Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fade In: Michael Piller's unpublished account of Star Trek Insurrection

From the book:

I wish I could have been there back in 1987 when Gene Roddenberry went to the studio and announced he’d found the perfect actor to play the new Star Trek captain -- a middle-aged, bald Englishman.

If the show had been scheduled on CBS, NBC or ABC, Patrick Stewart would never have been Picard. Give us another Shatner, they would have said. Youthful, bold, swashbuckling. Young demographics! But Star Trek: The Next Generation was to be syndicated, that is, sold on a station by station basis. What that meant was that Paramount could mount the show any way they wanted to and if they wanted to cast a middle-aged, bald, Englishman, so be it.

Personally, I feel he missed a perfect opportunity to replace "so be it" with "make it so," but that's just me. Here's the complete .pdf. If I could link you to a source where the book is purchasable, I would, but it was never officially published. It's my understanding Michael Piller really wanted to give this book to fans and aspiring writers. So go, spread it like wildfire. It's not a great book, but there is some good stuff in it. Like this:

Paramount had Patrick’s toupee overnighted from England and he returned the next day, this time with hair. Roddenberry took one look and said, “Take it off.” Everyone in the room realized that Patrick’s bald head carried a certain power.

I'm halfway through reading it and so far the book is more about writing than the fun bits of trivia. Writing is a lot like knitting. For people who are into that kind of thing, nothing is more rewarding than sitting down in a zombie-like trance and getting to work. But let's face it: talking about the craft itself is almost as dull as listening to someone go on and on about the meaning of the dream they had last night. If you spent all day cleaning the house, you'd probably have more interesting stories to tell than if you had spent your day telling an actual story.

The point is a good book on writing is rare these days. Fade In almost qualifies. In it, Piller writes about writing the screenplay to a movie only a die-hard Star Trek fan could like. More importantly, he (sometimes) makes it interesting without resorting to "tell-all" drama and tabloid controversy. The Kid Stays in the Picture it ain't, but it's honest and shows a side of Hollywood that rarely sees the light of day. When was the last time you read a book about Hollywood in which everyone was A) acting so professional and B) hard drugs weren't mentioned at all?

This is still brain candy, through and through, and I'm not convinced anyone but Star Trek fans would like it. And if you are a fan, you'll shake your head as Piller enthusiastically relates how he and other forces conspired to craft a film that was a letdown for most viewers. The previous film in the series, First Contact, had a lot of goofy stuff in there ("Assimilate this!"—Worf), but it's still one of the best and most lighthearted Star Trek films. 

Why Paramount would want to move away from that, why Piller would want to move away from that, why producer Rick Berman would want to move away from that, is beyond me. Usually with these kinds of franchises we wonder why they didn't deviate from the formula. Here, we wonder why they decided to deviate so unanimously when so many of us actually wanted more First Contact. Piller's book has many answers to questions like these, but they're not as satisfying as expected.

For instance, in the film Data is back to being the Data we knew before he installed his emotion chip. We saw him temporarily deactivate the chip when he and a security team fought the Borg in the previous film (Picard: "Sometimes I envy you, Data."), but why didn't he ever turn it back on? Piller, demonstrating good attributes for an episodic television writer but not necessarily a movie writer, says he wanted to avoid what he calls "The Rhoda Effect." He says audiences became uninterested in Rhoda after the titular character was married on the TV series. Well yeah, that's true, but I kind of became uninterested in Data after he fell down a few rungs of his character arc.

Another annoyance with books about screenwriting is the unnecessary amount of filler material they employ. Early on, Piller includes a treatment for the screenplay in its entirety. Not much of it ends up in the final product. While some die-hard fans will find its inclusion interesting, I found myself skimming. By Piller's own admission, when Berman read the treatment he said, "Who cares?" When I got to the second treatment Piller includes, I skipped it altogether. That's not the stuff I personally wanted from a book like this, but a greater fan than I might appreciate it.

I think the most fascinating thing about the book is it makes you realize that sometimes there's not really any one person or group to blame when a movie turns to shit. Whenever a movie in a series turns to shit, fans are always looking for excuses: "Oh, the studio ruined it," or, "Their creative decisions were all about money," etc. But everyone involved with the project was concerned with making an honest Star Trek flick, something that stayed true to the spirit. On the chairman of Viacom at the time, Jonathan Dolgen, Piller says:

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?

Despite good intentions all around, it fell apart anyway. Apparently Piller didn't get that memo. You can tell he feels the film turned out great despite the mixed reception. I think my biggest problem with Insurrection is Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore had just proven a Star Trek movie works best when it resembles a bonafide popcorn movie more than a television episode. Piller (and even Patrick Stewart, as indicated in correspondence reprinted in the book) seemed more interested in making a two-hour episode of The Next Generation. And on the big screen, that's just kind of out of place.

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