomads-versus-settled-folk conflict suggests The Vengeance Factor.

Indeed, there may have been stronger parallels in some of Piller’s earlier ideas. Discussing the development of the Son’a as the movie’s antagonists, Piller confessed, “In the first story they were the Romulans, but noone here felt a great deal of enthusiasm for that decision.” This is somewhat ironic, given that the Romulans would serve as generic antagonists for the next two films, Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek. However, the Romulans had arguably been the primary antagonists of Piller’s third season, anchoring both The Enemy and The Defector.

“The original draft blue me away.”

Still, the initial pitch for Insurrection was quite distinct from what ended up on screen. As Maria Jose and John Tenuto outlined, based on their investigations:

Piller’s first treatment, entitled Star Trek: Stardust, was completed May 9, 1997. It 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 to destroy a world in order to gain its precious ‘sarium krellide’ ore.

While it is impossible to accurately judge how this version of Insurrection might have played out, it is certainly radically different than the final version.

Star Trek Into the Heart of Darkness.

There is something quite compelling about the idea of a Star Trek story based on Heart of Darkness. On one level, it ties into the sheer range of narrative possibilities of the Star Trek franchise, foreshadowing Marc Evans’ infamous question, “Where is the SEAL Team Six of the Star Trek universe?” It also fits quite comfortably with more modern genre appropriations of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which seems particularly popular in modern monkey movies like Kong: Skull Island or War for the Planet of the Apes.

In fact, this might have made a fitting follow-up for First Contact. Not only would a Star Trek film based around Heart of Darkness give Patrick Stewart interesting material to play, it would also make sense to follow a loose adaptation of Moby Dick with a loose adaptation of Heart of Darkness. While is debatable whether the Next Generation feature film franchise really needed two very serious and heavy adaptations in a row, it would certainly fit the relatively cerebral tone of The Next Generation to use its film franchise to riff on various classics of western literature.

“Sadly, the next Next Generation feature film will not be a riff on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.”

In some ways, it might make sense for Insurrection to have sent Picard on a journey up the river in search of a rogue Starfleet officer and former friend. In some ways, this is the logical conclusion of a journey seeded across the original run of The Next Generation, a series which repeatedly and tentatively suggested that there was something seriously wrong at the heart of the Federation. Picard’s first return to Earth in Conspiracy unearthed a sinister subversion of the Federation, while episodes like Too Short a Season, Ensign Ro and The Pegasus suggested corruption at the highest levels of Starfleet.

Of course, these episodes danced around issues of institutional widespread corruption, suggesting that Starfleet and the Federation was prone to infiltration or subversion by either foreign powers or a few “bad apples.” It was not until Deep Space Nine that the franchise ever really grappled with the notion that the Federation was not the utopia that had been suggested by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, building upon ideas seeded in landmark episodes of The Next Generation like The Measure of a Man.

When the chips are down.

Over the course of Deep Space Nine, Sisko was repeatedly forced to confront the fact that humanity was not as perfect as it claimed to be, that the Federation had its own deep-set problems. Episodes like The Maquis, Part I, The Maquis, Part II, Homefront, Paradise Lost and Inquisition suggested that the Federation was much more complicated political entity than Roddenberry had initially suggested. In many ways, Sisko’s arc over the course of Deep Space Nine pushes him further and further from the institution, coming to favour Bajor over Starfleet in stories like Rapture.

As such, the idea of doing “Heart of Darkness… but with Jean-Luc Picard” might have been a bit much, leaving the movie feeling more like a cinematic adaptation of Deep Space Nine than an extension of The Next Generation. It is much easier to imagine Sisko journeying up that metaphorical river, treating such an assignment of the culmination of a long-running character arc. Of course, it is also much easier to imagine such an experience finally leading Sisko to tender his resignation, after teasing the possibility in episodes like Far Beyond the Stars or Tears of the Prophets or Penumbra.

Rocky path to victory.

To be fair, there are definite shades of Deep Space Nine to the script for Insurrection, with Michael Piller repeatedly acknowledging his affection for that particular spin-off. Although Insurrection is not a war story, it very much unfolds against the backdrop of the Dominion War. When Picard wonders why the Enterprise is stuck doing meet-and-greets, Riker explains, “The diplomatic corps is busy with Dominion negotiations.” Picard concedes, “In view of our losses to the Borg and the Dominion, the Council feels we need all the allies we can get these days.”

Of course, not all of these references make a lot of sense. The Son’a are introduced as transparently bad guys, with Riker noting that they “are known to have produced vast quantities of the narcotic ketracel white.” Given how essential ketracel white is to the Dominion’s control of the Jem’Hadar, it is difficult to imagine them outsourcing it, despite an off-hand reference to that alliance in Penumbra. More to the point, given the tactical importance of ketracel white as made clear in episodes like A Time to Stand, it seems impossible for the Federation to justify such an alliance with the Son’a.

In the Federation’s defense, the Son’a make really good drugs.

Indeed, Insurrection stops short of embracing the sort of cynicism displayed in Deep Space Nine, and never quite condemns the Federation. Insurrection teases the idea of Picard rebelling against Starfleet and the Federation for the greater good, but refuses to portray the Federation Council as a cynical and colonial power. Instead, Insurrection falls back on the familiar cliché of the “evil Federation authority figure”, a stock Star Trek template that dates back to sixties stories like The Galileo Seven or The Deadly Years.

Admiral Matthew Dougherty is a convenient antagonist, and Insurrection works very hard to use the character to disarm any potential criticism of the Federation. Most obviously, it is suggested that Dougherty has effectively been misleading the Federation Council, and that their consent to this evil plan is not informed. “Make the Council ‘see’ the Ba’ku,” Picard orders Riker as he journeys to the planet surface. “It’s too easy to turn a blind eye to the suffering of a people you don’t know.” The plan works; once the Federation knows what is happening, it makes the right call.

Lighten up a little bit.

More than that, Insurrection bends over backwards to ensure that Dougherty isn’t even that bad a guy. He is not the primary antagonist of the film, outsourcing that role to Ru’afo. Ru’afo manipulates Dougherty into giving non-verbal consent to his plan to destroy the Enterprise, needling the Starfleet officer along. Later, Dougherty eventually finds some conscience and backbone, at which point Ru’afo murders him. The result is to absolve Dougherty of a lot of the moral responsibility for what happens, and to wash the Federation’s hands completely.

To be fair, Insurrection could never have truly followed through on the potential of a Star Trek riff on Heart of Darkness. As befits a sequel following on from a hugely critically and commercially successful franchise film, Insurrection was always going to be shaped and defined by its relationship to First Contact. There are any number of examples in franchise film-making, with follow-ups often stuck either imitating or rebelling against their predecessors; Spectre was perhaps too much of a loving tribute to Skyfall, while Batman Forever was a reaction against Batman Returns.

