Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998): Odd(-numbered), but Good

There are many thoughts about the Star Trek movies floating around online. Many people will tell you that the movies that are numbered with even numbers are the best (Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country, First Contact). Star Trek: Nemesis is usually excluded from this rule and if we’re sticking to it, I would also include Intro Darkness (it being the twelfth installment) as an exception since it is utter shit. I’ve never been a big fan of that theory, not only because it’s a gross generalization but also because there are too many exceptions. It also leaves out The Motion Picture, Generations and Insurrection. While those three movies have their issues I consider them to be good movies. At the very least, they occupy the space between the better movies and the worst movies on the quality measuring stick.

Regular contributor at, Ryan Britt, presents his own theory in his article “Forget Odds Vs. Evens: Bad Star Trek Can Be Detected By Their Subtitles”. In his interesting article, he posits that all Star Trek movies are problematic to a degree and that they don’t compare favourably against their televised counterparts on the small screen. He then offers his own explanation as to why we continue to have Star Trek movies and asks what they should be about? “The answer is: they should be about something specific.” His proceeds to write about each movie in turn passing judgement on vague titles and praising those that dared be accurate. It’s a fun take on the idea on the categorization methods of Star Trek movies based on their quality.

Those are just two of the many theories out there. While researching a bit online I found a page at TV Tropes titled “Star Trek Movie Curse” which list several other ways that people have figured out to categorize the good Star Trek movies from the bad. The most interesting one here states that any movie that has a main character singing is a bad one. That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? Still, it made me chuckle that someone not only pointed it out the pattern but argued that it is a legitimate way to distinguish good movies from the bad.

Aside from being fun conversation starters, I find these classifications of Star Trek movies to be pretty useless. I’d go so far as to say they focus they steer the conversation towards the bad movies or, more generally, the negative aspects of the franchise. When I think of Star Trek I think about the good, I celebrate it and I try to convert some of my friends to the world of Star Trek fandom. I do this simply because I like Star Trek and I think it’s a better investment of my time than nitpicking every little thing I don’t like about the nearly 50 year old franchise. When people tell me that there is only one good The Next Generation movie or that Star Trek: Insurrection is an atrocious movie without telling me why; I can’t help but feel defensive. It’s actually quite good. It’s not only the second best TNG movie, it’s better than some of The Original Series movies.

The plot of the movie is actually quite simple. The crew of the Enterprise-E uncover a suspicious alliance between the Federation and an alien group called the Son’a. They are observing a peaceful people call the Ba’ku. Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew are initially asked to intervene in a secret mission after Lieutenant Commander Data malfunctions. Upon further investigation it is discovered that the Son’a and Admiral Matthew Dougherty are planning to deport all 600 Ba’ku in order to populate their homeworld. Due to radiation from the planet’s rings, the Ba’ku people become for all intents and purposes immortal after becoming permanent residents of the planet. It is because of the promise of immortality that the Son’a and Admiral Dougherty want to take control of the planet. Picard and his crew become the only line of defence for the Ba’ku and for preserving the moral integrity of the United Federation of Planets.

More than any other Star Trek movie, Insurrection has oft been criticized for too closely resembling an episode of the TV series on which the movies are based. I’ve always found this to be an odd accusation as I believe it’s that resemblance to TNG that makes this such an enjoyable movie.

One of the main contributing factors to this movie being structured more like a long television episode rather than a summer blockbuster is that significant members of the production crew also worked extensively on TNG during its run. Jonathan Frakes who, aside from portraying Commander Riker, also directed such episodes as “The Offspring”, “Reunion”, and “Cause and Effect”. He also directed the spectacular eight film Star Trek: First Contact. His inclusion in the director’s chair likely had an impact on the inclusion of humour and the smaller character moments in the movie. Two other important crew members include producer Rick Berman who work as executive producer not only on TNG but also for Deep Space Nine and Voyager and many of the movies. With Insurrection scriptwriter and showrunner for TNG, Michael Piller, writes his first Star Trek movie script based on a story idea he had with Berman. Piller even had help from Ira Steven Behr on the first draft of the script. Behr is yet another important figure of Star Trek television as he served as executive producer, showrunner and scriptwriter for Deep Space Nine. It’s hard to argue that the difference in tone between this movie and most of the other Star Trek movies has nothing to do with the above mentioned crewmembers.  

