Thursday, June 22, 2023

Star Trek: Insurrection (Star Trek IX)

  This is the ninth of a series of essays on the first ten Star Trek features, the Trekalog.

by William Severini Kowinski

Star Trek: Insurrection has become a problematic movie as the ninth in the original ten (or Trekalog) of Star Trek features. Even its title has become troublesome. (There’s no insurrection to overthrow the government in this story.  We now know better what that looks like.) Though I have great affection for this film, I’ve been bothered by its shortcomings, from the first time I saw it in a theatre the week it was released in December 1998. I felt then it could have been a great Star Trek movie, as well as a brave one. In many respects, it dazzled me. I still believe thematically it remains a major evocation of the soul of Star Trek.   

This film, written by Michael Piller from a story by Piller and Rick Berman, and directed by Jonathan Frakes, has its fans.  At the time it opened, critic Gene Siskel said it was the only Star Trek movie he truly enjoyed.  (His TV partner, Roger Ebert, had a different view.) 

 Others have come to value it over the years, or at least elements of it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score—especially the lovely Ba’ku theme—remains one of my favorites, and the acting, the characterizations, the humor gave it an attractive buoyancy.  After many subsequent viewings, I’ve found more that’s annoying but I also retain that initial affection, and admire it even more for its courage.

 The conventional wisdom has become that it is more of a television episode than a movie.  Insofar as I even know what that means, I take the opposite view: I think it tries too hard to be an action movie.  Or more generally, it may simply be that the Star Trek features series started to run out of luck. Many if not most very good feature films have a pretty long history. They may have been conceived five or eight or ten years before they get made.  Even some sequels take years to develop.  But Star Trek movies rolled out at a faster pace—every two or three years.  They typically emerged from assembling bits and pieces of screenplay drafts, often at the last minute, with lots of different imput.  This fortuitously resulted in some excellent films.   Unfortunately that kind of luck doesn’t always appear.

 But before wallowing in the details, the most important element of this movie is the core story, the principles that are at stake.  In special features interviews for the first expanded DVD of this movie, writer Michael Piller said that he wanted to move away from the darker Star Trek (not only the previous feature, Star Trek: First Contact, but the ongoing television stories, particular of Deep Space Nine) and the darker path science fiction had been taking in general in the 1990s, to revive the optimistic spirit and idealistic modeling of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.  “I wanted to do one for Gene,” he said.  So Insurrection pivoted on a moral issue with a real world history, as well as portraying a society that emphasized a different aspect of the soul of Star Trek.

The title sequence—set to that lilting but slightly unconventional Goldsmith theme—depicts a happy, healthy and busy agrarian society with some pre-industrial mechanisms.  But we quickly see hidden observers, Starfleet uniforms and unknown aliens (the Son’a), just before violence disrupts this peaceful day. The android Data has seemingly gone berserk, and has deliberately unmasked the hidden observers.  He also appears to be wounded.

 Meanwhile the Enterprise-E is far away, on yet another minor diplomatic mission (“Does anyone remember when we were explorers?” Captain Picard asks.) After being contacted by an Admiral Dougherty requesting Data’s schematics, and then a brief conversation with the Admiral about Data apparently gone amok, Picard (against the Admiral’s wishes) diverts the Enterprise to the distant planet involved, in an untraveled pocket of the galaxy called the Briar Patch because its environment disrupts starship technologies.

 Maneuvering a shuttle and a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan, Picard and Worf disable Data, and Geordi La Forge learns what went wrong: Data had been attacked and engaged his ethical subprograms.  But why was he attacking the Son’a and Federation personnel—everyone but the Ba’ku on the planet?

 Picard and an Enterprise team beam down to free the unmasked observers Dougherty tells him are hostages. They find instead peaceful, calm and intelligent villagers, treating the “off-worlders” as guests.  Picard soon learns that the Ba’ku are warp-capable but have chosen a life without advanced technology, on this welcoming planet. 

