Director Jonathan Frakes breaks the curse of the odd-numbered Trek sequels with this ninth installment in the canon, which both departs from many treasured traditions and borrows liberally from the classic Western story of a small town's last stand against high-powered bullies. On the idyllic Ba'ku homeworld, everyone is buff, happy and beautiful, awash in their planet's flattering longitudinal light. Apparently under the influence of a flipped chip, Lt. Cdr. Data (Brent Spiner) takes a cultural survey team hostage and Federation honchos want him deactivated. Enter Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew, who free the hostages and clear the android's name. Mission accomplished, right? Not so fast: The Feds are allied with the Son'a, an aging race of ugly people who want the Ba'kus' eternal youth and beauty secret, which involves metaphasic radiation emitted by their planet's rings. Picard uncovers a plan to exile the Ba'ku from their own world, forcing him to choose between disobeying a direct order and violating the sacred Prime Directive, which forbids interference in a culture's natural evolution. Frakes proved his action-movie mettle with STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, and the Next Generation gang have relaxed into their roles: The sense that they're old friends who know each other's moods suffuses their scenes together. As Ru'afo, the Son'a leader whose toxic blood oozes from his leathery skin when he's angry, F. Murray Abraham supplies a baroquely icky counterpoint to all the bonhomie. The supporting characters get short shrift, casualties of an unusually heavy story load for a Star Trek movie, but it's an interesting story, more accessible to non-Trekkers than previous entries. The enemies are less clear-cut than the implacable Borg, and instead of extra explosions, screenwriter Michael Piller offers complex political intrigue and double-dealing: Even the United Federation of Planets is no longer the familiar, homogeneously high-minded bastion of cultural altruism. Has Star Trek entered the age of The X-Files?