Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

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You remember that great movie Star Trek: Renaissance, right?  The one where the Enterprise crew fights zombies on the streets of 1400’s Florence and Data teams up with Leonardo da Vinci?  Hmm, not quite.  Yet if not for a series of mindful rewrites and a certain actor’s demands regarding his costume, that’s very possibly the mess of a movie we might have been served in the winter of 1996 instead of what we and the people involved remember as the generally agreed-upon high-water mark of the four Next Generation features.

From humble beginnings, as the saying goes.

Star Trek Generations had the same aim (and issues) as Star Trek: The Motion Picture fifteen years earlier – get the awkward first inevitable stumbles from television to silver screen out of the way in a modestly entertaining fashion, and clear the decks for a carte blanche story going forward through the sequels.  With Captain Kirk laid to rest, the TV Enterprise in pieces and no requirement (or lingering desire for that matter) to shoehorn in the ancestral cast again, Captain Picard’s crew could go, much like in the Nexus, anywhere, any time.  Producer Rick Berman, given the green light to begin work on another sequel just as Generations finished its run in theaters, took this literally.

Recalling that time travel had been an element of some of the most successful Star Trek stories, including all-time top grosser The Voyage Home, Berman approached his Generations screenwriting team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga and requested that they dream up a time travel plot.  The two writers had been contemplating using the Borg instead; a virtually unstoppable cybernetic alien race whose modus operandi was not to kill, but to assimilate other beings and cultures into its hive mind.  They had become The Next Generation‘s most popular, catchphrase-ready villains, thanks largely to the third season’s famous cliffhanger finale episode, “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard himself was transformed into a Borg.  So Moore and Braga wrote a story in which the Borg would travel back to the Italian Renaissance to disrupt humanity’s emergence from the Dark Ages.  The Enterprise crew would pursue them and battle Borg drones in Florence while Data assisted Leonardo da Vinci in his earliest breakthroughs.

This treatment was rejected for two reasons:  first, a survey showed that general audiences weren’t terribly familiar with what the Renaissance was (I’m guessing most replied that they thought it was a hotel), and second and most importantly, Patrick Stewart advised that under absolutely no circumstances would he be induced into wearing tights.

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Patrick Stewart in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  Clearly once was enough.

Forced to pick another era, Braga and Moore delved into Star Trek‘s own history instead and selected what they called its birth:  the moment in our immediate future when humanity broke the light speed barrier and contacted aliens for the first time.  The original series episode “Metamorphosis” had introduced a character named Zefram Cochrane, played by Glenn Corbett, who was credited with having invented warp drive; the revised story, now titled Star Trek: Resurrection (because somebody at Star Trek in those days had a fixation with titles ending in “-tion”) would see the Borg going back in time and attacking the missile complex in the town of Resurrection, Montana where Cochrane was assembling his prototype warp ship.  Cochrane would be injured, and Picard and Geordi La Forge would take his place at the controls for his historic first warp flight while Riker and the rest of the crew battled with the Borg aboard the Enterprise in orbit.

There were a few problems with this version; namely, that the character with the most personal involvement and history with the Borg never had anything to do with them over the course of the plot, and that Cochrane was a one-dimensional and disposable prop.  It was a simple matter of switching Picard and Riker’s respective places, and putting Cochrane back in the pilot’s seat of his own ship, with the twist that he starts out not as a divinely inspired legend but rather as a flawed, drunken mess more interested in money and women than achieving a place in history.  A savvy (for once) studio executive also observed that the Borg were essentially zombies (a decade before our collective cultural obsession with them began) and requested that there be a central character who could command them – from that directive arose the Borg Queen, the first (and to date, only) female villain in a Star Trek movie.

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Impressed, Paramount boosted the movie’s budget.  While Generations had been made for a modest $26 million, the new movie’s bottom line was penciled in at $45 million, allowing for more location shooting, more imaginative set pieces, more impressive visual effects, and – potentially – pricier, in-demand talent.  But as pre-production continued, a reminder of the Eddie Murphy debacle on The Voyage Home surfaced when the studio requested that the now-major guest part of Cochrane be offered to an A-list star; depending on whose account you believe it was one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks).  Different era, but identical concerns that such a presence would eclipse the regular cast.  Attempts to land an A-list director were equally fruitless, as top choices like Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott and Die Hard‘s John McTiernan were far too expensive or not the slightest bit interested in Star Trek.  Berman eventually assigned the movie to Jonathan Frakes (Riker), who had cut his teeth directing multiple episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and clearly knew Star Trek top to bottom.  Given a hand in assembling the guest cast, Frakes suggested his godmother Alfre Woodard as Cochrane’s assistant Lily, who would act as an audience surrogate for the non-Star Trek fans as she accompanied Picard in his battle against the Borg.  But someone still needed to play Cochrane.

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It was never a question of going back to Corbett, as he had died three years earlier.  And with neither famous Tom willing, able or available, James Cromwell auditioned for and was awarded the part instead.  At the time, Cromwell was not nearly as well known as he is now; a veteran of decades of small parts across both TV and movies (including three different guest roles in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), his star-making, Oscar-nominated turn as the kindly farmer in Babe was just peaking.  Alice Krige was cast as the Borg Queen, and Neal McDonough (a.k.a. Dum Dum Dugan for you Marvel Cinematic Universe fans) received a plum early role as the unfortunate redshirt, Lt. Hawk.  In a replay of The Wrath of Khan‘s title woes, “Resurrection” was dropped from the movie after Alien Resurrection was announced, and a couple of lousy interim titles (including the particularly uninspired Star Trek: Borg) finally gave way to Star Trek: First Contact.

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Aboard the newly-commissioned, Sovereign-class, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-E, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is having nightmares of his assimilation by the Borg several years earlier, triggered by their entry into Federation space on their way to Earth.  Initially ordered to stay on the sidelines because of his personal involvement, Picard disobeys and charges into battle, identifying a key weakness that allows the Starfleet armada (including the Millennium Falcon, which you can spot if you have a Blu-ray copy and a good pause button), to destroy the Borg cube and rescue Worf (Michael Dorn, dropping by from his regular duties on Deep Space Nine).  A spherical escape vessel emerges and plummets towards Earth while opening a temporal vortex to travel back in time, catching the Enterprise in its wake.  The effects are immediate:  the Borg change history, transforming Earth into an entirely Borgified planet.  Protected from the alteration in the timeline by the temporal wake, the Enterprise follows them back three hundred years to the night of April 4, 2063, where the Borg are attacking the Montana installation where the famous Dr. Zefram Cochrane is scheduled to make his warp flight aboard his converted nuclear missile, the Phoenix, the very next morning, which will lead to first contact with an alien species.  A spread of super-duper quantum torpedoes destroys the Borg ship, and Picard and crew beam down to the surface.  Many are dead, Cochrane is missing and his assistant Lily has radiation poisoning from the damaged Phoenix.  Picard leaves Riker in charge of repairs and returns to the Enterprise, where the environmental systems are haywire and crewmembers are going missing.

The drunken Cochrane is finally located hitting on Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in a bar, and he is informed of the importance of his journey in the morning.  A skeptical Cochrane, summing up our heroes as “astronauts… on some kind of star trek,” agrees to help, but is overwhelmed by the attention and adulation he draws from the Enterprise crew – including the nervous Lt. Barclay, in a cameo from Dwight Schultz reprising his character from The Next Generation.  Aboard the Enterprise, as Lily is treated for her injuries, Picard figures out that the Borg have sneaked aboard and are working on assimilating the ship.  Data (Brent Spiner) quickly locks out the main computer and comes up with a plan to stop the invaders by puncturing the plasma coolant tanks around the warp core, which will liquefy the Borg’s organic components and kill them.  But when a team descends to engineering, Data is captured, and a mysterious woman’s voice taunts him as the Borg begin to experiment on him.  The voice is revealed as the Borg Queen (Krige), who, apart from trying to obtain the command codes to release access to the main computer, has a personal interest in Data as well, and offers him the temptations of the flesh – literally, in the form of organic skin grafted to his exoskeleton – to sway him to her side.  Meanwhile, Picard is also separated from the group and runs into Lily, and once he is able to convince the frightened 21st Century woman of her surroundings and the present situation, the two of them ambush a pair of Borg in the holodeck, where Picard’s long-simmering rage against them starts to emerge.  By analyzing a piece of circuitry from a fallen Borg – a former member of the crew now transformed – Picard discovers that the Borg are building a transmitter on top of the Enterprise‘s deflector dish to contact their home system and summon reinforcements.

