Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) is the third installment in the film franchise featuring the Next Generation cast and ninth overall, only the second of three not to feature Kirk in any capacity. It is generally regarded to be one of the worst installments.
For years I've been trying to figure out why that wasn't my gut reaction on its original release, which is to say why I liked it, still like it even, and been generally puzzled at its instant and outright dismissal.
Chances are if you're familiar with Insurrection's reputation at all, assuming you haven't seen it yourself, you'll know that fans like to call it a blatant excuse for an extended episode rather than a true movie experience.
Its predecessor was 1996's First Contact, which proved to have broad appeal and out of four Picard films, easily the one to have enjoyed the most success. In that sense, Insurrection had a lot to live up to, and as in such cases was perhaps always doomed to failure, a notion few like to consider. Once something is deemed a failure, people generally accept it as such and move on.
Yet Insurrection is a story of considerable nuance. It may even be a direct statement on the state of the Star Trek franchise at that time.
The writer was Michael Piller. In many ways the producer who saved Star Trek, a successor to the team of Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer, whose Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the highwater mark for many fans, Piller was responsible for the remarkable third season creative turnaround Next Generation experienced on its way to massive popularity. At its height the series was a genuine cultural phenomenon with ratings to match, the exact equivalent of the success The Walking Dead enjoys today, doing in syndication what the latter has done on cable, which may remain a more remarkable feat. On the strength of this achievement, Paramount began an ambitious expansion that led to Deep Space Nine (which premiered to similarly-sized viewership) and Voyager (which launched UPN, a dream of the studio that began two decades earlier and led to The Motion Picture).
The franchise fatigue fans like to dismiss so much (they like to cling to what everyone was saying about the quality of the product) was born and in full evidence by 1994, when Next Generation ended and relaunched in the movie Star Trek Generations, which was intended to be a celebration, the historic meeting between Picard and Kirk. It instead met to general apathy.
When its teaser trailer appeared in front of the box office hit Independence Day, First Contact was met with wide derision. No one was excited about Star Trek. Ratings were poor. 1996 was the thirtieth anniversary of the franchise. Deep Space Nine added Next Generation's Worf in an attempt to interest fans who found the third series otherwise unappealing. After First Contact defied expectations, the franchise tried the Worf trick again, revamping Voyager with Borg elements, including the addition of series regular Seven to great publicity.
Yet the audience continued to drift. New genre hits like The X-Files, Xena, and Buffy took away whole segments of viewer interest, while direct sci-fi competition like Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 offered the first alternatives of the new Star Trek TV era.
To quote Ru'afo from Insurrection: "The Federation is old."
Michael Piller's success in guiding the franchise was a double-edged sword. He helped usher the careers of Ronald D. Moore and Ira Stephen Behr, both of whom would eclipse him in creative reputation, as well as give way to the Rick Berman regime, which would see its ultimate expression in tandem with Brannon Braga in Enterprise. Braga and Moore wrote Generations and First Contact, the first two Picard movies. After helping Voyager launch, Piller had walked away from Star Trek. He came back to write Insurrection.
It's my contention that he had a lot to say.
Insurrection is a fountain of youth story, and there's a reason for that. At one point, the villainous Ru'afo offers the aging Admiral Dougherty to avail himself of technology that "will take twenty years off your face." Twenty years, huh? A significant figure. Twenty years prior to the release of Insurrection was in fact the release of The Motion Picture, the first of the film series and the official revival of Star Trek itself, ten years after the end of the three-season TV series (with a short interval for the Animated Series fans tend to ignore).
Why would that be so significant? Motion Picture was the first of many instances where Star Trek acknowledged the passage of time directly. Kirk has only just come back and he's lamenting the aging process. There's a young bull named Decker eager to replace him as captain of the Enterprise. Wrath of Khan features similar themes. In essence, Motion Picture is the first theoretical point at which, instead of continuing what had been, Star Trek could have reinvented itself, started all over. That's basically what Bennett and Meyer did with Wrath of Khan, ignoring Motion Picture and starting over with an entirely new aesthetic.
In other words, just imagine if Decker had been the captain after all...
