Star Trek Insurrection: How Michael Piller Wrote it

Michael Piller, on the set of Star Trek

Michael Piller, on the set of Star Trek

Today I read a book which was never officially published: Michael Piller’s Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft, the story of how he wrote the underrated yet still disappointing film Star Trek: Insurrection. Though freely available online, at its time of writing (1999) Fade In was apparently ‘suppressed by Paramount’ (TrekCore’s words) and was only released on the Internet because it never found a publisher even after the studio lost interest in it. For his part, Piller considered the book ‘his last great gift to the fans and to aspiring writers everywhere’.

Piller, who died in 2005, wrote some of the best episodes of modern Star Trek  (‘Booby Trap’, ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, ‘Emissary’) as well as un-credited rewrites – in his role as Executive Producer – on scores more. Fade In so is much like Russell T. Davis’s volume about his work on Doctor Who, The Writer’s Tale. In it Piller traces his friendship with post-Roddenberry Trek guardian Rick Berman, his early days on Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as the inspiration for and the evolution of the ninth Star Trek feature. I won’t do a full review of the book (other to say it’s generous, informative, and worth reading in its entirety), but I do want to quote here from those sections which I found most interesting:

  • When Piller took over as head writer, ‘the entire writing staff of Star Trek: The Next Generation was so frustrated and angry with Gene Roddenberry they were counting the days before their contracts expired (and indeed every one of them left at season’s end.) He wouldn’t let them out of the box and they were suffocating.’ Yet, as Piller progressed, he ‘began to learn how Roddenberry’s Box forced us as writers to come up with new and interesting ways to tell stories instead of falling back into easier, familiar devices.’
  • Rick Berman’s first idea for Insurrection was to do a Trek version of The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • On the other hand, Piller’s original intention with the movie was to to emulate the warm and funny Star Trek: The Voyage Home’; a ‘Heart of Lightness’ after the darker material of Star Trek: First Contact. Says Piller, ‘I wanted to write a film that was uplifting and optimistic in the Roddenberry tradition. I wanted to explore the intellectual, moral leadership that I felt set Picard apart from other heroes. I wanted to show how this crew is a family that love and support one another.’
  • Piller stresses how hestarted out with a vision of man standing alone on a mountainside holding a phaser rifle, defending a weak and helpless people against two of the most powerful forces in galaxy. A true mythic hero against impossible odds. That’s not quite how it turned out […] I keep thinking back to how the script might have changed if we had faded in to find Picard weary from two years of war, first with the Borg and now with the Dominion, having lost many crew members fighting to protect the ideals of the Federation. Now, he discovers his own command is about to sacrifice those very ideals to steal the Ba’ku planet. In that scenario, the peaceful world would have provided an immediate contrast to Picard’s dark days of war.’
  • Though only roughly outlined, his first treatment for the story might – in my opinion anyway – have made an excellent film. The short version:We open at Starfleet Academy in Picard’s youth, establishing Picard as a curly-haired, high-spirited cadet. We give him a best friend, another cadet who is as close to Picard as any man has ever been and ever will be. Flash forward to the present day and find adult Picard being given a mission by Starfleet Command. His old friend is now a wanted man — he’s been attacking ships in an unexplored region of space and no one knows why. Picard has to track him down and if necessary, kill him […] We ultimately learn that this is a Fountain of Youth and somebody is trying to steal it from the people who live there. Picard’s friend has been defending the natives on the planet.’ It had Boothby the gardener in it. I would have watched that.
  • This version also had a promising space battle between the Enterprise and Romulan ships in the skies over a Federation colony, two apparently epic bat’telh fights between Worf and an antagonistic Romulan (modeled on Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and Picard defending the ideals of the Federation on the floor of the Federation Council itself, an ending which left the future of his command, as well as that of his crew, somewhat unresolved.
  • The movie’s subtitle went through many revisions: Stardust, Regeneration, Prime Directive, The Betrayal, Breach of Promise, Dereliction of Duty, The Dishonor, High Treason, The Enemy Within, The Resignation, Apostasy (!), Where Time Stands Still, Forever, Beyond Paradise, Revolution, Sacred Honor (the last two words of the Declaration of Independence),and others.
  • Rick Bermanwould often have cottage cheese and fruit. He had a continuing struggle with his weight, the only sign I ever saw of the overwhelming stress from producing two TV series and a feature film simultaneously.’
  • Piller recommends every writer read Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis. ‘In the book, Gallwey suggests that within every player, there’s a self (#1) that seems to give instructions and make judgments (“Dammit, you idiot, keep your eye on the ball,”) and another self (#2) that seems to perform the action. The book shows you ways to get self#1 to give up control and trust self#2 to perform successfully. It’s the difference between making it happen and letting it happen. The two selves also exist in the act of writing. The worst thing a writer can do is show his hand.’
  • Brent Spiner ‘was not as comfortable with me,’ Piller admits. ‘He was extremely polite about it but finally after discussing ideas for the film over lunch, he leaned forward and said, “I’m kind of worried that you don’t know how to write my character.” […] Brent could only judge my contribution to the series based on scripts he read that had my name on the title page as the writer. He said he’d never seen my name on any of the scripts that featured Data and he was absolutely right. But he didn’t know how much rewriting that head writers do without credit. […] I had written some of Data’s most memorable scenes, but Brent never knew it.’
  • Veteran Trek writer and producer Ira Steven Behr never takes off his sunglasses. Unless he doesn’t like your script.
  • Legendary Trek Production Designer Herman Zimmerman always wanted to be an actor. He even read for the part of The Doctor when Star Trek: Voyager was in the casting phase.
  • ‘I’m no stranger to failure,’ Piller admits. ‘No writer is. In fact, there’s something perversely comforting about failure. Success is the aberration. We don’t trust it. Because we know our next failure can’t be far behind.’
  • Once Piller turned in the script, ‘Don Granger [Paramount Executive Vice President of Production] called to say he thought it had the best character work in a Star Trek feature script since the whale movie and a deep humanistic quality in the best Roddenberry tradition. Michelle Manning told Rick that she’d never connected emotionally to any of the Star Trek storylines, but she loved this one. John Goldwyn particularly liked the relationship between Data and the alien boy. Everyone’s favorite scene seemed to be the one in which Geordi saw his first sunrise.’
  • The cat among the pigeons then was Patrick Stewart. His response to this first stab at the script was that ‘it has no surprises. It has no scale. It has little humor. And what it has is clichéd and tired. It has no romance. It is not sexy. It breaks no new ground. It under-uses our cast. It has little fun. It is dull. I think what dismays me most about the story is the dredging up of the Romulans – a race already unexciting in TNG – as the bad guys. It is revisionist and backward looking in a most disappointing way. After the Borg – the Romulans? Oh, my’. Rewrites continued. The Romulans were dropped.
  • The shuttle dogfight early in the picture owes its elaborate nature to notes from Granger and the other executives (as does “The Riker Maneuver”).
  • The producers also asked if Piller wouldconsider reducing Barclay’s role and filling this void with Beverly, Worf, or a new character. Barclay had a great cameo in First Contact, but his popularity is questionable’ (Barclay was eventually cut altogether). They also wanted a role created for Tom Hanks.
  • ‘At the same time the studio was telling us we needed more action to make the picture better, they were also telling us we needed to lose action to meet the budget.’
  • After reading one re-write of the script, Rick Berman ‘went home and told his wife, “I think Michael’s starting to lose it. He wrote a scene today in which a llama pees on Beverly Crusher”.’ Needless to say, that scene didn’t stay in the picture.
  • The widely held perception of Insurrection as ‘an extended episode of the series’ seems to have originated with Patrick Stewart’s thoughts on the script during its latter drafts. As did the film’s Gilbert and Sullivan sequence, with the great Shakespearian actor feeling that a series of King Lear references weren’t working.
  • However there was one note from Stewart which flummoxed Pillar and his Fountain of Youth storyline: ‘Please,’ the actor said, ‘don’t let’s start growing hair on Picard’s head. Something else, eh?’
  • That said, Stewart (along with the other actors) was very pleased with the final script. The only exception was Brent Spiner, who continued to have ‘reservations’.
  • Almost as soon as a draft of the script leaked on the Internet, Pillar received a letter ‘from an unhappy librarian who condemned me for perpetuating a negative stereotype of librarians’ (though the Enterprise librarian eventually ended up cut from the film entirely).