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As repairs on the Phoenix near completion, Cochrane finds he cannot handle the burden of history and tries to flee the missile complex only to be stopped by Riker with a phaser stun.  He complains that he is nothing like the person that the Enterprise crew have read about, and admits that he built his warp ship only with the hope of financial reward.  Riker quotes Cochrane’s (eventual) words back to him:  “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”  Cochrane grins, shakes off his hangover, and begins readying his ship for launch.  On the Enterprise, Picard, Worf and Hawk suit up and spacewalk onto the deflector dish, where the Borg are assembling their transmitter.  Worf’s suit is punctured and Hawk – befitting his red uniform – is captured and assimilated.  Picard is able to sever the deflector dish and the Borg transmitter from the ship, and Worf, who has tied his suit closed with a cable from a dead Borg’s arm, blows it into a bajillion pieces.  But the Borg are still advancing, and Picard’s officers recommend that he set the Enterprise‘s self-destruct mechanism as a last ditch effort.  Picard is incensed, and even calls Worf a coward for suggesting it.  After a tirade in which Picard reveals his history with the Borg and gloats in how he will exact vengeance upon them, Lily, who is not obligated to follow orders, takes Picard to task and compares him to Captain Ahab.  Picard comes to his senses, activates the self-destruct and orders the crew to abandon ship.  However, he remains behind to try to save Data.  Arriving in the completely Borgified engineering section, Picard encounters the Queen, who reveals their history:  it was she who arranged his assimilation years ago as she wanted a partner instead of another drone.  Picard volunteers to exchange himself for Data, but Data, now with human flesh covering half his face, is having none of it.  He wants to be the Queen’s counterpart.

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On the morning of April 5, as the Phoenix launches from Earth with Cochrane at the controls (blaring a Steppenwolf tune) and Riker and Geordi as his co-pilots, Data releases control of the computer to the Queen and locks torpedoes on the warp ship.  Humanity’s future is on the cusp of vanishing forever when the torpedoes abruptly miss their target, and Data, hissing the Borg’s catchphrase “resistance is futile,” smashes the coolant tanks and floods engineering with the deadly plasma.  Picard climbs out of reach while Data pulls the Queen down into the toxic soup, which tears her to pieces and causes all the remaining Borg to short out and perish.  The Phoenix blasts away into warp speed as it was always intended.  Surveying the remains of the invaders, Picard and a wounded Data contemplate the uniqueness of the deceased Borg Queen, and Data reveals that he had been tempted by her offer for a grand total of 0.68 seconds.  That evening, Picard and his crew witness the arrival of the alien ship that detected the Phoenix‘s warp signature, and its crew – revealed as Vulcans – step out to meet Cochrane and spark humanity’s future.  After Picard exchanges a final goodbye with Lily, the Enterprise slips away in the night sky toward its restored future as Cochrane entertains the Vulcans with his vintage jukebox recording of Roy Orbison, and the camera pulls back and pans up into the stars.

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During filming, Jonathan Frakes was nicknamed “Two Takes Frakes” for his efficiency in getting scenes in the can without the sort of Kubrickian perfectionism (and the emulation of such by insecure and considerably lesser directors) that can have productions dragging on for months and leaving everyone involved hating each other.  This movie, then, proves quite nicely that endless retakes are not the harbinger of quality, as there isn’t a single scene here that rings false or isn’t performed well.  Rather than just shoot the movie with the same subdued TV blocking and pacing as David Carson did on the previous installment, Frakes did his homework by screening Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and borrowing some of those techniques to bring much more life to his camera, assisted by his DP Matthew Leonetti.  Indeed, First Contact is full of dynamic shots and imaginative sequences that you would never, ever get on the TV series, and everyone involved from the screenwriters to the last guy clicking the last CGI pixel into place seems to be much more aware that they are making a movie on this go-around, and consequently giving each moment their all.

