Recalling Star Trek: First Contact
A Review 25 Years in the Making
What would you do if you found out the people you admired the most turned out to be total jerks? This is the question I came away with after I first saw Star Trek: First Contact, twenty-five years ago. To me, this theme is the underlying basis for this film that first debuted in the USA on 22 November 1996. Looking forward to the film after seeing previews for it, I knew we were going to learn a lot about the origins of Zefram Cochrane, warp drive and the involvement of the Borg in that vital moment of Star Trek history.
We first learned about the existence of Cochrane (as played by Glenn Corbett) in the TOS episode “Metamorphosis”. In it, he had marooned himself on a distant planet and was made a younger man with the assistance of the “Companion”, a creature of pure energy. When given the opportunity to leave the planet, he chose to remain with the Companion, who had possessed Nancy Hedford (played by Elinor Donahue). Her character was dying, so to save her life, the Companion became a part of her. Cochrane had to give up his immortality and told Kirk he was to be left alone to live out his life with Hedford in total seclusion. Pretty noble stuff!
In First Contact, we find a “slightly” different version of Cochrane (as played by James Cromwell). He is a womanizing drunk who has only one reason for developing warp drive: to make money. And when Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Lieutenant Barclay (Dwight Schultz) encounter this hero of theirs, he blows them off. Geordi tells Cochrane that a statue of his likeness will adorn this location of the first warp-drive flight and the supposed great inventor runs off, a scared little man. He is afraid that everyone will know he is a fraud. Knowing that – if Cochrane walks away from his project and the flight of the Phoenix does not occur on April 5th 2063 – then First Contact with the Vulcans will never happen, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) confronts Cochrane and says, “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man. Let history make its own judgments.” When Cochrane derisively asks who said that, Riker replies it was Cochrane himself, twenty years in the future. And we all know what happens next… a “Magic Carpet Ride” (you have to bring your tunes on a trip like this!).
Although Captain Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) is often considered the noblest of the Enterprise captains, in the film we find his one flaw which causes him to want nothing more than revenge against the Borg (and saving the Earth from being enslaved by the Borg). To do so, he will put the lives of his crew at risk.
When confronted by the honor-devoted Worf (Michael Dorn), Picard calls him a coward. It’s not until he is challenged by Cochrane’s assistant, Lily (Alfre Woodard), that Picard realizes his laps in judgement and prepares to allow the Enterprise to be destroyed to ensure the Borg do not succeed in sending a message to the Delta Quadrant. In a moment of true humility, Picard apologizes to Worf and says he is the bravest person he has ever known.
And now, we come to Data (Brent Spiner) – sweet, lovable Data, the puppet who wanted to be a real boy. When captured by the Borg, the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) gives him what he has always wanted, the chance to have the flesh of a human. In exchange, Data must give command of the Enterprise to her. To me, the scene where the Borg Queen blows her breath over the follicles on Data’s new arm hair might be one of the sexiest moments in all of Star Trek.
Finally, Picard decides he must confront the Borg alone and surrenders himself. The Borg Queen insists that Data launch missiles at the Phoenix, ensuring First Contact never occurs. However, Data has deceived the Queen and saves the day. But, in doing so, he gives up his chance to become more physically human.
It’s these underlying parts of the story which show us that, in the end, a greatness we all have within ourselves will find a way to overcome our human frailties. Wasn’t this the mission of Star Trek from the very first episode, when McCoy had to choose between the image of a lost love or save the life of his best friend and captain?
The script of First Contact, written by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore (two veterans of Star Trek), is a marvel of storytelling. They give us the backstory of Cochrane and how we came to establish our relationship with the Vulcans that leads to all of Star Trek to follow. This is a heavy task that they executed brilliantly.
However, it was the directing by Jonathan Frakes that shines so brightly. Prior to this film, he had directed episodes of TNG and DS9; this was his first full-length film, and you can see his personality throughout it. The film’s audio commentary track that is included on the Special Collector’s Edition DVD shows who he is. If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch the film with Jonathan’s words in the background, do so… like, now! He does not dwell on the technical parts of the film but speaks as if he is in the room with you, a bucket of popcorn in his hands, as he talks about the movie like a fan. It’s both funny and insightful, and you can see the love he put into the movie.
First Contact is my favorite of all the Star Trek films and it spawned one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise – “Regeneration”. When Picard destroyed the Borg sphere, what happened to it? We find out its remains were discovered in a frozen landscape. In the episode’s closing scene, after Archer has destroyed the craft that contains the Borg and assimilated humans, they realize a message was sent to the Delta Quadrant and that it will take 200 years for it to arrive… a full circle story, I believe.