Tuesday, 23 November 2021

25 Years: First Contact Retrospective

After two and a half decades, First Contact still stands as The Next Generation's finest cinematic voyage.

A combination of time travel and the Borg, the eighth Star Trek movie combined two of the franchise's most successful elements into a movie of truly galactic proportions.

1996 was an interesting year for Star Trek; it was the 30th anniversary of the show and First Contact quite literally went back to the beginning, the pivotal moment in time where everything changed and looked at the very origins of the Alpha Quadrant. Voyager had produced Flashback and returned viewers to The Undiscovered Country while DS9 had perhaps more effectively commemorated its heritage with the mix of new and old in the sublime Trials and Tribble-ations

Star Trek was truly at the zenith of the Berman era with two popular shows in their third and fifth seasons and no apparent end in sight for Picard's crew on the big screen... but all that would change in seven years with the release of Nemesis in 2003.

However, at this point there were some changes taking place in the franchise thanks to the arrival of this eighth movie. While it's brilliant to note that passage of time it's also worth pointing out that this would be the debut of the grey/black uniforms, James Cromwell's Zephram Cochrane, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-E and a striking redesign for the cinema screen of the Borg.

While the Enterprise-E would only make two further appearances in Insurrection and Nemesis, the new uniforms would transition onto DS9 and more recently Lower Decks while the Borg look would be seen again in the Delta Quadrant. Cromwell's Cochrane would even turn up in the premiere episode of Enterprise in 2001 to pass the torch. 

But it can't just be these factors that endure First Contact 25 years later. It came off the back of the successful - if flawed - Generations with a more natural gestation period than its predecessor. While the handover movie to the TNG crew had been hurriedly produced after the seventh and final season of the TV series in 1994, First Contact  had a chance to develop at a more sedate pace. Written by Generations and TNG scribes Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga, the Borg were the natural go-to for villainy and First Contact probably fleshes them out more than any other single instalment of the franchise.

We've talked before about the differences in the Borg from TNG to Voyager but here in First Contact we have them at perfection. Assimilation en-masse is introduced as is the silky Borg Queen and in two hours we have a better picture of the Borg hive structure and even their true malevolence. In The Best of Both Worlds and the other TNG episodes there was always a sense of a blank slate with the drones and even a mindlessness but in First Contact they look threatening, they look determined. Take the look of the drone who attacks and presumably assimilates Lt Hawk on the main deflector dish. The menace is present not just his facial expression but in his movements and ultimately the costume. These were Borg you felt were genuinely unstoppable from the second they appeared on screen.

But again, First Contact isn't just about the Borg because even though they are a formidable threat, there are still moments of appropriate humour in here; Data and Picard touching the Phoenix, Barclay stalking Cochrane or Troi getting drunk. But they don't overwhelm the picture and help to alleviate some of the burgeoning tension that builds through the story.

There's a lot of variety in here with Picard's story on the Enterprise as he makes his way back to the bridge with Lily Sloane, the preparations for the first warp flight and then Data's peril at the hands of the Collective. While Generations placed the fate of an unseen planet - Veridian III - in danger, the Federation itself and more specifically Earth are targeted. 

Yet while we celebrate the dawning of another milestone in Trek culture, for us in the UK it was actually December 13th which marks our true 25th anniversary of its premiere. That's 21 days after the US experienced it.

Twenty-one days ladies and gents. OK, that was nothing like the wait we had for TOS or TNG or even DS9 if you were reliant on terrestrial TV in the mid-90's - but there was still a wait of some degree. Over time it became less and less until in the case of the latest shows it's 24 hours dependent on the platform.

But remember back then? We just had to wait whether you wanted to or not. You could always fork out £11.99 for two episodes on VHS and even then they were at least six months behind. Yet here we are again but having to wait an untold amount of time to see the latest Discovery episodes. The more things change, the more they do indeed stay the same however, while we can grump over the delays (which back in t'day we just dealt with and waited or got someone to post a video from the US!) TNG remains only one of two Star Trek shows to have made the jump to the big screen.

While it is 25 years since Picard, Data and the Enterprise crew faced off against the Borg Queen for (what should have been) the only time, it is still a rather jaw-dropping 18 years since Nemesis. Eighteen years since a Trek series last crossed to the big screen directly (not a reboot!) and surely now the clock on that possibility is ticking down rather than adding up.

After the rushed production of Generations, First Contact showed what the cast of TNG were capable of both in front and behind the camera. It set a benchmark that neither of its successors were able to match and in many respects that no Star Trek movie has managed to achieve since. It is the crowning glory in that short-lived big screen stint for the Enterprise-E and a stepping stone and reference point for many, many more adventures across the galaxy.

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