Star Trek: Insurrection – revisiting Star Trek 9

From the highs of Star Trek: First Contact, why did Star Trek: Insurrection become the most forgotten Trek movie?

“Ok, ok, so First Contact was a major box office and critical success, but it would have been so much better had all those great space battles been replaced with Riker having a shave in the bath.”

Said someone, somewhere, presumably.

Star Trek: Insurrection was the great hope for the franchise. The lessons learned from past failures. No more interference from the studio. Just put the right people in the right place and let them do their thing. It worked for Khan, it worked for First Contact, so it should work for Insurrection. Right?


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Star Trek: Insurrection stands in the unusual position of being a film that would have benefited enormously from executive meddling. If one voice had spoken up and said “this film has problems”, perhaps the odd numbered curse would have been broken. Instead, this is the epitome of the odd numbered curse, and even I, the odd-numbered apologist, cannot get past Insurrection’s problems. Well, just one problem: Insurrection is, in my view, not good at all.

With Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga busy with a different franchise, Berman contacted Trek alumnus Michael Piller, who had never written a film before (or, indeed, since). Both men agreed a lighter tone was needed and their first draft was a cross between a fairy tale and Heart Of Darkness called Stardust. No, I’m not joking. The original plot was that Picard would chase a former classmate called Duffy to the fountain of youth, getting younger and younger until they found the ten year olds who lived there. These ten year olds would then fight Romulans. At some point, Q would show up and annoy everyone.


The second draft replaced Duffy with Data, who would be killed by Picard. This idea was proposed by Brent Spiner, who felt he was getting too old to play the perpetually youthful Data. This idea was met with a simple post-it note that read ‘better luck next time’. Despite this not stopping the Data plot tumour blighting another Star Trek film, Patrick Stewart was responsible for the final version of the story, suggesting the Fountain of Youth idea should be expanded on, and that he should be a big action hero with a love interest. Thus, the race of ten year olds became a race blessed with eternal middle-age, and their enemies (now the Son’a) beefed up in turn. The Data plot couldn’t go, however (executives love Data), so he spends the bulk of the film learning how to play. Honestly, I’m trying to make this sound good.

Right, no more stalling, let’s do this. Just lie back and think of Star Trek V.

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The film opens with the evil Federation and the evil Son’a evilly watching the peaceful Bak’u from a hill. Ooh, scary. But oh no, Data goes off piste and knocks some fruit over. Action! Then he shoots the invisible hill watching place thing, and they’re discovered. Peril!

Wait, how did they get there in the first place? Seriously, that duckblind is carved in solid granite about three feet away from the town centre, how did it get there? I guess that would be ‘mystery!’.

Back on the Enterprise, Picard is wearing a funny hat. Worf shows up for some reason. Obviously creepy Admiral whatshisface tells Picard to stop dicking about and go and get Data.

Around the planet, Data has stopped running amok on the surface and is now flying around for no apparent reason. He fires on the Son’a ship because of some reason, which lets us see that there are bad men on it. You know they’re bad because they don’t enjoy subsistence farming and hemp like the Bak’u do. Then Data sods of for no apparent reason. Admiral Dougherty gives Picard twelve hours to subdue Data. Why twelve hours? Because good writers use ticking clocks, that’s why. Who cares if this is just the first act?

Normally such farming-related peril would prompt Picard to whoosh in and save the day with a timely lecture, but first there are important scenes where Troi and Riker get horny reading about war crimes. Then Worf oversleeps. Excitement!

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I need a break. It’s all too much.

The underlying theme was supposed to be about society’s obsession with youth, but by removing the children the theme suddenly went out the window. It’s still there, embodied by the Son’a’s obsession with reversing their ageing, but by turning the story into a blood feud even this isn’t particularly apparent. Plus, the Bak’u are perpetually youthful anyway, so it doesn’t even make sense. At some point the idea of it being about the dangers of forced relocation was shoehorned in, as that theme at least worked in several episodes. The problem is, that theme doesn’t really fit. At all.

The Bak’u are the archetypal idyllic society. Untouched by progress, innocent of crime, all loving and all accepting. With one major flaw: they’re a bunch of bigots. The backstory (which no one cares about because it’s daft) is that they were once a warlike race who fled their homeworld and settled on a magic planet that makes them younger. They renounced all technology, but this caused divisions and a rebel faction, the Son’a, wanted to reject the rejection of technology, leave the planet, and explore the galaxy. After a failed coup, they were made to leave the planet.

Let’s just take a moment or three to consider how monumentally flawed this is.

