It’s been said that nobody sets out to make a bad movie.
For example, William Shatner once set out to make a Star Trek movie that would be a sweeping epic, combining high adventure with a profound spiritual journey for the characters. And we ended up with Star Trek V.
The Final Frontier’s failure was almost guaranteed from the beginning, though, because the story was built around an inherently bad idea: the Enterprise crew setting out to physically locate God. Sure, there were a lot of other problems with the production: a writers’ strike, budget cuts, etc. But you can pretty much draw a straight line from the bad idea at the beginning of the creative process to the cinematic cow pie that came out the end. However, some bad movies start out as fairly good ideas. Or at least ideas that sound good at first. For example, Star Trek: Insurrection.
A very important piece of tie-in merchandise for Insurrection was to have been a book, penned by screenwriter Michael Piller, that detailed the entire creative process behind the film, from initial idea to finished screenplay. Had Insurrection been successful the book would have been a splendid commercial for it. But when the movie sputtered like a wet firecracker the studio decided that they’d rather not publish its post-mortem. So Piller’s book went unpublished. However, the manuscript surfaced online a while back, and I was able to read it before it was pulled. Here, then, is a condensed summary of the various forms Insurrection’s story took from concept to finished script. It’s a fascinating look at how Hollywood can turn a guaranteed crowd-pleaser into a dirt sandwich.
Before Insurrection, of course, there was First Contact. Released in November 1996, it was the most successful Star Trek movie in a decade. It also took some serious chances with the Star Trek formula. Whereas the first TNG film, Generations, was a safe, PG-rated outing that featured the familiar characters on the familiar sets of the TV series, doing the same kinds of things they’d done on TV for the past seven years, First Contact represented a clean break from television. It was a darker, edgier, PG-13-rated film that turned the intellectual, reserved character of Captain Picard into a bona fide action hero. And the fans went crazy for it. So the question faced by Star Trek executive producer Rick Berman was: what do you do for an encore?
One option would be to take the James Bond route and essentially make the same film over again with a different villain. To his credit, Berman decided to do something different. He hired Michael Piller, the guy who took over the TNG writing staff early in the show’s third season and played a huge role in its turnaround after the first two uneven seasons, to write the script. Together, they decided that the next film should eschew the darkness of First Contact and tell a lighter, more humorous adventure story. The movie would have plenty of the crowd-pleasing action that made First Contact a hit, but besides the physical heroics it would also feature Captain Picard making a brave moral stand. What would it be about? The answer came to Piller in front of his bathroom mirror one morning as he was grousing about ABC’s rejection of of one of his TV pilots because it wasn’t sufficiently appealing to the all-important “youth” demographic. As he mused on our culture’s obsession with youth, and the fact that he himself was not getting any younger, it hit him: when was the last time someone did a fountain-of-youth story?
The idea Piller pitched to Rick Berman was an adaptation of the novel Heart of Darkness that involved Picard being sent “up the river” to kill an old friend who’s gone rogue, but when he finds him, he discovers that his friend is actually protecting the people who live there from villains trying to steal their fountain of youth. Berman liked the idea, and Piller wrote his first treatment of the story, tentatively entitled “Stardust”. It went something like this:
The story opens at a formal Starfleet ball during Jean-Luc Picard’s Academy days. We meet a young Picard and his best friend, a fellow cadet named Hugh Duffy. We’re also briefly introduced to a “stiffly handsome” cadet named Norton. Duffy is a proud anti-conformist who believes Starfleet should be more interventionist, the way it was in Captain Kirk’s day. Picard’s outlook is more conservative.
Cut to twenty-eight years later. The Enterprise is repulsing a Romulan attack on a Federation colony near the Neutral Zone. It’s a fun action sequence that re-introduces the TNG cast as well as our primary antagonist: a Romulan-Klingon hybrid named Joss. In a brief scene that sets up another major plot point, Dr. Crusher has to get Picard’s handwritten authorization to use additional doses of “sarium krellide” radiation to treat the wounded. Sarium krellide is the ore that provides the regenerative radiation used in medical tools, and due to a shortage Starfleet has imposed a ration on its usage, although a synthetic replacement will soon be available. The Romulans withdraw and the Enterprise heads back to Earth with the surviving colonists.
