The series of Star Trek: The Next Generation films oddly parallels the films following on from The Original Series in a way: a pretty rubbish first film, followed by a sequel which is generally considered the best of its particular series, with somewhat diminishing returns thereafter. And First Contact is easily the best of the Next Gen films, which admittedly could be seen as damning with faint praise considering the other three, but it is definitely one of the high points of the Star Trek film series.
First Contact’s villains are the Borg, an alien race whose entire existence is dedicated to conquering other races and forcibly assimilating them into their collective, gaining all their knowledge and technology in the process. First Contact follows on from the Enterprise crew’s various encounters with the Borg, particularly the classic The Best of Both Worlds two-parter in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) was himself assimilated but later rescued by his crew. Still suffering from nightmares about the experience, he learns that a Borg ship is heading for Earth; just before the Federation manages to destroy it, the Borg are able to send a small vessel back in time, intending to assimilate Earth in the past and prevent humanity from ever making first contact with alien life. Naturally, the Enterprise follows to try and stop them.
There are two plot threads: in one, Picard fights the Borg aboard the Enterprise, trying to stop them from taking control of it and assimilating the crew; and in the other, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) heads to Earth to ensure that Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) invents warp drive and thus makes first contact. The latter is definitely the lesser of the two, even though Cromwell is great fun as the reluctant founding father of the Federation; there’s nothing really wrong with it, although the relative light-heartedness does jar with the film’s overall tone. It’s just that the Borg are entirely absent from it, and it feels very much like a B-story compared to the events back aboard the Enterprise.
That plot strand is much more interesting, mainly because the focus here is very much on Picard, and Stewart gives a predictably excellent performance. Despite needing to be professional and detached in his actions, it quickly becomes apparent that Picard just wants revenge on the Borg for what they did to him, and quickly ends up channelling Captain Ahab, willing to risk anything, including his crew, to kill his White Wale. It’s a very different side of Picard than tended to appear on Next Gen, ruled almost entirely by his emotions. Stewart, completely familiar with the character after having played him for over seven years, is at his very best here, particularly when Picard is forced to confront his rage and its consequences: his speech about how the line must be drawn here is justly considered one of his best moments.
Unsurprisingly, First Contact benefits hugely from having a feature film’s budget: on the TV series, the Borg were great villains whose impact was lessened somewhat by how little could be spent on them. It’s the same problem the Daleks had in classic Doctor Who: excellent villains let down by the fact that they obviously weren’t real. Here, however, with more money to spend and Industrial Light & Magic on duty, they are finally able to be genuinely frightening, with their techno-zombie aesthetic benefiting immeasurably from the increased scale of the production. The extra money also leads to an impressive opening space battle against the Borg cube, and one of the film’s most tense sequences in which Picard and Worf (Michael Dorn) fight the Borg on the Enterprise’s outer hull.
Unfortunately, for all the improvements the film makes to the Borg, it makes one huge, catastrophic mistake: the introduction of a Queen of the collective (Alice Krige). While it makes sense that a hive-mind would have a queen, the problem is that it gives them a human(-ish) face, and what makes the Borg interesting and frightening is their complete lack of individual identity, never using first-person pronouns and always thinking as a group. Like the Terminator, they can’t be bargained or reasoned with, and do not know pity, remorse, or fear. But now they have a face and can be talked to, negotiated with, and crucially, tricked. The Queen is clearly able to feel emotions, and again, the Borg are frightening because they feel nothing, completely stripped of everything that once defined who they were. Krige’s performance is fine, but the film’s wish to have an identifiable individual bad guy is a big blunder, and misses the point of the Borg as villains: there are no individuals in the collective, and that’s what makes them so fascinating.
If that sounds overly critical, it’s only because there are so many things First Contact gets right that the flaws stand out all the more, and unfortunately, the Borg Queen is a big one. All the same, this is still by far the best of the Next Generation films, and probably the second best Star Trek film overall (although some would argue for The Voyage Home). It avoids the trap so many of them fall into, never feeling simply like a two-part story of the TV series, and delivers almost everything you could want from a science fiction film: great action sequences and special effects, an outstanding lead performance, and, in its depiction of the event of first contact itself, a wonderful expression of the hope for the future which Gene Roddenberry intended Star Trek to be about.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)… Coming Soon
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Journey Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
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