Review: The Biggest Mistake of ‘Star Trek: First Contact’

 

Our retrospective on the Star Trek film franchise left off on the installment that officially handed the keys to the Next Generation crew.

 

Though a general audience pleaser upon release, Star Trek: Generations has since acquired a reputation as a mixed bag of good visuals marred by character mishandling and questionable plotting.

 

Trek fans were eager to see how the TNG cast would fare in their first solo outing. And Star Trek: First Contact didn’t let them down.

 

At least not at first.

 

Having premiered in 1996, First Contact holds the distinction of being the last Star Trek movie released before Cultural Ground Zero. Pop culture was enjoying something of a dead cat bounce at the time, which may have helped get this movie into audiences’ good graces.

 

That’s not to say that First Contact is a bad film. Having just watched it and Generations within a few days of each other, I can report that STFC improves on its direct predecessor.

 

Which it may owe in part to the presence of Jonathan “Two Takes” Frakes in the director’s chair.

 

 

The studio nevertheless tried to play it safe, though. It’s long been theorized in Trek fandom that Paramount didn’t trust the Next Generation crew to carry a movie on their own. Which goes partway toward explaining Kirk’s Scotty’s, and Chekhov’s roles in Generations.

 

But the suits knew they’d have to let the TNG cast work without a net at some point. So to hedge their bets, they came up with another kitchen sink script bashing together key ideas from other successful Trek entries.

 

For example, we have time travel to Earth’s past, a main character on a Melvillian quest for revenge, and a technologically superior giant object threatening Earth.

 

Then they committed the second main stylistic error that would plague the TNG films.

 

Generations established the model for the first mistake: scripting a Trek movie like a two-hour episode of the TV series.

 

With First Contact, we first run into the equal folly of trying to make Star Trek a swashbuckling, mass space combat Star Wars ripoff.

 

And as we’ve seen before, Star Trek’s forte isn’t fleet maneuvers or gunfights. It’s submarine warfare in space.

 

Tense, relatively slow, and cerebral.

 

But Hollywood execs had already decided that audiences lacked sufficient attention spans to sit through another three-dimensional Enterprise vs Reliant battle. So they had ILM cook up a big action set piece featuring dozens of ships flying around shooting lasers.

 

Stop typing that comment. I know they’re not lasers. That’s not the point.

 

To its credit, First Contact has one of the most underrated scores in the whole franchise.

 

A lot of people say they like the music in Generations, but it always sounded like rejected DS9 tracks to me. STFC brings back the great Jerry Goldsmith, who gave us the opening theme of TMP and TNG renown. This time out, he mellows the bold triumphalism with a gentler, more intimate touch. And that contrast does the movie a great service.

 

What’s more, the graphic design and props guys made good on STG’s promise of a new starship Enterprise.

 

And in a Hollywood rarity, they overdelivered.

She’s like a flawless gem that reveals beautiful new facets as you turn them into the light.
She’s like a flawless gem that reveals beautiful new facets as you turn them into the light.

In all seriousness, the Sovereign-class Enterprise should have been the one used throughout Star Trek: The Next Generation. If I owned Paramount, I’d order every episode of TNG edited to replace every shot of the Enterprise-D with this masterpiece, which has far greater aesthetic continuity with the NCC-1701.

 

 

 

For now, I’ll have to content myself with this fan-made alternate intro:

 

Star Trek TNG: alternate intro

 

What was I doing again?

 

Oh, yeah, that’s right.

 

Star Trek: First Contact.

 

Along with a new Enterprise, STFC features a new main villain (for the film series). Breaking the streak set by the prior 5 movies, each of which included at least one Klingon antagonist, First Contact gives the Klingons a rest and brings the Borg to the big screen.

 

Which was a pretty good choice on the film makers’ part. Though the Borg were already getting nerfed in their TV incarnation, Hollywood was on the cusp of the zombie craze. So STFC’s writers reworked the ruthless “ultimate consumers” into more or less mindless body-snatchers.

 

But the movie doesn’t let you think about these changes too much. It sets a quick pace from the moment the Borg suddenly attack Earth again.

 

To be honest, the slowest part is the opening, which has the Enterprise on a soporific survey mission while Earth is under attack. The explanation doesn’t make much sense, either. Starfleet apparently distrusts Picard because he was captured and brainwashed by the Borg five years prior. Even though, as the Federation’s inside man within the Collective, he was responsible for foiling their first invasion of Earth.

 

So Picard defies his superiors, perhaps to inject a Kirk-like element into the proceedings, and orders the Enterprise back to Earth. The pseudo-Lucasian CG battle happens, and Picard saves the earth once again.

 

But like the sore losers they are, the Borg decide to head back in time for a retroactive win. It’s up to Picard and the gang to follow them back and prevent the assimilation of the past.