Back on Earth, we learn that the Romulan attack was a retaliation for an alleged Starfleet attack that destroyed two Romulan ships. Picard joins Commander Norton (the same “stiffly handsome” guy we met as a cadet in the opening sequence) at a session of the Federation Council where a response to the Romulan attack is being debated. The most enlightened man in the room is the Council President, an Vulcan named Semark—who Piller suggested should be played by Ian McKellen. Semark has been working on a peace treaty with the Romulans that would abolish the Neutral Zone. It would be his crowning achievement, but this recent attack has put it all in jeopardy. Picard watches with admiration as Semark calmly responds to the angry rhetoric, trying to preserve the peace initiative. After the Council session, Picard and Norton are pulled into a meeting with Semark where we learn that there may be a basis to the Romulan claims—it seems that a rogue Federation ship commanded by none other than Picard's old friend Hugh Duffy is carrying out attacks on the Romulans from a treacherous area known as the Briar Patch. Picard and the Enterprise are ordered to find a way into the Briar Patch, locate Duffy, and stop his attacks.The fate of Semark’s peace treaty with the Romulans is riding on this.
Meanwhile, Data visits the android lab at the Daystrom Institute, where the scientists have created a group of less-sophisticated androids that lack whatever “secret sauce” makes Data a self-aware lifeform. Much like Data has always aspired to be human, these androids aspire to be like Data. He ends up bringing this group of androids up to the Enterprise to help on the mission.
When the Enterprise reaches the Neutral Zone, they’re met by a Romulan Warbird commanded by Joss. It’s there to accompany them on the mission and prevent any attempt to cover up Federation misdeeds. Picard balks at this, but Commander Norton, in his role as Federation political liaison, encourages Picard to allow the Romulans to come along. At a diplomatic dinner onboard the Enterprise, Joss establishes his villainous credentials by making unwanted advances on Troi and gravely insulting Worf's honor.
They reach the Briar Patch, but with all the strange space anomalies and navigational hazards they can’t figure out how to get in. Finally, Data’s team of androids hits upon the answer, and the two ships finally penetrate the Patch and discover a hidden solar system within. Suddenly, they’re attacked by Duffy’s small starship. The Romulans return fire, and Duffy’s ship is forced to land on the system’s only habitable planet. Picard takes an away team down to the planet to try to talk Duffy into coming back. But when they finally meet Duffy, he looks like a young man of 22, exactly as we saw him in the film’s opening sequence! It turns out the the planet is practically made of sarium krellide ore; it’s a virtual fountain of youth. Duffy has been protecting the peaceful natives who live there from the Romulans.
Picard learns that Norton already knew about the planet; in fact, Semark’s peace treaty would turn it over to the Romulans who would then strip-mine the planet for its valuable sarium krellide and share the ore with the Federation. The efforts to create a synthetic replacement have ended in failure. As for the natives, the Romulans have promised to peacefully relocate them to a nice new planet, but it’s clear that the Federation doesn’t really care whether they honor that part of the agreement as long as Semark gets his peace treaty and the Federation gets its sarium krellide.
Joss and the Romulans begin mining operations on the planet, and Picard makes the momentous decision to resign from Starfleet and join in Duffy’s insurrection. The two of them lead the natives in guerilla-style attacks against the Romulans. Joss is furious and declares he’s taking an assault team down to the planet to kill Picard and Duffy. Norton orders Riker to take a team down as well to arrest the two men. Riker reluctantly agrees, but only to prevent the Romulans from finding them first. Picard manages to craftily elude both Joss’s forces and Riker’s team, and we see that he’s growing younger and more daring as the planet’s “fountain of youth” properties work on him.
Picard and Duffy manage to defeat the Romulans, although both Duffy and Joss are killed in the process. Picard reunites with his crew, (returning to his normal age as soon as he leaves the planet) they round up the surviving Romulans, and warp off to Earth to stop the peace treaty from being ratified. Picard and his officers interrupt a session of the Federation Council and the Captain lays bare Semark and Norton’s scheme in a rousing Picard Speech. The Council members burst into applause, but Semark orders that Enterprise officers be arrested. As they’re led away, it’s obvious that the treaty will be defeated and the planet’s natives are saved, but the fate of our heroes will be left unresolved until the next movie.
Reading this today with the benefit of hindsight, two things jump out at you:
- It’s way better than the film that actually got made
- The character of Duffy was a problem.
The fans would have instantly criticized the idea of this alleged long-lost friend that Picard had never bothered to mention during seven TV seasons and two movies. His presence would only pull the story away from the familiar TNG cast that the audience really came to see. To his credit Rick Berman saw the issue right away, and he had an inspired idea to correct it: “What if the guy Picard finds on the planet” he said to Piller “is Data?”
