25 Years of “Star Trek: First Contact”

Nov 22, 2021

By Steve King


25 years ago, Star Trek: First Contact was released in theaters and fundamentally altered the Star Trek universe forever. First Contact had it all. Time travel, the Borg, the first warp flight, and tommy guns! Though the Next Generation crew had already graced the silver screen in Star Trek: Generations, that film was more of a hand-off from the Original Series films to the Next Gen crew. Captains Kirk and Picard shared the adventure, and with Kirk’s death (SPOILER!), the reins of the franchise were passed to Picard. But First Contact was next level Trek.

There will always be the perpetual debate as to which film was the best. There are theories about the odd number of Trek movies that were cursed. Yeah, yeah, we all have a hard-on for nostalgia and Wrath of Khan, but for me, it goes: First Contact, Undiscovered Country, and then Khan. I know, let the nerd rage commence! But it’s true. First Contact was a hard left turn for Trek, charting its own path, but it was also a celebration of Trek.

From the opening shot, First Contact is different. It starts with a closeup on Captain Picard’s eye and pulls out to reveal the labyrinthian interior of the Borg cube that had essentially kidnapped and assimilated him back in the early years of Next Generation. This is one of Picard’s many nightmares of his short time with the Borg, and it ends abruptly with a Borg probe piercing and bending his eyeball. He wakes up in his quarters on the Enterprise, splashes some water on his face, looks in the mirror, and a Borg implant sprouts out of his cheek. The entire sequence is absolutely terrifying, and one of the scariest things in Star Trek history. When Picard does wake up, his dream has acted as an early warning system in that he immediately receives an incoming communication from Admiral Hayes informing him that the Borg have finally begun their assault on Earth. The new and improved Enterprise E has been dispatched to patrol the Neutral Zone, a move that’s really just to get Picard away from Earth because Starfleet Command rightly thinks his inclusion in the battle would introduce an unstable element to an already dicey situation.

The senior staff have never looked better. The new uniforms were the bomb dot com. Riker’s beard looks great. Troi is bangin’, as always. Geordi’s visor has been replaced with ocular implants. Dr. Crusher has a very timely Rachel cut.

The new Enterprise E is also knockout gorgeous. It’s sleek, muscular, and a bit more militaristic. The ship’s bridge is supercool; the pilot, Lt. Hawk, is identified instantly as an ill-fated Red Shirt. The ship then receives an open line of communication of an armada of Starfleet ships in battle with the Borg. This scene is scary af too, taking on an Exorcist vibe of simply playing the audio of the battle as officers are reciting casualty numbers and damage to their respective ships, punctuated by the sounds of screaming and explosions, all interrupted by the age-old demonic and electronically altered voice hail from the Borg hivemind,

“We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is Futile.”

The comms line then reverts back to the mayhem. Again, scary stuff for Trek. Bionic zombies from the Delta Quadrant are coming full force for the heart of the Federation. They cannot be reasoned or negotiated with. First Contact is at once a sci-fi action/adventure but also a horror movie. There’s a crazy high body count, and as the Borg take over the ship, it’s scarier because they’re now mostly comprised of former crewmembers. Stick that in your pipe and vape it. This movie rings every bell. It’s light on technobabble, which has traditionally turned off those not yet initiated. It satisfies hardcore fans and also makes the film more accessible to a wider audience, because the Borg are classic villains who are very easy to understand: They just want to conquer and assimilate people into their Collective. That’s all. They’re space zombies!

Picard informs the crew he’s about to violate their order to stay out of the fight, and the crew in their undying loyalty agrees, with Data pulling paraphrasing a Spock line from Undiscovered Country by saying, “I believe I speak for everyone here when I say: to Hell with our orders.” And we’re off to the races as the Enterprise warps back home to hopefully kick some ass.

