Star Trek: Insurrection and the aging process onscreen
Entertainment Geekly's 'Star Trek' series goes to utopia.
The best book ever written about screenwriting in the 20th century is William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Goldman is a two-time Oscar winner, a bestselling novelist, a bestselling memoirist — “the guy who invented Inigo Montoya” if you want to impress millennials. With Adventures in the Screen Trade, he offers a panoramic vision of Hollywood, from the Golden Age through his career across the ’70s and very early ’80s. Tales from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Right Stuff, A Bridge Too Far, and other fine movies.
The book was, at one time, the most visceral and realistic portrait of the creative process in Hollywood. Now it is a remnant from a long-lost world, as fascinating and cosmic and revealing yet ultimately unfamiliar to us as the secret diary of a Pyramid architect. In a typical aside from Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman says: “Right now — today — comic-book pictures are only breeding more comic-book pictures, something that has never happened to this extent before.” His definition of “comic-book picture” includes The Thing, The Deer Hunter, and The Wrath of Khan. Times change, sometimes for the worse. Horror films, terrible war movies, and space-submarine screamfights all get respectable, if they last long enough.
“Eighteen years ago, William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade taught me how to be a writer.” That’s the first line of the best book ever written about screenwriting in the 21st century. The book is apparently titled Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft — The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection, which is still a better title than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Who knows if that is the actual title; Fade In was never officially published by anyone. The “book” was written by Michael Piller, one of the true grandees of the ’90s Trek Renaissance. He was variously showrunner for Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and Voyager. His open-door script policy launched careers. In a typical aside from Fade In, Piller casually recalls that one time he discovered Ronald D. Moore.
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. You can feel some of this anxiety, actually, in dialogue spoken midway through Insurrection:
Look in the mirror, Admiral. The Federation is old. In the past 24 months, they’ve been challenged by every major power in the Quadrant. The Borg, the Cardassians, the Dominion. They all smell the scent of death on the Federation.
“They all smell the scent of death.” The guy saying that line is a vision of time ravaging across a body. Well over a hundred years old, the man’s skin has been Brazil‘d backwards across his skull, awful plastic surgery in a society grown so grotesque that to be “attractive” synonyms for “only slightly horribly deformed.” The makeup on F. Murray Abraham isn’t convincing — you’re constantly aware that he’s a handsome man wearing face mulch — but maybe that’s the point. At one point his character — “Ru’Olfo” — screams at Picard. His forehead cracks open, spilling blood. Here’s something you can’t build in a computer: A completely unrealistic effect that is nevertheless real, with all the tactile physicality of a cheap carnival haunted-house ride.
Michael died too young in 2005. Fade In is his lost masterwork, though it’s only “lost” if you aren’t looking. It was apparently planned as a behind-the-scenes tie-in to Insurrection’s release. The studio never published it — a fact that leads you to believe that Fade In is a dishy gossip-hound takedown of the Trek machinery. Nothing could be further from the truth — Piller has generous words for producers, studio execs, actors, directors. All of these people, Piller insists, had the best intentions. And somehow, their best intentions made Insurrection terrible. Maybe that’s why Fade In never got published. No one in Hollywood wants you to know when they screw up a movie. But here is a book that follows, in minute and almost weekly detail, how a large group of talented and experienced people doing their jobs to the best of their ability still couldn’t make an even halfway decent movie.
Now, I’m loathe to quote too much from Fade In, since the book’s legality is suspect. (I should point out that if Fade In is entirely fictional, it is the most brilliantly and minutely realized fictional portrayals of the Hollywood process, right down to the flood of memos and the budgetary constraints on llamas.) A few years back, Sandra Piller was talking about giving it an official release. I would buy the hell out of that. But what executive is racing to publish a behind-the-scenes tell-some about one of the least beloved and barely remembered Star Trek movies? Especially at this juncture in history, when two major publicly traded corporations are — separately, desperately — trying to relaunch Trek as a going concern across film and television?
But Fade In is out there, if you’re looking for it. And it is, I think, the first essential book about screenwriting in the new century, a snapshot of Hollywood at the dawn of the franchise era: A portrait of the artist amidst corporate necessity, narrative continuity, the perceived requirements of fandom, the hazy way that actors in iconic roles can know everything yet nothing about their own characters, the urge to change, the simultaneous urge to not change too much. Piller writes how he wanted this ninth Star Trek movie to recapture the spirit of Next Generation, to show how the Enterprise crew as deep-down a family. Piller writes:
During seven years of the television show, Picard had emerged as a man of great principle and moral integrity. He solved problems with his intellect and communication skills and would never fire weapons unless fired upon. This side of him had not been explored in the other two feature films.
