Tag Archives: Michael Piller

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

insurrection

What does the ninth Star Trek movie have in common with Apocalypse Now?  Would you believe they were based on the same book?  Those of you who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be pained to recall any stretchy-faced aliens in it, but the concept of going up the river to find a long-lost colleague who has gone native is indeed what sparked the imaginations of producer Rick Berman and screenwriter Michael Piller as they bandied about concepts for what Captain Picard and company, triumphant in their victory over the Borg, could do next.  The dark tone, elements of horror and catastrophic stakes in the previous film had proven very successful, but no one on the production side, studio side or even the acting side wanted to explore down that alley any further.  (Piller, in his unpublished book Fade In, likens it to pitching.  No successful pitcher can get away with only throwing fastballs; sometimes you have to throw a curve.  Patrick Stewart, for his part, used a cricket analogy of a shot straight back at the bowler.)  Early discussions were geared more towards emulating the tone of The Voyage Home, which remained the shining pinnacle that every subsequent Star Trek movie had attempted and failed to reach.  Piller wanted to tap into Star Trek‘s optimism, and, inspired by the Rogaine he was spraying on his bald patch one morning, decided to do a Fountain of Youth story and blend it with Heart of Darkness – “Heart of Lightness,” as he called it.

In Piller’s initial treatment (called Star Trek: Stardust after the Hoagy Carmichael song) the movie would open with a flashback to a young Picard at Starfleet Academy with his libertarian best friend, Hugh Duffy, and then fade to thirty years later, where, in the midst of a galaxy-wide shortage of an important medical ore called “sarium krellide,” Duffy has gone rogue on an alien planet and begun attacking Romulan ships and colonies.  Picard is assigned to hunt him down through a treacherous area of space known as the Briar Patch, accompanied by a smarmy half-Romulan, half-Klingon named Joss who likes to leer at Troi and pick fights with Worf.  When Duffy/Kurtz is found, he looks as young as he did at the Academy, because the entire planet is made of this sarium krellide stuff and it turns out the Federation has made a deal with the Romulans to exploit the planet for its ore, displacing the natives that Duffy is trying to defend.  Picard and crew turn their backs on the Federation and help the natives repel the Romulans and kill Joss, at the cost of Duffy’s life, and in an epilogue Picard has a speech-off with a Vulcan admiral (whom Piller hoped could be played by Ian McKellen) about morality and so on, fade to credits.  Berman didn’t like the politics in the story and requested that Duffy be changed to Data to keep the drama within the established family.  He also worried that the de-aging story might be offensive to Patrick Stewart, as it was essentially telling him that he was an old man.  Piller’s rewrite eliminated the fountain of youth aspect and instead played up the aliens on the planet, a race of telepathic mutes without immune systems who are protected from illness by the much-needed sarium krellide.  This version was more warmly received by almost everyone… except the man who was going to have to say the lines.

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Patrick Stewart, named an associate producer on this movie in thanks for his work on First Contact, was uncomfortable with almost everything.  He did not want Picard in deep emotional turmoil for a third straight movie (this time about possibly having to kill Data), he thought the Romulans (and particularly Joss, as conceived) were uninteresting villains, he didn’t think there were any compelling guest roles to attract decent actors, he criticized the sarium krellide concept as asking the audience to get excited about a bunch of rocks, etcetera, etcetera.  Ironically, Stewart turned out to be tremendously excited about the dropped fountain of youth idea, and the actor laughed off any concerns as to how his age would be portrayed.  The Romulans and the widely panned character of Joss were replaced with a race of tremendously old aliens called the Son’i (ultimately changed to the Son’a to avoid sounding like Sony Pictures) and their leader Ru’afo (played by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham), the telepathic mutes were made plain humanoids called the Ba’ku, and the magic rocks became the more intangible “metaphasic radiation” present in the rings of the Ba’ku planet which would create a fountain of youth effect.  The plot would now revolve around a “Sorvino Switch” (a reference to a Next Generation episode, “Homeward,” where Worf’s foster brother played by Paul Sorvino tries to save a doomed alien culture by beaming them into a holographic recreation of their planet).  The Federation would be conspiring with the Son’a to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku in order to exploit the rejuvenating properties of the planet’s radiation.  Data would discover this and go rogue trying to protect the aliens, and Picard would disobey direct Starfleet orders to do the same.  With Jonathan Frakes back as director, and an increased budget of $60 million in place, the ninth Star Trek film was ready to go, even if no one could agree on a title yet.

