“It was the best of times…”
December of 1998 was not only a great time to be a Star Trek fan (two Star Trek series on the air, several movies, tons of popular toys/collectibles, etc), it was also a great time for me personally, as well. I was engaged to “she who is (now) my wife,” and the premiere of “Star Trek: Insurrection” coincided with the weekend of my 32nd birthday. My then-fiancee and I went to see the film at a local theater with some friends of ours (stadium seating, big screen, digital sound, etc.). We also planned a wonderful birthday dinner at a local microbrewery afterward, as well as a walk through our downtown Festival of Lights to cap off a near-perfect evening. It couldn’t have been a better night… save for the movie. The much-anticipated “Star Trek: Insurrection” landed with a bit of a thud.
I really wanted to like this film. I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, “First Contact,” and yes, I even loved “Star Trek: Generations” (long story; read the link), but “Insurrection” just didn’t stick the landing for me. It felt very small scale, despite some lush location cinematography by Matthew Leonetti. The story felt like an unexceptional two-part story from TNG’s last season, and I felt almost no real investment in the story’s outcome. There were also odd, ill-timed moments of middle school humor throughout the movie as well (pimple and boob jokes—I kid you not). I also found the movie kinda dull. Boredom is the worst sin for any movie; even the dreadful “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” was too laughably ridiculous to be dull.
Well, it’s been just over 22 years since I’ve seen “Insurrection” in anything close to a theatrical venue, so I decided to give it another try. I own the film in my DVD/Blu-Ray collection (completist), but I haven’t watched it all the way through in years. So, to give “Insurrection” the best possible circumstances for this review, I pulled out my digital projector and 7 ft. collapsible screen to give it another try.
“Star Trek: Insurrection.”
The movie opens in what appears to be a sunny California commune. A bunch of drab-clothed white folks called the “Ba’ku” are living in a kind of Luddite paradise; making bread, stitching quilts, playing ball, etc. We meet several key players of the film, Anij (Donny Murphy), Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and young Artim (Michael Welsh) going blithely about their business. All is well in their little Garden of Eden until we see streaks of phaser fire, and we soon realize that high-tech invisible beings are shooting at each other. Sojef sends the children off to hide, as Artim sees one of the invisible beings remove its cloaked helmet, revealing the white-gold skin of the USS Enterprise-E’s android operations officer, Commander Data (Brent Spiner). The technophobic kid is terrified as he sees the android violently tossing his fellow Starfleet officers around like so many toys. The rampaging Data babbles about rerouting his damaged processors as he makes short work of his would-be captors.
Note: While I appreciate that the movie built an entire village set, complete with a town center and a genuinely rustic Renaissance Faire feeling (on location, no less), the casting of the Ba’ku villagers is surprisingly bland, even for 1998—there are no non-white humanoids among the villagers. They look like a group of yuppies vacationing at a Northern California wine-and-crafts fair. It’s a cheap shorthand to have the so-called ‘aliens’ look like attractive humans in order for an audience to empathize with them. The most effective Star Treks were the ones which earned our empathy with non-humanoid life, such as the silicon-based ‘Horta’ in TOS’ “Devil in the Dark,” or the sentient robotic ‘exocomps’ in TNG’s “Quality of Life.” I realize this wasn’t going to be that kind of movie, but the Ba’ku feel like a failure of imagination from a production standpoint. Even the lower-budgeted Trek TV shows did more to make human actors seem otherworldly.
Commander Data subdues all of his would-be captors, rips off his invisibility garb, and aims his phaser at a “duck blind” Federation outpost camouflaged in a nearby cliff. Data then fires on the outpost, and its holographic cloak disappears, exposing its mixed crew of Starfleet and Son’a spies watching over the village. Resisting orders to stand down, the malfunctioning Data stares accusingly into the eyes of his exposed observers.
Note: This ‘reveal’ would’ve been a lot more effective if it wasn’t so reminiscent of TNG’s own “Who Watches the Watchers?” which also had a cloaked ‘duck blind’ Federation observation post on a hillside (and that was done on a TV budget back in 1989). In that episode, the Federation science team was monitoring a proto-Vulcan species known as the Mintankans. Picard was accidentally glimpsed by a wounded Mintankan who was being treated aboard the Enterprise-D. The grateful but misguided primitive began a new religion among his people, touting Picard as a god. Despite the dangerous lessons that should’ve been gleaned from that episode, we see the Federation is up to its old dirty tricks again.
We then cut to a very busy scene aboard the USS Enterprise-E as Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Will Riker (director Jonathan Frakes), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) are preparing a diplomatic reception for a delegation of “Evora”; a dwarf race of reptilian humanoids who only discovered warp drive last year, but are already being admitted into the thinning ranks of a war-weary Federation. There’s lots of small talk about Picard squeezing his neck into a too-tight dress uniform collar, Troi panicking over the eating habits of the Evora, and a call from engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) who is desperately trying to reach the captain for some reason. Along the way, Picard bumps into his former Klingon security chief Worf (Michael Dorn) who is inexplicably back aboard his old ship for reasons (?). There’s so much small talk squeezed into this scene that it gives me a bit of a headache. At times, it feels like characters are just babbling over each other.
Note: Worf’s reasons for being away from “Deep Space Nine” are left deliberately vague (he became a regular on DS9 back in 1995), as his answer for being aboard the Enterprise (in response to Picard’s query) is conveniently drowned out by ambient noise and dialogue within this chatty scene. Whatever his reasons, it makes absolutely no sense for Worf to be aboard the Enterprise-E attending a posh reception at the same time his own space station is locked in a desperate conflict with the Gamma quadrant’s deadly Dominion forces.
