Star Trek: First Contact SCE Review
The Earth is under attack! The day the Federation has dreaded finally arrives with the invasion of the Borg, the most ruthless enemy in the entire galaxy. In a last desperate stand, Starfleet manage to beat back their foes but the relentless Borg, never ones to give up without a fight, manage to travel back in time and take over the Earth. Now Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Commander Data and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise, who have followed the creatures back in time thanks to a handy temporal wake, must single-handedly try and save the future of humanity, while at the same time ensuring that a pivotal moment in their history takes place. So, basically, it's pretty much business as usual.
Although it was released nearly nine years ago now, Star Trek: First Contact marks the last time the franchise really felt good about itself. Although Voyager was already in its third lacklustre year and perceived to be in trouble, there were still hopes (forlorn as it turned out) that it could pull itself together in the same way that The Next Generation did in its third year while Deep Space Nine, which at first had been seen as the bastard child of the Trek stable, was finally revving up the Dominion Arc to the approval of the once-sceptical fans. The future looked rosy – in November the stars of the various series gathered to celebrate the series’ thirty years anniversary, a new multi-million dollar exhibition was announced for Las Vegas, while The Next Generation crew looked all set to continue the big screen success of their predecessors. These were halcyon days indeed, and the crown jewel of this anniversary year was undoubtedly First Contact, a film that seemed to prove once and for all that Star Trek on the big screen did not need Kirk and co to succeed.
Following the muted reception to their first big-screen version of the show, the unfairly maligned Star Trek: Generations, scripters Brannon Braga and Ron Moore took no chances, making a concerted effort to write a film that both satisfy the fans and also was accessible to those whose knowledge of Star Trek amounted only to "Beam me up Scotty". The hardcore followers had much to relish in the film. Given that this was the first film to feature the new Enterprise following the destruction of the previous in the last film, the story made extensive use of the ship's interiors, ensuring that the viewers got to see as much of the ship as possible, from the obvious Bridge and Engineering through to Sickbay and beyond – even the Briefing Room makes a, well, brief appearance. Time travel is always a votes winner too (and an element that Braga in particular loves) and this time they (eventually) chose to send the crew back to an era often talked about in the show but up until now never seen – the mythic moment that Zephram Cochrane (in this film played by James Cromwell just before he hit the big time with LA Confidential) made the eponymous first contact with beings from another world, Vulcans to be exact. They also gave characters cute moments - something that was missing from Generations - and snuck in many fan-pleasing references along the way.
The most important decision, meanwhile, namely who the enemy should be, was a bit of a no-brainer. From the moment they first appeared in TNG’s second season classic Q Who?, the Borg have been the favourite enemy of Trekkers everywhere. Invented by writer Maurice Hurley (although, as a Doctor Who fan I am contractually obliged to say they were ripped off from the Cybermen, even though they probably weren’t) this race of cybernetic beings that assimilate those they capture into their group mind both thrilled and terrified audiences, ingraining themselves into the Trekker’s consciousness in a way that very few other races in TNG ever managed to do. It’s a testament to the impact of their debut appearance that when they returned in the third season finale The Best of Both Worlds no reminder of who they were was deemed necessary for the audience, despite the fact there was a year and a half’s gap between the two episodes. An episode that regularly crops up on lists of “Best TV cliffhangers” this was the moment when Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) was himself assimilated, made into Locutus of Borg, creating one of the definitive images of the series and, arguably, Star Trek as a whole. In the early 1990s, this metaphorical rape of a lead character made people sit up and take notice, and even changed the series’ approach to continuity - Gene Roddenberry abhorred any reference to previous episodes but even he realised that this trauma was too deep for the Captain to simply pick himself up and be fine and dandy for next week’s show. By today’s standards his recovery is still remarkably quick (he gets one episode to pull himself together), but it was a story referenced time and again throughout the rest of the show’s lifetime. It was one of the big moments for the show, and one that cemented its reputation. Quite rightly, the Borg were only used sparingly throughout the rest of the show's lifetime, appearing in only two further stories, the intelligent I, Borg and the highly disappointing two-parter Descent, although thankfully this misstep didn't do anything to damage their reputation. As soon as it was announced TNG was heading to the cinema, people started asking "When will the Borg appear?" so it is no surprise that they turned up as soon as they did. At the end of the day the Borg were cool, and, even more than that, they were almost ideally suited for a big screen outing, as well as being easily understandable to people who hadn't seen any of their small screen appearances.
