Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft – The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection (Book Review)

Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft – The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection is a book written by Michael Piller and that Paramount has never allowed to be published (here’s its GoodReads page). Piller left this world in 2005 and TrekCore’s trekkies released a version of the book as an homage to Piller who saw it as a final gift to all Star Trek fans and to all writers and screenwriters (or aspiring ones) more in general.

Michael Piller was one of the most important Star Trek figures in the 1990s and worked on three different series: The Next Generation (of which he was showrunner from the third to the fifth season), Deep Space Nine (which he created and led for the first two seasons before leaving it in the capable hands of Ira Stephen Behr), and Voyager (also created by him and of which he remained showrunner for the first two years).

Piller was also the architect of a one-of-a-kind policy, that of accepting scripts from anyone and reserve the right to buy them for the various episodes of the series for which he was responsible. Some screenwriters (like Rene Echevarria, to name one) got a job thanks to this policy! In short, if Star Trek is what it is, we certainly owe it to the creative minds not only of Gene Roddenberry but also Michael Piller, as well as Jeri Taylor, Brannon Braga, Rick Berman and Ira Stephen Behr, just to mention the first ones that come to my mind.

But let’s get back to the book to which this post is dedicated: Fade In is the incredibly precise and detailed chronicle of the creation of Star Trek: Insurrection, the ninth film in the franchise and penultimate before it was erased by the work of J.J. Abrams (an awful work, as far as I’m concerned). In the book, Piller describes his initial idea and how it was torn apart by the interference of producers and actors (mainly the two stars of the cast: Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner). Then, Piller had to create another story, which was again criticized to the point of excess, and eventually the final script came out by using elements of the two different ideas and taking into account the dozens of comments received in the process. Plus, everything was adapted again due to the budgetary limits imposed by Paramount.

The whole story is complete with dates, correspondence between him and producers / actors / the director (Jonathan Frakes), and many personal thoughts to accompany the reader on a fascinating journey into the film-making machine called Hollywood of the Nineties.

Personally, I’ve seen many parallels between this creative process and the writing of a scientific article: first, there’s a joint work among coauthors, then the paper is submitted to a scientific journal, then editors and reviewers give you some feedback according to which the work must be modified with the hope that the publisher will accept the modified paper in the form of an article. In a similar way, Piller wrote a script together with (or against) Rick Berman, he received feedback from Paramount stars and producers, he had to change his script to take all that into account, and then he waited for the movie to come out to see how much of his idea ended up in the final product. Maybe one day somebody will explain to me why Piller’s first idea with Romulans was butchered because apparently no one wanted to see Romulans anymore, but then the next film (Nemesis) had Romulans in it…

Fade In got me hooked. Reading it was like entering the Paramount studios, understanding how a film is created and how the initial vision of an author is changed once hundreds of people work on it. The role played by test screenings is particularly impressive! But I must admit that what amazed me most was how little Patrick Stewart understood of what makes Star Trek what it is. Between the lines of his remarks and comments I read something along the following lines: “I want to have fun, I don’t want to play a troubled and serious character, we did that already in the series, let’s do something else in the movies.” And I understand that films must try to attract a wider audience than just TV series fans, but it won’t do that by completely changing the nature of its characters! In fact, I think that this is the main weakness of the TNG movies compared to the six films with Kirk and company.

In short, I recommend Fade In to anyone who wants to understand how a film gets created, and even more so if you like Star Trek. Despite whatever Paramount is doing, the pdf version of the book can be downloaded online and, since it’s not published in any other way (even if Michael Piller’s widow tried to get it out recently, but failed), I invite you to get it and give it a chance. I found it exciting, Ciao!

PS: I report this amazing quote that summarizes in a few words why the quality of action movies of the last twenty years or so went downhill: “Thereʼs a new kind of action writing in Hollywood that I simply donʼt 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. The theory is that audiences are really coming for the “eye candy” — to see how weʼve filled the screen with awesome visuals and special effects. Set pieces sound great in pitches and make for good coming attractions but in my opinion, this approach almost never results in a good movie because it abandons the fundamental demands of story-telling.


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