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Retro Review: Star Trek: First Contact

Posted by Michelle - 18/03/11 at 02:03 pm


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Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season: Episode: (se)

Original US airdate:

As the Borg attempt to change history by preventing the first human warp flight, Picard and Data face off against the Borg Queen.

Plot Summary: After having a nightmare about his assimilation, Picard wakes to learn that the Borg have destroyed a Federation colony. When the Enterprise joins the battle – against Starfleet orders, because of Picard’s experiences as Locutus – the crew is able to rescue Worf from the damaged Defiant and destroy a Borg cube, but not before the ship launches a small sphere that creates a temporal vortex and heads toward Earth. When the Enterprise plunges into the vortex, Picard learns that current-day Earth has been taken over by the Borg and concludes the sphere has been sent to alter the past. The sphere is targeting Montana in 2063, when Zefram Cochrane made the first warp flight, which led immediately to first contact between humans and other life forms. After destroying the sphere, Picard takes an away team to the surface to find that Cochrane’s ship, the Phoenix, has been damaged. Cochrane’s associate Lily Sloane believes them to be enemies and attacks them, but she is soon overcome by radiation poisoning from the attack and Crusher takes her to the Enterprise, to which Picard returns as well, sensing trouble from the Borg. LaForge beams down to help repair the Phoenix; meanwhile, Troi finds Cochrane in a bar and agrees to have a drink with him to learn the status of his mission. By the time Riker finds them, Troi is drunk and Cochrane disbelieving about both humans from the future and the significance of his planned space flight. Once LaForge convinces Cochrane that the Enterprise is real and that Cochrane’s trip to the stars will alter human history, Cochrane panics and flees. Riker and LaForge track down Cochrane, who explains that his spaceflight was planned not to better humankind but to make money. Riker convinces him to go ahead with the flight and to work with LaForge to prepare the Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Picard learns that several Borg escaped from the sphere by beaming aboard the Enterprise, and are assimilating crewmembers and transforming the lower decks of the ship. When the Borg reach Sickbay, Crusher activates the Emergency Medical Hologram and escapes, but loses track of Sloane, who encounters Picard just after the Borg abduct Data. While Picard tries to convince Sloane that she is in a ship from the future under attack by deadly aliens, Data meets the Borg Queen, who activates his emotion chip and grafts human skin onto his endoskeleton so that he can experience the sensation of touch. From a Borg memory module retrieved from an assimilated crewmember’s corpse, Picard learns that the Borg are planning to alter the Enterprise’s deflector to contact the Borg of that era, and takes Worf outside in a space suit to sabotage the deflector dish. When they succeed, Worf and Crusher insist that they should destroy the Enterprise to kill all the Borg aboard, but Picard refuses until Sloane makes him realize that his quest for vengeance is putting Earth at risk. The crew sets the self-destruct sequence and abandons ship, but Picard refuses to go without Data and instead confronts the Borg Queen, who has promised to make Data perfect if he will give her the codes to control the Enterprise computer. As Cochrane’s ship lifts off toward its destiny, the Borg Queen orders Data to stop the self-destruct and fire on the Phoenix. Data deliberately misses the Phoenix and attacks the Queen, flooding Engineering with a gas that will destroy all organic material. Picard is able to climb to safety and Data’s neural net is unaffected, but the Queen and all the Borg drones are killed. Cochrane lands safely, followed shortly by a Vulcan ship whose crew makes contact with the humans in Montana. The Enterprise retrieves its crewmembers and returns to the 24th century, now safe from the Borg.