Twenty years later, it had been a decade since Bennett and Meyer had toyed with the idea of revival again, this time a full reboot, going with a fresh young cast in what was to become The Undiscovered Country, which instead became the last film to feature the full original cast in all its aging glory (just imagine if Christian Slater had done more than a cameo; in 1991 that would have indeed meant something). This was only a few years after Next Generation launched on television, a reboot of a different kind. Picard, as the portrait eventually emerged, an older captain, had been in his youth...not entirely unlike Kirk, actually. A telling detail, I would say, one not often exploited, but surely an ongoing commentary between two generations.
By the time of Insurrection, Picard's age was no longer something people fixated on, in part because of Patrick Stewart's spirited portrayal, yet this was the movie that chose to address it directly. In the movie, the mysterious planet with the odd characteristic of slowing down the aging process, and even reversing it a limited extent (all the adults end up frozen in their thirties), has a woman named Anij among its population, whom Picard forms a bond with, and in this way the matter is addressed most directly. And yet Anij isn't interested in how old Picard is, but how young.
"I wonder," she says to him at one point, "if you're aware of the trust you engender." She speaks to him about a perfect moment in time, "when time seems to stop, and you could almost live in that moment." It's a trickier idea than it seems. Later in the movie, Picard uses it to help save her life. And it may be the idea of the fountain the movie truly wishes to convey. It's not a story about stealing youth back at all (which is what the villains want) but rather having the opportunity to appreciate what you have.
The subplot and in fact what had at one point been developed as the lead element of the movie involves Data going rogue, why and how that happened. Admiral Dougherty's role is to provide a detached voice for Starfleet, one that doesn't particularly care about everything Picard does, including understanding what makes Data special. For fans, that matter was resolved in the classic episode "The Measure of a Man," but for Dougherty and by extension others in Starfleet, Data is still just a machine, which is how the natives of the mysterious planet treat him, too, at first, a piece of technology that subverts what ordinary people can do on their own. "We believe," another village leader says, "when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man."
All of that is to say, Piller wondered if Star Trek were being taken for granted. This was his big pitch to show how it was still relevant, despite all objections. The idea of the straight reboot, of course, eventually happened, to spectacular success, but at the time, in 1998, that was still years away, a decade away, and the franchise as it was continued to explore what had then been established from the start. Piller felt that there was a great deal of worth in it, and even a great deal of wisdom possible to be gleamed from commenting on it directly.
Insurrection was followed by Nemesis, which was in some ways a melancholy continuation. Picard is confronted with a manifestation of the youth he once was, just as Data meets a child-like version of himself. Data spends the second half of Insurrection interacting with a boy, trying to make him comfortable with the idea of artificial life. Data will always be a contradiction to the popular depiction of robots, a fully independent individual capable of being accepted on his own terms and a constant rebuttal of fears that humanity will one day be replaced by the likes of him, which in the end is what all the stories featuring his other counterpart, Lore, were about, including the complex two-part episode "The Descent," in which their relationship is juxtaposed with the Borg.
As Picard confronts his own doppelganger, it's meant to be one last reminder of what makes him different from Kirk. For Kirk, there would, essentially, have been no difference between the older and younger versions of himself. That's the struggle between Kirk and Decker and Motion Picture, which Kirk terms as a competition. When Michael Piller addresses the matter of age in Insurrection, it's the rare moment fans don't mention Wrath of Khan, which concludes with Kirk deciding after all the turmoil he experiences that he feels young. Where Kirk must experience a great deal of pain to realize he's not as old as he feels, Picard is told by an outsider that he already is young.
For the franchise, for the fan, from Piller's perspective, it's a contradiction of everything that had begun to seem apparent, that Star Trek's day was soon to be over, that it was no longer relevant. It's a representation of everything that makes Picard different from Kirk, why there's a difference. And in that way, ties the whole story together, not the idea of the fountain of youth, but going back to how the story begins, the idea of why Data seemed to change, and what could be done about it.
What Piller wanted Insurrection to convey was what Next Generation had been trying to say since he first helped it find its voice: stop worrying so much. Even in the midst of a juggernaut the studio seemed intent on mining to exhaustion (which is exactly what happened), Piller still believed in the product itself, and once again he wanted to help the fans feel that way too.
I keep hoping that in time, other fans will view Insurrection more kindly. Perhaps in understanding what it was truly saying all along, that could be easier. Another subplot has Riker and Troi rekindling a romance that had been over since before the start of Next Generation, an echo of Decker's own subplot from Motion Picture. And maybe that's all you need to know, too.