Star Trek: First Contact caps off the thirtieth anniversary celebrations with one eye to the past and one eye to the future.
The second film to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation is surprisingly nostalgic in places. The script makes several rather blatant nods towards Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Khan, perhaps the consensus pick for the best Star Trek feature film. It marks the return of a memorable antagonist from the parent series, serving as a direct sequel to a particular episode and pitting the lead character in a battle of wills against an old opponent. More than that, it builds upon a rich tradition of the franchise riffing upon Moby Dick.
However, there are other major influences. Most notably, the film leans quite heavily upon Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In both films, the Enterprise crew film themselves sent back in time to save Earth from an alien threat, resulting in comedic misadventures as the characters interact with a supporting cast native to this time period. Most analysis of First Contact tends to focus on The Wrath of Khan parallels, as they dominate the primarily plot. Nevertheless, the secondary plot draws heavily from The Voyage Home.
More than that, the feature film draws heavily upon the existing Star Trek mythos. The movie is a direct sequel to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, recognising that two-parter as the moment that The Next Generation truly came into its own and stepped out from under the shadow of the original Star Trek series. Even beyond that acknowledgement of franchise history, First Contact does not take the crew back in time to the present day or a historical event. It takes the crew back to the point at which the future of Star Trek truly begins.
Still, while the movie is constructed as a definite celebration of the past, it also serves to define the future of the franchise. The template for the remaining Rick Berman years can be found in this feature film. The success of the action and adventure beats in this instalment undoubtedly informed the emphasis on such elements in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. The final two films in this particular iteration of the franchise owe a lot more to this particular film than to Star Trek: Generations.
Even more, the impact of the film reached well beyond this set of characters. The other three television series were all heavily shaped and defined by this particular feature film. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine inherited a lot of the look and feel of this film, with the crew swapping out into these grey uniforms with Rapture. The Dominion War would use a lot of the ships designed for the combat sequence towards the opening of the scene. Some of the other production design also bled in, including the space suits in Empok Nor.
Star Trek: Voyager would inherit some of that production design as well, including the space suits in episodes like Day of Honour or Demon. However, the film’s biggest impact on that particular series was the renovation of the Borg. Brannon Braga would seize upon the idea of the Borg as a recurring threat, setting them up in episodes like Blood Fever and Unity mere months after the release of the film. The Borg would serve as the basis of the big third and fourth season two-parter, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Alice Krige would appear in Endgame.
In its own way, this film also signals the end of the Berman era. The arrival of the Vulcan ship in the closing minutes serves to set up the premise of Star Trek: Enterprise. James Cromwell would make the torch-passing cameo in Broken Bow, reprising his role as Zefram Cochrane. The idea of doing a prequel television series that charted the origin of the franchise feels very much rooted in the (critical and commercial) success of this iteration of the film franchise.
On the audio commentary, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore speak of the thirtieth anniversary as “the peak” of the franchise. After all, it seemed like the celebrations would last forever. First Contact was just one small part of a whole season of television that marked the best that the franchise had to offer. There was a wide selection of material, including episodes like Trials and Tribble-ations, Flashback, Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Following all of those, First Contact was really just the cherry on top of a very delicious cake.
However, the issue with First Contact as “the peak” is quite simple. From this vantage point, the audience can survey the entire Berman era. First Contact is positioned so that the audience can see the metaphorical beginnings of the Star Trek franchise, but also the makings of the end of this particular iteration. From the peak, there is only one direction.
First Contact is a phenomenal piece of work, from beginning to end. It is easily the best Star Trek film to feature the cast of The Next Generation, but that sounds like damning with faint praise. After all, it is hardly a ringing endorsement to acknowledge that First Contact is better that Insurrection. However, there is also a credible argument to be made that First Contact should be ranked among the very best of the franchise’s feature films, that it deserves to ranked with The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home.
First Contact was commissioned by Paramount following the release of Generations. Although the first film featuring the crew of The Next Generation had not been a breakout hit in critical or commercial terms, it had performed reasonably well. There was no desire to shake things up behind the scenes. As a result, the script was assigned to writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, who had provided the script for Generations. Working with producer Rick Berman, they sought to craft a story for the first Star Trek film without James Tiberius Kirk.
Even during these early development stages, Rick Berman knew exactly what he wanted to see in the finished the script:
For his part, Berman attended the meeting with the perfect plot complication already formulated: time travel. He explained, “All of the Star Trek films and episodes I have been most impressed with — Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Yesterday’s Enterprise, City on the Edge of Forever, and I could name half a dozen more — have all been stories that deal with time travel.”
This makes a certain amount of sense. Berman worked on Star Trek primarily as a producer, but he had written a number of scripts. One of those scripts was A Matter of Time, a time travel episode. The concept interested him.
It is worth pausing here to note that The Voyage Home was a major influence on the plotting and development of First Contact. In recent years, the cultural impact of The Voyage Home has been somewhat eclipsed as the legend surrounding The Wrath of Khan has only increased. However, it should be noted that The Voyage Home actually outperformed The Wrath of Khan financially. More than that, The Voyage Home was in no small way responsible for the commissioning of The Next Generation. It is easy to forget its impact.
