Warp Factor Trek

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The ninth Star Trek film, eventually titled “Star Trek: Insurrection“, was to be Michael Piller’s first feature film assignment (and, sadly, his only one). When Rick Berman first approached him about writing the film, Piller almost said “no,” knowing how daunting it could be writing a Star Trek film that would appeal to the masses. Nevertheless, he did accept, setting out on a long and arduous but rewarding journey of working on the film.

The journey began with a simple question: what would the film be about? Inspiration struck when Piller applied his daily dose of Rogaine one morning and realized he was essentially tossing pennies into the fountain of youth, like many of us do. He then realized it had been a while since someone had done a fountain of youth story. This got him thinking about the history of exploration and the tragedies that often occurred in the settling of the New World. Now, he had something to write about; he had a theme.

Next, Piller went to face the blank page and flesh out a story treatment he hoped would be worthy of the theme in his head and the emotional content it had stirred within him. After completing the first rough treatment of what he had thus far called “Star Trek: Stardust“, Piller felt he had indeed successfully communicated his ideas and emotions through this initial version of the story.

Stardust told the tale of Captain Picard tracking an old Academy friend of his, named “Duffy”, to a planet in an unexplored region of space known as “The Briar Patch”, where Duffy had apparently “gone native” and had his youth restored to where he was the same age he had been while at the Academy. The Romulans, led by a half-Romulan/half-Klingon named “Joss” (described as “a 24th Century Red Baron”), had secured mining rights to this planet and Picard was incensed to learn the Federation was turning a blind eye to this, seemingly out of necessity due to the heavy losses in the Dominion War. Picard and company joined Duffy in his cause, took out Joss and the villainous Romulans, and saved the day for the natives. Meanwhile, Picard kept growing increasingly younger, first to having hair again, and then so young that an actor other than Patrick Stewart would be needed to play him. After the conflict, Picard and Duffy – having aged back to their normal ages after leaving the Briar Patch – returned to Earth. There, Picard gave an impassioned speech about the atrocity of forced relocation, even giving the Federation President (who was Vulcan) a piece of his mind.

This initial treatment certainly had something in the way of spectacle and seemingly had everything it needed: gripping action, a strong theme, and enough moments for all the characters to shine. The lead villain, Joss, seemed interesting too.

However, being the huge franchise that Trek had become by this time, many people had input into how this film should be developed. Shortly after Piller wrote his first-draft treatment for the film, the first bump in the road came. Rick Berman told Piller, “We can’t film this! How do you think Patrick will feel about it? You’re telling our star he’s an old man! And Duffy is too instrumental to the story when it should be about one of the crew. And get rid of the fountain of youth stuff.

Undaunted, Piller revised the treatment to the new specifications his producer had laid out, writing a new treatment (still under the working titleStardust”) where the guy who had ‘gone native,’ and whom Picard found on the planet, was Data. With the focus now solely on the forced relocation theme, Piller had a new treatment ready within a month that put Picard and company in a situation where Starfleet had sent them to track down and stop Data (who had been cast in the role similar to Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness)… and were forced to kill him. Data was ultimately restored back to life, and Joss and the Romulans were still the villains, but Picard and the others were seemingly outfought until rescued, at the end, by civilians. Thus, it’s the people of the Federation that saved the day, a notion that seemed to fit with Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of humanity’s future.

This time, Berman was quite pleased with what Piller had written, and so were many of Paramount Studios’ department heads.

But then, the next bump. Viacom’s Chief Operating Officer, Jonathan Dolgen, himself a Star Trek fan, didn’t like it. Although Berman and Piller took his notes to heart, they decided to wait and see what Patrick Stewart said. Stewart hated it even more than Dolgen did!

Piller discussed, dissected, and revised the story to new specifications he hoped would make everyone happy. The fountain of youth aspect was brought back (ironically, at Patrick Stewart’s request), and Piller wrote another draft by the next month… only to have concerns again expressed, this time by Brent Spiner and Ira Steven Behr! Because Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in its last season and Behr was trying to bring the Dominion War to a close, any tie-ins between this film and that show were axed.

Piller with the film’s director, Jonathan Frakes (CBS-Paramount)

Piller later had to refine the Insurrection script in order to accommodate the film’s budget, which was fifty-eight million US dollars. Evidently, some of this was spent on the film’s all-digital effects (the first Star Trek film to rely exclusively on CGI) while some was spent on outdoor location shooting. The story that was eventually filmed was way off from what Piller had initially thought up.

With a theatrical poster reminiscent of some of the previous Star Trek movie posters, Star Trek: Insurrection was eventually released on 11 December 1998. At that point, the rough road of the film’s origins finally reached its destination.

For more information about the writing and development of the film Star Trek: Insurrection, please see the book Fade In: The Making of Star Trek – Insurrection, written by Michael Piller, available from Amazon.com and directly from michaelpiller.net.

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