There’s a commonly held belief that even numbered “Star Trek” films are better than the odd numbered ones. This is a spurious correlation. In actual fact, the true axiom is that “Star Trek” films which involve Nicholas Meyer are better than those that don’t. “Star Trek: First Contact” is the film which gives rise to the erroneous ‘evens are better than odds’ hypothesis but happily, is also the exception which proves the Nicholas Meyer rule.
After “Generations” got nearly every aspect horribly wrong, there was a lot for “First Contact” to do. It needed a compelling story, a strong adversary and a sense of both continuity and development that stayed true to the characters. Remarkably, the writing team of Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore who got it so wrong last time manage to turn the whole thing around and deliver an exciting adventure which gives the whole crew something to do and calls back to one of the TV series’ finest moments.
When the Borg begin an invasion of the Federation, Picard and the crew of the new Enterprise-E defy Starfleet orders and join the battle, helping the fleet to halt the invasion. When a small Borg sphere escapes the destruction of the main ship and travels back in time, Picard orders the Enterprise to follow them back and prevent the assimilation of Earth in the past. But the time travelling combatants have arrived at a pivotal moment in galactic history: the day before Zefram Cochrane’s first warp speed flight and any change to events will have devastating repercussions for the future of the Federation.
First things first, the new Enterprise-E is lovely. Sleek and overtly predatory, its design is a bit of a statement of intent: this “Star Trek” movie is upping the action quotient and from here on out, the movies aren’t going to be about exploring. Einstein said if you want different results do things differently and although we have the same story and screenplay team of Berman, Braga and Moore, they certainly do things differently here. Unlike “Generations”, “First Contact” knows it characters and their history, respects everything that has gone before and finds new and interesting things for the cast to do. For the uninitiated, the film opens with a brief dream sequence replaying the key points of Picard’s assimilation into Locutus of Borg but this is a film you can enjoy without a detailed knowledge of the “Next Generation” canon. The production design is also great, with some nice shout outs to the traditional macguffins of the TV series such as the holodeck and after the bizarre mix and match style of “Generations”, the “TNG” cast finally get uniforms fit for the movies (and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”).
While the writing staff is the same, there are still some changes behind the camera. After John McTiernan and Ridley Scott declined the opportunity to direct (Ridley Scott was a bit of an overreach to be honest), Jonathan Frakes takes over, becoming the third cast member (and second First Officer) to direct a “Star Trek” film. Frakes’ TV episode work was always of a high standard and he doesn’t disappoint. He keeps the story flowing and chooses his set pieces carefully to maximise his budget and make the most of the script and cast. And what a cast it is. Joining the usual “Next Generation” crew are James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane, Alfre Woodard as Lily Sloane, Neal McDonough as Lieutenant Hawk and Alice Krige as The Borg Queen. There are also cameos from Dwight Schultz as fan favourite Reginald Barclay and Patti Yasutake as Nurse Alyssa Ogawa and even Robert Picardo and Ethan Phillips from “Star Trek: Voyager” show up to join in the fun.
Although the Borg’s ultimate plan is needlessly complicated and doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny, the story wisely puts their larger scheme in the background, allowing the story of Zefram Cochrane’s historic flight to take some of the limelight and reducing the Borg elements to a struggle with much more personal stakes. One of the film’s unexplained gimmicks is that Picard has become some king of ‘Borg whisperer’ and is still able to hear them in his head, an ability which was never demonstrated during the TV series but which comes in handy several times during the film to move the plot forward. Picard’s quest for revenge at any cost against the race which brutalised and dehumanised him so thoroughly is well played, and allows Lily to act as the audience surrogate in asking the questions which let the backstory unfold. Data’s arc is much improved on his last film outing and even the emotion chip which caused so many problems in the last film is dealt with effectively and with the minimum of fuss. The clever inversion of assimilation as the Borg tempt Data with the pleasures of the flesh is a terrific conceit and with much better material to work with, the quality of Brent Spiner’s performance returns to the level we’d become accustomed to.
The decision to give the Borg a single identity is an understandable dramatic necessity but robs them of much of their menace and power. Fortunately, Alice Krige does such a superb job as the Borg Queen, you won’t mind that much. With the action split between the ship and the Earth below, there’s plenty for the regular cast to do and while Worf and Dr Crusher get in on the Borg battling action aboard the Enterprise, Riker, Troi and LaForge work to help Cochrane launch his ship on time. LaForge has also benefitted from advanced optical replacements; I guess the hacking of his visor in the previous film was the last straw. Maybe it was a recommendation of the court martial which should have followed the loss of the Enterprise-D. With the renewed focus on action, the script has a bit of fun with its fair share of dubious action movie one-liners such as Worf’s “assimilate this!” and Data’s “Resistance is futile!” but when Zefram Cochrane says the line “you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek” it’s awkward, clunky and just embarrassing. The glibness with which Picard treats the potential destruction of the Enterprise-E (‘plenty more letters in the aphabet’) grates too.
Music-wise, after the disappointing previous score, the producers go back to basics and get Jerry Goldsmith back in. Keen to avoid reiterating his memorable “Next Generation” theme, and not wanting to drown the film in dark, menacing Borg inspired themes he chooses instead to go for a more pastoral, optimistic motif based on the potential of the event of First Contact. While it suits the film well, it does make for slightly underwhelming opening titles. It’s also the first time in “Star Trek” that genuine contemporary music is featured, with Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. Their inclusion feels odd and weirdly anachronistic, explaining why Starfleet Officers have historically tended to favour classical music and opera in disproportionate numbers.
In retrospect, it seems odd that anyone questioned whether a “Star Trek” film could succeed with no involvement at all from the original cast, especially as this one works so well. This feels like something that builds on and enhances the series, and is just lavish enough to feel like it genuinely belongs in the cinema and couldn’t have been done on TV. It falls short of greatness due to the number of plot elements which rely on convenience or hand waiving technobabble – seriously, how easy is it for them to travel back to the future at the end? – to really be a fully satisfying Sci-Fi adventure. But it gets the broad strokes of its story just right and combined with the smart visuals and a selection of well executed action set pieces, this film sets the bar for what “The Next Generation” crew were able to do with their movies.