By Tom Anderson
In my previous Prequel Problems article looking at the Star Trek franchise, I explored Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ 1994 novel “Federation” and mentioned how its conceived backstory for Zephram Cochrane, and his invention of warp drive, would become totally obsoleted only a couple of years later with the release of the film “Star Trek: First Contact”. “First Contact” is not strictly a prequel, being more a time-travel story, but it covers many of the same themes. Furthermore, it provided the groundwork for a true prequel that would follow it a few years later, the TV series “Star Trek: Enterprise”.
I find the connexion between “First Contact” and “Enterprise” to be one that is rather neglected in critical treatments, probably because of the sense of dissonance that most critics loved “First Contact” but disliked “Enterprise”, yet, as we’ll see, the link is very clear. In fact, I would argue that most of the criticism of “Enterprise” was due to it being conceived primarily because of propagating the past established in “First Contact” forwards, rather than building backwards from the original “Star Trek” series. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at the “First Contact” film.
When “First Contact” was first advertised, it was to great excitement from longtime fans, not least myself. Not only were we getting our favourite cast from “The Next Generation” returning aboard an exciting new USS Enterprise-E to replace the iconic D destroyed in “Generations”, but rather than the forgettable villain of that film, we would see the return of the merciless Borg with a big-screen budget. The Borg had been responsible for what a majority of critics consider to be the best episode of “The Next Generation”, the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds”, in which Captain Picard was kidnapped and transformed into one of them (‘assimilated’) so that they could use him as an enslaved spokesman and steal his knowledge to defeat the Federation. Tension had been particularly high due to rumours that Patrick Stewart might leave the series and Jonathan Frakes’ Will Riker might become Captain, so it was possible that Picard would never be rescued. In the end, Stewart’s Picard did return, and on being rescued it was his very link to the Borg which led to the latter’s defeat. Realistically, the series had not launched straight back into regular adventures, but an entire episode had been devoted to Picard’s trauma that he had been forced against his will to lead enemy forces in a battle that killed thousands of his colleagues and changed Starfleet forever. Said battle, the Battle of Wolf 359, would be depicted in the opening of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, in which protagonist Ben Sisko lost his wife and remained bitterly prejudiced against Picard years later. It was an event that had turned the Star Trek universe on its head, and now it would see a big-screen follow-up.
While the Borg were popular and iconic villains, this reliance on established backstory was a bold move considering that the usual goal of a film adaptation is to try to draw in a crowd beyond the existing fanbase of a TV show. This boldness towards conventional norms is a big part of what made “First Contact” so good, as we’ll see, though it could have gone very differently. Regardless, it meant that rather than facing the tired trope of a one-off villain made up for a movie who is never mentioned again, we would watch as Picard confronted his demons, consumed with nightmares at the beginning of the film as he knows a new Borg invasion is on its way.
Initially ordered to stay away from the battle due to Starfleet’s concerns about his past connections, his crew encourages him to defy orders and the Enterprise arrives near Earth to find Starfleet locked in a losing battle with the Borg Cube (including, conveniently, the USS Defiant from “Deep Space Nine” so Worf can be purloined back from that spinoff and returned to his usual place in the crew). It is Picard’s very knowledge of the Borg that, once again, allows him to help the Federation (with a new fleet of snazzy CGI ships) beat the Cube. Just before it is destroyed, however, a new spherical ship emerges from its interior and heads towards Earth while using a time travel drive. The Enterprise (again, conveniently) is the only ship to briefly escape the changes to history that are unleashed, with the whole Earth changed to an assimilated Borg planet, taken over in the past when it was weak. Picard unsurprisingly orders a pursuit through the time portal, and the Enterprise chases the sphere into the past to find it firing on the surface of the past Earth below. Picard quickly destroys the sphere but not, as we learn, before it manages to get part of its crew on board the Enterprise.
I describe this scene in such detail because it is, perhaps, the best example of “First Contact”’s aforementioned boldness in the face of the usual supine Hollywood attitude to treat viewers as morons with the attention span of goldfish. Picard asks what past era they have travelled to, and initially (and realistically) is given only a vague estimate:
DATA: According to our astrometric readings we're in the mid twenty-first century. From the radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere I would estimate we have arrived approximately ten years after the Third World War.
RIKER: Makes sense. Most of the major cities have been destroyed. There are few governments left. Six hundred million dead. No resistance.
