Released: 22 November 1996
Director: Jonathan Frakes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $45 million
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, and Alice Krige
After intercepting an attempted invasion of Federation space by the Borg, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise-E pursue their foes back in time to the mid-21st century where the Borg, represented by their alluring Queen (Krige), intend to use their nanotechnology to assimilate the Earth and change the course of not just human history, but the history of the entire known galaxy by disrupting the fated first contact between humans and extraterrestrials on this day, 5 April, in 2063.
It’s the age old question, isn’t? Which do you prefer; Star Trek (1966 to 1969) or Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 to 1994)? Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) or Captain Picard? Personally, since I grew up with the original series movies rather than the television show, I’ve always been more of a Next Generation and beyond kinda guy. Regardless, after Star Trek wrapped up, the original cast reunited for a series of movie spin-offs and executive and producers were able to coerce creator Gene Roddenberry to spearhead an all-new Star Trek television show to breathe new life into the franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation became so popular that it too branched out into feature films, with the first being the appropriately-titled Star Trek Generations (Carson, 1994), which brought Kirk and Picard together but failed to impress critics despite performing relatively well at the box office.
For the next film in the franchise, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore decided to merge together their two most popular ideas for the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary: time travel and the Borg, with the two kicking around different ideas for the time period the movie would be set in and many different drafts of what would become the film’s final incarnation. Long-time cast member Jonathan Frakes, who had directed a number of episodes of the show, was chosen to helm the film, which delved into the Borg hierarchy, expanded upon their memorable appearance in the “Best of Both Worlds” (Bole, 1990) two-parter, and allowed the usually diplomatic and authoritarian Picard to become more of an action hero archetype. Star Trek: First Contact received widespread acclaim, particularly directed towards its gruesome special effects, and, filmed on what retroactively seems like a paltry budget of $45 million (for comparison’s sake, Star Trek (Abrams, 2009) boasted a hefty $150 million budget), the film did very well at the box office, beating its predecessor by some $30 million.
One of the things I’ve always respected about the Star Trek movies is how they don’t really waste a lot of time pandering to audiences who are unfamiliar with the concept or the television series; this generally allows the films to, largely, stand alone and work as products attached to, but also independent from, the show. Star Trek: First Contact differs from this formula in that it directly references, and is built off of, one of the most celebrated Next Generation episodes ever. Accordingly, the film opens with a brief revisitation of Picard trapped on the Borg Cube; if you didn’t know that he was transformed by the Borg, this is a quick and effective way to show that he is still haunted by memories of those experiences. Of course, if you’re not a fan of eye horror, this isn’t a scene for you but it also shows off the amazing updates to Borg technology and how their implants work going forward.
Of course, this opening sequence is just one of what is implied to be many recurring nightmares on Picard’s behalf and it is interrupted by the report of the Borg’s impending invasion. Despite the all-new, all-powerful Enterprise-E being the “most advanced ship in the fleet”, Picard is annoyed to inform his crew that they’re being kept out of the battle against the Borg; I love how the Romulan threat is so neutered by this point that even Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) is incredulous as to their assignment to patrol the Neutral Zone and that the Borg are considered such a threat that all it takes is one of their ships to be classified as an “invasion of the Federation”. This all sets up Picard’s tone, character arc, and conflict as Starfleet believes (rightly so, as it turns out) that he shouldn’t face the Borg again given the trauma he faced at their hands. While Commander William Riker (Frakes) disagrees, who gives a shit what he thinks? That guy couldn’t make a decision to save his life! Still, he’s right to an extent as Picard disobeys their orders and is then able to turn the tide against the Borg Cube using his knowledge of their defences and technology; however, as the film progresses and Picard launches guerrilla tactics against the Borg, it’s clear that he is driven by his rage, vengeance, and hatred of the cyborgs rather than his usual calm, measured demeanour.
Just as the Original Series was often framed around Kirk, Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), the Next Generation movies primarily revolved around Picard and Lieutenant Commander Data (Spiner), who, as an android struggling to understand and become more human, was very much The Next Generation’s version of Spock. Data still has his emotion chip installed, which was his big plot point in Star Trek Generations, and is manipulated here by the Borg Queen, who plays upon Data’s wish to be more human by appealing to his emotions, stimulating his sensations, and even grafting organic skin onto his outer shell. This forms Data’s character arc as he appears to give in to the Borg Queen’s temptation and allows them to turn him into something more akin to a cyborg. It is, of course, all a ruse on Data’s part to allow him the perfect opportunity to scupper the Borg Queen’s plans but, given what we saw of him in the “Descent” (Singer, 1993) two-parter, the way the film is framed, and that this is the closest to Data’s dream of becoming human, it’s very easy to believe that he has turned against his friends and crewmates.
