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It’s been three hundred years since I’ve seen a bald man.

Star Trek: Insurrection
(1998)

(SPOILERS) I recalled very little about Star Trek: Insurrection, other than it being a mostly inoffensive plod that had something to do with the fountain of youth. That part is pretty much correct, although revisiting it, I was pleasantly surprised by how serviceable the opening section is, effectively setting up a mystery (even if the antagonists are disclosed too soon) and even more so at the twist ending, which I had entirely failed to remember. Most surprised because it’s virtually the same one used by Star Trek Beyond.


Perhaps Beyond writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung had no reservations about repurposing it because they knew most audiences would be just like me and completely fail to recollect the content of an 18-year old movie in a second-gen franchise that never really got much groundswell behind it; until Nemesis scraped the bottom of the barrel, only The Final Frontier had performed worse. Unfortunately, Insurrection can never quite escape the sense that it’s an idea in search of a dramatic backbone, which leaves it flailing miserably in the mid-section (it’s unsurprising Marina Sirtis fell asleep during the premier).


The fountain of youth concept is an oft-used one but rarely satisfies (you’re never going to convincingly de-age your stars – at least, current effects haven’t got there yet – and the limitations of an ongoing saga make it pretty clear that everything has to reset at the end, so there’s little tension involved), so we can only hope Indy 5 doesn’t go in that direction (I wouldn’t be at all surprised…) It seems this core idea was always on the cards, although the script was initially in a much different form, until vetoed by Sir Patrick Stewart (with his associate producer credit), intent on getting some of that gun-toting, t-shirt wearing, chick-pulling action in. So not much like the one from the TV show (it seems he favoured a return the TV character, but his memory must have been failing if he thought he got it) This is the same Sir Patrick Stewart whose insight into the dramatic process and eye for good material saw him take on the recent role of a Poo Emoji.


Picard: Mr Worf, do you know Gilbert and Sullivan?
Worf: No, sir. I have not had a chance to meet all the new crewmembers since I have been back.

The producers wanted to lighten Insurrection up à la Star Trek IV (they already time-travelled à la Star Trek IV in the previous one: how much Star Trek IV riffing do you need? How about just being Star Trek IX?) What they entirely seemed not to understand is that The Voyage Home’s lightness was built on sprightly interplay and comic incident in aid of a clear goal and that there was constantly something for the cast to play off against (fish out of water, culture clash).


Insurrection, like so much of ST:NG, is left straining in its attempts to be funny. Actually, Fraker’s self-satisfied Riker is pretty funny, because he’s so insistently smug, and his pot shots at Worf do actually land (“Klingons never do anything small, do they” he observes of an enormous zit on the lieutenant commander’s face). However, an awful lot of the humour here plays like it’s aimed at a convention audience, entirely unselective about what they’re willing to laugh at, from Picard leading Worf (and Data) in a rendition of A British Tar, to Riker romancing Troi, to Picard doing a comedy rumba (Stewart is not a great comedian) and Data playing innocent about boobs firming up and androids’ bottoms (“In the event of a water landing, I have been designed to serve as a flotation device” is amusing, though).


The picture stops in its tracks whenever Picard’s unconsummated romance with Anij (Donna Murphy) is to the fore; this, like the undynamic main plot, is the sort of thing that can sit happily (sleepily) in 45 minutes, but is plain comatose translated to a movie. Underlining those small screen roots, the setting entirely resembles something out of a TV episode, a model village shot with consummate blandness by Frakes. The would-be idyll of the Ba’ku would carry a whole lot better if they’d found someone with the imagination to make their home vaguely exotic, utopian or paradisiac. Instead, it looks like a slightly tacky designer resort on the edge of a lake. 


There’s a moral quandary at the heart of the picture, of course, but it isn’t given enough leverage to make it satisfyingly complex (what if there was a specific threat/disease that meant the Federation needed access to the metaphasic particles with immediate urgency?) Stewart has apparently said he wouldn’t have made Picard’s choice (help 600 people versus billions) and would have relocated the Ba’ku, evidently being a utilitarian type, but we know in the first five minutes that Anthony Zerbe’s Dougherty is shifty and can tell just by looking at them that the Son’a are a bad lot (they’re ugly, so they must be!), so there’s little moral tension to chew on.


