I've blogged it before, and I'll blog it again. Pierre Burton once proclaimed 1967 to be "Canada's last good year." In a similar vein, I always like to think that 1996 was Star Trek's last good year. Deep Space Nine had hit its prime, Voyager was still new and exciting, and it being the franchise's 30th anniversary, there was an air of celebration to the whole thing. And the celebration continued to the big screen with Star Trek: First Contact, the most critically-acclaimed, the biggest box office hit, and generally considered to be the best of the Next Generation films.
Watching it again tonight, you can't help but feel that celebratory air again. I mean, with all the little winks and cameos for the fans. Like Dr. Crusher bringing up the EMH in sick bay. Or the quick cameo by Lt. Barclay. Or the appearance of the Defiant. Or a quick trip into a Dixon Hill holodeck program. Everything was there to say, "Oh, yeah. We're 30. We're awesome."
After Generations hit theatres, plans began pretty quickly for the next Star Trek film. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, that dynamic duo of Next Generation writers were quickly tapped to once again write a script. They knew right away they wanted to use one of TNG's best known villains -- the Borg -- and one of Star Trek's most popular tropes -- time travel. So the Borg were going to go back in time and assimilate a primitive Earth. The original concept was called Star Trek Renaissance, with the Borg going back to medieval times, and assimilation being written off by the superstitious as "a black plague." But that didn't do it for Moore and Braga. They had a better idea. Why not go back to a time that's still the future by real world standards, but the past for Star Trek? Why not go back to an incident that kicks off the utopian future that Gene Roddenberry envisioned? They felt that raised the stakes because, if our heroes fail, then Star Trek wouldn't exist.
So the Borg were going to back in time and halt humankind's first contact with an alien race. The Borg were going to interfere with the first faster-than-light travel. So, again, following the conventions of clearly-defined "A" and "B" plots that I complained about last time, the "A" plot would be Picard down on Earth, repairing the timeline and rallying the townspeople to help Zephram Cochrane achieve his first warp flight. And the "B" plot would be Riker up on the Enterprise battling the remaining Borg. They showed this early version to Patrick Stewart, and Stewart said, "Guys, I love it, but I've got one problem with it. Picard would never abandon the Enterprise when she's in danger." So, they switched it around. The "A" plot would now be Picard battling the Borg, and the "B" plot would be Riker leading the charge on Earth to preserve the timeline.
But don't worry, Riker would still have lots to do. Riker himself, Jonathon Frakes, got the go-ahead to direct the film. As the legend goes, he sat down the cast and crew before they began filming, and showed them Alien, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to project the mood and tone he was going for.
And speaking of Alien, the producers really decided to shoot for the Moon on this one. They contacted legendary artist HR Giger, who designed the aliens in Alien, about coming up with a newer, more frightening design for the Borg. They wound up rejecting his designs because they were too frightening. The task once again fell to Michael Westmore and his crew, who looked after all the make-up in the Star Trek universe from TNG onwards. They did pretty good, though, as they scored a best make-up Oscar nomination for their efforts.
The new characters that are introduced in this film. First up we have Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, played by James Cromwell, fresh off his Oscar win for Babe. Cromwell was actually no stranger to Star Trek, having already done several guest shots on TNG and DS9. Cochrane winds up providing a lot of the comic relief in the film. At first, the Enterprise crew is taken aback that this hard-drinking, rock-n-roll-loving prick, is the visionary scientist that history writes about. And Cochrane himself starts freaking out at the monumental role he is to play in shaping the future. I've often wondered how I would react if mysterious strangers showed up from the future and told me that thing I'm going to do tomorrow will greatly alter humanity. I'm pretty sure I'd do what Cochrane did: freak out.
We also get Lily, Cochrane's right hand woman, played by Alfre Woodard. She gets sucked up to the Enterprise to help out Captain Picard in his battle. She kind of takes the place of Guinan in the film...serving as Picard's conscience and moral compass. Of course, what makes her difference from Guinan is that she takes no BS and is very blunt. She's probably the one Star Trek character who swears the most. In those original scripts, where Picard stays on Earth to help rebuild the warp ship, Lily was going to be more of a romantic interest for Picard. The writers admit that, when it changed to her helping Picard fight the Borg, they still tried to make it into a romantic relationship, but it just kept coming across as awkward and forced. So the romance was dropped completely.