Analysis: I love one of the two movies that is First Contact…namely the first contact movie. Other than the issues that always come up with a time-travel story in any franchise – the circularity, the small alterations to the past that can balloon into huge changes, the fact that we never know why the perpetrators don’t just travel back and try again – it’s a superbly told story, picking up an event we’ve long heard about in Star Trek lore yet which doesn’t require any backstory for a newcomer to enjoy, giving us characters we can relate to in a situation where they’re called upon to be more than they ever expected. It has a very classic Star Trek feel without what some people have described as the sterility of the ideal future; Zefram Cochrane is happiest when his hands are dirty, he drinks, he’s sleazy with women, he doesn’t want to be a hero, and he utters the immortal line, “Don’t you people from the 24th century ever pee?” Yet at the same time, there’s a horror movie unfolding on the screen. Characters are tortured and brutally murdered, sometimes by characters we love. A stereotypical femme fatale uses her wiles to try to tempt a character who has largely been incorruptible. We witness shootings, dismemberment, characters having their skin burned off…it reminds me less of Star Trek than Alien and its sequels. If dark science fiction is your thing, this is probably your favorite of all the films in the franchise, but if you’re one of the many who turns to Star Trek for a hopeful vision of the future, I can’t imagine that the S&M games of the Borg Queen make up for the most bloody, brutal, nasty sequences in all of Star Trek.

Structurally, this is a terrific movie, with a well-balanced A and B plot that fit together nicely in terms of sequence if not theme, and the pacing is fairly consistent throughout – kudos to Jonathan Frakes, who didn’t get a lot to do as Riker but made up for that by directing the film. In general, I think it was a good idea to do a movie about the Borg, who were by far the most interesting villains of the Next Generation TV franchise, and the script is quite effective at integrating events from both season-straddling two-parters, “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Descent,” without making it necessary for viewers to remember the details. Yet again all the character development gets focused on Picard and Data, though it’s quite entertaining to see Troi’s ditzy, drunken side, and her cranky familiarity with Riker makes a nice transition toward the relationship they will rekindle (finally!) in Insurrection. Riker, Crusher, and LaForge are largely reduced to their job titles in First Contact and we don’t really learn anything about Worf, yet there’s undeniable power in the scene where a revenge-obsessed Picard calls him a coward and Worf hisses, “If you were any other man, I would kill you where you stand.” I don’t believe Worf – I think it’s specifically because the insult comes from Picard that it upsets Worf so much – but it’s a wonderful, tense moment between two characters who no longer serve together, since Worf has been on Deep Space Nine, and Picard’s later apology and acknowledgment that Worf is the bravest man he’s ever known is a lovely interlude before the captain has to go rescue Data from the dreaded clutches of the Borg.

I often resent it when newly introduced characters take time away from the regulars in Star Trek movies, like Valeris in the last original series film, but Cochrane and Sloane are both wonderful additions to the franchise, so no complaints here. We’ve heard about Cochrane for decades, of course, and got a brief glimpse of a future version of him in the original series episode “Metamorphosis,” but by then Cochrane had been altered by being kept isolated by a Companion who loves him. First Contact gives us Cochrane just before the event that will come to define him, a man with no conception that he is on the cusp of history. He’s had a hard life in the wake of World War III, and all he wants is to make enough money to pay for all the alcohol and women he could ever want. It’s played for laughs, yet it’s easy to see that this man believes in nothing, not even himself; the event that will transform his world will transform him, too. He’s just not sure he’s ready for all that. And really, didn’t Riker give LaForge and Barclay the same speech about not contaminating the timeline that he gave Troi? Obviously they had to reveal that the flight would work, but the statue, the textbooks, the speeches? It’s easy to forgive the guy for fleeing, and pretty harsh that he gets convinced to come back by a phaser rather than a pep talk. In the end, though, he wants to believe, in himself and in the future, and although he almost aborts the launch because he’s forgotten his classic rock soundtrack – I don’t know who picked “Magic Carpet Ride,” but after the “All Along the Watchtower” incidents on Battlestar Galactica, my money’s on Ron Moore – he decides he’s willing to be the person he’s not sure if he wants to believe in.