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Fade in on a Vietnamese forest that explodes into flame as Jim Morrison sings “this is the end…”  sorry, no.  Wrong Heart of Darkness.  Fade in on a utopian lakeside village on the world of the Ba’ku, where the inhabitants are tending to their morning chores while a beautiful woman strolls about and children play in the fields.  The pastoral scene is being observed in secret by Starfleet in invisible isolation suits, managed from a “duck blind” concealed by holograms.  The Starfleet crew are being supervised by aliens we have never seen before:  the Son’a, beings with sagging skin stretched taut over aging faces.  A sudden explosion, and panic, as one of the crew begins attacking the others.  It’s Data (Brent Spiner), who rips off his invisibility suit and fires his weapon at the duck blind, exposing it for the frightened villagers to see.  In another sector of the galaxy, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, including Worf who has stopped by from Deep Space Nine, are hosting a reception when they receive a message from Vice Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) aboard a Son’a ship in the middle of a turbulent area of space known as the Briar Patch, advising that Data has taken the planetary observation team hostage.  Picard decides to bring the Enterprise into the Briar Patch to see for himself.   Descending to the surface in a shuttle, he and Worf are attacked by Data in a scout ship.  Picard tries appealing to Data by engaging him in a singing round of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “A British Tar,” which distracts the android long enough for Worf to subdue him.  Picard then leads a “rescue mission” to the Ba’ku village, finding both the Starfleet personnel and their Son’a allies sitting down with the Ba’ku for a cordial dinner.  He is introduced to Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the friendly leader of the small settlement of 600, and the lovely Anij (Donna Murphy), who is suspicious of off-landers.  The Ba’ku are as technologically sophisticated as the Federation, but have chosen to eschew such advancement and live a simple agrarian life instead.  Admiral Dougherty is satisfied that there has been no violation of the Prime Directive, and is eager for the Enterprise to be on its way, even though he and the Son’a will be remaining – to tie up “loose ends,” as Dougherty puts it.

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As the Enterprise lingers in orbit around the Ba’ku planet, the crew start behaving oddly:  Worf gets zits and oversleeps, Riker and Troi flirt like teenagers and even Picard notices a spring in his step.  Geordi discovers that Data’s odd behavior was triggered when his program was reset to function on strict interpretations of right and wrong – by being shot by a Son’a weapon.  Data is returned to normal and he and Picard head back down to the surface.  Journeying to the last location Data remembers, and accompanied by Anij, they discover neutrino emissions coming from the middle of a lake, which turn out to reveal a cloaked ship.  Inside the ship is a holographic recreation of the Ba’ku village, the purpose of which seems to be to move the Ba’ku off the planet; they would go to sleep one night and be beamed into this holo-ship, then flown to another, similar planet and left there without ever knowing what had happened.  Picard does not understand why, and the camera lingers on Anij’s face just as they are attacked by Son’a soldiers.  Picard and Data overpower them, and Picard orders them taken into custody until he can speak with Dougherty and the Son’a leader Ru’afo, who are on their way back from the outer rim of the Briar Patch.

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A midnight walk with Anij reveals the reason why the Federation and the dying Son’a are so interested in this planet:  she and the other Ba’ku are centuries old.  They came to this world from the ruins of their warring civilization to establish a new life, and found that the metaphasic radiation from the planet’s rings slowed their aging and led them to develop tremendous mental acuity; Anij herself has the power to slow down time.  Picard is envious of the existence that the Ba’ku lead and suspects that someone is planning to take it away from them.  After watching Geordi witness a sunrise with restored eyes for the first time in his life, Picard confronts Ru’afo and Dougherty aboard the Enterprise and is informed of the truth:  the Son’a have developed a method to collect the metaphasic particles from the planet’s rings for individual medical use, but the process will render the planet itself uninhabitable.  The Ba’ku world is in Federation space, and so the Federation Council has authorized Dougherty to transport the Ba’ku off the planet aboard the holo-ship before collection begins.  Dougherty argues the revolution in medical science that metaphasics could bring, doubling lifespans and curing disease.  Picard says that forcibly relocating the Ba’ku will destroy their culture.  Dougherty says that they are only moving 600 people; Picard asks how many people it takes before it becomes wrong.  Dougherty shuts down the debate by ordering Picard and his ship out of the Briar Patch.  A chastened Picard returns to his quarters and removes the pips from his uniform, deciding to betray his government to save the Ba’ku.

