Star Trek: Insurrection
Let’s face it. Star Trek: Insurrection, the third installment in The Next Generation’s film run, is not one of the most loved in the franchise. Though enjoyable on many levels, its light-hearted tone, short run time, and the absence of Industrial Light and Magic in the effects department has led many to see it as little more than an extended episode of the TV show rather than a rousing cinematic experience.
But was that always the plan?
Around the time of the film’s release, I read an article in some long-forgotten publication that described an original premise for this film that was much different than the version we ended up getting. The article claimed that the original idea was to do a sort of Heart of Darkness story where a malfunctioning Data “goes native” on a remote planet and Picard and crew have to “go down the river” so to speak and stop him. I remember thinking: Wow. That sounds like a pretty cool idea for a Next Gen movie. I wonder why they didn’t go with it?
A few years ago, after remembering this little tidbit from days past, I decided to do a little digging and see if I could find any more information about it.
I eventually discovered that the film’s writer, the former Next Gen showrunner, Michael Piller, had written a book soon after the film’s release in which he chronicled the entire experience of writing Insurrection from concept to final draft. He not only intended to tell the story of how Insurrection was made, but he also wanted it to serve as an illustration of the screenwriter’s experience in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Piller died of cancer in 2005 and the book was never published. There have been, however, copies of it floating around online over the years, one of which I may have managed to get a peek at.
The text is a fascinating account of the movie writing process, one that is sure to interest any Trekkie or aspiring writer out there.
I’m paraphrasing here, but according to Piller, Executive Producer, Rick Berman, thought it would be interesting to find a classic piece of literature in the public domain and translate it into a Star Trek story.
Berman’s first idea was to use the classic novel “The Prisoner of Zenda” by Anthony Hope as inspiration. This is a 19th Century story featuring a common man who looks like a king. When the king is kidnapped, the common man is recruited to take the king’s place on the throne. Berman thought it might be fun to have Picard kidnapped at the start of the movie and then have another character, altered to look like him, take over for the rest of the story. But Piller saw a problem with that right away. He thought that audiences after two years of being away would want to see Picard, not watch some other character who was pretending to be Picard. He felt it would have made a fine episode but was no good for a film. (And he was right. Terrible idea).
Back to the drawing board.
Then one night, Pillier was applying Rogaine to a bald spot and thought, when was the last time someone did a fountain of youth story?
His first pitch was about Picard being sent to a remote planet to track down an old friend from his academy days who had gone rogue and was causing trouble. When Picard reaches the planet, he discovers that his old friend is twenty-one again due to the age-reversing effects of the planet. His now young friend is defending the natives of the planet from some force that is trying to take it over. Picard then agrees to join his cause, eventually de-ages himself, and together they fight off the bad guys as younger versions of themselves.
Berman didn’t like the idea of having Picard de-age. He thought that it would offend Patrick Stewart, essentially sending the message to their main star that he wouldn’t be the one doing the actual swashbuckling since he was too old. But Piller didn’t see how they could do a fountain of youth story without de-aging being a part of it. It was here that Berman suggested they scrape the fountain of youth angle, much to Piller’s chagrin. In addition, he suggested that Data should be the one that Picard was going after rather than an unknown character from his academy days. Piller liked this idea because it kept the drama in the family.
His next treatment focused on what I said before, the idea of a story inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Data filling in as the Kurtz-type character. Eventually they figured out a way keep the fountain of youth idea by implying that Picard would only feel marginal effects due to limited exposure, thereby keeping Patrick Stewart as Picard throughout.
Pretty cool, I think.
From what I can tell, the reason this devolved into the film we got has to do with a hodgepodge of differing factions coming in with their own opinions and suggestions. Everyone from actors, producers, and studio executives had notes, wanted to see this or that, and generally muddled in the process until Piller and Berman’s original concept was cut up and boiled down into the version that made it to the screen. A classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Heart of Darkness angle played out more.
But if you look at the finished project, you can see echoes of these ideas on screen. Data does go rogue, at least for a short while, to protect natives on a planet from aliens trying to take their resources. And the fountain of youth concept remains, with Picard and the crew getting to feel the effects of limited exposure.
Is Insurrection perfect? No. Is it terrible? Not at all. I think there is a lot of good to be had there. As for whether or not the original concept would have been better? We’ll never know.
Unless The Next Generation is rebooted someday. Then maybe some intrepid young director will dust off a concept from long before, and give us a dramatic retelling of a new Picard sailing into his own heart of darkness to confront, and if needs be, destroy his once close friend who has malfunctioned and is now going haywire on a strange remote planet.
After all, this Star Trek we’re talking about.
And anything is possible.