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Star Trek: Insurrection

Review by Alexei Kurupatin

Picard: Patrick Stewart
Riker: Jonathan Frakes
Data: Brent Spiner
LaForge: LeVar Burton
Worf: Michael Dorn

Crusher: Gates McFadden
Troi: Marina Sirtis
Ru'afo: F. Murray Abraham
Anij: Donna Murphy
Adm. Dougherty: Anthony Zerbe

My father didn't like most science fiction - though, strangely, it was he that introduced us to Star Wars - so it wasn't until going off to college that I got the chance to watch the Star Trek series: the original, Next Generation, DS9 or Voyager. But I certainly read enough; Kirk, Spock and Bones were happy companions of a youth spent ruining my eyesight. Later I came to love Picard, Riker, Data, Geordie and Worf - though not Troi or Wesley - even more than the original cast.

It wasn't until only a few years ago that someone pointed out what a socialist "utopia" Gene Roddenberry's vision is. Once pointed out, though, it becomes obvious in the details. A militarized "United Nations" - oops, that's "United Federation" - runs the galaxy. Starfleet officers are frequently heard saying "the human race has moved beyond monetary considerations as motivation." The Ferengi, the only class of people who seems to know anything about supply and demand, are painted first as villains, then later as comic relief. Other examples of this dystopia abound.

Still, though, I loved it...even while trying to figure out the hidden subtext in each episode, as Paramount slipped in their message, sometimes subtly, sometimes ham-handed.

One thing that frequently disgruntled me about the Star Trek universe was the Prime Directive. While seeming very nice on the surface, Starfleet captains were constantly interpreting Directive Number One to mean that they couldn't take the course of action that seemed most obvious, logical and humane. For instance, you can't rescue a pre-warp society from certain destruction because it will "interrupt the natural course of their evolution." Egad, people...they're all about to die! Bedamned with the natural course of evolution!

I found the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise - number IX - to be interesting not so much because of the subject matter, but because of the reaction to it from certain quarters.

Star Trek: Insurrection is a sharply drawn morality play. The lines of reality and circumstance are portrayed much more distinctly than they ever are in real life. Real life allows for half-way solutions and ambiguous rights. Only in fiction and philosophy mid-terms are situations forced to produce a moral conflict.

In a region of space called the Briar Patch there is a planet with only 600 inhabitants, the peaceful, neo-Luddite Ba'ku. "Metaphasic radiation" emanating from the orbiting rings make the planet a virtual Fountain of Youth. While it would be possible to populate other regions of the planet, leaving the Ba'ku entirely alone, the Federation Council decides it wants the whole pie. A race of people called the Son'a have shown them how to extract the relevant elements from the planet's rings, thus making this perpetual youth available to the whole Federation. The catch? Said extraction will make the planet unlivable.

The solution that the Federation Council approves is to forcibly relocate the Ba'ku to another, identical planet through use of a "holoship", a ship that is one large holodeck, thus allowing the Ba'ku to be transported without their knowledge. (One assumes that they will notice when they start dying, however.) Please note, even in Gene Roddenberry's utopia, governments do not stick to their first principles when it is politically expedient to break them. Or rather, they apply the Prime Directive selectively: because they are a pre-warp society, they cannot reveal themselves to the Ba'ku, and ask them for their participation. Instead, they just steal their planet from them.

Late to the party comes Jean-Luc Picard, riding his white horse to save the day. And he does, of course, through the necessity of civil disobedience, or whatever the equivalent term would be for military personnel. Picard is willing to risk court martial and loss of his command to bring publicity to the injustice about to be visited upon the Ba'ku.

What I found particularly amusing was the response of both participants and critics of this movie: they agreed with the decision of the Federation Council, that the greatest good for the greatest number was paramount. (Forgetting the territory already covered in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock.) Noted film critic Roger Ebert - a regular Friday read for me - started his review with this sentence:

"A funny thing happened to me on the way to writing this review of ``Star Trek: Insurrection''-- I discovered that several of the key filmmakers disagree with the film's plot premise."

And later:

Above these practical questions looms a larger philosophical one. Wouldn't it be right to sacrifice the lifestyles of 600 Ba'ku in order to save billions?

``I think maybe I would,'' said Jonathan Frakes, the film's director and co-star, when I asked him that question after the movie's press screening.

``You've got to be flexible,'' Stewart said. ``If it had been left in the hands of Picard, some solution could have been found.''

``Absolutely!'' Spiner said. ``I think I raised that question more than once.''

``I had to be very narrowminded to serve the character,'' Murphy confessed.

Hmm. You have to be narrowminded to respect property rights and self-determination? You have to be narrow-minded to stick by your founding principles, even when it's uncomfortable?

So much for this high-minded socialist utopia.

© Alexei Kurupatin 1998.

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22 November, 1998