I sort of love this idea? I sort of agree? Generations and First Contact both landed on the idea that Picard needed to finalize into a man of action, needed to battle Malcolm McDowell across a rocky missile ledge, needed to carry big laser rifles before dangling above acid mist wearing John McClane’s Die Hard tank-top. Surely there was a way to make a film with Picard the thinker, Picard the outwitter, Picard the clever? But someone disagrees with me, disagreed with Piller. One of the leading Picard experts, actually: Patrick Stewart, who allegedly writes a long and thoughtful (and often quite funny) memo back to Piller declaring that these TNG movies needed to be different from TNG, that the emotions and action needed to be bigger, that too much sentimentality leads to heroes around a campfire singing “Row Row Row Your Boat.”
One last key quote from Fade In, a book that should be published everywhere, though for the purposes of this column I should add I only read it accidentally while attempting to download something else. Piller discusses — in lovely and thoughtful and witty detail — the very specific manner in which he conceived ideas. Piller had just been hired for the Trek movie assignment, and in these early stages, he was also taking a meeting with some network or other, pitching a TV show about life in the 1950s. The network rejected the pitch — apparently because a period-piece show wouldn’t play well for the youth demographic.
I was in front of the bathroom mirror cursing to myself about the network’s youth obsession as I sprayed Rogaine on my bald spot when my mind made an unexpected jump to the Star Trek assignment.
We’re obsessed with youth, I thought. Looking young, feeling young, selling to the young. When was the last time anybody did a fountain of youth story? I couldn’t remember. And I smiled.
Michael Piller was 49 when he started writing the movie that would become Insurrection, just a little older than William Shatner in The Motion Picture. Patrick Stewart was 58 when Insurrection hit theaters, the same age Shatner shot his autohagiographical magnum opus. Gene Roddenberry was only 45 when Star Trek launched, but he was a 45-year-old raised before they invented teenagers and twentysomethings. Forty-five in 1966 meant memories of Depression and of war. (Roddenberry had a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal; he survived three plane crashes before he turned 26.)
Something to consider, maybe: Was Star Trek always supposed to feel a little old? I don’t mean “archaic,” although so much of Trek looks archaic now, and the phone you’re reading this on can accomplish greater technological wonders than any Enterprise console. But is Star Trek supposed to be about people of a certain age? Let’s say “over 35,” just old enough to have regrets and long-lost friends and whole forgotten periods of their lives — the sort of stuff that could plot-engine an episode about brain bugs or time travel.
To be “old” is the subject of Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country (and, in fairness, Generations). The Voyage Home is the most lighthearted Trek film, but it’s an environmentalist vision, and environmentalism demands a certain nostalgia for how things used to be, combined with fervent optimism that things won’t just keep getting worse. The mere fact of Picard’s baldness would’ve coded him as “older” even without Stewart’s imperial bearing — and some of the finest Next Generation episodes deploy Picard in melancholic-ruminative mode, like Old Picard in “All Good Things,” or Old Picard in “The Inner Light,” or dying Picard looking backward to his younger days in “Tapestry.”
This is not to indicate, by any means, that Star Trek should only be watched by people of a certain age, or that Trek’s themes are somehow “mature.” I started enjoying Star Trek before I even had the capacity to remember the first time I saw Star Trek — and maybe you would counter-argue that a saga of spaceship captains shooting lasers at frowning aliens is specifically intended for a younger demographic. (Although the “this stuff is for kids” argument made more sense before adults read Young Adult novels and watched TV shows for dragons.)
Every new iteration of Star Trek tries, in some ways, to age the franchise downwards. The original Trek added Chekov, with baby-faced Walter Koenig and his Monkees moptop. Next Generation wedged in Wesley. Voyager had Tom Paris, a proto-Chris-Pine-as-Kirk with a history of badass-renegade activity. For two decades, there was talk about a Starfleet Academy movie — the end result of which we’ll get to in two weeks.
It’s not insidious, to chase after the youth demographic. But it is worth pointing out that when Star Trek debuted, nobody really thought of “the youth demographic” the way we do now. Adults went to movies; it was assumed that adults decided what money went to what movies. That started to change not long after Trek debuted, and then it really changed right before The Motion Picture. Hollywood cinema has infantilized from there — generally, not completely, but steadily. This infantilization played out in myriad complex ways. Movies got dumber, bigger, better looking. Action scenes got cooler, but less believable. Star Trek movies got bigger laser guns, stopped quoting Shakespeare.
Actually, it’s tricky to even use a word like “infantilization.” Some of the dumbest action movies of the 1980s are now (rightly) considered classics. Some of the action heroes of the 1980s have found a second life doing the same stuff they did 30 years ago, with quotemarks implied. What does it mean to age, in the age of The Expendables? Does anyone have to grow up?
