Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century.
Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense time-travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big-screen outings with Picard in the captain’s chair.
It managed to climb to such less-than-illustrious heights via some fairly extensive reconfiguring of its main villains, however, retconning Picard’s time as Locutus through a bit of up-close-and-personal with (the very good) Alice Krige as the Borg Queen. Apparently, the move came at the behest of Viacom chairman Jonathan Dolgen, who considered the picture needed an individual Borg villain with whom the crew could interact. Which is surely the exception that proves the rule in execs never having an idea in their head that doesn’t douse the creative flames.
This kind of decision is nothing new, of course, hence the introduction of Davros in Doctor Who resulting in the Daleks failing to fly solo again for another 25 years (and, of course, the Borg owe not a little to that series’ Cybermen). And if the Borg are also indebted to Giger, their queen owes something to the reconfiguration of the xenomorphs in Aliens, ants given a controller of the colony. Still, though, it’s a stretch, one of several in the plotting, to conceive how exactly the Queen fits in with their logical, utilitarian – a nice counter mechanism to the Vulcan outlook – approach to existence.
It’s difficult to see the Collective putting up with her at all, really, which is probably why her unconvincing explanation of bringing order to chaos elicits an “Interesting, if cryptic response” from Data, a sure sign the writers have stopped short of entirely working out her capacities and are unable to convince even themselves that they know what their idea means (Ronald D Moore did, after all, make up Battlestar Galactica as he went along, so if the writer fits…)
The Borg are definitely pretty cool and not at all shoddy as villains go. Elon Musk probably loves them. And they’re effectively shot by Jonathan Frakes for the most part. Serviceably, might be a better term. He’s able to create tension, even if his insertion of POVs is rather sloppy and diminishing to the overall result. But he achieves what’s being aimed for in his big screen debut: a Star Trek action movie.
I’m sure ST:TNG fans (you may have gathered I’m not one) were/still are up in arms about some of the changes here, what with ignoring that the Borg can have implants removed in favour of gun-happy Picard going on a shoot ’em up spree (and isn’t it bizarre how the barely mobile Picard of the TV show, who seemed to have every fibre of his being freeze-dried in starch, becomes a regular Ripley in the movies, right down to his sweaty t-shirt? Or not. That’s star power for you, and the demands of big screen shorthand).
There’s also the iffy-ness of the time-travel deal. I’m sure anyone with the tiniest background in temporal engineering can figure the whole set up is pretty much baloney. Why do the Borg even engage in a fight if they can pop back in time to any point and scoot across a non-Federation galaxy to assimilate an unsuspecting Earth? Why aren’t they doing it all the time to get what they want (a similar question for all similarly equipped villains without moral or ethical incentives opting not to wreak havoc)?
I guess, at least, when the crew are “caught in a temporal wake” there’s a vague explanation that they can witness the now nine billion Borg populating the Earth because they are “somehow protected from changes in the timeline”. As for returning to the 21st century by recreating the vortex, I think I preferred slingshots round the Sun. Chronometric particles, indeed.
Of course, one of the reasons for throwing in time travel is that it worked like gangbusters for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The only problem with that thinking here is that there’s nothing to be gained culture-clash-wise by giving us a still-future society with no reference points, and in particular suffering from some incredibly wretchedly-designed costumes illustrating the fashions of the coming period (we’re told that this is a decade after World War III, in which 600 million people died, but no one seems particularly upset).
One of the problems is also that the guest cast are either miscast or foisted horrible characterisations. I could easily see Zefram Cochran played by Tom Hanks and being appealing (although there are further shades of The Voyage Home there, with its wooing of Eddie Murphy), but James Cromwell is a hammy embarrassment, not remotely annoying-endearing, just annoying. Apparently, this is the closest he’s come to his own personality in a role. All I can say in response is that I’d find myself very busy that evening if I was invited to one of his parties. Cromwell should stick to playing pig specialists or sociopathic police captains.
Cochran’s also blessed with the lousiest of a number of truly lousy lines in the movie (“You’re all astronauts, on some kind of star trek” – sheesh!) It’s also (another also) a very sad thing when all filmmakers can come up with when asked to pick a memorable pop hit is lifting it from one Tarantino already reintroduced into the popular consciousness a few years prior. Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling still feels like it’s in Guardians of the Galaxy because of Reservoir Dogs, and that’s 25 years later, so Frakes using Magic Carpet Ride, albeit the original Steppenwolf, a mere four years later, can be no coincidence.
Nothing on Earth in First Contact really comes together, which means, unlike Star Trek IV, the picture is rather lopsided in favour of Picard’s kill-happy Captain Death Machine. Which isn’t to say everything on the Enterprise succeeds either. Jean-Luc is teamed with Lily (Woodward) for the most part, and their interactions represent writing on a remedial school level.
He teaches her about the bright future (there’s no money: “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives”. I hate to say this, but is that why you’re all so incredibly dull?) And she, having known him five minutes, assumes the role of conscience, pointing out his bleedin’ obvious obsession with the Borg and bringing him round to evacuating the ship.
The scene in which Picard throws a verbal wobbly probably gets garlands lobbed Stewart’s way, but if so it’s in spite of the embarrassingly ham-fisted execution; the stuff about Herman Melville is ripe, Jean-Luc’s cooling down unconvincing, and only one line (“You broke your little ships”) is a sign of how a half-decent version might have played.
