Recontacting Star Trek: First Contact
It's the borg! We take a look back at one of the most popular Star Trek movies, Jonathan Frakes' Star Trek: First Contact...
There has always been a message at the heart of Star Trek that resonated with different cultures and different generations. A message so universal, so unarguable, so fundamental to core of every human being on the planet that they can identify with it, even if they don’t carry it out.
You can be better.
That’s it. Nothing more fancy, nothing more complicated. Just that we can all be better. The execution of this message, however, metamorphosed somewhat in the mid-90s, largely down to Deep Space Nine. Until then, the desire to better oneself had been shown as unity amongst the characters, and conflict with their environment and the stupid backwards aliens the crews encountered. After Roddenberry’s death, however, the door was opened for conflict between characters. This was not an abandonment of the franchise’s principles, but a maturation. After all, we all want to be better, we just don’t all agree on what better actually is.
Star Trek: First Contact takes this message and runs with it. There isn’t a single group in the film that isn’t trying to better themselves in some very meaningful way, and yet every single group has an idea of betterment that puts them in direct conflict with everyone else. It is in this respect that First Contact is the most idealistic of all Trek films, even while being the darkest. Not that you’d know it from the surface, for First Contact is an action-horror film. Yet it manages to bring these two ideas together so brilliantly that, in at least this respect, First Contact may be the perfect Trek film.
Just as Wrath Of Khan revisited one of the original series’ most interesting villains, so does First Contact, putting the crew back in contact with the Borg. Not just the Borg, but the nasty and vicious Borg from The Best Of Both Worlds, none of that humanity seeking crap of I, Borg. However, unlike The Wrath Of Khan, First Contact had to deal with Picard’s backstory of being assimilated, explaining what the Borg actually are, and reuniting Worf with the crew, introducing a brand new Enterprise, and getting the whole lot back to a point of future history (the invention of warp drive) that itself needed explaining. A lot of heavy lifting was needed just to get the film started, let alone actually tell the damn story, and we all know what happened when they tried that in Generations.
So, who would tell this story? Rookie director Jonathan Frakes, who hoped to go Full-Nimoy and become a respected director in his own right.
Frakes got the job directing the DS9 episode Past Tense, Part II, which was a tense future-history hostage thriller – perfect audition material for First Contact. Or at least, so the story goes. The reality is he was given the job after production had started because no one more famous was willing to direct. Then again, considering the original pitch for the firm was “the Borg go back in time to stop Data being a renaissance painter” (I am being totally serious), they probably thought the film would kill their directing career just like the franchise killed Shatner’s. After all, even though this was an even numbered film, no one thought the Next Generation cast could actually carry a film on their own.
Fortunately, while other Trek films ended up going under because of half baked script ideas and rushed productions, First Contact is an example of how not to screw things up. Writers Braga and Moore were allowed to work out the script problems without interference (dropping the renaissance setting because it was ridiculous), Frakes was trusted to bring his vision to the film without hand holding, and 1990s Paramount actually coughed up the money for things that they had often withheld, like special effects and a marketing campaign.
Frakes’ direction was so quick and efficient he was dubbed ‘Two Takes Frakes’, and it really shows. While the opening of the film could have been a long and dull mess of exposition, instead we’re treated to the entirety of Picard’s backstory, the reveal of the new Enterprise, Worf’s return, an enormous battle with the Borg, the time travel, and the introduction of the major players in the past all within 15 minutes, and that includes a full opening credits sequence (one that really does go on, too). So blistering is the pace that watching it from a modern perspective you’re wondering how this wasn’t its own film. Had this been released nowadays, you can bet the opening section would have been ‘Star Trek: First Contact – Part 1’, with the rest of the film released six months later (‘Star Trek: First Contact – Part 2: Second Contact’).
Suck on that, the present.
What’s more startling about the opening is just how much imagination there is. Some of these shots don’t even seem like they should have been possible in 1996. We’re treated to a long pan out that starts from Picard’s eyes and reveals the entirety of a Borg torus, then onto ‘Borg-eye vision’, some minor eye surgery, a couple of ‘it was only a dream’ fakeouts and a phone call from some admiral explaining the Borg are back while Picard shows his newfound telepathic connection to the Collective.
After only a brief period of exposition (where amazingly not a single line of dialogue is wasted), we’re thrown into one of the most spectacular and well choreographed space battles that film has seen. But it isn’t just gratuitous special effects, even this sequence continues the storytelling at pace, by reintegrating Worf into the crew, getting a DS9 crossover out of the way, introducing the new Enterprise as a warship and showing us just how much Picard intimately knows the Borg. While primarily an action film, nothing is gratuitous, nothing exploitative; it’s action that progresses the story and characters. A rare thing indeed.
