“And you people – you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?” – Zefram Cochrane, reminding moviegoers what they paid obscene amounts of money to see.
Premiere: November 22nd, 1998
Written By: Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga
Directed By: Jonathan Frakes
Plot: The specter of the Borg still lingers over Captain Jean-Luc Picard – largely because he was kidnapped and assimilated by them for a while. Thus, when the Borg come back to attack Earth, he defies Starfleet orders to lay waste to a Borg Cube. Unfortunately, a Borg Sphere (seriously, what is with the Borg and simple geometry) comes out of said cube, and the Enterprise follows it into the past where they intend to assimilate all – not to mention, ruin the first contact between Vulcans and Humans.
The crew try and keep Dr. Zefram Cochrane on track when it comes to the launch of his epochal ship, despite him being a bit different from his idolized portrayal in the 24th century. Picard tries to take on the Borg, but slowly goes a bit nuts in doing so, much to the concern of Lily, a resident of Cochrane’s settlement who wound up on the Enterprise. In the mix-up, Data gets captured and is tempted by one particular Borg – the Borg Queen, who fancies herself the end and the start of the collective.
Well, Generations was a bit of a misfire to pass the torch. Not that I won’t ever watch it again, but it really was just a double-length episode of TNG. Really, the only things film-worthy were a) the cameo by Captain Kirk, who proceeded to fall victim to poor lair construction, and 2) the Enterprise-D getting trashed by the Klingons. Still, the movie made a decent profit, and a follow-up was commissioned.
With Johnathan Frakes in the Director’s Chair, Braga and Moore back in the writer’s room, and the franchise arguably just coming off its cultural apex (with Voyager and Deep Space Nine airing at the same time), the sequel finally embraced the cinematic atmosphere by doing a deeper analysis of the series’ most well-known and well-renowned antagonist – the Borg.
(Warning: minor spoilers for TNG are in this review. Continue at your own risk.)
“The Borg are the ultimate user. They’re unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They’re not interested in political conquest, wealth, or power as you know it. They’re simply interested in your ship, its technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume…
…you judge yourselves against the pitiful adversaries you’ve encountered so far – the Romulans, the Klingons. They’re nothing compared to what’s waiting.”
These two sentences from Q in “Q Who” are just a taste of what was to come from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The franchise, up to that point, was largely about the exploration and contact with these worlds that were just being discovered by the Federation. Still, you can only carry on with that structure for so long – eventually, a more serious threat would have to confront Starfleet.
Enter the Borg. As Q himself puts it, they are not interested in the political negotiations, the idea of culture exchange, or the idea of compromise – they wish only to take and take until there is nothing left. Merciless and cold – they are the Borg. And they took over in ways that were hellish, ways that stripped those that encountered of their personalities.(Combine that with the fact that Season 1 is widely disliked amongst Trekkies, and “Q Who” really becomes one of the first hints of a next level up for the TV franchise.)
This finally came into play with the Season 3 and 4 bridge, “The Best of Both Worlds” – referred to in some fan circles as “Starfleet’s 9/11”, as the sheer destruction the Borg produced shattered the image of invulnerability that the Federation held at the time, particularly with the capture of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Even though Picard was rescued (hey, Paramount was making mad money off of the show), there was no turning back for him. His brother Rene even warned him that it would “be with him for a long time”.
And indeed, years on, it’s still with him – among the first scenes is a nightmare of Picard getting assimilated in graphic fashion – waking him up, only to have a piece of Borg machinery burrow out of his cheek. This sets the stage for his character in the rest of the movie.
Tormented by the Borg, it’s apparent that he wants to take them off the face of the Earth – damn the consequences. And, indeed, there are sections of Star Trek fandom that find this unbefitting of Picard’s character – that it contrasts with his more diplomatic and enlightened nature. To that, I respond with the following – the overreaching nature of the Borg, as well as the personal nature of Picard’s involvement.
The Borg are antithetical to the philosophies which the Federation is built on – especially the values which Captain Picard holds dear. “You will be assimilated” is the sentence that tells it all. Diplomacy is alien to them. They learn through theft, not through communication and exploration. Cultural mixing is disposed of in favor of a complete and utter domination of the Borg society. And they are merciless. There’s a reason that Q called them the first real test of the Federation and Captain Picard – the Borg and their Queen are their perfect antithesis. The former represent a source of hope – the latter, despair.
Few know this better than the Captain himself. They are one of the few antagonists who Picard is willing to throw to wipe off the face of the galaxy. It’s there, however, that Picard himself approaches an uncompromising position – willing to throw whatever at the Borg in the vain attempts to take them off the map. He gives those with him permission to shoot corrupted personnel – “believe me, you’ll be doing them a favor.” As it progresses, he becomes less and less stable, even going as far as to turn one officer into swiss cheese on the holodeck.