Sloane’s a bit more of an enigma. Where Cochrane is bitter, she’s furious; she’s the one who’s defending the Phoenix with weapons, and she’s the one who’s irate about anyone who might be a threat to it. She sneaks away from Crusher and grabs a hostage, who happens to be Picard, thinking she’s dealing with a violent faction on Earth. When she looks out a viewport and sees where she really is, she doesn’t need to be convinced, as Cochrane does, that this is a future worth fighting for. She goes along with Picard’s plan to thwart the Borg, though she’s clearly terrified of them and a bit of him as well, especially after he lets loose with a machine gun on the holodeck and shoots down his own assimilated crewmembers, dissecting one in front of her to find a Borg transponder. Her complete lack of hero worship is refreshing; she is more blunt than Crusher or Worf, ordering Picard to blow up his damn ship, comparing him to Captain Ahab even though she’s never actually read the book. She’s no Khan, but that’s what makes her such a novel adversary for a Star Trek captain. Picard is finally forced to admit that she’s right. It’s never clear exactly what Lily is looking for – unlike Cochrane, no one has stories about her fame extending centuries into the future, and we only get brief glimpses of their working relationship, so I’m not sure whether she believes in him or just in the project they’re working on together. Yet she’s fearless about meeting the future head on. I’m sorry we’ll likely never see her in the franchise again.

The other woman introduced in this movie appears several times in Voyager, but I can’t say I warmed much to her even there, when she alternated attempted seduction with a perverse kind of sisterhood toward Janeway and Seven of Nine. It makes sense that the hive mind might have a central individual intelligence making major decisions like when the entire Collective must move or hide, but I find it unconvincing that it would be a temperamental, emotional creature – of course it’s possible that the Borg Queen is just pretending to have that personality in dealing with humans, but then why base it on film noir cliches of feminine behavior? Data, at least, seems to be tempted less by her than by the physical sensations she uses to keep him in thrall, which in combination with his emotion chip leave his positronic brain rather addled. Picard may envy being able to turn emotion on and off at will, but that’s so inherently inhuman that it surely keeps Data from ever learning the strategies people use all the time to cope with feelings they don’t want. Picard is right that it’s really him, or rather Locutus, whom she’s after – he hears her voice before Data has met her – so even if her behavior is all a show for humans, it must be based on getting to Picard, not on stimulating Data’s sexuality program. Which begs the question of why the Borg expect both Picard and Janeway to respond to such a personality – is it supposed to be a perverted twist on mother love? Because the Queen behaves in such a stereotypical bad-woman manner, there’s a horrible element of misogyny in her destruction, burning off all her flesh as she screams. It’s very un-Borg-like, but at that point I don’t think it matters that she’s a Borg or even the Queen of the Borg. She is temptress to two men who are usually unflappable, and it isn’t enough that they destroy the villain, they must obliterate everything that might be considered alluring or attractive, which in this case ends up equating to feminine. All that’s left is her metal skeleton.

I have no idea what Kirk and Spock would have done against a Borg cube – I’m sure there’s mediocre Pocket Books fan fiction on that theme – but I like to think that, faced with a Borg Queen, Spock would have blinded her with logic and made her mechanical parts short-circuit, or, failing that, Kirk would have seduced her and convinced her that the pleasures of the flesh beat galactic conquest every time. It wouldn’t necessarily have been more feminist, but it wouldn’t have been as contemptuous of females as sexual beings, either. And there wouldn’t have been long, dark sequences of crewmembers being assimilated in the corridors. There are some fun bits on the ship, particularly for long-time franchise fans – Worf’s defense of the Defiant, Robert Picardo’s turn as a cranky Emergency Medical Hologram (“I’m a doctor, not a doorstop”), Ethan Phillips out of Neelix makeup on the holodeck. The sequence in space to unlock the deflector dish, with magnetic boots and Borg all around, is nicely tense rather than horror-movie shock-infused. But as for the rest, I never developed any attachment to the Enterprise-E, and it would have been all right with me if she’d blown up. I’d rather fast-forward through the Enterprise scenes and stick with the people on 21st century Earth, who come much closer to straddling Star Trek’s generations for me than any of the Borg adversity.

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