The Voyage Home might lack the cult fan base that drives The Wrath of Khan to the top of fandom polls, but it might also appeal to a broader audience. Voyager had staged its own elaborate homage to The Voyage Home in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Berman would draw a lot of inspiration from The Voyage Home in the years ahead. When the production team retooled Enterprise in The Expanse, Berman pointed to The Voyage Home as his inspiration for putting Earth in danger.
Although it is very much the b-plot, the earth-based time-travel plot is a large part of the success of First Contact. One of the most striking aspects of The Next Generation was just how likable the primary cast was. The actors were not the strongest in the franchise, the characters were neither the most developed nor the most iconic. However, they bounced very well off one another and generally exuded a likability. Even Riker and Worf, perhaps the most abrasive members of the lead cast, were largely charming.
This easy charm would be strained to breaking point by the broad comedy of Insurrection, with the script feeling a little too goofy for a tale of forced relocation. In contrast, First Contact is smart enough to physically isolate the comedy subplot from the action sequences. It also isolates most of the secondary cast members. Riker, Geordi and Troi were always unlikely to drive the plot of a Next Generation feature film in the same way as Picard or Data, so giving them their own lower-stakes subplot where they can be charming is a smart decision.
There was some debate among the writing staff as to where they might send the crew. Perhaps because it was the thirtieth anniversary, and perhaps because there had already been a feature film sending Star Trek to the present day, the team decided to pick an event within the franchise’s history. According to Moore on the audio commentary, the first warp test flight was an obvious choice:
We were always, I think, interested in the idea of how humanity had crawled up from the gutter, so to speak. In Star Trek lore, it was never explained how Earth moved from the Earth that we know today – driven by nation states and petty rivalries and race problems and poverty and all the problems of modern society… and how it moved into this more idealistic future. And it seemed like this was sort of the pivot point.
After all, to this point, the franchise had a considerable lacuna in its internal chronology. Early episodes like Space Seed and The Savage Curtain had made it clear that humanity had some very dark days between the present and the idealistic future presented in the show. This notion had been reaffirmed by Encounter at Farpoint. Human history was a cavalcade of atrocities: “the Eugenics Wars”, “World War III“, “the Post-Atomic Horror.”
As such, there is something very Star Trek in choosing to focus on the question of how exactly things got better, how mankind picked up the pieces of a horrific global conflict and fashioned an optimistic future for themselves. One of the smarter and more underrated aspects of First Contact is the way that it fictionalises the production history of Star Trek. In many ways, the creation of the Star Trek universe was informed by the experiences of its staff in the Second World War. Here, it is the Third World War that beckons the future.
There is an inherent optimism in all this, right down to Cochrane and Sloane’s decision to name their rocket as “the Phoenix.” It is literally rising from the ashes, recovering from a horrific trauma to make a better future. There is even more to it than that. “Isn’t it amazing?” Picard reflects. “This ship used to be a nuclear missile.” Data responds, “It is an historical irony that Doctor Cochrane would use an instrument of mass-destruction to inaugurate an era of peace.” In some ways, it mirrors the use of Second World War rocket technology to get to the moon.
Then there is Zefram Cochrane. The inventor of warp drive had previously appeared in Metamorphosis during the second season of the original Star Trek. In that episode, he was portrayed by Glenn Corbett as a dashing and heroic figure, clean shaven in his red flight suit. This was the man in his prime, an almost mythic figure. First Contact opts for a somewhat different approach, casting recurring Star Trek performer (and Oscar nominee) James Cromwell as an older and more disheveled version of the warp engine pioneer.
A significant portion of the subplot’s comedy comes from the juxtaposition of the crew’s hero worship with the reality. Cochrane is very much a flawed figure. He is a drunk. He is incredibly sleazy. He is abrasive and confrontational. “He wouldn’t even talk to me unless I had a drink with him,” Troi complains. “And then it took three shots of something called tequila just to find out he was the one we’re looking for. And I’ve spent the last twenty minutes trying to keep his hands off me.”
Cochrane repeatedly attempts to shrug off the legend that the crew foist upon his shoulders. After Geordi tells Cochrane about a statue that will be erected in tribute to him, Cochrane flees. “I don’t want to be a statue,” he protests. Cromwell’s performance is superb, one of the best supporting performances in a Star Trek film behind Montalban in The Wrath of Khan. Indeed, Alfre Woodard is just as good as Lily Sloane, which combines to give First Contact the best supporting cast of any of the Star Trek films.
The crew try to point Cochrane as a visionary, but he flatly refuses the label. “You wanna know what my vision is?” he asks Riker. “Dollar signs! Money! I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity. You think I wanna go to the stars? I don’t even like to fly. I take trains. I built this ship so that I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about. This historical figure. I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will.”
Again, there is a sense that First Contact is cleverly fictionalising the franchise’s own production history. Zefram Cochrane is perhaps the last in a long-line of metaphorical stand-ins for the man who created Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was (and remains) a controversial figure. To many fans, and lay people, Roddenberry is a visionary responsible for a utopian vision of the future. The writer and producer has a legacy that extends beyond a mere television show, espousing something close to a religious philosophy about a better future for mankind.