And all while explaining to Lily how the 24th-century is more evolved – how they dispensed with money, how they’ve moved past the issues of poverty and war. Yet, through this, the lust for revenge remains lodged in Picard’s heart. So steadfast in killing the Borg and achieving a total victory, he even calls Worf a coward… to his face. (“If you were any other man, I would kill you where you stand.”) The irony of this evolved 24th-century guy being more and more like the Khan he so despises can’t be lost. Even Lily realizes just how mad he’s gone. You really have to read the scene to believe it (or, better yet, watch it)
Lily: …it’s so simple. The Borg hurt you, and now you’re gonna hurt them back.
Picard: In my century, we don’t succumb to revenge. We have a more evolved sensibility.
Lily: Bullshit! I saw the look on your face when you shot those Borg on the Holodeck. You were almost enjoying it!
Picard: How dare you?
Lily: Oh, come on, Captain. You’re not the first man to get a thrill out of murdering someone! I see it all the time!
Picard: Get out!
Lily: Or what? You’ll kill me? Like you killed Ensign Lynch?
Picard: There was no way to save him.
Lily: You didn’t even try! Where was your “evolved sensibility” then?
Picard: I don’t have time for this.
Lily: Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your little quest. Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale!
Lily: You do have books in the 24th century?
Picard: This is not about revenge.
Picard: This is about saving the future of humanity!
Lily: Jean-Luc, blow up the damn ship!
Picard: NO! NOOOOOO! (shatters a glass case containing model starships, before turning around with a resolve…) …I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We’ve made too many compromises already. Too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, NO FURTHER! And I... will make them pay for what they’ve done!
Remember in The Wrath of Khan: Joachim advised Khan that he need not seek out revenge for Kirk – they had their ship. Khan just wanted to settle that old score… and it cost him his crew, his ship, and his life – he only succeeded in making Kirk’s victory completely pyrrhic. It was a little scene in the middle of the movie, but it provides the foundation for everything that happens thereafter. (Complete with a quote from Moby Dick.)
Picard knows that blowing up the Enterprise would stop the Borg in the short term… but is all too willing to wipe them out completely, even if it costs him his crew, his life, whatever remains of his sanity… he has deluded himself into thinking that there is a no-win scenario. In effect, he’s taken the worst aspects of Kirk and Khan.
Unlike either of those, however, he’s brought back to Earth with one simple gesture. Lily walks over to the display, picks up one of the damaged models… “You broke your little ships. See you around, Ahab.” “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon he would have shot his heart upon it.” Somehow, despite quoting Moby Dick, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the thought of Khan went through his mind, as well – I mean, the Battle of the Mutara Nebula has become infamous in the universe. It is here that Picard realizes… there is no winning. Destroy the Enterprise and remain trapped in the past, or destroy himself.
The past has been learned from… in the past itself. Between the acting, the musical score, and the sheer weight of it all, it’s probably my favorite scene in the movie, and one of my favorite scenes in the film franchise. (That’s a top list that is largely composed of Wrath of Khan scenes, by the way. Just putting it out there.)
Of course, Picard’s descent into madness is balanced out by two side-plots. The first revolves around the Borg themselves – in particular, Data’s capture and temptation by the Borg Queen. Now, the Borg Queen is a controversial aspect of the Borg in the Trek Fandom, with many fans claiming that it destroyed the “collective” and more frightening aspect of the group in favor of a standard “Khan-esque” antagonist that could be defeated (ironic, innit). And I can see that argument – one that got more traction as Voyager utilized the Borg as a recurring antagonist.
Still, I could argue that she was created to provide an irony to the situation. This “egalitarian collective hivemind” actually has a leader of their own. I mean, look at the Soviet Union – this idea of a collective of egalitarians was shattered by the fundamental power vacuum, one that was occupied by autocrats – most notably, the infamous Josef Stalin. Even somebody with social democratic tendancies such as myself can recognize that pure egalitarianism is impossible, and from that angle, the Borg Queen’s inclusion makes sense. (Too bad Voyager kept coming back to the Borg, though. I’d argue that this recurrence of the Borg wound up doing terminal damage to the franchise, honestly.)
As for her temptation of Data… consider that Wolf 359 – again, referred to in some circles as “Starfleet’s 9/11” made the federation aware of the Borg and the dangers they possessed. Promising Data the world is just one aspect of a new technique – lure them in by promising perfection. It’s all a deceit. Granted, I don’t know why they chose to add a sexual aspect, but hey – I’m not Moore and Braga.