Berman had other notes. After reading the treatment, he decided that he didn’t like the fountain of youth idea after all. He also instructed Piller to get rid of the Federation Council scenes, reasoning that casual fans would be bored by all the space politics (If only someone had given George Lucas the same advice about the Galactic Senate scenes in The Phantom Menace, which was in production around the same time). So Piller prepared a second treatment. Data was moved into the role previously occupied by the character of Duffy, and the paradisiac planet’s fountain-of-youth properties were gone, although its supply of sarium krellide was still the reason the Federation and the Romulans wanted it. This second treatment also dropped the “Stardust” title and was called simply “Star Trek XI”. The story went something like this:
The movie opens on a small, submarine-like Romulan vessel moving carefully through a spooky, bizarre region of space. Suddenly, it’s attacked! Unable to see their attacker, the Romulans are helpless as their ship is rocked by weapons fire again and again. Even their surrender is ignored as their ship is finally destroyed. As it breaks apart and the terrified Romulans are sucked out into space the attacker finally flies out of the mist. It’s a small Federation scout vessel. We see the pilot through the window . . . and it’s Data.
Next, we see Picard in a meeting with two members of the Federation Executive Council, along with Matt Dougherty, the Federation’s Romulan envoy. They’re telling him that Data, who was on a top-secret mission, has been missing for six months. Now he’s apparently shooting down Romulan ships. Picard’s orders are to find Data and, if necessary, terminate him. As in the previous treatment, there’s a shortage of sarium krellide ore used in medical equipment.
Back on the Enterprise, Picard fills his senior staff in. Data was sent on a joint Federation-Romulan mission to make first contact with a newly-discovered alien race on a planet deep inside a region of space known as the Briar Patch. The Patch is located inside the Neutral Zone, but a new peace agreement has ceded it to the Romulans. Data was chosen for the mission because his android abilities made him ideally suited to manage the navigational nightmare that is the Briar Patch. Two Romulan crewmen accompanied him, but after they entered the Briar Patch they were never heard from again. Then, when the Romulans ventured into the Patch to find out what happened to them, the attacks started.
Ambassador Dougherty accompanies the Enterprise on the mission, and when they get to the border they’re joined by two Romulans: Admiral Schalk and his personal adjutant, Joss. Joss annoys everyone by making unwanted advances on Troi and insulting Worf. When they reach the Briar Patch, they can’t figure out how to get inside because they simply don’t know enough about it. Picard decides to consult the local civilian space pilots for advice. The Enterprise visits a nearby spaceport and Picard goes to a Mos Eisley cantina-like place where these people hang out. After picking their brains, he comes up with a risky strategy that just might work.
Picard takes a scout ship like the one Data flew, accompanied by Geordi, Worf, Troi, and Joss. The Enterprise follows at a safe distance, using a steady stream of technical data from the scout ship to chart the course. As soon as the scout ship penetrates the Briar Patch, it’s attacked by Data. Damaged, they’re forced to land on a tropical beach on the alien planet, and we learn that the aliens are mute telepaths with the ability to create illusions. There are also hints that they possess advanced technology. We meet an alien boy, approximately 11 years old, who’s obviously made friends with Data, even painting his face gold in imitation of the android. Using their power of illusion, the aliens capture Picard’s team, and Picard is taken to a chamber where Data is. He realizes that Data has seriously malfunctioned; the android doesn’t recognize him, and he has trouble forming words. In vague, unconnected phrases he speaks of a danger Picard brings to his people, but he’s unwilling or unable to elaborate.
Just then, the Enterprise arrives inside the Briar Patch and Picard’s combadge crackles as Riker tries to contact him. Data returns to his scout ship and brings Picard as a hostage, imprisoning him in a force field. He attacks the Enterprise and opens a channel to allow Riker to see he’s holding Picard prisoner. Riker is hesitant to bring the full power of the starship to bear on the tiny scout vessel, which allows Data to ready a spread of photon torpedoes that will seriously damage the Enterprise. A phaser blast frees Picard from the force field, and he struggles with Data for control of the ship. Finally, he grabs a phaser rifle and is forced to kill Data to save himself and the Enterprise.
