Star Trek: First Contact Fought for the Franchise's Future 25 Years Ago

It might still be the Trekkiest of Trek films

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<i>Star Trek: First Contact</i> Fought for the Franchise's Future 25 Years Ago

Worf: “I never doubted the outcome. We were like warriors from the ancient sagas. There was nothing we could not do.”
O’Brien: “Except keep the holodecks working right.”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Way of the Warrior

A lot of elements come together to make Star Trek what it is, which is not so much a multimedia property as a cultural phenomenon complete with its own uniforms and its own lingo. (I don’t just mean parlance: There’s a Klingon-language parody of Gangnam Style.) I don’t think the phasers or Tribbles or Neutral Zones are why the fans are so into Trek, or at least I don’t think they’re why fans have stuck with it for 55 years.

Creator Gene Roddenberry never made any secret of the fact Star Trek was supposed to be an aspirational show about a future where humanity had transcended its petty squabbles. Having Sulu and Uhura on the bridge alongside Kirk and Chekhov, having the human crew serve alongside the half-alien Spock, was all intended to send the implicit message that putting aside our bullshit is our rightful destiny.

Roddenberry was involved in the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation before his death in 1991, and while it’s easy to see where his grip started to loosen on the property, TNG never lost sight of Trek’s or Roddenberry’s core mission, which was to argue that a better world comes from unity and leaving behind our worst impulses. In seven seasons of television, I can hardly name an episode where Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean Luc Picard wins specifically because he has more photon torpedoes than the other guy.

Time and again, he and his crew—whom I still contend are the best Trek cast of any show—reaffirm that the reason they can overcome anything is that they represent the best of the Federation, which is to say the best of Roddenberry’s shining future. Even the characters themselves have reflected on this in later years: Two Enterprise-D alums, Worf (Michael Dorn) and Chief O’Brien, sharing a quiet moment together in an episode of Deep Space Nine, talk of their days aboard Picard’s ship as a high point of their lives.

I don’t know how many admirers within the fan community this may alienate, but I’ve felt the same way about TNG as a show. It is, to my thinking, the apotheosis of Star Trek. Every show that has come since has either subverted it or taken great steps to shake up the formula of a steely, competent captain and a crew of 5.0 GPA rocket scientists.

Star Trek: First Contact wasn’t the first movie starring the TNG crew—that honor belongs to the less-than-well-received Star Trek: Generations, which killed Captain Kirk and scrapped the Enterprise-D. First Contact brings Picard and his crew back on a fancier new Enterprise and manages to finally give fans of the show the solo outing they deserved.

Paste named this one our #2 best Star Trek film. I’d respectfully have made it #1 for two simple reasons: It is hands down the most successful attempt at giving one of the TV shows a feature-length story, and 25 years later it feels like it’s arguing for Roddenberry’s future more desperately than ever.

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Jonathan Frakes, who plays Commander William Riker and who directed First Contact, once called the Borg “our most interesting enemy.” It’s true. As Picard explains at great length in many an episode during which he’s trying to convince some distrustful alien to take his side, the Federation isn’t just about unity, but about respect for individual autonomy. It’s a theme revisited again and again in the show and the jumping off point for some of its greatest episodes. The Borg are in direct, violent opposition to this. They assimilate other worlds and cultures by injecting nanites into you that turn you into a robot zombie. It’s clear that there isn’t anything like a gestalt consciousness going on here, or presumably at some point the Borg would collectively decide to stop murdering everybody. You just become a mindless drone, dedicated to turning other folks into mindless drones.

To sum up for audiences who aren’t familiar with the show and remind everybody who is, the movie opens with a ghoulish dream sequence in which Picard relives his assimilation. Writer Ronald D. Moore also was partly responsible for writing the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” which served as the cliffhanger Season 3 ending and hotly anticipated Season 4 debut of TNG, in which Picard was assimilated by the Borg and then fought to get his humanity back. Between Moore and Frakes—a decent director in his own right who also knows (and respects) the material and the cast—First Contact comes right out of the gate with a powerful statement on what’s at stake and then manages the trick of introducing a twist that actually sets the stakes even higher.

Picard is sidelined after news that the Borg are making a direct push to attack Earth. He follows orders for all of about two minutes, warping to the rescue to find Starfleet in disarray. Using his own eerie connection to them, Picard manages to blow up their ship, but not before an escape pod opens a portal to the past. After chasing after them, Picard discovers they were trying to change history by disrupting what is, in Star Trek lore, the most consequential event in human history: The “first contact” with an alien species that brings humanity into the Federation.

The crew splits up: Riker, Geordi (LeVar Burton), Troi (Marina Sirtis) and a few other Enterprise crew members on Earth’s surface try to get drunk and disorderly historical figure Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) sober long enough to repair his damaged ship and make the warp flight that will attract history’s attention, while Picard and the rest of the crew fight have their hands full fighting a Borg incursion that soon sees the ship turned into a nest of killer cyborgs. Meanwhile, the android Commander Data (Brent Spiner) is being seduced by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), tempted with an offer of transcendence.

The movie would be good if it were just the crew being buddies, some decent effects, and Stewart acting at the camera. It manages all of those things while drawing a line under everything Star Trek is really about. What is at stake, it quickly becomes clear, is the entire future Star Trek promises, one in which we aren’t crawling hopelessly over the surface of the Earth at war with one another over scarcity or ideology, one in which two cultures encountering one another doesn’t inevitably end in exploitation or subjugation for one of them.

The movie plays this out on more than one level. Down on the planet, Geordi is fixing Cochrane’s warp vessel because the future has universal free college. On the Enterprise, Picard descends into brutal vindictiveness. Even as he assures the woman from the present, Lily (Alfre Woodard) that the people of the future have a “more evolved sensibility,” he’s taunting Worf as a coward, spending his crew like pocket change, and remorselessly gunning down former crewmen who have been assimilated. He is, in short, surrendering to the warlike ways he’s spent his life rejecting.

It’s only when he snaps out of it and places his trust in an old friend that he wins. Data, as it turns out, only considered joining the Borg for 0.68 seconds. (“For an android,” he says, “that is nearly an eternity.”)

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Things are bad right now, everywhere. It’s hard to look to the future and see hope. It feels, more and more, as if our aspirations toward a more peaceful and wise way of life are being callously snatched away because of hatred and greed and self-interest that none of us individually agree with. First Contact was at least partly about the franchise arguing for itself in a time when the original cast of the ‘60s show had largely put in their final appearances. It reads completely differently now.

The crew wins the day, and has a front row seat for history as the first alien ship to ever visit Earth touches down. Geordi and Troi and Riker are just so damned happy to be there. Before they part ways, Lily and Picard tell one another that they envy each other the days ahead of them: Returning to a super awesome future, and building that super awesome future.

I want what they have.


Kenneth Lowe has to go hunt his whale. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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