Far from the legendary, near-mythical figure of Starfleet teachings, Zefram Cochrane (Cromwell) is a disillusioned, selfish, greedy drunkard; he plays along with the crew’s predictions of the future and assists them in completing the Phoenix but is scared of the fate they readily inform him off and angered that he becomes such an influential figure when his intentions were less than noble. He tries to literally run away from this fate and is convinced to see it all through but not by lectures about how the Phoenix ushers in this new, golden age for humanity, and, instead, partially off-screen and partially through the “don’t be a man” quote from Riker. Either way, in the end, he accepts his role as the figurehead for inter-species relationships.
Cochrane’s assistant, Lily Sloane (Woodard), starts out as an angry, confrontational revolutionary who initially believes she has been kidnapped by opposing forces but is quickly convinced of the Borg’s threat by Picard. For me, she’s probably the weakest part of the film; it’s not enough to drag it down in my estimation but I’ve never been a fan of the actress or her portrayal of the character, who comes across as annoying and a liability at some points. Still, she acts as both an audience surrogate through which the uninitiated are taught about the Borg, the ship, and the future world Picard is from.
If there’s one downside to the film, it’s that the remainder of the crew don’t really get a lot to do since so much of the plot revolves around Picard overcoming his trauma and Data’s temptation by the Borg Queen. Beyond her amusing drunk scene, there’s not a lot for Deanna to do here, unfortunately; similarly, Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) exhausts most of her importance after fleeing the Borg attack, though she does later personify the crew’s general blind obedience to Picard’s orders. Riker, also, is largely inconsequential to the away team mission, with Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) getting most of the focus, though this is most likely because of Frakes pulling double duty behind the scenes as well. It’s therefore all the more obvious that the never-before-seen Lieutenant Hawk (Neal McDonough) is going to suffer the fate of most Star Trek “redshirts” since he gets a lot of screen time and focus for a guy who isn’t a part of the main cast so you know he’s doomed even without a deep knowledge of Star Trek. Similarly, Geordi leaves Porter (Eric Steinberg) in charge of Engineering and he and his female co-worker are summarily assimilated but cameos by the Doctor (Robert Picardo) and Lieutenant Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) help to add to the film’s charm and expand the Star Trek world.
The film only has one space battle, which is disappointing, but it’s a fantastic way to showcase the slaughter that the Borg, even a single Cube, is capable of inflicting. The Borg are, apparently, now so advanced that they can just casually manifest a “temporal vortex” through unknown means to travel through time; it’s very convenient and not really explained much but it gets the plot moving quickly and is a much faster way to get everyone back to past. When the Borg are attacking and assimilating the crew, the film resembles a horror movie; the Borg are kept in shadows, attacking off-screen, and are not seen in full view until Picard leads a team to try and stop them before they can spread beyond Deck 16. It’s a very effective way to introduce some tension and horror and the stakes of the film since Picard emphatically orders his team to fire at will rather than leave any assimilated crew members alive despite the fact that de-assimilation is a thing and he knows that. The Borg are treated as a zombie-like, relentless force, one that will not attack unless provoked or they perceive a threat; once they do attack, there are slow and persistent, stoically allowing their numbers to fall until they learn to adapt and continuing their assault regardless, assimilating crew members without conscience or mercy.
The Borg Queen introduced a dynamic to the Borg “collective”; until this moment, the Borg were a unified voice, with no hierarchy or individuals. The closest they came to having such a central voice was Locutus and when Lore (Spiner) manipulated that rogue contingent in the aforementioned “Descent” episodes. Here, though, the exact nature of the Queen’s relationship is left somewhat vague; it appears as though she is merely a physical manifestation of the collective but she also orders the drones about and they adhere to her commands (and she refers to herself as “I”, indicating that she is their “leader”, as Data suggests). It’s clearly a filmmaking technique to allow audiences to have a clear antagonistic figurehead to focus on and, while it does work since it expands the nature of the Borg society, it does somewhat diminish the horror of their collective consciousness. Regardless, the Borg Queen is a charismatic, seductive, and manipulative presence; oozing confidence, sex appeal, and a gruesome body horror, she represents Data’s desires for humanity and Picard’s fears of the Borg since it is heavily implied that the Borg Queen personally supervised his assimilation, perhaps even sexually abused him, and that the Borg Queen has assumed numerous physical forms over the years. Her introduction is also one of the most horrific and impressive special effects shots in all of Star Trek and her make-up design looks both incredibly uncomfortable for the actress and ghastly in its execution.
There are a few conveniences, instances of hand-waving, and missed opportunities in the film, if I’m being brutally honest: there’s the aforementioned ease of time travel, the massively convenient explanation for getting Lieutenant Commander Worf (Dorn) back on the Enterprise, and I would have liked to see a little more exposition about how, why, and when Geordi decided to swap out his trademark visor.