 Picard and the Ba’ku investigate what Data found that got him shot: a holo-ship, programmed to simulate the Ba’ku village.  When several Son’a attack them, Picard realizes what is happening: a conspiracy to transport the Ba’ku onto the holo-ship and abduct them. “You go to sleep one night in the village. Wake up the next morning on this flying holodeck transported en masse.  In a few days, you’re relocated on a similar planet without even realizing it.” But the question remains: why?

 By now some of the Enterprise crew are feeling and acting oddly. Riker and Troi are re-igniting their old romance, Worf is showing signs of going through Klingon puberty, and Picard himself feels a burst of vitality and exuberance.  Having danced his way to a mirror to examine his jawline, he realizes what is happening, and returns to the planet to speak with Anij and the other Ba’ku, who confirm that the “metaphasic radiation,” a quality of the rings around the planet that continuously regenerates genetic structure, is keeping them young and even improves their health.  Just being in orbit around the planet is enough to affect the Enterprise crew. Three centuries earlier, the Ba’ku left a war-torn planet and searched for an isolated haven to establish a peaceful culture, ending up here.

 Picard now realizes that the planned Ba’ku abduction has something to do with the “fountain of youth” effects of the planet’s rings.  He vows to prevent it, and in explaining his reason to Anij, Picard states in plain language the moral core of this story: “Some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one.  I’d hoped we had learned from our mistakes, but…it seems that some of us haven’t.”

 Those forced relocations and related behaviors (up to and including genocide) have happened multiple times on every inhabited continent on Earth, from ancient days through our own time in the 21st century.  Many would observe that they are still happening. 

 But the instance Michael Piller said was foremost in his mind when he wrote this script was the removal over several centuries of a series of American Indian peoples, most graphically represented by the Trail of Tears that resulted from what was literally called the Indian Removal Act in 1830.  Cherokee, Seminole and other tribal groups were driven from their communities in the southeast (near where gold was discovered) and forced—including force-marched—thousands of miles to reservations in the West.  Thousands died of starvation and disease along the way, while others perished shortly after their arrival.

 Later, in his confrontation with Admiral Dougherty, Picard asserted that removal “will destroy the Ba’ku, just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocation throughout history.”  Relocation and related oppressions certainly destroyed American Indian cultures that had flourished for many centuries. 

In this confrontation, Dougherty makes the case for kidnapping the Ba’ku.  The Son’a have developed a way to extract the youth-preserving qualities of the planet’s rings but the process would render the planet “uninhabitable for many generations.” They will deploy the huge, eye-catching particles collector, with technology the Federation can't duplicate.   But the planet (oddly, it is never named) is in Federation space, so for this mission the Son’a and the Federation are partners, sanctioned by the Federation Council.

 After Dougherty parries his proposals to delay the procedure for further study of alternatives while the Son’a and Ba’ku share the planet, Picard lays it on the line: “We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded.  It’s an attack upon its very soul.”

 Though there are technical interpretations of how the Prime Directive does or doesn’t apply, Picard is consistent in his assertion about history.  For him, the nuances of “non-interference” are based upon a hard-won founding principle, which in a TNG episode he spelled out to his crew: “We are not invaders.  We are explorers.” 

The distinction is basic, and a huge change. Historically, explorers were the scouts for invaders. Again, we have to look no further than the Americas. Explorers, financed by governments and commercial interests, returned with news of lands to inhabit and resources to plunder and bring back to Europe. Columbus thought the friendly natives might make good slaves.

  When the Federation was founded, it committed to not repeating this history, to respecting the cultures and the lifeforms on planets it explored.  A number of Next Generation stories were about this very subject.

 This is what Starfleet’s Prime Directive is really about.  It is what makes the Federation different, not only in the fictional universe it inhabits, but in our universe as a vision of justice, diversity, and respect for all life.  It is as Picard said, an element of the Federation’s soul, and a major expression of the soul of Star Trek that has inspired so many for generations.