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Picard leaves Riker and Geordi to take the Enterprise to the edge of the Briar Patch to call for help, while he and the rest of the crew descend to the surface aboard the captain’s yacht.  Figuring that the Son’a will not begin their procedure while the planet is still populated lest a public relations disaster result, Picard’s people set up transport inhibitors and lead an evacuation of the Ba’ku village.  With Dougherty’s consent, Ru’afo sends drones to tag the villagers with homing markers that will allow them to be beamed up, and orders two of his ships to stop the Enterprise before it can reach communications range with the outside.  A battle in space leaves the Enterprise without its warp drive, but some fancy maneuvering by Riker destroys one of the Son’a ships and leaves the other crippled.  On the Ba’ku world, Sojef is taken by the drones, leaving his young son Artim (Michael Welch), who fears technology, in the care of Data.  The Ba’ku are shepherded into caves where the mineral deposits will blind the Son’a sensors, but the Son’a begin dropping charges on the mountainside to force them out, and a resulting cave-in crushes Anij.  Picard helps her to use her time-slowing power to keep her alive until medical help arrives.  Anij is saved, but shortly afterwards she and Picard are tagged by drones and beamed aboard the Son’a ship.  There, Picard reveals the final twist to Dougherty and the assembled group:  the Ba’ku and the Son’a are the same race.  Sojef says that a century earlier, a group of Ba’ku youth eager to embrace technology again tried to take over the colony, and were exiled when they failed.  Those youth have become the decrepit Son’a.  Dougherty has been unwittingly helping the embittered Son’a take revenge on their forebears – in the name of the Federation.  Ru’afo decides to go ahead with collecting the metaphasic radiation even if there are still people on the planet, and murders Dougherty to keep him from telling anyone.

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Picard manages to sway Ru’afo’s second in command, Gallatin (Gregg Henry), who was once known as Gal’na when he lived among the Ba’ku and clearly has misgivings.  With the assistance of Gallatin, Data and Worf, Picard has Ru’afo and his crew beamed to the holo-ship and presents them an illusion of the collector activating and draining the metaphasic particles.  But the savvy Ru’afo realizes it is a trick, and figures out a way to escape the holo-ship and transport to the collector to restart the countdown for real.  Picard beams over as well and the two leaders battle it out with fists, with Picard quoting Danny Glover, saying “we’re getting too old for this.”  Ru’afo’s crew manages to recapture his ship’s bridge and take Worf and Gallatin prisoner, but the Enterprise returns from the edge of the Briar Patch and disables them.  Picard activates the collector’s self-destruct just in time for the Enterprise to beam him off and leave the mad Ru’afo to be consumed by the explosion.  The remaining Son’a surrender before their air supply gives out, and Riker advises that the Federation Council has called an indefinite halt to the Ba’ku relocation project.  On the surface, the aging Gal’na is reunited with his still-youthful mother and they share a tender, forgiving embrace.  Artim bids goodbye to his new friend Data, Picard promises Anij that he has nearly a year of shore leave he’d like to spend with her, and the Enterprise crew beams away to head home as Marlon Brando whispers “the horror, the horror…” – sorry, I did it again.  Bad reviewer.

Something has puzzled me ever since I first saw this movie in December of 1998:  why don’t I like it more?  It captures and reflects the optimism that makes Star Trek endearing, it has an intelligent script, it tells a fast-paced adventure story without racking up an enormous body count, it asks ever-timely and relevant questions about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, it has good performances, it has villains but not people being nasty just for nasty’s sake, it has a lot of sweet and funny and even touching moments, it has a Jerry Goldsmith score, and the gorgeous Donna Murphy steals breaths in every frame she’s in (and you get to see Marina Sirtis covered in soap bubbles, if that isn’t additional inducement!)  But for some reason the entire affair falls a bit flat.  I’ve wondered if it’s perhaps because there’s nothing here that is surprising, and it raises the question of whether surprises always require the risk of making people uncomfortable.  This movie, by contrast, was designed from the outset to be light-hearted and breezy, and anything that could have represented audience discomfort was snipped out.  (A scene was filmed where Riker and Troi went to the ship’s library to do research on the Son’a and were shushed by an elderly, glasses-wearing caricature of a librarian; deeming this possibly offensive to real librarians, director Frakes deleted it from the final cut.)