Cut to: An imposing Borg cube closing in on Earth, and then, to every real Trekkie’s delight, the Defiant (the petite, battle-ready ship from Deep Space Nine) firing disruptors and torpedoes at the already heavily damaged outer hull of the cube. Amazing. *Chef’s kiss*

The Enterprise shows up just as the admiral’s ship is destroyed. Picard, with his intimate knowledge of the Borg’s systems, leads the fleet to victory over the cube, but just as it explodes, a smaller sphere (what?! omg) escapes, opens a singularity back to the past just after the Third World War, prevents humanity’s first contact with Vulcans after their first warp flight, assimilates Earth, and ensures that the Federation never existed in a kind of time-travel kill baby Hitler-type reverse-move. The Enterprise follows it back into the past in order to repair the timeline. The combination of a truly scary Borg threat and the promise held in first contact was an inspired storytelling invention as it places the entirety of Star Trek itself in danger. The stakes are on par with Discovery and Picard, in that these are reality-defining consequences.

The inventor of humanity’s first warp-capable ship, Zephram Cochrane, is ret-conned a little in the sense that on the Original Series he was a Roddenberry-esque, enlightened man, whereas in First Contact he’s a pre-enlightened alcoholic who just wants to make money and bone naked ladies. He didn’t care about ushering in a new golden age for humanity, he just wanted to party, listen to classic rock, and get it in. Riker and Troi have to convince him to go through with his warp flight after the Borg shoot torpedoes into his Montana settlement. Cochrane makes the epic groan line—“And you people, you’re all astronauts on… some kind of star trek”—sound almost passable. I kid, he makes it pass just fine, and it’s nice that the man who invented warp drive says it. I’ll allow it. When he finally does hit warp in the ship, like Picard, he simply says, “Engage.” And then he screams. Cochrane is played to perfection by the great, crazy, Oobie Doobie-dancing, god-king James Cromwell. Hot damn!

Back on the Enterprise, the internal temperature is rising and crewmembers are screaming and disappearing. More horror dynamics are used as some Borg are able to beam aboard the ship. When they assimilate their first crewmembers, Picard can feel it and returns to the ship. This is the first time you see how violent the assimilation process is. As a crewman lies on the floor with nanoprobes tearing through his face, he asks Picard for help, and Picard responds by shooting him. That’s pretty damn nihilistic for Trek. An A/B story plays out for the rest of the film with some of the senior staff on 2063 Earth assisting Cochrane with his first flight, and the rest of the crew battling the Borg as they slowly take over the ship deck by deck. Again, this is wonder and fear playing out in perfect harmony.

Reg Barclay fanboys over meeting Cochrane. Dr. Crusher activates the EMH in order to stall the Borg, and the Doctor throws a Bones callback by saying he’s a doctor, not a doorstop. There’s a scene on the holodeck, in a Dixon Hill holonovel no less, where Picard shreds a couple with a tommy gun. Ethan Phillips from Voyager is in that same scene. Data breaks a Borg’s neck with his bare hands, earning the film the first PG-13 rating in the franchise’s history. With the exception of Star Trek: Picard, this is the most violent Trek has ever been. I mean, someone’s face melts off. Picard eventually is jacked and gives everybody a ticket to the gun show, à la Kirk. Patrick Stewart may have been in the Royal Shakespeare Company, but he also used to be a boxer so he had to show a little skin. He does the same thing at the end of Star Trek: Insurrection too.

Are there a few viable nerd complaints? Yes. How were they able to recreate the tachyons to open a new temporal singularity without the damn deflector dish? And how were the Vulcans in 2063 not able to detect recent weapons fire? And Earth’s moon was somehow able to mask the Enterprise’s ion trail? Hold the fuck on. Yet still, the good far outweighs the… well… not-so-good. There is still nothing bad about this movie. My biggest complaint would be that a few lines of dialogue by Geordi and Worf seem very out of place. Like “Assimilate this!” and “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” La Forge would simply never say that.

The biggest nod to the Original Series is the Moby Dick quotes and the presence of a series villain in a film. First Contact is kind of like a spiritual sequel to Wrath of Khan, in that the Borg and Khan were fan-favorite villains, and both films clip quotes from the end of Moby Dick. Khan quotes Ahab in his relentlessness to kill Kirk for injuring him years before and Picard quotes Ishmael, when he was describing Ahab, and himself, in that the Borg were his white whale.