Picard meets with the Evoran Regent (Peggy Miley), who ceremoniously places beads upon Picard’s head. As Picard’s officers each give him a bemused smile, Geordi enters the reception hall and tells Picard that Starfleet Admiral named Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) wants the technical schematics for Data, but with no reason given. Data was sent on his current ‘special assignment’ to the duck blind mission on the Ba’ku planet, which is located deep within a navigationally treacherous region of space known as “the Briar Patch” Picard and Geordi are both deeply suspicious of the admiral’s request, and Picard orders La Forge to set a course for the Briar patch, despite the admiral’s ‘assurances’ that the Enterprise isn’t needed. All the more reason to go…
Note: Another issue I have with this movie, as well as the later Kelvinverse movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013), is the reliance on the tired Trek trope of the “evil admiral” (or commodore, or other high-ranking officers). In TNG, this trope was done to death. With so many unsympathetic admirals in the fleet (“The Offspring,” “Ensign Ro,” “Chain of Command,” “Journey’s End,” etc), you have to question the values of the organization itself. Is Starfleet truly a ‘good’ outfit, or is it a bunch of do-gooders carrying out the will of morally dubious leadership? The ‘badmirals’ are a cheap gimmick to validate our characters’ indignation with authority, but one has to wonder what greater moral/ethical values does Starfleet propagate? We see rigorous moral and ethical training (such as the Kobayashi Maru test), but in the end, Starfleet’s leadership seems too easily corruptible.
Aboard the Son’a flagship, the admiral is unaware that the Enterprise is en route. Dougherty watches as a physically rotting Ru’afo (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) gets his wrinkled skin stretched taut and stapled into place by alien slaves. Ru’afo is a member of a rapidly decaying race known as the Son’a, who have a personal bone to pick with the Ba’ku. The Son’a have made Starfleet their allies of convenience to carry out a dastardly plan to steal a vital and unique natural resource of the Ba’ku planet known as “metaphasic radiation.” This radiation is somehow channeled through the planet’s rings into a natural fountain of youth for any persons lucky enough to be living on the planet, such as the 600 Ba’ku villagers. The Son’a plan is to place a large collection device in orbit over the Ba’ku planet and somehow steal the metaphasic radiation directly from the planet’s rings. This process will render the planet itself uninhabitable, but keeps its ‘fountain of youth’ element intact. Since the Federation doesn’t condone genocide (on paper, anyway), Dougherty agrees to the plan only if the Son’a forcibly resettle the Ba’ku villagers first. An alert is called as the Son’a ship is rocked, and Ru’afo learns a Federation scout ship is firing on them.
Note: Actor F. Murray Abraham, who chews a lot of scenery in this film as the villainous Ru’afo, won an Oscar for his wonderfully theatrical performance as real-life composer Antonio Salieri in 1984’s “Amadeus” (a truly remarkable film for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it). Abraham also had a brief role as the real-life cop who busts the Watergate burglars in the opening minutes of “All The President’s Men” (1976). Anthony Zerbe, who plays Admiral Dougherty, has been in many films over the years, but the one I most remember him for is in the 1971 dystopia flick “The Omega Man“, where he played Matthius; the leader of a gang of nocturnal mutants who terrorize Charlton Heston in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the movie is loosely based on Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 vampire novel, “I Am Legend”).
Meanwhile, as the Enterprise is warping to the Briar Patch, Picard orders Geordi to take them in slowly, due to the inherently dangerous conditions of the region. They plan to capture Data using a modified tricorder to shut the android off remotely. Riker and Troi plan to do some homework on the Son’a in the ship’s library…
Note: Once again, the bridge set of the USS Enterprise-E is visually stunning; an eye-pleasing combination of dark reddish browns, grays and neon blue floor lighting. The Enterprise-E, both inside and out, is one of my favorite permutations of starship Enterprise design. The exterior shots of the ship are rendered entirely in CGI for this film, and sadly, they don’t quite look as realistic as the more labor-intensive practical models used by Industrial Light and Magic for “First Contact.” In some scenes, especially near the end of this film, the Enterprise-E looks two dimensional and almost cartoonish.
In the ship’s library, Riker and Troi do their homework on the Federation’s new allies, the Son’a. To their shock, they find these new friends of the Federation have absorbed several races as slave classes, and even manufacture the narcotic ketracell white. As they do their ‘homework’, Troi begins teasingly fingering Riker’s neck. Riker smiles. This is first hint that the two former-lovers-turned-colleagues are rekindling their romance (they get married in the next film).
Note: The Son’a/Federation partnership is an analogy of the less-than-savory alliances between the United States and Middle Eastern oil regimes. That analogy is made explicit by Dougherty himself, during a later scene with Picard. The fictional narcotic “ketracell white” was first seen on Deep Space Nine as a means for the Dominion to control their genetically-engineered “Jem’Hadar” foot soldiers. The fact that the Son’a were aiding and abetting a known enemy of the Federation should’ve been an instant dealbreaker for Starfleet assistance; yet, somehow, greed for immortality within the supposedly incorruptible Federation is the paper-thin motivation offered by the film for Starfleet leadership to abandon its principles. Maybe if Dougherty himself were suffering from an incurable disease, his betrayal to Federation ideals would’ve had more personal motivation.
On the bridge, Picard calls down to Worf, who has overslept for his duty shift. Hardy har har. As Worf rushes to the bridge, Picard makes a casual mention that the “torque sensors” sound out of alignment. Geordi, at the Ops console, confirms that the sensors are out of alignment by twelve microns. Geordi asks how Picard knew that. Picard says that, as an ensign, his ears could detect a three micron misalignment. Worf then receives an incoming emergency call from Admiral Dougherty and Ru’afo, who report that Data has gone rogue and is now firing upon the Son’a flagship in a small scout vessel. Offering his assistance, Picard promises that he will terminate Data himself, if need be.
