After the disappointing dud of Generations, we have this, an attempt at getting the TNG movies back on track by reuniting them with their most implacable foe –
Rick Berman The Borg. But will it be enough to turn things around?
Pre-Existing Prejudices: Well, it’s got the Borg in them – TNG’s most successful enemy, so that’s something. And James Cromwell is here, and I like James Cromwell too because… well, he’s James Cromwell. This has, I know, the reputation as the best of the TNG movies – a bar so low it’s subterranean – and of course, it’s the one that tends to stick in the minds of non-fans. Alice Krige being assembled in front of your very eyes will tend to do that.
What’s It All About, JG? The Borg attack the Federation as a flimsy excuse to get Worf into the movie. They are defeated but manage to send a probe back in time to try and assimilate Earth in the past. They arrive during a crucial time in Earth’s history – the first contact of the title – as humans and Vulcans meet thanks to Zephram Cochrane’s warp ship. The Borg slowly take over the Enterprise so Picard has something to be angsty about, while down on the planet various other members of the cast try and persuade Cochrane to make the jump that changes humanity’s future. Oh, and there’s a Borg queen who wants to fuck/help Data or maybe it’s just a way to take over the ship. Anyway, she’s defeated thanks to some handy flesh-melting gas, Picard gets to go all Die Hard, and the future of humanity is saved.
Any Other Business:
- That opening shot, with Picard’s eyeball bulging inwards under the Borg drill-bit, is still unsettling even after all the times I’ve seen it.
- After the hugely distracting mash-up of uniforms on display in Generations it’s a great relief to see everyone wearing a single, latter-DS9, style of uniform here.
- It seems hard to imagine now, but First Contact is the first time we see the Borg assimilating someone using those little nanotube things that come from their fists.
- Maybe Soran’s words in Generations had more of an impact on Geordi that we expected. When Soran taunted Geordi with, “normal is what everyone else is… and you’re not” it must have hit home, as gone is the VISOR of seven years standing (always an unwise, if distinctive, look anyway) and in its place are ocular implants that actually allow LeVar Burton to express with his whole face. It doesn’t make a material difference to anything here, but it’s nice to be able to see his eyes for a change.
- So the Borg, alien invaders from the other side of the galaxy, who have just wiped out a significant number of starships and travelled backwards in time, open fire on a small, undefended, unshielded complex in Montana and… slightly disrupt a bar and knock someone off a bicycle. Terrifying!
- Oh, that drunk scene in the bar between Troi and Riker – Jonathan Frakes has never been so hammy in his life, and it works wonderfully. The only thing missing is a sad trombone when Troi passes out, and Riker breaks the fourth wall by rolling his eyes directly at the camera. Guess what the result of How Rikerd Was Riker will be this time out?
- In Generations, Kirk races down to Engineering to try and save the Enterprise-B and has to navigate an insane number of ladders, supports and gantries to achieve his goal, which looks dramatic on screen but makes it seem like the ship’s layout was put together by a maze designer on an off-day. The same bloke must still be working for Starfleet, because the manual ejection of the deflector dish makes absolutely no sense whatsoever but does provide a handy platform for the bad guys to build a beacon on top of, should your movie require a dramatic space fight.
- Look, I know that it’s long established that the Borg won’t attack you unless you actively present a threat to them, but it reaches absolutely ludicrous levels here. We’re supposed to believe that even when they’ve taken over an alien starship and that takeover is pivotal to their plans they’re going to ignore you while you wander about the place? Even when you’re unobtrusively hanging about in space while the Borg build their interplexing beacon? Come on! Though saying that, you’re ignored unless you’re a handy redshirt that needs to get assimilated to up the drama quotient.
- Picard tells Lily after killing one of his own crewmembers who’s in the process of being assimilated, “trust me, I’m doing him a favour.” Says the man who was assimilated by the Borg and, in fact, got better. Mmmm.
- The movie’s signature special effect – the Borg Queen floating down in Engineering as a head before joining with her body, all in one smooth unbroken shot – looked unprecedentedly good for a Star Trek film when First Contact was initially released and still looks fantastic all these years later.
- I just want to praise Alfre Woodard, really. She’s great in this film, and it’s so great that her character is never reduced to being yet another peril monkey that needs rescuing. In fact this whole movie is pleasingly free of peril monkeys.
- While James Cromwell, one of the most “hey it’s that guy!” actors in the business (see the bridge of the Enterprise-B for more on this) does a generally great job with Cochrane – especially as a last-minute stand in for Tom Hanks – the use of rock’n’roll is inexcusably corny and not nearly as funny as the producers seem to think it is.
- Similarly, Cochrane’s “you’re on some kind of… star trek” is way too on the nose, though the film just about gets away with it thanks to Cromwell’s delivery.
- It’s also an intriguing idea that he developed the Phoenix as a way to make money, and it’s a shame this idea isn’t expanded on a little further. Similarly, it seems clear that Cochrane is, if not a full alcoholic, at least well on the way to becoming one, something else that could have been brought out a bit more. It’s also a bit of a shame that we never get to see him do anything engineering-clever or solve a problem, which makes it a little tough to buy him as the man who invented warp drive, or indeed any kind of scientist. And yet he’s still pretty great.
- The Borg Queen falling apart in This Movie’s Handy Flesh Dissolver is magnificently done, as is Data’s strangely touching lament over her passing.
- I like the fact that the movie ends on a shot not of Our Heroes returning successfully to the 24th century, but instead lingering on the actual moment of first contact. Though, again, the rock’n’roll was a mistake – a moment of genuinely moving dignity, when it seems like Cochrane has finally grown as a person thanks to his experiences over the course of the film (as Star Trek a theme as you could possibly hope for), is rather undone by a crap joke and James Cromwell’s dancing.
- One thing the TNG films get unambiguously right where the TOS films failed is using the correct damned theme tune from the TV show. Why the TOS films steered away from this I have no idea, and criticize the Abrams films all you like, but even they understand that using the correct theme is a pretty basic Thing To Get Right.
Here we go! (take two). The idea of taking Star Trek and putting it on the big screen is just undeniably something that’s going to interest fans. Witness the calls for movies after the end of both DS9 and Voyager even when, as with both examples, there’s no particularly logical reason to do this – their stories end (Voyager in particular, whose whole raison d’etre is a ship lost in the Delta quadrant. If it comes home, that’s pretty much it). By putting TNG on the big screen it seems like it’s a natural, logical progression. Of course, that progression both starts and ends with TNG, but the desire to see Our Heroes go into action on the wide-screen canvas of a movie is simply exciting. But instead of giving us a strong foundation on which to continue, we instead had to slog through Generations, a poor movie that sometimes even seems struggles to achieve basic professionalism never mind actually being good. I mentioned in my review of that movie that one of the reasons it’s frustrating is a lot of the details are correct but so little effort seems to have been paid to basic concerns like a plausibility, or a script that makes sense, or not messing up the sole reason for being there in the first place, that it becomes easy to ask things like, “what was the script editor actually paid for?” First Contact course-corrects to such a degree that it’s hard to imagine so many of the same people were involved in the shoddy amateurism that made Generations such a difficult film to redeem.
Let’s be clear from the outset – First Contact is a better film than Generations in absolutely every regard. Gone, for example, are the pointless continuity references than nobody outside hardcore fandom cares about. This is relevant because this is an actual movie, where people (not just fans) need to go to the theatre and fork over their hard-won cash rather than just idly flipping channels until they stray across it, and endless continuity points the general public just don’t care about can be incredibly off-putting. That’s not the way to get bums of seats, as the struggling box-office of the TNG film as they progress demonstrates.
The continuity that is on display in First Contact is, however, integrated seamlessly, and we can visibly see the lessons learned from the last outing. Never heard of Zephram Cochrane before? It doesn’t matter, because the script is smart enough not only to avoid any continuity references to old TOS episodes the majority of viewers won’t remember or care about, but also doesn’t include any wink-wink “I hope he doesn’t end up stranded on some lost planet!”-type foreshadowing. And yet, if you have heard of him it’s a nice little link to the past without overdoing it. This is how you handle in-series continuity, not with crushingly painful dialogue about how, “that’s the mission Jim Kirk was killed on!” or Whoopi Goldberg losing her dignity while Explaining The Movie’s Plot. Never seen Voyager before? That doesn’t make the Doctor’s brief cameo in sick bay any less funny. Never heard of Reg Barclay? That’s fine, because otherwise he’s just some geeky keyboard-jockey who’s been let out of class for the day, an archetype that functions just fine whether you’ve seen the character before or not. There’s a real skill in the way First Contact is able to handle and integrate elements of the past and it absolutely nails this in a way that no other TNG film manages.
Gone, too, are more major recurring characters – stand up the Duras sister, or rather, please don’t, and Guinan. This is actually significant because it means screen-time isn’t being clogged up with characters who don’t really have anything to contribute – instead the TNG characters are at last allowed to come front and centre in their own movie and actually occupy the film in a way they never quite did in Generations. Although Generations is ostensibly a TNG movie into which TOS so very gracelessly crashes there’s a feeling throughout the film that the TNG crew mostly seem to be standing around on the periphery watching events which really revolve around others, predominantly Kirk and Soran, and only react to situations rather than leading them. They have very, very little agency and that means they just don’t feel all that relevant. First Contact completely reverses this, and the difference is palpable. We have three significant additional characters outside the main crew, a small handful of minor ones, and that’s it.
What this means is that we actually get to spend time with the characters we know and like from the TV show, and actually have them be the prime motivators in their own story. Pretty simple stuff, really, but it’s not something that worked last time out, and it’s great to see it here. This gives First Contact a drive and energy entirely missing from its predecessor, but also gives everyone something plot-relevant to do. Some roles are bigger than others – as with all TNG movies (and a goodly chuck of the series) the female regulars are badly let down by a story that doesn’t greatly require them, so Troi gets to have a funny scene where she’s drunk, and good ol’ Beverly gets to evacuate sickbay and try to look authoritative on the bridge. It’s not a lot, but at least they do get their little moments to shine (you could argue that Troi gets a couple of moments to sparkle in Generations, but since this is entirely down to the skill of Sirtis and has nothing to do with the script whatsoever I’m not going to).
The main focus is on Data and Picard, which also feels resonant of the TV show, especially the latter part of the TV show, but it doesn’t eclipse or drown out everything that’s around it, and because the way the characters interact with each other in groups shifts (Data and Picard together, then Picard and Lily, then Lily and the bridge crew, and so on), we don’t spend too long with one grouping while neglecting the other. Even Worf is fairly seamlessly reintegrated (well, at least they find an excuse, something which will become increasingly daft over the next two films) and gets his moment in the spotlight too, ridiculous Schwarzenegger-esque one-liner and all. The point of all of this is that the crew actually feels like a crew, rather than a random collection of characters jolted into the same film together, and it comes across as something of a minor revelation, albeit a most welcome one. One of the great pleasures of the TV show was enjoying the ensemble cast, so to see this replicated on the big screen means that this can feel of a piece with the show without being derivative of it.
And after helming a fair few TV episodes, Jonathan Frakes gets to follow in Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner’s footsteps and direct a big movie outing. Again, the difference over the flat, largely uninspiring direction of Generations is astonishing. There’s an energy and pace to the way Frakes sets up action shots and he knows how to keep everything moving smoothly, but he’s never afraid to allow things to slow down either – it’s obvious he has something to prove in the direction of this film and he sets about it with gusto. The scene with Picard and Lily looking down on Earth together as he gently persuades her to hand over the phaser is, for example, blocked and shot fairly simply, but it’s a slow scene that allows both the characters and the movie time to breathe before moving on to the next action set piece. Nothing here is rushed and events are allowed to unfold at their own pace. And yet it’s clear that he knows how to frame a shot too, and is putting in real effort – that magnificent shot of eight Borg in a row activating their laser sights one at a time, or just about every moment with the Borg Queen demonstrate someone who’s really taken the time to learn their craft and bring those skills to the table. And even though Frakes doesn’t have a reputation as an especially technical director there are a few moments that seem genuinely transcendent, like the effortless shift of perspective when Picard, Worf and Hawke are walking “upside down” across the outer hull of the Enterprise, or the loooooong pull-back after the credits.
The direction, indeed, is one of the elements here that makes it clear First Contact is taking advantage of the fact that it’s a film, not a TV show, and more significantly knows how to use the differences between the two mediums to its advantage. So we again have a holodeck scene, which isn’t strictly necessary in plot terms (and it’s another skilfully deployed reference to the past that doesn’t labour the point, though if you want to argue it’s self-indulgent I won’t particularly disagree with you), but gives Frakes a chance to show off directing a little Maltese Falcon riff into which Star Trek then intrudes. It’s close enough to something that could have happened over the run of the TV show but never did, (“The Long Goodbye” notwithstanding) yet it’s also just that little bit more. To be fair, this is something Generations got right as well, but this feels a lot less shoehorned in and manages to make its relevance felt in about a quarter of the time, as we see Picard’s feet of clay starting to emerge.
Ah yes, the feet of clay. Well. The thing is, it works incredibly well for this film, even if it doesn’t really align with the Picard we’ve seen in the past. Why? Well, post-“The Best Of Both Worlds” Picard has had a couple of run-ins with the Borg and he has not only never expressed a meaningful desire for revenge – you would have thought this was something that might have come up during “I, Borg” at the very least, given that he’s in a position to commit genocide against the Borg there – but we’ve also never even had a hint that he can “hear” the Borg either. Does this matter? Well yes and no. Partly yes, because it feels a little like the script is cherry-picking the past and skipping over a few inconvenient bits of that past for the sake of this movie, and partly no because Patrick Stewart turns in a Star Trek career best performance and completely owns this side of Picard’s personality.
And, to be honest, it just makes this film that much more interesting. It adds dimension to the struggle, meaning that we’re experiencing the Borg invasion both from an interior and exterior perspective. That Picard has psychological issues related to what the Borg did to him is absolutely logical, even if we haven’t really seen them before, as is his desire to inflict pain and get some revenge. It makes sense, in a film which exists to bring the Borg to the big screen, to use the one character who would have a very personal grudge against them as the principal character in the story, and it makes even more sense that it’s Patrick Stewart who’s given the task of selling that to the audience. That he’s able to lash out in such an unexpected and violent way in the Ready Room when Lily tries to persuade him to blow up the Enterprise, yet never appears unsympathetic or unjustified while still being obviously wrong, is a genuinely remarkable achievement.
I maintain to this day that the casting of Patrick Stewart is the single most important casting decision in the history of Star Trek (yes, even more than Shatner or Nimoy) and that he’s the principal reason we still talk about Star Trek in the present rather than the past tense. Yet even by his own high standards what he delivers here, purely in terms of performance, is as good as he’s ever managed. It also doesn’t hurt that Brent Spiner has noticeably upped his game since the last outing (well, everyone has, really) so the scenes of Picard and Data chatting together have the feel of a natural conversation rather than Here Comes The Exposition, and, in Alfre Woodard as Lily, Stewart finally finds a leading lady to play opposite who he actually has some natural chemistry with (compare and contrast with Vash, if you can stand it). This isn’t a criticism of Stewart, though it is very much in praise of Woodard – it can’t be an easy task to play opposite Stewart when he’s at the top of his game as he is here, so for her to manage so well deserves some serious respect.
Thematically there are obvious links to Generations, and as I mentioned last time out this helps strengthen the overall tone of the TNG films and makes them feel much more of a piece with each other. As Soran quested for what amounts to the perfect life we see here the Borg Queen doing exactly the same. As far as TNG goes this is the first time we get a reference to the Borg’s activities as being more than mindless assimilation – a computer program made flesh yet unable to stop running – but instead being a quest for “perfection”. In Generations, this perfection was represented by the concept-space of the Nexus, an abstract reality where any and all dreams could become true. In First Contact the thematic heavy lifting is given to the Borg – their quest for perfection quite literally infesting Data as he’s given, for the first time, actual flesh rather than something more synthetic. His “temptation” – and yes, he’s essentially crucified while being corrupted, though stops short of asking why Soong has forsaken him at least… – also allows loss to become the defining characteristic of his emotional journey through the film. The very fact that he admits he was tempted by the Borg Queen’s offer, even if only briefly, makes thematic sense in the way that all TNG films are defined by loss, but it also means that his loss is a real one and not an abstract one, as with the Nexus.
He’s given flesh, and he’s seen to react to it with both pain and pleasure (an obvious, but effective, dichotomy), and he’s given feelings whether he wants them or not. References to his emotion chip are kept to a minimum – thankfully – but still, the fact of the matter is that when he’s with the Borg Queen he can’t just shut off his feelings, and in this he becomes closer to being a true member of humanity than he’s ever managed before, stripped of convenient bypasses (and of course Picard’s earlier “there are times I envy you” line underscores this point without belabouring it). His remorse at the eventual death of the Queen also therefore makes sense in this context – not simply because she was “unique” but because the Queen was able to give him something that nobody else had ever managed. Data’s loss is thus very real. The film doesn’t linger on the losses, but they’re there, underneath the surface.
And of course, with Picard we have the most surprising loss of all – the loss of control. Lily accuses him of enjoying killing on the holodeck – though it’s not made explicit that this is actually the case – but nevertheless the sheer brutality of what Picard does is remarkably unexpected, even before his big “the line must be drawn here,” speech. This is, in many respects, the ultimate way in which the Borg conquer, even moreso than with phasers or technology – by removing self-control we see Picard starting to lose the essence of who he is, and it’s only when he’s able to reassert his self-control that he is ultimately able to bring victory. We’ve seen him have that self-control taken away from him before, of course, in “The Best Of Both Worlds”, but what makes the Borg so insidious here is that Picard is doing this to himself – this isn’t Data being tempted or him being full of nanoprobes, it’s just one man breaking down. The acknowledgement of this begins his healing process, and in healing he achieves the ultimate victory over the Borg, again more than just a simple defeat of the bad guys. Loss, the film suggests, does not have to be a one-way street if we choose not to make it so.
Naturally, First Contact isn’t perfect. Obviously. It’s the best of the TNG films by an absolute country mile, managing to dispense a fun, action-packed movie without feeling like it’s betraying any of the essential concepts that comprise the TV show. The action-adventure aesthetic has always been a part of Star Trek’s DNA, even in the more philosophically-inclined TNG, and it is in First Contact that, for the crew of this show, it finds its furthest expression. One of the disappointments of the TNG films is that they too often go to this well rather than taking a more thoughtful or interrogative approach as perhaps the TV show might have done, but that shouldn’t be held as a strike against First Contact as such, partly because it’s only the second film in the sequence of four, but mostly because at least First Contact is actually able to deliver on the action-adventure aesthetic it’s going for. If you’re going to promise a fun, break-neck movie while throwing the best-known of the TNG-created bad guys up on the screen then you really need to deliver on all sides, and this is First Contact’s greatest strength. Between Frakes in the director’s chair, Stewart at the top of his game, and Berman and Moore delivering a vastly improved script over Generations, we get to see everything that we should in this kind of film.
It’s true that in some ways the story moves a little too fast, there’s a few inevitable time-travel lapses in logic (always an issue with time travel), and the odd “but what were the Borg thinking?” moment, most obviously – why did they beam over to the Enterprise when the Sphere was destroyed rather than down to the entirely vulnerable human colony and just assimilate everyone there? Yet there’s such a sense of style and pace to the movie that these questions tend to fade away during the process of actually watching it. In a less confident movie (like the two either side of this one, in fact) these lapses can prove to be a serious hindrance, but not here. What this film proves, ultimately, is that TNG is a broad church and is able to embrace a wide range of styles and influences while still remaining true to what lies at the core of the series. In this, the small but significant nods to history, progress and the event from which the film draws its name, prevent this being just another mindless action film and help to anchor it in the Star Trek universe beyond just using a handful of familiar characters and settings. It’s not flawless, but it’s engaging, interesting, funny, touching and memorable. Resistance is, indeed, futile.
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
Nothing much this time. This is a fairly lean movie, and the concise number of characters and plot beats mean that there’s really not a lot of fat to trim. The few comedy scenes leaven the otherwise-darker elements of the script, and cameos from the Doctor or Reg never get in the way of proceedings. So yeah, 0% this time methinks.
How Rikered Is Riker?
He’s actually drunk on screen here, so there’s no question that he’s been at the bottle. I mean, he’s not as drunk at Troi, but then you’d expect him to be able to hold his drink better, what with all the practice he’s doubtless had. For the second time in a row he’s not given a vast amount to do here – fair enough, given Frakes is behind the camera – but inebriation levels present and rising, captain.
Data’s Annoyingometer Scale:
Maybe a four this time? Spiner is again pretty good here, and despite potentially extremely cringe-worthy scenes like Data being seduced by the Borg queen, he manages to pull them off with skill. If there’s a flaw here it’s that most of the time that we spend with Data he’s fairly out-of-character, and Data’s conversion to the “other side” doesn’t quite ring true (at least in part because know that him siding with the Borg isn’t going to stick), but none of that is Spiner’s fault. Two movies down, two relatively low rankings. Yet there must be some reason for this section to exist… (all hands, brace for Gilbert and Sullivan!)
Spoiled for choice really. Marina Sirtis is getting another shout-out here, because once again given minimal screen time she excels at getting absolutely everything she can out of her lines. She lands the comedy-drunk scene – notoriously hard to get right – and her easy-going, relaxed relationship with Frakes makes those scenes sing. Both Stewart and Spiner do very well here and as the Borg Queen Alice Krige is getting the runner-up prize, because she is magnificent. She really invests something into the Borg Queen, which could have been such a stock movie bad guy character, and the sensuality she brings to the role really makes here an insidious piece of work. Terrific. But really, I have to give it to Alfre Woodard. Her rapport with Stewart, the way she’s able to land angry and frightened but never have Lily seem like a weaker character for having those (perfectly understandable) reactions… she’s absolutely brilliant and a significant reason why the human side of this story works so well.
- The Undiscovered Country
- First Contact
- The Voyage Home
- The Search For Spock
- The Final Frontier
- The Wrath Of Khan
- The Motion Picture