I’m going to come right out and say it: Star Trek: The Next Generation is a better show than the original series. This isn’t to say TOS is without its charms, or that it isn’t hugely important to the franchise, but judged as a whole, it’s tough to argue that TNG isn’t superior; it’s more emotionally complex, more fully realized, and the caliber of acting (if only from the captain’s chair) is stronger. And yet Kirk’s Trek gave us Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, one of the best science fiction adventure movies ever made, along with the very credible Star Treks IV and VI, and even the worst entries in the TOS movie franchise have a certain crazed ambition to them, whether its meeting god, resurrecting a fallen friend, or copying 2001. When it came time for the original Trek to make the jump to the big screen, the writers, directors, and cast went for it, for good and for bad. The results weren’t always perfect, but there was never any doubt that these characters, and this world, belonged in the movies.
Sadly, I can’t really say the same for the TNG cast, and it wasn’t until watching Insurrection that I finally realized why. This isn’t any great discovery on my part, but it’s a question that’s nagged at me for years. For a while, I blamed the actors; Patrick Stewart is tremendous (although I never realized how tremendous until I watched this whole series), but Spiner, Frakes, and the rest of them? Pfft. A bunch of bland, charisma-vacuums. Now, having re-watched the movies and seen the series at its best and its worst, I admit I was off-base. Stewart is great, Spiner can be amazing when given the right direction, and everyone else in the cast is personable and charming, and really, that’s all you need for a movie with an ensemble this deep. It’s not like the original Trek was neck deep in Oliviers. Both shows were cast with professionals, and the only real difference between those professionals is that some of them could rise above bad material, and some of them couldn’t. But even with that distinction, I think the TNG cast comes out ahead. They’d almost have to; where TOS only had three seasons to expand from (and most of those three seasons were spent focused on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy), TNG was around for seven, and thought not every episode was perfect, there’s enough material there to give us a good sense of everyone on that bridge.
So it’s not the cast’s fault. But whose fault is it? Because this isn’t just a string of bad luck; there’s an underlying philosophy behind all four TNG movies that dooms them to, at best, forgettable entertainment, an approach that effectively neuters the strengths of the source material. Insurrection isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Most people who’ve seen it probably don’t have any strong opinion about it one way or the other. At just over an hour and forty minutes, it’s the shortest Trek movie ever made, and it’s also, I think, the most forgettable. It’s competently directed—nobody does competently directed like my man Frakes (and lest you think I’m dismissing him, his work both on screen and off is one of the reasons this goes down so easily)—and it’s the only TNG movie that gives Picard a love interest. That’s basically it. If you knew nothing about Trek, and happened to catch this on TBS one Sunday afternoon, well, it wouldn’t change your life, but you wouldn’t weep blood or anything.
I kind of hate this movie, though, because I’m a TNG fan, and you have to be a TNG fan to get why all of this is so very wrong. Partly, it’s the premise: there’s a magical planet that makes everyone on it immortal. And not just immortal; anyone who stays there for any length of time also de-ages until they hit their point of greatest physical maturity, and then just sort of stays there. Forever. It cures wounds and illnesses (Geordi’s eyes are fixed), passions are re-ignited (Riker and Troi hook up again), and Worf goes through puberty again. I give that one its own category because it is stupid. Everyone else gets to be all excited and young and bad-ass; Worf gets a big zit, which is a crap joke, and also makes no sense. Why is he going through puberty again? The whole point of The Eternal Lands’ End Catalog Planet is that the inhabitants regress to their most perfect age. Nobody else is suffering from bad skin or “aggressive tendencies.” But hey, why miss a chance to make fun of the Klingon?
Sorry, I got distracted there. Anyway, given its life-giving properties, it’s not surprising that ELECP has attracted some attention. Notably, it’s attracted the attention of the Son’a, who are determined to leech the magical radiation out of the planet’s rings, and use it for their own fell purposes. They’ve got some help from Starfleet on this, because let’s face it, the curative potential of that radiation, if properly harnassed, could save millions of lives. Unfortunately, getting the radiation out of the rings means rendering the planet below uninhabitable. But it’s cool; while the Federation at large doesn’t know what’s going on, the head of the Son’a, Ahdar Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham, who you should never trust, since he killed Mozart) is working with Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) to transport the locals off the planet without them realizing it. Before they can pull off this trick (undoubtedly stolen from the Enterprise’s logs), Data discovers the holoship Ru’afo intends to use to spirit the Ba’ku away. He gets shot, the injury throws off his positronic net, and the movie starts with him intentionally revealing himself to the native population, who didn’t realize they were being observed, and then destroying the shield that keeps the Son’a/Federation outpost on the planet invisible.
That’s when Picard and the others are called in, and that’s how we get the meat, so to speak, of the plot. Once Picard discovers what’s happening, he’s pissed, and he and the rest of the crew take up arms in defence of the Ba’ku, who all turn out to be incredibly advanced but disdain from using technology because ick and gross and “We’re too evolved for that.” So that gives us our title, because clearly, our heroes are engaging in a kind of insurrection, except given the fact that no one at Star Fleet really knows what’s going on, and also given the fact that one of the movie’s big sub-plots has Ru’afo sending ships after Riker and the Enterprise to stop them from getting the truth out, I’m not sure who is supposed to be insurrecting whom. As far as I can tell, only two people die in the whole movie, and they’re both baddies (well, one of them’s a baddie, the other one is “morally compromised”), so that’s not all that exciting. The logic behind why Picard and the others make their stand is a little fuzzy as well. As Dougherty himself points out, the Ba’ku aren’t native to the planet; they stumbled across the life-sustaining power of the rings while fleeing from their own civil wars, and while it’s great they spent the centuries since then getting really, really good at quilt making, their “right” to immortality isn’t anymore sacred than anyone else’s. Picard does some speechifying about moral imperatives, and he’s apparently still guilty over all that Indian moving, but the issue is complicated enough that it deserved more discussion than a few shouted lines.