“KHAAAAAAA— erm, I mean… NOOOOOOO!”

Early in the creative process, it was decided that Insurrection would largely be a reaction against (rather than a loving tribute to) the success of First Contact. As Michael Piller outlined in Fade In, Rick Berman wanted a more “fun” feature film in the style of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:

From the outset, Rick and I agreed it was time to throw a curveball. Every big league pitcher knows you can’t keep throwing your fastball if you want to be successful. The last movie had been a fastball and a good one, complete with great space monsters (the Borg) and a war to save the universe. It would be a mistake, we decided, to try in this movie to “out-Borg the Borg.” Instead, we agreed, this time around we should do something quirkier, lighter, more fun. The model Rick quoted most often was Star Trek: The Voyage Home, the fourth and most successful film in the series — a time-travel story in which Kirk and crew return to 20th century Earth to save an extinct species of whales. Not a single weapon was fired in that film; it was a comedy with social conscience. Times have changed and we knew there’d have to be weapons fired in the new movie. But Rick wanted a story closer in spirit to the whale movie and that was fine with me.

There is something very sad in Piller’s concession that it would be impossible to make The Voyage Home for modern audiences, a concession that a modern Star Trek film needs the action spectacle of phaser fire and violence to propel itself. It also sets up the jarring tonal issues with Insurrection.

Rocket and roll it.

Despite the clear desire for something “quirkier, lighter, more fun”, there is a lot of phaser fire in Insurrection. The opening sequence establishes this quite effectively. The movie opens with a seemingly interminable pastoral exploration of life in the Ba’ku village, with a cloying soundtrack and cliché imagery that involves farming and playing. However, the serenity is quickly disturbed by the movie’s first phaser battle and action-driven throwdown. It is a strange opening that establishes the weird tonal dissonance that runs through the film.

As much as Insurrection might want to avoid the long shadow cast by First Contact, the movie is still trapped by it. Nowhere is this more evident than with the creation of the Son’a as the primary antagonists. The Son’a are obviously intended as a parody of beauty culture, an entire alien race built around plastic surgery as a concept, but they also feel like faint echoes of the Borg. They feel like an awkward attempt to emulate the iconic enemy that made First Contact so successful.

There will be bloody murder over this.

Part of this is purely aesthetic. In many ways, the Son’a are quite distinct from the Borg. The Son’a are designed in such a way as to vaguely evoke American stereotypes of the Middle East; their distinctive head-dresses, their questionable alliances with major democratic powers, their opulence as demonstrated by their luxurious cushioned command chairs, their questionable labour practices. Even their gold-coloured overalls are designed to suggest robes and wealth. However, there are certain design choices that evoke the Borg Collective.

Most strikingly, their dead and stretched grey skin recalls the design of the Borg, the sense of organic decay associated with the franchise’s iconic cybernetic adversaries. Their bodies seem on the cusp of breaking down, with Ru’afo’s skin tearing under emotional stress, their lives extended through technology means. Indeed, the Son’a reliance on cosmetic technology as a means of self-preservation suggests the monstrous fusion of biology and technology within the Borg Collective. Even their gold overalls look more bronze and drab than spectacular, recalling the Borg’s tubing and attire.

A bit of a stretch.

Insurrection occasionally veers sharply into this sort of body horror, which makes for a jarring contrast with the otherwise light-hearted tone. At the climax, as Admiral Dougherty figures out what he has done, Ru’afo murders him by strapping into into the Son’a cosmetic chair. His features are stretched. His eyes are pulled. He appears to be in agony. It is a grotesque and unsettling moment of body horror, one very much at odds with the movie’s otherwise playful tone. It is the kind of beat that would have worked better in a movie like First Contact.

In some ways, the Son’a hint at the bigger issues with Insurrection. The Son’a are a race blunt example of the classic Star Trek social-commentary-as-alien-species model of storytelling, recalling the introduction of the Ferengi-as-avatars-of-capitalism in The Last Outpost or the Kazon-as-commentary-on-gang-culture in Caretaker or the Malon-as-leaking-environmental-metaphors in Night. The Son’a are a very broad type of social commentary about contemporary society’s fascination with cosmetic surgery and the toxic pursuit of youth and immortality.

Ru’afo and ready.

Actor F. Murray Abraham confessed to Star Trek: Monthly that this sort of broad science-fiction allegory is what drew him to the role in the first place:

The character fascinated him because, in typical science fiction/Star Trek fashion, Ru’afo was so relevant to what’s going on in the world today. “Ru’afo practices one of the Seven Deadly Sins to such an extent that he becomes warped and out of touch with Humanity. He becomes something other than Human because of this sin that the practices, which is the sin of pride,” he says. “Not only that, Ru’afo and his race practice vanity to such an extent that they don’t even see their own ugliness. To me, it’s a great parallel to this so-called ‘Beauty Culture’ that we are all apparently fascinated with now, and have been for generations.”

There is something archetypally “Star-Trek-y” about the Son’a as a fairly one-dimensional piece of social commentary.

Droning on.

Of course, the reality is that the most compelling and fascinating Star Trek aliens endure because they are so multifaceted, they are not simple caricatures or strawmen. The Klingons might have been introduced as generic stand-ins for the Communist threat during the Cold War, but stories like Day of the Dove, Heart of Glory and Sins of the Father fleshed them out into something more interesting. Indeed, later stories like The Way of the Warrior and Judgment even stretched the idea further, by suggesting the Klingons were an analogy for the United States as much as for Soviet Russia.

Similarly, Ira Steven Behr worked really hard to develop the Ferengi into a more complex and nuanced culture, understanding the role that they could play in the larger Star Trek universe. Stories like The Nagus, Rules of Acquisition, The Jem’Hadar, House of Quark and Family Business all suggested an underlying logic to the Ferengi worldview that might provide an interesting window into the Star Trek franchise. Tellingly, the decision to revert the Ferengi to two-dimensional cut-outs in later scripts like Inside Man or Acquisition were deeply unsatisfying.

Surgical strikes.

Insurrection is far too self-satisfied with the introduction of the Son’a as a major antagonist. As The Secrets of Star Trek: Insurrection explains, the production team were very proud of the work that they did:

“When I created that murder using the face-lift machine, I said, ‘This might be my crowning achievement for this particular script,'” Michael Piller recalls. “And Patrick Stewart said, ‘I think the plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills might have a bit of a problem with it.'”

In fact, plastic surgery inspired the look of the entire Son’a race. “I’ve spent a lot of time with plastic surgeons over the years,” says Makeup Supervisor Michael Westmore. “I’ve often scrubbed up and gone into surgery to watch them do face-lifts So I’ve seen the skin stretched and pulled and sewn and cut.”

However, the Son’a never develop into more than a simplistic piece of social commentary. They lack the nuance afforded to the Klingons in The Search for Spock. They never become more than a crudely-drawn concept.