The short answer is “No,” and the long answer is “Probably, but not if you’re rich and famous. What’s undeniable is that the Star Trek film about the fountain of youth feels, unsteadily, like a whole franchise grasping towards youthfulness — and “Coolness,” youth’s curse. It is like watching a whole franchise get plastic surgery, like you can see the very skin of Star Trek has stretching to its breaking point.
Oh, look: Boobs! Did I mention that this is also the first Star Trek movie where someone says “boobs”? It’s in the film’s Bechdel scene, when Troi and Crusher have a profound conversation about the effects of metaphasic radiation on the physiology of humanoid females:
Troi: And have you noticed how your boobs have started to firm up?
Crusher: Not that we care about such things in this day and age.
The Enterprise crew has arrived on a mysterious planet, populated by a mysterious race called the Ba’Ku. The film opens with an extended shot of their village, which has the faintly Greco-Asiatic style of Planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Actually, Wikipedia informs me that the architectural design combined Thai, Balinese, and Polynesian styles. Noticeably absent from the village: Anyone who looks Thai, Balinese, Polynesian, anything but lilywhite.
The Ba’Ku village was created in Lake Sherwood, one of those beautiful and remote California locations perfect for rehab resorts or New Age cults or yoga retreats. The Ba’Ku suggest all three, and worse. An advanced spacefaring race, they have given up technology the way rockstars give up booze, making them serene and thoughtful and healthy and boring. They live in the kind of utopia that simultaneously resembles Jeffersonian pastoralism and a Phish summer camp. They dress like burlap and probably eat their own smug smiles for breakfast.
The Enterprise has arrived here on a provocative mission. Data has gone mad, or gone native: Sent to the planet with a Starfleet team, he started firing phasers at the good guys and stole a spaceship. In Fade In, Piller explores how this arc originated out of the notion of doing a Star Trek version of Heart of Darkness — and at various points, Data was supposed to die. (Don’t worry: Death was never fatal.) But Insurrection can only commit to a bold idea for so long — and soon Data’s back with the good guys.
Not long after Data swims with the cute fishes, he boards a double-canoe with Picard so they can go to the middle of the lake. I can’t quite get over the cosmic irony of this shot. If we trust Fade In, Stewart was savvy enough to know that he didn’t want this movie to become The Final Frontier — and yet, here he is, at the same old-folks Trek summer camp where Shatner climbed Half-Dome. (And Shatner, god help him, never got within spitting distance of a freaking double-canoe.)
Much of the movie focuses on Picard’s sexless love affair with a local Ba’Ku woman, whose unpronounceable name is “Anij.” Anij dresses in drapes and pilgrim saris and spends most of the movie telling Picard to “live in the moment,” like so many annoying people who left religion but found Lululemon.
Their love affair begins one night when Picard walks into his quarters. He asks the computer to play something Latin: “Mambo.”
Picard can sense something is wrong. He looks at himself in the mirror, and can’t quite recognize the man he sees there. So he goes to Anij, and demands to know the hilarious truth: “How old are you?”
She tells him THE SECRET OF THE BA’KU, who cares. This planet has curious powers. It makes the Ba’Ku basically immortal: Anij herself is over 300 years old. (Actress Donna Murphy is 19 years younger than Stewart, and maybe there’s a sad joke here that Hollywood really would consider her ancient next to Stewart.) And it has strange, vaguely youth-ening effects on any visitor. Like Worf, who gets a zit.
Or Riker, who pops into Troi’s room with a spring in his step and playfully demands some smooches.
Or Troi, who agrees to the smooches only after Riker agrees to an old-fashioned candle-lit champagne shave-bath, the sort of thing hip youngsters have always demanded in the midst of their lovemaking.
I want to say that the loss of Riker’s Beard is further evidence that Insurrection is youth-besotted. That beard arguably defined Riker’s whole state of being, and symbolized how Next Generation got better as it steadily defined its characters eccentricities; taking that beard away is also, somehow, an act of taking all that history away. (No coincidence that Riker shaves his beard while rekindling a long-ago romance with Troi: Turns out you can go home again.)
But truthfully, all this silly stuff is the very best part of this terribly silly movie. The Troi-Riker stuff is loopy, but Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis are clearly having a ball. (Supposedly, the performers filmed that scene all-the-way naked; you do weird things when you’re bored, and so much of Insurrection is so boring.) The best sequence in the whole movie is Picard — mid space-chase — distracting a rampant half-insane Data with a Worf-assisted singalong to Gilbert & Sullivan.
Now, maybe that scene strikes you as helplessly goofy. Maybe you think Star Trek should be cooler, hip, less Gilbert & Sullivan, more Beastie Boys. Maybe you react to that scene the way Worf does.
You’re not alone. The movie itself resists all of its own lighthearted instincts. Picard discovers that there’s a nefarious plot to relocate the Ba’Ku, and to claim the magical mystery fountain-of-youth powers of the planet. This plot has been approved by the Federation — making Insurrection the middle chapter of the Paranoid Trilogy alongside The Undiscovered Country and Into Darkness. This leads Picard to resign his commission and put on a sweet leather jacket, the uniform of cool guys in the ’50s and guys in their 50s desperate to look cool.