Data, meanwhile, is handled much better compared to the last film. Instead of just using it as a vehicle for silly jokes, his emotion chip and desire to become more human becomes the centerpiece of drama – from “to hell with our orders”, all the way to “0.68 seconds.” There’s no singing about tiny little life forms, and no shoehorning in of Spot. It’s a fantastic coda to the thread found in the TNG episodes… I hope.
The third plot thread, meanwhile, centers around the past – the first contact between Zefrahm Cochrane and the Vulcans. The 24th Century has immortalized Cochrane as this grand visionary, this man who aspired for world peace, for an end to war and greed and all the issues that humanity faced years before. His motive for going into space?
Dollar signs! Money! I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity. You think I wanna see the stars? I don’t even like to fly! I take trains! I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will.
Cochrane has the weight of history – one that views him as a god amongst men – on his shoulders where he wouldn’t otherwise. He didn’t seek a spot in history – he had a spot in history thrust upon him. He can’t comprehend the fact that Earth will have statues, parks, elementary schools named after him. He’s a pompous and somewhat surly jerk, sure, but honestly, it helps make this mythological figure in the Trek canon more human.
Yet, surprisingly, the crew are aware of this. “Don’t try and be a great man – just be a man, and let history make its own judgments” is a Cochrane quote that gets passed around in the 24th century, and it could not prove truer here. They know that maybe he isn’t the man he has been built up as – he’s far more indicative of the human experience, as a result. It’s an interesting subversion of the “never meet your heroes” trope – because they know he will ascend to heroism after first contact. Indeed, the meeting between him and the Vulcans – a stroke of luck, honestly – is moving in and of itself.
And in terms of sheer tone, this movie has a little bit of everything for everybody. There are scenes that border on horror, there’s tons of action, a bit of a send up to noir on the Holodeck, light comedy, quite a bit of drama, etc. I think this is tied with WOK for the title of “most accessible of the first ten films”, because of the breadth of genres touched upon while still holding true to the franchise’s core values and backstory.
Now, before I begin praising this movie nonstop, I would like to admit it’s not a perfect film. The Borg Queen, again, does sort of remove some of the “collective horror” that the Borg once yielded, because we need a Khan-type villain – a trait that would be exaggerated by Voyager. The ability for Geordi to replicate the manner of time travel is also a bit baffling, but I guess that can be chalked up to them using a Borg memory chip to recover the formula. Also, while the attempts to create a more “action-y” atmosphere and an equally action-y climax work here because the movie has substance, it would bear less fruit in the two following TNG movies, as well as prove controversial with the alternate timeline movies. That, and they could’ve used some characters more efficiently – particularly Dr. Crusher, who does little of importance here.
Still, I’m very forgiving of this movie’s faults simply because of the sheer fun I had watching it. Don’t get me wrong – Wrath of Khan will always be my favorite of the Trek movies. This ain’t bad by a longshot, though. It’s action packed without being an action movie, full of horror and comedy without overdoing it, gives a great reflection on a flashpoint within the Star Trek canon, and filled with great character dynamics. No contest, First Contact is the best of the TNG films. Highly recommended.
- The first contact between Vulcans and Humans will be revisited in an Enterprise two-parter, “In A Mirror, Darkly”. In that, a prequel to the famous TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror”, the first contact ends with Cochrane getting miffed that a Vulcan won’t shake his hand, shooting him, and taking over their stuff. The moral of the story is shake hands. (By the way, if only Enterprise was more like that… if only…)
- Come on, did you really think they were going to trash the Enterprise one movie after they trashed the last one? I mean, even the Enterprise-A got two movies, even if only one of them is actually any good.
- In retrospect, I don’t think you really need to watch Generations. I mean, yeah, there’s a new Enterprise, but they could’ve just added something to indicate this was the first voyage of a new ship.
- One more note – Paramount just released the trailer for Star Trek: Discovery. The decision to make it a prequel set ten years before TOS is a bit strange – I’d personally prefer something set after Voyager and Nemesis. Still, I’m hoping for the best from the writers. I mean, Beyond had a pretty bad first trailer, and the movie turned out alright.
Favorite Scene: “Jean-Luc, blow up the damn ship!” “No! Noooo!” Honestly, that entire scene is just perfectly executed – tragic, haunting, yet surprisingly balanced.
Least Favorite Scene: I guess the Borg Queen’s scenes, if you look at it from a “villain alteration” perspective, take away a little bit.
Score: 8.75. In effect, tied with The Voyage Home despite being far more dramatic and action-oriented. I guess if I had to pick one over the other, I’d go for The Voyage Home, mainly because they didn’t make controversial alterations to one of the franchise’s most recognizable antagonists. But, eh, different strokes.