As we celebrate 50+ years of Star Trek and look ahead to the May release of Star Trek Discovery, CultOfWhatever recently completed a look back at the Final Frontier’s many TV iterations, as well as considered the newest entries in the film franchise. We talked about the Original Series and how, when it was great, it embraced the sixties social revolution. On the other hand, when TOS stumbled, it slipped into every silly cliche that doomed all the sci-fi shows from that era.
The Next Generation took a little while to find its mojo, but when it did it managed to surpass the original show by expanding the franchise’s horizons. Deep Space Nine followed soon after, and though it was the red-headed step-child of the brand, it dared to be different and was rewarded with loyal fans, many of whom still consider it the best of the bunch. Meanwhile Star Trek Voyager tried to be “more TNG” but ended up just being “lesser TNG.”
Finally there was (Star Trek) Enterprise, which spent three years failing to live up to its premise (nevermind its legacy) before finally finding its footing…and immediate cancellation.
On the big screen side of things we’ve seen how JJ Abrams modernized Star Trek, but in doing so sacrificed a lot of what made the TV show so special. July saw the release of the third film in the revised series, and though it was a great ride that paid heartfelt homage to the original series, it has been a disappointment at the box office.
And then there are the original films. Star Trek II-IV offered the most complete cinematic experiences for Trek fans, while the first motion picture brought Trek’s cerebral side to the forefront, with mixed results. Meanwhile, Star Trek V almost killed the series, but thankfully Star Trek VI ended the voyages of the Original Crew in a great way…before Generations shoe-horned them into The Next Generation’s big screen debut. And though Generations disappointed, First Contact was everything Paramound needed it to be for the film franchise to continue.
Thanks to First Contact’s big box office success, plans were quickly put in place for another movie to begin production. Paramount targeted Christmas of 1998 (two years after First Contact) for its release. Rick Berman stayed on as producer and Johnathan Frakes was immediately secured as the next film’s director, having successfully transitioned the TNG crew to the big screen in a way that Generations’ director David Carson did not. But almost immediately there were warning signs that the next movie might struggle to match the popularity of First Contact.
For one thing Paramount seemed bent on undoing all the good decisions they made the last time-around. After too much studio involvement sank the Generations production, Paramount backed off and trusted its Star Trek creative team to put together a hit. They did, but Paramount decided to get more involved in the sequel as a result. Like most studios, they saw the money that First Contact made and decided that, with a little tweaking here and a little nudging there, they could manufacture an even bigger hit. They instructed Berman and Frakes to create a lighter, more “fun” movie than First Contact had been. Despite the fact that First Contact made more money than any previous Trek film, Paramount remembered the big success that The Voyage Home brought, and its many years as the franchises’ top grosser kept them thinking that a “light-hearted” movie was the secret to Trek’s success. First Contact writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore were offered the chance to write the screenplay but Braga passed because he wanted to concentrate on Star Trek: Voyager, and Moore was knee-deep in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
The pen was turned over to Michael Pillar, the dean of TNG writers. Pillar had essentially saved the show when he took over as showrunner for the third season. His direction of the writers room led to some of the greatest science fiction hour-longs in television history. Despite the fact that he’d never written a film script before, there was no better choice to draft a story about the crew of the Enterprise.
And despite the edict from Paramount, Pillar set to work on a story that was, originally, very weighty.
Originally titled “Star Trek: Stardust,” the story would have focused on Picard coming into conflict with an old Starfleet pal, Hugh Duffy, who claimed the Federation was in secret collusion with the Romulan Empire to destroy an inhabited planet, in order to gain access to a precious compound (a fuel, more than likely) embedded in its mantle. After realizing that his friend is telling the truth, Picard would have defied orders and joined the fight to expose the conspiracy and drive the Romulans off world. Most of the action would have been confined to the planet, with the Enterprise doing a little space-battling with the Romulans too. In the end, Duffy would have sacrificed himself to save Picard in the final battle to drive Romulans away. Picard would have then returned to earth to face court martial. The movie would have ended on a cliffhanger with viewers left to wonder if the captain would have been pardoned or not (presumably then, Star Trek X would have featured Picard going on daring mission to save the world or something to earn his ship back).