Once we’re safely in the future-past (2063, to be exact), the pace slows to allow the major players to get into place. The Borg (who in a wise move have been barely seen up until now) infiltrate the Enterprise and start assimilating the crew, Riker and LaForge meet Zefram Cochrane and help him build the first warp drive, Cochrane’s friend Lily gets trapped on the Enterprise and Data gets kidnapped by the Borg Queen. Every single one of these situations gives rise to conflict about how betterment should be achieved.
The most striking of these is Lily’s pairing with Picard. 24th century values may emphasise being a luvvy-duvvy hippy, ditching capitalism and never getting an STD (with all the magic technology needed to make this possible), but Lily has seen the Third World War and the absolute worst of humanity… and she sees it in Picard. After all, it’s easy to be all enlightened when you have infinite food and a warship at your disposal, but it’s much harder when your life is avoiding Chinese nuclear missiles and watching people murder your friends for fun. Lily is an expert on humanity’s darker side, and she sees it in Picard of all people. Why? Because Picard’s view on bettering humanity is getting rid of the damn Borg, which overrides his better judgement to the point that he actually kills plenty of his own crew personally, and pointlessly orders crewmembers to their deaths.
None of this would work if Lily weren’t Picard’s equal, but fortunately the fantastic Alfre Woodard is equal to the task in every way. In fact, it’s arguable that she upstages Patrick Stewart in the famous ‘you broke your little ships’ scene. She manages to remain the emotional core of the film and refreshingly she remains Picard’s friend and confident, without going down the obvious route of being the token love interest. That this famous scene manages to take Trek’s obsession with Moby Dick and subvert it (she quotes it despite never having read the book, like most people who saw the film) only makes it better when Picard finally decides to capitulate to the Borg.
And what of the Borg? A single minded consciousness intent on spreading its ideology through the assimilation of every culture it encounters, using advanced technology to counter the inevitable problems such integration would inevitably bring, the Federation are an entity appealing only to the converted. So too are the Borg, who try to achieve perfection through assimilation, oblivious and downright callous that anyone would disagree. After all, who would disagree to being better? Only someone evil, that’s who, therefore anyone who disagrees must be destroyed.
I am in no way comparing the Borg to a subset of people on Twitter. Definitely not. No sir. No way, José. (That’s exactly what I’m doing.)
The Borg Queen embodies the Borg, or something (her role is wisely left ambiguous, adding to her alien nature), and embodies their values. Where others see conquerors, she sees unifiers. Where others see violation, she sees integration. Where others… you get the idea. She even helps Data get closer to humanity by installing ‘realistic’ skin and giving him half a hair cut. It is the perfect continuation of his character arc that Generations was not. Data is given the chance to become more human and achieve his ultimate dream, yet in doing so he must abandon the humans he seeks to emulate. It puts him in a very vulnerable position that explores his character as well in two hours as the entire runtime of the series. His emotion chip also makes one final outing, allow Data to explore areas of humanity like deceit, and lusting after a slimy woman with tubes in her brain.
Okay, so the Borg Queen just wants to access the main computer, but she’s willing to help Data with a bit of skin (in more ways than one), but her willingness to join forces with someone who should be an enemy almost makes her Trumpesque in her motivations. The fact that she tried the same thing with Picard, to make a human ‘equal’ to the Borg, suggests her motives weren’t exactly malevolent, simply different. Both Data and Picard treat her not quite as an enemy, but as someone to be respected and contemplated. Humanity gone wrong, but perhaps that is still a form of humanity in itself.
Respected is the attitude Riker has towards Zefram Cochrane, but that respect is turned on its head when it is revealed Cochrane’s view of betterment is just a quest for cash and boobs. It just so happens that his great moneymaker will usher in humanity’s golden age, but he doesn’t care. He’s remarkably stubborn to change, even when confronted with how history will remember him, and how he will eventually become a great leader of humanity. In the end, the roles become reversed. The enlightened and refined 24th century gentlemen end up doing the right thing – bullying Cochrane into going through with the first warp flight – for entirely selfish reasons; they don’t care about him at all, they just want their 24th century back and don’t care how badly they pollute the timeline. In fact, Riker is blasé about the whole thing, outright creating information paradoxes by telling Cochrane things he should say in the future and even letting the crew build the warp drive. Then again, as Q told us, paradoxes are just part of how the universe works.