Picard is unable to override the scout ship’s autopilot, and it returns to the planet. On the surface, the aliens carry Data’s broken body away, but offer no resistance as Picard frees his Away Team and the Romulans that had originally come with Data. When the Enterprise arrives, a sorrowful Picard and the crew work to piece together what caused Data to malfunction. It’s almost impossible to communicate with the aliens, but the Captain is finally able to form a bond with the alien boy who was friends with Data. He learns that the Romulans were taking deep core samples of the planet and tried to kill the boy when he accidentally discovered them. Data took the disruptor blast meant for the boy, and that’s what made him malfunction.
Picard orders a sensor scan to try to determine what the Romulans were looking for. From it we learn that the planet’s crust is virtually made of sarium krellide. The only way to get at it is to strip mine the planet, making it uninhabitable. But the aliens are so adapted to the environment here that they have virtually no immune system. If they’re simply moved to another planet, they’ll die.
As in the first draft, Picard realizes that the Federation and the Romulans are collaborating to get the sarium krellide, and they don’t particularly care what happens to the aliens. Ambassador Dougherty insists that they’ll be fine if moved to another planet, but we can tell he’s just rationalizing. However, modern medicine depends on the availability of sarium krellide. If they didn’t have it the practice of medicine would be set back 300 years. Dougherty argues that the people of the Federation can’t be asked to make such a huge sacrifice just to save 4,000 aliens, and we see the first appearance of Picard’s “how many people does it take before it becomes wrong?” speech that will survive to the final script.
After this, Picard solemnly resigns from Starfleet and returns to the planet to take Data’s place as protector of these people. Shortly after he arrives, though, Data is miraculously resurrected in some mysterious way by the aliens’ advanced technology. Picard and Data stage guerilla attacks against the Romulan mining operations, and the aliens assist by using their power of illusion to confuse the enemy. At Picard’s urging Riker takes the Enterprise out of the Briar Patch to blow the lid off this conspiracy and let the people of the Federation know what’s happening here. Meanwhile, the Romulans attack. Picard and his people put up a brave fight but but their luck finally runs out. Just in the nick of time the Enterprise returns, thundering overhead followed by the ragtag merchant fleet from the civilian spaceport we visited earlier in the story. The civilian fleet lands on the beach, and Dougherty and Schalk know they’ve lost. Nobody is going to turn a blind eye if the Romulans attack a few hundred Federation citizens.
In order to avoid embarrassment for the Federation or the Romulans, there’ll be no criminal charges for Picard or his crew, and having saved the day the Enterprise flies off into the end credits.
While this draft of the story addressed Rick Berman’s concerns, it introduced a whole different set of problems. For one thing, the mute telepathic aliens were a concept that would work great in a sci-fi novel, but would probably not translate well to the movie screen. Also, Data was TNG’s most popular character, and yet he wasn’t himself until the third act of the movie. By this point the executives at Paramount were giving feedback, and some of them weren’t sure about the story’s moral dilemma, either; would the audience agree with Picard’s position to take modern medical care away from tens of billions of people to preserve a mere 4,000?
But the biggest strike against this draft of the story was that Patrick Stewart hated it. He didn’t like the Romulan element, feeling that they were a huge step down after facing the Borg in the last movie. He didn’t like how once again Picard was in emotional agony—this time for having to kill Data. He also wanted the movie to have humor, sexiness, and romance. He also wanted a love interest for Picard. After some back-and-forth with him, Piller and Berman mentioned the fountain-of-youth idea from the first draft, and Stewart loved it.
So Piller put together a third draft, incorporating all the notes received thus far from Patrick Stewart, Rick Berman, and the studio. The result was something a much closer to the movie that got made:
As in the first draft, we open in a flashback to Picard’s academy days. We meet a young Picard and his good friend Eleanor Duffy. Their friendship is platonic, but in a scene with the groundskeeper Boothby the old man hints they’re depriving themselves of something special by avoiding the possibility of romance.
Flash forward to the present day where we see a Federation ship under attack by a small vessel piloted by Data. This segues into a video record of the attack being shown to Picard by two elderly members of the Federation Council and a senior admiral. We learn that Data and Eleanor plus two members of a race called the Son’i went on an anthropological mission to do a duck-blind study of a newly-discovered culture, similar to the third-season TNG episode “Who Watches The Watchers”. Data’s role was to pilot the ship through the navigational hazards of the Briar Patch, the treacherous area of space where the alien planet is located. But for some reason he’s gone bezerk and is attacking the ships Starfleet sends in to find him. Picard is ordered to go in, bring him back, and rescue Eleanor and the two Son’i. It’s clear that Picard is expected to terminate Data if all else fails.