There’s a mostly decent scene earlier, though, with Pat throwing a paddy and accusing Worf of being a coward (“If you were another man, I would kill you where you stand”), but it’s only the pace and guiding tension that ensures even these passages feel less uneven than they do. Witness: the obligatory holodeck yawn-fest, perhaps the least earned, smuggest element of ST:TNG (even smugger than Riker, and that’s saying something), in which Picard pulls out a tommy gun and gets medieval on some Borg (and yes, “Sounds Swedish” is another of the many stinker lines to disgrace the picture).
And I don’t know about you, but this one stresses the gulf between a star and a dramatic actor: Shatner could pull off a line like “Reports of my assimilation are greatly exaggerated” with due self-conscious aplomb (he could probably even have made the Swedish one work, come to that). Stewart makes it sound like the writers’ room has spent several hours persuading him it’s a good idea and yet he remains unconvinced.
It’s been variously said Stewart objected to the original idea of Riker going up against the Borg while Picard waxed lyrical with Cochran, which given his reported throwing his weight around on Insurrection is entirely possible. But fair’s fair, it does make more sense that, with an immediate history with the Borg, he should actually be in the plotline featuring them. Accordingly, I rather like the ego-puncturing reveal whereby, having marched up to the Borg Queen assuming he’s the bee’s knees to her, it is decided “He will make an excellent drone”. Okay, the Captain ends up swinging from the ceiling like no self-respecting 55-year-old should – unless they’re Tom Cruise – but there’s no doubting that Data’s given the more interesting plotline.
Borg Queen: Are you familiar with physical forms of pleasure?
Data: If you are referring to sexuality, I am… fully functional, programmed in… multiple techniques.
I suppose it’s quite endearing that ST: TNG follows the mould of the original series and can only be bothered to find the time to cater to the main trio. Or a fundamental flaw in they had no idea how to remedy. Data was a disaster in Generations, with pretty much every scene attempting to broaden the character through the use of his emotion chip falling flat on its arse, or, when he was going for laughs, inspiring tumbleweeds to roll by. He doesn’t start off too well here either (“Captain, I believe I speak for everyone else here when I say, to hell without orders” – and people protest he isn’t a Spock clone), but in pretty much every other respect, despite being immobilised for much of the proceedings, he’s well-used (even when “humanised” with an emo fringe; undoubtedly this inspired Sam Raimi for Spider-Man 3).
Sure, you need to be able to get past the Borg previously dismissing him as obsolete, and his new-found ability to turn off his emotion chip at will (neither of those things matter very much to me), but the crucial element is that his presence works dramatically. He’s established as a potent presence when he responds to the initial invasion of the Enterprise attack by breaking a Borg neck, and if his conversations with the Queen lack a certain intellectual rigour (“Believing oneself to be perfect is often the sign of a delusional mind”) and his learning curve is a sick-making Waltons-esque supplemental after all the wanton violence (“She brought me closer to humanity”), Krige and Spiner have undoubted, strange as it may seem given their respective characters, chemistry.
Worf: Perhaps today is a good day to die.
Or to suffer a terrible headache. The makers contrive to place Worf on board in fairly unconvincing manner, but perhaps in recognition of his series-spanning presence Michael Dorn is at least blessed with a few choice lines and even a touch of humour thrown in for good measure (“You do remember how to fire phasers?” asks Riker, Frakes flashing his patented shit-eating grin, God love him). Alas for Dorn, he also gets the bronze medal for dreadful lines (“Assimilate this!” Good frickin’ grief!)
I couldn’t tell you anything of note about the others, apart from Geordi getting some eyes and Troi asking, hilariously “Captain, what is it?” when she senses a disturbance in his Borg state (ye gods!) Neal McDonough makes more of an impression as red shirt Lieutenant Hawk. As does Robert Picardo, who would undoubtedly be straight in there on any ultimate crew combo list, attempting to administer skincare advice to the Borg (“Perhaps you’d like an analgesic cream?”)
Frakes is probably a better filmmaker than Leonard Nimoy, although that doesn’t prevent him falling back on four-square TV direction at times (the Vulcan landing at the climax is utterly bereft of any sense of anything approaching competence, less still grandeur). Two-Takes Frakes (I can’t for the life of me comprehend why fans are always suggesting him for whatever the next Trek universe movie is) is reliable, though, and he undoubtedly comes up with the goods at times: the Zero G scene revolving around the deflector dish is remarkably tense, despite some atrocious wire work, and if it was his choice to bring back Jerry Goldsmith it was a commendable one, as the latter adds a highly unnerving synth twang to the Borg movements (instantly recognisable from his work on Innerspace, but to much more malevolent effect).
Star Trek: First Contact is an easy Star Trek movie to tear apart, if you so wish, but what it has going for it, in contrast to the pictures surrounding it, can’t be underestimated; an undeniable dramatic pulse. At its best, it’s even thrilling. I wouldn’t say its complement exactly prove they’re suited to the big screen – you can see in particular the aforementioned adjustments attempting to make Picard fill it out – but they at least don’t leave a gaping empty hole.
The mere idea of the Borg does a lot of the heavy lifting for the movie, so much so, it’s easy to forgive the Cochrane subplot and its rather limp attempts to instil wonder and provide a contrast with the 24th-century life. It isn’t such a surprise First Contact was hailed as a new lease of life for the movie franchise – although, if its box office looks more bountiful than any up to that point aside from The Voyage Home, it actually lags behind the first four, inflation-adjusted – even if such notions soon subsided.