This also leads to copious scenes where the Enterprise crew shoots drones with laser rifles. At one point, Worf fires a laser bazooka. If they only they had the budget for a laser chaingun, or a laser AK-47, or a laser Lancer with a laser chainsaw!
Part of the fun of reading Fade In is that, by exploring the film’s creation in such minute detail — complete with copious drafts and heavily-debated plot points — Piller seems to invite you to discover where, precisely, it all went wrong. In my opinion, it all started right from the beginning, when Piller and producer Rick Berman decided that they wanted to give the Next Generation cast their own Voyage Home. “Not a single weapon was fired in that film,” recalls Piller, quite lovingly. But then he suddenly pivots: “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.”
Bold text mine, because that statement is fascinating. Not fascinating because Piller is wrong. In fact, that is the constant conventional wisdom you always hear, in a crowd of people who care about this kind of thing, when you discuss The Voyage Home. Before 2009, Voyage Home was the highest-grossing Star Trek movie ever. If you adjust for inflation, Voyage Home actually made more domestically than Star Trek Into Darkness. Maybe that’s a goofy statistic — so did The Motion Picture, and Into Darkness made much more abroad — but maybe you could also factor in that, adjusted for inflation, The Voyage Home cost $140 million less than Into Darkness. (You save a lot of money when you don’t fire any weapons.)
And yet, the idea of creating a Star Trek movie without violence long ago went out the window and never flew back in. Maybe this comes down to the finances of Hollywood in the globalization age, with visuals that need to play in Peoria and Puyang. Maybe it’s the surprisingly long tail of influence of the ’80s action genre. Not long after Insurrection, the modern action movie was created by The Matrix and The Bourne Identity, movies where seemingly “normal” guys suddenly know kung fu and parkour.
All this is to say: This is another movie that puts Jean-Luc Picard in a sweaty T-shirt, and it doesn’t matter how great Stewart’s arms look (really great), what matters is that this is a movie that somehow wants to capture the spirit of a light whimsical character comedy but also add in lots of explosions and guns and space battles.
There’s a way to do that. Edgar Wright lives in this genre; so does Abrams, though the seams always show when he tries to get serious. Marvel Studios will get there, though they need funnier characters and better directors. Insurrection doesn’t get there, not even close. This is another Next Generation movie where the weird-looking freaks are weird and evil. F. Murray Abraham tries to preen and he tries to scream, but the film barely makes room for him. Too bad, too: His Captain’s Chair sofa is the most subtle effect in the movie, a throne so large that it makes Ru’Afo look like a petulant child.
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.)
“Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?” Picard says that at the start of Insurrection. I believe the movie means that line to be ironic and sincere. Insurrection wants you to giggle at the self-awareness, but also wants to explore again. You think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, old and tired of the happy life at home, setting out for one more adventure, maybe just leaving so he can die at sea. Nicholas Meyer definitely would’ve thought of Tennyson. But Insurrection is an old man’s movie desperately struggling to reclaim some lost youth, some semblance of cool.
“Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” says Ulysses in the poem, his tone of voice suggesting that perhaps he secretly knows it is too late. “Lock and load,” says Data in Insurrection, his tone of voice suggesting that everyone agreed that Star Trek needed optimism and whimsy and fun, but what it really desperately needed was way more guns.
Insurrection is almost forgotten in the Trek canon, which is arguably worse than being actively loathed like FInal Frontier and Nemesis and Into Darkness. Which means that, until I rewatched Insurrection this week, for the first time since it was in theaters, I had forgotten all about the first scene on the Enterprise. The Enterprise is throwing a party for some alien species or other, a ceremonial event requiring ceremonial attire.
The outfit takes the rough structure of the later Deep Space Nine-era grayscale attire, but mixes it together with the naval formality of my beloved Wrath of Khan redscale foldover-jacket turtlenecks. Actually, the Insurrection uniform goes Full Navy with the dress whites — and then goes Full Royal with the golden trim. And we’re talking blinding white – none of the lame beige of The Motion Picture or fudgey maroon-brown of the early Next Generation.
Imagine a whole movie with the Enterprise crew in these dress whites: a very important dinner party being thrown in Ten-Forward, a dead body that keeps disappearing on the holodeck, some attacking Romulans that threaten to ruin the party, a quick pop-in by Q who keeps timeshifting Picard away just as he’s about to finally eat his first bite. And all along, these dress-whites stay spiffy, bright, blindingly clean.
What I’m saying is: God help me, these are my favorite Star Trek uniforms.
THE WHOLE MOVIE IN A NUTSHELL: