Growing Up With STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT
It’s Thankful Month at BMD, and after Phil, Evan and Britt all delivered wonderful personal pieces, I agonised over what to write about. Would I write about probably my favourite movie, Miracle Mile? My first-ever date movie, Downfall (really)? The movie that finally brought me to grips with depression, Gravity? Nah, fuck it, I said. I’m gonna write about the movie I’ve seen more times than any other - Star Trek: First Contact.
I could write about how Star Trek features in my earliest memories; of how it was a focal point of bonding between me and my father; of how my sister and I would binge-watch the shows and movies in our high school years. But I want to focus on how a movie that came out when I was a kid stayed with me as I grew up, and over the next twenty years taught me a lot about cinema, perspective, and maturity.
Star Trek: First Contact was the first film I anticipated as a fan. I remember rushing to the calendar to mark the release date when my dad proudly proclaimed that a Borg movie was coming out that November. It was also the first movie for which I watched a movie trailer online, predating The Phantom Menace by three years. I watched our taped copy of “The Best of Both Worlds” repeatedly, collected action figures, and went along on opening weekend frothing with excitement.
I loved it, of course. It was full of fun setpieces (the deflector dish sequence! The holodeck scene! The largest space battle in Trek history! Killer miniature and CG work from ILM!), good jokes (many from Worf), and a time travel plotline that made sense and dealt with a pivotal moment in Star Trek canon (the first warp flight and first contact with the Vulcans). And of course, the friggin’ Borg were in it. For a kid raised on Star Trek: The Next Generation, First Contact was a three-course meal of candy, candy, candy.
But I wasn’t always going to be that kid. I grew up - and as I did, something special happened that changed the way I viewed First Contact and cinema. As I continued to return to the movie over five, ten, twenty years, the film started to change for me. It didn’t actually change, of course; rather, my perspective evolved, and how I watched the film evolved with it.
Of course, I started to notice the film’s flaws. Far more than previous Trek films, it relies on action (albeit mostly well-designed action) for its entertainment and plot progression. Some characters, particularly poor Beverly Crusher, are backgrounded in favour of Picard and Data. That’d be alright - a film can’t sprawl like a season of television can - if its characterisation of Picard in particular wasn’t so inconsistent with the character built up over seven seasons of The Next Generation. He’s going through extenuating circumstances facing the Borg again, sure, but the violent Captain Ahab figure in First Contact isn’t the Picard from the show. His quest for vengeance is an interesting journey to send him on, but it’s ultimately out of character that Action Picard wins the day instead of Negotiation Picard. That’s something that would only get worse as the films wore on to the depressing nadir of Star Trek: Nemesis.
But it’s easy to find flaws. What’s more magical is when you continue to love something, but the reasons evolve and grow with you.
I grew to appreciate the performances more - Patrick Stewart’s Shakespearean turn as Picard; Alice Krige’s sultry Borg Queen, performing through highly limiting makeup and costume. Most of all, the terrific contributions from guest stars Alfre Woodard and James Cromwell loosen up the film for non-fans, adding some grounded humanity to contrast with the high-falutin' future characters of the series. Jonathan Frakes’ direction is pretty Star Trekky in nature, but it’s steeped in intimate knowledge of the characters, cast, and universe, and the editing keeps the film moving along at a great clip.
It also dawned on me that First Contact is, secretly, possibly the purest expression of core Star Trek themes of all the films in the franchise. Hammered home throughout the film is the optimistic notion of self-improvement for its own sake. Picard and the Enterprise crew represent a future where humanity works together and with others not for material gain, but to better itself. Data represents self-improvement through transformation, wishing to become more human and - for 0.68 seconds - willing to compromise himself in order to achieve it. Zefram Cochrane is a man actively resisting self-improvement, content to seek fame, fortune, and booze, but who gets dragged kicking and screaming to a place of responsibility. He and Lily also represent a humanity picking up the pieces from a devastating nuclear war, and learning that there’s something bigger than it out there. And the film’s optimistic ending posits a deep willingness to understand differences and cooperate in the pursuit of common goals.
The Borg, then, are the dark side to self-improvement and cooperation: the pursuit of perfection at the cost of individuality and freedom, the conquering of others to harvest and their uniqueness. First Contact wasn’t the last time the Borg were compared to the Federation. Some (like rebel Michael Eddington in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) would say that the Federation are more like the Borg than they’d care to admit. Both are sprawling galactic powers incorporating many races; the difference lies only in approach. That’s not explicitly explored here, but there’s definitely a thematic link implied.
First Contact takes those themes of self-improvement and cooperation and pokes them from so many angles, it’s a textbook example of how to treat theme in a motion picture. There’s even a layer of subversion, questioning future humanity’s “evolved sensibility” in the way Picard succumbs to base feelings of rage and revenge. No-bullshit Lily sees through Picard’s attempts to justify his vendetta to himself, so convinced is he of his moral high ground. Though the film does ultimately end with Picard snapping the Borg Queen’s spine, getting there involves taking great risks and making great sacrifices to save his friend. Like all Star Trek, First Contact is at its best when it features people working together, whether it’s Picard and Data tricking the Borg Queen, or the Enterprise crew assisting Cochrane with his warp ship.
That growing appreciation for the underlying themes and character arcs of the film - as opposed to the more tangible elements that consumed my younger self’s adoration of it - is my lasting takeaway from Star Trek: First Contact. Through watching it over and over and over again, I learned to watch movies in a better way. There’s probably no movie I know better than this one, and it taught me the value of reassessments and rewatches, as well as why theme and character are as (or more) important as action and laughs.
That’s such an obvious concept to adults - of course your changing tastes and experiences will colour how you view art at different stages of your life - but it’s not obvious when you’re a kid. I still am young, of course - if it weren’t for Sid, I’d be the baby of BMD - but I’ve got just enough experience behind me now that I can appreciate the value of experience.
Of all movies, it was Star Trek: First Contact that taught me how that affects the perception of art. It’s not a particularly profound movie. It’s not even a particularly profound Star Trek movie. But it was perfectly timed and perfectly positioned to hook me as a kid and reveal its depth over time. Maybe there’s nothing left to mine from First Contact. Maybe I’ve gotten everything out of it I ever will. If so, I can only hope another film will pick up where it left off and carry me for the next twenty years. Whatever that film ends up being, I look forward to coming back to it year after year.