Water landing.

This problem also extends to the Ba’ku, the aliens living peacefully on the planet who find themselves aging in reverse thanks to “an unusual metaphasic radiation coming from the planet’s rings” that “continuously regenerates [their] genetic structure.” With the assistance of Starfleet, the Son’a plan to forcibly remove the Ba’ku from the planet so that this radiation might be harnessed and exploited for the greater good. It is a powerful idea for a Star Trek film, one that has the potential to grapple with very big ideas.

This ties back to the idea of the Federation as a concept. After all, the United Federation of Planets has a long history as an extrapolation of the United States into the far future. The organisation might be home to countless alien species and might technically be headquartered in Paris, but the Federation and Starfleet are very clearly (and very heavily) inspired by the popular memory of the United States. After all, the “final frontier” is the ultimate extension of John F. Kennedy’s “new frontier”, the Federation’s political role mirroring that of the United States after the Second World War.

Holo pursuits.

As Michael Piller outlined in The Fifty-Year Mission, the film’s core themes chip away at that legend:

At the core of the film is the issue of morality in how some great nations can mistreat minorities in the pursuit of the greater good. The point I’m making is that our history is filled with injustices to minorities who have been murdered and forcibly relocated and kidnapped and moved because the technology or the march of time or progress demanded it. And their presence wherever they were was inconvenient. This is a story that resonates with the history of both the United States and man.

The United States was founded on the forced relocation (and cultural genocide) of the United States, making it an original sin of the Federation as well.

The Son’a the bett’a.

Of course, this is a very heavy piece of subtext for a movie clearly intended as a crowd-pleasing light-hearted feel-good blockbuster. There is a sense that American popular culture is not entirely ready to confront some of the more problematic chapters in its history. Many schools in the United States teach about Native American culture as some ancient artifact rather than something that is an on-going concern, while other schools overlook their role in the nation’s history (and their displacement by the white settlers) almost entirely.

It is worth noting that the relocation and genocide of the Native Americans is not the only thorny chapter of American popular history. Slavery remains a bone of contention. Many states refuse to recognise the Confederate flag as a hate symbol. One in five Trump supporters believe that freeing the slaves was a mistake. Many schools teach children that slavery was an “economic necessity.” Slavery has been repeatedly written out of American pop culture, glossed over and diminished in historical entertainment.

Face/off.

In some ways, genre entertainment is perfectly positioned to tell these sorts of stories, to confront audiences with uncomfortable realities through a stylised lens. While Sofia Coppola can ignore slavery while constructing her period piece The Beguiled, Quentin Tarantino can bake it into the fabric of his revisionist westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Similarly, that connection between the American frontier myth and the brutality underpinning it even plays out in War for the Planet of the Apes, as an apocalyptic western evolves into a slavery epic.

However, there are several big problems with the way in which Insurrection explores this narrative. The story is structured to minimise the Federation’s complicity in this horrific plot. Authors Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin could suggest in the novel Rogue that Dougherty worked for Section 31 rather than as a simple Starfleet officer. This sort of displacement is quite common in novels and spin-offs, with writers keen to “off-load” moral culpability from the Federation and Starfleet into distinct organisations like Section 31, rather than exploring the institutions themselves.

Unsettling resettlement.

This approach avoids actually engaging with any of the underlying themes or ideas in favour of preserving the sanctity of the Federation and Starfleet as idealised extrapolations of the United States without any cultural context. It recalls the way that certain strands of fandom (including author J.M. Dillard) responded to the subtext of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, bristling at the idea that the Federation (and the beloved central characters) might be a little racist, even though that was the entire point of the plot.

Insurrection balks at these implications, refusing to treat the Federation’s involvement in the Son’a plan as anything more than the work of a single weak-willed and mislead senior officer. It recalls the way that certain strands of popular thought try to minimise responsibility for past atrocities, avoiding the meat of the matter; it is the logic that compares slaves to immigrants, that insists that poor white immigrants were treated similarly to slaves, and that Africa bears more responsibility for slavery than countries like the United States. It avoids the weighty elements of the story.

She’s not there.

However, the plot also suffers from the fact that the Ba’ku are just awful. The Son’a are hardly the most memorable or distinctive or fully-formed species in the Star Trek canon, but they seem positively three-dimensional when compared to the positively insufferable Ba’ku. The Ba’ku are a collection of hazily-defined new age tropes and conventions, a patronising fantasy about what it must be like to live in harmony with an environment. The Ba’ku evoke an idealised “primitive” society that has cast aside many of the trappings of technology and modernity for a purer life.

The film opens with shots of the idyllic community, where everybody seems to have a purpose and where children frolic in the way that adults of a certain age assume that children should frolic. Everybody seems to work with their hands, finding time for one another and themselves. Nothing is rushed or urgent. There is no sense that the Ba’ku have any use for time, with one sequence in the middle of the film suggesting that they can even slow down time. The community is so socially cohesive that there is no need for a police force, while nobody carries a weapon.

Bad farm.

Of course, none of this makes any sense. It is revealed later in the feature film that the Ba’ku are functionally immortal, which raises questions about how they handle the very concept of children. If the population settled on this planet three centuries earlier, did they agree on some method of population control? The community seems rather small, comprised of six hundred people. However, there are quite a lot of children. It seems hard to imagine the community remaining so quaint after three-hundred years of immortality without population control.

More than that, the central conflict of the film does not make sense. It is revealed that the Bak’u exiled the Son’a from their world a century earlier after a failed coup. How did the Ba’ku defeat the Son’a, given how defenseless they are to this particular forced relocation? It would be one thing if the Son’a were reliant on Starfleet for advanced technology, but Ru’afo seems to have set himself up as an intergalactic slave master and drug lord. While the Son’a might need Starfleet to provide holo-ship, there is nothing to stop them just invading the planet and seizing the Ba’ku colony themselves.

Getting Ba’ku to basics.

On a purely practical level, Piller’s script for Insurrection feels decidedly underwhelming. It is overwhelmed with meaningless technobabble, with a lot of time and energy given over to vaguely-defined pseudo-science. “Mister Worf, our job is to come up with a plan to safely capture Data,” Picard advises Worf at one point. Worf is prepared. “I’ve already had Commander La Forge modify this tricorder with one of Data’s actuation servos.”

A lot of the dialogue in Insurrection is just nonsense. “Transmit a wide band co-variant signal,” Picard orders as he hunts Data. “That ought to get his attention.” Worf replies, “He must be using the planet’s rings to mask his approach.” Picard agrees, “The metaphasic radiation of the rings is in a state of extreme flux.” That is gobbledygook. It means absolutely nothing, and just eats up screen time that could be spent on literally anything else.

This doesn’t scan.