But let’s take a minute and talk about the Borg Queen. Played by Alice Krige, the Borg Queen was never mentioned in the show previously, and that may have irked some of the dumbest of fans, but whoa boy, is she effective. Krige, Cromwell, and Alfre Woodard are perfectly cast. Woodard is an audience mirror as she reacts like a normal person to all the space drama. It really doesn’t get any better. When Picard tells Lily, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity,” it perfectly encapsulates what every Trek fan should believe. It’s a simple and elemental line that should be embedded deep in the hearts of every Trekkie. Krige would later play the Queen again in the Voyager finale. I mean, if the Borg are a hive of drones, they kind of need a queen, right? *snaps fingers* Get with it, guys. First introduced as a voice and then a dismembered torso, the Queen is terrifying, sexy (objectively, not to me), a psychopathic megalomaniac, mysterious, extremely dangerous, and a brilliant combat tactician. They threaded her needle perfectly.

She’s also kind of a love interest in the way she tries to seduce Data. She even says “fascinating” at one point. Picard and Woodard’s Lily have a similar relationship, in that they can’t act on what they want because of their prior engagements and duty. They were really firing on all cylinders with this movie. At the time, the space battles had never looked better. The quantum torpedoes were cool. First Contact was ILM’s last Trek movie and nothing was left on the field. The intense scene on the deflector dish was a perfect piece of sci-fi suspense. They were fighting Borg drones in zero G, upside down, on the deflector dish itself.

Picard has always been a uniquely vulnerable and human man. He feels, he grieves, he has been traumatized by the Borg, while Kirk was portrayed as a strong alpha male dickswinger type. But when it comes to the Borg, Picard is always in very close touch with his sadness and his rage.

Data, though, is definitely the Spock of Next Generation, which makes his temptation to join the Borg Queen all the more fraught with drama, even if we know deep down he’s playing possum the whole time. But it’s the relationships on Trek that matter. Star Trek is essentially a workplace drama or comedy, depending on the story, that’s about friends with the same values working together toward a common goal. It’s not just about starships. It’s about deep friendship and connection. That’s why Picard was able to hear Data through his old connection to the Hive, and it is why he refused to leave his friend behind.

Sometimes the universe conspires to create a charmed production. Jonathan “two takes” Frakes had already directed a bunch of episodes, and Trek actors know how to be good Trek directors. Just look at Levar Burton and Roxanna Dawson. First Contact was Frakes’ first feature film and he knocked it way out of the park. The Jerry Goldsmith score is insane and sweet yet still allows for moody scariness, like the metallic Borg music. A couple months after Star Trek: Generations was released Rick Berman told his best writers that the studio wanted another Trek movie. They settled on the Borg and time travel and they wanted to tell a story about how Earth moved from a post-apocalyptic hellscape to an interstellar utopia. Ira Steven Behr insisted on not destroying the Defiant. Adam Scott was on the bridge of the Defiant long before he played Du Clark in Party Down. They actually shot a lot of the film in Montana. Frakes begged the bosses to let him use “Magic Carpet Ride” when the Phoenix takes off. The Phoenix was an actual missile. In a real silo!

Voyager and Deep Space Nine had already been on TV for a while and First Contact was perfectly integrated into them, and by virtue of the strength of the film, it changed all of Trek moving forward. There is a distinct period of time now within Trek of Before First Contact and After First Contact. It was made by Trek people, for Trek people, and literally changed all of the franchise forever. The changes the Borg went through were microscopic compared to the rest of the universe. Generations was very important but First Contact was the pivot point.

25 years later First Contact still holds up as the gold standard for the franchise. It is the best Trek. Before and after, no one else can hold a candle to it. It stands apart, yet head and shoulders above the rest. First Contact and Insurrection were the last Trek movies before the crusty, stuck-in-the past gatekeepers got megaphones through the internet. It’s a testament to the film’s power that it doesn’t end when the Borg are defeated; rather, the climax of the story is when the Vulcans land after the successful test flight of the Phoenix. When they actually emerge from the ship, it’s a genuinely heartstopping moment. According to Frakes (so maybe take it with a grain of salt), James Cromwell, like Cochrane, was indeed unable to return the Vulcan’s iconic hand gesture greeting, so when he fails and opts for a handshake, it’s a moment of extreme joy in the history of Star Trek.

First Contact literally and metaphorically changed the world of Trek for the better. It’s about the moment that humans finally reach the threshold of their once unattainable utopia.

IDIC.

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