Making audiences uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean assaulting their senses and morals with blood and guts and sex and swears, but it does mean thwarting expectations by introducing irrevocable changes to the characters and the universe they inhabit, consequently leaving the audience actively guessing at what could possibly happen next.  This movie never does that.  It has the visual aesthetic and sweep of a major motion picture, but the play-it-safe mentality of an average TV episode.  When Picard, Data and Anij find the holo-ship and Picard describes the “Sorvino Switch,” we’re deflated because what is supposed to be a major plot twist turns out to be a retread of an episode we just saw a few years ago.  We don’t want the movies to recycle the TV plots; we expect better, more consequential events than that.  We’re paying to be here, after all.

Even the final title of Star Trek: Insurrection is a promise not kept.  I hear “insurrection” and I’m thinking wide-scale galactic rebellion among dozens of starships across hundreds of worlds, not just Picard and his crew disobeying the orders of one misguided Starfleet admiral – especially when there is never any legitimate doubt that Picard is in the right (wouldn’t it have been a more gripping  ethical dilemma if the audience were to question if the “insurrection” was valid?)  Part of the problem could be that, Donna Murphy’s beauty aside, the Ba’ku are not really that compelling an alien species to spin a story around.  We don’t always have to put Earth itself in jeopardy to have drama – witness Avatar – and we don’t even have to make the aliens eight-foot-tall and blue either, but they should have a little more meat to them than just coming off like a commune of well-manicured hippie California Democrats.  Call it a failure of worldbuilding, as my fantasy-writing friends will appreciate.  It’s unfortunate too that the Ba’ku were cast all white, which represents a deep valley in Star Trek‘s otherwise proud tradition of diversity, and I can’t find a logical reason as to why it was done that way.

Look, to echo Michael Piller’s baseball analogy, sometimes a curveball finds the strike zone, and sometimes, as Brett Cecil of the Blue Jays could tell you, the hitter smacks it over the left-field fence.  That doesn’t diminish the worth of the pitch, nor does it mean the curve won’t be more effective the next time you throw it.  Star Trek‘s curveball, Insurrection, isn’t a bad movie, but it never risks enough to potentially become a great one.  Yet you can’t bring yourself to hate it or its creators.  Everyone is trying very hard, and the effort is obvious.  But its greatest sin is in wanting so much to make us smile that it trips over its own good intentions.

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In summary:  This curveball, sadly, veers too far off the plate.

Next time:  The world gets its first major look at an up-and-coming actor named Tom Hardy.  Pity it’s in one of the worst Star Trek movies ever made.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

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Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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William Shatner’s documentary Chaos on the Bridge is a fascinating look into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and why, to be blunt, it sucked.  A revolving door of writers that couldn’t handle the miserable working conditions imposed upon them by the increasingly ailing Gene Roddenberry and his impish lawyer Leonard Maizlish, and a novice cast struggling to navigate through the inconsistent, dramatically dull scripts that dribbled out, resulted in a mediocre series clinging to existence only by the loyalty of its fans.  But by the commencement of the third season in late 1989 and the arrival of new showrunner Michael Piller who moved the series away from aliens-of-the-week plots toward stories centered on the characters, momentum began to shift.  The Next Generation got good.  Really good.  And with Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier having proven a massive box office disappointment, the burden of leading the franchise itself had seemingly shifted to the new, fresh and suddenly vigorous series.  Was there room for another silver screen adventure for the aging Captain Kirk and company?

Producer Harve Bennett, who had shepherded the movie series since The Wrath of Khan, did not think so.  Asked to come up with an idea for a sixth film, Bennett enlisted The Final Frontier‘s screenwriter David Loughery to write an origin story that would involve the first meeting of Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy and let them be played by younger and presumably cheaper actors (John Cusack as Spock was floated as a possibility – get your heads around that one.)  Paramount executives were keen but wondered if it would be at all possible to include the original stars in some way.  Loughery added book-ending scenes that would feature Shatner and Nimoy in cameos, and set the main story instead as an extended flashback.  Bennett received the green light and was beginning pre-production when he found himself victim to the Wrath of the Fans.  Roddenberry, who had learned of the concept as it was developed, railed against it at conventions as akin to the execrable Police Academy movies.  The supporting cast (Doohan, Koenig, Nichols and Takei) who would find themselves out of work if this movie went ahead, were equally and publicly disdainful.  Pressure began to build.  Finally, when studio head Martin Davis was informed that the next Star Trek movie would not involve the regulars but rather a new group of younger actors with Shatner and Nimoy appearing only briefly, he put his foot down and demanded a full classic Star Trek movie.  Bennett was asked to shelve his Academy concept for the time being and produce Davis’ requested movie first.  Bennett chose to walk.  In a panic to try and put a movie together in time for Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary in the fall of 1991, Paramount went back to the man who had had a direct creative hand in each of the most successful Star Trek movies to date:  Leonard Nimoy.