To be fair, the Star Trek franchise has a long-standing issue with techno-babble. Voyager is very fond of wrapping up plots by stringing important-sounding-words together in the hope that audiences might accept a deus ex machina if it is buried in enough syllables. However, techno-babble is not necessarily fatal. The techno-babble in First Contact was attached to a very straightforward story, with a very clear arc. The audience always knew what was at stake, what the characters wanted and where they were going.

The character dynamics in Insurrection should be important, but the script never invests in its characters or its world to any extent. There is never a sense that Insurrection understands exactly what it is trying to be about, nor that it understands exactly where these characters are coming from. As a result, the techno-babble feels like a crutch, a distraction from a paper-thin story rather than a justification for a compelling narrative.

Cali on, regardless.

There is also something very condescending about the Ba’ku. Their entire community is build around the fact that they have discovered a fountain of youth that can keep them perpetually young. “Actually, I was a good deal older when we arrived, in terms of my physical condition,” Sojef helpfully explains. While the Son’a plan to forceably relocate the Ba’ku is monstrous, Insurrection never explains why the Ba’ku could not possibly be convinced to share their planet with others. There are only six hundred of them, and the entire Alpha Quadrant is in the midst of a bloody war.

The Ba’ku are a particular new age fantasy, the hyper-advanced civilisation that have built technological marvels and chosen to turn their back on modernity. They know about positronic circuitry and warp drive. “Our technological abilities are not apparent because we have chosen not to employ them in our daily lives,” Sojef comments. “We believe when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.” It is all very trite, and built entirely on the sheer luck that the Ba’ku settled on a planet with magical life-giving properties.

All sunset.

When Picard wonders whether the Ba’ku have access to warp drive, Anij responds, “But where can warp drive take us, except away from here?” It sounds like a stock feel good Hollywood Zen cliché, until the audience discovers the magic radiation that renders the Ba’ku functionally immortal. All of sudden, the Ba’ku attachment to this land seems a lot less spiritual or principled or philosophical, and a lot more smug and superior. Most people would probably be reluctant to leave home if they lived on a planet that reversed the aging process.

In some ways, as with the new age movement as a whole, the Ba’ku provide a thematic connection back to the sixties origins of Star Trek. The nineties new age movement could easily trace its roots back to sixties counterculture, with its clear desire to imagine a radically different lifestyle in response to the suffocating norms of the time. While Insurrection luxuriates in the new age trapping the Ba’ku, the original Star Trek was wary of the countercultural movement as reflected in This Side of Paradise or And the Children Shall Lead.

The rifleman.

Insurrection acknowledges this connection between the new age aesthetic of the Ba’ku and the sixties counterculture. “We came here from a solar system on the verge of self-annihilation, where technology had created weapons that threatened to destroy all life,” Sojef explains. “A small group of us set off to find a new home, a home that would be isolated from the threats of other worlds. That was three hundred and nine years ago.” This parallels sixties fears about the atom bomb, and places the Ba’ku migration roughly in step with Earth’s nuclear Third World War.

There is something deeply uncomfortable in the way that Insurrection fetishises the two-dimensional Ba’ku culture. However, the Ba’ku are very much in keeping with how Michael Piller approached Star Trek in his later years. Piller had a keen interest in new age spirituality and philosophy, and allowed it to influence his work on scripts like The Cloud or Tattoo. The Ba’ku are ultimately an extension of Piller’s early work with the character of Chakotay on Voyager, a patronising portrayal of indigenous populations.

Picard is looking for love.

There is no shortage of uncomfortable subtext here. Discussing the movie in hindsight in The Fifty-Year Mission, Jonathan Frakes acknowledged:

I always thought the F. Murray Abraham story was the most exciting part of Insurrection, as opposed to the benign Ba’ku, which, in retrospect, looks like a good Aryan race. I had a friend on set, who’s no longer with us, who said, “I was the only Jew Ba’ku; I was the bagel maker.” And LeVar used to say, “Are there no black people among the Ba’ku? It’s the perfect world and there’s no black people in it? What’s up with this?”

It’s certainly a fair criticism. F. Murray Abraham is arguably the most diverse actor playing a Ba’ku, as the child of a Syrian refugee. And Ru’afo was cast out.

At least the Son’a have some skin in the game.

To be fair to Piller, he was clearly a writer was influenced by his surroundings. This is a reality of film and television production, with a lot of media reflecting concerns that are rooted in the Californian experience more than that of the rest of the country. A lot of Piller’s work on Star Trek was anchored in his own experiences, and so those interests tended to get amplified through the science-fiction trappings. Piller was very interest in issues of Los Angeles gang culture while working on Voyager, pitching the Kazon as space-age gang members in episodes like Initiations.

Insurrection is a feature film very clearly rooted in Californian ideas and anxieties. Indeed, the Son’a are another Los-Angeles-themed alien menace. As somebody who worked in Hollywood, Piller was intimately familiar with the movie industry’s pursuit of youth at any cost. Beverly Hills has approximately two hundred plastic surgeons per hundred thousand residents. Recent statistics suggest that plastic surgery is more common on the west coast than in any other region of the country, making the Son’a fixation on (literal) face lifts particularly pointed.

“I want to take his face… off!”

As Darren Franich notes, the sentimentality at play in Insurrection is very much in keeping with certain Californian conventions and attitudes:

Insurrection is sentimental, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s the sort of wish-fulfillment FanFiction that gives Geordi his sight back, as if blindness was somehow Geordi’s “problem” and not a potentially profound character trait.

It’s lovely to see LeVar Burton’s eyes, staring peacefully into the sunrise. You almost forget that the Enterprise’s whole heroic action in this movie is to prevent the Federation from stealing all that metaphasic radiation. Which means that the Enterprise’s message to the Federation is, basically: “We can have the benefits of this utopia, because we discovered them accidentally. But you can’t have those benefits, because that would be wrong.” (That’s a classic California liberal paradox, actually, the sort of reasoning conceived by people who fundamentally want everyone to live comfortably but would secretly prefer that most people live comfortably someplace else.)

There is something decidedly tone-deaf in all of this, but it is also very much in keeping with how Michael Piller tends to write Star Trek stories.

LaForging ahead.

This is not the only uncomfortable paradox at work in Insurrection. In many ways, Insurrection is a film about confronting age. That should be the real moral of the story here. The Son’a are presented as monstrous for attempting to preserve their lives through surgery and forced relocation, with the obvious implication being that they need to accept their own mortality. Much like Kirk had to accept the possibility of a no-win scenario at the end of The Wrath of Khan, the Son’a need to understand that they cannot live forever.

However, Insurrection botches that central theme by siding so clearly and so strongly with the Ba’ku. The Ba’ku are proof that it is possible (and maybe desirable and even awesome!) to live forever, so long as it happens through hazily defined technobabble and friendly radiation rather than through icky surgery or sinister technology. Insurrection is a story about growing up that ultimately rejects the need to grow up in the most forced manner possible, by repeatedly insisting that its characters (and, by extension, the franchise) are still as young and vibrant as ever.

