Film * Jonathan Frakes * Post-Nuclear/Pre-Utopia * 1996
I have always loved Star Trek. It’s what happens you have secret nerds as parents, I guess, but the show (usually The Next Generation, but sometimes the original crew as well) made up a large part of the media background of my childhood. I’ve never really obsessed over the fiction, however, which is generally how I operate. I cast a wide net of interest, but this prevents me from going way deep on any given topic. This is all to say that I’m not overly familiar with the minutia of the Star Trek universe, despite my enthusiasm for the material. As far as I understood, the series takes place a few hundred years in the future. Humanity has mastered faster-than-light travel, which it uses to explore the universe. Earth is a utopian paradise, and the entire human race has cast aside its baser nature to unite and pursue knowledge of the universe. Star Trek is always optimistic about humanity and what it can achieve. This is one of the things which makes it great. I mean, of course it’s a fantasy, but it’s one of the few things out there which takes the time to focus on the good parts of human nature. All that I knew. What I did not know was how this utopian, united human society came to be.
First Contact tells that story, and it turns out that the world of Star Trek is one built out of the radioactive ashes of a worldwide nuclear war. In other words, Star Trek is post-apocalyptic. This film is actually telling two stories that happen to coincide with each other. It’s a TNG story, and is heavily reliant on a classic episode of the series (“The Best of Both Worlds”) for the foundation of the narrative. The major adversary is an alien race known as The Borg. They’re a species of cyborgs who share a single consciousness and exist mainly to assimilate entire species into their collective. They suck. Anyway, in “The Best of Both Worlds” Captain Picard is assimilated. Even though he is eventually rescued and evil is kept at bay, he still has a connection with The Borg, who are still at large in the galaxy.
The film begins with nearly no preamble. There is a Borg cube on its way to Earth, and they have assimilation on their hive-mind. Picard is ordered to keep the Enterprise away from the conflict, because Star Fleet is worried about his previous experience tainting his judgement, or something. Well, the crew is all like, hell nah, and they storm into the fight. The Enterprise quickly figures out a way to kick that cube’s cybertronic ass and it merrily explodes. However, a Borg escape pod takes off, creates a temporal rift (time hole), and goes to the past. The Enterprise, of course, follows. By happenstance, The Borg chose a pivotal moment in human history: the day before first contact with an alien race.
Earth is at this point in its history recovering from a widespread nuclear conflict. We are told that most major cities have been destroyed, and that 600 million people have perished. Most of the world governments have been eradicated, and humanity exists in a semi-rustic fashion in smaller enclaves. That’s really all the background we’re given, sadly. The Enterprise crew arrive to find The Borg firing upon a village in Montana, which happens to be the facility in which a dude in a goofy hat named Zefram Cochran is about to launch the first warp-drive enabled space craft. It’s 2061 and the nuclear war likely devastated everyone’s technological facilities, but whatever, this guy made a warp-drive in his garage. As the story goes, once Cochran engages his warp-drive, he gains the notice of some passing aliens, who come check it out. The Borg are trying to donk this all up so they can assimilate Earth in the past, thus saving themselves the trouble of dealing with the Enterprise blowing them up in the future.
First of all, this is a great Star Trek movie. It’s like the Wrath of Khan of the Next Generation flicks. There’s a lot of dramatic action sequences, quite a bit of humor, and Riker seems to be in a jovial mood most of the time, probably because he’s directing a film for the first time. The two concurrent stories begin in earnest after the crew is separated, leaving Riker, Troi, and Geordi (and Reg!) to ensure that Cochran stops drinking long enough to make history happen. Meanwhile, The Borg are trying to assimilate the Enterprise, which makes Picard go full-on Ahab in an effort to stop them. Of the two storylines, Picard’s is by far the most intense. The crew on Earth is mostly there for comic relief, and also to fill in a few details about the history of Star Trek. This would be a jarring change of tone, but both the script and directing handle the change in stories well, and the film is better (and more Trek-y) for not obsessing over Picard’s obsession.
Both of the stories in this movie have to do with an apocalyptic event, although obviously the world-ending danger presented by the Borg is the most horrifying. They represent an end of all human thought and independence. Humans would still technically exist, however they would only exist in the hive-mind memory of the Borg consciousness. There would be no human future outside of the collective, which would mean an effective extinction event. Picard, as the sole human who has experienced what this future would actually be like, is clearly not down with this happening. Yet the good captain is also a window into the more complex human condition. Picard was scarred by his experience. As the film progresses, we seem him become more unstable, and more consumed by his desire for revenge. In fact, Picard gets darker than we’re accustomed to seeing him, and it’s alarming and upsetting.
What brings the captain back is literature. As a student of the humanities, I appreciate this. There is a moment towards the ending where Picard basically loses it. The Enterprise is overrun with Borg, and the most effective way of eliminating the threat to all humanity is to evacuate the ship and blow it up. Picard, however, refuses to do this, intent on fighting until the bitter end. He even calls Worf a coward! Probably don’t say that to a Klingon. Anyway, Picard holes up in his ready room when Lily (she’s from the 21st century and is a bit of a firebrand) busts in and gets all up in Picard’s face, like nobody from the Enterprise crew would ever do. Eventually, she straight up calls him Captain Ahab. Now, Picard is a literary man (just achingly, pretentiously so sometimes), and this accusation hits him right where it hurts. He quotes a relevant line from Moby Dick, and finally comes to his senses. In this scene, Picard demonstrates both aspects of humanity. His desire for blind revenge illustrates our darker tendencies to emotion-based violence. His love of literature – his salvation – demonstrates humanity’s capability of great acts of beauty and understanding.
Likewise, Data’s story is told in a similar vein. Instead of revenge, the negative human aspect he is tormented with is that of temptation. The Borg have the capability to grant him organic flesh to augment his hot android bod. Data agonizes over this decision (for under a second, but that’s “an eternity” for Data) before choosing loyalty and friendship over his own personal desires. The Borg, the ultimate in selfishness, are defeated and the Enterprise is saved. Because this is Star Trek, the goodness in humanity overcomes our baser nature and all is well. Cochran overcomes his hero-reluctance and succeeds in luring the aliens – Vulcans, naturally – to the planet, thus ushering in a new era of humanity.
The origin of the Star Trek universe, which is to say a catastrophic nuclear war, mirrors that of the more personal experience of both Picard and Data. None of this is new territory, of course. The duality of the human condition is a prime source of art all throughout human history. What makes Star Trek special is that manages to champion the positive while still recognizing the negative. There is an understanding that in order to build a utopian world, the old must be destroyed. Beyond even that, there must be a unifying event. In this case, first contact with alien lifeforms. Of course, none of this is likely outside of fiction. However, that’s nearly irrelevant. Star Trek is here to tell stories about the human condition, which it does by using the bad aspects of humanity in order to highlight and champion the good. Regardless of the means, Star Trek is confident that humans can channel their inner Picard and overcome.