Note: Picard’s sensitive hearing as a youth was expanded upon in the 2002 sequel “Nemesis,” where it’s revealed that a young Picard suffered from a fictional aural hypersensitivity called “Shalaft’s Syndrome,” which made even the slightest noises intensely painful. The condition was later corrected surgically, but this film hints that Picard still retained better-than-average hearing, even after the operation. The early signs that the crew are being affected by the local metaphasic radiation’s ‘fountain of youth’ properties are represented by Worf’s oversleeping (like a teenager), Picard’s improved hearing and the Riker/Troi flirtation (ah, those hormones…). What puzzles me is that if the radiation began to affect the crew that far from the planet, then why does the radiation have to be collected from the planet’s ring system? It seems as if the area of space surrounding the planet is already saturated with the youth-inducing metaphasic radiation. Shouldn’t the Son’a (some of whom have been on the planet’s surface) have began to show signs of de-aging as well?
Worf and Picard take a sleek shuttlecraft to intercept Data’s scout ship, which begins firing on them as well. Both ships dive into the atmosphere of the planet, as Picard realizes that Data is showing clear signs of tactics, thus his mind must be intact. Instead of trying to outfight him, Picard wonders if they should try reaching him in some other way. Remembering that Data was in rehearsals for a shipboard production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” before he left for the Ba’ku planet, Picard calls up the lyrics for “A British Tar” on the shuttle’s dashboard. He asks a reluctant Worf to sing it with him over an open channel to Data, in the hopes that the song might trigger the android into remembering his shipmates.
Note: Worf, Picard and Data doing a singalong of “A British Tar” during this sequence is certainly comical, but it also undercuts the seriousness of the situation, and destroys any tension in its outcome. The wildly inconsistent tone of the film is very reminiscent of what went wrong with “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” as well. Too often the drama will stop dead in its tracks so that humor can subvert the tension of a scene. Some of the more successful Treks know when to be funny (“The Voyage Home,” “Trouble With Tribbles”) and when not to be (“The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1, 2” “Chain of Command,” “The Inner Light”). “Insurrection”, much like “The Final Frontier,” doesn’t seem to know when to stop the shenanigans and let us feel genuinely invested.
The impromptu karaoke session begins, and Data begins to sing along as well. With Data distracted, Worf pilots the shuttle beneath his scout ship and attaches a docking collar. Data, realizing he’s been tricked, begins rolling his heavier scout ship, causing the smaller shuttlecraft to experience severe shearing stresses. As Data continues to try and shake the smaller vessel off, Worf boards the scout through the docking seal and deactivates the renegade android with his modified tricorder. Worf reports to a relieved Picard that he has Data in custody.
Note: The two attached ships, zipping over the clouds and spiraling in at dangerous speeds over the scenic Ba’ku planet make for an eye-catching sequence. This is one of my favorite action sequences in the film, even if it undercut by the ridiculous karaoke jam.
Beaming down to the Ba’ku village with his officers, Picard expects to find the Federation science team from the observation post being held as hostages, however, the scene he encounters is anything but a hostage crisis; children are playing games, adults are engaging in crafts, making food, and generally minding their own business, as relaxed Starfleet and Son’a personnel are treated to a meal. Picard, Troi and Dr. Crusher are genuinely confused. The empathic Troi is struck by the clarity and focus of the villager’s minds, as Sojef and Anij step forward to greet their Starfleet visitors.
Anij tells an embarrassed Picard that they don’t usually allow visitors, let alone take hostages. Picard apologizes for the intrusion. Sojef tells the captain that Data was suffering damage to his positronic net which they couldn’t repair. Picard is surprised to learn these rural villages are so savvy with modern technology. Picard is informed that while these colonists understand technology, they choose not to use it. The villagers admitted they once used warp drive, but using warp drive now would only take them away from where they want to be.
Note: We are clearly meant to sympathize with the Ba’ku, but my issue is, who decided that the entire planet belonged exclusively to the 600 or so Ba’ku settlers? They arrived at the planet over 300 years ago, and have enjoyed its perfect climate and immortality rays, but why is it verboten for anyone else to reap those same benefits? The Ba’ku aren’t native to that world, and there are only 600 of them, so why can’t the Federation settle its own colonies on other parts of this apparent Earth-sized planet? There should be plenty of room, right? We’ve seen that Federation technology is ecologically sound as well, so why are the seemingly selfish Ba’ku so unwilling to share any part of their paradise? If they evolved naturally on that world, their claim to it would make more sense, but they didn’t. Did the Ba’ku call dibs when they arrived?
Returning to the Enterprise, Picard consults with the admiral, who tells him, “Now pack your bags and get the hell out of there.” Picard asks why the admiral himself isn’t leaving, and gets a cryptic reply that there are “a few loose ends to tie up first.” Mkay. Of course, Picard has no intention of leaving after hearing that. Going down to engineering to see Data, Picard is met by LaForge, whose ocular implants are causing him mild pain for some reason. LaForge then tells the captain that Data experienced a “thermal overload” from a Son’a weapon which triggered his ‘malfunction.’ Data’s ethical program kicked in, and the android’s rampage was an automatic reaction to some unknown wrong that he needed to right. Reactivating Data, the android tells Geordi that he seems to be missing some memory engrams. LaForge has them in his hand, prompting Data to observe, “There they are.” Picard asks Data what is the last thing he remembered before being shot by the Son’a. Data reports he was following some Ba’ku children into the hills. We then cut to Data, retracing his steps on the planet with Sojef, Anij and the boy Artim.
Note: In the original drafts of the movie, subtitled “Stardust,” the story was to be a quasi-adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which had already been famously adapted for the Vietnam war in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, “Apocalypse Now” (1979). The original story featured Picard being forced to hunt down a rogue friend of his from the academy, who’d ‘gone native’ and violated the Prime Directive. That was to be the central story for much as the original outline, building to a climactic confrontation between the two men, with flashbacks detailing their close friendship in earlier years. The filmed version jettisoned much of that arc, changed the old academy chum to Data, and made the Conrad adaptation little more than a subplot in the first act. “Heart of Darkness” was also recently adapted in 2019’s “Ad Astra” with similarly mixed results.