Still, one of the (many) things I enjoy about Star Trek: First Contact is the vastly improved uniforms for the cast and crew, despite how hot and uncomfortable they appear regardless of their high quality. Everything about the film is so much more cinematic and of a much higher quality than all of those that came before it; the Enterprise-E bridge is massive and far more detailed and the ship itself is much more like the traditional Enterprise but meaner and more capable of combat. Like the Klingons before them, the Borg benefitted greatly from the cinematic redesign; no longer appearing like pale men in black leotards with plastic attachments and hands in clear prosthetics, they appear as disgusting zombies with their cybernetic implants crafted into, or entirely replacing, their limbs in sequences that are extremely horrific for a 12-rated film and easily the most gruesome of any Star Trek production.
The film mainly switches between the away team, led by Riker (who must work with Cochrane and convince him to help them and where the bulk of the film’s humour and levity is seen), and the main ship where Data is tempted by the Borg Queen and Picard becomes a far more pro-active and action-orientated individual in this film. Picard adopts a sleeveless variant of his uniform, showing off his physique for the first real time, and he is portrayed as an almost John McClane (Bruce Willis) type of action hero, hiding in engineering vents and striking against overwhelming odds. One of the film’s most engaging sequences is the space walk Picard, Hawk, and Worf are forced to take to keep the Borg from calling for reinforcements; it’s a rare instance of weakness for Worf, who dislikes the disorientation caused by zero-g environments, and unique in that the whole scene technically takes place upside down on the underside of the ship.
Another memorable scene is, of course, the blazing confrontations between first Picard and Worf and then Lily and Picard. While the rest of the crew may disagree with Picard’s unwavering belief that they must fight the Borg no matter the cost, Worf is the only member of the crew to object to Picard’s orders, believing (rightly so) that Picard is letting his personal feelings influence his judgement. It’s an extremely tense moment as the two close allies and comrades almost come to blows, it seems, and leads to an awkward moment of reconciliation between the two after Picard reluctantly agrees to set the Enterprise-E to self-destruct. Lily (who acts as Picard’s conscience throughout the film, questioning his motivations and notes, with dry criticism, how aggressive and uncompromising his actions have become) also unashamedly criticises Picard’s decision and confronts him, leading to a dramatic and heated exchange between the two in which the extent of Picard’s obsession and pain is revealed. It’s a very humanising moment for Picard, usually so authoritarian and composed, and here stripped down to a tormented victim of unspeakable abuse.
In the end, Picard mounts a solo effort to rescue Data and is willing to sacrifice himself, his ship, and Data to distract the Borg Queen and end her threat. Paralysed with fear and confusion regarding the Queen’s appearance, Picard is only able to win the day thanks to Data’s deception and subsequent release of plasma coolant to liquefy the Queen’s organic components and end her threat. Picard finds some closure in snapping the Queen’s neck and the two of them actually mourn her for her force of will and uniqueness amongst the generally zombie-like Borg. It’s a cathartic end to the trauma that has haunted Picard since his assimilation and allows him the chance to step away from the brink of self destruction and take proactive, measured action against one of the franchise’s most formidable foes.
Star Trek: First Contacts a fantastic Star Trek film (and a great science-fiction movie in general) that showcases a completely different side to Star Trek and, especially, Picard; ever since “The Best of Both Worlds”, Picard has been haunted by his experiences with the Borg but, while some episodes of The Next Generation dabbled in how his assimilation affected him, it was never explored as deeply as it is here. Picard is literally haunted by the Borg, able to sense their presence and hear the mutterings of the collective and is driven to animalistic rage whenever he battles them head-to-head. It drives him to an obsession that blinds him to the losses he is suffering; all he cares about is opposing the Borg rather than compromising as they have on so many other occasions. He wants them dead, to make them pay, and to take his revenge upon them no matter if it costs him his ship, his crew, or his life. It’s a powerful character arc, and series of scenes and moments, that humanises Picard and makes him a far more relatable character and a stronger man for it after he realises what his fixation with the Borg has turned him in to.
In many ways, it’s a very small-scale film, much more concerned with such interpersonal deconstructions; the away team are simply constructing a warp-capable ship, Data faces temptation from the Borg Queen, and Picard is engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Borg. There’s only one space battle and no real star trekking, with even less diplomacy, making the film both grounded but also outlandish thanks to its time travel plot and the use of one of the franchise’s most horrific and persistent antagonists. It remains easily my favourite of the Next Generation films and, potentially, my favourite Star Trek movie because of its themes, presentation, and intensity of the plot.
Are you a fan of Star Trek: First Contact? Where does it rank for you compared to the other Star Trek movies? What did you think to the film’s time travel plot or the use of the Borg? What about Picard’s characterisation and Data’s character arc? Are you a fan of the Borg? If so, what are some of your favourite episodes and, if not, why is that and which enemy would you have preferred to see in the film? Where do you stand on the Kirk vs. Picard, Original Series vs. Next Generation debate? Whatever your thoughts on Star Trek: First Contact, or Star Trek in general, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Star Trek content later in the year.