While Cochrane refuses the label of visionary, Roddenberry cultivated this mythology around himself; he would often offer blatant falsehoods in order to bolster the legends surrounding him. He would argue that NBC constantly restrained his vision of an idealistic future, when the network actively encouraged casting a diverse crew. He would spread lies about Harlan Ellison’s original draft of The City on the Edge of Forever. He would gloss over the contributions of others like D.C. Fontana and Gen Coon to the Star Trek mythos.
Roddenberry was deeply flawed. He was engaged in long-running extra-marital affairs with both Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett. He sought to make a quick buck off Star Trek by placing products from his mail-order company in episodes like Is There in Truth No Beauty? This is to say nothing of how rarely his stated political beliefs lined up with his scripts. He claimed to abhor racism, but wrote The Omega Glory. He claimed to be a pacifist, but wrote A Private Little War. He claimed to be a feminist, but wrote Turnabout Intruder.
When The Next Generation launched, Roddenberry proved quite an obstacle for his production staff. Writers complained about being trapped inside “the Roddenberry Box” that imposed unrealistic limitations on the writing staff. Indeed, Roddenberry adamantly opposed a number of episodes that count among the show’s very best, voicing sincere and heartfelt objections to stories like The Measure of a Man and Family. Although his influence was phased out over the course of the show’s run, he cast a long shadow.
The Next Generation would make a number of allusions to Roddenberry, particularly when he stepped back from day-to-day production. The version of Sarek who appeared in episodes like Sarek and Unification, Part I felt like an acknowledgement of the diminished mental capacities that afflicted Roddenberry in his later years. Indeed, Sarek would pass away (off-screen) in Unification, Part I, the episode that was dedicated to the memory of the franchise’s producer immediately following his passing in October 1991.
A year earlier, Rick Berman seemed to cast the inventor Noonian Soong as a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry in the episode Brothers, notable as his first script credit for the franchise. Soong was the designer responsible for creating Data, perhaps the most idealised and iconic member of the Next Generation ensemble. (It is also notable that Sarek, the show’s other Roddenberry surrogate, was the father of Spock.) Soong was portrayed as a tragic and disheveled figure, one facing his own mortality and with a slightly skewed morality.
In some ways, the character of Zefram Cochrane is the last Gene Roddenberry surrogate to interact with the cast of The Next Generation. This is the point at which the production team have fully reconciled themselves to the complexities and contradictions of Gene Roddenberry, the romantic idealist who very seldom lived up to the virtues that he espoused. Cochrane is a flawed man, but he is also a man who would pave the way to the future. The version of Cochrane who appears in First Contact is not the version that Riker and Geordi imagined, but he still breaks the barrier.
As such, it could legitimately be argued that First Contact marks the end of the line for The Next Generation. After all, one of the big questions hanging over The Next Generation from the moment that it was announced concerned its relationship to the Star Trek franchise and mythos. Although it easy to forget, The Next Generation spent a long time trying to prove itself as a worthy successor of the original Star Trek series. First Contact offers its characters one last chance to interact with a Gene Roddenberry analogue and travel back to the beginning of the Star Trek universe.
First Contact is very much one final acknowledgement of how The Next Generation had matched (and arguably surpassed) its direct predecessor. In some ways, this feels like the perfect theme for a big budget feature film based on a beloved television show; this is very much a victory lap celebration, an opportunity to deal with some of the big core ideas and themes at the heart of the show once and for all. First Contact is the best of the Next Generation feature films, and at least part of that is down to the way that it celebrates The Next Generation‘s place in the Star Trek pantheon.
After all, this was the first Star Trek film not to feature William Shatner as James Tiberius Kirk. Generations had tried to pass the torch from one iteration of the franchise to the next, but had done so in a rather clumsy manner. The truth was that the torch had already been passed, on multiple occasions. Data offering Doctor McCoy a tour of the ship in Encounter at Farpoint. Picard melding with Sarek in Sarek. Picard melding with Spock in Unification, Part II. Scotty visiting the ship in Relics. In that regard, Generations felt redundant.
In contrast, First Contact is bold enough to acknowledge that The Next Generation is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. It is no coincidence that even the primary plot points back to the moment that many fans and critics would acknowledge as the moment that The Next Generation broke out of the shadow of the original Star Trek: the season-bridging two-parter The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. It is impossible to overstate how iconic that story was, even providing the background for Emissary, the pilot of Deep Space Nine.
The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II were pivot points for a number of reasons. Most obviously, they arrived at the end of the third season and the start of the fourth, boldly pushing The Next Generation past the initial three-season run of the original Star Trek and into unknown territory. It was the first season-bridging cliffhanger in the history of the Star Trek franchise, capturing the public’s attention and demonstrating The Next Generation was a bona fides cultural phenomenon.
More than that, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II hinged on the Borg. The Borg were another representation of how completely The Next Generation had forged its own identity, creating an iconic alien species that belonged in the pantheon of iconic Star Trek races like the Klingons and the Romulans. The Borg made such an impression that the JJ Abrams production team have acknowledged an interest in incorporating them into their iconography-driven films. (Simon Pegg is less keen.)
