In the month prior to the opening of 2009's Star Trek, I set myself to the task of re-watching all ten extant Star Trek features. Not to blog about them - a rare movie marathon that I didn't see fit to document for all time just to prove that I did it - but to refresh my memory after quite a few years without any Enterprise-based space adventures in my life. It went well for many films: some I loved, some I hated, all of them served to get me back into the peculiar rhythms of the Star Trek film franchise. Finally, I got to Star Trek: Insurrection, which I had not seen since its December, 1998 theatrical release, and recalling that I did not enjoy it, I sat down without much enthusiasm for the first eight or ten minutes. After waking up and discovering I was looking at the last 30 seconds, and had slept through the entire movie without even twitching, I decided to consider that a bullet well-dodged, didn't bother resuming it, and skipped Nemesis altogether. Sometimes, you shouldn't fight it when the universe sends you a message.

This story is useful because it fairly clearly demonstrates what I believe to be the most irreducible quality of Insurrection: it is boring. Typically, that's not a very useful word, being as it is so necessarily subjective, but the small-scale tediousness of the movie defines it. It is the movie that deliberately attempts to strip out all of the bigness of the Star Trek movies and do something light and ultimately trivial. Every beat of the story is defined by being pointedly low-key in a way that sucks it of all dramatic tension. That is its most salient aspect: as The Voyage Home is the funny Star Trek movie, as The Undiscovered Country is the military thriller Star Trek movie, so Insurrection is the boring Star Trek movie.

You'll frequently run across the opinion that Insurrection is basically a two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation produced on a feature budget and put in movie theaters, and that's giving unforgivably short shrift to the TV show. Some of the actual TNG two-parters include "Unification" (which reintroduces Spock into the "present-day" universe), "Descent" (one of the series' best "artificial humanity" stories of many), and the much-beloved "The Best of Both Worlds", a ubiquitous fixture on "Best Star Trek Episodes Ever" list, and a better feature-length story than any of the 12 theatrically-released Star Trek features. So let's please not say that the problem with Insurrection is that it's like a two-part episode. The problem is that it's like a one-part episode that was more than doubled in length without having nearly enough drama to make that work.

In fact, it is like several specific one-part episodes, in which the crew of the Enterprise encounters a beatific, technophobic society, and pull out all the stops to protect that society's innocence. This is undoubtedly partially owing to the fact that the script was written by TNG showrunner Michael Piller, from a story he developed with Trek overseer Rick Berman, and Piller's instincts as a storyteller in all the Trek shows he contributed to were unflinchingly conservative. There exists an unpublished book, Fade Out, in which Pillar describes in some detail the series of compromises and stalled ideas that ended up going into the final script (I owe reader Smorb and Friends great thanks for pointing me in its direction), and in Piller's defense, the story he tells there makes it clear that a lighthearted, hang-out show version of a Star Trek movie was forced on him from different places (Patrick Stewart, with his shiny new producer credit, wanted something a bit less onerous for Picard to do this time around, for example). But that doesn't excuse the final result being so lazy: it is not a film that smacks of compromise, but a lack of inspiration.

In order to carry a 45-minute story, huffing and wheezing, over the 100-minute mark, there has to be some padding, and it involves the Enterprise-E hosting a diplomatic event to welcome a new culture into the Federation. Captain Picard (Stewart) is wildly unexcited by this, and he jumps at the chance to escape when a report crops up that his android science officer, Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) has malfunctioned while on loan to an observation mission. Lightly dusting off orders - foreshadowing! - to travel to the remote spatial anomaly nicknamed the Briar Patch, Picard and his crew find that Data has gone nuts while investigating a pre-technical race called the Ba'ku, a joint mission overseen by Starfleet Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe), and Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham), of a race called the Son'a. Incidentally, you know how J.J. Abrams defended the title of Star Trek Into Darkness by proposing that colons in titles represent everything non-fans resent about the Trek franchise? I would like to argue that meaningless apostrophes in the middle of words are much worse.

Let's skip ahead a bit: the Son'a and the Federation have teamed up to move the Ba'ku off-planet, in order for the Son'a to extract a type of radiation from the Ba'ku planet's rings that will leave the planet uninhabitable, but can be used to regenerate cells. It's the Fountain of Youth, basically, with the Ba'ku having all lived in peace for 300 years, not only not aging, but all aging backwards until they settle in somewhere around their late-'30s in appearance. Data suffered his shutdown as a result of learning this, and furious by the outright immorality of the act, Picard and his crew, all of them enjoying the effects of being restored to youth and health, agree to fight the Federation to save it from itself. To stage an insurrection, if you will, and I hope you will, because I won't (in his book, Piller admits that Regeneration was the subtitle everybody wanted, but Star Trek: Generations was still too recent).