Appointed the executive producer of Star Trek VI, Nimoy reached out to Nicholas Meyer to collaborate on a story ripped from the headlines of the day:  the Berlin Wall coming down in space, with the role of the Soviet Union being played by the Klingon Empire.  Nimoy was also the first choice of the studio to direct, but as Shatner was also alleged to be keen on another shot to atone for the misfired Star Trek V, Nimoy suggested Meyer as a compromise instead of himself to avoid bruising his longtime friend’s ego.  That would not be the toughest battle the movie would face before a single frame could be filmed, and in our blissful ignorance as fans merely waiting out the expected few years before the inevitable next movie, we came very close to not getting a Star Trek VI at all:  studio politics reared its hideous hydra head, with meddling executives forcing Nimoy to accept a pair of unproductive writers he didn’t want to work with (the writers and the executives were eventually fired, though the former did ultimately get screen credit thanks to the rules of the Writers’ Guild), and nickel-and-dime bickering on the budget between Meyer and other studio suits until finally, the entire production was cancelled.  In a last ditch effort to salvage the movie, Meyer went hat-in-hand to Paramount president Stanley Jaffe, who in a snap gracious decision granted him every cent of the budget he needed – and shortly thereafter, the suits who had tried to strangle Star Trek VI in its crib were themselves shown the door.  Nimoy, Meyer, and screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn could get on with the business of crafting the script to everyone’s satisfaction.

Not that this was any easier.  This was to be a movie about the old soldiers of the Federation coming to terms with their prejudices about their mortal enemy, and as such, the script included our heroes speaking racist dialogue about the Klingons – an unappetizing task for the minority actors in the cast.  Nichelle Nichols refused to say lines like “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” and “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” while Brock Peters, returning from The Voyage Home as Starfleet Admiral Cartwright, could not get through his speech about Klingons as alien trash and bringing them “to their knees” in a single take.  For his part, William Shatner had huge problems with his line “Let them die!” and asked for a reaction shot to indicate that Kirk was embarrassed at having blurted that out (it wasn’t – the movie cuts immediately to Spock).  Gene Roddenberry, his health giving out after decades of living large, was appalled by the militaristic and angry tone of the script – hard not to empathize with if you were watching the characters you had created being turned into bigots – and he was especially upset at the proposed reveal of Lt. Saavik as a traitor.  Meyer dismissed Roddenberry’s objections, arguing that he created Saavik and could do whatever he wanted with her, but the point was rendered moot when Kirstie Alley declined to return, Robin Curtis was not even asked, and Saavik became Valeris when Kim Cattrall was cast instead.  Roddenberry’s objections were noted and filed, and shooting finally commenced in April 1991, on re-dressed sets from The Next Generation, while it was on its summer hiatus.  Roddenberry would get one last look at the nearly-completed film in late October; he was wheeled into a screening attached to an oxygen tank, and while he left giving a positive review, he immediately got his lawyer Maizlish involved and tried to have almost a quarter of the movie cut out.  Two days later, Roddenberry was dead, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country premiered in December 1991 without any cuts, but with a brief opening dedication:  For Gene Roddenberry. 

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Taking the suggestion that one should always start a story with a bang somewhat literally, Star Trek VI opens with a massive explosion amidst an endless backdrop of stars:  the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility, goes full Chernobyl (a deliberate allusion) and disrupts the travels of the starship U.S.S. Excelsior, now under the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) on a mission to catalogue gaseous planetary anomalies.  Two months later, Captain Kirk and his remaining, soon-to-retire crew are summoned to a briefing at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, where the Federation’s special envoy – Spock – advises that the Klingon economy has been crippled by the Praxis explosion and that they have requested negotiations with the Federation to end the fifty-year cold war between the two galactic superpowers.  Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have been assigned to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth for a peace summit, despite Kirk’s history with the Klingons, because of the old Vulcan proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China.”  Kirk berates Spock for putting him in this position, when as the father of an only son who was murdered by Klingons, he is content to let them all die.  Orders are orders however, and the Enterprise, with its new helm officer (and Spock protégé) Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) sets a course for the Neutral Zone.  The first meeting with Gorkon (David Warner), his daughter Azetbur (Rosana DeSoto) and his Shakespeare-quoting chief of staff General Chang (Christopher Plummer) is an uneasy one:  despite Gorkon’s progressive outlook toward the “undiscovered country” of the unknown future, old prejudices simmer during a diplomatic dinner, and Gorkon advises a wary Kirk that if there is to be a brave new world, their generation will have the hardest time living in it.