The first season of The Next Generation had attempted to introduce the Ferengi as a credible recurring threat in episodes like The Last Outpost and The Battle, but those greedy little trolls ultimately ended up as comic relief. It would fall to Deep Space Nine to develop the Ferengi into a more fully-formed alien race. The Borg, on the other hand, were an alien that resonated with both the audience and the show. An all-consuming collective, they spoke to anxieties and fears particular to The Next Generation, and its depiction of an idealised pseudo-socialist future.
According to Brannon Braga on the audio commentary, bringing back the Borg was an easy decision to make:
I think our first impulse was always to bring the Borg back. Because the Borg had not really been seen in full force as the regular Borg since The Best of Both Worlds. We’d done little variations on them with Lore, the Data twin. So we thought, why not bring them back on the big screen?
Certainly, First Contact offers an excellent and terrifying spectacle, presenting the Borg as an unstoppable adversary.
First Contact makes the Borg genuinely scary, capturing a lot of what made the enemy so striking and appealing in Q Who?, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The Borg are implacable and unstoppable, uncompromising and unforgiving. There is an inevitability to the assimilation sequences in First Contact, one only enhanced by the decision to keep the Borg largely hidden for the film’s first act and consciously building to the reveal of the new design during Picard’s ill-fated expedition to Engineering.
There are even a few nods towards the thematic importance of the Borg as an “anti-Federation.” Outlining the utopian premise of Star Trek to Lily Sloane, Picard frames the Federation in explicitly socialist terms. “The economics of the future are somewhat different,” he states. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves… and the rest of humanity.” The Borg are (and always have been) a twisted reflection of that. The Borg Queen boasts, “We too are on a quest to better ourselves. Evolving toward a state of perfection.”
More than that, the Borg are positioned in First Contact as an existential threat to the Federation. The Borg Queen plots to prevent the formation of the Federation by destroying the first warp-capable ship. This plot leads to a grim alternate future in which the population of Earth is “approximately nine billion… all Borg.” This a more fundamental threat than that ever posed by the Klingons or the Romulans. The Borg present themselves as a perverse and twisted reflection of a world on which the Federation was never allowed to evolve, a grim alternative.
However, there is also something more subtle than that. In First Contact, the Borg represent a threat to the Star Trek franchise because they are capable of stripping Captain Jean-Luc Picard of his “more evolved sensibility.” They are an existential threat to The Next Generation because they have the capacity to unlock something primal and visceral inside the show’s lead character. Jean-Luc Picard represents a lot of what is best about Gene Roddenberry’s idealised future, but the Borg are capable of reducing him to a vengeance-driven wreck.
This is one of the more intriguing and mixed legacies of First Contact. Captain Picard had played action hero before, often at the behest of Patrick Stewart who felt that the character should do more “shooting and screwing”, in episodes like Captain’s Holiday, Starship Mine, Gambit, Part I and Gambit, Part II. There was an element of this in Generations, with the climax hinging on a big physical throw down in the desert; although that could arguably have been in deference to the presence of James Tiberius Kirk.
In contrast, First Contact commits wholeheartedly to the idea of Jean-Luc Picard as an action hero. It is Picard who leads the first expedition to Engineering to confront the Borg, riding point with Data and Worf. It is Picard who leads the team out on to the hull to stop the Borg from using the deflector dish. When Lily confronts Picard on his refusal to simply destroy the ship, he is cleaning a phaser rifle. At the climax, Picard even strips down to his vest for an impressive high-stakes confrontation with the Borg.
There was a conscious emphasis on these action-driven elements in the publicity around the film, with the team stressing how physically active Picard would be over the course of the film:
“He’s not the same angst-ridden Picard we’ve seen before,” Berman says. “We wanted him to be more of an action hero.” Says Patrick Stewart: “I get to be much more physical in this one. There’s a lot of running, jumping, climbing, leaping — and also some ballroom dancing, I might add.”
In many ways, First Contact sets the tone for the later films in the series, Insurrection and Nemesis. One of the strangest aspects of the Next Generation film franchise would be the choice to position Jean-Luc Picard as an action hero.
This version of Jean-Luc Picard was hard to reconcile with the character as he had appeared on the television show. Picard had always seemed rather above it all, a considered and diplomatic leader who was much less hands-on than James T. Kirk. Picard had historically by lees likely to lead away teams than his predecessor, and much more likely to hold extended briefings. Under Picard, it seemed like the big decisions were more likely to be made around the conference table or in the ready room than in the heat of the moment.
Although episodes like Samaritan Snare and Tapestry suggested that Picard had been reckless and impulsive in his youth, the most striking aspect of Jean-Luc Picard was the care and consideration that he afforded each and every decision. The character had passion and drive, but they manifested themselves in a manner quite different than most franchise lead characters. It was hard to reconcile this introspective and reflective character with the manic dune-buggy-driving adrenaline junkie of the Next Generation film franchise.
There were a number of reasons for this change. Patrick Stewart had a very clear and very strong idea of where he wanted to bring the character in the feature films, clearly building on his instructions to the writers while The Next Generation was on the air. Even beyond Stewart’s input, the Star Trek films had always had a pulpy blockbuster feel to them. The films had largely avoided the talk-heavy approach of the television series in favour of something far more visceral. This made sense. After all, the Star Trek film franchise was frequently likened to Star Wars.