Fans of Insurrection can see the basic plot that would become the basis for the final version, but a lot changed in between Pillar’s first draft and the start of production. For one, when Pillar and Berman took the screenplay to Patrick Stewart (who received an “associate producer” credit), he was not excited about the prospect of playing such a drama-heavy part. In Generations Picard had been weighed down by the death of his family. In First Contact he faced his greatest nightmare in the Borg. For the next one, Stewart instructed Pillar that he wanted Picard to have a simple, fun, action-story kind of arc. That forced the writer to return to Paramount’s original suggestion to make the movie lighter.
Another issue was with Brent Spiner who, over the course of the four-picture series, grew into basically a co-starring role, supplanting Commander Riker as the second most important character. He had been given the “emotion chip” sub-plot in Generations, and was integral to the Borg Queen’s activities in First Contact. Granted, Data’s character is one of the best-realized in the whole Star Trek franchise, but in the movies his character always seemed a little too spotlighted. Brent Spiner intimated to Rick Berman that Data should have a big part to play in the story and the studio agreed.
Those factors worked together to change “Stardust” into what would become “Insurrection.” The idea of Picard discovering and wanting to help an old Starfleet buddy was dropped and Data was inserted in his place. Instead of Data being a concerned defector, he becomes a malfunctioning android. Instead of the companionship between two rebellious Starfleet comrades culminating in a third-act sacrifice, the issue between Picard and Data is resolved by the end of the first act (with an assist from Gilbert and Sullivan). Ironically, by giving Spiner the role that would have gone to a guest star, the importance of his role was reduced, and neutered substantially.
And without that plot running from the beginning of the movie to the end, the film’s story lost a lot of its forward momentum.
Star Trek DS9 head writer Ira Stephen Behr read the screenplay and criticized its lightweight feel and the weakness of its primary antagonists. Pillar made changes where he could but the basic structure of the plot, by this point, was locked into place (thanks to edicts from Paramount, Stewart and Spiner), and seemed doomed to be only “good enough” in comparison to the stellar First Contact.
After test screenings indicated a weakness in the ending (specifically in how it lacked a big enough battle at the end), Paramount ordered a reshoot. When Frakes indicated that doing so would mean delaying the release, Paramount decided the movie was good enough and stuck with their Christmas 1998 timeframe.
Upon release, reviews were mixed. Little moments here and there were singled out as being enjoyable, but the flaws were too many to overlook. The biggest problem with the film was not the light-hearted tone, or the Duffy/Data plot being neutered; it was the philosophical debate at the core of the story. Star Trek has always been at its best when it makes people debate serious issues, and whether it’s right to remove a few people from their homes to satisfy the desires of many people is worthy of discussion. In fact it’s a debate that had already made the Star Trek rounds (TNG did it three years earlier with Journey’s End), but the particulars in this case just failed to stand up to scrutiny.
For one, why was there even a conflict in the first place? Could not the Ba’ku people on the planet’s surface have shared the planet? There were only 600 of them, and it’s a big planet. Furthermore the radioactive properties that turned Ba’ku into a “fountain of youth” were derived from the rings that orbited the planet. The movie established that you didn’t actually need to be on the surface to enjoy the effects, so why couldn’t ships have been allowed to orbit the planet for a little bit, get a little boost and then go on their way? There was no reason for the Federation to take sides in the way they did.
Even the stars of the movie pointed out the flaws in the debate. At the press screening Frakes said he thought the Ba’ku people should have shared the planet. Donna Murphy, who played the Ba’ku leader that Picard falls in love with, admitted her character was very narrow minded. Spiner pointed out that the whole conflict could easily have been resolved without an escalation in violence, and Patrick Stewart said that ordinarily Picard would have worked out a solution. Why didn’t he? He did that sort of thing 200 times in the show. He didn’t here because the plot demanded conflict, but was unable to provide a logical reason for it.
Star Trek Insurrection is not a bad movie. It has many great scenes that remind us why the Next Generation crew are some of the most beloved characters in science fiction. Had this been a two-part episode of the TV series, maybe as a season five finale/season six premiere, it might have been very well received, despite the aforementioned critiques of the core debate. As a big motion picture release, however, it lacked too much of what First Contact had in spades, and audiences responded negatively to it, making it the second-worst performing movie in the series to that point.
Instead of blaming themselves for insisting upon a light-hearted movie and instead of moving away from yet another “Picard…and Data!” driven story, Paramount blamed Pillar and Frakes, took a few years off from the franchise, and decided to go in a “totally new direction” with Star Trek X.
Insurrection disappointed, but hey, it’s an odd-numbered movie. It’s supposed to disappoint. Star Trek X was destined for success, right…