Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Star Trek-First Contact: A 20th Anniversary Perspective

        Star Trek-First Contact celebrated its 20th anniversary one week ago today. It was a film that had a great deal riding on it. It would be the first motion picture to fully showcase the characters from Star Trek-The Next Generation. Not only that,but the events of the previous movie Star Trek-Generations necessitated the design of a brand new Starship Enterprise. Specifically NCC-1701-E. The movie's creators Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (at the time working primarily on UPN's Star Trek-Voyager) also decided that the plot of the film should focus around the TNG era of Star Trek's most frightening nemesis: the Borg. 

The plot of the movie dealt with the new Enterprise E and its grew travelling back in time when a Borg vessel used a time vortex to assimilate humanity in its past-following an invasion of Earth that Starfleet had thwarted. The Borg had gone back to stop first contact,humanity's initial contact with an extraterrestrial species,the Vulcan's,following the first faster then light speed interstellar voyage by Zefram Cochrane. Through some interference on the part of the Enterprises's crew,the Borg's attempts to stop first contact are successfully stopped. And Cochrane,though initially reluctant,does make his warp flight before the Enterprise crew return to their now restored timeline.

All of the events that led up to the Star Trek universe had been the topic of many commercially released novels and fan fiction about the show prior to this movie. The character of Zefram Cochrane was even introduced in the original Star Trek TV episode "Metamorphosis". James Cromwell portrayed the role of Cochrane in this film. He is the catalyst for the movie's events. Not only that,but he was also the central element of the movies most enduring theme: what motivates idolatry. The crew of the Enterprise view Cochrane as a heroic figure from their time period. Cochrane himself is a damaged cynic who views his first warp speed flight as a chance to make his personal fortune.

One excellent character in the film is the wise and calculated astro physicist Lily Sloane,portrayed by Alfre Woodard. Her level head and no nonsense manner balance out the extreme actions of Captain Jean Luc Picard in the film. And that's a good lead in to my personal observations of the film. When First Contact's trailers were first shown on television in the summer of 1996,they came across as disappointing and unappealing. In fact,there was a long period where I had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie. My parents convinced me to give it a chance. After seeing it,my opinion was downgraded. However,time has given far more clarity to those angry and disappointed thoughts.

First Contact was actually one of the TNG era casts most successful films from a strictly commercial standpoint. However,the weakness I observed in the film is best summed up by what BBC film critic Emily Carlisle said of the film at the time. And that was that it was a more action and less character focused film than the majority of Star Trek movies. Even objectively,I'd have to look at the mid 1990's to try to explain some of this. At this point,the subersive and underground "mean people" culture of the 1980's had come into the mainstream of pop culture. In this highly sarcastic culture,Star Trek was often snidely referred to as a retro (even campy) joke from an idealistic past.

Star Trek in general was experiencing its 30th anniversary the year First Contact came out. And I was deeply involved in the literature about the writing and development of this film. Its creators made no bones about wanting to create a film for a more modern (and presumably less cerebral) audience. So in the film,the Borg are more overtly hostile and horror movie zombie like in nature. Also,Jean Luc Picard is almost totally out of character as a vengeful character acting more like Rambo,with an enormous dose of PTSD. Not to mention jokes about the normally gentle Counselor Troi getting drunk simply to curry favor with Zefram Cochrane.

As with any film,its all a matter of taste. I personally felt it represent the beginning of Star Trek's downfall. And still do now. A good part of that has to do that its action/catch phrase based nature essentially laid the groundwork for J.J. Abrams' modern day Star Trek reboots. So if someone loves Star Trek for its wit,characters and futuristic social commentary,this film really offers little for such an audience. If one views Star Trek as action driven sci fi in need of cultural updates to suit changing trends,this movie might just be for you. With Star Trek just about to reemerge from its 11 year slumber on TV in May of 2017,First Contact may eventually come to be seen a bit differently.


  1. Jeff, here. Good blog, Andre. Some things i'd like to add from my perspective. The one thing that hit me off balance when I first watched this movie was, why is Picard suffering so strongly with what you described as PTSD and also has this faint link to the hive mind? Best of Both Worlds happened way back in 1990 and this movie came out 6 years later. In between the crew encountered the Borg in Next Generation's season five "I,Borg" and again in season six's "Descent." In both cases, there was no hint that Picard had a telepathic connection to the Borg collective. He did sort of have a Captain Ahab like behavior in "I,Borg" when he was presented with the possibility of destroying the entire collective using the Hugh Borg. It took some prodding by Guinan to get him to face his fear with the Borg by talking to Hugh and seeing that Hugh was no longer a Borg but and individual. But after that episode, one would think Picard had met his demons and conqured them, only we find that a few years later, he's still just as damaged and suffering since we last saw him in the episode "Family," which was the episode right after "Best of Both Worlds." So I think the writers of Star Trek: First Contact, kinda forgot where they left off with Captain Picard and the Borg just so they can make him more of the action/adventure Captain Paramount thought they needed.
    That brings me to my next point. The Next Generation movies by most accounts may have made money, but they were also flops. And I say flops because hard core Trek fans could not make the adjustment of turning a mostly sci-fi drama series into a sci-fi/action franchise. And I'm speaking only of the Next Generation cast here. The entire series of Next Gen wasn't really focused on action/adventure, but on drama and character development. There was very little of that overall in the four movies they made. 'Generations' had a bit more of it, which is why it's the only movie of the four that's closer to the style of the TV series. The characters that were created for Star Trek The Next Generation were not designed with the intention of the show doing combat in ever episode. Captain Picard set the tone of the series with his character traits. He tried to talk his way out of combat if possible, and ever the battle hungry Worf had to be held back more often than not by the Captain. But when they took these characters and put them on the big screen, they changed them in such a way that they became no longer familiar with it's core audience because they started doing things we never saw them do before. It's like we stepped into an alternate Next Generation universe where the crew were less like explorers an more militaristic. Even Captain Picard said in Star Trek: Insurection, "Do you remember when we use to be explorers?" That line pretty much echoes throughout the Next Gen movies. And as you pointed out Andre, "First Contact" was the movie that started the decline into Paramount making popcorn sci-fi/action Star Trek flicks right up to today.
    As far as the new Star Trek: Discovery goes, I'm at the point now where I know what I'm going to get. You see Paramount is tickled pink that their JJ Abrams Trek parody is making them money. So they equate how well the quality is by how much profit it makes. So if action/adventure is whats selling the latest Trek reboots, then it's going to be action/adventure that will saturate Star Trek: Discovery. I've got nothing against action/adventure movies. I love a good comic book movie as well as anyone. It's just that Star Trek only works for me when it's not treated like a Batman movie or another Die Hard sequel.

  2. I totally agree with your point. That is why I wrote this article to start with.