There was just one problem from the fan's point-of-view. The Borg, as an enemy, are faceless. Everyone knows that to have a truly effective villain they must have some kind of individual persona, something that can spar and taunt the heroes as they battle. The television episodes in which the Borg took central stage as the bad guys - Best of Both Worlds and Descent - solved this problem by using an individual character as a spokesperson, respectively Locutus and Data’s brother Lore, but neither of these were exactly suitable for the big screen version. An early draft of First Contact attempted to simply ignore this problem, but quite rightly it was pointed out to Braga and Moore that this vital central element was sorely missing, sending them back to the drawing board. The solution they ultimately came up with was utterly logical, but at the same time managed to make the Borg slightly less threatening. Given the terminology that had already been used in conjunction with the race – the Hive, drones, and so on – it makes sense that the Borg would have a queen but, as played by Alice Krige here, she is not so much Borg Queen as Borg Queen with a large amount of human cunning left inside. Krige is a good actress and plays the part extremely well, but the fault lies with the script’s handling of the character. The Queen’s seduction of Data is so completely contrary to what we’ve known about the Borg thus far that it becomes rather off-putting. Her understanding of emotion can be explained by the fact she is effectively made up of thousands of different alien races, most of whom can feel emotion, but the very fact she is displaying them takes away from the idea that the Borg are completely soulless creatures. Up until this point, the Borg had been that most terrifying of enemies: blank, remorseless, emotionless, the Star Trek equivalent of a serial killer in a slasher pic. As soon as they got a face, however, and no matter how conniving that face is, they lose some of their power. Additionally, one of the most awesome aspects of the Borg’s threat is that there are so many of them – in numbers alone, the Federation has feared the beings could easily overwhelm them – but the second the Queen appears that seems inconsequential. Kill the Queen, as is shown here, and you get the Borg. What once seemed unconquerable now seems eminently conquerable. And the Borg are much less for it.
This is, of course, a fanboy’s rantings – to a general cinema audience, which would of course make up the bulk of First Contact’s viewers, all they see is an evil bitch who they can enjoy booing and hissing with. In this regard the decision to bring the Queen in is entirely sensible, and Krige does an excellent job in the role, combining slinky seductress and ice-cold villainess perfectly. I can’t say I personally found her even remotely attractive, as some people did, but she’s certainly one of the better villains found in the Trek movie canon. Indeed, all three of the guest stars of the picture do their job perfectly. (Like Bond girls, Star Trek guests always come in three: the villain, the love interest and the other guy). James Cromwell is perfect as the irascible Zephram Cochrane, a man who can neither comprehend nor appreciate the hero-worship the Enterprise crew bestow on him, an inventor more interested in money and cheap liquor than his place in his history books. His is a very human face, and his down-to-earth, loose characterisation makes a pleasing contrast with the formal manner the regulars have. Alfre Woodard has a more thankless role – aside from a pivotal moment when she implores Picard to “blow up the damn ship!” she has little to do other than look shocked or scared, but she is still personable enough to make her two-dimensional character watchable, an identification point for those audience members less au fait with Trek lore, who could ask questions with impunity.
The regulars too, are fairly well served, with the usual exception of Dr Crusher, Gates McFadden’s character, who never gets anything to do, probably because she’s the most boring of the ensemble cast (as well as the fact she was Wesley’s mother, something for which she should never be forgiven). As usual, the lion’s share of the work goes to Picard and Data, the only two characters who have proper arcs in the film, but the others all get their moments to shine. Worf, in particular, has a couple of excellent moments, something that hasn’t really been the case in the other films. At this point in the series’ history Michael Dorn’s Klingon had just transferred across to Deep Space Nine (a mistake, in my opinion, but that’s a discussion for another day) but gets one of the more genuine moments of the entire film, the argument with Picard on the bridge – the line “If you were any other man I would kill you where you stand” is one of the best of the entire film, both emphasising the dramatic moment between them and summing up both the men and their relationships with each other. Even Reg Barclay, the nervous recurring character played by The A-Team’s Dwight Schultz, gets a fun moment, when he nearly scares Cochrane off by enthusiastically asking to shake his hand. (I wonder if any of the Trek actors have had similar ideas when faced with such an enthusiastic fan?)
Braga and Moore’s script hits all the right buttons and is a very tightly constructed, clever script (it even manages to cover up many of the potential plot holes with a few well-chosen lines). Brannon Braga is nowadays almost universally reviled by fandom, but his writing partnership with Moore produced three of the best Star Trek stories ever - All Good Things (a close-to-perfect last episode of TNG), Generations and this present film. There are the occasional flaws, notably Cochrane’s “Star Trek” line which makes the skin crawl, as well as the missed opportunity to explore the body-horror aspect of being assimilated (besides a poke in the eye), but my major quibble with the screenplay is a scene that most people praise to high heaven. This is the Big Emotional Scene, already briefly alluded to, in which Picard and Woodard’s character Lily argue about whether to destroy the Enterprise or not. It starts well, contrasting Picard’s vendetta with the Borg with Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick (an apt metaphor given that Patrick Stewart was at the time preparing to play that character in a television movie) and succeeds in showing a rare human chink in Picard’s armour (revenge, he tells Lily, is not an emotion twenty-fourth century man succumbs to, and yet it’s clear this particular one does) but soon descends into overblown histrionics. Picard’s breaking of the ships might be nice symbolically, but is a little overwrought, as is his subsequent speech, which sounds like it damn well knows it’s the big moment and has to try and rise to the occasion. Instead, it sounds like many other speeches that have been made before, one which is trying to be quotable but instead sounds recycled – “The line must be drawn here,” would be fine if it hadn’t been said a thousand times before (it doesn’t help that Stewart, usually a joy to watch, gets a little carried away). In a similar vein, the scene in the holodeck, in which Picard roars with a primal rage as he guns down two Borg, is both obvious and belaboured (although it is amusing to see two Borg walking through a 1930’s Chicago club), as though the two writers weren't quite sure how to convey Picard's emotions more subtly.
Indeed, it is the more natural, smaller moments that are the more effective. As well as the Worf and Barclay moments already mentioned, scenes such as the one in which Picard guns down one of his own crew members who cries out for help, or the moment he and Lily have to walk amongst the Borg to escape say just as much about the situation they find themselves in without being so blunt. I particularly like the moment early on in which Picard places his hand on the Phoenix, his connection with the past, as he explains to Data the effect it has on him, and it’s a scene I’m sure Gene Roddenberry himself would have approved of. Overall, the two concurrently running storylines (the A and B stories, as they’re often called) contrast perfectly, the darkness of what is happening on the ship set against the comparative lightness of the crew’s efforts on Earth to launch the Phoenix. This is summed up in the final sequence, which flips between Picard’s last stand against the Queen and the launch of Cochrane’s ship, complete with his favourite rock-and-roll track.
This contrast is helped by good direction. Jonathan Frakes, Commander Riker in the film, makes a confident debut as a feature-length director, managing to pull off what must have felt a daunting task with ease. Having directed eight episodes of the television series, he was no doubt helped both by his familiarity of what a Trek production should look like and by his close relationship with the cast members and production crew, but there is still no sign of nerves here, and the film remains stylistically quite the best thing he has done (although he must never be forgiven, of course, for Thunderbirds). There are a couple of minor faults – the deflector dish set piece is a little slow, and, as mentioned before, he lets Stewart overplay the yelling scene – but overall this is a film with more visual panache than Generations’ stodgy staging (much as it pains me to say it).
Of course, he would go on to direct the next film in the series, Star Trek: Insurrection, one of the first real signs the franchise was faltering. What no one then realised, however, was that the seeds of destruction had actually already been sown, as First Contact's success led to Berman and Braga making two decisions that reflected how tired Star Trek was becoming. Firstly, the ecstatic response to the Borg persuaded them to use the villains to bolster up the flagging Voyager, a decision that both cheapened the Borg themselves (in so many ways it's impossible to list them now) and, ultimately, gave the impression Voyager was actually just the rehash of TNG that we'd secretly suspected all along. Secondly, the fact the film is set in the past seemed to go down well, so, following the end of the adventures of Captain Janeway, Berman and Braga felt that a prequel series would be a good idea. A nice idea that, in the end, was never going to really work. These two creative mistakes have had much to do with the decline of Star Trek, and both of them can be traced back to this film, which is perhaps the one blackspot on its otherwise untarnished reputation.
Personally, I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the film, both because I was disappointed we didn’t get a full-on Borg invasion of Earth (although, budget-wise, impractical, how cool would it have been to actually have seen a Borgified LA?) and also because I prefer Generations and feel this film unfairly overshadows that underrated entry into the canon. However, coming back to the film now, not having seen it for a couple of years, I find my appreciation for it growing. Although there are still pedantic things in it that bug me when I have my fan’s hat on – the Borg Queen, that Star Trek line and even, if I’m going to be ultra-anal about it, the fact that the Zephram Cochrane here bears no resemblance at all to the one seen in a TOS episode – as a general movie fan I think it holds together extremely well, and does its job of making an enjoyable science-fiction movie that is accessible to Trekkers and non-Trekkers alike. I don’t think it holds up to the best of the Kirk films, as the equivalent emotional depths those films had are far superior to the at-times artificial versions seen here (once again I refer to the smashing of the Enterprise displays) but it’s certainly far superior to the two films that followed it, and should have been the standard those films had to live up to. Even for me, it appears, resistance to this particular film is futile.