On the Enterprise, Riker and Troi are officially an item again as they enjoy a bubblebath together. Troi gives the bearded Riker a shave (she doesn’t like kissing his beard). Their candlelit bliss is interrupted by a call from Dougherty, who demands to know why the Enterprise hasn’t left orbit. Riker calmly replies that the captain has returned to the surface to learn why Data malfunctioned. An impatient Dougherty reminds Riker that the twelve hours he allotted for investigation are up.
Note: Troi’s earlier observation that she “never kissed (Riker) with a beard before” is demonstrably false. She kissed (and made love to) a bearded Riker in TNG’s “Second Chances” (admittedly, that was Riker’s transporter-clone, Thomas Riker, but he still had Will Riker’s face and beard). They also enjoyed several quick ‘friend kisses’ at other points during the series, such as when he came to see her for advice regarding his affair with Soren in “The Outcast,” a well-meaning but badly bungled metaphor for LGBTQ persecution.
His memory restored, Data leads Picard, Anij, Sojef and Artim (who’s still uneasy around the repaired android) to his location right before he malfunctioned. He goes to the edge of a lake, where his scans detect high “neutrino emissions” from the water. After taking a swim, Data finds that there’s a solid cloaked mass under the surface. They drain the lake (conveniently) and see a large shimmering translucent mass ahead. Sojef takes his son Artim away, saying he has “no interest in these things,” but Anij does–and she volunteers to go out on a raft with Picard and Data. The shimmering mass at the center of the lake is a holoship—a large flying version of the Enterprise-E’s holodeck. Opening the doors, they see an exact holographic representation of the Ba’ku village. Wandering cautiously inside of the cavernous vessel, Data sees grid-like flashes of the actual holodeck’s surface peering beneath the illusion, and notes that the village simulation isn’t yet finished, implying someone is still working on it.
Note: Once again, the movie borrows elements of stories which were already seen on TNG; in this case, the 7th season episode, “Homeward,” which saw Worf’s adoptive brother Nikolai (Paul Sorvino) successfully sneaking a group of endangered villagers onto the Enterprise-D’s holodeck to avoid the destruction of their planet. Nikolai hoped to resettle them on a similar planet elsewhere in the galaxy. As a result, this big reveal of a holo-ship recreating the Ba’ku village loses some of its punch due to its familiarity.
Inside the holoship, Picard and Data are fired upon by a rogue Son’a guard. They quickly stop him, and end the faux village program, but not before Anij falls off the ship into the lake. Anij, not being able to swim, cries for help. Data inflates into a flotation device to help her back onto the raft.
Note: A few issues with this scene. In TNG’s “Descent Part 2” it was established that Data sunk to the bottom of lakes like a lead weight. He had no buoyancy, and La Forge even joked that he had to clean the water out of Data’a processors for days afterward. Now, he’s a life jacket. Okay, maybe he had an upgrade, but Anij’s not being able to swim (and her later injury in the cave) make her a damsel-in-distress waiting to be saved for much of the movie. This was a tired cliche, even back in 1998. I really miss Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) from “First Contact”; she was a more worthy potential romance for Jean-Luc Picard in many ways. She could also take care of herself (“it’s my first ray gun”). A shame…
Beaming back to the ship, Picard is met in the transporter room by Worf who, thanks to the youth-restoring radiation, has developed a “gorch” (Klingon pimple) on his nose. The laughs at Worf’s expense continue, until Data sees Riker’s shaved face (for the first time since the first season of TNG). Riker quips, “Smooth as an android’s bottom, eh Data?” Once again, the one-liners fall with leaden weight. Ugh. Riker tells Picard of the admiral’s order for Enterprise to leave the region immediately. Picard replies, “We’re not going anywhere.” From sickbay, Crusher reports to the captain that their Son’a patients from the village are refusing medical examination, hence they are confined to quarters. Crusher then turns to attend to patient La Forge, who is seeing her about the mysterious pain around his ocular implants.
Note: Not to sound too grotesque, but I wondered exactly how Geordi’s ‘real’ eyes grew over (or through) his cybernetic implants; did Crusher have to remove his mechanical eyes, or did the new ones just push them out somehow…?
In his quarters, Picard changes his damp uniform and orders some music from the computer. The computer plays default classic music, which was probably Picard’s earlier preference, but not anymore—the captain wants some mambo, and he begins to shake his tuchus to the Latin rhythm. As he dances, he passes a mirror, and notices that his face appears to be getting smoother. He finally puts it all together; the mysterious secret that both Dougherty and the Son’a want from the Ba’ku… their planet’s metaphasic radiation creates a natural fountain of youth.
Note: Starfleet officers have been tempted with immortality before. Kirk, Spock and McCoy were once offered immortality by Zefram Cochrane’s “companion” if they stayed on its planetoid (TOS’ “Metamorphosis”), Riker was once tempted to join the Q (TNG’s “Q and Seek”), etc. None of these officers ever betrayed their oath to Starfleet, let alone the values of the Federation, to take their would-be benefactors up on their offers. All the more reason why Admiral Dougherty’s easy willingness to ally himself with the Son’a for such a goal makes even less sense. The Federation has technologies that could extend lifespans in many other ways besides ruining a planet, not to mention that such greed feels out of character for the organization. However, I’m sure the Ferengi would ally themselves to the Son’a without a second thought…
Realizing the truth for himself, Picard beams back to the Ba’ku village that evening. Knocking at Anij’s door, he asks her bluntly, “How old are you?” The truth comes pouring out. Anij and the other Ba’ku settled the planet over 300 years ago. Fleeing a world on the brink of self-destruction from their own technology, the Ba’ku turned their backs on that life in favor of a simpler, rural existence. She and Picard realize they have a strong attraction, and she is surprised to find herself in the presence of genuine wisdom from someone “so young.”
Note: I can’t believe the Ba’ku either didn’t recognize the Son’a as their own people when they had them as ‘guests’ earlier. I mean, wouldn’t accents, names or a common language ring any bells? And if Anij and the others knew the Son’a were truly Ba’ku, why the hell didn’t they bring that little tidbit to Picard’s attention? Granted, the Ba’ku are somewhat secretive, but it should’ve been clear from their adventures together on the lake (with Picard risking his own life for them) that he had their best interests at heart.