How did the So’na get banished? Did the Bak’u keep a couple of warships in orbit, just in case? And for that matter, if there was no technology, what did this coup look like? A few pointed sticks and harsh words? It would have been as harmless and pitiful as an anti-Brexit rally.

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But the bigger problem is that the Bak’u decided they couldn’t share their planet with anyone who didn’t share their values. The whole planet. There’s only 600 of them in one isolated valley and they couldn’t even spare one lousy hemisphere. So they kicked the Son’a out (who for some reason didn’t just immediately land on the other side of the planet). But when you live on a magic planet that makes you immortal, exile is a slow death sentence. That’s our tolerant and loving people, ladies and gentlemen, so intolerant and bloodthirsty they will murder anyone who holds different ideals. A race that have rejected technology except for the technology they need to crush their enemies. And then they just swan about, watching the rest of the galaxy die while they sit around making mediocre tapestries.

It is for this reason that the Bak’u must rank alongside Khan Noonien Singh, Lore and Roberto Orci as one of Star Trek’s most unforgivable monsters.

Anyway, back in the film, Picard’s plan is to trick Data into singing an operetta long enough so that Worf can shoot him in the back.

No, that’s the actual plan. 

Amazingly this plan works, and Picard’s built in Gilbert & Sullivan karaoke machine broadcasts itself straight into his Data’s brain, causing him to get confused and start singing along out of pure desperation. Just like a long car journey with my dad.

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With Data not dicking about any more, Picard is free to go down to the surface, where he finds that rather than taking the Starfleet personnel hostage, they’ve just given them dinner. Unfortunately the only thing on the menu is hummus, probably. Damn hippies. Picard learns that the Bak’u aren’t a primitive race, and aren’t even natives. Phew, good job the Prime Directive doesn’t apply. Otherwise this might turn into a better episode. Sorry, I mean film. It’s definitely not just a mediocre episode with sloppy editing…

Picard immediately falls in love with one of the natives, Anij, who, thanks to the magic (sorry, ‘metaphasic’) radiation from the planet’s rings, has discovered the secret of looking the wrong side of 40 for over 600 years. Also she can bend time with her brain, or something, which Picard finds fascinating. When Wesley pulled that crap on the Enterprise Picard just told him to shut up. Also like Wesley the Bak’u like technology, and have a few positronic tools lying around, next to their irrigation systems, dams and looms.

In fact, the Bak’u’s treatment of technology is like some sort of species wide personality disorder. They clearly understand all sorts of advanced technology (like Data’s brain, which even Data doesn’t really understand), but openly disdain using it (except for the stuff they like). They’re even actively trying to expunge any useful knowledge from their race, if the kids using phrases like “day of fire” is anything to go by. Imagine what their doctors would be like. “You want me to give you an x-ray? How barbaric. Now hold still while I hit you with this rock to get rid of the demons.” But of course, they don’t need doctors, because they live on a magic planet.

I don’t like the Bak’u.

Anyway, Data comes back online and reveals that he discovered something bad which triggered some ethical subroutine. Yes, apparently if Data suspects shenanigans he is compelled to go on a rampage with a high powered phaser and cause an interstellar incident. No, I’m being serious, apparently he is programmed to do that.

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They find a holoship that looks just like the Bak’u village (a location that inexplicably has no name). Again, how did they manage to land a spaceship right next to a primitive village without being noticed, then somehow submerge it?

Attention Star Trek Into Darkness: If you’re going to steal plot ideas, don’t make Insurrection your source.

Realising that the evil admiral is evil, Picard confronts him. They have a short debate about the ethics of moving the Bak’u (which admittedly is very well acted), and then fail to reach an agreement. Admiral Dougherty should have just said “they’re first generation squatters who kill anyone they disagree with” and ended the argument right there. Picard instead gets in the wonderful line “how many people does it take, admiral, before it becomes wrong?” The answer, Captain, is that if it’s the Bak’u there could be Graham’s Number of them and I’d still nuke the bastards.

But Picard loves his 600 year old hippie bigot, and apparently everyone else does too, so they stage an ‘insurrection’. Good job they got some sort of insurrection in there, because the executives gave it that name without knowing what the word meant (not a joke). It might be that they’re just acting like children (they are at a Fountain of Youth, after all), but the motivation is flimsy at best. Geordie gets his bloody eyesight back and decides “nah, these smelly bigoted hippies I’ve just met are more important”.