“Oh, we’ll blue-screen this in later.”

To be fair, this is not entirely Michael Piller’s fault. There were other factors at play. Most notably, Patrick Stewart had managed to successfully leverage his popularity and celebrity into a creative bargaining chip. Stewart understood that he could force the production team to march to the beat of his own drum, and effectively set his terms for returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart was clearly not interested in playing Jean-Luc Picard as a man confronting the inevitability of old age and accepting maturity with grace.

Which, to be fair, is entirely legitimate. Stewart had long argued that Picard was too cerebral a hero, and that the character needed to be more dynamic. When Ronald D. Moore joined the writing staff during the third season of The Next Generation, Stewart infamously advised him, “Just bear in mind that the Captain doesn’t do nearly enough screwing and shooting in this show.” Stewart’s desire to become a more conventional action hero would filter through the show, particularly episodes like Captain’s Holiday, Darmok, Starship Down, Gambit, Part I and Gambit, Part II.

Oh, he’s just going through his Kirk phase.

In Fade In, Michael Piller acknowledges that the action-driven plot of Insurrection was largely a result of Stewart’s concerns early in the creative process:

Patrick had clear personal goals for Jean-Luc Picard in the new movie. “The great all-rounders in cricket,” he said, “…like Don Bradman or Tom Gravney have a whole range of shots — fast bowling, spin bowling – they can hit all around the field in any direction making it impossible for the defensemen to position themselves. I think of Picard as a Gravney. And Gravney’s most dominating, intimidating shot, rarely played, is the one straight back at the bowler and that’s what Picard should do in this next film.”

Uh huh. Rick and I nodded politely as though we understood. Rick finally spoke up and said, “Is this anything like a single up the middle in baseball?”

“Why, yes, I’m sure it must be,” said Patrick. And as we began to learn more about cricket, we understood that Patrick wanted his character to be a plain and simple hero in the next movie. In First Contact, Picard had been driven for vengeance. In Generations, Picard was full of self-doubts because his only family had been killed. Patrick did not want to be “haunted” in this next film. Keep it light and simple this time, he was saying. Hit it straight back at the bowler.

Insurrection reflects Stewart’s “clear personal goals.” This is a movie in which not only does Picard wear a cool leather jacket, but he also dances.

This won’t look too hot on Picard’s official jacket.

Of course, it should be noted that Stewart was being a little disingenuous in his commentary on Generations and First Contact. Those earlier films put a lot of dramatic weight on his shoulders, providing fairly heavy material for the actor to play. This makes a great deal of sense, given that Stewart is one of the strongest performers in the fifty-year history of the Star Trek franchise. It would be a massive waste of his talent, and a disappointment to the audience, if these films avoided giving Stewart something into which he might sink his teeth. (Although the material was better in First Contact.)

However, both Generations and First Contact made a clear effort to transform Picard into an action hero. The climax of Generations finds Patrick Stewart throwing down against Malcolm McDowell in the middle of a quarry, with a late assist from William Shatner. The action sequence might not be particularly satisfying, but it exists. First Contact commits more wholeheartedly to the idea of Picard as an action hero, as he leads a battle to reclaim the ship from the Borg Collective. Insurrection would hardly be the first Next Generation movie to play Stewart as an action hero.

“But it’s too late. I’ve seen everything.”

The problem with the way that Insurrection approaches Jean-Luc Picard is that it treats the character as nothing but an action hero. This is a story about Picard confronting his own old age, and about discovering that Starfleet is complicit in a truly horrific crime. There should be ample material for Stewart to play here. After all, no Star Trek actor can convey righteous indignation or mature reflection as effectively as Stewart; look at The EnemyThe Drumhead, The First Duty. However, Insurrection resists any attempt to explore Picard’s interior life, in favour of a broad comedic aesthetic.

In some ways, this hints at the issues that Nemesis would have with the character. On paper, Nemesis is designed in such a way as to be a more Picard-centric story, touching on ideas of character and determinism in a way that should feel tragic and mournful. However, by the time that Nemesis came around, Stewart had committed to the idea of Picard as a very broad action hero. The defining character moment for Picard in Nemesis has nothing to do with “there but for the grace of God…” or “… the victory of the echo over the voice”, but is instead the sheer joy of riding a dune buggy or hijacking a shuttle.

Getting his head on properly.

Picard is not the only character who suffers from the tonal issues with Insurrection, the only feature player who is drawn surprisingly broadly for the amount of screen time that he commands. Insurrection is a script that devotes a lot of time and attention to Data, without having any idea what to do with him. According to Piller in Fade In, this was largely down to the production team’s difficulty negotiating with Brent Spiner:

Brent was unhappy about Data malfunctioning early in the picture. He had behaved abnormally in the last two movies. He was afraid it was beginning to seem like Data was an untrustworthy officer. Beyond the malfunction, Data seemed to him like an after-thought. Discouraged, he offered up a solution: kill Data off in this movie. We declined and tried to assure him that we would continue to develop Data’s story on the Ba’ku planet.

Again, there is no small measure of irony in this suggestion. Spiner’s desire to kill off his iconic character so that he might be free of the franchise recalls Leonard Nimoy’s own feelings going into The Wrath of Khan. More than that, much like Patrick Stewart’s idea of Picard as an action hero would play into the sequel, Spiner’s desire to kill off the character of Data would come to fruition in Nemesis.

The invisible man.

It has been argued – fairly – that the Next Generation feature films are pretty much “the Picard and Data show.” The original Star Trek series largely focused on a tight set of core characters with a fairly bland supporting cast, before the feature films really opened up the ensemble beginning with The Search for Spock. In many ways, the Next Generation films reverse this dynamic. While the television series made a conscious effort to build up an ensemble by allocating a few episodes each season to Troi or Crusher or LaForge, the feature films tighten the focus dramatically.

Picard and Data get a lot of storytelling space over the course of the four Next Generation films. Often, the films consciously mirror their journeys. In Generations, Picard comes to terms with the death of his brother and nephew just as Data grapples with emotion chip that he has just installed. In many ways, First Contact finds Data enduring the same trauma against which Picard is rebelling. Nemesis provides both Picard and Data with twisted, broken, younger reflections of themselves.

The droid who wasn’t there.

The big problem with Insurrection is that it never figures out exactly what it wants to do with Data, even as it understands that Data has to be an essential part of the plot because of the character’s popularity and because of Brent Spiner’s expectations. As a result, the film opens with a big action set piece centred around Data, but never actually goes anywhere. It is fun to imagine a version of Insurrection that might have extended the plot where Data goes off the reservation, turning into a cybernetic Colonel Kurtz. However, Insurrection burns through that material quickly.