The next morning Picard strolls the peaceful Ba’ku village at sunrise, where he witnesses Geordi standing on a nearby hill, watching his first sunrise with ‘natural’ eyesight. The engineer’s ocular implants have been replaced with natural pupils–the pain he experienced earlier was from regenerating cells around his optic nerves. Wistfully, Geordi admits he doesn’t know how long it will last, but he wanted to enjoy it while it does.
Note: Once again, we see that metaphasic radiation works on restoring health and youth even from orbit (Geordi was aboard the Enterprise for much of the movie), so why does anyone need to drain the radiation from the rings and destroy the planet? Yes, the Son’a are dying, and they have very little time. I get it. So how about placing the Son’a in stasis while exposing them to the natural metaphasic radiation from orbital space? Obviously the radiation is fast-working, as evidenced by Geordi’s eyes, so they might not even need to be stored very long. I’d call a month or more in stasis a small price to pay for immortality. Even if the Son’a drained all of the radiation from the planet’s rings, it wouldn’t last. Radiation diminishes over time. That’s a fact. All of that business with the Son’a radiation “collector” later on feels so contrived and unnecessary. Any Federation diplomat or mediator worth their salt could’ve licked this problem. The restorative properties of the metaphasic radiation also reminds me of the spores on Omnicron Ceti III in TOS’ “This Side of Paradise” (written by Jerry Sohl and the late Dorothy Fontana), but without the spores’ *ahem* mellowing side effects.
As several Son’a vessels arrive in orbit to take an aggressive posture against the Enterprise, Dougherty and Ru’afo visit Picard in his ready room. Ru’afo is furious. Picard keeps his focus on the admiral as he says calmly, “We know about the ship.” An enraged Ru’afo literally ruptures skin in his forehead from anger. Dougherty asks Ru’afo to give him a few moments alone with Picard. Before leaving, Ru’afo warns Picard that their alliance could end with the destruction of the Enterprise. Alone with the admiral, Picard and Dougherty have it out. Dougherty says that although the planet is in Federation space, Starfleet science has been unable to properly harness the ring’s restorative energy; but the Son’a have such technology, making them allies of convenience (once again, the oil wars metaphor). As the admiral sings the praises of what the harnessed radiation could do for billions of Federation citizens, he also acknowledges that the planet itself will be rendered uninhabitable for decades following the collection process. Besides, Dougherty wonders aloud, who will miss this out of the way planet in the middle of the Briar patch? “The Ba’ku,” replies Picard. Dougherty scoffs, stating they’d be forcibly relocating only a few hundred colonists. Picard replies how many does it take to be wrong? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Dougherty tells him that he can file a complaint with the Federation, by which time, the entire business will be over.
Note: The scene in Picard’s ready room with Admiral Dougherty is easily the best scene in the entire movie, as it feels very ‘classic’ Star Trek. It’s wonderfully reminiscent of other such moments seen previously in TNG (see: “The Measure of a Man,” “The First Duty”). No one makes speeches like Sir Patrick Stewart. That said, Dougherty does have one valid point; there are only 600 Ba’ku colonists living on the planet—there is still plenty of room for other colonies or settlements. Frankly, the planet no more “belongs” to the Ba’ku any more than I ‘owned’ my bachelor apartment’s entire building. In a way, the once warp-capable Bak’u are guilty of the same colonialism they see in the Federation.
A disgruntled Picard removes his captain’s rank pips and uniform. Dressed in civilian clothes, he stows equipment (and weapons) aboard this yacht in the belly of the ship’s saucer section. He is then met by his senior officers, who are also dressed in their civvies. Knowing they want to join him, Picard orders them not to. Riker quips, “No uniform, no orders.” An overruled Picard agrees to take Data, Troi and Crusher with him to the planet to aid with the evacuation of the Ba’ku village into nearby caves. He asks that Riker and Geordi remain aboard the Enterprise, leave the Briar patch, and contact Starfleet Command. Taking a phaser rifle, Data quips, “Saddle up. Lock and load.”
Note: This scene reminds me of “Star Trek III: “The Search For Spock”, right before Kirk and McCoy stole the Enterprise from Spacedock. Kirk gave his senior staff (also dressed in civilian attire) the option of backing out from their mutinous plan. None of them did, of course.
Ru’afo and his aide Gallatin (Greg Henry) watch computer-projected simulations of their energy collector on the main viewer of the Son’a flagship bridge. Satisfied the collector/injector assembly will work, Ru’afo orders Gallatin to take a squad of ships and abduct the Ba’ku villagers by force, adding that if Picard or anyone else interferes? “Eliminate them.”
On the surface of the planet, Picard and his officers are engaged in the late night evacuation of the villagers, and they are fired upon. Data and the others set up transporter inhibitors to prevent mass beam-ups of the villagers, but the Son’a shuttles fire upon the inhibitors, destroying three of them, and groups of the villagers are beamed up before the others escape to nearby mountains lined with the mineral kelbonite, which interferes with transporters. During the melee, Data rescues young Artim, earning the technophobic boy’s trust.
The following morning sees Picard and the others bonding with their Ba’ku allies. Data and Artim have become friends, with the now-curious boy wondering if the android just needs to have fun once in awhile. Regretful that he can’t experience fun, Data shares with Artim his aspiration to be human. Meanwhile, Anij and Picard are ‘enjoying a moment’ together as she shares with him her ability to “live in a moment” by physically slowing time (which looks a bit like being stoned). She tells Picard that in time, he could learn how to do this as well (with the proper ‘herbal refreshment,’ no doubt).
Note: While I appreciate the character moments in the post-evacuation scenes, they slow the pace of the movie to a crawl. This is supposed to be an entire village fleeing for its life, yet the characters treat it like summer camp in the woods. The ticking clock of the previous night’s escape is virtually stopped, as Data wants to have fun, and Anij teaches Picard how to live in a moment forever—living in a moment forever is the last thing this film needs. The uneven pacing makes the movie feel much longer than its modest 104 minute running time.