No, the romance was saved for Alice Krieg as the Borg Queen, and her attempts to seduce Data. Man, does she have a killer voice. Lots of people find the character oddly sexy, and I'm sure that voice has a lot to do with it, as it just oozes sex appeal. The film's more than 15 years old now, and I'm still not sure about the concept of a Borg Queen and how it works into the whole Borg society. As they point out on the running commentary, one of the problems with the Borg is you always have to create a "spokes-Borg" to speak for them and state their motivations to our heroes, and thus, the audience. The Borg Queen was pretty much created to fill this role.
And I should give an honorable mention to Lt. Hawk, the helmsman of the Enterprise, played by Neil McDonnough. He winds up being a glorified red shirt, but his notable for what he almost was. Early drafts of the script outed him as being gay, but all those moments wound up on the cutting room floor. So he was almost Star Trek's first openly gay character. The expanded universe took that ball and ran with it, though, and it is that way in the novels.
This one came out in November of 1996, when I was in college. College was such a great time for a geek like me, because I finally meet fellow geeks and felt like I wasn't alone in the universe. So, when it came out that November, and my friends were planning a road trip into Edmonton to see it as soon as it came out, I was somewhat heartbroken that they didn't invite me along. In retrospect, I'm glad they didn't, because they told me afterwords that their car caught on fire on the way into Edmonton. But still, they made it, they saw, and on my college radio show the next week, I called them up live on the air and made them give me a full review. I remember they took great offense to the scene where Zephram Cochrane got Councillor Troi drunk.
So, I finally got to see it about a month later...on Christmas vacation...in Red Deer...with my brother...just like Generations. This was different, though, than seeing Generations. See, at this point in our lives, my brother goes through phases where he alternates between being proud of me and being embarrassed by everything his geeky little brother does. This was one of his "embarrassed by everything I do" phases. I could tell he didn't want to be there. He had no tolerance of my habit of staying until the end of the end credits and tried to rush me out of the theatre as quick as possible. But still, he made the effort, so I should be grateful for that.
We open with this spectacular opening shot where we see Picard at the heart of a gigantic Borg complex. Turns out his experiences being assimilated by the Borg all those years ago have left him with a touch of PTSD. As he awakens from the nightmare, he gets the call that Borg are back and attacking Earth, but he's to take the Enterprise and patrol the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the situation. Everyone protests, but they have their orders. Picard later confides to Riker that the real reason they're not on the front lines is because Starfleet fears that Picard's PTSD will get the better of him in battle. However, when they get the news that the battle has started, they can't stand by any longer, and they go to join the fight.
Stand up and cheer moment #1: The Enterprise appears and saves the Defiant.
Can I say right now I'm not much of a fan of the Enterprise-E? Just always seemed too flat to me.
Another behind-the-scenes bit. The Defiant was originally going to be destroyed in this scene. But Ira Steven Behr, one of the producers on Deep Space Nine, tracked down the writers and was all, "What the fuck, man? Destroying the Defiant is pointless, and it'll totally fuck up Deep Space Nine!" So the Defiant became "adrift, but salvageable."
And a hidden Easter egg: those ILM computer animators even added the Millennium Falcon into that battle scene. They had just finished making the computer animated Falcon for the Special Editions and wanted to break it in.
With the battle done, the Enterprise notices that the Borg sphere is opening up a temporal portal to go back in time. A quick glance of an Earth completely assimilated shows that the Enterprise has to follow them back in time and repair the timeline. They arrive in the past, quickly destroy the remaining Borg ship, and figure out when they are. They determine that it's the day before Zephram Cochrane made his first warp flight, and thus made Earth's first contact with aliens. They beam down to the surface and begin analyzing the situation, to see if the Phoenix, Cochrane's warp ship, is still capable of making its flight and preserving history. In their survey, they meet Lily, and have to take her back up to the Enterprise for medical treatment.
So they survey the site, and everyone starts geeking out at the history they're about to preserve and witness, but Picard hears a Borg whispering in his ear. Playing his hunch, he and Data go back to the ship, and the make a shocking discovery: the Borg survived, and are now assimilating the Enterprise to fulfill the Borg's mission. Picard, Data, Worf, and a few redshirts lead the assault on the Borg's stronghold in Engineering, but the battle doesn't go in their favour, the crew scatters, and Data is captured.
