The second Trek movie starring the TNG crew, and their first feature without any hand-holding from original series vets, First Contact has quite a lot in common with the other second Trek movie, Wrath Of Khan. Both films are sequels to financially successful but critically lukewarm predecessor; both films use Moby Dick as a thematic touchstone; and both films feature villains that first appeared on the respective television shows of each crew. Khan debuted in “Space Seed,” the Borg in “Q Who?”, the big difference (at least structurally) being that Khan was only featured once. By the time First Contact hit theaters, the Borg had become a seasonal regular on TNG, and where Wrath effectively cemented Khan’s place in Trek lore, First Contact merely delivered on the inevitable. The only other non-ensemble character who would be as likely to appear when TNG made its transition to the big screen is Q, and he already gets to do a fair bit in the series’ 90-minute-long finale. It’s not particularly surprising that the Borg would make the jump to cinema, but, despite a few episodes that watered down their initial impact, they aren’t unwelcome, either. Which is a good part of the reason behind the fourth connection between Wrath and Contact: Both movies are well-regarded, and considered by some as high-water marks for their respective series.
I’ll agree with the second part. Somebody could make a case that TNG made a better movie than FC, but I’m not sure what, exactly, that movie would be—maybe Nemesis? Regardless, it wouldn’t be an easy case to make, and whatever its faults, FC is at least a competent, well-paced sci-fi adventure, one that feels like a movie more than Generations ever did. There’s no embarrassing subplots à la Data and his emotion chip, and while there are a few plotholes to poke sticks at, there’s none of the aimless, “Why the hell are we here?” wandering of Generations that made poking plotholes so inviting. I’ve got criticisms to make, and I don’t think FC is anywhere equal to Wrath—in terms of iconic power, character development, or story—but I really don’t think this is a bad film, and it certainly shouldn’t be expected to stand up next to (in my mind) one of the all-time best genre pictures. It’s more that, well, FC really is the best TNG movie, and that’s good and bad. To the good, it could’ve been worse. But to the bad—well, this crew deserved better than what is, essentially, a consequence-free zone.
Hey, remember how Picard used to be one of the Borg? And remember how, after some time with his family and, presumably, a fair bit of therapy, he mostly got over it? Well, forget that last part. Picard’s back to having nightmares about the Borg, and while those nightmares aren’t great for his mental health, they’re also a warning sign that the Borg are on the move. One of FC’s greatest assets is its speed—we’re barely into the movie before Picard gets word that the Borg are making a big push against the Federation, and once the threat’s established, it never lets up until the maybe 10 minutes before the end credits, if that. There’s no slow easing in, no tedious, overly adoring shots to introduce to the new Enterprise. The new ship does look cool—Troi even gets a desk and a computer all to herself on the new bridge—but it’s all introduced with impressive, clean efficiency. That’s basically what Jonathan Frakes does best as a director: he’s no innovator, but if you give him a competent script, he’ll make it tick like it’s supposed to.
After informing Picard that the Borg are on the move, Starfleet orders the captain to take his Enterprise and go patrol the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans decide to take advantage of the situation. At least, that’s the reason the admiral gives Picard, but Jean-Luc knows the truth: Starfleet doesn’t trust him to face the Borg because of his earlier assimilation. At first, Picard goes along with the orders, but when word comes back that the Borg cube is making its final assault on Earth, and the fight is not going well for the Federation, Picard changes his mind and sends the Enterprise toward home, to do its part in the fight. They arrive just in time to save Worf and the surviving crew of the Defiant before that ship is destroyed (Wasn’t Tom Riker supposed to be on board? If so, we never see him). The cube is on its last legs, and moments after the Enterprise joins the attack, the Borg make their final, desperate stand, ejecting a sort of giant escape pod at Earth and making a time vortex as they go. The Enterprise follows, and because they are flying through the temporal wake left by the Borg ship, in the moments before they follow that pod through the hole in time, they see Earth’s civilization instantly assimilated. The Borg have gone back into the past and changed history for the worse. And now our heroes are the only ones left who can stop them.
Like I said, the pacing here is terrific. And it has to be, because the minute you start to slow down and think about everything that’s happening, the story starts to fall apart. Like: The Borg have a time machine… and this the first time they’ve used it? And they chose to use it as a last ditch effort, and they pick this point in Earth’s history to return to? I can think of possible explanations: For the latter question, maybe this is the earliest point in the past where humans would be completely vulnerable to Borg attack and still far enough along in their development to be valuable for assimilation purposes. Or maybe this is the furthest back the Borg can go without risking significant damage to their own timeline. And I suppose you could say that the reason they only pull this stunt as a last resort is that they’re uncertain of its chances of success. We also don’t know exactly how their method of time displacement works; maybe they have to be near Earth to travel back in time, for some reason. This is always the problem with time-travel stories, much as a I love them—the broader the scope, the more questions are raised, and the harder it becomes to answer any of them satisfactorily. Neither of these potential plotholes is movie-killing, but it does suggest a certain lack of foresight on the part of the filmmakers. Stories don’t have to be airtight to work, but TNG always works best when it thinks everything through. First Contact is, by and large, not much concerned with thinking.