Elsewhere at Camp Ba’ku, Worf’s hair is growing noticeably longer as he enters a second Klingon puberty, which brings out his more “aggressive tendencies.” Crusher and Troi muse about their firming boobs (not even kidding), which somehow prompts Data inquire about Worf’s boobs. Before this scintillating boob chatter can continue, the Son’a (mercifully) send in drones to mark individual colonists with isolinear tags, allowing them to be transported aboard Son’a shuttles. Retreating into nearby caves, the Enterprise officers use their phaser rifles to blast the drones. When Worf’s rifle quits on him, he swings it like a baseball bat and smashes a hovering drone to bits. The refugee colonists and Starfleet officers seek temporary shelter within the thicker, safer confines of the caves… fleeing the tagging drones and several Son’a soldiers.
Note: Did those destroyed engrams in Data’s memory also contain the sum of his life experiences as well? His development over the series and prior films seems to have regressed all the way back to the first season of the TV series. All of his experiences, including the many times he’s engaged in recreational activities (painting, poetry, singing, etc) are seemingly forgotten or ignored. In “Generations,” Data inserted an emotion chip into his head which was immediately “fused to his neural net.” But in “Insurrection,” he can now pack it in his luggage like a pack of dental floss. This once important contribution to the character’s growth is utterly forgotten, leaving this Data as little more than comic relief for much of this movie. Fortunately, his redemption as a character would arrive at the end of Star Trek: Picard’s first season.
The Enterprise, under the command of Will Riker, attempts to escape the effects of the Briar Patch in order to contact Starfleet Command. However, they are pursued by Son’a warships who repeatedly open fire, crippling the Starfleet vessel. The Son’a torpedoes force Riker to take the Enterprise into a cloud of highly volatile gases within the Patch’s nebulosity. With the ships closing on their position, Riker orders Geordi to eject the warp core and detonate it; a move which destroys two of the Son’a vessels.
Note: I’m not sure exactly how close (or far) the Ba’ku planet was to the Briar Patch’s perimeter, but without warp drive (courtesy of the destroyed warp core), it would take a loooong time at sublight speeds to cross solar system distances. Pretty sure Auto Club wouldn’t be able to give them a tow, either.
Following the detonation of the Enterprise’s warp core, Riker has two new assailants to deal with. With La Forge reporting they are “fresh out of warp cores”, Riker improvises the “Riker Maneuver”; taking the helm (a joystick controller), he uses the warp nacelle ramjet scoops to collect combustible gas from the nebula. With the Son’a closing in, Riker releases the collected gas and ignites it, vaporizing his opposition. At impulse speeds, the Enterprise is still a half hour away from making contact with Starfleet outside of the Briar Patch’s interference.
Note: Sadly, some of the CGI in Briar Patch starship battle is a little creaky, especially with the advances in visual effects made since 1998. That said, the effects in Star Trek have never been the most important aspect of the show; at its best, Star Trek has been a series more about ideas than spectacle. I only mention the effects because I watched the movie on a 7 ft. screen in an attempt to recapture some of its theatrical presentation vibe, and I couldn’t help but notice them in a larger format.
On the planet, things aren’t going much better for Picard’s merry band of mutineers, either. Dr. Crusher has scanned an injured Son’a soldier and has made a profound discovery. After finding temporary shelter within the caves, the Son’a shuttles begin a bombardment of the hills to drive their quarry out into the open. As Artim loses his furry pocket pet, he goes back to retrieve it. Anij goes after the boy, and there is a cave-in. After the cave-in, the Enterprise officers and Ba’ku villagers do a quick head count and realize Artim and Anij are unaccounted for. Artim is found (with his Pokemon), but Anij is still missing. Picard goes back and finds her pinned under collapsed rock. Her vitals fading, Picard forces Anij to stay awake by “living in the moment,” as she taught him earlier. Protracting her last breaths into just enough time for Dr. Crusher to stabilize her, Anij pulls though. Crusher and Picard then collate the results of her earlier scans—the Son’a and the Ba’ku are the same race. As the other Enterprise officers make their way to safety, Picard and Anij are quickly tagged and captured by Son’a tagging drones.
Note: The revelation that the Ba’ku and Son’a are two halves of the same race is a riff (intentional or not) on H.G. Wells’ classic 1895 novel “The Time Machine”. Wells imagined a far-off dystopia in the year 802,701, where the human race had bifurcated itself between subterranean cannibals known as “Morlocks” and childlike surface dwellers known as “Eloi.” In this bizarre future, the Eloi were also the main food supply for the cannibalistic Morlocks. While the Son’a don’t plan to eat their Ba’ku siblings, they are planning to steal their regenerative life-force for themselves, which is in the ballpark. Like the Morlocks, the Son’a are also mired in technology and machinery, while the Ba’ku/Eloi enjoy a mainly agrarian existence. Hey, if you’re going to steal? Steal from the best. You can’t go too wrong with H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad.
Aboard the Son’a ship, Picard and Anij find themselves with Sojef and other captured Ba’ku villagers in a large holding cell. Ru’afo and Dougherty come in to confront their prisoners. Dougherty tells Picard to call off the Enterprise’s attack on the Son’a, threatening him with court-martial if he refuses. Defiantly, Picard welcomes a court-martial if it exposes the truth about what the admiral has done to the Ba’ku, and how Dougherty has placed Starfleet in the middle of an internal conflict–a clear violation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive. Ru’afo dismisses the captain’s arguments, stating that in a few hours, the collector will be deployed and anything left in this system will be dead or dying. Twisting the knife, Picard adds, “Would you kill your own people, Ru’afo?” The Son’a are the banished children of the Ba’ku, and like most rebellious kids, they have a major beef with their parents. This isn’t just about collecting the metaphasic radiation for Ru’afo… this is about revenge. Admiral Dougherty has drawn the Federation into a blood feud. With that revelation, Anij remembers Ru’afo and Gallatin; they are the children once known as Ro’tin and Gal’na. Despite their current disfigurement, Anij remembers them as the children they once were. Ru’afo rejects her attempted appeal, saying those children are now ‘dead.’
