Continuing from where we left off yesterday, Michael Piller spent a few weeks mulling over ideas for the ninth Star Trek film. He and producer Rick Berman agreed that since the previous film First Contact had been so dark and featured an incredibly formidable villain in the Borg, it would probably be best to go in another direction.
They began with the idea of finding a public domain story to adapt into the Trek universe. Then, one morning Piller was making his daily application of Rogaine when it hit him that a fountain of youth story might be the right way to go. Wedding it to an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, he pitched an idea that had Picard sent on a mission to track down an old friend who has seemingly gone rogue. When he discovers his friend's hiding place, he's shocked to find the man looking as young as he did at the Academy.
It soon becomes evident that this friend is actually defending the natives of that planet, and as the story evolved, it turned into a battle of principles. The planet is to be ceeded to the Romulans via a treaty and Picard learns there's much more to this mission than his superiors have told him. The planet is almost entirely composed a rare mineral that the Federation desperately needs. It also has regenerative qualities that gradually make anyone on the planet younger. Starfleet knows that and struck a deal with the Romulans - we'll give you the planet, you relocate the people, we share the ore.
Picard, recognizing this as an end run around Federation principles and a trick to get the Romulans to do the dirty work for them, resigns in disgust and joins his friend on the planet. Getting younger and younger until he reaches the age of 25 he defends the planet against the Romulans, eventually defeating them and exposing the matter to the public.
Sounds exciting, no?
The problem is that Berman hated it, and he had strong words for Piller: "Picard’s an old man who doesn’t get to buckle his swash until the planet makes him young again. But he’s our hero. When the movie’s over and he’s back to normal again, he needs to be a vital man of action. Patrick will hate this. He’ll never do it... You’re telling our star he’s an old man!”
Back to the drawing board. Piller makes changes. The old Academy friend is replaced by Data, and at one point Picard is forced to kill a malfunctioning Data to stop him, only to later realize that Data was defending the natives from a worse attack. The fountain of youth idea is discarded and we're left with a plot not terribly dissimilar from Avatar, with Picard making a stand to protect natives from those who want to destroy their planet in order to harvest an ore.
Piller's treatment - reprinted in full in the book - reads well. It's exciting and full of political intrigue. It also offers a heavy amount of action and seems to give Picard a compelling moral dilemma and an interesting conflict when he turns his back on Starfleet and the crew. Obviously he's exonerated in the end, but it's a hard-fought victory.
The treatment goes to the Paramount execs. They love it, including Sherry Lansing, then-chairman of Paramount Pictures. Smooth-sailing, right? Wrong.
But there was one more voice at the studio to be heard from and it belonged to Jonathan Dolgen, Chairman of Viacom Entertainment Group, the chief operating officer of the company. As a rule, Dolgen doesn’t involve himself in creative decisions. But he breaks that rule for Star Trek. And it’s not (just) the money. He happens to be a huge fan. Dare I say, a Trekker?
He thought the idea of people being exploited for natural resources was old hat and that Picard needed a bigger challenge. He didn’t feel there was enough action for Picard in space. He complained the story had too much internal Star Trek intellectualism and thought the countervailing argument by the Federation conspirators made a great deal of sense. Picard might be perceived as being on the wrong side of the issue.
Rick and I were discussing how to respond to the Dolgen notes when we received a call from Australia. We’d also sent a copy of the story to Patrick Stewart.
Patrick hated the story even more than Jonathan Dolgen. (p. 95-96)
Stewart's correspondence with the producers is reproduced in full in the book. He hates virtually everything about the idea. Most of all, he feels it retreads a lot of ideas they'd done before on the series. Proving that the job is more than a paycheck to him, he actually cites several specific episodes by name, as deftly as any hard-core Trekkie would.
Piller tries to argue his case and eventually sees that the only way to accommodate Patrick's notes, salvage their hard work and most importantly - get this film in theatres by its predetermined release date - is by going back to the fountain of youth idea. When Berman calls Stewart, he barely gets that pitch out before Patrick enthusiastically approves of the idea.
I think that's where I'll leave this, but there's much more to this story in the book. After Piller completes his first draft we see the notes sent to him by the studio and it's an intriguing look at how they analyze the script. And again, there's a surprising knowledge of Trek lore in their suggestions and concerns. They're not out to make a quick buck, they're looking to protect the integrity of the francise and its mythology. Most interestingly of all, they hit on virtually every failing that eventually makes the final film a less than satisfying experience.
Why don't all those problems get solved if they were identified? Short answer - not enough time, not enough money.
There are also reproductions of memos sent from actor Brent Spiner, whose nitpicking of such details also reads like it could have come from an online Trek fan debate:
- Why do the Ba’ku look twelve?
- Do they procreate?
- Are there any real children?
- Why do our crew’s appearances change “subtly” but their behaviors change “drastically”?
- And if our people act like children, how are the Ba’ku “children” acting like adults?
- The Ba’ku don’t behave like children. Why do our people’s behavior change?
- Does the ore make people younger or just appear younger? Or does it make them behave younger?
- Do the Son’i reproduce?
- How old are they?
- Why are they coming back now? Did they take some ore with them and are just now running out?
- Why don’t they just ask their relatives for some more ore?
- Why doesn’t anyone on the Federation Council say this plan is a violation of the Prime Directive?
- Does the Federation know the Ba’ku and the Son’i are related?
- Why aren’t the Federation leaders punished at the end?
In other words, he gives Piller all the notes he's hoping not to get. But they're all insanely logical questions and reasonable ones under the premise.
How does Piller answer all of these notes? In the words of a Time-Life commercial from my youth: "Read the book." Piller has left not just Trek fans, but aspiring screenwriters everywhere a great legacy in Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection.
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