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From the DVD Shelf: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

After enjoying the newly-released complete soundtrack to Star Trek: First Contact, I decided to re-watch the film itself.  Star Trek: First Contact terribly disappointed me when it was first released (I can’t believe that was over fifteen ago!!).  It’s grown on me in the years since, and I think it’s probably the strongest of the Next Gen films.  (Which indicates the low quality, over-all, of the four Next Gen films.  What a tragic failure of a film franchise.  But I digress.)

When First Contact was originally announced, I was overjoyed.  A big-screen feature film focusing on the Borg seemed to promise the type of epic confrontation with that great group of villains that we’d never gotten to see on the small screen.  (After the amazing two-parter, “The Best of Both Worlds,” we only got a few more glimpses of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they always seemed disappointingly small-scale.)  But now, at last, we’d be getting a great Federation-versus-the-Borg story that I’d always wanted to see.  (Something on-screen to match the amazing Federation-versus-the-Borg story I’d already read, in Peter David’s magnificent Star Trek novel Vendetta.)

But that’s not at all what we got with First Contact. Yes, there’s a big battle with the Borg, but it’s just two-minutes long and is quickly dispensed with at the very start of the film.  Instead, the film turns into a time travel story, in which the defeated Borg try to destroy humanity by traveling back in time and disrupting the beginning of humanity’s journey to the stars and the eventual founding of the Federation: Zephram Cochrane’s first warp-flight.

Not only is that a pretty naked attempt on the part of the producers to smush together two previously-popular Star Trek story-devices, the Borg and time-travel, but it is totally contrary to the whole idea of the Borg.  The Borg are great villains because they are merciless and unstoppable.  They don’t strategize, they don’t scheme, they just roll over you like a bulldozer.  If one Borg cube is destroyed, they wouldn’t then use a time-travel plot to destroy humans.  They’d just come back with another cube, and another, and another, until the humans are defeated.

So the whole story of First Contact never made any sense to me, and always seemed like a big-cop out to the fact that, as created, the Borg really were pretty unstoppable bad-guys.

If I can put that aside, which is hard to do, there’s a lot to enjoy about First Contact. There are some great sequences of mounting terror as the Borg gradually assimilate the Enterprise, and I love the idea of the familiar Enterprise turning into a dangerous house of horrors.  (Those sequences would have all been a lot more powerful, though, if Star Trek: First Contact hadn’t been our introduction to a new Enterprise, the Enterprise E, since the Enterprise D that had been the setting for all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation was destroyed in the previous movie…)

I also really enjoy all of the business down on the planet with Zephram Cochrane and his warp-ship.  Casting James Cromwell as Cochrane was a real coup, and he’s dynamite in the role.  The post-World War III time on Earth was a tantalizingly unexplored era of Star Trek history, before this movie, so I enjoyed the glimpse of that era before first contact with an alien race changed humanity forever in the Star Trek universe.

Alfre Woodard is also a terrific guest-star as Lily, Cochrane’s partner who winds up trapped on the Enterprise with Picard and the Borg.  There are one or two moments when her “I don’t understand any of this sci-fi ray-gun stuff” comes perilously close to self-parody, but Ms. Woodard brings a lot of humanity and warmth to the role, and she’s able to really flesh out Lily despite that fact that, really, we don’t get to know all that much about her over the course of the film.  It helps that Ms. Woodard has terrific chemistry with Patrick Stewart, and their scenes together really crackle.

None more so than her dramatic confrontation in the Ready Room with the increasingly Ahab-like Picard, who has become desperate to exact vengeance on the Borg.  That scene is by far the best scene in the movie, and it is one of my all-time favorite Star Trek scenes from any of the movies or TV shows.  The writing and acting are both absolutely top-notch, and Ms. Woodard and Mr. Stewart eat the scene up.  I love the way the two actors go at one another, the tension in the scene ratcheting up and up and up.  It’s a great choice to hear Picard recite the familiar Next Gen trope that “we have a more evolved sensibility,” which Lily immediately dismisses as bullshit.  Picard’s willingness to kill assimilated crew-members earlier in the film always raised my eyebrows — if he had been rescued from the Borg, even after having been assimilated, why couldn’t they? — and it’s great to hear Lily fearlessly confront him about that and brush aside his claims that “there was no way to save them.”  “You didn’t even try!” Lily shouts.  “Where was your evolved sensibility then?”  “This is not about vengeance” Picard asserts, which Lily immediately dismisses, accusing him: “Liar!”