While I disagree that Insurrection lacks scope, the comments that it resembles a long episode of TNG are valid. I personally don’t see anything wrong with that. How many episode of Star Trek have fallen flat because of a lack of breathing room or because of unsatisfactory or low-budget special effects? It’s a joy for fans to have a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that doesn’t try to make Star Trek fit the blockbuster movie formula. There are several elements from TNG runs on the small screen that are included in this film, not least of them humour and (how dare they?) an intellectually stimulating plot with the added bonus of themes. I can’t forget to mention that the characters themselves are equally important to the movie’s overall enjoyable tone. They’re not simply cookie-cutter action heroes at play.

There are many elements that make Insurrection work and one of them is that it actually takes the time to focus on characters. For the most part it’s allowing them to be affected by the advancement of the plot and other times it’s simply to let them be, well, characters. This is done by showing off their unique attributes and letting them interact with each other. It works well for this kind of movie based on a long-running TV series.

After eight Star Trek movies and hundreds of episodes it might not seem like a big deal but TNG has a large cast. While the movies and episodes tend to focus on a few characters more than others it’s important to actually take stock of just how many main characters headline this movie. Just looking at the Enterprise’s officers this movie already has an ensemble cast. Throw in important Ba’ku characters and couple of villains and it almost feels bloated. Not every main character appeared in every single TNG episode and while it works well for television to have certain characters highlighted in individual-centric episode, it would be a disappointment to exclude a main crewmember. It doesn’t truly matter if their time in the spotlight is a crucial part of the plot, what’s important is that they get some screen time. There have been many episodes that felt rushed or weren’t able to play with certain ideas in a satisfying way. Insurrection has room to breathe and it’s welcoming to see the cast and the crew take advantage of that.

I particularly like seeing that the workaholic crewmembers occasionally let loose and have a good time, mostly because it gives the movie a sense of realism (who doesn’t goof off at work, even occasionally?) and infuses it with humour. It doesn’t all work well. Worf in particular kind of gets the short end of the stick and so does Dr. Crusher with her boob humour but the fact that it’s there is important. Even the tacky moments avoid being gratuitous because it makes sense to have a character like Worf present on the Ba’ku planet. Even if you don’t like the idea of Klingon acne you can at still appreciate the writer’s attempt to show the effects of the Ba’ku planet on different characters, especially those of different physiology.

There are many humorous elements to enjoy in this movie and it’s refreshing to see so many because the TV series was regularly infused with humour. The quality of that humour is another issue altogether but it was part of the show’s bread and butter. Just to name a few, this movie includes jokes regarding Worf’s regression to adolescence, the rise of Picard’s libido, Troi and Riker’s flirtation. Certainly, your mileage may vary based on your sense of humour but I appreciate the effort to bring some levity to the movie as it not only prevents it from being taken too seriously but it’s indicative of its lack of concern for being perceived as edgy or badass. If there is one unattractive feature to long-lasting franchises it’s an identity crisis and Star Trek has certainly had its fair share. Luckily, Insurrection avoids it for the most part by sticking to its television roots and using many recurring and important elements of TNG.

In short, these characters are truly unique. They’re not the same characters wearing different coloured uniforms and performing the same tasks. They have different insight into the world. It makes sense that Data and Picard are those that are most affected by the Ba’ku; Data because of his wide-eyes curiosity and Picard for his romanticism and staunch moral values. That’s not to say the other characters aren’t affected by the events and the movie justifiably shows that.

Another reason some people don’t like the film is that the villain feels underwhelming. That’s a silly criticism for Star Trek. Even if Insurrection has long been mistaken as a blockbuster film, Star Trek has never solely been a villain-of-the-week kind of television show. It could more accurately be described as the-strange-happening-of-the-week or even the-encounter-of-the-week. That makes sense considering the show’s initial precise of exploration, research and discovery. The problem is that when you transpose that to the big screen, there is a sense of obligation to also introduce a major villain in each film. This is particularly true of all Star Trek films following The Wrath of Khan. I would hope that after seeing the tenth film, Star Trek: Nemesis, that fans would have given Insurrection a bit more slack on this point but negative comments towards Ahdar Ru’afo (played by F. Murray Abraham) have persisted.

