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Reading Roundup: Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft by Michael Piller

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21 November 2011 | 10:30 pm

Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft: The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection by Michael Piller
N.p.: TrekCore, 2010. Word document, 271 pages.  Downloaded from TrekCore.

This is, as far as I know, one of the most honest and straightforward books published about the making of Star Trek, especially from the productions of the last couple decades.  (I was going to write "last few years," but then I realized that Insurrection came out thirteen years ago!)  Piller, the sole screenwriter for Insurrection, takes the reader through the process of writing the ninth Star Trek film, from the moment Rick Berman called him and asked him if he wanted the job, to the moment he watched the film premiere on screen.  Insurrection is one of three problematic The Next Generation films, and for that reason, its creation makes for an interesting read.  Piller includes a lot of treatments and dialogue extracts to show how the story changed over time.  Even from the beginning, the story never quite worked, and it seems like lots of people know this... but no one knows how to solve it.

The problem, I think, ultimately comes down to the central conflict.  The hook of the film is that Picard must figure out what made Data go rogue.  Or rather, this should be the hook.  It can't be the hook, though, because it ends up having a really dull answer: he malfunctioned.  If Piller and company had been willing to pursue this more and create a Picard/Data conflict that had some actual teeth to it, we would have had a much more interesting story.  Butting up against this, though, is the desire to make Insurrection more lighthearted, a return to The Voyage Home style of Star Trek... only no one can figure out how to actually make it funny, or make the humor work with the content.  A lot of the book is Piller receiving notes from various people: producer Rick Berman, the actors (especially Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner), the Paramount execs.  It's very noticeable that everyone is thoroughly committed to making a quality film, and indeed, most of the comments Piller gets are spot on... but the fixes he comes up with feel more like patches than solutions.  Everyone agrees that the Fountain of Youth idea doesn't really work, but rather than toss it, Piller just tweaks it.  Insurrection has a good idea at its heart, but the story needed a fundamental reworking that it never got.  Piller praises Berman and company for never taking the film out of his hands, letting it ultimately remain the work of a single writer, but what you end up wondering is if the whole thing could have benefited from someone else doing a strong rewrite.  But then poor Piller, who clearly gives his utmost to the project.

There are a lot of nice moments we never got to see, including the people of the Federation itself showing up at the end to protect its ideals, a moment of Gene Roddenberry utopianism that I think would have really shined if there had been a way to make it work within the context of the script as a whole.

That said, Fade In is an enjoyable insight into the writing process, nearly the Star Trek version of the Doctor Who tell-all The Writer's Tale.  Piller fills the book with interesting anecdotes and insights into what make the writing process work, especially in a place as fraught with competing interests as Hollywood.  The book is no longer available from TrekCore, but I recommend getting hold of an e-copy if you're interested in how Star Trek does get or has gotten made.

Steve

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