Anyone familiar with the previous Special Editions released will find no surprises in the layout of these disks. As ever, Disk One holds the film itself together with the commentaries, while Disk Two has all the supplementary material, featurettes grouped into appropriate categories, namely The Star Trek Universe, The Borg Collective, Scene Deconstruction, First Contact Production, Archives and Trailers. All of these are subtitled, with the exceptions of the Trailers and the Archives which don’t need it, but there is a lack, once again, of a Play All button. The menus consist of decent animations of the initial scenes of the films.
The film itself is presented with a 2.35:1 print and has a significantly better picture than the disappointing Generations one. There are few marks on the screen and the disk handles the film’s palate well, with only the odd blip of digital artefacting. At times the image does look a little soft but otherwise this is a good solid transfer.
Once again we are treated to the choice between regular old Dolby 5.1 and DTS Surround. Both are excellent, the battle at the beginning and the Borg’s Queen entrance sounding particularly good.
Feature Length Commentary with Jonathan Frakes
Although it gets better as it goes on, this is not a good commentary by the director. Deviating between describing what’s going on, making asinine comments and, surprisingly, imitating the fans with a geekish voice, it sounds at times that Frakes is struggling to figure what to say. “Now there’s the kind of trivia you only get here!” he cries at more than one point during the track, but really, when the detail is something along the lines of “The fans like this line” it really isn’t worth bothering with. Dire.
Feature Length Commentary by Brannon Braga and Ron Moore
This is more like it. As with their Generations commentary, Braga and Moore make highly entertaining companions to watch the film with. Focusing on the story, they tell how they pulled the script together, things they changed along the way and so on, in a track that never lags.
Text Commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda
Once again the two Okudas come up with the goods, with a trivia track that combines trivia any half-respectable fan will know through to the most obscure tidbits of information. The text once again takes up a good portion of the screen, appearing in the so-called LCARS display that Trekkers will be familiar with, this works particularly well if watched in conjunction with Frakes' track. At least then you get something useful out of watching it.
Six featurettes that, with the exception of the saccharine Making Of, each focus on a particular aspect of production that were unique to this film:
Making First Contact
The first half of this bland making-of is devoted to everyone saying how great Jonathan Frakes is and Jonathan Frakes saying how great everyone else is. It really is lovely and reminds you of that bit in Airplane in which everyone smiles at each other. Things then get even better in which the cast exclusively reveal how much fun they have on set, how they love goofing off and that the laughs never end. Finally, the cast explain how great Star Trek is and why it is the phenomenon it is, accompanied by increasingly loud stirring music. It's all so wonderful it makes you want to cry with joy, or reach for the sick bucket, depending on your point of view. Don’t go near it if you have a trace of cynicism.
The Art of First Contact
John Eaves talks us through his designs for the major ships in the movie, with the notable exception of the Borg cube. I’m not the biggest fan of the design of the Enterprise-E, but he makes a good case for it.
Enjoyable but brief account about how the story came to be. Poor old Ron Moore only pops up a couple of times, Braga hogging the limelight, but he’s okay and seems pleased with the final result.
The Missile Silo
This featurette talks about the real-life missile silo the crew used during the making of the film. The first half, talking briefly about how the silo had worked when it had been active, is very interesting and it would have been nice to hear some more about it. The second half has Brent Spiner’s story of how he filmed the sequence of Data falling down the shaft to stop Lily shooting at them – anyone who has ever seen him at a convention will already be familiar with this oft-told tale. Okay.
The Deflector Dish
An unusually critical Rick Berman’s strained comments about the difficulty of shooting this sequence mark out this featurette from the usually positive tones of these documentaries. He expresses disappointment at the size of the set they had to film on, and suggests that the wire work was taxing for all involved. There's also a small amount of footage of the scene being shot that we are presented with, footage which is contrasted with the final result seen in the film. A good piece.
From “A” to “E”
“It was our happiest moment, when I look back at the four films we’ve made,” says Berman at the conclusion to this five minute short that mainly looks on the interior sets for the Enterprise. A bit unfocused, this one.