There's a problem that the film doesn't come close to surviving, and not matter what else goes wrong, that was going to kill it: this isn't a big enough conflict for a feature. Sure, fighting the greedy bad guys and saving a population of 600 beautiful agrarian people was the meat and potatoes of The Next Generation, but movies aren't TV shows, and if a conflict is good enough for a 45-minute character-driven episode, that's all the evidence you need that it's not enough for a 103-minute film, character-driven or not. It's the same reason that The X-Files: I Want to Believe was such a wet fart of a movie, ten years later: if you want to justify bringing these character back to life on the scale of a movie screen, it had damn well better be for something bigger than the show could contain. And this was the exact opposite of the philosophy that went into the making of the film, which went along the lines of, "We've pushed these characters into such extreme places in Generations and First Contact, let's just give them a chance to be themselves now". It's not clear to me who's supposed to get off on that: the general audience who has no idea who these people are? The fans who could just as easily watch a few episodes of the show that, in 1998, was still easy to find in reruns? The Star Trek films get a lot of grief for the number of times that they put the planet Earth in danger from some giant alien force, but at least that's something you can easily grasp as high stakes. Insurrection's tale of 600 people whose culture is tied to a planet isn't nothing (like a lot of Piller-driven Trek, it's an overt metaphor for the treatment of Native Americans by the United States), but it's also pretty meek and indifferently-expressed.

That's the overarching problem; the little problem is that the movie is written like an episode of the show, and not even a good one, like "The Best of Both Worlds" or "The Inner Light" (which it superficially resembles). It's one of the cheesy ones, with far too much technobabble (easily the greatest weakness of The Next Generation compared to other incarnations of the franchise) that glosses over plot points and action, and ill-structured scenes that eschew the great film rule of "start after the scene begins, and end before it stops": the beginning of scenes are uncommonly likely to be one person walking up to another with something on their mind, and the endings typically involve two people making a decision and then standing there, waiting to pull it off in the space of a cut. Insurrection is the shortest of all 12 Star Trek movies, but it's almost certainly the slowest-moving, talkiest, and most stagily-paced outside of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and it was being done there on purpose.

Pinioned by its story, there's probably no chance that Insurrection could have ever been as entertaining as First Contact, or even Generations, but the fact that it's not really trying to be doesn't help. The film adopts exactly one flavor of broad humor, based in subverting our expectations of character rather than building out of them (except for a small number of Data scenes): most of what makes this second-most-comic of all Trek features ostensibly funny is not watching characters we like react to situations (as in the most-comic, The Voyage Home), but in lightly mocking them, especially poor Worf (Michael Dorn), who is present almost solely to be the brunt of jokes about Klingon acne, or warriors singing along to Gilbert and Sullivan (I'll confess, his discomfort at singing is very much the joke that works best for me in the whole movie). The film even know it: where First Contact made some slightly contrived excuse to get Worf off of TV's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and into the plot of the movie, the writing here basically mounts the argument, "There's definitely a reason, but who the fuck cares what it is?" Because Trekkies are known to be people willing to let the details slide by.

In fairness, the comedy isn't that awful, though it's not even as funny as the comic relief bits in the genuinely good Trek movies, and there's so much more of it. But Insurrection, as a whole, is not very much fun to watch: Jonathan Frakes, directing for the second time, doesn't have anything nearly as interesting to work on as the lurches towards horror in First Contact, and the film's limited writing tends to exacerbate his TV-trained directorial skill, making all the emotional moments seem hollow and insincere. Moreover, while most of the regulars knew their characters well enough to go on autopilot (and in the case of Frakes himself and Gates McFadden, autopilot is exactly what it feels like), the new actors are all dismally let down by their director: Abraham's bad guy is snappish and petty, without in any way rounding out his character's tragic, obsessive back story, and Donna Murphy plays her love interest character as all breathy, zen-like statements that could be as easily delivered by a wooden post as a human being.

The film is further let down by some truly godawful CGI, the first time in Trek history that there were absolutely no motion-control model shots of space ships; Industrial Light & Magic was unavailable at the time, and the production had to rely on a cluster of effects houses led by Blue Sky Studios, the same one that became the kind of shitty animation house behind kind of shitty movies including the Ice Age series. I do not recall how it looked in 1998, but in 2013, it's perfect evidence for the case that CGI doesn't age nearly as well as practical effects: Insurrection looks worse than any of the eight films preceding it.

Just about the only element of the whole that actually works on the level of a popcorn movie, or even on the level of a somewhat pedantic Next Generation story, is Jerry Goldsmith's really quite excellent score, racing up and down and sideways trying to convince us that what we're watching is exciting, thrilling, interesting, meaningful. It is not any of those things: it is a bunch of characters being marginally utilised in a story that everybody involved could have carried off in their sleep, it is as low-stakes as a movie in which that many space ships explode could possibly be, and the advances in television production quality in things like Battlestar Galactica mean that saying that looks like TV is an insult to TV. It's too bland and milquetoast to be truly "bad" Star Trek - no space hippies, no fake God aliens - but of 12 features, this is absolutely the one I enjoy watching, or thinking about, the least.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)