Wait. I need to confess something. I’m a former rabid Star Trek fan, born and bred in Virginia, where for a time in the early ’90s you could watch up to 16 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation a week.**
The last few sequels – Generations (1994), First Contact (1996)*** and Insurrection – have been fun and entertaining but also uneven, as if the people making them are unanchored creatively without the imposed structure of TV budgets or commercial breaks.****
Still, you have plenty of good stuff: the Shakespearean voice and presence of Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, the agreeable men and women who make up the rest of the Next Generation ensemble, some nice or funny intimate scenes, great special effects, and an enjoyable mood – but like too much of Star Trek on TV nowadays, it just doesn’t add up to much.
This time, the crew of the Enterprise-E – replacing the Enterprise-D, which crashed in Generations – is serving mostly as a diplomatic tool for the United Federation of Planets. (“Does anyone remember,” wonders Picard, “when we used to be explorers?”) It’s called to a remote planet in a nebulous part of space nicknamed The Briar Patch. There, Enterprise crewmember Data (Brent Spiner) has seemingly gone nuts while working incognito on this world – the home of the Ba’ku, a humanoid race that has rejected technology – and revealed to the planet’s 600 residents that Federation scientists are secretly watching them.
The planet is bathed in radiation that makes people grow younger as they grow older (don’t ask) and makes Data rebel because he suddenly sees his secretive mission as being wrong. (Other consequences of the radiation also lead to the film’s most unlikely line, which I can’t bring myself to say*****; when I saw a page of the film’s script on the Internet a few months ago, and read that line of dialogue, I thought it was fake. It wasn’t.)
People called the Son’a – humanoids who’d literally fall to pieces if they didn’t have their skin stapled on – want to move the Ba’ku off the world and use that regenerative power for their own purposes. The annoyed and annoying Son’a, Ruafo (F. Murray Abraham) also has a grudge with the Ba’ku that adds an obvious undercurrent of revenge to the plan. Corrupt Federation officials are aiding the Sona at the Ba’ku’s expense, and Picard and company take up arms to expose the plot. Explosions and fire follow, but it takes maybe half an hour for this film to get to almost any of the scenes you saw in the ads.
Yes, this film is funny – lots of it is goofy, which is really strange for Star Trek – but all we’re seeing in Insurrection has been done before better in other Star Treks. The humor in The Voyage Home (1986) made sense coming from the characters; this film gravitates toward sight gags and silly words.
And Star Trek crews have rebelled before, like the genuinely cool theft of the original Enterprise in The Search for Spock (1984), but there they were fighting impossible odds to save Spock from a fate worse than death; here, they seem to be rebelling so Picard can kiss a Ba’ku babe and Data can play with a young boy. Oh, and also so they can live up to their principles, as the characters remind us in their many speeches.
Plot hole alert: if the rings make everyone on the planet grow younger, why don’t the Son’a who are on the surface get this effect while there, or for that matter the non-Enterprise Starfleet people watching the Ba’ku? The Briar Patch is said to be an environmentally dicey region of space, but the film doesn’t explain why and then pretty much ignores the environmental issues in favor of flying around and blowing stuff up.
Lines and lines of dialogue in Insurrection use Star Trek’s notorious technobabble, a bunch of fake terms used to create what sounds like it could be 24th-century English. This is probably hard for the general audience to understand. At least two major space conflicts in this film rely heavily on the technobabble, and I’m worried the scenes are both utterly predictable for Trek fans (I guessed correctly what the good guys were doing) and incomprehensible to the non-Trek watcher.
And there’s even a big countdown clock in the finale, where Picard must stop a giant laser from firing. That cliché gets skewered in Roger Ebert’s Little Glossary of Movie Terms: the clock counting down to a 0:00 that never comes was parodied as long ago as Goldfinger in 1964 (remember “0:07”?)
Jerry Goldsmith has written incredible music for Star Trek; listen to his First Contact theme for proof. This time, though, he doesn’t keep up the musical interest – and his title melody, representing the gentle Ba’Ku, sounds like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”!
This is one of the strangest Star Trek films ever, with some genuine laughs, twice as many stunt people as actual cast members, speeches up the wazoo, and such sights as Patrick Stewart mambo dancing, Brent Spiner sitting up in water (which leads to the film’s second most unlikely line******), and Worf with a zit. This is weird – not usually a word I say in connection to Star Trek. I guess that’s different.
* I couldn’t come up with a workable simile, so I stopped that sentence and moved on to the next paragraph. Writing in action!
** True. Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland could get Baltimore as well as D.C. TV stations, and when TNG went into syndication you had five repeat episodes a week on both the D.C. and Baltimore affiliates, plus the new episodes, plus re-showings of the new episodes...
*** I like First Contact a lot more than I let on here.
**** Generations especially was too much a “Ooo! We could do this!” special-effects showcase, to the detriment of its story. (The crash of the Enterprise-D’s saucer section happened because the producers had wanted to show such a crash in 1993’s “Descent” two-parter, but couldn’t afford it on TV.) Too bad, because I truly love some individual moments, including William Shatner and Patrick Stewart playing off of each other.
***** Troi: “Have you noticed how your boobs have firmed up?”
****** Data: “In the event of a water landing, I have been designed to act as a flotation device.”