By the time it reaches the halfway mark, FC has split its action between Picard, Data, Beverly, and Worf on the Enterprise, fighting off an invading Borg presence; and Riker, Troi, and Geordi on the Earth below, working to make sure the Borg’s attempts at historical sabotage go awry. More time is spent with the former than the latter, so we’ll get the Zefram Cochrane stuff out of the way first. James Cromwell returns to the Trek franchise to play Cochrane, a drunken, bitter sumbitch who just happens to be the man who built the first warp-speed engine. The Borg came back in time to prevent Cochrane’s first successful warp flight—that flight not only makes the stars open to humanity, it also attracts the attention of some Vulcans, and leads to the meeting that gives the movie it’s title. The Borg’s initial attack on Cochrane’s settlement damages his ship, but doesn’t kill him, leaving Riker and the others the task of first finding the man, then telling him his place in the history books and providing every possible assistance in making sure the flight happens on schedule. Again, I’ve got some questions—like, why the Borg, when they were beaming people aboard the Enterprise, didn’t beam anybody down to the planet. Or just how the hell a populace splintered into factions by a third world war is going to be able to deal with aliens from outer space without totally losing their shit. But, while not everything here works (Troi’s drunk scene is… something), FC does get a decent amount of mileage out of Zefram as a reluctant hero, unable to handle the pressure of being the savior of the human race. There’s not a lot of depth in Zefram as written, but Cromwell makes the most of the part, and what works especially well is that there’s no grand inspiring moment when the character realizes his potential and decides to be a hero. It’s more that Riker, in effect, tells him “Get on that damn ship, or we’ll make you get on that ship,” and Zefram goes with the flow of fate. I also like how little anyone worries about screwing with the past—sure, the whole movie is predicated on the importance of maintaining the original timeline, and various characters mention how they need to keep a low profile, but Riker and Geordi both ride along with Zefram on his first trip. There’s an appealing practicality to that; they have a job—to make sure everything happens as it should—and they’re going to do that job, and not sweat the small stuff.
So that leaves us with Picard and Data (and Beverly and Worf) on the Enterprise, battling against the Borg and the Borg Queen. Oh, and Alfre Woodard, a friend of Zefram who gets stuck on the Enterprise after Beverly has her beamed to sick bay to treat her for radiation poisoning. These sections are, unsurprisingly, the real meat of the film; the scenes back on the ground serve their purpose, but the real draw of the movie is the Borg on the big screen, and, of course, Patrick Stewart doing his thing. The action sequences here are some of the best of the franchise, as Borg slowly take over the ship, conquering decks and assimilating crew-members with their usual blank-faced aplomb. I’ve heard First Contact described as the Star Trek zombie movie, and that’s not too far off. If anything, the film could’ve used more scenes of Picard slowly realizing just how screwed they all are. Like everything else in the movie, the Borg plot moves too fast to really lock down any but the most obvious details and mood, but it does spare some time for a great horror movie setup: Geordi mentions off-handedly to his engineering crew that there’s something wrong with the temperature controls, a couple crewmembers investigate, they die, and then everything goes to hell. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I can’t help but imagine how cool this movie might have been if it had thrown over the time-travel element entirely—if the Enterprise just stumbled over a Borg ship in the middle of nowhere, got in a big fight, thought they had won, and then had to fight the bastards off from inside. Sure, it’s a kind of story that’s been done before, but so has just about every major plot element of the movie we did get, so let me have my dreams.
The Borg stuff is… decent. It fulfills expectations, without ever exceeding them. The Borg’s Borg-ification of the Enterprise is basically a technological version of the alien infestation in Aliens: they cover the ship’s corridors with black tendrils and circuitry, they steal familiar faces and impregnate them with the cybernetic impulse, and, yes, they even have a Queen living in the heart of everything. Alice Krige does creepy very well, but I’ve always thought the Queen was a silly idea, and re-watching FC for this review didn’t change my mind. Yes, you can say she’s justifiable because she’s not a singular identity, but rather an expression of the collective’s conscious will—but she’s still slinking around trying to seduce Data and Picard, using the same language of sex and implied promise that every femme fatale has used since the dawn of men being nervous about women’s sexuality. Outside of Krige’s efforts, there’s nothing really distinctive about the character, and no real reason for her to exist, apart from giving the writers an easier job of getting dialogue into the climax. Justify her existence however you like, but the simple fact is, what makes the Borg scary is their lack of personality. They are computer programs put into flesh, the ultimate expression of technology’s implacable will pitted against our weak and mortal identity. Once they start having personalities (and the Queen has a very definite personality), they stop being the Borg.