Picard eventually runs into Lily, who got away from Dr. Crusher in all the confusion, and Picard carefully explains that they're from the future. Picard tries to lead Lilly to safety, but they soon run into the Borg, which goes into a great scene where Picard and Lily go into the holodeck, fires up a Dixon Hill program, and Picard gets to mow down several Borg drones with a tommy gun. As Picard begins digging through the Borg's flesh for its memory chip to determine the Borg plot, Lily identifies the drone as a recently-assimilated Enterprise crewman. Lily is horrified at Picard's cavalier attitude to this fallen comrade.
Picard and Lily return to the bridge, and they figure that the Borg are about to turn the Enterprise's deflector dish into a communications array so they can contact the Borg of this era for back-up. In order to destroy it, Picard, Worf, and Hawk go outside and battle the Borg on the Enterprise's hull. I've got to say, this is a pretty good fight scene. It offers up a locale we've never seen before, and it even ends with Worf getting to deliver the cheezy action hero one-liner, "Assimilate this!"
This setback causes the Borg to re-double their efforts to assimilate the entire ship. Rather than evacuate the Enterprise and set it to self-destruct, Picard orders the crew to continue fighting. Lily thinks this is a stupid idea, leading to the most famous exchange and line in the film.
Needless to say, Lily's words finally make Picard realize that he's become too consumed with vengeance to think rationally, so he decides to evacuate the ship and set it to self-destruct. However, those Borg whisper in his ear again, and this time he hears Data's voice. While everyone else evacuates, he resolves to stay behind and save Data.
Yeah, what has happened to Data in his time captured by the Borg? Well, see, Data locked out the ship's computer so the Borg couldn't get to it, so the Borg Queen had been attempting to seduce him to the dark side so he'd unlock the computer. As part of this seduction, the Borg begin grafting human flesh onto Data's body to help him in his quest to become more human. Needless to say, Data finds this prospect intriguing, and he even gets to make out with the Borg Queen a little bit. Picard shows up, and offers to allow himself to be re-assimilated as Locutus in place of Data, but Data refuses. It appears Data, having been tempted by the flesh, has fallen to the dark side, and he unlocks the computer and prepares to blow away the Phoenix during its flight.
Yeah, what's been going on down on Earth? Well, I kind of summed things up when I described Cochran's character arc above. He kind of freaks out when he's told of his destiny and the Enterprise engineers start geeking out over him, and he tries to run away. But, Riker brings him around by quoting one of Cochrane's own inspirational speeches from the future. They launch on time, and Cochrane celebrates the launch by blaring Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride over the ship's sound system.
I used to make jokes and references about Magic Carpet Ride whenever it came up in the playlist in Athabasca. I stopped because I figured I was the only one getting them.
Anyway, Data fires at the Phoenix...and misses. Turns out Data was luring the Borg Queen into a false sense of security. He fills the Enterprise's engineering section with a substance that dissolves flesh, thus destroying all the Borg. Picard takes his vengeance by snapping the still-twitching chrome spinal column of the Borg Queen's cybernetic remains.
With the first warp flight a success, humans make first contact with aliens...the Vulcans. I always thought they should have messed with the fans a little bit. Have the Vulcan be played by John "Q" deLancie or something like that. With the timeline restored and the Borg defeated, the Enterprise goes back to the future, and Zephram Cochrane introduces the Vulcans to rock and roll.
Hands down, this is the best of the Next Generation films. All the good vibes of 1996 still radiate from this film all these years later. Sadly, though, most of the other familiar crew members get short shrift to focus on the adventures of Picard and Data. The subplot with Zephram Cochrane is just golden. This is a good movie.
And the music! My god, the music! Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith returns to the franchise, after having done The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier. His music in this film is phenomenal. The main theme...spectacular. The Borg theme...amazing. And his classic Klingon theme gets turned into a hero theme as it's used to underscore Worf's heroics.
Sadly, it was all downhill from here, as the remaining TNG films were not so good. Next, we'll be doing what some have sarcastically called the rom-com of the Star Trek films, Insurrection.