As a result, the film opens with a huge emphasis on Data, but with no idea what to do with him once Picard and Worf successfully recover him early in the film. Piller’s script suggests a bond between Data and the children of the Ba’ku village, which feels like a mistake on many levels. Most obviously, it is a very cynical and cloying creative choice, one designed to tug at the audience’s heart strings. More to the point, The Next Generation has already explored the potential of pairing Data with a child in episodes like Pen Pals or Hero Worship.

Making hay while the sun shines.

There is something very familiar about this crudely-drawn character arc, something that has already been explored across seven years of the television series. Spiner acknowledged as much in discussions with Piller, who defended his creative decision in Fade In:

It’s been my feeling that theatrical audiences have never been treated to the heart-warming Data as Pinocchio. I wonder if Brent realizes how his fans miss that about Data. Patrick and Brent would say by definition that it’s wrong to go back to those qualities of the character when he seems to have grown beyond them. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In TOS, Spock still depends on logic. The Doctor is still a curmudgeon. Kirk is still a rascal. The idea that the TNG characters need to fundamentally move away from what made them popular in the first place is a doubtful proposition, at least to me.

No, I don’t want to play the same beats that we’ve played in the television show, but I don’t think this movie does. And I’ve tried hard not to be inconsistent with Data’s character in the last two movies.

There is something very retrograde about the version of Data presented in Insurrection, suggesting a character who never evolved through the run of the series or who has not been changed in any way by the events of Generations or First Contact. In Generations, Data faced his own cowardice. In First Contact, Data faced sexual seduction. As such, Insurrection feels very outdated.

Troi again.

Then again, this hints at the central issue with Insurrection. At its core, age and maturity are major themes of the film, but they are consistently undercut by the creative decisions made by Michael Piller and suggested by the cast members. Piller is writing the character of Data as he appeared in the third or fourth season of The Next Generation, which is the version that Piller understood as executive producer. Piller is not writing a version of the character who has grown in the seven or eight years since then.

The characters in Insurrection seem almost trapped in amber. The movie’s most heartwarming subplot involves the rekindling of the relationship between William Riker and Deanna Troi, a very potent example of the nostalgia running through the script. “Counselor, do you think it’s possible for two people to go back in time to fix a mistake they made?” Riker asks. Insurrection does not hesitate to answer in the affirmative. What better image of that nostalgia than the sight of Jonathan Frakes freshly shaven, as he was for only the first twenty-six episode of The Next Generation?

Don’t rub it in.

The production team had some sense of the corrosive and self-destructive aspect of this nostalgia during the production. As quoted in Fade In, Patrick Stewart had some issues with the script’s transparent attempts to recapture the glory days of The Next Generation:

I think it is retrograde to emphases ‘family’ so strongly. I think that is sentimental and uninteresting and eventually leads to space heroes sitting round a camp fire singing “Row, row, row your boat…” The family building aspect of TNG is passed. Not dead, but the work is done. Most of our audience know who these people are and how they feel about each other and our new audience – the audience the studio are so eager for us to win and hold – don’t need to be told that. They will pick it up. What our new movie family need to be is individual, charismatic, intense, opinionated, brave, funny, intolerant, sexy. Larger than life.

Stewart makes a fair point, as much as his own approach to the character of Jean-Luc Picard would undercut the film’s dramatic arc. There is a big difference between writing a weekly television show and writing a feature film franchise, and Insurrection often struggles with that distinction.

Taking it on the chin.

The stock criticism of Insurrection is that it feels too much like a generic episode of The Next Generation. Alex Carter describes Insurrection as “a mediocre episode with sloppy editing.” Ed Harris insisted that it was nothing more than “an extended two-part episode of the TV series.” Jamahl Epsicokhan describes it as “a glorified episode.” Matthew Martin suggests that the feature would have made “a fine TV episode.”

To be fair, these criticisms apply as much to the direction and the editing as to the scripts. Jonathan Frakes was still more of television director than a feature film director, and that shines through in the location work. Frakes worked very well on the standing sets in First Contact, understanding how to move a camera through and around the franchise’s elaborate production design. However, Frakes struggles with the outdoor action sequences in Insurrection, giving them a very flat and generic look that would be more at home on nineties prime-time than a cinema screen.

“Could this be another episode… of our lives?”

However, these criticisms also apply to the storytelling and the tone of the film. Michael Piller acknowledged this stock critique in Fade In, arguing that it reflected a misconception about the movie:

But was it, as Patrick put it, “an extended episode of the series” (a description that would be repeated by others later on.) Yes, I had to admit this story would play well on television — television shows often focus on character — more so, I think, than contemporary action movies do. But at the same time, I continued to feel there had been many great films, some of which I’ve already mentioned here like The Seven Samurai and Lawrence of Arabia, that created sweeping epics from similar stakes. I believed this story could fill the big screen.

Piller seems to misunderstand the criticism, honing in on some of Stewart’s more superficial comments. It is entirely possible for films to be character-driven, but nobody in their right mind would describe David Lean’s work on Lawrence of Arabia or Akira Kurosawa’s direction of The Seven Samurai as extended television episodes.

A driving force.

That said, the stock criticism of Insurrection is a little unfair. While Insurrection freely borrows plot elements and characterisation from a lot of third season episodes, it is not entirely accurate to describe the film as an extended television episode. At its peak, The Next Generation would never have told a story in this way or in this manner. The Next Generation tended to be a little more nuanced and introspective in its characterisation, whereas Insurrection is decidedly broad. The Next Generation was all about its characters, while Insurrection is about archetypes.

It is hard to think of a specific two-parter that evokes the tone and atmosphere of Insurrection, but perhaps Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II comes closest. It is a story about a secret and idyllic community that is disrupted by a new arrival from Starfleet, and also features a weird little subplot focusing on Data that disappears about half-way through the story. Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II is relatively underrated, but it is a legitimately character-focused narrative that allows Worf and Data room to breath, to explore their characters and perspectives.

Moments in time.

Insurrection is not really like an episode of The Next Generation. In many ways, Insurrection plays like the faded memory of an episode of The Next Generation, a VHS where the tape has worn just a little too thin. It is a movie that is not built around the characters who completed their journey with All Good Things…, it is anchored in the popular idea of these characters. The character beats in Insurrection all feel like they were conjured by somebody with a broad strokes understanding of The Next Generation who could not recall a specific episode.

Consider the character arcs and definitions in Insurrection. They are all very crude and shallow, but rooted in the hazy cultural memory of The Next Generation. Data is an child in an adult body, ignoring his journey to adulthood. Worf is a surly teenager, with no acknowledgement of the recent loss of his wife. Riker and Troi have a romantic connection, despite the fact that Troi was flirting with Worf by the end of the series. Geordi is blind, his inability to see treated as a problem to be fixed rather than just one part of who he is.

Everything burns.