It’s an insurrection because Starfleet are in cahoots with our nominal bad guys. The Son’a have no qualms with technology, and openly display their love of facelifts and armchairs for all to see. We’re told that off-screen they do all sorts of nasty things, but onscreen we just see them being a bit hammy and looking like an overstretched condom. Worse, their evil plan is to make a medicine that will save the lives of billions of war wounded Starfleet soldiers. Those monsters! They’re impossible to take seriously as anything more than pantomime villains, and the fact their actions will save billions of lives means that it’s easy to root for them just to spite the Bak’u. Who cares about their stupid planet anyway? It’s not like it’s the only one there is.

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By the way, this planet everyone’s fighting over has no name. Michael Piller didn’t even name the planet the entire film takes place on. How the hell do you forget to put that in the script? Well, from now on, I’m calling it ‘Planet Grauniad’.

Okay, so we know what their plan is. Get the Bak’u off the Planet Grauniad, make the medicine, relocate the Bak’u somewhere nice. Help me out here, guys. Why is this a bad thing? Even if the Bak’u were natives (they aren’t), or had several generations of settlers (they don’t), or were genuinely nice people (they aren’t), there’s only 600 of the buggers. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and all that. Planet Grauniad isn’t even theirs.

But Picard and co decide to stick it to the man by luring the Bak’u into magic, transporter-resistant caves, when they get attacked by magic transporter wasps, or something. Ordinarily this would be a bad thing, but since the journey involved a lot of soft focus, Data being taught the nature of humanity (yet again) by Mike Newton, and some ill conceived tit jokes, the idea that the entire cast might get kidnapped is a positive delight. And then it just gets better when the scenery finally does what we all want and hits Anij with a rock. Fortunately she can bend time with her brain, so she slows down time until everything is frozen. Wait, wouldn’t that make it take longer for help to come? Shh. Don’t worry about it. And they get transporter-napped anyway, making the whole thing completely pointless.

And now, the reveal. It turns out that the Son’a weren’t going to save billions of people out of the goodness of their hearts, they were going to save billions of people out of spite. The monsters! No, seriously, that’s why the Son’a are the bad guys. I like the Son’a. I might adopt one. They can use that facelift machine to reupholster my settee.

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There’s the obligatory space battle scene, but aside from the nifty but daft idea the Enterprise can be piloted with a standard joystick, there’s nothing special. The music is a highlight, as Jerry Goldsmith’s music always is. But that’s all it is – nice music. There’s no deeper meaning or commentary as in his previous scores, and it doesn’t add anything to the film (other than nice music). The special effects too are just a bit bland. ILM was busy with The Phantom Menace, but even then a cheaper option was probably what everyone wanted. The CGI is remarkably flat, probably due to the weird ‘projection’ technique used. It’s nowhere near the kind of failure Star Trek V was, but with an extra decade of technology in its favour, that’s not saying much. It’s almost amazing that Goldsmith’s music, Frake’s direction and CGI special effects could make a boring space battle, but Insurrection found a way.

The end of the film is where everyone just gives up. There’s a bit of a switcheroo with the holoship, but then Ruafo activates the Collector anyway, making the whole thing pointless. So, Picard has to beam over and punch Ruafo into submission. Why is the inside of the Collector blue? Because they didn’t do any special effects. They literally just went “yeah, that’ll do” and left it as is. Then the Enterprise just sods off, presumably to go and fight the infinitely more interesting Dominion War when they drop Worf off.

Wait, did they even bother explaining why Worf was there in the first place?

Unlike Generations, unlike The Final Frontier, there isn’t even a good idea waiting to escape the confines of an unpolished film. The more you think about it, the worse it gets. It’s competently directed by Jonathan Frakes, but decent performances cannot overcome how bad the script and story is, or how bloated and unimportant it is. Furthermore, some scenes look so distorted that you’d think the transfer is faulty, but the lenses are just… cheap. Maybe someone chose them to give the film a dreamlike quality, but it just looks like half the film was shot through the bottom of a milk bottle. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a TV movie, which, quite frankly, it is. A TV movie from the terrible first season, where, tellingly, Riker had no beard too.

Insurrection is, therefore, the weakest of all Trek films for me. But perhaps worse than that is that it’s the film no one really cares about at all. For all the other films have their fans, this might be the one film that is no one’s favourite. It’s not cerebral like I, epic like III, ambitious like V or important like VII. Neither is it revered like II, popular like IV, thrilling like VI or explosive like VIII. Even afterwards, Nemesis and the reboot movies had more defenders and more detractors, and in the crowd Insurrection just gets forgotten about.

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Perhaps that is for the best.

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