Cochrane, however, knows he’s not a great person, and has no qualms using an abandoned nuclear missile, stealing components and drinking himself to death just for the chance of getting a few groupies. In fact, the only thing that does prompt him to change is something that has changed the life of everyone who has ever been to space – seeing the Earth and all its troubles as a pale blue dot floating in the vast void of space. Cochrane is probably as far from the 24th century ideology as a person can get, and yet he remains the most relatable of characters.
Which brings us back to the 24th century ideals. Space is mundane, pettiness is a thing of the past and it is for all intents and purposes a utopia. First Contact turns all that on its head an irony that only a capitalist could bring about an age of communism. An irony that humanity’s golden age began in such darkness. And an irony that the very same ideals humanity aspire to can be expressed by the very opposite of humanity. While some argue this cynicism represents the opposite of Trek, I say the deconstruction strengthens it. After all, there is already conflict, darkness and cynicism – First Contact just shows us how those things can be turned into hope.
And just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of it, you notice the similarities between Zefram Cochrane’s flaws and Gene Roddenberry’s, and you realise that not only can hope come from cynicism, but that the story of First Contact is an allegory for the creation of Star Trek itself. After all, Zefram Cochrane is the only character in Trek history to use the words “Star Trek”.
In fact at every point First Contact holds up a mirror to the Star Trek universe, but also to humanity, and twists every positive aspect into a grotesque horror, and every undesirable trait into nobility. There is no end to the mental games one can play trying to determine who the good guys actually are in this film, and it’s only by virtue of the Borg Queen having a skin condition and a really, really weird way of getting dressed that she can even be considered a villain at all. While it is an action film and can be enjoyed on that level, the script is so smart and the performances so perfect that there is a rich and deep layer of meaning if you wish to go looking for it.
None of this would matter if the underlying film weren’t good, but First Contact doesn’t need to be thought about to be enjoyed. It is, after all, primarily an action film. I’ve already talked about the opening, but there are regular action sequences through the film, and every one of them advances the plot in some way. Some of it is franchise building, for example the taut deflector dish sequence that sets up the Borg encounters in Voyager, or the Emergency Medical Hologram cameo, but every single one of these encounters is choreographed to perfection, and manages to pack in hefty dose of continuity porn.
You know the bartender in the holodeck scene? That’s Michael Zaslow, Trek’s first ever redshirt, watching on as Picard mows down Ensign Lynch, Trek’s latest. Hell, there are even a few references to other franchises, such as the appearance of the Millennium Falcon fighting the Borg cube, or having a crew member die trying to repair the AE35 antenna unit. Even Picard’s final outfit is a nod to famous vest wearing action hero. It has to be said again that not a single line of dialogue, not a single action beat or even throwaway graphic is wasted in this film, and that really helps it be so tight throughout its runtime and so enjoyable to rewatch time after time.
The music too plays a massive part in bringing the film together. Jerry Goldsmith returns, bringing with him the Motion Picture/Next Generation theme. Perhaps more importantly, he reuses his friendship motif from Star Trek V to represent the burgeoning alliances between the different players in the film, and the common goal they all share. A lot of the music was composed by Jerry’s son Joel due to scheduling conflicts, so a lot of the music is Goldsmith on autopilot. But what a beautiful autopilot it is. The main theme is a wonderful, yearning pastoral number that underlines the historical significance of the titular first contact, but the instrumentation makes it almost militaristic at the same time.
It’s also worth noting how organic the score is, aside from the use of the blaster beam (itself a continuity nod to the theory that the Borg created V’Ger). The effect is to tie the more optimistic themes in more closely with the darker action on screen, and it’s fair to say that the film would be significantly diminished with any other score. Kudos must also be played to the use of actual pop music, because while Roy Orbison and Steppenwolf are used to flesh out the culture of 2063, they are intentionally anachronistic choices that don’t date the film or appear particularly out of place. An effect that would not have been achieved with The Beastie Boys.
Ultimately, what you get out of First Contact is how much you are willing to delve into its themes. On its base level it is a flawlessly executed action film with a few doses of horror and humour thrown in. Many people have criticised it for being ‘Trek-lite’ in this regard (it is an even numbered film, after all), but I think that is unfair. It is the perfect example of a film that you can enjoy if you turn your brain off, but you don’t have to. Far from it. First Contact is a rich melting pot of ideas and philosophy, wrapped up in an action adventure tale with interesting yet relatable characters. It is much, much darker in tone than any other entry before it (and arguably since), yet it offers the most optimistic message of any Trek film.
We will be better. We just don’t know what better is yet.
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