 Dougherty counters: “Jean-Luc, we are only moving six hundred people.” 

 “How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong?” Picard replies.  “A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million?  How many people does it take, Admiral?”

 With its swelling music tag, this speech is a popular moment with many Trek fans.  Personally I feel this choice of tone makes Picard sound too pompous and self-righteous—he’s not really asking the question, he’s being indignant.  It’s no wonder that Dougherty dismisses his objections and orders him to another part of the galaxy.  But his point is solid—and controversial.

 Many people, evidently including some members of the cast, see sense and maybe a more persuasive case based on the numbers: Dougherty said that the regenerative properties of the rings’ radiation could benefit billions. Doesn’t helping billions justify moving six hundred people (and probably sacrificing their current perpetual youthfulness, perhaps condemning them to imminent death)?  Don’t the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? 

By positing billions against 600, this script forces a hard look at the core principles.  Doubtless the European invaders thought timber from American forests for sailing ships and other purposes, as well as crops like tobacco, would benefit millions in Europe, and therefore justified getting rid of the cultures of  hundreds or thousands living in those forests and on those lands that were in the way.  Just as they justified the Trail of Tears because gold would help their country’s economy, and therefore more people. 

 Invasion and exploitation always justifies itself on supposed principles, as long as they don’t get in the way of the invader’s gain.  What may look like a sensible calculus is usually a convenient rationalization for greed, based on greater military power and (almost always) assumptions of racial and cultural superiority.  Even the implication that the Federation can do what it wants with this planet because it is in "Federation space," (and apparently the  Ba'ku who live there don't have to be consulted) is a species of imperialism. 

 Picard had allowed himself to be swayed by this calculus before, in the seventh season episode “Journey’s End,” as described in an earlier post.  In that story it was young Wesley Crusher who rebelled against the forced relocation of a group of American Indians.  Perhaps it was this incident, augmented by the youthful idealism and rebelliousness revived by the rings, that reminded Picard so forcefully of the costs of violating this principle—as well as the price of upholding it.   

The rest of the story involves Picard and his core crew—the Magnificent Seven—and their championing of the Ba’ku.  There is a final twist—the discovery that the Son’a and Ba’ku are the same race, the grotesquely aging children against their perpetually youthful parents.  The Son’a’s motives are revealed to include revenge.

 There are also a few scenes involving the Ba’ku culture, particularly two conversations between Picard and Anij, as they grow closer.  In essence, Anij talks about fully inhabiting the present moment, without reviewing the past or planning for the future“You explore the universe,” Anij says to Picard.  “We have discovered that a single moment in time can be a universe in itself, full of powerful forces.  Most people aren’t aware enough of the now to even notice.”

  Here on Earth, mindfully exploring the present moment is a both meditation technique and its intention, developed in Zen and other Buddhist practice, only recently adapted in American and European contexts. A different approach to valuing the present moment was a theme in Star Trek: Generations, where it was a consequence of mortality, rather than a lesson of immorality. 

Later Anij demonstrates the ability to slow time down, or at least the perception of time. (Making the water drops visible as they fall, or the hummingbird’s visible wings may remind some viewers of effects of a certain herb, and of spending seeming hours watching smoke curl under a lamp.)  The Ba’ku insights may suggest the value that can be derived from different “alien” cultures, even small and isolated ones, like Tibet (though forms of Buddhism are prominent in many Asian countries.)  Perhaps what the Ba’ku have to teach would be more valuable than what the rings of their planet can offer.

 Though our own (often small) Native cultures were crushed before many of their profound insights were known or understood, some of those cultures made deep impressions on the dominant culture, and that continues to happen. For instance, the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederation of tribes existed democratically, probably for longer than the United States has so far. Contacts with Founding Fathers and others, some scholars say, meaningfully influenced the idea and structure of the United States.  In turn, it influences the United Federation of Planets, though the Haudenosaunee had a different Prime Directive than Starfleet: In every decision, consider the impact on the seventh generation to come. (For us, seven generations takes us into the 23rd century.) 