The Enterprise sets out for the Briar Patch, taking along two high-ranking Son’i officers, one of whom is their leader, Ru’afo. The Son’i are all extremely old, and they hide their faces in perpetual shadow. Their race has accumulated great wealth that they protect with a huge arsenal of advanced weaponry. To help find the way into the Briar Patch, Picard seeks out the help of a ragtag band of civilian mariners, and they tell him about an old legend of a fountain of youth somewhere in the mysterious area of space. Using their advice, Picard is a able to plot a course into the Patch, and he and an away team take a scout ship like the one Data is flying inside. Suddenly, Data attacks and Picard is forced to crash land on the Briar Patch’s only habitable planet. On the surface, Geordi’s ocular implants malfunction and we quickly learn that his eyes have miraculously started to regenerate.
The away team is surrounded by a group of aliens that look to be about twelve years old, and they take them to a stockade where we meet the Son’i from Data’s team and Eleanor—but amazingly she looks as young as she did in the film’s opening sequence! She explains that there are vast amounts of an unusual ore on the planet that are making them feel and appear younger. This also explains what happened with Geordi’s eyes. She has no idea why Data went bezerk.
The alien “children” turn out not to be children at all. They’re a race called the Ba’ku, and their young appearance is due to the miracle ore on the planet. They have superior technology, but prefer a simple lifestyle. They take Picard to Data, but the android doesn’t seem to recognize him. His attention seems to wander, and his speech pattern is halting. For an almost subconscious reason he can’t explain, Data has taken up the role of the Ba’ku’s protector. They’re interrupted by the arrival of the Enterprise, and Data takes Picard to his scout ship as a hostage. He attacks the Enterprise, but Picard is able to incapacitate him.
When Geordi and Beverly examine Data, they discover that he’s been shot with a Son’i weapon, which damaged his memory engrams and caused a form of “android amnesia”. Ru’afo promises to interrogate his officers about this, but he doesn’t seem sincere. As the investigation proceeds, the crew learns about the planet’s regenerative properties and Troi prevails on Picard to authorize shore leave. Following this, we get several scenes of the crew frolicking on the planet as its “fountain of youth” properties cause them to look and act younger. Worf gets in touch with his “Klingon inner child”. Troi is jealous to see Riker in a mud bath with two female ensigns, and later he’s jealous to see her in the same mud bath with five male ensigns. Meanwhile, one of the Ba’ku has a crush on Beverly, and even though she knows he’s hundreds of years old she can’t get past the fact that he looks twelve. For Picard, the planet’s environment awakens romantic feelings toward Eleanor.
Data is repaired and fills in some missing pieces of the mystery. He says he became suspicious of the Son’i after their arrival and realized they had a separate agenda for the mission. He caught them taking ore samples, and they shot him. His memory engrams were damaged, but his ethical subroutines remained functional and they guided him to protect the Ba’ku.
Meanwhile, a flotilla of heavily-armed Son’i ships arrive in orbit, having followed the course Picard charted into the Briar Patch. When Picard asks to question the two Son’i who were on the planet with Data, Ru’afo stonewalls and Picard realizes he’s covering something up. Picard, Data, and Eleanor investigate and discover that the Son’i want to mine the planet’s regenerative ore, but the mining process would ruin the Ba’ku’s environment. Therefore, they planned to secretly move the Ba’ku via a “Sorvino switch”—referring to the plot device of using a holodeck to transport primitive aliens from one planet to another without their realizing it. Furthermore, we learn that the operation was authorized by the same elderly Federation councillors who sent Data and then Picard on this mission. The true purpose of the mission was kept secret from Data, but Eleanor knew about it all along.
When Picard confronts Eleanor, she’s clearly having second thoughts, but still defends the mission. The Son’i are a old and dying race; they need this ore to save themselves from extinction. And they’ve agreed to share it with the Federation. The ore would spark a new era of medicine: life spans would be doubled or even tripled. The only stumbling block was a few thousand non-spacefaring aliens who happened to live on top of it. So the decision was made to quietly move them to another planet and take the ore. Dr. Crusher has discovered that if the Ba’ku are taken away from the planet, they’ll begin to age and eventually die. Picard is upset that the Federation is willing to sacrifice the interests of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one.
He calls the Admiral to protest, but the Admiral tells him there’s noting they can do. The Son’i have made it clear they’re going to mine the ore whether or not the Ba’ku are moved, and their weapons are more powerful than ours. Picard presses him, wondering if all other options were truly explored, or if the Federation simply chose the most expedient solution so they could get their hands on the ore and its miraculous regenerative properties. The Admiral gets angry and orders Picard to move the Ba’ku. Picard refuses. The Admiral replies that he’ll send other ships to do the job, orders Picard to withdraw, and signs off.