The thing about Star Trek is that the antagonisms in its stories can be a wide range of things. Evil individuals are but one of many other options. As it’s often been the case during TNG’s television run, the crew of the Enterprise are battling against an action that has immediate consequences for a specific group but that same action could lead to further consequences for an increasingly large population of the planet or even the galaxy.

Some problems are too complex to simply be tossed aside and Insurrection gives us at least two very good antagonists for Picard and his officers. The first, of course, is the leader of the Son’a, Ru’afo, and the second is corruption within the organization of the Federation. The movie’s true villains aren’t individuals; they just act as figureheads to more abstract ideals that cause the characters and the viewers to think about the causality of our actions and the difficulties of dealing with other species and cultures. One of Star Trek’s biggest strengths is to entertain while also stimulating intellectual discussions. It’s because of that reason, more than any other, that I consider Star Trek: Insurrection to be a good film.

After two large-scale stories, Insurrection provides an equally interesting story but the conflict is moral and immediate instead of physical and temporal like the previous two TNG movies. Insurrection actually spends most of its time in service of story and the development of thematic elements that feel true to the characters of TNG as well as Star Trek as a whole. The movie swerves into the territory of generic blockbusters toward the end but the rest of the movie makes up for it by focusing on story rather than the size of its explosions.

Some of the themes include aging, eternal live, the value of life and the importance of stopping to smell the roses. All of these themes are very relative today and will likely endure as our culture seems to continue celebrating the successes of youth while ignoring the contributions of our elders. Technological advancements have made it so that we’re constantly bombarded with information and we’ve become increasingly preoccupied with quantity instead of quality. Thanks to the internet we experience a much wider variety of things but we do so only on the surface by acquiring information in summarized or condensed forms instead of fully experiencing the originals. We’re attracted by things that are new and we forget about everything that occurred even days prior. It’s not just our entertainment, we’ve become a culture of consumers and our interests lie in information gathering, not in acquiring experience, understanding or appreciation for the world around us. It’s also true of how we deal with people.

There is also a theme of technophobia. One of the differences between the Ba’ku and the Son’a is that the Ba’ku have relinquished their dependences on technology while the Son’a has grown increasingly dependent on it. Throw in the Federation and their use of technology and the commentary you can take from it is that the Federation more closely resembles the Son’a which makes me think that Admiral Dougherty’s alliance with them isn’t coincidental. Technology, in this case, can be seen as the harbinger of the erosion of values and the degradation of interpersonal relationships.

Ba’ku and Son’a have the same origins but there are differences in the way they act and the lessons that they’re taught. The result is the development of two very distinct cultures. Sure, it’s a little heavy-handed but it gets the message across. More importantly, Michael Piller remembers that this is a Star Trek movie and so he takes the theme of technophobia and makes it a positive one. It’s nurture, not nature that makes the Ba’ku and their way of life so enticing and attractive. Certainly their incredibly long  life span helped them achieve their peaceful existence but they still achieved inner peace and understanding on their own. Even after relinquishing their daily use of technology they are discovered that there are many lessons to be learned and anyone can do it, all we need is a little patience, a desire to learn and the ability to listen to our surroundings. This is clearly demonstrated during Picard’s time on the planet. More

Regardless of whether or not you agree with any of the various Star Trek movies curses or generalizations, one thing is clear. It’s kind of a bad habit to frequently discuss one or more of the movie curses. It’s a bad habit I hope will eventually fall by the wayside as fandom steps up and starts looking at the movies based on their individual merits instead of dismissing them because of their subtitles, numbering or the inclusion of a singing cast member. You might disagree with me that Insurrection is a good movie and that’s fine, as long as you don’t start telling me it’s impossible for it to be a good movie because it’s the ninth instalment in the franchise and that it’s numbering equates it to a bad movie. Give me something less vague, something that shows you’ve actually put some thought into it and that you’re not just repeating the tired and uninformative Odds vs. Evens classification. I’m starting to sound grumpier and more serious than I want to but I still sound less ridiculous than fans who are adamant about telling me The Search for Spock is a terrible movie “because the curse”! At least Ryan Britt is having fun in his article and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

I concede to defending only one of the bad Star Trek movies in this article but I think I make my point clear by defending it without employing either an established Star Trek movie classification or introducing a new one. For me, Star Trek: Insurrection will always be a good movie. It might not be the best but the good far outweighs the bad and that’s all I need from the humble instalment in the Star Trek franchise. Ok, I’m stepping off my soapbox.

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