Twenty years ago, on November 22, 1996, Star Trek: First Contact premiered in theaters. The film was the second one featuring the crew from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the eighth Star Trek film overall. The film was a substantial hit both critically and commercially, and although we couldn’t have known it at the time, it ended up representing a specific moment in history — the apex of Star Trek‘s penetration into popular culture. And it would never be quite the same for the Star Trek franchise again after hitting this peak moment.
In 1996, at the time First Contact hit theaters, The Next Generation reruns were in heavy rotation five times a week in syndication in most parts of the country. Both Voyager and Deep Space Nine were airing new episodes weekly. It was said at the time that every weekend, somewhere in the world, a Star Trek convention was happening. The ’90s were not a particularly great time to be a sci-fi/fantasy nerd. Most attempts at genre TV failed, and aside from The X-Files, pretty much all we geeks could count on was Star Trek. It took 30 years, but by 1996, Star Trek had finally conquered the world, and First Contact represented the moment when it seemed everyone in America was some shade of Trekkie.
First Contact isn’t the best Trek movie (that honor will likely always belong to Wrath of Khan) but it’s certainly one of the best. And it’s easily the best of the films with the Next Generation cast. Writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, who wrote the previous film Star Trek: Generations, basically knew they screwed the pooch with that one. Yes it made money, but it wasn’t the movie anybody wanted it to be. So when they got the writing gig for First Contact, they doubled down and made sure that this time, they got it right. And get it right they did – First Contact is a movie that delivers in spades.
For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the Cliff’s Notes summary of First Contact: The cybernetic alien race known as the Borg — long the Federation’s most powerful nemesis — attack the Earth in the 24th century. Although they are defeated in battle thanks to the cunning of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), they decide to stop the United Federation of Planets from ever forming by going back in time to the year 2063 — the day a weary, post-World War III humanity first made contact with the Vulcans with their first warp space flight.
This meeting of the two races would eventually lead to the founding of the United Federation of Planets. Without a Federation to stop them, the Borg can easily assimilate the Earth. The crew of the Enterprise follow the Borg back in time and not only have to make sure a scientist named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) makes that first historic warp flight, but Picard has to fight off a Borg invasion of his ship, and fight off his PTSD from when the Borg assimilated him years earlier (in the television two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds”).
Series writers Moore and Braga (along with the director, Commander Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes) pull off something of a magic trick with First Contact. Not only did the film have to introduce an all-new state of the art USS Enterprise (the previous Enterprise having been destroyed in Generations) they had to organically introduce the character of Lt. Worf into the proceedings, even though he was a part of the crew on Deep Space Nine at that time. They also had to explain Picard’s personal history with the Borg in an elegant, non-clunky expositional way to more casual audiences. That they manage to do all this in the film’s first fifteen/twenty minutes is a small miracle.
Also a small miracle is the juggling of tones throughout the movie. Essentially, First Contact is two films; it’s the story of Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew trying to fend off a Borg invasion on their ship, while down on Earth, Riker and other members of the crew try to convince a selfish old man to get past his own personal shortcomings, as he’s destined to be history’s most important figure. Basically, it’s mixing the action/horror element of James Cameron’s Aliens with a sort of comedy of errors down below on the surface, with a dash of Moby Dick- inspired pathos for good measure. It should all fall apart, but somehow, it all just works.
While a lot of later Trek films would try to rip off Wrath of Khan by having a bombastic, single-minded villain hell bent on revenge, the team behind First Contact decided to make the hero the Captain Ahab-inspired man who can’t see straight due to his need for vengeance. And for those loyal fans who saw Picard essentially violated by the Borg on the TV series, we completely understand where he’s coming from…even while acknowledging he needs to get past those feelings for the good of not only his crew, but his entire world. (Spoilers: he does).
The film’s villainous Borg Queen, played by Alice Krige, also remains the Trek film series’ second best antagonist. Unlike all the Khan knock-offs of later Trek films, the Queen isn’t seeking revenge — she’s seeking perfection. In fact, the movie’s underlying theme is two different cultures’ approaches to perfection. To the Borg, being forced into some kind of cybernetic/organic synthesis for our “own good” is the only way to perfection; everyone becomes part of the same monolithic group-think. For the Federation, it’s moving past our own greed and selfishness, and building something bigger and stronger out of a diverse group of individuals, but nevertheless retaining all those things which keep us diverse. (All these themes seem fairly timely, don’t they?)
First Contact isn’t perfect; the big Federation battle against the Borg is very brief, and could have easily gone on for a few more minutes. But the budgets for Star Trek movies were never what they were for Star Wars and other franchises, so the battle is truncated. The addition of Alfre Woodard as a 21st century woman who becomes Picard’s conscience (as well as the voice of the casual audience) is a smart choice, but, a crucial moment where she talks Picard down from making a grave mistake should have gone to Gates McFadden’s character of Dr. Beverly Crusher. Instead, Crusher is left with little to do in the film. But these issues are relatively minor, and First Contact remains one of the most entertaining sci-fi movies of the ’90s.
After First Contact, the following Trek film, 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, was a critical and box office disappointment. After Deep Space Nine and Voyager wrapped their seven season runs a couple of years later, at far less the viewership than Next Generation had when it ended, many felt it was time to let the franchise rest and rethink itself. But instead, Paramount, ever greedy, plugged away at creating yet another Trek show, called Enterprise. A prequel series to the original Star Trek, the show originally didn’t even have the words “Star Trek” in the title, as they felt it should distance itself from the franchise, to gain non-Trek viewers.
It didn’t work, and Enterprise became the first Trek series to be cancelled since the original. 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the final Trek film with the Next Generation crew, ended up grossing only $43 million domestic. In just six years from the peak and First Contact, it felt like Star Trek was a relic, a dinosaur that didn’t fit in with the likes of Joss Whedon’s witty and sophisticated genre shows, or even First Contact writer Ron Moore’s own Battlestar Galactica reboot.
Of course, we all know that in 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek to great success, and it’s now a viable film franchise once again. And next year, Star Trek returns to TV with Discovery, the first Trek series in over a twelve years. But in 2016, no matter how good or popular it may be with a certain crowd, Star Trek is just another sci-fi/fantasy franchise now. It has to compete with the likes of Star Wars, Marvel, DC, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, and tons of others.
But for this fan, First Contact will always stand for a time when Star Trek ruled the world, when my non-nerd parents knew the names “Captain Picard” and “Data.” And maybe most importantly, First Contact will always remind me of a time when a mainstream action blockbuster could convey the message “one day, this war torn and divided world will give way to a better future, where mankind stands united.” It’s a message that should resonate with today’s world more than ever.
Do you have any favorite memories of watching Star Trek: First Contact? Please share them with us in the comments below.
Images: Paramount Pictures