On December 11th, 1998, 10 years ago today, Paramount released the third TNG era feature film (and ninth in the Trek franchise), Star Trek Insurrection. For the rest of the week, TrekMovie.com will celebrate the anniversary with a series of Insurrection themed articles, starting today with a retro review of the film, including some behind-the-scenes info on its inception.
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 and Voyager).
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.
Micheal Piller on the set of "Star Trek Insurrection"
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.
The techo-Feds look down on the idyllic Ba’ku
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!
Insurrection lightens up and loses the 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.
Pick a bad guy: Ruafu (F. Murray Abraham) or Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe)
A mixed bag production
Star Trek is sometimes criticized for its depiction of outer space as just a void with stars. Insurrection addresses this by giving a very cool look to the area known as the Briar Patch. The special effects here are so good that the Briar Patch almost becomes a character in itself, and its unique look convinces that there is something unique about the Ba’ku world. Some of the planetside effects, such as the drones which tag the Baku could be better, however, the effects of Insurrection are some of the more dynamic of the 10 films because of the use of CGI technology. Fans also get to see a good variety of starships, from Federation to Son’a and especially thrilling is the Cousteau (the Captain’s Yacht) which we had heard about for years. However the big starship action sequence just feels like it was tacked on to the film just so there would be a big starship action sequence (which is exactly what it was).
As for the music, has Jerry Goldsmith ever not composed a wonderful soundtrack? Insurrection’s score helps to reinforce some of the themes of the movie, with the Baku people getting a romantic motif featuring string instruments, and the Son’a represented by electronic chords of dissonance and syncopation. Indeed, the Ba’ku theme is as beautiful as both Goldsmith’s Voyager and First Contact Vulcan music and is pleasant to listen to on its own merits. As always, Goldsmith weaves original music with previously established cues from TOS and TNG Unfortunately, some of the best music cues are not available on the soundtrack and it would be great if GNP or FilmScore would release a complete soundtrack as is available for The Motion Picture.
The rest of the production offers some highlights. The film features more sets than any Trek film (until the new 2009 Star Trek movie), and the Ba’ku village was exceptionally well done. The film primarily used the same uniform wardrobe from First Contact, but did introduce a new Starfleet dress uniform. The Son’a wardrobe was somewhat typical Star Trek generic alien, but the make-up, with it’s Hollywood facelifts gone horribly wrong overtones, was exceptional. But in the end, the production design still felt a bit too much like a Star Trek episode and not a feature film.
Riker pulls his maneuver
First Contact a hard act to follow…or is it?
Star Trek narratives are a many splendor thing. Because of its episodic nature, some Star Trek episodes are comedies, some are serious dramas. The variety of styles is one Star Trek greatest traits because it allows for a variety of adventures and character reactions. While First Contact tried to bring a different palette to Star Trek films (it is essentially a horror feature), it can be argued that Insurrection is a better ‘Star Trek film’ than First Contact. Indeed, it is only the subplot of the Riker and Cochrane narrative that has the optimism and social commentary typical of Trek, while our hero Captain Picard appears an unstable and violent, barely recognizable from the television show because of his obsession (although he returns to his normal self in the last 10 minutes). However, Star Trek Insurrection has the characters reacting as more of their normal selves, although also in surprising ways because of the narrative. Insurrection isn’t merely an adventure (as was First Contact), but also a social commentary in fine Trek tradition.
Some fans enjoy Insurrection, others do not. Yet, on this 10th Anniversary of Insurrection, it is good to think about an era when Star Trek was on television and in stores, in the mainstream, even if fading some because of the times. Star Trek Insurrection is a film worth revisiting, a film that before Wall-E warned of the dangers of letting modernity and technology affect our humanity. A film that teaches us that haste makes waste and that slow and steady wins the race. It is a refreshing, nostalgic, funny, and romantic film.
Insurrection reminds us it is about the human adventure
More Insurrection 10th Anniversary coming up
In the coming days we will have more coverage of the 10 year anniversary of Picard and crew’s travels in the Briar Patch, including looking at the film’s reception, more trivia, the science of Insurrection and collectibles of Insurrection. So get ready to stretch your faces into a smile.