Towards the end of Fade In (which includes long extracts from various versions of the script), Piller does well to contextualize the reviews, good and bad, within the creative process which led to those aspects of the film praised and panned by the critics. His final verdict on the film? ‘The true villain in the picture is the Federation leadership, but as written, their crimes are mostly philosophical. That leaves the Son’a, whom I described in dialogue as “petty thugs”, to provide the entire threat. I think the film might have had more scope if I’d pitted Starfleet forces as well as Son’a against Picard and crew.’ He ends Fade In by criticizing the ‘new kind of action writing in Hollywood that I simply don’t know how to do. It begins – even before a word is put down on paper – with identifying “set pieces”, big self-contained action moments that are thrilling and memorable, and then finding some way to string all your set pieces into a coherent narrative.’ Sounds exactly like how John Spaihts pitched Prometheus.

The only suggestion I give to young writers,’ Piller says, ‘is to listen to the universe. The ideas are all around you – in newspapers and magazines, television, stories people tell you and most often in your very own life experiences. Sooner or later, something will resonate.’

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7 Responses to Star Trek Insurrection: How Michael Piller Wrote it

  1. Danny says:

    love this write-up

  2. Great article, about an under-rated talent. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I remember this film principally for the fact that Frakes directed it. Also for nicely pre-empting audience reservations – when Picard’s love interest nearly drowns, he expresses astonishment at how she’s never learnt to swim (she’s over three hundred years old, appearances notwithstanding).

    • The film’s obvious weaknesses aside, I think Frakes does a great job in the director’s chair here. A definite step-up from his already accomplished work on First Contact (though that remains my favourite TNG era film).

  4. Pingback: Twelve Thoughts on The World’s End | illusory promise

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