After they take out the Borg sphere, he demands more precision, leading to an exchange of dialogue I reproduce in full below:
PICARD: They were firing at the surface. Location?
RIKER: Western hemisphere, ...North American continent. At a missile complex in central Montana.
PICARD: A missile complex? (dawning realisation) ...The date? Mr Data, I need to know the exact date.
DATA: April fourth...2063.
PICARD: April fourth?
RIKER: The day before First Contact.
CRUSHER: Then the missile complex must be the one where Zefram Cochrane is building his warp ship!
PICARD: That's what they came here to do. Stop First Contact!
Just pause for a moment to consider how audacious the filmmakers were being with this. We’re doing a Star Trek time travel story, OK, but we’re not going to our own present day like “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”. We’re not even going to a past era which we all know about to ensure a historical event (like, say, the Moon landing) happens as it’s meant to. We’re going to the year 2063, which lies in the viewers’ future but the crew’s past, to deal with a historical event nobody in the audience knows about. The hardcore Trek fans might recognise the name Zefram Cochrane, but we had never seen this backstory for him before, and never heard about First Contact with capital letters – though the fans would probably work out this meant the first contact of humans with an alien race (which had previously not been connected with Cochrane, as I discussed in my “Federation” review). And that’s the Trek fans – what about everyone else? This exchange of dialogue tells everyone exactly what they need to know – that a nuclear war has happened and Earth is weak, that an important historical event for Earth’s future is about to happen, one which everyone in the 24th century knows about, the Borg are trying to stop it, and Picard must try to stop them. At the same time, it creates a sense of mystery because we really don’t know the details of what is ‘meant’ to happen. This is practically unique in a time travel story and makes it stand out from the crowd. If this was about the Moon landing (or the Kennedy assassination, as Gene Roddenberry infamously wanted a Star Trek film about), we can’t have any ‘surprise reveals’ without sounding like conspiracy theorists. But we are in this unmatched situation of having tension about, initially, not even knowing what our heroes are trying to ensure happens.
The crew beam down to Montana to find damage to Cochrane’s first warp ship, the Phoenix, made in part from an old nuclear missile left over from the war. They have to help him repair it, initially while trying not to let on they are time travellers. One of the themes of the film is that Cochrane is not the heroic figure the crew all picture from their histories, but is a washed-up drunk who pursued warp physics mostly to make money. Some critics (such as Chuck Sonnenburg) argue that this is meant as an allegory for how Gene Roddenberry was also not the best human being, yet his work gave rise to a dream that inspired millions. Nonetheless, Cochrane goes on to rise to the challenge. The survivors in Montana are naturally paranoid about outsiders after the war, and Cochrane’s friend Lily Sloane is injured while trying to attack Picard and the android Data. They go back to the ship with her to treat her, only to find some Borg escaped and are taking over the ship.
This is where “First Contact” had an opportunity to reinvent the Borg with a big budget. In the TV series, the Borg were presented as inhuman cyborgs with bone-white skin, part of a hive mind who spoke as a single chorus of voices. They were mostly interested in assimilating technology, scooping entire colonies off the surface of planets, and the assimilation of Picard was treated as a one-off, with them usually uninterested in life forms. In fact, Peter David had to include a disclaimer in his spin-off novel “Vendetta” because the showrunners objected to his use of a character who was a Borg-assimilated human trying to rediscover her humanity (ironically in a way they would use themselves in “Star Trek: Voyager” a few years later!) In “First Contact”, the Borg were reimagined as looking more zombie-like and used nanotechnology injections to assimilate other life forms (continuing the zombie analogy). Their drones were also shown as being drawn from a wide variety of races, rather than all looking human-like with bone-white skin. Most fans approved of this change, though a minority felt the indifference of the former Borg conception (to the point of ignoring people walking through their ships) had been more intimidating. One idea kept from the existing conception was that the Borg quickly adapt to all weapons deployed against them, so after a few phaser shots kill a few drones, the ones behind start harmlessly deflecting or absorbing them, adding to the impression of an unstoppable horde. All of this helped create fodder for plenty of “Die Hard”-style action scenes which appealed to a wider film audience.
