Thursday, September 08, 2016

Before the Insurrection

With today being the 50th anniversary of Star Trek's original television airing, it seemed necessary to have a Star Trek themed post. As I'm still working my way through the Next Generation feature films, you might expect the post to be about Star Trek: Insurrection.

Not quite. Part of my reviews (first of The Next Generation episodes, and now of the movies) has been digging around for interviews given by the people involved, trying to get insight into what they were thinking, and how they feel the finished product turned out. And as I dug into the next movie, Star Trek: Insurrection, I found a particularly interesting source.

Insurrection was scripted by series show runner Michael Piller (writing a story that he and producer Rick Berman hashed out). Shortly after the film was released, Piller decided to chronicle the process of writing it in a memoir: "Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft, The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection." But reportedly, Paramount stepped in to stop publication of the book. (Perhaps because the film hadn't turned out great, and the studio didn't like the idea of airing the dirty laundry?) That was the end of it...

...until Piller passed away in 2005. He was said to have regarded the book as "his last great gift to the fans and to aspiring writers everywhere." And if it was not to be sold for profit, the fans would see to it that it was distributed for free. Fade In is now easily available on the internet, and I downloaded a copy to get the story behind the story.

First, let me say that I'm not wholly convinced of Fade In's value to writers in general. Piller does have a few insights into the creative process -- separating the creative self from the judging self, adapting to the realities of a production budget, and so forth. But I'm not sure how useful a tool this would be to a prospective screenwriter, for a reason Piller himself acknowledges early on: for this movie, Piller had knowledge that few writers have. He knew that his script would be produced. (This was another case of a movie's release date preceding its actual creation.) Fade In lets you in behind the curtain, but I just don't know if there are many lessons to be brought back from there.

For Star Trek fans, however, the book is considerably more interesting. Piller lays out every step of writing this script, from the moment he first had the "Fountain of Youth" idea to the post-test screening revisions to inject a little more action in the ending. The detail he provides is so incredible that you get a perfect picture of how Insurrection ended up the way it did, exactly how the road (to hell?) was paved (with good intentions?). I'll save my analysis of the end result for my forthcoming movie review post. But in anticipation of that, I can say that this book really highlights how one core idea can slowly be chipped away until it's hopelessly compromised.

According to Piller, they were really looking for a tonal shift after the more intense Generations and First Contact. Specifically, they wanted their own Star Trek IV (aka "the one with the whales"), a light-hearted tale where they didn't even fire weapons. But they compromised even that notion right out of the gate, with Piller noting that of course, there would have to be more conventional action in this movie.

Piller hit on the idea to do a Fountain of Youth story, but Rick Berman was convinced that Patrick Stewart would hate it and refuse to sign on to the movie. Berman assumed that actor vanity would make Stewart recoil, that the story might be read as saying that only by becoming young again could Picard be heroic. So together, Piller and Berman developed an idea they called "Heart of Lightness" -- a take on Joseph Conrad's famous book Heart of Darkness (and origin of the movie Apocalypse Now). They wanted to position a malfunctioning Data as the Colonel Kurtz of the piece, whom Picard would have to hunt down.

All of these ideas were eroded over months of rewriting. Patrick Stewart didn't think Trek fans would stand for not seeing Data for half the movie. Brent Spiner didn't want Data to be malfunctioning/compromised for the third movie in a row. But rather than removing the Kurtz idea entirely, Piller condensed it into a fairly meaningless first act subplot in the finished film.

Patrick Stewart loved the Fountain of Youth concept after all... but he didn't want Picard to be shown as too weary before encountering it. This wasn't vanity, but came out of concern that Picard had been too brooding and tormented in the last two movies, and that here he should be lighter. Without time to come up with a new character arc for Picard, Piller basically gutted the story in response. In the finished film, Picard is hardly changed by his experiences because he didn't have far to go at the outset of the story.

Piller felt that it was really important to play up the family dynamic within the crew. They'd been together so long, and that would really provide emotional context to them all banding together to stand in defiance of the Federation. Patrick Stewart felt that the family elements were more appropriate to the TV series, and that the movie really couldn't afford to get bogged down in all that and still feel like a movie. Which explains why the finished film has several injected action scenes and very few meaningful character moments.

At every step along the way, you can understand the objections raised to the direction of the story. You can see how the lack of time before the cameras would role necessitated a quick answer. You can understand how Piller never had the chance to take a step back and ask, "wait, why are we still doing this Colonel Kurtz thing?" "What's the real arc for the characters here?" "Are there ways to get a few more moments like Geordi and the sunrise in here without slowing the pace?" You come to understand exactly how Insurrection took its finished form -- that form being a disappointing, compromised Star Trek movie.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fade In is that Michael Piller doesn't apologize for any of it, or even defend any of it. He's very aware of the mixed reception of the movie, but the book was written so soon after its release that perhaps he didn't know at the time just how low most Star Trek fans would come to regard it. Fade In is a quite straightforward look at what happened, making it an interesting read for fans. I give it a B. My regard for the book is in fact higher than that of the movie... which I'll be getting to soon enough.

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