Alone with Ru’afo, Admiral Dougherty realizes he’s been duped into this conflict for the promise of little more than magic beans, blinded to the fact that he was drawing himself into a blood feud (once again, with the Middle Eastern oil wars analogy). The admiral confronts Ru’afo, who is sick of Starfleet’s endless protocols and posturing. An enraged Ru’afo then slams the elderly Starfleet officer against a bank of cosmetic surgical equipment, badly cutting his face. Ru’afo then hoists Dougherty into a skin-tightening machine… stretching his face until Dougherty’s skin ruptures and his skull cracks apart.
As Ru’afo heads to the bridge, he begins the countdown to deploy the collector, Gallatin (aka Gal’na) makes a final appeal to his commander; killing the Ba’ku is taking things too far. Ru’afo tries to restoke Gal’na’s anger towards his Ba’ku. He then orders Gal’na to take the Federation prisoners to an unprotected area of the ship, where the radiation from the procedure should kill them. A despondent Gal’na heads down to the mass brig, where he orders Picard to come with him. Alone in the turbolift, Picard makes a final appeal to the uncertain Gal’na, who is doubting his leader’s genocidal resolve. Trying to summon a last vestige of anger, he asks Picard if he is pleading for his life. Picard then gives the best line of the entire film when he says, “I’m not pleading for my life. I’m pleading for yours.” Picard’s plea to Gal’na’s humanity works, giving him a critical last-minute ally. Gal’na tells Picard the countdown for the collector can only be stopped from the bridge. Picard asks Gal’na if he can help him contact Worf and Data, who are still on the planet, with the holoship.
Note: I realize the Enterprise folks are smart cookies, but the timeframe in which Picard contacts Worf & Data to commandeer the holoship and recreate a flawless replica of the Son’a command ship within its interiors (let alone beam its bridge officers to their exact positions within the replica) is too much to swallow, even for a Star Trek film.
As Data pilots Picard’s yacht from the surface, he strafes Ru’afo’s ship as a distraction, firing tachyon bursts to disrupt Ru’afo’s shields. Ru’afo tries to destroy the vessel, but has to reset his shield harmonics. As the Son’a vessels shields reset, a bright light flashes throughout the bridge. After it subsides, Ru’afo and his crew are startled, but notice that the countdown is continuing unabated. Whatever that ‘flash’ was, their schedule is unchanged. The countdown continues to zero, and Ru’afo hungrily watches the bridge viewer as the collector’s injector is deployed. “Exactly as the simulations predicted,” he muses approvingly. However, his joy is short-lived as his officers report nothing has changed, despite what they saw on the viewer. The injector’s deployment had no impact on the radiation readings. Realizing that can’t be, Ru’afo sees a ‘glitch in the matrix’ of his bridge, and he quickly realizes that ‘bright flash’ earlier was a transporter shimmer—they were beamed from their bridge to the holoship. Enraged, Ru’afo gives a comically over-the-top howl of disappointment.
Note: How does someone NOT realize they are being teleported? Wouldn’t you feel your body break down into a subatomic matter stream?? The climax of “Insurrection” requires more than the usual amount of fantasy movie hand-waving to make it work.
Ru’afo then beams himself aboard the collector vessel to operate the radiation injector manually, but is met by Picard. Meanwhile, Worf has captured the bridge of the real Son’a flagship, but is soon captured by additional Son’a troops. Help soon arrives in the shape of the USS Enterprise. With nothing else to lose, Riker orders a collision course with the Son’a command ship. The Son’a assume Riker is bluffing, until Worf assures them he’s not. To avoid collision at the last second, the Son’a take evasive action as the Enterprise fires at their underbelly, disabling life-support systems. Aboard the collector, Ru’afo corners Picard. Both men are armed. Picard reminds him of the collector’s combustible cryogenic gases, and asks if Ru’afo is willing to destroy them both by firing. Ru’afo hesitates. “Then I will!” says Picard, as he grabs his weapon and fires, igniting the gases.
Note: The blue walls behind Picard and Ru’afo aboard the collector… I may be wrong on this, but they look like unused blue screen; as if they were meant to be replaced in the final compositing with CGI backgrounds of the ship’s interior. The shade of blue used to light the walls is the exact shade of blue commonly used in those days for such effects. I have no definitive proof that this was the case, only my gut feeling when I first watched the movie. It’s as if the FX budget just ran out, and director Frakes had no choice but to rush the film out to theaters as it was.
The collector begins to explode from the lowest reaches to the upper decks, engulfing the ship in a billowing, Hindenburg-like fireball. At the last second, Picard is beamed aboard the Enterprise, as Ru’afo is left aboard the exploding collector. He lets out one final “Nooooooooooooooooo!!!” before he’s engulfed in flames.
Note: The original ending had Ru’afo showered in a flood of metaphasic radiation as he rapidly de-aged backward into infancy, which would’ve made for a more “Twilight Zone”-style ending than the final movie’s more traditional giant fireball. Despite F. Murray Abraham’s wonderful performances in “Amadeus” and other works, his wild overacting in “Insurrection” borders on the farcical at times.
With both the collector and leader Ru’afo destroyed, the Son’a surrender–their decision hastened by the fact their failing vessel has about three minutes of air left. Picard, back aboard the Enterprise, graciously accepts the surrender. The threat to the Ba’ku is eliminated, Admiral Dougherty is dead, and the remaining Son’a are repatriated to the Ba’ku planet, where they will reconnect with their families and reverse their decay under its healing rays.