 

Which, in an act of historic overkill, would also prevent humanity from making first contact with aliens.

 

It’s the Borg’s most insidious plot since their successful bid to get Barack Obama an Illinois state senate seat by smearing Jack Ryan.

 

 

Back in the late 21st century, the Enterprise crew meet Dr. Zefram Cochrane, the celebrated inventor of FTL flight.

 

For humans, that is.

 

It’s worth mentioning that Cochrane is played by perennial supporting actor James Cromwell – one of those artists who’s been working in Hollywood for years, only to be almost obscure.

 

 

The man deserves wider notoriety, as evidenced by his delightful portrayal here.

 

A major reason why I like Cromwell’s take on Cochrane is because it ties into one of this movie’s key ancillary themes. Though it’s another member of the Phoenix project, Lily, who drives the point home.

 

More on that in a bit.

 

The Borg attack on Cochrane’s operation leaves our heroes less than 48 hours to repair humanity’s first warp ship in time to make first contact. They’ve got the tools and the know-how. But they’ve also got a problem in the form of an attempted Borg takeover of the Enterprise. With most of his senior officers none the wiser planetside, Picard must repel the multiplying hijackers before they can call in reinforcements.

 

This conflict leads to the genesis of what I like to call Action Picard.

 

While the TV show consistently depicted CAPT Picard as an enlightened diplomat who always saw the use of force as a last resort, Action Picard yells, smashes things, and kills people at the drop of a hat.

 

 

And we’ll be seeing more of him as the TNG movie series continues.

 

Here, it looks like the writers tried to achieve a twofer: call back to Khan’s obsession with revenge in Star Trek II, and crank up the conflict for the big screen.

 

Except Khan was the villain, whose quest for vengeance ended up destroying him.

 

And the screenwriters confused conflict with violence, which is a separate concept.

 

Conflict is when two characters want opposing things (or the same thing, which only one of them can have). The strength of the conflict depends on how compelling the characters’ motives are and what lengths they’re willing to go to for success.

 

Violence is stuff getting broken and people getting hurt.

 

The latter can be included in the former, but they’re not the same.

 

Now, it could be argued that Picard has a strong motivation for wanting revenge on the Borg.

 

However, for maximum effect, motive must harmonize with character. And Picard’s sudden bloodlust strikes a dissonant note for ST:TNG viewers.

 

Lucky for them, the aforementioned supporting character Lily salvages Picard’s arc.

 

In Hollywood Formula terms, Lily is the relationship character. She has a lesson for the protagonist, who isn’t having it – until the two of them go through their own conflict and reconciliation.

 

 

Lily’s lesson for Picard is an unstated by clear secondary theme of the movie. And it’s a rejection of Roddenberry’s insufferable chronological snobbery even more refreshing than Kirk’s dunk on End of History theory in The Undiscovered Country.

 

And what she says, though not in so many words, is “Hey, your forebears aren’t as backward and unenlightened as you think. And you future spacemen haven’t evolved past being selfish and vindictive.”

 

I’ve got to hand it to Action Picard. He shows that material progress doesn’t change human nature.

 

There’s some clever duality here, too. In his fervor to prevent high-tech bugmen from taking over the world, Picard almost falls into the equal but opposite error of letting his passions reduce him to savagery.

 

Although the movie kind of undermines that subtext – and much of the villains’ characterization – with its main antagonist.

 

Despised by Trekkies for humanizing the impersonal force of nature the Borg were initially presented as, their queen’s first appearance comes as a cinematic record scratch for another main reason.

 

She comes off as a basic camgirl.

More like the whore queen

 

From her first moments on screen, Her Majesty tries to hasten the takeover of the Enterprise by coming on to her officers – first Data and then Picard.

 

You can just hear the executives urging the film makers to add more sex appeal. Which in this case resembles the unenviable task of making a drill press alluring.

 

And they picked the two worst characters to try that spiel on. As confirmed in Generations, Picard is an incel. Data is a turbo-autist. If you must have the villainous THOT seduce someone, at least make it someone believable, like Riker.

 

 

Anyway, Data summons the virtue to thwart the space trollop. Cochrane makes his historic flight, and First Contact happens right on schedule. The Enterprise crew return to the future timeline they left, and all is well.

 

Until the next movie.

 

 

 

For a military space adventure that combines the planet-hopping of Star Trek with the character-driven conflict of MS Gundam, check out the next generation of my hit mecha series.

 

Read it now:

 

Originally published here.

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Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is the #1 best selling author of Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You. His sci fi horror books have racked up Dragon Award nominations and won. Let him edit your book to perfection. Read more of his work at brianniemeier.com or pick up his books via Amazon.

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