What really bothers me about this storyline, though, is what it does to Picard. While Data’s enduring the temptations of a kind of gross looking slice of human flesh (and since when were the Borg sensual creatures? How does that make sense with anything else we know about them?), Picard’s engaging in increasingly desperate efforts to block the Borg from dominating the entire ship. We get a silly but sorta fun scene where he uses the holodeck (with a reference to “The Big Goodbye”) to kill a couple of drones, a nicely suspenseful sequence centered outside the ship as the Borg attempt to use the Enterprise’s deflector ray and then Picard snaps, insults Worf, and has to get lectured by the guest star on just why he’s being a dick. Stewart sells it, of course. He sells the hell out of it. He even manages to make the psychic link Picard apparently has with the Borg seem more ominous than silly. But how does any of this make sense? Picard had his chance to go off the rails when he dealt with Hugh back in “I, Borg,” and he didn’t. Unless something substantially awful happens to unhinge him in “Descent, Part II,” for all intents and purposes, his major issues with the Borg are pretty well-resolved. Oh sure, he probably has the occasional bad dream, but this movie acts as his experience in “Best Of Both Worlds” is still raw to him, still gnawing at him after so many years, and that does a serious disservice to all his experiences since that incident.
But all right, let’s accept that it’s worth fudging a few details to give Stewart something meaty to work with. That doesn’t change the fact that the events of the movie seem to bear out to a certain extent Starfleet’s unwillingness to allow Picard to engage with the Borg directly, which is a strange choice for the movie to make. What’s worse, though, is that once again maybe the best captain the franchise ever had doesn’t get a chance to be a hero. That could sound silly, but Kirk never had to put up with this crap. In every single TOS movie outside the last, Kirk is pure, undiluted good guy, and the only lesson he ever needs to learn is that he belongs on the bridge of the Enterprise, or that he’s not as old as he thought he was. In the last movie, yeah, he realizes maybe he shouldn’t be quite so racist, which is roughly akin to the arc Picard has here (Picard doesn’t decide to parlay with the Borg or anything, but he does realize that his prejudices are driving his behavior to an unnatural degree). Only Kirk makes that journey on his own merits, and he doesn’t need someone we’ve never met before shouting at him to grow up. Besides, that’s the last of the TOS movies. Would it be all that much to ask to give Picard a whole movie that doesn’t show him as weak or crazed? I like complex heroes, I really do, but the complexity here is so lazy and unnecessary. The movie would be just as good if Picard never decided he was going full-Ahab. There’s no lesson to be learned from his revelation, no greater thematic purpose. It’s just to give Woodard a little more reason to be in the cast, and to give Stewart some speeches to shout. (Which he does very well. “The line must be drawn HERE” is one the movie’s few really memorable speeches; it’s a shame that the whole point of the speech is that he’s briefly gone ’round the bend.) Like so much else in the movie, on the surface, it looks fine, but there’s nothing connecting Picard’s drama to anyone else’s.
The other big problem with First Contact is one that’s more endemic of the TNG movie franchise as a whole. The subplots here are stronger than in Generations, but once again, we have too many characters struggling to make a mark in too little screen time. This, I think, was always going to be the central difficulty of bringing the TNG ensemble to the screen: There are too damn many of them, and unlike a TV show, you can’t focus on, say, Geordi this week and Beverly the next. It doesn’t help that most of the leads spend the film in different places, and that their stories so rarely intersect. First Contact does as well as can be expected, and it does hold together, better than it has any real right too. It’s a solid double, and if this was an episode of the TV show, a solid double would be nothing to be ashamed of. The problem, really, is that there are only four TNG movies; and since this is the only one that ever gets on base, I can’t help but always be disappointed that it never tried for home plate.
- Woodard does get some good lines: “Borg? Sounds Swedish.” Then, later: “Definitely not Swedish!” (Also, “You broke your little ships.”)
- Aww, Hawk. I suppose calling him “Goose” would’ve been just a little too obvious.
- Only one reference to Data’s emotion chip, and it leads to another one of the movie’s best lines. Data turns the chip off when he starts to fear the Borg, and Picard tells him, “Data, there are times that I envy you.”
- Worf has to endure being the butt of a few jokes, but he gets some of the most metal moments in the whole movie, which is nice.
- Oh hey, Robert Picardo!
- I’m not a fan of Data’s big action-movie one-liner (“Resistance… is futile.”), but I do like his confession to Picard that he was briefly tempted by the Queen’s offer—for less than a second. “For an android, that is almost an eternity.”
Next week: We enter the seventh and final (sniff) season of Star Trek: The Next Generation with “Descent: Part II” and “Liasons.”