So too, the execution. If Frakes were a more accomplished director, he’d have made more of the various reveals (the holodeck is actually used well on this occasion, but having introduced it as a means to hoodwink the Ba’ku into thinking they are still on the planet, it elicits little more than a shrug when the same plan makes the Son’a think they are still on their spaceship).


As for the discovery that the Son’a are actually Ba’ku who split and left their adopted home, choosing technology over a simple, tech-free idyll, it’s one of the few aces up Michael Piller and Rick Berman’s sleeves, but like the holodeck, it never quite carries the dramatic impact it should. So no wonder Star Trek Beyond borrowed it wholesale for Idris Elba’s metamorphosis.


Data: My last memory is going into the hills, following some children.

But the opening of Insurrection is really pretty good. Beginning a story midway through a mission is a potent hook, and rogue Data is effectively disorientating. Unfortunately, he’s used considerably less well later, given a really rotten subplot as the dodgy uncle type you really don’t want to be letting your kids go anywhere near (“I am the personification of everything they rejected”) as he continues to try and learn what it is to be human (just give it up already). “Do you like being a machine?” asks precocious oik Artim (Michael Welch). “I aspire to be more than I am” Data dutifully replies. Then “You need to learn to play. You need to know what it’s like to be a child”. Good grief, throw rocks at that kid, someone. Instead, we’re treated to the sight of our over-friendly android frolicking in a haystack with said moppet (“Data, don’t forget, you have to have a little fun, everyday”).


Geordi: Captain, how could I look at another sunrise knowing what my sight cost these people?

Among the rest of the crew, Geordi continues to be defined by his eyes, which I guess is a small improvement over being defined by the colour of his skin (how things have moved on in three centuries). Troi is defined by not liking Riker’s chin whiskers and Crusher by her boobs starting to firm up. Worf is mostly good value, though, because Dorn is permanently deadpan (“I’ve an odd craving for the blood of a live kolar beast”; I understand his re-experiencing of adolescence isn’t exactly fans’ favourite thread from the picture, but Dorn is mostly able to extract the chuckles from the scenario). Picard, inevitably, muscles up for the action-showdown yawnfest.


Guest cast-wise, Zerbe is as dependable as always, but given little to chew on. F Murray Abraham fares better, because Abraham is simply great, but Ru’afo doesn’t really stand out on the villainy front (Gregg Henry is similarly solid as deputy Gallatin, but he can be downright great when given a great role).


The design work is suitably grotesque, clearly heavily indebted to Brazil, complete with blood squirts (“Lie down, Admiral. The girls will take twenty years off your face”). The Son’a were rewritten to beef up their villainy (early drafts featured the Romulans, who in part were nixed by Stewart), but there’s still a sense of them being half-developed. With Trek, if you’re relying on a weighty idea, rather than all-action, you need to make it sufficiently cinematic (The Motion Picture), and if you’re relying on traditional villains, you need to make them sufficiently dramatic. Insurrection has neither going for it, so it’s no wonder it’s largely forgotten.


Still, it features a llama. And it’s most unobjectionable, apart from the Data and the small boy subplot. And some of the strained attempts to be funny. And the bit where Frakes lingers on a shot so as to get the entire stuntman fall in, like this is a ‘70s TV western. Star Trek: Insurrection is less irritating than Generations, and actually has a couple of decent ideas at its core (the relocation of and mutation of a race that is, rather than the fountain of youth). The ST:NG movies ran roughly parallel with the Brosnan Bonds, and both franchises were similarly mixed in their creative fortunes at this time. Insurrection, in those terms, is the equivalent of The World is Not Enough, an attempt to deliver a traditional, character-based plotline without too much heavy artillery undone by a listless director and bereft pacing. Of course, that means Nemesis is Die Another Day


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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