(Indeed, this is part of what is so striking about the fandom backlash to the Abrams era films like Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. There are legitimate complaints about how they depart from the spirit of the television series, but the film franchise has historically been more action-driven than the television series. This is also true of fandom, which much prefers The Wrath of Khan to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which the most talky that the film franchise has been. Ironically, the Enterprise does not even fire weapons in Into Darkness.)
The problem is not the inclusion of action in the Star Trek film franchise, it is the inclusion of action in a film populated by these characters and actors. There are points watching Insurrection and Nemesis where it seems like Picard is going through a midlife crisis that he can only remedy by punching out Oscar-winning actors on top of exploding satellites and impaling his younger self on a giant pointy stick. The spectacle seems so out of place that it is distracting, as if the Next Generation crew have been replaced by bizarro versions of themselves.
First Contact gets away with this, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that the film repeatedly emphasises how boldly out of character Picard is behaving over the course of the story. The return of the Borg has thrown Picard off-balance, and he is responding instinctively to the threat. Picard’s memory of the trauma inflicted upon him in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II has blinded him. First Contact acknowledges that the machine-gun-wielding, phaser-cleaning Captain Picard presented here is a departure from what is expected.
First Contact is not a movie about how much of a badass Jean-Luc Picard is, because the character’s badassitude could never be measured in used phaser cartridges. The entire point of the film is that Picard is coming undone, and that this is toxic behaviour. As much as fans point to First Contact as heavily influenced by The Wrath of Khan, and it most definitely is, it is also an inversion of that classic Star Trek film. The Wrath of Khan cast Khan Noonien Singh as a twenty-third century Ahab. First Contact has Picard play the role of the famous ill-fated whale-hunter.
Indeed, it should be noted that First Contact marks the point at which the Star Trek franchise becomes really obsessed with The Wrath of Khan. The movie had been polarising on release, due the killing off of Spock. However, in the years since it had been embraced and accepted as the very best Star Trek film. However, in the years following the release of First Contact, it seemed as though this affection for The Wrath of Khan became all-consuming in terms of franchise storytelling.
Although the Star Trek franchise had been riffing on Moby Dick dating back to episodes like The Doomsday Machine or Obsession, the franchise would become monomaniacally fixated on the second film after this point. In terms of feature films, Nemesis and Star Trek would both borrow heavily from that iconic feature film. Enterprise would dedicate its first three-part episode (Borderland, Cold Station 12, The Augments) to the film. By the time that Star Trek Into Darkness finally opted to revisit Khan, it felt almost like the franchise was pulling off a bandage.
Even discounting the franchise’s many homages to The Wrath of Khan, the extended homage in First Contact arrived before many of the Berman era’s more overt references to Moby Dick. Across the entire run of The Next Generation, only Silicon Avatar seemed to deal with the theme of obsession and revenge. There were perhaps shades of it to I, Borg, an episode in which Picard finds himself confronted by a lone Borg and has to reconcile that with the trauma that he experienced. However, these are less overt examples than later stories like For the Uniform or Bliss.
Even allowing for all of this, First Contact stands out for its subversion of The Wrath of Khan. Although the movie shares some key themes and story beats with The Wrath of Khan, it is not a simple rehash or retread. Picard is not cast in the role of Kirk, the righteous victim of an insane vendetta. Instead, Picard is portrayed as the character holding that insane vendetta. While The Wrath of Khan is a story that holds Kirk to account for his arrogance and hubris, First Contact is much more interested in the wrath of Picard.
As much as First Contact hinges on Picard as an action movie protagonist, it is smart enough to have its cake and eat it. The script might give Patrick Stewart those big action beats that he wants, but it compensates by tailoring itself to his strengths. Patrick Stewart is one of the best actors in the fifty-year history of the franchise, and First Contact is really the only Next Generation film to showcase the depth of talent on display in episodes like Darmok or The Inner Light or All Good Things…
There is a reason that “the line must be drawn here!” has become such an iconic moment, as much as Ronald D. Moore might affectionately mock it in The Dogs of War. It is a powerhouse of a performance from Patrick Stewart. Stewart is raw, unhinged, passionate. Much like the climax of Family, it seems as if the glue holding Picard together has come undone and the veneer is cracking. It is just a phenomenal piece of drama. It is notable as perhaps the only defining (non-ironic) Picard moment to come from the Next Generation film franchise.
Tellingly, none of the other films come even close to matching that level of emotional intensity. Generations gives Stewart an emotional breakdown when Picard discovers that his family has died, but it is too transparent an emotional manipulation to land with the required intensity. Insurrection tries to do something similar with the “how many people does it take, Admiral?” scene, although there is not enough meat there for it work as a catharsis. And, like everything else about Insurrection, it is undercut by the film’s goofy sense of humour.