In the middle of the night, the Enterprise abruptly seems to fire two photon torpedoes at Gorkon’s ship, crippling its gravity.  Two men wearing Starfleet uniforms and walking with magnetic boots beam aboard, murder several of its crew, and gravely wound the chancellor.  An enraged Chang threatens to fire back; Kirk keeps the Enterprise‘s shields down and surrenders, then beams over with Dr. McCoy to help.  Gorkon’s wounds are too deep and McCoy doesn’t know the Klingon anatomy.  Gorkon dies, but not before pleading with Kirk with his last breath, “Don’t let it end this way, Captain.”  Chang has Kirk and McCoy immediately arrested for Gorkon’s murder, and Azetbur, appointed chancellor in her father’s place, agrees to continue with the peace talks in his memory at a secret location, but on the promise that the prisoners will not be extradited, and Starfleet will make no attempt to rescue them.  At a subsequent show trial where they are defended by the same-named grandfather of The Next Generation‘s Worf (Michael Dorn), a recording of Kirk’s log in which says he will never trust or forgive the Klingons for the death of his son is played, and he and  McCoy are found guilty.  They are spared the usual sentence of death and instead condemned to the prison planet Rura Penthe, the “alien’s graveyard.”

Back on the Enterprise, Spock and the remainder of the crew play for time with Starfleet Command by claiming engine trouble.  They still have a full complement of torpedoes, so someone else must have fired on Gorkon’s ship from beneath them to make it seem as though it was the Enterprise.  Because the Klingons did not notice it, it might have been a cloaked Bird-of-Prey; normally Birds-of-Prey cannot fire when cloaked, but this (hypothetical) one can.  And since someone altered the computer records to indicate the Enterprise fired the torpedoes, there must be a conspirator or conspirators in their very midst.  The search is on for the two pairs of magnetic boots the killers were described by witnesses to have been wearing, and when Chekov discovers a trace of Klingon blood on the Enterprise‘s transporter pad, the search expands to uniforms.  The boots are subsequently found in the locker of an innocent alien ensign (whose broad webbed feet reveal he couldn’t possibly have worn them), stalling the investigation.

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Meanwhile, Kirk and McCoy struggle to survive the harsh conditions of Rura Penthe, with some unexpected help from a beautiful shapeshifting alien named Martia (the late David Bowie’s wife Iman).  She uses her abilities to facilitate their escape from the underground prison camp and across the glaciers beyond the magnetic shield that prevents transporter beaming, while the Enterprise warps through Klingon territory to find them before they freeze to death, aided by a tracking patch Spock placed on Kirk’s back before they boarded Gorkon’s ship.  It turns out Martia is a plant, offered a pardon to make it look like Kirk and McCoy were killed attempting escape, and the prison warden arrives with his men and disintegrates Martia for her trouble.  Before the warden can reveal who wants them dead, Kirk and McCoy are beamed to safety aboard the Enterprise.  Scotty finds the missing uniforms stained by Klingon blood, and the bodies of the two assassins are discovered:  two racist, low-ranking crewmembers we saw being berated by Valeris earlier, phaser-stunned to the head at close range.  Kirk tries a gambit of broadcasting a bluff over the ship’s intercom indicating that the two assassins are alive in sickbay and ready to give statements, and when someone arrives to finish the job, it turns out to be Valeris herself.  Valeris arranged for Kirk’s log to be used at his trial, and reprogrammed the computers to suggest the Enterprise had fired the torpedoes.  Spock is angrier than we have ever seen him at his student’s betrayal, and when Valeris will not reveal her co-conspirators, he extracts the names from her mind via mind-meld:  General Chang, Starfleet Admiral Cartwright and the Romulan ambassador.