Picard returns to the planet and tells the Ba’ku about the Federation-Son’i plan. The Ba’ku say they’re a peaceful people, but will fight to the death rather than lose their homeland. Moved by their conviction and their plight, Picard removes his Starfleet uniform and pledges to help the Ba’ku in their fight. He’s joined by Data and Eleanor—who’s had a change of heart. Their romance blossoms. As in the earlier drafts of the story, Picard leads a guerilla campaign against the mining operations. Data and Eleanor assist, but the Ba’ku do not take up arms. (There was concern about our heroes putting weapons in the hands of twelve-year-olds, even if they’re supposed to be much older) Meanwhile, Riker takes the Enterprise out of the Briar Patch, promising to bring back help. Picard is dubious about the possibility, since they can expect no help from the Federation.
Picard and his people are forced back by Son’i attacks, and just when it looks like their luck has run out, the Enterprise returns with the ragtag fleet of mariners from earlier in the story. Their arrival gives Picard an idea. Using one of the mariner’s “junkyard ships” he sneaks through the Son’i defenses and beams aboard the lead ship, intending to capture Ru’afo. He reaches Ru’afo’s quarters and finds the Son’i leader close to death. Picard is shocked to see Ru’afo’s face clearly for the first time and recognizes that he has physical characteristics that match the Ba’ku. Realizing that the Son’i and the Ba’ku are the same race, he convinces Ru’afo to call off the attack.
It’s revealed that the Son’i are a group of Ba’ku who grew unhappy with their people’s simple lifestyle and wanted to amass material wealth and explore the galaxy, so the rest of the Ba’ku banished them. They left the planet with small quantities of the magic ore, which is where the “fountain of youth” legends came from. Picard forces the leaders of both groups to confront one another and forges a difficult peace. The final scene of the movie sees Picard back in uniform and reunited with his crew.
Rick Berman, the executives at Paramount, and Patrick Stewart, were all pleased with this new treatment, and Piller was given the go-ahead to write the script. During the writing of the script, a few changes were made. Someone noticed that “Son’i” sounded too much like the name of a the electronics company that gave us the Walkman, so they became the “Son’a”. Also, since Data’s friendship with an alien boy had been a well-received element in earlier story treatments it was added back into the mix.
Michael Piller finished the first draft in early September 1997. He thought it was quite good, but knew better than to trust his own assessment of his work. So he took to the script to someone outside the movie’s creative process: Deep Space Nine executive producer Ira Steven Behr. Behr’s assessment was frank and brutal: the story didn’t work. The Son’a were “paper tigers”, a huge step down as villains after fighting the Borg in the last movie. The character of Picard had no real arc, no “hero’s journey”. And the story didn’t do much with the fountain of youth, other than use it as a way to inject the humor and sexiness that Patrick Stewart wanted.
Piller realized that Behr’s criticisms were right on the money. The script needed serious reworking to turn it into a good movie. The problems with Picard’s arc and the fountain of youth were interrelated: in order for the fountain of youth to mean something, Picard had to be changed by it. For that to happen, though, he needed to start the movie in some kind of trouble that his encounter with the fountain of youth would help him to solve. But Piller felt handcuffed by Patrick Stewart’s insistence that Picard not be angsty and haunted the way he was in the previous two Trek films.
Finally, Piller hit upon a compromise: Picard would be in trouble, but he wouldn’t realize it. Like the dad in a generic family comedy, his trouble would revolve around the way his life had become cluttered, and the really important things were being crowded out. His encounter with the Ba’ku and their fountain of youth, therefore, would revitalize him, get him back in touch with the things he really cared about.
In another change that anyone could see coming a mile away, it was decided that the Ba’ku would not be a race of twelve-year-olds. Hand-in-hand with this, the character of Eleanor Duffy was done away with, and a Ba’ku woman would become Picard’s love interest—thus giving him another reason to fight for the Ba’ku beyond mere principle.