Indeed, the beauty of First Contact lies in the optimism at the heart of the story. The movie is surprisingly grim and intense, but the script is ultimately true to the spirit of the franchise. The film acknowledges Cochrane’s flaws, but refuses to condemn him for them. The movie does not wallow in Picard’s violence, but instead incorporates it into a redemption arc. First Contact is a film that genuinely believes that the universe is a wondrous place, and that mankind is capable of finding its best attributes in its worst moments. That is very Star Trek.
Indeed, the climax of the film finds Picard confronting the Borg for reasons beyond hatred or revenge. Picard ultimately confronts the Borg Queen so that he might surrender himself in return for Data. It is a noble gesture of selfless sacrifice, one that represents the optimism at the heart of the character and the franchise. Lily, who finds herself cast in the unlikely role of Picard’s conscience, even endorses this choice. “Go and find your friend,” she urges as the crew abandons ship. And so he does.
At the same time, that core of optimism aside, there is no denying that First Contact feels like a much more militaristic piece of science-fiction than The Next Generation or even Generations. This is most obvious in the introduction of the new Enterprise. On the commentary, Ronald D. Moore acknowledges that the ship looks a lot more military:
There was a great deal of discussion about the new Enterprise and how it would be. And how was it different than the old Enterprise? I think we wrote in the initial pages of the script that the new Enterprise was more muscular… and a little bit more military looking, a scarier looking ship than the Enterprise D had been.
In some ways, the new Enterprise feels like a conscious reaction against the design of Enterprise D. All those smooth round edges give way to a much more jagged aesthetic. The soft grey is replaced by a harder metallic sheen. The ship is longer, but also thinner, than its predecessor had been. The Enterprise D could be described as a floating hotel, the Enterprise E is a warship. It seems unlikely there are families on board.
Indeed, as designer John Eaves explains, the design of the ship was much more tactical-focused:
One element that was going to make this Enterprise different from the previous ships was that it was designed to fight the Borg. That meant that it had to be more of a battleship than an exploration vessel. So, with that, more sketches came along. I remembered that in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the E got hit pretty hard with a long phaser blast across the neck of the ship. I thought that if Khan had kept firing for just a second longer the saucer would’ve been blown clean off from the rest of the ship. That started the idea of a thick neck that tapered into the saucer, effectively eliminating that danger zone on the new E.
It is quite a striking contrast with the look and feel of the ship that had appeared on television for seven seasons.
The Enterprise itself is just the most obvious example. The uniforms have been changed, to make them darker and more sombre than the classic pajama suits. The phaser rifles have been redesigned so that they look more like real-world assault rifles with a longer “barrel”, a trigger guard, and more edges. The lighting has been turned way down, even in the sections of the ship that are not controlled by the Borg. The interior colour palette of the Enterprise has shifted from warm beige and brown to a dull and efficient grey.
In many ways, this all feels like a nod to Deep Space Nine. After all, The Next Generation‘s younger sibling had been adopting a more military aesthetic dating back to the introduction of the Defiant in The Search, Part I. In fact, Deep Space Nine would adopt those distinctive uniform designs with a more limited colour palette starting with Rapture. This look and feel would suit Deep Space Nine rather well, particularly during the dark days of the Dominion War. The shift from uniforms that looked like work overalls to uniforms that look more military.
On the other hand, these design choices are a much more awkward fit for the cast and crew of The Next Generation. While it is easy to imagine Sisko as a soldier, it is harder to imagine Picard feeling entirely comfortable with a more military version of Starfleet. Indeed, Insurrection seems to suggest that the Enterprise crew have no interest or engagement with the Dominion War. In some ways, the much lighter tone of Insurrection suffers from being stuck with the grey military aesthetic of First Contact.
First Contact would also prove massively influential on Voyager, albeit in ways that were much less related to the Starfleet design aesthetic. Voyager would capitalise on the redesign of the Borg for First Contact, taking advantage of the updates in costuming and make-up as early as the closing scene of Blood Fever. However, the biggest chance to the Borg in First Contact would come through the introduction of a Borg Queen. This decision ran very much counter to the characterisation of the Borg in earlier episodes dating back to Q Who?
On the audio commentary, Brannon Braga justifies the addition of the Borg Queen to the script as a necessity in having the Borg make the leap from television to cinema:
The evolution of the Borg in this film… We actually wrote a full story outline, I believe, before… It was Jonathan Dolgen, the head of Paramount at that time, who said, “You need somebody to talk. These Borg are just zombies.” And we sat down with Rick and we conceived the Borg Queen.
It is a fair point, in terms of basic storytelling. It would be a lot harder to construct a similar narrative without a figurehead like the Queen who could interact with Data and Picard.
In a way, this speaks to a larger issue with the Star Trek film franchise. By and large, it is all but expected that Star Trek films need a singular antagonist to challenge the crew. It is a development that can likely be traced back to the success that The Wrath of Khan found in pitting William Shatner against Ricardo Montalban. Across the thirteen films of the franchise, only two (The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home) have avoided setting the crew against a villainous guest star. (The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home have antagonists in their own ways.)
The vast majority of Star Trek films that followed The Wrath of Khan insisted upon a singular bad guy. Commander Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Krall in Star Trek Beyond. This was another example of the franchise format straining against the demands of big budget cinema, something that was particularly obvious with the Next Generation films. Who cares about Soran, Ru’afo or Shinzon?
