Star Trek: First Contact

  • star_trek_first_contact_ver1Year:  1996
  • Director:  Jonathan Frakes
  • Series Rank:  #2
  • Year Rank:  #13
  • Oscar Nominations:  Makeup
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Makeup
  • The Enterprise Crew:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Gates MacFadden, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Neal McDonough
  • Villain:  Alice Kirge

In the period of just a few minutes late in Star Trek: First Contact, Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard delivers, in two different moments, the most emotional, powerful lines spoken in all the the countless hours of television and film that make up the Star Trek franchise.  They are at once an example of Stewart’s talent (the best actor to ever be a major part of the franchise), an anomaly in the franchise (wrapped in revenge, an idea supposedly non-existent at the time) and a measure of how well this film works in the course of the franchise.

The first moment comes when he is facing down Worf, the proud and brave Klingon who has risen under Picard’s leadership to become the commander of his own ship.  Worf realizes that their task is hopeless – that the alien enemy the Borg have taken over the Enterprise and that the only hope for the future lies in destroying the ship.  “We have lost the Enterprise,” Worf explains.  “We have not lost the Enterprise!” Picard shouts back.  “We’re not going to lose the Enterprise, not to the Borg, not while I’m in command.”  This is followed a couple of minutes later when Lily, a woman from the past tries again to convince Picard to blow up the ship.  “They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!”

All of this works so well, as I said, because of Stewart’s delivery, the most powerful lines spoken in the long history of Star Trek.  But you have to know something more beyond this film to really understand why these words mean so much to the captain.  You have to go back to “The Best of Both Worlds”, the two-part TNG episode that provided a cliff-hanger for the third season to end on and for the fourth season to begin with.  Those episodes, still two of the best in Star Trek history, were a reminder that while the original series petered out badly in its third season and was cancelled, TNG was going stronger than ever at the same point, hitting new creative heights.  Sadly, that won’t be quite true of the film series, as the original crew films stayed mostly good all the way to the end, while after this film, the second best in the long franchise, the TNG films would drop significantly.

This film came about because there were two competing ideas.  The filmmakers wanted to use the Borg, who had become the ultimate villains in the Star Trek universe (though, wisely used sparingly so as to not overexpose them or worry about Diminishing Threat Syndrome), but one of the producers also wanted to involve time travel.  So, in the end we get a great story that combines the two ideas – after a failed attack on Earth, thanks to Picard’s timely arrival (the brass were worried that Picard’s experiences in those two TNG episodes would compromise him, when in fact it makes him the prime person to lead the defense of the planet), the Borg go back in time to interrupt the major event that pushed mankind to the stars – first contact with Vulcans in 2063.  The aspects of this plot will allow the crew to split in two.  Down on the planet surface, helping Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive (a character we met in an Original Series episode that I gave a C to and which Veronica gave a D+), we have Riker, Geordi and Troi.  They don’t get to play the hero very much (though Jonathan Frakes, the actor who played Riker, was busy doing a solid job directing the film), but we do get a wonderful scene with a drunk Troi.  The main action is going on aboard the Enterprise, where the Borg have managed to take control of much of the ship, with Picard, Data, Worf and Beverly holding the defensive line.

Guest starring in the film, along with the cast are James Cromwell, playing Cochrane as a beaten down drunk who just wants to make some money, not change history, Alfre Woodard as Cochrane’s partner Lily, who ends up trapped on the Enterprise and Alice Kirge, as the Borg Queen.  All three of them are solid guest stars and are part of the reason for the success of the film.  Cromwell, who had acted in some TNG and DS9 episodes plays a very good weary man who just wants to have some fun.  Kirge is one of the better villains among all the films, providing a strange measure of sensuality to a cold and calculating character.  But the key casting is Woodard.  Lily is a character that is sometimes brought in to a television series or film franchise like this – the random new character who nonetheless develops a strong relationship with a major character and is able to get through to them.  As a character trope, it’s really annoying to have this suddenly new character be so important and be able to move things forward in the plot while the main crew members cannot.  That’s why the performance of Woodard, certainly one of the most talented people to appear in a Star Trek film, is so important.  If she were not able to be so convincing, first as a woman who is out of her element, then as a survivor and fighter, making things clear to Picard in a way he hasn’t been able to see about himself, the film would suffer for her character.  Instead, she’s a strength of the film and when Picard, humbled by the comparison to Ahab, actually quotes Moby Dick and she is confused and is forced to admit she has never read it, it works because of Woodard’s delivery.

This film also continues the story of Data’s ever-evolving path towards humanity.  Here he has more control over his emotion chip, but when he is captured by the Borg, they not only activate the chip but also attempt to use his desire to become human as a path towards seduction.  It leads to a potentially intriguing conclusion as we wonder what path Data has chosen, but Brent Spiner, who had one of the worst moments in the first TNG film here is able to make full use of both the cold analytical side as well as the potential for human growth.  In the end, when Picard has the chance to blow up the ship and leave, it is to rescue Data that he is willing to bargain away his own personal freedom.  Like the friendship between Kirk and Spock that bridges the logical gulf of Spock’s brain, it is the friendship between Picard and Data that continues to move the story forward and will continue through the next two films.

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