The Star Trek Universe
Although The Legacy of Zephram Cochrane would have fitted more easily into the Production category, the other two featurettes in this section are pretty interesting, and, with regards to the piece on SETI, it’s nice to see these disks can extend their focus beyond the borders of Star Trek itself.
Jerry Goldsmith: a Tribute
Composer Jerry Goldsmith has a hallowed place in the Star Trek pantheon and this reverential twenty minute featurette shows just why. Although the relatively short length of the tribute means we only get to hear brief snippets from his scores, the testimony of those who worked with him, including other composers such as Jay Chattaway and his own son Joel, with whom he collaborated on the First Contact score, helps underline the immense contribution his music made to these films and beyond.
The Legacy of Zephram Cochrane
A surface-level featurette that reminds us of the two incarnations the character of Cochrane has had in Star Trek: first, as a one-off character in TOS’s Metamorphosis (as played by Glenn Corbett) and then in the form of James Cromwell in First Contact and the Enterprise pilot, Broken Bow. There’s actually not a lot to say about the character himself, and this manages to cover his two or three characteristics pretty quickly, but the interviews with Cromwell are good. He comes across as an extremely gentle nice man who, in an amusing moment from his interview, wonders why he hasn’t had more Trek fans come up to him over the years to congratulate him for his work on the film. “Some characters they respond to,” he muses, leaving the second half of the sentence unsaid, before adding that he hopes he was good in it.
First Contact: the Possibilities
A twenty-odd minute discussion of the likelihood of mankind making contact with extraterrestrials, focussing mainly on the SETI project. Although the claims at the end that we should pick up some kind of artificial signal from intelligent life in the next twenty years seems a mite optimistic, this is an enjoyable look at the subject which uses some well-chosen clips from Deep Space Nine and Voyager
The Borg Collective
A couple of surprising gaps mar these three standard featurettes on the evil race, the best here is probably the Design Matrix, simply because fans will be already familiar with most of the material in the first two.
A look at the Borg’s appearances over the various Trek series, as well as some brief commentary on why they are so popular. Aside from a bit about Seven of Nine that feels added on somehow (although maybe that’s just because I’ve tried to wipe Voyager completely from my consciousness) this is okay but for any even half-knowledgeable Trekker this has nothing new, going over the same old ground that’s been covered a hundred times before. Mentions The Star Trek Experience (which looks rather exciting) but not Descent or the Borg’s appearances in the various video games.
Seven minute interview with Alice Krige in which she gives her thoughts about playing the Borg Queen in both First Contact and Endgame. If Voyager must be included in these featurettes (and I suppose it must) it seems a little impolite to interview Krige and not Susanna Thompson, who also played the Queen in that series when Krige wasn’t available.
This featurette focuses on the design of the Borg and their environs, from their first episode through to factors considered for their latest appearance on Enterprise Good.
Three separate featurettes have designer Alex Jaeger and ILM’s visual effects supervisor on the film John Knoll deconstruct some of the more memorable effects shots in the movie. The most complex of these, the Borg Queen Assembly, goes through the initial designs for how the Queen was going to come together (including a way-out-there spider-like design) before we watch footage from the soundstage of the different shots that went into the final composite sequence being filmed, which was even more complicated than it looked.
The other featurettes are rather shorter. Jaegar talks with pride about the Escape Pod Launch while we see the evolution of the moment through his different animatics, while Knoll takes a brief look at the Borg Queen’s Demise, in which he seems to take relish in the “bits of flesh” we see flying off her as she decomposes. All worth a look.
This section is split into two sections, Storyboards and a Photo Gallery. There are four sets of Storyboards included: 1930s Nightclub, Hull Battle, Hull Battle Alternative Shots and Worf vs the Borg Alternative Shots, all of which give a good impression on how things were visualised before being filmed. Of the Photo Gallery there's not much to say. There are some nice pictures of people smiling but it's hardly thrilling.
The teaser and main theatrical trailer are included, both of which do an excellent job in making the film look action-packed. Also included is the brief trailer for the Borg Invasion attraction at the Las Vegas Star Trek: the Experience, which can also be seen on one of the featurettes.
A minute’s worth of titles that were considered for the film but then dismissed.
The Next Generation's crew's most popular film gets a decent release on this label. Although at times there is a feeling of the various featurettes being churned out almost on a production line (the same two people seem to have made all of them, and the interviews used in different bits were all obviously filmed at the same time) there's enough substance in them to make them worth sticking through. The film itself gets a good transfer both visually and audibly, and any quibbles there are to be had are very minor. A good release.