It should be noted that this desire for once-off “big bad” antagonists would also spill over to Voyager. That shuffle struggled with creating memorable or well-developed alien species, instead committing itself to big blockbuster-style storytelling in its third season. This would manifest itself in a series of epic two-parters with singular antagonists; Henry Starling in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Annorax in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. It seems entirely appropriate that the Borg Queen would become a recurring fixture on Voyager.
This necessity for a singular unifying antagonist was so strong that even the Borg – an alien species defined by their lack of individuality – would find themselves subject to it. Perhaps the best thing about this creative decision is First Contact‘s refusal to get hung up on the mechanics of how the Borg Queen works. “Do you control the Borg collective?” Data asks. The Queen responds, “You imply disparity where none exists. I am the collective.” Data asks, “Are you their leader?” The Queen responds, “I bring order to chaos.”
I think what’s interesting about her is that she has an odd resonance in that she means something different to almost everyone who’s encountered her.
Some people have felt that the character was symbolic of the modern world, of the way that mechanisation and technology has possibly eclipsed some of our humanity and some of our spirituality.
What was fascinating to me was the be allowed to explore an area that is so far from me as a human being, which is the use of power – or the pursuit of power – for its own sake. I mean I know she believes that everyone that’s assimilated is actually being given a gift. That’s it’s a privilege to be assimilated, that her particular pursuit of perfection is a blessing that she gives to whoever she assimilates. But that use of power and also the way she uses sexuality as a hook … she uses whatever she needs in any given moment, to extend herself.
Much like the Borg themselves, the Queen is a highly evocative and intriguing figure.
Once again, First Contact benefits from some spectacular casting and production design. The Borg Queen might be a controversial character in terms of concept, but the execution works remarkably well. One of the more interesting choices is the decision to heavily sexualise the character, pushing her into the uncanny valley. There is something very wrong about the Borg Queen, in a way that is unsettling and uncomfortable. She feels very much like a Brannon Braga creation, something highly eroticised and deeply disturbing.
The Borg Queen is very much a machine entity. She is introduced as a detached head with a wriggling metallic spine hooked into a mechanical body. Her skin in is stretched and distorted, with the make-up emphasising how the skin is pulled back so as to evoke plastic surgery. The texture of her skin is clammy, with blue veins suggesting a oxygenated monster. And yet her body is consciously sexualised; her skin has a sheen glistening like sweat, her latex costume emphasises the female body, albeit in an unconventional manner.
The Borg Queen looks like a highly sexual corpse robot. (One the commentary, Moore and Braga refer to her giving Data a “blow job.”) She is very much in keeping that Braga’s tendency to paint himself as the “kinky” writer working on the franchise. As Jim McClellan reported for the New Straits Times:
“I’m a very adventurous experimental person, striving to live out whatever fantasies I might have,” he told one interviewer, going on to say that though he wasn’t into S & M, bondage or voyeurism, he was “something of an amateur gynecologist. I have been known to utilise a speculum now and then.
“The female body, as a functional instrument, obsesses me. My greatest fantasy is to be with that 50-foot woman from those 1950s sci-fi films. That would be the ultimate fantasy.”
It seems highly likely that the Borg Queen was a major influence in Brannon Braga’s creation of Seven of Nine at the end of this production season. Seven of Nine is a more conventionally sexy character, but it is easy to see the overlap between the two concepts; the cyberpunk intersection of technology and sex.
As with the characters of Lily Sloane and Zefram Cochrane, the production team working on First Contact got very lucky with the casting of the Borg Queen. In many ways, Alice Krige is the lowest profile of the actors to play bad guys in the Next Generation film franchise; she lacks the pop culture footprint of Malcolm McDowell, she doesn’t have an Oscar to match F. Murray Abraham, she didn’t go on to have a career as successful as Tom Hardy. Of the four actors to play major villains in these films, Krige is in a different weight class. She also delivers the best work.
Krige works particularly well with Brent Spiner. A lot of what works about First Contact comes down to cleverly integrating the demands and expectations imposed upon a Next Generation film in a way that feels organic and of a piece with the source material. This is also true of the sequences centring around Data. Data had very much been the breakout character on The Next Generation, and so it made sense that the films would all revolve around Data in some way or another. However, the scripts were not always very good at integrating Data into the plot.
A lot of the storytelling flaws with Generations, Insurrection and Nemesis can be tied into the need to give Data his own plot tangent while also allocating him the role of comic relief. Generations heaps a story about Data and his emotion chip on top of a more somber funereal narrative, and the structure grates somewhat. Insurrection opens with Data going berserk as a way to bring Picard into the plot, but then drops the point like a lead balloon. Nemesis tries to kill Data off without killing Data off, in a way that seems incredibly cynical.
First Contact is the only Star Trek movie that can figure out what to do with Data, which is important given that the film series treats him as a second lead. (Frakes still trumps Spiner in the opening credits, but it’s quite clear which character is a higher priority for the franchise.) It is a story that hinges on Data’s childlike innocence and his desire to be human, but which also emphasises his relationship with Captain Picard. That mentor-student dynamic between Picard and Data was a highlight of the original show, it is good to see it acknowledged, even fleetingly.
