Star Trek: Insurrection, the Next Generation movie that came between series high First Contact and inauspicious exit Nemesis, has long been considered lost to the Star Trek numbers curse. The theory is simple: odd-numbered Trek films aren’t very good; even-numbered Trek films are much better. The capstone film, Nemesis, defied the pattern, and so, the theory goes, the Trek movie universe imploded after its release.
Insurrection, however, does not fit this system so neatly. It is good, clean, Star Trek fun. It’s also the latest in Paramount’s sequential series of Collector’s Edition DVDs of the Trek films, two-disc expansions of the original one-disc editions from the late ’90s. Insurrection traffics in the sort of moral dilemma that defines the series. A race called the Ba’ku live on a sort of planetary fountain of youth; another race, the dying Son’a, wants to relocate them, and Starfleet backs this effort. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew are ordered to stand down, but Picard resists, perhaps in a fit of fountain-inspired rebellion, or perhaps compelled by the comely, century-old Anij (Donna Murphy). The extended skirmish between the Sonía and the Enterprise crew has the simplicity and zippiness of an old western.
A new DVD edition seems like a perfect time to defend this film, one of the best of the big-screen Star Trek projects. Unfortunately, DVD packages will rarely admit that a project was ever perceived as disappointing or a failure, leaving no room for an intelligent defense. It’s not that the cheery confidence of the DVD’s featurettes and other extras is misplaced, but it is superficial.
This DVD does include one innovation, with mixed results. Like some of the other Trek DVDs, Insurrection utilizes a visual “trivia track,” which is essentially a less sly version of VH1’s old Pop-Up Video show: behind-the-scenes information pops up onscreen as you watch the film. It’s an appealing alternative to the typical audio commentary tracks, which often have little or no connection to what we’re watching and necessarily muffle dialogue and music. But if the unobtrusive trivia track is theoretically a great idea, the one assembled for Insurrection (as for other Trek discs) is a bit too fannish and chirpy, with lots of observations about which effects were computer-generated, connections to other Trek films and episodes, and supporting actors’ credits in other movies. The most playful aspects of the trivia track are the light jabs at Star Trek continuity, as track authors Michael and Denise Okuda theorizes about why, for example, so many screens on various ships are equipped with easy-to-follow animated graphics.
While the track is relentlessly positive, it is not complemented by an audio commentary from director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays Riker). Instead, there is a retrospective “Director’s Notebook” featurette, in which Frakes looks back on the process of making the film. At the outset, he candidly admits, “The story [in Insurrection] wasn’t as strong as First Contact,” though his directing is improved. After that, though, he concentrates on the chumminess of the cast and the appeal of the Star Trek franchise in general, omitting discussion of Insurrection in particular.
This means the film is left without a defender of its particulars. I volunteer. My experience with Star Trek has been hit or miss, but Insurrection strikes the correct balance of in-jokes for the fans and amiable space adventure for the newbies. The cast is sprightly, taking to the youth-giving radiation with gusto. Picard shakes off his Starfleet uniform; android Data implores everyone to “lock and load” before a confrontation. Even Riker, never a particularly interesting character in the other films, shaves off his beard and shifts the Enterprise to ramming speed! The Star Trek crew has never been closer to an old-fashioned western (even in the holodeck), essentially acting as a righteous, town-defending posse.
This PG-cowboy attitude — driven by “aggressive tendencies,” as Data puts it — is infectious, and an effective counterpoint to the philosophizing (do the needs of the universe justify an extermination of the Ba’ku?). The DVD doesn’t come out and say it, but Insurrection is how Star Trek was meant to be seen: thoughtful, goofy, and rousing. It defies the numbers curse with Picardian stubbornness.