Note: The climax of the movie is very dense with event; tons of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments that are cut quickly and confusingly. As a result, the ending of “Insurrection” seems cacophonous and overly-busy, robbing the climax of both focus and power. There is so much cross-cutting that none of the jumbled moments have much time to breathe, unlike the film’s languid and slow middle act. The pacing of “Insurrection” is wildly inconsistent.
As the crew say their goodbyes to the Ba’ku, Riker wonders aloud if leaving the Briar Patch’s influence will change their current feelings. Worf tells Riker that it’s obvious his feelings for Troi have never changed. Picard says his goodbyes to Anij, casually mentioning that he might return someday by cashing in his weeks of accumulated shore leave (yeah, don’t hold your breath). As the crew prepares to beam back to the ship, Data and Artim emerge from a pile of hay after a game of hide and seek. The android vows to take the child’s advice, and allow for a bit of fun every day. Data shakes Sojef’s hand and goes off to stand with his shipmates. Picard, Worf, Data, Riker, Troi, La Forge and Crusher then beam aboard the Enterprise.
Note: Once again, the ending reverts to status quo, with the Enterprise crew leaving a planet they will never hear from or revisit ever again. Data has fully reverted to his earliest self, ignoring all of the character growth he’s had during the series. Picard is single once again. Geordi is blind again. Crusher is…well, the exact same as she was at the beginning of the story. Only Riker and Troi have any real development, as we see with their future wedding in the sequel “Nemesis.” Unlike the high-stakes adventures of “Generations” (which destroyed the Enterprise-D), “First Contact” (which arguably altered the timeline of the Federation itself) and even “Nemesis” (Data’s death), nothing of serious consequence happens in this movie. It’s little more than an overproduced but thoroughly average episode of the TV show.
TV or not TV, that is the question…
Movies based on popular TV shows have been a thing for quite a while now; in fact, Star Trek itself mainstreamed the idea with 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. But Star Trek: TMP, for all of its faults (and I love that movie), still felt like a big screen experience; more “2001” than “Star Wars,” granted, but still an experience best enjoyed on a large screen. Movies and TV shows used to be two very different animals, though that line has blurred into irrelevance these days, especially during the COVID pandemic, when watching movies at home isn’t just convenient—it’s medically sound as well. However, that wasn’t the case back in 1998; movies were big screen spectacle, and TV was the scaled down (though no less culturally significant) counterpart. Movies were the grandiose, sexy, one-night stands; TV was the arguably more rewarding longterm relationship. “Insurrection” sadly, isn’t quite either; it’s not ‘big’ enough in scope or vision to fill the shoes of other Star Trek movies, and the story isn’t nearly on a par with the best entries of TNG. With all the talent behind the scenes, “Insurrection” should’ve been something special, but sadly, it isn’t.
Sometimes a blank canvas presents a daunting challenge for a sequel when no clear story direction is present. Perhaps there was some ‘performance anxiety’ at play as well, considering director/actor Jonathan Frakes’ solid feature film debut of “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996) had been such a great success, both critically and at the box office. Any followup was bound to fall in the shadow of that big screen Borg adventure, so perhaps subverting expectations was the way to go (see: “The Last Jedi“). There was also some controversy over the late Michael Piller’s earlier scripts. As a producer, Piller had shaken up TNG for the better since he came aboard in the series’ third season, emphasizing the ensemble of regular characters over everything else. Under Piller’s reign as TNG’s story editor, each script’s focus had to be measured in its impact upon the regular characters. For instance, if the Enterprise-D encountered a “spatial anomaly,” that anomaly had to have some kind of effect on Troi’s empathic powers, or wreak havoc with Data’s neural net, etc. As a result of this newfound character focus, the show became much stronger. The crew of the Enterprise-D (and later E) became a family.
Piller’s original script for “Insurrection” (which I’ve read a draft of) was originally subtitled “Stardust”, and it was a featured a more direct “Heart of Darkness” story than the more scattershot final film. Picard was sent to stop an old friend of his; a friend who’d “gone native” (much like Col. Kurtz in the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” famously known as “Apocalypse Now”). There were to be flashbacks of Picard’s Academy days spent with his old friend, whom he now agonized over betraying, following the friend’s violation of the Prime Directive. That weighty storyline, which made up much of “Stardust”, was reduced to the first act of “Insurrection.” The agony of Picard being sent to stop his dear friend was the core of Piller’s original script, but was now whittled down to a subplot. In lieu of Picard’s old friend gone rogue, newer drafts saw Picard now going after Data, whom Picard, Worf and Geordi quickly restore to perfect operating order upon capture. There are still many intriguing ideas presented in the final version of “Insurrection,” but none of them are given much breathing room. Was the Federation Council complicit with Dougherty and the Son’a, as was implied by Dougherty himself? If so, would Picard be facing prosecution following this “insurrection” against Starfleet? The 600 or so Baku were mere colonists to their planet, yet they alone stake a claim to all of the planet’s medicinal benefits? How does that make them any more moral than any would-be Federation or Son’a colonists? Wasn’t there enough room on the planet for other people besides the small group of Baku colonists? Was further research into radiation-based immortality abandoned by Federation science after this incident? Such research could’ve helped billions of people (or more) throughout the Federation.
“Insurrection” raises nagging questions, yet it lacks courage to tackle them head-on. And worst of all, it’s very talky and dull. For me, that was the greatest sin committed in this bland, somewhat generic Star Trek film. I really wanted to love this movie 22 years ago, as the conditions for enjoying it that night could not have been better. Sadly, the fault lies not in our stars, but in this thoroughly average installment of Star Trek.
“Star Trek: Insurrection” is available for streaming/rental on Prime Video, Hulu.com, Epix.com and YouTube (pay per view). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States are over 400,000 as of this writing and that number is increasing by thousands daily. The newly-developed vaccines are slowly working their way into the general population, so for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public (even if you are vaccinated; the vaccine’s immunity isn’t permanent), and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. Let’s all try to keep any get-togethers safe-distanced, outdoors (weather permitting) and in small numbers, please!
Live long and prosper!