There is an unsettling sense of crisis bubbling just beneath the surface of all this, a desperate yearning to return to a past that nobody remembers in any great detail. Insurrection is a fascinating paradox of a film, a movie longing to return to a hazily-defined past that seems murky. To watch Insurrection is to watch a veteran singer try to break out a beloved classic, only to realise too late that they no longer remember the words that play over the melody.

Insurrection feels like a movie stuck in a midlife crisis, desperate to convince both itself and its audience that it still has youth and vitality. There is just one sizable problem with all of this. The Next Generation was a television show largely built around the idea of maturity and consideration, a series in which its lead characters acted like professionals and would rather exchange diplomatic words than phaser fire. In some ways, Insurrection is attempting to recapture a youth that The Next Generation never had.

All fired up.

Of course, this is arguably in keeping with the general tone of where the franchise was at this point in its production history. As Darren Franich notes, Insurrection arrived at a time when the Star Trek franchise was beginning a descent from its peak popularity, the hangover following the blow-out thirtieth anniversary bash:

Piller started working on the screenplay for the ninth Star Trek film in March, 1997. Here is where we could say: Star Trek had never been healthier. First Contact did solid numbers, satisfied the fandom but broke out beyond it. Deep Space Nine had cult acclaim; Voyager was UPN, when UPN was a grand future and not an overlooked past. Before “cinematic universe” was a phrase mouthed by every executive business-bot on every quarterly earnings call, Piller had to phone the showrunner of Deep Space Nine to figure out how to safely stitch Worf’s continuity between the TV show and the movie.

But here we could also say: March 1997 was the beginning of the end for Star Trek’s Silver Age. Deep Space Nine and Voyager weren’t doing Next Generation numbers. First Contact couldn’t get past $100 million domestically, couldn’t outgross the movie with the whales.

Insurrection speaks to a franchise that is going through a quiet meltdown, realising that it is now thirty years old and facing the realisation that it could not remain at its zenith indefinitely. Even the Rick Berman era itself was more than a decade old, and had seen better days. (This anxiety was not unique to Insurrection; Voyager was working through it in scripts like Night or Timeless.)

Child’s play.

Insurrection even frames this as an existential crisis. When Dougherty begins to have second thoughts about the price of his alliance with the Son’a, Ru’afo preys on his insecurity. “In the past twenty-four months, they’ve been challenged by every major power in the Quadrant,” Ru’afo insists. “The Borg, the Cardassians, the Dominion. They all smell the scent of death on the Federation.” He might be forgiven for misidentifying the quadrant-of-origin for two of those three examples, because the point stands.

The Berman era seemed increasingly aware of its mortality, of the franchise entropy that was beginning to creep in around the edges of the screen. There was little danger of Star Trek dying in the short term, but the franchise was showing signs of age. When the producers needed to boost ratings on Deep Space Nine at the start of the fourth season, they could afford to add Worf to the cast without firing anybody. Two years later, when Voyager needed a new infusion of talent, the producers had to fire Jennifer Lien to make room for Jeri Ryan.

Taking a bath on this one.

When The Next Generation went off the air, Voyager was waiting in the wings. Generations would be released within six months of the broadcast of All Good Things… In contrast, Insurrection was released just as Deep Space Nine was winding down production. There would be no new spin-off launched to replace Deep Space Nine. Audiences would have to wait another four years to see a Star Trek movie in theatres. The Star Trek franchise might not have smelt of death, but it wasn’t looking too fresh, either.

Through its fixation on the past, Insurrection also glances at the future. It hints at the shape of things to come. The obsession with youth and vitality in Insurrection points the franchise in a very clear direction, informing a variety of subsequent creative choices. Nemesis would play with this same anxiety about age by casting Patrick Stewart opposite Tom Hardy, inviting Picard to wrestle with (and vanquish) a “darker and edgier” younger model that threatened to literally consume him. The age-related anxiety of Nemesis might be more subtle than Insurrection, but it is there.

Stewarting the franchise.

The decline of the Star Trek franchise in the years following Insurrection would lead to a renewed focus on youth and nostalgia. Star Trek: Enterprise would represent a very clear attempt at chasing youth in both a literal and figurative sense. Excluding Scott Bakula and John Billingsley, the cast on Enterprise was noticeably younger than their counterparts on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager. More than that, the decision to pitch the last Berman era series as a prequel reflect a clear desire to chase the franchise’s own youthful vigour.

The JJ Abrams reboot would commit even more strongly to that sense of nostalgia and youth, with Star Trek recasting the iconic original characters with younger actors. William Shatner was thirty-five when he was cast as James Tiberius Kirk, while Chris Pine was twenty-nine. Indeed, the broad nostalgia of Star Trek evokes that of Insurrection, the sense of drawing more from the faded memory of a much-loved thing rather than from the thing itself. The big difference was that Abrams was unmoored from these actors, and clearly dabbling in memory and nostalgia.

Riking distance.

In some ways, Insurrection seems almost ahead of the curve, a faint foreshadowing of the direction that pop culture would take in the years and decades that followed. Nostalgia would become the go-to aesthetic for these massive franchises, movies designed to evoke fond memories of earlier incarnations and hazy recollections of cultural touchstones. Spectre is arguably a greatest hits tour of the earlier Bond movies in a way that Insurrection aims to capture the mood of The Next Generation, only unburdened from an literal reminder of the intervening years like the ageing cast.

It could be argued that modern pop culture is stuck in that yearning for a past that probably never existed, in which audiences are invited to experience their childhood in perpetuity filtered through the silver screen. Kids who grew up watching Jurassic Park are now adults who take their kids to see Jurassic World. It is hard to know who really wanted CHiPs or Baywatch reboots, but those people damn sure want cameos (but not leading roles) from Erik Estrada or David Hasselhoff.

Joystickin’ it to the man.

Insurrection feels at once like a movie about that nostalgia and a movie indulging that nostalgia. It is a movie that vilifies that pursuit of youth by the Son’a, but lauds the eternal youth of the Ba’ku. It is a film that argues the exploitation of this youth-giving radiation by Admiral Dougherty would be wrong, but which luxuriates in how it reinvigorates the crew. It is a movie that ignores William Riker’s gradual growth into a mature adult by offering the image of a clean-shaven Jonathan Frakes flying the Enterprise with a joystick.

In many ways, the cardinal sin of Insurrection is that it is caught between two extremes, between the solemn maturity of The Wrath of Khan and the joyful nostalgia of Star Trek. It is a movie that embraces the nostalgia that has come to define mainstream blockbuster cinema, but in a way that seems pathetic rather than triumphant. Insurrection is the story of a middle-aged cast (and production team) playing at being teenagers, ignoring the fact that the cast of The Next Generation never really screamed youthful exuberance in the first place.

Blowing up the franchise.

Insurrection is a movie that responds to the inevitability of the passage of time with denial and cliché, suggesting a franchise that would rather chase a past that never existed than face the future that lies ahead.

