By Simon Abrams
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Chris Packham
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Inkoo Kang
On its 30th anniversary, Star Trek exists only as fetish or fool's pastime. The original series continues to air as a faded relic; the Next Generation cast was put to pasture as a film enterprise before its time; and Deep Space Nine and Voyager run and rerun so often you can't tell their crews apart. The Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever) who appreciated the original series' camp humor should be in on the joke; those who didn't aren't worth saving anyway. In 1996, three decades after ex-cop Gene Roddenberry turned his Wagon Train-in-space idea into a multibillion-dollar industry, Paramount turns out a Trek film every couple of years knowing it'll be a guaranteed hit. Quality never much mattered (it even let William Shatner direct one). It's all about quantity, baby; so here comes Star Trek VIII--or Star Trek: First Contact, for those without your tricorder.
So go figure: 14 years after the one great film (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and five years after the one good one (VI: The Undiscovered Country) comes the best one of all, the first Trek film that plays well outside the cult and evolves beyond the series' myopic, incestuous universe. Like Khan, the film succeeds because it's about something other than the characters' relationships with one another: Spock isn't looking for love in all the wrong places, Kirk isn't looking for Spock, Sulu isn't looking for more lines.
First Contact succeeds because it's about tangible emotions--Captain Jean-Luc Picard seeks revenge against the Borg, the android Data seeks to finally become human both inside and out--and because screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga have injected a little humor and maturity into the proceedings. It is indeed the most "adult" of the Trek films, as they have insisted in interviews--blood and sutures everywhere, hints at android-alien sex that are more than a little creepy, bits of flesh sewn at random onto Data's shiny body, real curse words coming from the mouths of real actors playing real characters.
Like Khan, First Contact is a sequel to an earlier episode (or, in this case, a sequel to two--one of the main characters appeared first in the original series episode "Metamorphosis," and God help the poor bastard who remembers such things) and deals with the theme of revenge and the price that accompanies the taste for blood. In Next Gen's "Best of Both Worlds," Picard (the ever-regal Patrick Stewart) was "absorbed" by the Borg--"bionic zombies," as one character sarcastically calls them--and had his body filled with their electronic implants; in essence, Picard was raped by the aliens, sucked into their collective consciousness against his will. When the Borg first start their attack on Earth, Starfleet wants to keep Picard out of the fight altogether, afraid he'll make it personal.
When he finally joins the attack--in a homage to the final attack on the Deathstar from Star Wars--Picard allows emotions to cloud his judgment; he'd rather let his crew be absorbed than destroy another Enterprise, and he thinks nothing of killing and gutting crewmen who have become Borg even when there's a chance they could indeed be saved (as Picard himself was in the series episode). Picard thinks he understands his attackers because he was, for a moment, one of them; he hears their voices when no one else does, knows how savage they are and how easily he can give in. For the first time, Picard becomes a well-rounded figure--the chatty statesman and the guilt-free warrior, a New Age hothead for all seasons.
Brent Spiner's Data again emerges as Trek's most complicated character: Unlike Spock, whom he was intended to "replace" when The Next Generation debuted a decade ago, Data wants to be more human, needs to experience emotion and sensation--to find out the difference between watching video porn and doing it Borg-style. Data spends most of the film trapped by the Borg queen (Alice Krige), making metaphysical small talk about freedom of will and the hypocrisy of a collective having a leader. Turns out it's just foreplay: When the queen grafts some human flesh to his android frame and then blows on his new skin, Data just about jumps her right there. Is that a phaser in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
The Borg need Data--or Picard, doesn't matter which--to bring a little human emotion to their methodical, unfeeling collective; they're this film's version of V'ger from the first Trek movie, the cold-blooded bad guys who just need to add a little heart to their computer-chip brains. But the Borg are Trek's most frightening beasts ever: They insert wires into the humans they take over, drill into the eyeballs of conquered enemies, mutate Enterprise crewmen into grotesque monsters. Their presence turns the film into a Trekked-up Alien: The Enterprise becomes a floating abattoir, and around every dark corner awaits potential gruesome death.
When the Borg first take over the Enterprise, you don't even see them; they hide in corridors and engineering ducts, snatching crew members and implanting Borg devices in their grossly mutating bodies. Throughout the corridors, they trail vinelike circuits leading to the Borg queen--the brains behind the operation. (Indeed, quite literally: When we first see Alice Krige as the Borg queen, she's nothing more than a head and shoulders being lowered and clamped onto a body; it's a disturbing, hilarious, brilliant image.)
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