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Star Trek: Insurrection proves the curse is true.

By Zak Weisfeld

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  This is not a joke. What do you call four television series (five if you count the Saturday morning cartoon), 11 movies (counting IMAX and Vegas virtual reality), six television movies, nine video games, one board game, hundreds of book titles, and enough tchochkes, knickknacks, doodads, and collectibles to blot out the sun at noon? The answer is: a very, very successful franchise.

The answer is, also, well beside the point. Star Trek, in its first barrel-chested and toupeéd Kirkian incarnation, went off the air the year I was born—and for good reason. Gene Rodenberry's vision of a V-necked and mod-boot-clad future was ridiculous. The devout claimed the series was ahead of its time when, in fact, quite the opposite was true—mini-skirts and mod-boots aside. For all its real-world political analogies, Captain Kirk's starship Enterprise cruised a galaxy that felt much more like the '50s than the tumultuous '60s.

Then, something incredible happened—Star Trek came back. It succeeded in re-runs for the same reason it failed in production: Star Trek was an anchor. It was a two-fisted, hopeful, militaristic future filled with nubile aliens; a place where one man could make a difference and there wasn't a hippie, an oil embargo, or a Constitutional crisis in sight.

After burbling in the cult of syndication for a couple of decades, and a successful voyage into feature film, Star Trek was reborn into its true medium—television. The Next Generation was my Star Trek.

Post-Cold War, post-free love, the Enterprise was now a warp speed UN with an onboard shrink in a tight-fitting jump suit (some things never change). The success of the new series was built on its captain, Jean-Luc Picard. Stern, bald, repressed (but secretly an ass-kicker on a galactic scale), and with diction that could split diamonds—Jean-Luc was the geek ideal.

After seven seasons, like Star Trek before it, The Next Generation passed out of the galaxy of television and into the newly explored region of theatrically released films. The transition was a difficult one.

It was with great embarrassment that I saw the elegant, eloquent Jean-Luc paired with the bloated, self-parodying Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Luckily, Jean-Luc's steely resolve, and paycheck, was such that he was ready for his next adventure—this time against his arch-enemy, the Borg.

For its latest trip to the theaters, the merry crew of the starship Enterprise are on a mission that harks back to the old Trek of contemporary political analogies. But, like much of contemporary global politics, the story is ethically complicated and its conclusion is unsatisfying. At the same time, like much of contemporary political analogy, the allusions are dubious and the offered solutions are facile.

In Star Trek: Insurrection, the Enterprise goes to retrieve a Commander Data run amok on an alien world. While there, Jean-Luc discovers a plot to relocate a peaceful village to another world, in order to take advantage of the planet's tremendous natural resources. Even worse, the beleaguered Federation of Planets is actually a party to the plan, which puts them in league with an unpleasant group of allies, the Son'a.

As it turns out, however, there's more to the native Baku than meets the eye. Though they appear to be simple farmers, they are actually a very advanced race that has chosen to abandon technology and live in what can only be described as the ultimate, northern California, late-'90s, yuppie utopia—they farm, they do handcrafts, they are white, good looking, peaceful, and monstrously happy.

In contrast, the Son'a are clearly from Los Angeles—venal, rapacious, and well-armed. They are also addicted to techno-music and face-lifts administered by hot alien babes. By skin tone alone it is obvious who the bad guys are.

Few of you will be surprised to hear that Jean-Luc and company carry the day with teamwork, guts, and sheer righteousness. But should they have bothered? As a general rule it is bad to displace people just because they have what you want. On the other hand, didn't Spock teach us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?

Which is a question that ought to be plaguing long-time Star Trek guru Michael Piller. Do we still need Star Trek—at least as a motion picture franchise? Or is it just that Paramount can't bear to part with it?

Insurrection, like all the odd-numbered Star Trek movie sequels before it, brings out all of the series' cinematic weaknesses. The ugly truth of the matter is that Trek, and especially The Next Generation, doesn't play all that well on the big screen. On television the best moments of The Next Generation were small and thoughtful. They came from its continual exploration of the characters' interrelationships, its Twilight Zone-worthy concepts, and the riveting small-screen presence of Jean-Luc Picard.

Spread out across the vastness of the silver screen, and without commercials during which to kibitz, Star Trek: Insurrection seems slow-paced and hokey. At the same time, the bonds between the characters that took seven years to build are barely touched on. While a light nod is given to the old flame between Riker and Troy, the romantic tension between Jean-Luc and Beverly Crusher isn't even hinted at. Instead Bev just stands by while Jean-Luc works his Gallic charms on an organic cotton-clad Baku woman.

Unlike the first Star Trek, The Next Generation was never about galactic swashbuckling—it was a soap opera with occasional stellar combat. By treating The Next Generation as though it were just another sci-fi action property, the overlords at Paramount are making a critical mistake. One that is in danger of stripping Star Trek of its mission, and its core fans—one that will leave it lost in space.


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