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15 Responses

  1. I love that you yourself call it an episode at one point!

    >Spectre is arguably a greatest hits tour of the earlier Bond movies in a way that Insurrection aims to capture the mood of The Next Generation, only unburdened from an literal reminder of the intervening years like the ageing cast.

    From the writer of Nemesis, no less!

    (when I saw his name on Skyfall I dreaded the film, but ultimately enjoyed it; during Spectre I began to sweat; “it’s happening again!!!”)

    • Ha, good spot!

      I believe Logan actually left Spectre to work on other projects. It would be funny if Logan’s absence was the issue. (I don’t hate Spectre as much as most. In fact, I really love the weird occult vibe of the first act. But the second half is clumsy and messy and nonsensical falling into too many modern blockbuster tropes.)

  2. Remember “Relics”? I’m not a huge fan of TOS, but it deals with similar issues (franchise fatigue, obsolescence) in a more mature and thoughtful way.

    Could you imagine the crew of the USS Relativity finding an aged O’Brien and then thawing him out? The whole episode would be about how clunky the ship is compared to the nimble Enterprise-D, and how none of the crew can keep up with O’Brien.

    (Good thing Star Trek Discovery is going to be a prequel…I could see the producers doing just that!)

    “Voyager needed a new infusion of talent, the producers had to fire Jennifer Lien to make room for Jeri Ryan.”

    You might be overstating the case a bit. I remember reading that Braga had unlimited funds to play with, The restrictions placed on him were creative. Not budgetary.

    Recall also that Siddig was nearly axed from DS9.

    • The impression I got was that the Voyager team had to axe one cast member to make room for Ryan. It was going to be Wang, due to his unreliability on set. However, he landed People’s Most Beautiful list, and that saved him from the axe. So the spectre fell on Lien. (There are rumours about that, but none of them as substantiated as anything involving Wang, so I’m going to steer clear.)

  3. “sentimental and uninteresting and eventually leads to space heroes sitting round a camp fire singing “Row, row, row your boat…””

    Here you go, BIll.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_burn_centres_in_Canada

    • Yeah. I’m a little impressed that Patrick Stewart watched (at least the first fifteen minutes of) Star Trek V, but that zinger is amazing.

  4. I’m glad that you had the opportunity to read ‘Fade In’ before the review. It gives some very singular insights on how this particular sausage was made, and I’m very sympathetic to Pillar for a script that somehow went off the rails like a frog being slowly boiled (how’s that for mixed metaphors?).

    As you identified, the biggest issue with Insurrection seems to be too many people with their own visions for it, and nobody with the clear responsibility to choose one story and stick with it.

    To wit, we have:
    1) Pillar, with a vision for a story about the ‘fountain of youth’ and ‘heart of darkness’ – meditations on aging, Picard confronting a slippery slope of morality for himself and the Federation, etc. Has a strong sense of nostalgia for the series ‘as it was’ rather than ‘where they are now’.
    2) Berman, with a vision for a fun, campy adventure story with new villains. If I recall, Berman also thought that Stewart would be insulted by the ‘aging’ story and tried to have that changed (basically he wanted the opposite of Heart of Darkness)
    3) Stewart, who wants Picard to be an action hero with clear good and evil choices (the opposite of a slippery moral slope for Picard)
    4) Spiner, who probably didn’t like the ‘Heart of Darkness’ concept (since Data presumably is the Kurtz in this story) and wants Data to somehow not be a bad guy but also have a solid plotline. I can’t blame Spiner on this one and I think Data comes out alright in the movie.
    5) Various Paramount production staff who were also Trekkies and generally tried to cut down on the self-critical elements of the movie about the Federation, cut out expensive (and probably unnecessary) action scenes, etc.
    6) Director Jonathan Frakes, whose input on the actual movie and story seemed to be quite minimal?

    Personally, I love the idea of ‘Heart of Darkness’ done Star Trek style. It hasn’t been done well by the TV series yet (perhaps ‘the siege of AR-558 in DS9 comes closest, or Future’s End in Voyager) and it’s a great concept. However, looking at the above list, nobody else in the production was interested in pursuing that concept. It reminds me of Voyager: Pillar pushed a terrific plot hook for a series but then when it came to actually executing the vision, the production team didn’t have the shared vision or courage to follow through, and ended up trying to make Next Generation 2.0.

    In an ideal world, I think Pillar should have realized that his vision didn’t match up with the studio’s needs far sooner, and either withdrawn from the project or gone back to the drawing board with a campy action movie that probably would have ended up resembling ST III. Instead, they tried to shoehorn in way too many different elements, leaving nobody really satisfied. I think the core moral dilemma (forced expatriation) also really satisfied nobody, since there were too many odd factors at play (Can’t the planet be shared? Can’t we ask the Baku whether they feel extending their 600 immortal lives are worth more than easing the suffering of tens of thousands of injured and disabled war victims?)

    Though as a 12 year old when I first saw the movie, I have to say that Data saying “Saddle up, Lock and Load” was awesome at the time.

    Cheers for a thought provoking review! It’s been a long time since I thought about Insurrection.

    • “I think Data comes out alright in the movie”

      Have you noticed how your breasts have started to firm up, Mr Worf?

    • I think Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly argues that Fade In is the greatest book about screenplay writing ever written, at least from a pragmatic standpoint. And he’s right. All of the protagonists come across as sympathetic. Piller makes sure to provide each of his foils with clear motivations, to the point that I think it’s almost possible to read the book and agree with some of them more than with him. It is a remarkable accomplishment, and a great look into the proverbial sausage factory.

  5. Star Trek reviewer, SF debris, had a pretty good suggestion of how to fix the film. Have the crew take opposite sides of the issue. Begin the movie with Riker, Worf, and Leforge witnessing a Dominion attack that has left many people horribly injured. Then, when later Picard wants to disobey his orders, Riker and Worf insists that Admiral Dougherty is right, and that the federation does need the planet. Leforge also agrees with Riker and Worf, as he can’t help thinking about the people who suffer a similar condition as he does. Thus, the rest of the movie is a duel of wits between Riker and Picard. If the creators had done that, I think Insurrection could have been phenomenal.

    • Admittedly, it would be diffiicult to give something like that a satisfying conclusion, since you need to make them friends again by the end.

    • It’s an interesting idea, but I can’t see the TNG cast actually splitting on an issue like this. The TOS, DS9 and VOY casts, maybe. But the TNG casts seem too close to allow for that.

      (I particularly don’t like the film’s suggestion, which the suggested alternative plays into, that Geordi’s blindness is something that needs to be “fixed.” One of the things that was inspiring about Georgi was that it was just part of who he was, rather than something that limited him.)

  6. Insurrection always struck me as a movie that worked better as a trailer than an actual film. It felt like a lot of what Pillar was asked to do was to create moments that would hook non-Trek fans into coming in a two-minute trailer or a 30-second TV spot — even to the point of Data’s “lock and load” comment.

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