So that’s one reason all of this is so disposable: there are ideas here, but none of the interesting ones are explored, and instead, we get a lot of broadly familiar adventure movie beats. Picard is attracted to Anij (Donna Murphy), a woman of the Ba’ku, and there's briefly a concern she might die, even though you know she won't. Data bonds with a boy about learning how to “play” and so forth. Ro’afu is a sneering, whiny bastard, right up until the stunning reveal when we learn that the Son’a are really just Ba’ku who were exiled from the ELECP years ago and are now back for revenge, after which Ro’afu becomes a sneering, whiny, semi-justified bastard. It’s generic, right down to Doughtery getting his comeuppance for collaborating with a psychopath via one of the Son’a’s face-stretchers. Much of the middle half of the movie is dominated by Picard and the others moving the Ba’ku across country, which doesn’t sound exciting, and isn’t. Oh, they have to battle occasional influxes of transporter tagging drones, but there’s no urgency to the fight. Anyone who gets hit by a tag is beamed onto Ro’afu’s ship. And since we already know that Ro’afu is bound to be defeated sooner or later, it’s hard to get too worked up over what amounts to little more than a temporary inconvenience.
It’s all very perfunctory, but “perfunctory” doesn’t quite get to the real problems here. Like the fact that the Ba’ku are, by and large, smug creeps. Even if you’re unfamiliar with TNG, I can’t imagine missing the arrogance Anij and Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly) display. It’s not just that they’ve had hundreds of years to develop an “incredible mental discipline” (as Troi calls it), they’re also dismissive and condescending to strangers, and to the idea of any world beyond their own. If this is the final result of all of Trek’s grand dreams of Utopia, it’s a shoddy place indeed. (It’s also painfully monochormatic.) And yet the Ba’ku’s apparently remakrable insight and dignity are referenced throughout the film. Insurrection isn’t just making the argument that the rights of indigenous (ish) people should be protected; it wants us to believe that the Ba’ku deserve to be protected, because they’ve somehow found the ideal way of living, and that means they’ve earned the right to immortality.
It’s a strange argument to make, and it’s never particularly believable. The Ba’ku might have something to offer the universe at large (their hacky-sack skills, at the very least, are impressive), but they have no intention of offering it. Anij invites Picard to stay with her at the movie and he turns her down, but he does mention he’ll be back for a visit to use up some of his massive backlog of shore leave. It’s very cute, but if Picard is going to come back, does that mean the rest of the Enterprise crew has a permanent invite as well? They did, after all, risk their lives for the Ba’ku. So sure, let them come back, it would be rude not to, but what if they want to bring family and friends? What if they their friends tell more friends? What happens when the cruisers start hitting orbit, not to steal power or murder anyone, but just to snag some property in what is destined to be the number one prime real estate location in the universe?
The Ba’ku’s precious privacy is a lost cause from the moment anyone leaves their planet alive, but no one acknowledges this. The ending is resoundingly triumphant, and that, ultimately, is why this movie doesn’t work, and why all the TNG movies fail to varying degrees: they have no interest in being smart. TNG, at its best, was a smart show. It told complicated stories about heroes who had to make difficult choices, and it found the drama in recognizing that good men (and women) face no win situations every day. These are qualities that can be difficult to translate from the small screen to the large, and I recognize that, but I would’ve infinitely preferred a movie that at least tried for complexity and failed, to the generic Mad-Lib actioners we got. The reason why the TNG movies don’t work is that none of them are representative of the show they’re trying to adapt. Instead, we get Picard, Data, Riker, Geordi, Beverly, Worf, and Troi shoe-horned into TOS style movies, full of broad plots, attempts at crowd-pleasing that offer little respect or understanding of the characters, and the same tedious arc again and again. All four TNG movies end with Picard physically fighting a bad guy. You can’t even say the same for the TOS films (the greatest of which doesn’t ever have the hero and the villain in the same room). This is a man who lived a lifetime, has been one with his worst enemy, has traveled to his past and his future, has dealt with thousands of species and successfully stared down an omnipotent being time and again. He doesn’t need to go Bruce Willis against anybody. We already know he’s awesome.
There’s more here, like the way the Ba’ku’s isolationist status is at odds with Picard’s explorer’s soul in a way that’s never really discussed, or that awful joke about boobs (Data's reduction to comic relief in the movies is flat out awful, and Spiner's performances keep on getting broader just to keep up, but this is such a minor, trifling chunk of celluloid that I can’t see wasting more words on it than I already have. In the interest of fairness, I will say I enjoyed the space battle, corny as it was, and it was sweet to see Riker and Troi get back together again. The two are natural and charming together, and their chemistry has a nice, lived-in feel. It's one of the only moments in any of the franchise films that fits in easily with the television series, which tells you all you need to know about the movies.
What's up with all the apostrophes?
Saturday, December 17th: The AV Club presents a live chat of Star Trek: Nemesis, starting at 7pm EST. The chat page should go up in the TNG section of the TV Club sometime in the next couple of days. Come by, get loaded, and revel in the bitterness of TNG’s final failed at attempt at big screen success.
Thursday, December 22nd: We finish Star Trek: The Next Generation with its two part finale, “All Good Things...”