Like “Die Hard”, however, such action was not mindless. In addition to the plot arc about Cochrane not living up to his historical reputation, the film adds two other main introspective arcs. In one, a confused Lily Sloane awakens amid the Borg takeover of the ship and Picard has to help her escape, whilst showing her the wonders of the 24th century. He talks about the Federation in the same optimistic terms fans will remember from early “Next Generation” episodes, as having eliminated famine and poverty. He then hides from the Borg in his favourite holodeck simulation, in which he stars as the gumshoe Dixon Hill, and is able to stop them using a replicated tommy-gun. Over the cause of this arc, Lily realises that Picard’s words about the Federation’s achievements are belied by his obvious anger and fury for vengeance when dealing with the Borg, to the point of callously ignoring he is shooting one of his own assimilated crew members, and calling the warrior Worf a coward for wanting to abandon the ship before more lives are lost in a hopeless battle. Lily compares him to Captain Ahab and his white whale, and Picard furiously smashes up his models of the past USS Enterprises while insisting they cannot fall back before the Borg again. He finally accepts that Lily is right, apologises to Worf and orders the ship be abandoned and self-destructed.
In the other arc, the Borg capture the android Data and, interestingly, begin adding organic fleshy parts to his robotic body in a neat reversal of their usual cyborgification of humanoids. This leads to probably the weakest change made in the film – instead of the faceless chorus of the hive mind, we get a ‘Borg Queen’ played by Alice Krige for Data to talk to, which makes no sense. Amusingly, there are a couple of lines in the film that seem as though they were written by people objecting to the script – Data logically points out the Borg are a hive mind and she can’t claim “I am the Borg”, while when she later claims to have been on that first Borg ship that assimilated Picard before Wolf 359, Picard points out that ship was destroyed. The plot revolves around the idea that the Queen is seducing Data (metaphorically and literally) by appealing to his desire to become human by offering him more flesh (taken from Picard’s unfortunate crew). The Borg also try and fail to send a signal to their past brethren in the Delta Quadrant (a line which made fans happy, as it had long been unconfirmed fanon that the Borg originate in the Delta Quadrant).
The arcs combine as Riker and company help Cochrane make his first warp flight, while Picard goes to try to save Data, as Data saved him when he was first assimilated. The Queen claims Data has gone over to her side and he deactivates the self-destruct sequence, but of course he then betrays and kills her (telling Picard that he was tempted by her offer for ‘zero point six eight seconds – for an android, that is almost an eternity’). The Phoenix makes its historic faster-than-light flight (showing off a pair of warp nacelles meant to evoke those on the Enterprise from the original series) and Cochrane looks back on the now-distant Earth, commenting that it looks so small. Riker tells him ‘it’s about to get a whole lot bigger’.
The crew then, from a safe distance, observe the titular First Contact – Cochrane’s flight was picked up by a passing alien ship whose crew would otherwise have had no interest in Earth. These advanced strangers from the sky land their ship amid the post-atomic horror of Earth in a scene evocative of films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and then are revealed to be the Vulcans, another perfectly pitched scene which was a revelation to fans yet still recognisable to the general audience. Humanity is not alone in the universe, and this is the beginning of what will become the Federation. Lily sees the Enterprise in the sky as it returns to the future, just after she and Picard told each other that they envy each other for living in that brighter future versus being there to see its dawn.
You will have to forgive me for gushing about this film in such detail. I hope I have made my points about just how perfectly judged “First Contact” was. The amazing thing is, this happened almost entirely by accident. Looking into the pre-production ideas by the creators, it is very clear that things could have easily ended in disaster. Some of the really stupid ideas that fortunately didn’t end up in “First Contact” include, but are not limited to:
- They travel back to the 1400s instead and everyone is wearing tights
- A design for the Enterprise-E that makes it look like a chicken
- Borg and Borg ship designs that look Ancient Egyptian for no reason, clearly designed by someone who really wanted to work on “Stargate” instead
- A Borg ship that looks like a boring cardboard box rather than the iconic and pre-established cube
- Picard has to take the place of an injured Cochrane and spends all his time on the ground, being totally unaware the Borg ever took over the ship, and the others manage to beat them without ever telling him they were there (which sounds like a misplaced sitcom plot)
- Titling it “Star Trek Generations II” – although that was probably only ever a working title.
Given all that, we probably got off quite lightly that the only semi-stupid idea that survived into the finished product was the Borg Queen. However, the success of the film also convinced the creators they could do no wrong, leading to dismissal of warnings from executives who had correctly seen the flaws in the dismal follow-up film, “Star Trek: Insurrection”. The fourth Next Generation film, “Nemesis”, was no better despite taking a different direction. In one of my favourite skits from the Canadian internet humour group LoadingReadyRun, a character tells another he is busy watching “all the good Next Generation movies” and his friend replies “See you in one hundred and eleven minutes” (the runtime of “First Contact” alone).
