PICARD SAVES PARADISE:
A Review of 'Star Trek: Insurrection'
by Michelle Erica Green
While I've never agreed with those who believe that the only Trek movies worth watching are the even-numbered ones, I'd be shocked if anyone felt that way after Star Trek: Insurrection. It's great. The ninth installment of the immortal franchise doesn't have quite the scope of some of the previous films - neither the universe nor even the Earth is ever threatened, and the major crewmembers are never in any believable jeopardy. Still, it's an undeniable feel-good movie in which a misguided admiral allies himself with a race of nasty, dying aliens and conspires to destroy an innocent civilization for selfish purposes; it's left to our heroes to put things right and teach everyone the errors of their thinking. It's witty, it's fast-paced, and I think it's one of Patrick Stewart's best performances for the franchise.
You've probably all heard the plot by now, but just in case, and without spoiling the ending too much (gee, think they survive and manage to save the planet?): the peaceful Ba'ku civilization is disrupted when Data, who has apparently gone berserk, sheds a cloaking isolation suit and becomes visible to the population. He then shoots at a secret Starfleet installation, thus making that visible to them, too. Picard and the rest of the Enterprise crew turn up to rescue their colleague, only to discover that his behavior was triggered by his ethical subroutine. Investigating, they learn that the seemingly primitive Ba'ku are actually a centuries-old civilization which fled their overly technological society, and that Starfleet has hidden not only an observation post but a holographic ship on the planet, designed to whisk the Ba'ku away before they realize what hit them.
The reason? Metaphasic radiation from the planet's rings has the effect of rendering the world a Shangri-La, which not only reverses aging but also restores LaForge's eyesight and even some of Picard's hair. Admiral Dougherty, allied with the vicious Son'a race, has a plan to bottle the magical metaphasic elixir. But extracting it from the rings will require the destruction of the planet's surface; hence the need to relocate the Ba'ku. The admiral isn't impressed by Picard's impassioned speech about how by trying to sieze the benefits of the fountain of youth for the Federation, he's violating everything the Federation really stands for...and Starfleet doesn't have much time to listen to protests from Picard, since they're busy with the Dominion War offscreen.
Seeing no alternative but to strike out on his own, Picard and his most trusted friends head down to save the Ba'ku from Son'a weapons while Riker and LaForge take the Enterprise in search of Starfleet assistance. While Riker's mettle is tested by illegal subspace weapons, dangerous subspace rifts, and a manual steering column which looks exactly like a joystick (now you know what the Insurrection video game will be like), Picard goes head to head with Evil Alien Ru'afo in a struggle to save the Ba'ku. Along the way he learns some of their mental disciplines and the secret of their peaceful existence, to which their enemies have a surprising link.
That's a pretty dry summary, yet this movie has one thing going for it right from the start: lots of humor. There hasn't been a Trek film this funny since The Voyage Home, of which Insurrection is vaguely reminiscent, with Data taking on Spock's role as commentator on human foibles and triumphs. One of the more amusing subplots concerns his bonding with a young boy who teaches him to play, though his funniest line is a throwaway after leaping into a lake: "In the event of a water landing, I have been designed to serve as a flotation device." Brent Spiner gives an impressive performance fighting off Son'a weapons and performing violent acts automatically while under the influence of Data's moral subroutines, and he sings, too - one of the film's gags is the trio of Picard, Worf, and Data singing "A British Tar," after Worf's demurral that he has not met all the new crewmembers on the Enterprise yet, so he cannot be expected to recall Gilbert and Sullivan.
Unfortunately, Data and Picard are the only characters to get any real development. Riker has some nice moments particularly with Troi, who gives him a neckrub on duty, thus rekindling their decade-old romance. After she throws him out of her quarters because she doesn't like kissing him with a beard, the two share a candlelit bubble bath where she helps him shave; Riker later claims that his face is now smooth as an android's behind, but Data disputes that analysis. That's about the extent of Troi's role in the film, other than to state the incredibly obvious in observing that the Ba'ku have great mental discipline. Crusher's role is even smaller: after helping Picard get dressed up for a diplomatic dinner, she's not even much use as a doctor, since Ba'ku mental disciplines help them to heal themselves.
The most interesting woman in the film is Anij, one of the Ba'ku leaders, a lovely woman of 350 or so who serves as the primary contact among her people and the Starfleet officers. Initially distrustful, she comes to appreciate Picard's values, particularly after he rescues her from drowning since she's managed not to learn to swim during her centuries of life. Anij is a little over-idealized - like her planet, where the grass is a little too green - but actress Donna Murphy endows her with an earthy, straightforward sensuality that's sorely lacking on Trek in general. She also shares a neat moment with Picard in which she demonstrates that in order to live in the moment, one must stop time...and does.
While people who are not Ba'ku can't stop waterfalls or slow their own hearts to prevent their deaths, this attitude towards life is the underlying theme of the movie, in terms of pacing as well as discussion onscreen. While there is a great deal of action in this film, there are also long sequences of dialogue and character interaction where one realizes that the real pleasure of watching a Next Generation film is in discovering how well we know this crew and the very fact that we can predict how they'll react to things. It's a nostalgic film, from the revival of a romance begun during the first episode of the series upon which it is based to the fact that the crew is actually growing younger - as Worf's experiences with pimples and adolescent aggression testify.