I remember seeing it for the first time, arriving at the scene when Picard says the Borg are building a transmitter on the deflector dish, and thinking okay, there’s no way they’re going to show that, they’ll probably just talk about it on the bridge and push a few buttons, problem solved.  I was gobsmacked to see the characters put on spacesuits and actually walk outside on the hull of the ship for the very first time, and when they put a button on a wonderfully suspenseful scene by having Worf do his best Schwarzenegger and growl “assimilate THIS!”, you couldn’t wipe the grin from my face.  We’ve become accustomed to Star Trek letting us down when it comes to the idea of spectacle, but this movie never does; instead, it doubles down every chance it gets.  The benefits of an expanded budget and an experienced crew are all there, bursting from each and every frame, with none of the obvious cost-cutting measures like re-used sets and recycled effects shots we so often find ourselves shrugging at over the course of these films.  And there are so many little treats for folks in the know:  Barclay’s cameo, for one; Ethan Phillips’ (Neelix on Voyager) uncredited appearance as a holographic maitre d’, Robert Picardo showing up as the Enterprise‘s version of Voyager‘s sardonic emergency medical hologram.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and the energy radiates from the screen.

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Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore’s screenplay is so sharp and cracking after the plodding effort of Generations that I was certain – no disrespect intended – that someone else (maybe Carrie Fisher?) had done an uncredited polish.  The story benefits immensely from the characters of Zefram Cochrane and Lily as the outsiders and foils to our regulars, never afraid to poke a few sarcastic holes in the immaculate conception that is the Star Trek universe as we understand it (“Borg?  Sounds Swedish.”  “Don’t you people in the 24th Century ever pee?”) and Cromwell and Woodard are both perfect, especially the former as a revered Professor Stephen Hawking revealed as more of a crazed Doc Emmett Brown, who is wisely allowed to retain his lead role in history rather than being replaced by perfect people who’ve already saved the galaxy a hundred times over – as was the intention in the original draft.  Krige is very good as well, with the Borg Queen ranking ahead of Chang but just a shade shy of Khan in Star Trek villains, and certainly the most unique, bringing an unsettling mix of ice-cold technology and red-hot sensuality to what in lesser hands could have been a dreadful cliché.  And there is little more to be added to the copious esteem reserved for Sir Patrick Stewart, who carries the movie on his surprisingly muscular back (seriously – check out the guns in this movie) and gets to own the camera with some tour de force acting and character development as he reveals to us the flaws in the heart of our intrepid starship captain.  (I do wish, given that Moby Dick had been so notably employed in The Wrath of Khan, that Moore & Braga had gone to another text for Picard’s big emotional scene, but Stewart sells it so well this is a minor gripe.)

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In its latter years (seasons 5 to 7), the Next Generation‘s music was notorious for relying solely on repetition of bland, undulating, occasionally atonal strings, with percussion considered verboten by Berman.  But after a two-film hiatus, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith is back at the podium, assisted by his son Joel, and what a pure delight to the ears it is to have his music backing the twists and turns of this crew, from the surprisingly low-key yet melodic main title theme to the pulsing, metallic clangs of the relentless march of the Borg, and a welcome return of the Klingon fanfare to give Worf his very own taste of heroic leitmotif.  Goldsmith pere et fils deliver the scope and sweep that we’ve been so desperately craving, and was a bit beyond the reach of the well-intentioned Dennis McCarthy (who was perhaps still too locked into the style of the series in his thinking) on the last movie.  Thankfully, Goldsmith would continue scoring Star Trek movies until his death in 2004.

If there is fault to be found in Star Trek: First Contact, it’s that the movie is much darker than its predecessors, with scenes (and an enemy) that can be genuinely frightening to younger viewers, and that quite a lot of people die in pretty awful ways before the triumphant and hopeful conclusion (in the time-honored tradition of Star Trek, most of these are unmourned extras without dialogue).  If memory serves, it was the first Star Trek movie to be rated PG-13 for that very reason.  But for someone who grew up with these movies and watched them rise and sink in both their quality and ability to reach beyond their ambitions, this is a true peak in Star Trek‘s cinematic history, an occasion where everything went right and you are left wanting nothing more.  Until 2009, Star Trek: First Contact ranked second only to The Voyage Home in total Trek box office earnings.  The wild and snaking creative process that began with zombies on the streets of Renaissance Florence led us to the best Next Generation movie ever made.

And thank whomsoever you want to thank that we didn’t have to see Patrick Stewart in tights.

In summary:  I’m deducting half a point for the cribbing of Wrath of Khan, but otherwise, yeah, they nailed it.

Next time:  Building on the revelatory success that is First Contact, the Star Trek production team goes and does the exact opposite.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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