Indeed, it should be stressed that a lot of the reason why First Contact works so well is down to the level of skill with which it is executed. The casting is spot on, which helps prevent potentially distracting characters like the Borg Queen from grating too heavily. The script is tailored to the strengths of the cast and the interesting aspects of the characters. The pacing is tight, which helps shift focus away from obvious plot hole or logic gaps like “why did the Borg wait until they got to Earth to travel back in time?”
In many ways, First Contact is the perfect Next Generation cocktail. It is not enough that the individual elements all work, but they all have to be blended together very precisely. If any element of the mix is off, the results would sour; one need only look to Insurrection and Nemesis for proof. It is a testament to the skill of the production team that any of this works at all, let alone that the result is so effective. Even the direction fits comfortably with the tone that the film is setting, with Jonathan Frakes doing good work.
This is quite an impressive debut for a director whose previous experience had been exclusively in television. In an interview with Barry Kotnow for The Orange County Register, Frakes admitted some surprise that he had been asked to helm this installment:
“I must say that the studio, to its credit, never made me feel that kind of pressure,” the tall, handsome Frakes said as he relaxed in his office on the Paramount lot. “But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel the pressure anyway.
“I know I wasn’t the first choice for this job (rumour has it that Blade Runner’s Ridley Scott and Die Hard’s John McTiernan turned it down), but they gave Leonard Nimoy (from the original Star Trek series) a shot at directing, and I was hoping to get my shot.
“Actually, I thought the opportunity might come with the next movie. Even if I wasn’t the first choice on this one, I consider it a wonderful gift.”
Ridley Scott appears to have been a major influence on Frakes’ directorial style, treating the Borg almost as equivalent to the aliens from Alien. It is a clever choice, and one that even explains certain creative choices like the Borg Queen herself.
It could be argued that First Contact has aged particularly well because of the skill with which Frakes chose his influences. First Contract is in many ways a Star Trek zombie movie, particularly in the way that the Borg are presented as slow, lumbering, ever-advancing monsters. Indeed, the changes to the design of the Borg only emphasise this approach; the grey clammy skin looks even more corpse-like than the older white look, while the introduction of the grey assimilation tubules recall the infectious nature of a zombie’s bite.
First Contact arrived before the glut of zombie movies at the turn of the millennium, before films like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead reenergised the genre for a new generation. (Indeed, Enterprise would itself get in on the act with its own zombie episodes like Regeneration and Impulse.) While the zombie movie never truly went into hibernation, First Contact arrived at a point where there was a relative gap in the market. As such, First Contact did not feel like a cynical example of the franchise following the leader, but a clever twist on the idea of a Star Trek film.
As much as First Contact beckons the immediate future of both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, hinting at massive changes that will come into play before the end of the current season, the show also points even further into the future. Arriving in the year of the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary, First Contact serves as a harbinger for the end of this particular era of Star Trek. This is the film that paves the way for Enterprise, the last Star Trek show to be produced by Rick Berman and the first spin-off to run less than seven seasons.
Rick Berman and Brannon Braga might have positioned Enterprise as a prequel to the original Star Trek, but it was also a sequel to First Contact. The clear desire was to build on the tone and aesthetic of the film. James Cromwell reprises the role of Zefram Cochrane for a small cameo in Broken Bow. The design of the warp ship in First Flight recalls the look and feel of the Phoenix. The episode Regeneration is explicitly a sequel to this feature film, focusing on what happened to the remains of the Borg Sphere destroyed at the start of the film.
Of course, Enterprise would never successfully recapture the beauty and wonder of First Contact. Too many of the problems that faced Sloane and Cochrane here are dismissed too readily by the opening scenes of Broken Bow. The version of Earth in Broken Bow looks more like the version first seen in The Motion Picture than the version depicted in First Contact. Indeed, the biggest problem with the early seasons of Enterprise was that it felt more like a lame retread of The Next Generation instead of a follow-up to First Contact.
In a way, First Contact feels like the perfect place to wrap up the big thirtieth anniversary celebration that runs through this stretch of the year. It is a celebration of pretty much everything great about The Next Generation, the show that brought the franchise back to prime-time television after more than fifteen years in the wilderness. It ties into the core themes and ideas of Star Trek, providing a glimpse at the foundations upon which this fictional universe were built. It is a story about how the better natures of human nature might prevail at the lowest moments.
At the same time, it also nods towards the end of the franchise. This is the last good live action story to focus on the cast of The Next Generation, with the next two sequels exhausting the goodwill of fans and the general audience while trying to build on what made First Contact so successful. It heralds in a number of trends that will cause lasting damage to the franchise, welcoming the Borg as a recurring enemy on Voyager and setting up Enterprise as the last live action show of the Rick Berman era. To paraphrase the Borg Queen, it is the beginning and the end.
Still, all that lies ahead does little to diminish First Contact. First Contact is not only the best of the Next Generation films, it is one of the best entries in the film franchise.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews, The Next Generation Tagged: | borg, borg queen, first contact, Jonathan Frakes, non-review review, review, star trek, star trek: first contact, star trek: the next generation