Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

2010 #74
Jonathan Frakes | 106 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

“Even ones good, odd ones bad.” So went Star Trek fans’ theory about the quality of the series’ big-screen spin-offs, until Nemesis (aka Star Trek 10) turned out to be a bit rubbish and Star Trek (aka Star Trek 11) went down a storm. Still, such a theory was always going to fall apart eventually, wasn’t it.

First Contact comes before all that though — it’s Star Trek 8, the first theatrical adventure for the Next Generation team all by their lonesome (they shared the preceding film, Generations, with (some of) the original series crew). It also seems to be widely regarded as not just in the film series’ upper half, but as one of the best episodes the entire franchise has produced. As a professed non-Trekkie (though I must confess the whole thing’s growing on me with age), what did I make of one of the franchise’s shining lights?

It gets off to a flying start. The first 20 or 30 minutes in particular move at a rate of knots, churning through plot in a way no blockbuster would seem to dare these days. Perhaps it’s because I’d expected more time with the characters, fan-pleasing “reacquaint yourself with the crew” time, or Trek’s renowned “sit around and consider what to do” talkiness. Instead, it pushes relentlessly through plot points: a Borg attack; the Enterpise ordered not to join the fight; Picard doing so anyway; the destruction of the Borg cube; the Borg, erm, ball flying into the past; the Enterprise following; meeting Zephram Cochrane and his lot… It’s boom boom boom, moving on. It’s nice to rattle through a tale, rather than taking frequent stops to Pause For Thought or have a Character Moment or what have you. Those are there, but they’re either placed around the action or in the (slightly slower, to be honest) later stages. Similarly (broadly), the climax is dependent on a bit of information we’re given much earlier in the film. It’s not explained again, either before or after the event, the film just assumes we’ll remember it. Nice to be treated with some intelligence.

For all that, I still got the sense of it being a bit like two or three episodes of TV stuck together, albeit two particularly epic stories with a slightly bigger budget. The story on Earth is a bit of a sideline, for example, the kind of thing that’s added to give half the cast something to do. Perhaps that’s unfair — it’s a decent enough tale, with significant relevance to the Trek universe, but it’s also low-key and, aside from being kicked off by a Borg attack, entirely unrelated to the goings-on on the Enterprise. Visually it’s even more of a mixed bag. Borg costumes and effects are at times impressive — the Queen being lowered into her body, robotic spine dangling, still looks good today, and her makeup is exemplary — but other drones seem to be clad in cheap bodysuits… which the actors surely are, but it looks it.

In fairness, however, the CGI-and-model-combo (I believe) space battles and whatnot also look good. How sparingly they’re used is almost bizarre in today’s climate of endless effects shot — a typical sci-fi TV episode now would have more computer effects than First Contact does, I reckon. The Enterprise itself looks a little odd today. With Alien-inspired industrial ships, or at least darker and more functional ones like those of Battlestar Galactica, becoming the norm in sci-fi, seeing one so plasticky — and with carpeted corridors! — feels very… well, ’90s, I suppose. Not a problem per se, though whether that plastickiness is deliberate or another cheapening element may be down to personal taste.

Cyborgs UnitedFor a newbie, or a viewer light on Trek knowledge, it all works fine. There’s an awareness one’s missing out on something — Picard’s previous encounter with the Borg is alluded to often but not explained in full; even for me, as someone well aware that it’s one of sci-fi’s Big Stories, but who has never actually seen it, there’s a certain lack of explanation. Featuring a couple of new characters from hundreds of years before TNG’s regular timeline helps, because the crew occasionally have to tell them things everyone else would know; the downside is they’re not meant to be telling them everything, so some stuff still passes us by. But, importantly, none of this ever swamps the story; they’re just touches and moments that I know I’m not getting.

Despite half the plot being about changing history (or, changing it to keep it on track), the film doesn’t really tackle the issues inherent in changing the past. But then again, it doesn’t really set itself the task of doing so, so perhaps that’s OK: the crew set history back on course, more or less, so what more is there? A clever nod might’ve been nice — for example, Riker and La Forge made the first warp flight with Cochrane, so why aren’t they in the history books? I can’t help but feel the opportunity to use this, even if for a little joke, is being missed.

One sequence makes nice use of the Holodeck — as one of TNG’s best-remembered elements, it makes sense to squeeze it into the film — though unfortunately it also presents a plot hole, something the film is riddled with. All are quite small and some explained away if you try for yourself, but others are distracting. Take the way the Borg constantly ignore the humans, for example: Boldly goingearly on Picard explains that they won’t be noticed until they seem a threat… but they’re all carrying whopping great guns. And surely the very fact the humans have turned up deems them a threat? Also, why don’t the Borg recognise Picard? And later, during the largely fantastic sequence on the Enterprise’s hull, Picard, Worf and Hawk are clearly up to something nefarious and yet the Borg let them carry on. One or two Borg stop to intervene; Picard & co dispatch them; the rest of the Borg just keep working. Surely the fact these humans have just done away with several of your compatriots qualifies them as a threat that needs to be dealt with? It’s all a bit too convenient.

So how does First Contact stack up? Is it a film the Trek universe can be proud of? Largely, yes. Though it’s flawed, and not quite the break-out success that the 2009 Star Trek was — that felt like a new version of old elements (which it was), whereas this feels like an accessible continuation of an existing tale (which it is) — for those disposed to spaceship-based science-fiction, there’s much to like.

4 out of 5

Film4 and Film4 HD are showing the first ten Star Trek films across Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th October. First Contact is on at 6:40pm on Sunday.

Star Trek: First Contact is on E4 tonight, Friday 4th July 2014, at 9pm.

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