Star Trek First Contact (1996)

Director: Jonathan Frakes

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, Alice Krige

Considering the overwhelming success that the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV series had with its third season cliffhanger episode, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I,” and its follow-up which kicked off Season 4, the decision to film a big screen sequel was a no-brainer. Rarely has “Star Trek” had as menacing a villain as the race of cyborgs from the Delta Quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy. (We live in the Alpha Quadrant, for those keeping score.) So formidable are the Borg that they’ve been dumbed down on more than one occasion in order be more frequently utilized.

Due to the foolish decision to have the TNG crew share the spotlight in “Star Trek: Generations” with their predecessors from the original series, 1996’s “Star Trek: First Contact” marked their first solo venture. In 2373, the Borg pick up where they left off six years earlier with their plans for the invasion and assimilation of Earth and its billions of inhabitants. Normally, a starship with as experienced a crew as the Enterprise-E would be on the frontlines. However, Starfleet in its infinite wisdom believes that someone like Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), who was once captured and assimilated by the Borg, should not be placed in a position where he might have to face them again.

So, while the best and brightest of Starfleet march on to get themselves massacred, the Enterprise is stuck patrolling the Romulan border. Everyone in the crew is in agreement that their orders are ridiculous, and they vote unanimously to return to Earth where they can swoop in and save the day. However, although the Borg’s massive cube-shaped vessel is destroyed, a smaller spherical ship escapes the explosion and travels backwards in time to a point in Earth’s history when they would be defenseless. Just before the vortex closes, the Enterprise follows the Borg and destroys them when they find them firing at a fixed location somewhere in the middle of Montana.

A quick check of the time period they’ve arrived in reveals the date to be April 4, 2063. This is significant to the Enterprise crew because they know that the next day, April 5th, is to be the day that Earth makes first contact with an extra-terrestrial race (in this case, the Vulcans). How very “Terminator” of the Borg to choose such a date! Knowing that, and knowing that the site which the Borg had been firing upon was a missile complex, the crew beam down to the surface to survey the damage, hoping not to find too many casualties.

Specifically, it is scientist Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) whom they are hoping to locate alive and well. It is Cochrane whose warp drive technology made it possible for humans to travel faster than light and explore beyond our own galaxy. This is also what made the Vulcans, who’ve been observing us for years, finally decide to pay us a visit. While on the surface, they encounter Lily (Alfre Woodard), who believes them to be hostile forces come to kill her and her friends. She falls ill due to radiation sickness, which requires that she be taken on board the Enterprise under sedation.

It is at about this same when it is revealed that some of the Borg have survived, and they have begun assimilating parts of the ship and members of the crew. So, while some stay on Earth, the rest hurry back to the ship. Everyone gears up for a fight, but it doesn’t take long for the Borg to adapt to Starfleet’s weaponry, and so the crew has to split up and come up with another plan. Several more crew members are assimilated, with some pleading to be shot dead before the process has a chance to complete itself. Data (Brent Spiner) is captured and taken to the Engineering section. Picard winds up with a revived Lily, who witnesses firsthand just how badly Picard’s prior experience with the Borg has affected him.

Back on Earth, it is up to Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Troi (Marina Sirtis) to locate Zefram Cochrane and convince him of the importance of his warp flight. When they do find him, they behave a little fanboy-ish, like many of us who meet one of the “Star Trek” actors at a sci-fi convention. Their built-up image of Cochrane doesn’t quite fit the man standing before them. He likes to get drunk and listen to loud music, prefers taking trains over flying, and admits his only interest in building his warp ship was to make money and retire to a private island. All the hero worship he’s receiving scares him a bit.

These two competing story arcs I’ve laid out represent the good parts of “Star Trek: First Contact.” There is yet a third story arc, and it’s not as good. In Engineering, Data meets the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who sets Data on the next step of his evolution as he explores his sexuality. He’d actually had one other such encounter back in the first season of the TV series, but that was at a time when he was still emotionless and knew an awful lot less about what it means to be human. The Borg Queen also tempts him with human flesh, grafting it onto parts of his android frame.

These parts of the movie, although they are well-acted and do their part in furthering Data’s growth as a character, are simply not interesting enough. These scenes also do the other two story arcs a disservice in taking up valuable screen time. The Borg Queen herself also diminishes the Borg to an extent. They’d been built up well enough on the TV series and were scarier without her. It also takes away from Picard’s transition into Locutus of Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds,” the explanation being that the Borg Queen (who is evidently omnipresent) wanted a counterpart. Yawn.

No “Star Trek” movie has ever been perfect (except perhaps for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”). However, two decades after its original release, “Star Trek: First Contact” is still one of the best films in the franchise. It boasts one of the many things that was lacking in “Star Trek: Generations,” a score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. As such, Goldsmith’s “First Contact” soundtrack was his second best in the series (the best being his work for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”).

The cast is great, too. Whether you look at it as unintentional humor or not, I love Patrick Stewart’s performance as the revenge-minded Picard. His scenes with Alfre Woodard are some of the film’s best highlights. Also terrific is James Cromwell, who is fun to watch in anything he does. In the first of what would be three guest appearances with his old crewmates, Worf (Michael Dorn, who had joined the spin-off TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) makes his least convoluted appearance here as he comes on board the Enterprise after his new ship, the Defiant, is set adrift by the Borg attack.

I don’t even mind the messy time travel aspect of the plot. You could really pick that apart if you wanted to, but the movie is good enough that it’s just not worth getting into. Besides, “Star Trek” has consistently come up with illogical explanations for time travel, so why be different now? A truly strong showing here made resistance to future sequels futile. The question remained: Would the next chapter in the TNG saga live up?

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    It is a fun film for fans. I do wholeheartedly agree with you about the Borg Queen, though. I would have preferred a film without that plot thread.

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