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Kirk contacts Sulu to learn the location of the rescheduled peace conference which is beginning today:  Camp Khitomer, near the Romulan border.  The two ships proceed to Khitomer at maximum warp, but as another assassin sets up his sniping post in the Khitomer auditorium, our heroes are waylaid in orbit by Chang and his cloaked Bird-of-Prey, which batters them invisibly until Uhura has the notion to use the gaseous planetary anomaly cataloguing equipment (there’s a mouthful!) to sniff out the Bird-of-Prey’s tailpipe.  Spock and McCoy reprogram a torpedo as the Enterprise‘s shields collapse and the assassin takes aim at the Federation’s President (Kurtwood Smith).  The torpedo is fired, Chang sees it coming and with a last quote of Hamlet (“To be… or not… to be”), his ship is destroyed by a barrage from both the Enterprise and the Excelsior.  Kirk beams down to the conference and jumps on the President to knock him out of the way of the fatal phaser shot.  Scotty stuns the assassin and knocks him from his perch to a plunging death, and Sulu arrests the fleeing Admiral Cartwright.  Kirk addresses Chancellor Azetbur and the assembly and gives a conciliatory speech in which he admits his faults and says that for some people, the future and change can be a very frightening thing.  Azetbur replies that he has restored her father’s faith.  Kirk says that she has restored his son’s.  The assembly – including a reluctant Klingon delegation – gives them a standing ovation.

In orbit again, Kirk says thank you and farewell to Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, and when a message from Starfleet comes in ordering the Enterprise home for decommissioning, Spock advises a cheeky reply of “go to hell.”  Kirk asks for a course set “second star to the right, and straight on until morning.”  In a shoutout to The Next Generation, his final log entry addresses a future crew who will continue the voyages to all the undiscovered countries and boldly go where no man… “where no one…” has gone before.  And in a final “sign off,” the signatures of the original cast of seven fly across the screen before the credits roll.

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As a finale to the adventures of the original Star Trek crew, and one that studio meddling almost kiboshed before it even began, The Undiscovered Country is an immensely satisfying experience, proving that the stumbles of the previous movie aside, there was still a fair chunk of dilithium left in the tank.  I wouldn’t even say it’s bittersweet, in that there is very little bitterness left once the last credit slides by.  As fans, we knew it couldn’t go on forever, and this is a near-perfect goodbye.  In a time when The Simpsons was airing Star Trek XII:  So Very Tired gags, this movie uses the advanced age of its cast as a starting point for its story, asking – even point-blank in one third-act scene between Kirk and Spock – if we are all fated to reach a point in our lives where we become so entrenched in our ways that we cannot adapt to an era that is starting to evolve beyond us, and if that constitutes a joke.  It would not have done to have these people running around acting like twenty-year-olds; not only would that be embarrassing, but a waste of a storytelling opportunity that is rarely presented in films that are so often geared largely toward the appetites of the young.  Nimoy, Meyer and Flinn aren’t afraid to talk about the challenges of growing old, and the accordingly assured cast is not afraid to play it either, framed by a whodunit, a morally ambiguous mystery that is unique among Star Trek films usually more straightforward in their narratives with the roles of good and evil clearly defined.  With Meyer’s hand in the script, we can again play our game of Spot the Literary Reference with nods to Sherlock Holmes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Peter Pan, as well as almost the entirety of the First Folio thanks to the verbose General Chang.  Meyer includes nods to recent history as well, evoking Hitler, Nixon and even Adlai Stevenson, and the screenplay sounds so much richer for it, making this a high-stakes, consequential drama populated by intelligent, educated characters pitted against one another by political point of view.

Talking of the characters, there seem to be so many of them even given the movie’s restricted budget, and this is arguably the deepest bench of guest cast in any Star Trek film before or since.  After being a glorified prop as a human ambassador in Star Trek V, David Warner gets a second try in the Trekverse as the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (named after Gorbachev) and brings great gravitas to a brief role; we wonder how this thoughtful liberal ever managed to achieve the premiership of the extremely conservative Klingon Empire, and lament his not seeing his last dream made real.  Rosana DeSoto as his daughter-turned-successor effectively brings the inspired yet weary qualities of a born statesperson to her role as well.  The lithe and lovely Iman injects a welcome dose of sinister sex appeal into the second act – even in yellow contact lenses – and Kurtwood Smith, who had just scared the hell out of everyone in Robocop, makes for a contemplative and believable Chief Executive of the Federation.  Kim Cattrall as Valeris does well in charting a transformation from a young idealist to an embittered cynic undone by the perversion of her idealism – and she wears the Vulcan ears rather beguilingly at that.  The biggest accolades do of course go to Christopher Plummer as the everything-dialed-up-to-11 Chang, who sinks his teeth into each Shakespearean tidbit, tears off the flesh and gnashes it into powdery bits, becoming the most grandly theatrical villain of the Star Trek canon.  Where Kirk recognizes his prejudices and refuses to let them interfere with his sense of morality, Chang is Kirk tipped over that fuzzy gray border, sticking to the hardest of lines even in the face of death.  Unlike Khan, Chang’s history doesn’t matter.  He just blows onto the screen and (nearly) blows everyone else off it.  There is also something patriotically amusing in watching the fate of the galaxy being played out between two legendary Canadian actors.