.M. Dillard’s novelization, published to coincide with the movie’s initial release, was based on a slightly earlier version of the script, but differs in plot details mostly in a different ending, in which Ru’afo escapes the collector but plunges into the rings, speedily becoming younger and younger until he disappears.  Apparently this was changed during shooting when that ending didn’t seem to be working.  The actual ending is disappointing: Picard and the villain climbing and fighting against a ticking clock to get to a control panel replicates the Generations climax and there are similar scenes in First Contact, while the blue background (meant to be the rings outside?) screams unfinished visual effect.

 The Son’a’s appearance is different in the novelization—not the wrinkled wraiths we see on the screen but with surgically thin baby smooth skin, and ostentatiously adorned in robes and jewels. Perhaps this was too close to a Hollywood reality.  Apart from their skin stretching salon, just about the only remnant of the Son’a’s conspicuous love of luxury is the incongruous sofa that is Ru’afo’s command chair on the bridge of his ship. (In the film, the Son’a have two alien slave races: the Ellora, who look like Vegas showgirls in body paint, and the Tarlac, who resemble the aliens in Buckaroo Banzai.)

 Apart from some Harlequin romance level descriptions, Dillard does elaborate on motives and intentions.  The duck-blind observation of the Ba’ku, in her interpretation, was itself always a ruse, to mask the secret of what the Son’a and Admiral Dougherty were up to. It takes an extra step to realize this from the actual movie, for the only hint I got was the implication of Dougherty saying the Ba’ku originally came from elsewhere in space (and hence weren’t covered by the Prime Directive), suggesting he mus have known they weren’t a pre-warp society that required secrecy to study. 

 Towards the end, when Admiral Dougherty learns the true relationship of the Son’a and Ba’ku, Dillard has him realizing that Ru’afo was primarily seeking revenge, and that he never intended to share the youth-giving technology or its fruits with the Federation.  Similarly, Picard has a flash of recognition as he confronts Ru’afo on the collector: just as he had been driven by vengeance against the Borg in the events depicted in Star Trek: First Contact, so Ru’afo was obsessed with revenge against the Ba’ku who had rejected and exiled him. Even though revenge seems the default motivation for Star Trek movie villains, this movie might have benefited from such clarifying moments.

 Dillard also elaborates earlier on Picard’s thoughts from his initial confrontation with Dougherty.  He reasons that the Federation would probably need no more than a few years to figure out a better way to benefit from the cellular regeneration effects of the rings, and that the Son’a were rushing things for reasons of their own.  He doubts that the full and true plan had ever been presented to the Federation Council.  Clearer indications of Dougherty’s and Picard’s suspicions and realizations in the movie (perhaps as Dillard developed them) might have added texture and interest to the movie’s story, making it more of the unraveling of a mystery.

 I don’t want to belabor what I experienced as flaws in the film.  Every film has flaws, but some are serious enough—or there is an accumulation of them—to weaken the credibility and flow of the movie, or to engender confusion and raise questions, all of which are harmful when they take the viewer out of the story.  My disappointments are no doubt heightened by my conclusion that this could have been the best of the TNG features.

My first impression that this was a movie that just missed being really good was based on what seemed to be a confusing rhythm, a sense that, despite some slow scenes and comic moments, it just rushed on, with no rhythm but momentum.  I felt it needed more pace; it needs to breathe.  It’s not as if running time was a problem—this was the shortest of all Star Trek features.   

I felt this most acutely on first view in the cut from Geordi’s viewing of a sunrise—the first time in his life he’d seen one with normal vision, due to the planet’s regeneration effect.  In his original commentary to First Contact, director Jonathan Frakes noted the temptation to cut off a scene too quickly just to keep the movie moving.  The quick cut from the sunrise and Geordi’s eyes to an overview of orbiting ships was jarring, and to me trivialized what could have been a more powerful moment.  