But of course, the best moment comes moments later, after Picard smashes the display case in anger and then quietly delivers the monologue, to camera, in which we see just how far gone he really is.  “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.  The line must be drawn HERE. THIS far, NO father!  And I… will make them pay for what they’ve done…”  How great is that moment?  I could just re-type the whole scene right now, it’s that good and it’s pretty indelibly seared into my memory.  Now, I know, you could argue the film doesn’t really earn that moment.  Picard has acted pretty normal up to that point in the film, and he’s pretty immediately back to normal two minutes later (apologizing to Worf on the bridge), and it’s disappointing that all of this retreating before the Borg (in which they “assimilated entire worlds”) has apparently all happened off-camera… But to me, that scene is so good that I don’t really care about any of that.  I just love watching that scene, and every time I watch First Contact, I’m just waiting for that scene.

I know some people who see the creation of the Borg Queen as just as much a betrayal of the original Borg concept as having them use time-travel was.  I agree that it’s a little sad to see the faceless we’re-all-the-same Borg (a huge aspect of what made them so unique) given a first among equals, but I do understand why a movie needs a central villain.  I also think the idea of the head-of-the-hive sort of works (and besides, we already saw a Borg with individuality in Locutus — I mean, come on, that Borg had a NAME!).  Alice Krige is terrific with her mysterious, dangerous sexuality, and the look of the queen (including, of course, her memorable entrance in which her head and writhing spinal column are lowered into a waiting body) is spectacular.

In fact, I think First Contact is the best-looking of the Next Gen films.  I love the color palette, with deep blacks and rich reds (I love Picard’s blood-maroon shirt) and sickly greens (for the Borg).  The visual effects by ILM are terrific.  The Big E looks beautiful in every shot she’s in, and the all-too-brief Starfleet-versus-Borg battle is fantastic.  Jonathan Frakes (Riker, stepping up to direct) did a great job at the helm.

What else do I like?

The appearance of the Defiant, fulfilling it’s initial function (when the vessel first appeared in Deep Space Nine’s season 3 premiere, Sisko described it as a ship built to fight the Borg).

The very logical appearance of the Emergency Medical Hologram (why WOULDN’T there be one installed on the new Enterprise-E?)  (“Perhaps you’d like… an analgesic cream?”)

The replacement of Geordi’s VISOR with new bionic eyes.

The return of Dixon Hill and “The Big Goodbye.”

The revelation of the alien race humanity met first.

So all those aspects of First Contact work well.  Other the central premise which, as I wrote above, is totally flawed, what doesn’t work?

It’s a shame that, once Picard beams back up to the Enterprise with Data, the story on the ship and the story on the planet don’t seem to connect at all.  Shouldn’t Riker, Troi, etc. be really worried about what the heck is going on up on the Enterprise?

The film is filled with plot holes.  Was the ENTIRE Enterprise crew, except for the command crew and the engineers down on the planet, assimilated??  Shouldn’t Picard and the rest of the gang be a little sad about that at the end of the film?  Speaking of the end of the film, how exactly did the Enterprise return to the future?  Oh, Geordi calibrated the engines to match the readings of the Borg sphere?  It’s that easy, huh?  So now the Enterprise and any other Starfleet vessel can travel through time whenever they want??  That’s just way too easy.  It’s lazy storytelling, and it bugs the hell out of me.

And am I the only one driven crazy by the fact that Picard tells Lily that the Enterprise has 24 decks, only a few minutes after a security dude reports to Worf that the Borg have assimilated decks 26 up to 11?  Come on, didn’t ANYONE making the movie notice that??  Again, lazy.

There’s a lot to like about First Contact. It’s got a zippy pace, and it definitely has a lot of energy.  The film is chock full of action and humor, and there are some really clever, memorable sequences.  I like that the whole Next Gen ensemble gets some fun moments to do in the film (though Dr. Crusher gets short shrift).  It’s fun seeing Barclay again (his one scene is terrific), and the three main guest-stars are all fantastic.  Visually, the film looks great.

I just feel that a big-screen movie featuring the Borg should have been so much more.  First Contact is fun, but it’s nowhere near as successful as the best of the original Trek films.  It’s a shame that this deeply flawed film is the best of the Next Gen movies.

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