Twenty-five years ago, on November 22, 1996, Star Trek: First Contact premiered in theaters. The film was the second one to feature 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 didn’t know it then, 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 franchise again after hitting this peak.
In 1996, at the time First Contact hit theaters, The Next Generation reruns were in heavy rotation, often seen five times a week in syndication in most parts of the country. Both Voyager and Deep Space Nine were airing new episodes weekly. Someone said at the time that every weekend, somewhere in the world, a Star Trek convention was happening. 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 top tier. 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 up with that one. Yes, it made money, but it wasn’t the movie anybody wanted. So when they got the writing gig for First Contact, they doubled down. They made sure that this time, they got it right. And get it right they did. First Contact is a movie that delivers.
For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the short 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 Starfleet defeats them in battle, thanks to Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), they decide to stop the Federation from ever forming. They hope to accomplish this by going back in time to the year 2063. To the very day a weary, post-World War III humanity formally meets the alien Vulcans for the first time.
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 follows the Borg back in time to make sure a scientist named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) makes that first historic warp flight. And Picard has to fight off a Borg invasion of his ship, and fight off his PTSD from when the Borg assimilated him years earlier. (This occurs in the TNG two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds“).
Moore and Braga (along with the director Jonathan Frakes) pull off something of a magic trick with First Contact. First, the film introduces an all-new state-of-the-art USS Enterprise. They destroyed the previous one in Generation). Also, organically introducing Lt. Worf into the proceedings was a task. He was a part of the crew on Deep Space Nine then. They also had to explain Picard’s personal history with the Borg. And in an elegant, non-clunky expositional way to more casual audiences. That they did all this in the film’s first twenty minutes is a minor miracle.
Also a small miracle is the juggling of tones throughout the movie. Essentially, First Contact is two films. It’s the story of Picard and the Enterprise crew trying to fend off a Borg invasion on their ship. Meanwhile, on Earth, Riker and other crew members try to convince a selfish man to get past his own personal shortcomings. Mainly since he’s destined to be history’s most important figure. Basically, it’s mixing the action/horror element of 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 works.
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. But the team behind First Contact made the hero the Captain Ahab-inspired man instead. It’s our hero 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, it’s forcing humanity into some kind of cybernetic/organic synthesis for our “own good.” Their 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. Yet keeping 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 longer. 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 Beverly Crusher. Instead, Crusher has 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 long runs a few years later, 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 really work. Enterprise was the first Trek series outright canceled since 1969. 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the final Trek film with the TNG 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 modern and sophisticated genre shows, like 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 Trek is thriving on the small screen more than ever. There’s Star Trek: Discovery, Prodigy, Picard, Lower Decks, and soon, Strange New Worlds. But in 2021, no matter how 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, the Wizarding World, and tons of others.
But for this fan, First Contact will always stand for a time when Star Trek ruled the world. A time 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 a 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.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures
Originally published on November 22, 2016.