 I was also taken out of the flow by elements of the story that didn't seem credible, like the simpleminded plan to relocate the Ba’ku (they weren’t going to notice they were no longer on their planet, with its hills and sky?) or Data and the others in their invisibility suits tromping around supposedly undetected, as if the Ba’ku had no other sense but sight.

 I was always uneasy with the portrayal of the Ba’ku, though the actors rescued it for me.  Subsequent viewings suggest why they seem less credible than symbolic: their gracefully styled but rigidly earth-tone clothing, their uniformly pristine village buildings-- more elegant versions of a Phoenix suburb (as Marina Sirtis suggests in a recent commentary) and (as Jonathan Frakes notes) their unbroken whiteness. 

Then there are the missed opportunities, including a clearer sense (perhaps from a single point of view, like Picard’s) of the contrast between the trivial hurry of the Enterprise greeting a new Federation member, and the slower, fuller life on the planet, absent phaser fire. Another is the assertion that deploying the collector would destroy life on the planet for generations, implying for more than its people.  So even if the Ba’ku were removed, all other planetary life would be destroyed, an act of geocide that would have been a major concern in a TNG episode. (And if Ru’aflo didn’t misspeak when he said “everything in this sector will be dead or dying," on more than one planet.)

 I get the impression now that not everybody making this movie was on the same page, contributing to  a lack of clarity and pace that can prevent viewers from just riding along on a voyage, with its ups and downs, sidetracks and problems solved together.  Confusion and disagreement about the core issues probably also contributed.  Even in the third season of Picard, Captain Shaw’s erroneous if funny description of this movie’s events, particularly that it was Picard who violated the Prime Directive, suggests this confusion, as well as how the story might be whispered about at the time so that the Federation saves face.) 

Yet a lot of the pieces are there: the exodus from the village, the Enterprise space battle, the transporter and holoship trickery on the Son'a, the hummingbirds.  Some fans reacted against the humor, and the change in characterizations.  I enjoyed all of that. (Sure, Data in the haystack was sappy and forced, but so goofy that isolated it remains an awkward highlight.) The Enterprise crew didn’t need an alien virus to get a little silly, as in The Naked Now/Time—just an infusion of youth.  It’s fun watching these actors do humor, and do it well. In this (as well as other respects) it reminded me of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the Kirk Enterprise crew loosened up.  It also turns out to be a kind of preview to aspects of the TNG characters as they appear in Picard season 3. 

 If the viewer gets swept past the incongruities, then the buoyancy and the scenery in this movie combine for a bright ride. There are plenty of incidents, a fine romance for Captain Picard and Anij (though their kiss got cut entirely) and along with the main cast there are solid performances by F. Murray Abraham (Ru’afo), Anthony Zerbe (Admiral Dougherty) and Donna Murphy (Anij) as well as Gregg Henry (Son’a Gallatin),Daniel Hugh Kelly (Ba’ku Sojef) and a very young Michael Welch (Ba’ku child Artim.)  

 Director Frakes had approached First Contact’s Enterprise scenes as a horror story, using some traditional horror movie moves.  Those scenes were dark—often literally. Everyone—from Paramount to Rick Berman to Patrick Stewart, credited for the first time as a producer, wanted something lighter for this film.  So this time Frakes directed an action adventure out in the bright daylight, like a western. That final shot of the seven Enterprise officers all lined up, capped the reference to The Magnificent Seven heroes defending a helpless village. 

 The CGI is now a little outdated (this was the first Trek film to use it exclusively) but the Briar Patch is visually stunning, and the action scenes are fun.  Despite its reputation, this movie didn’t do so badly at the box office, either.  It’s too bad that it couldn’t more seamlessly bring together its moral center, the story and the mood, as did its model predecessor, The Voyage Home. 

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