Curiously, considering that the current Trek series are marketed aggressively towards young males, screenwriter Michael Piller takes the risk of pointing out that this is no longer a young franchise. The Son'a (who turn out to be a younger, brasher version of the Ba'ku) sway Admiral Dougherty by arguing that Starfleet is aging, decrepit; it's why they can be trounced by the Borg, the Cardassians, the Dominion. It's too bad there wasn't a subplot directly linking Starfleet's unethical desire to sieze the planet's wealth with the urgency of the war, which seems very far away.
Chronological age and experience are generally good things in Insurrection: Picard says he's always been attracted to older women, Anij and her people are held up as an ideal similar to Classic Trek's Organians. On the other hand, cosmetic aging is clearly labeled as a bad thing: the hideous Son'a devote much of their energy to facelifts and skin treatments, and after their sojourn on the replenishing planet, Troi and Crusher discuss pleasure at how their boobs have started to firm up (leading to a great joke between Data and Worf on the same subject).
I prefer moral ambiguity to unequivocal declarations of good and evil, so I rather liked the admiral's explanation that by protecting the 600-person Ba'ku community from relocation, Picard was preventing billions of people like LaForge from regaining their eyesight, etc. The captain's speech about how relocation of small groups of people to satisfy a larger one has always been a cause of hideous suffering in his culture, but where was this attitude during the series when he was fighting against the Maquis cause? It's clear that the Vulcan philosophy about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few or the one won't be quoted as much this generation, though I would have been interested to hear what kind of logic Spock might have used on Anij to convince her people to leave paradise voluntarily.
Picard's initial reaction to the whole mess with Data was to be relieved that the Ba'ku already knew about positronic matrices...hence there was no violation of the Prime Directive when Starfleet's presence became known. But the Ba'ku are relative newcomers to their planet, settlers of only a few centuries; the admiral has a point when he argues that by taking them away from their source of immortality, Starfleet would only be returning them to the natural order for their species. The setup seemed a little contrived to me, as the Maquis always have: on the scale of galactic imperialism, this time-frame is miniscule.
By settling on the planet, did the Ba'ku disrupt the natural evolution of those miniature native dinosaurs which serve as convenient plot devices? We will never know. The Son'a, who bear some similarities to Star Trek Voyager's Vidiians, are initially characterized as absolute bad guys. Not only have they manufactured Ketracel-White, a substance vital to the Dominion, but they've broken the Khitomer Accord rules about subspace weapons, which backfires when Riker finds a way to use it against them. Their hideous secret has a certain predictability, but it makes for a nice sort of closure at the end about what will be their fate, now that the Federation knows how icky they are. In the end, Picard suggests to Anij that he'll be back to see her and the Ba'ku.
It will be interesting to see whether this race and their Shangri-La ever show up on Trek again, because of course this isn't over: since the Federation Council knows of this planet and its effects, we can bet that slowly the rumors will leak out. As Anij said, who can resist the promise of eternal youth? Think of the characters we already know who might have very strong reasons for wanting to go there...Nog, in search of his amputated leg...Kathryn Janeway, wanting to regain the years she lost in the Delta Quadrant...Christopher Pike, if he's still alive, who could finally live without illusion. Wars are fought over secrets like this one. I don't believe the Son'a are the only race in the galaxy who could dream up a collector for the metaphasic energy. The possibility of ongoing metaphysical and moral problems posed by this planet is intriguing.
In the meantime, I am sure we will have the opportunity to buy action figures of those adorable little dinosaurs as well as Picard in the hideous new Love Boat-style dress uniform, and CD-ROMs where we, too, can steer the Enterprise-E through the singularities of the Briar Patch region of space in which the Ba'ku live. We will also have the opportunity to collect Ru'afo, who unfortunately comes across more as an action figure than a character: despite F. Murray Abraham's gloriously over-the-top performance as the hideously ugly, embittered alien, his motives are shallow and it's mystifying why anyone on his crew follows him.
The visuals in Insurrection are superb, from the computer effects to the glorious shots of the Sierra Nevada range (which serve as the mountains of the Ba'ku planet). After the literal and metaphysical darkness of First Contact, I found this one much more pleasant to watch; it felt more like Star Trek to me, for whatever that's worth. The cast looked good, too; LeVar Burton has put on some weight and Gates McFadden has gotten a little brittle, but Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes look as good as they ever have, particularly together. Spiner stole his scenes, but Patrick Stewart really came into his own in this film: he wasn't dwarfed by machinery and history as he was in First Contact, and he wasn't dwarfed by Kirk as he was in Generations. I didn't agree with everything Picard said, but he was very much the captain, particularly in the final one-on-one confrontation with Ru'afo. I'm just sorry we didn't get to see the subsequent confrontation with Starfleet.
And hey: he didn't blow up the ship!