The movie is often described as one of Star Trek‘s darkest – it probably has the highest on-screen body count, the sets are cold and metallic and lit dimly, and Cliff Eidelman’s score begins with an ominous main title theme reminiscent of Holst’s Mars movement from The Planets and rumbles about the bass side of the scale for most of the running time.  The shift in comportment of our main family of characters is a bit jarring, too.  We’ve seen them in conflict with the Klingons before, but we’ve never seen them this embittered:  you’ll recall Kirk tried to help pull Kruge up from the collapsing cliff on Genesis even after he’d ordered the death of Kirk’s son.  Here, we get Klingons compared to animals and derided for their smell, and even lovable old Scotty casually refers to Azetbur as a bitch.  It’s difficult given those examples not to agree with the late Gene Roddenberry’s objections to the tone of the screenplay.  But confronting one’s prejudices is always uncomfortable, and recognizing the swaths of ugliness present in otherwise beautiful and beloved characters is a challenge to ourselves, the audience, to dislodge our own asses from the well-shaped groove of stereotypes that we may hold regarding some of our fellow human beings.  Roddenberry harbored a hope that in the future we would evolve beyond our pettiness, and seeing his aspirational creations fall back into those hated patterns must have represented an infuriating triumph of everything he had fought against during his years of battling with the studio to protect what remained of his vision.  However, in that Star Trek VI shows Captain Kirk learning to grow beyond hatred of even his most reliable enemy, it stands as a tribute to what Roddenberry wanted for humanity, and what he wanted Star Trek to be.  It is a more than fitting farewell to both the original cast and the man who first brought them together.

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In summary:  Points for the unique mystery aspects of the story, the amazing guest cast (even Christian Slater’s cameo is fun!) and a tremendously exciting, edge-of-your-seat finale coupled with a poignant and hopeful goodbye.  Points against:  the obvious budget-saving reuse of too many Next Generation sets (the President’s office is just Ten-Forward with some drapes), the fairly obvious reveal of the lone new character on the bridge as the traitor.  But we digress, the movie is still one of the best of the bunch.

Next time:  Captain Kirk passes the baton to Captain Picard and then has a bridge dropped on him as The Next Generation makes an awkward transition from small screen to big.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

Gather ye rosebuds – How I *almost* wrote for Star Trek

Close, but not quite…

A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself.  I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence.  This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.

We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame.  I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting.  The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could.  Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them.  For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia.  Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?).  Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.

Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop.  If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened.  Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents.  Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig.  When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy.  Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it.  Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way.  It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them.  You had the same chance as everybody else.

Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work.  I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing.  My premise?  It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second.  Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian.  What if this person came to the station?  And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship?  What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station?  Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally.  I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax.  Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life.  (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.)  Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller.  Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless.  I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue.  And wait.

Fast forward to February 1994.  I’m home from my first year of university on reading week.  My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures.  It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting.  For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.

They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well.  They wanted to hear more.  A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant.  She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching.  I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles.  After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone.  It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas.  Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I.  Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension.  Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting.  Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one.  Gulp.

A month fades away.  I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door.  The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites.  Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.

Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises.  The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath.  In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it.  The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice.  The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world.  What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists?  And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11?  Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians.  He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen.  A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor.  Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.

Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective.  Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like.  What else ya got?

I move on to my next story.  I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again.  I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down.  You are supposed to think nothing of it.  But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death.  His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.

Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either.  He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested.  The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation.  Next.

I re-pitch the valedictorian story.  I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element.  But it’s still a no-go.  Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him.  (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)

With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it.  It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part.  Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life.  I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.

Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches.  He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19.  He also invites me back to pitch again.  Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here.  I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.”  We exchange goodbyes and I hang up.  Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable.  It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny.  And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more.  I had my “in.”

You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.”  As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again.  Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge.  Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind.  I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly.  Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it.  Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out.  I made excuses.  I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew.  Perhaps.  For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try.  So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips.  DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history.  And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.

As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer.  Carpe occasio.  That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone.  Don’t chicken out of life.  The perfect time never comes.  And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.  So send that book in.  Get your blog going.  Publish that article.  Submit your screenplay.  And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off.  You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.

What are you waiting for?