As he started to write the second draft script in October 1997, Piller was still struggling with how to introduce the “clutter” arc for Picard, and here we get to one of the big problems that many Star Trek fans (including me) have always had with this movie. You see, Deep Space Nine’s fifth season finale in June 1997 saw the Federation plunged into a fierce war with the Dominion, and by the time Star Trek: Insurrection premiered in December 1998 the war was still going strong. I’ve often felt that the movie would’ve been better if it we first saw the Enterprise in a pitched battle with the Jem’Hadar, and the Federation’s need for the Ba’ku’s fountain of youth tied more closely to the fact that they were losing the war. So imagine my surprise to learn that Michael Piller had investigated that possibility. In October ‘97 he asked DS9 showrunner Ira Steven Behr how the Dominion War might be going by the time the movie premiered a year later, and Behr told him he thought the war might be winding down by then, and things would be looking up for the Federation. So, Piller decided to open the film with Picard awash in mundane duties heaped upon him by Starfleet Command as the war ended, and that’s why the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection finds the TNG crew hosting a prom for a bunch of space munchkins instead of fighting the Dominion War.
As for the fountain of youth, Piller decided to highlight its effect on the crew by having Geordi regain his sight. That way, Picard’s dilemma would become more personal: it wasn’t just about depriving a bunch of nameless offscreen people of the fountain of youth’s regenerative powers, his rebellion would have a direct effect on one of his friends.
The second-draft script was completed on November 15th, 1997. It was the first draft of the script that Paramount had seen, and their response was exceedingly positive. They praised the humor, the character work, and the examination of the benefits and pitfalls of youth. But the studio also raised some concerns, including:
- The stakes weren’t high enough. Even in the “lightest” Star Trek film, The Voyage Home, the fate of the planet Earth was at stake. By itself, the fate of 600 Ba’ku was not seen as sufficient stakes to base a movie on.
- On a related note, wasn’t 600 Ba’ku an awfully small gene pool? Why would it be so vital that they be left alone if they were just going inbreed themselves to extinction within a few generations anyway?
- The Son’a weren’t strong villains, and actually seemed less intimidating than the the original villains, the Romulans.
- Worf wasn’t given a satisfactory reason for being in the movie, and both he and Beverly Crusher were underutilized.
These notes are interesting because it shows that the problems that would end up plaguing the finished film were already apparent. Why they weren’t fixed is anyone’s guess, and I suspect this is one reason Paramount didn’t want Piller’s book published. Although Michael Piller was a class act and had nothing but nice things to say about every single person he mentioned, the account had the unintended affect of exposing the studio’s mistakes with Insurrection.
In November 1997 all the major story elements that would survive to the final draft were locked in, and the script was sent out to the various departments at the studio as preproduction began. A synopsis quickly appeared on the Internet. Piller was annoyed, especially when the reaction was almost completely negative. He felt that it was unfair to harshly judge a movie that hadn’t even been made yet on the basis of a poorly-written synopsis of a single script draft. Did he have a point? Maybe.
But I can offer some personal experience here, because that plot synopsis was the first big Internet spoiler for a Star Trek movie that I ever read. And I found it disappointing. My problems with it were pretty much the same ones that the studio had with the script: the Son’a were generic villains, the Ba’ku were generic peaceful villagers, and there just seemed to be no reason to care about any of it. To me the story just seemed to be assembled from familiar Star Trek plot devices.
Of course, lots of movies with problematic scripts end up becoming hits. Star Trek: First Contact, for example. So why did Insurrection fail? The biggest reason was its inability to commit to its two core elements—the fountain of youth and the Data-versus-Picard story.
First, let’s talk about the fountain of youth. As of this writing in 2014, there is no convincing way to make make people look significantly younger on a movie screen. When we try, even with current technology, the results are unconvincing and kind of creepy-looking; witness “young” Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy:
In the late-90s the de-aging would have had to be done with makeup. And it just wouldn’t have worked. The only way to do a movie where a character grows younger is to hire a young actor, start him/her out in old-age makeup, then gradually remove it as the story progresses. But TNG’s cast of middle-aged actors was set in stone, so that was out of the question. The most visible effect of the fountain of youth would obviously have been Picard’s hair growing back. But Patrick Stewart nixed that idea, and I agree with him. The audience wouldn’t have said “Wow, Picard’s hair is growing back!” they would’ve snickered at the sight of Patrick Stewart running around in a hairpiece like a guy in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
So you had a movie about a fountain of youth where you couldn’t actually show the fountain of youth. So things had to be done more subtly. A lot of noise had to be made about how everyone was acting more frisky and youthful even though they were pretty much just acting the same way they always had. In the end, the most visible result of the fountain of youth was Worf’s pimple.