Despite this, “First Contact” remains not only a great piece of Star Trek but a great piece of cinema in general. It is easy to forget that it also established many things about that grey area in Star Trek – our future but Trek’s past – which, as I mentioned in my “Federation” article, only a few vague and contradictory things had ever been said about. We knew about the Third World War that almost destroyed mankind, that it was different to the Eugenics Wars and that it happened before the first warp flight, and that it was that warp flight – and the revelation of advanced aliens who wanted peaceful exchange – that inspired humanity to rise from the ashes and build a better civilisation. Looking back, this now seems so integral to the optimistic founding principles of Star Trek that it is easy to forget that the concept did not exist until this film. Despite being dark and gritty in terms of its visuals and action sequences, it was therefore very much in tune with the optimistic message of Star Trek – and cleverly played with this in how Lily spots that Picard is not living up to his own stated ideals.
Having established this solid past setting of the 2060s, when it came time to produce a new Star Trek series in 2001, showrunners Brannon Braga and Rick Berman decided to make a prequel inspired by it. It is worth noting that they considered several other options, such as a series set around Starfleet Academy in an existing era, before opting for a prequel, which – as I previously mentioned – Star Trek had never actually done in a canon, on-screen production. Pity poor Michael Jan Friedman, who had recently written a serialised story called “Starfleet: Year One” based on the natural assumption that the showrunners would keep on never depicting the 22nd century period, only to find his work immediately obsoleted! Berman and Braga, nicknamed ‘the Killer Bs’ by fans who disagreed with their work, created a conception of the year 2151 based more on working forward from the 2063 of “First Contact” rather than backward from the 2260s of the original series.
The protagonist of the series, Jonathan Archer, is the son of a man who worked with Cochrane, and in the first episode we see an archive film of a now-aged Cochrane inspiring humans to ‘go, boldly’ where no man has gone before (evidently someone told the showrunners about split infinitives). The Vulcans have helped humans rebuild from the Post-atomic Horror and Earth is now back on its feet, but Archer and many other humans have a chip on their shoulder about how they perceive the Vulcans have treated Earth. Many Vulcans still regard humans as half-savage for having come so close to destroying themselves (and cultural reasons like their own vegetarianism). Vulcans are leery about sharing advanced technology with Earth, which angers Archer because it meant his father died before he was able to see his dream, humanity’s first ship capable of warp factor 5, ever built.
It is clear how “Enterprise” built on the setting established in “First Contact”, and this becomes more explicit in later episodes. In the controversial episode “Regeneration”, it turns out a few Borg drones fell to Earth after Picard blew up their sphere in 2063 and have been frozen in the Arctic ever since. Revived, they take over a shuttle, Archer has to chase after them, and they end up possibly sending that signal to the Delta Quadrant that they tried to in 2063. This in turn suggests a time loop as Archer says the signal would take 200 years to get there, and the first hints about the Borg intruding on Federation territory appeared in first season “Next Generation” episodes around that time period. Many fans disliked this invocation of the Borg at a time that is meant to be years before humanity’s first contact with them (with tenuous handling of continuity such as the Borg not introducing themselves by name as usual) but the episode concept is otherwise quite interesting. Notably, Archer claims (via his father) that, when Cochrane used to get drunk in old age, he would start rambling about mysterious time-travelling cyborgs.
However, some ties to “First Contact” were even more controversial. The design of Archer’s ship, the Enterprise NX-01 (more on that name later) was based on taking the nacelles from the Phoenix and slapping them on a design derived from one of the 24th century flashy CGI ships from the beginning of “First Contact”, the USS Thunderchild (itself a “War of the Worlds” reference of course). For many hardcore fans, this was a crass dismissal of even trying to fit with past aesthetics (see my article “Star Trek and the Sixties Aesthetic”) and it was a statement of attitude that “Enterprise” never recovered from as a show.
So much for how a highly-acclaimed film gave rise to a less than acclaimed TV series. But we are far from finished with “Enterprise”. When I next return to this subject, we’ll be looking at more of the pluses and minuses of how the showrunners of “Enterprise” dealt with creating a prequel derived from a time travel story – including perhaps their most controversial idea, the Temporal Cold War.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.