To those who believe in the odd and even numbered curse that is supposed to strike “Star Trek” films rendering the even numbered movies excellent and the odd numbered ones into poor weak exercises reviled even by fans, “Star Trek Insurrection” undeniably serves as an excellent supporting point.
Yet arguably behind the odd and even numbered curse is the more complicated reality that the odd numbered “Star Trek” films tend to be the product of greater aspirations than just to make another action movie. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, the first Star Trek film and the first odd numbered film and accordingly the first movie to suffer from the curse of the odd number. Directed by legendary, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” director Robert Wise, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was meant to be an ambitious journey into the nature of humanity and the universe. Instead it was often accused of being slow, plodding and soporific.
As would become the pattern, the sequel to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was the heavily action oriented and crowd pleasing, “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.” Similarly the crowd pleasing comedy, “Star Trek: The Voyage Home” served as the follow up to the tepid “Star Trek: The Search for Spock” and the follow up to the famously disastrous “Star Trek: The Final Frontier” was the heavily political and action oriented, “Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.”
As the “Star Trek” movies passed the torch from the original cast to the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” cast, the pattern still continued with a weak odd numbered opener in “Star Trek: Generations” which couldn’t even be livened up by the death of Captain James T. Kirk himself. This was followed promptly by the hyperactively violent “Star Trek: First Contact.” So too the action oriented and dark “Star Trek: Nemesis” would follow, “Star Trek Insurrection.”
The underlying pattern is that the odd numbered movies like “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, “Star Trek: The Search for Spock”, “Star Trek: The Final Frontier”, “Star Trek: Generations” and “Star Trek Insurrection” would attempt to reach for the ideals of the Original Series to explore the nature of the human condition and engage in moral and philosophical exploration about man and the universe. The results would usually pull in a weak box office rating and still weaker reviews. Misunderstood by fans, critics and audiences alike, the studio would respond by ordering up more crowd pleasing fare filled with action and adventure. These even numbered follow ups would win acclaim and the odd numbered movies would be damned for their aspirations.
The pattern held true from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” through “Star Trek Insurrection”. Unlike the majority of the “Star Trek” films, “Star Trek Insurrection” hinged on a moral question, rather than a practical one. The question of whether the needs of the many should permit the exploitation of the few. Star Trek Insurrection’s answer that the few could never be exploited and dispossessed, regardless of the great benefits this exploitation would bring to the many, did not sit well with critics, many of whom like Roger Ebert protested that they would actually support Admiral Doughery’s actions and in doing so only further demonstrated the timeliness of the ideas in the movie they were attacking.
We live in a WallMart world driven by consumerism and the lowest deal, living by buying shoddy products from third world countries made by slave or child labor. Not only do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but we live in an economy where the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. The Son’a with their plastic surgery and their greedy pursuit of youth represent a mirror for our culture and society. The Ba’ku by contrast, with their emphasis on a peaceful and simple life, represent an alternative path.
The exploitation of the Ba’ku by the Son’a represents our usual way of doing business. That is why Roger Ebert could insist that Doughterty’s solution was the right one and even round up Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) and Jonathan Frakes (William Riker) to agree with him. It is also why, despite it flaws, the message of “Star Trek Insurrection” is an important one.
There is no question that “Star Trek Insurrection” is deeply flawed. The unnecessary action sequences, an all too common legacy of Patrick Stewart’s and the studio’s interference, remain an abiding problem. Many of the more convoluted scenes and technological concepts are a distraction and simply unnecessary. These include the Holoship meant to transport the Ba’ku secretly off the planet. The multiple Son’a ships and the predictable ending action sequence. The tags are also another unnecessary piece of technobabble that permit the escape and refuge action sequences, which themselves represent a weak piece of plotting.
The simplistic portrayals of both the Son’a and Ba’ku undermine the movie’s message by reducing it to a cliche. Data befriending a little boy and his pet lizard is another piece of material that has no real use or value. It’s almost as if Brent Spiner wanted something for his character to do and so it was decided it would be a cute idea for an android to interact with a little boy.But with these issues discarded,”Star Trek Insurrection” nevertheless has a strong heart.
Picard’s confrontation with Doughterty poses the fundamental moral problem asking when sacrificing the few for the many becomes wrong, when the numbers reach a hundred, a thousand, a million. The question reaches to the heart of the moral argument about exploitation and what constitutes disposable people who can be legitimately exploited. It’s also a line that resounds as strongly as Picard’s memorable retort in “The Drumhead,” quoting Judge Aron Satie. As in many of the odd numbered films, the plot may be mishandled, but the ideas carry them through if the audience is patient enough and open enough to listen.
Another pattern odd numbered movie pattern for “Star Trek” movies held up as well. Like “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, “Star Trek: The Final Frontier” and “Star Trek: Generations”, “Star Trek Insurrection” suffered from production problems, unfinished and discarded sequences and general confusion. Where “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” finally saw a Director’s Edition released under Robert Wise’s supervision that recreated missing sequences and restored footage, Star Trek Insurrection’s DVD release does not restore the bulk of the missing footage that had been cut. Much of this footage was not particularly significant.
Some of the scenes were purely frivolous, such as an ending that had Quark appear on the planet attempting to turn it into a spa. There’s little question that the scene was a gimmick and that Jonathan Frakes made the right decision in discarding it. The library scene was similarly frivolous and silly and generally useless. However the manner in which it was discarded after objections from librarians was itself inappropriate raising the question of whether any and every humorless group representing a profession can censor a movie.
Much of the material that attempted to tie “Star Trek: Insurrection” together with the ongoing events on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” at the time including the Dominion War were cut, but the impact is not particularly significant as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” has long since gone off the air and its relevance has departed along with it. The significant loss is the original Rufa’o death sequence that had him plummeting down to the planet while his age receded into childhood. A sequence that was significantly more dramatic than the death sequence remaining in the film
Like many of the odd numbered films, “Star Trek: Insurrection” has been neglected, misunderstood and mistreated. Without a true director’s cut, we might never know what the film could have been, but we can see the potential inherent on the screen and the issues it has raised can continue on in our discussions and ultimately more valuable than any aesthetic judgment on the film alone could be.