And then we have the inability to commit to the Data-versus-Picard story. You can’t blame inadequate special effects technology for this one; this is a clear case of gutlessness and risk-aversion, combined with the all-too-frequent Hollywood problem of a star with too much clout. I’ll explain what I mean.
When this element first appeared in the second story treatment, Data was essentially the villain for the first third of the movie, and Picard was forced to kill him. Then he learns that Data actually had a good reason for what he was doing, and his despair at Data’s death is combined with his anger at being manipulated by the Romulans and by Starfleet. Finally, Data is resurrected and we rejoice as he and the rest of the crew reunite and take up the fight against the movie’s real villains. This is great stuff. But Rick Berman didn’t like the idea of a movie where Data is only himself for the final act. After all, Data was maybe TNG’s most popular character, and Berman just couldn’t bring himself to take that risk.
The other obstacle was Patrick Stewart. Thanks to his vital importance to the TNG franchise he also enjoyed a certain amount of creative control over the movies, especially where his character was concerned. And he decided that Picard should be unencumbered by any emotional baggage this time around. So you couldn’t have him kill Data at the end of the first act, only to discover that he’d been manipulated by his superiors.
So, like the fountain of youth the Data-versus-Picard element of the story was watered down, reduced from a major driver of the plot to a minor misunderstanding. And of course, since all the Star Trek movies made from 1982 to 2002 had to make do with only medium budgets, a lot of other story elements had to be watered down as well. The result was maybe the worst kind of movie—a uniformly bland one.
The second main reason for Insurrection’s failure was that it was trying to be two different movies. With The Voyage Home twelve years earlier, the filmmakers had set out to make a light, comedic romp. And the people who made First Contact set out to do an action movie where our characters fight the Borg. Both films were successful because they were only trying to be one kind of thing. But with Insurrection, Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Patrick Stewart, and the Paramount executives were trying to have it both ways. They wanted a light romantic comedy, but with space battles, phaser rifles, and weighty moral issues. In trying to weld two disparate genres into a single film, they ended up with a movie that was underwhelming on all fronts.
After Star Trek: Insurrection had run its course at theaters, Michael Piller had some time to think about what he would have done differently, if he’d been able to. And his ideas are much the same ones I’ve had. The film should fade into find Picard weary after two years of war. He tries to tell himself its been worth it to uphold the ideals of the Federation, but then he discovers his superiors are willing to compromise those ideals to steal the Ba’ku planet. That way Picard has more of an arc in the movie, and the lushness of the Ba’ku planet is a bigger contrast with the war-torn landscapes Picard has been used to the past two years.
But now you might be wondering, what does my ideal version of this story look like? Okay, you’re probably not actually wondering this. But since this is my blog, I’m going to tell you anyway. Anyone who wasn’t interested in this topic probably stopped reading after the Sharknado picture.
Basically, my ideal version of the movie looks a lot like Michael Piller’s second treatment with just a few changes. Instead of Data attacking a Romulan ship at the opening of the story, he’d attack a Federation and a Romulan ship traveling together through the Briar Patch. The Romulan ship would be destroyed because it stubbornly tried to press forward, whereas the Federation ship would save itself by retreating. We’d first meet the Enterprise crew at the tail end of a battle to free a Federation colony world from a Dominion occupation force. After the Dominion retreats, Picard would lead a team down to the scorched, bombed-out colony to provide emergency assistance. To really emphasize the costs of war, Beverly’s head nurse, Alyssa Ogawa, would be killed by a mortally wounded Jem’Hadar soldier who was left behind.
The rest of the movie would proceed much like Piller’s treatment, except that the aliens wouldn’t be mute telepaths. However, their complex language would be too difficult for the Universal Translator to decipher right away, so when we first meet them there’d be a language barrier. Also, the aliens would not be a bunch of white people dressed in the fashions from the J.C. Penney Fall Catalog. The arguments of the Dougherty character would contain the idea that without the boost to medical technology that the ore would provide the Federation might lose the war. “I will not become the Dominion to defeat the Dominion!” Picard might reply.
The only element of the treatment I don’t like is the mariner fleet. Without them I don’t know exactly how Riker and the Enterprise would come to the rescue. Maybe they go to a nearby starbase and bring back the Federation press corps.
And this concludes what is almost definitely the longest post in the history of this blog. If you’ve read this far, then you certainly have a lot of spare time. I only hope that the future stewards of the Star Trek franchise don’t make such a baffling series of mistakes again, so I don’t have to put y’all through this.