It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: First Contact’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek”

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Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) must face his most lethal enemy in ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1996

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige

Director:  Jonathan Frakes / written by:  Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga (story by Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga.  Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Captain Picard and his crew pursue the Borg back in time to stop them from changing the future by preventing Earth’s pioneering warp-flight and historic first contact with an alien race…

In review:  why it’s a classic

The finest big screen outing for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and one of the overall best Star Trek films, Star Trek: First Contact is an exciting science fiction action adventure that proved a hit with fans and critics as well as general audiences, becoming one of the most financially successful Star Trek features – surpassing previous champion Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Star Trek: First Contact sees Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E once again faced with their cybernetic foes, the Borg, who travel back in time to the year 2063 – a decade after Earth’s devastating Third World War – to avert the first flight by warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane and contact with visitors from Vulcan – an event that unites humanity and sparks a more hopeful future that will lead to the formation of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.  Pursuing the Borg back to the 21st Century, the Borg vessel is destroyed by the Enterprise but not before its complement of drones transport into the bowels of Picard’s ship and begin taking control.  As Commander Riker and his away team work to ensure Cochrane’s warp flight occurs as scheduled, Picard must fight to prevent the Borg’s seizure of the Enterprise and their plans to destroy the future.  Star Trek: First Contact ties back to The Next Generation’s classic two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds” (read the review here) in which Picard was abducted and assimilated by the Borg and informs the character’s arc, although it isn’t necessary for casual viewers to have seen it as it’s all explained via Picard’s opening nightmare sequence and some neatly placed exposition.

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James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

As Picard, Patrick Stewart is as superb as ever in the role and there is a lot of range for the character in First Contact as the usually noble and disciplined Picard grapples with his traumatic history with the Borg and the Ahab-like anger towards his enemy which begins to override his judgement as a Starfleet captain.  Stewart shares great rapport with his co-stars, particularly Brent Spiner’s Data who is also given a great deal of focus, his loyalty to Picard threatened when he is captured by the Borg and manipulated by their Queen.  Played with a sultry and sinister menace by Alice Krige, the Borg Queen expands the mythology of the cyborg race, an individual voice within the singular Borg Collective whose purpose is to bring “order to chaos” within the hive mind.  James Cromwell provides a wonderfully spirited performance as Zefram Cochrane, a man worshipped as a historical figure by the Enterprise crew who they quickly learn is flawed and prone to drinking too much.  Alfre Woodard is equally great as Cochrane’s assistant, Lily, who has numerous standout scenes with Patrick Stewart – particularly her heated exchange with Picard as his fury against the Borg verges on vendetta, snapping him into realisation with a poignant reference to Moby Dick.  Given his duties as director, Jonathan Frakes’ Commander Riker has less onscreen presence in comparison to Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner but still plays an important role.  The rest of the regular TNG cast are all given their moments within the story – Marina Sirtis’ inebriated Deanna Troi serving up a dash of levity – and luckily First Contact allows for Michael Dorn’s Worf (who at this point had joined the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to rejoin his former crewmates for their adventure.

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Data (Brent Spiner) is manipulated by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek: First Contact thrills with a number of notable action sequences and set-pieces, the highlights including the first act’s space battle against the Borg ship, Picard and his crew’s attempt to halt the Borg’s infiltration and assimilation of the Enterprise and Picard and Worf’s (along with Lt. Hawk, in an early screen appearance by Neal McDonough) excursion onto the ship’s hull to prevent the Borg’s conversion of the main deflector into a means of summoning reinforcements.  The film boasts a great script (from returning Star Trek Generations screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga) that has plenty of action, drama, humour and heart and it’s easy to see why it appealed to a wide audience.  It’s a generally pacey adventure that doesn’t sacrifice an enjoyable science fiction story or memorable character moments.  The Borg are a dark threat and the stakes are high yet First Contact maintains the hope and optimism for humanity’s future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry that is the nucleus of any classic Star Trek story.

Having helmed numerous episodes of The Next Generation (as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager), Jonathan Frakes makes a confident jump to the big screen and keeps First Contact engaging and entertaining.  The production design is excellent and gives it a pleasingly grand, blockbuster feature film look.  The new Enterprise-E is another superb, sleek starship design from illustrator John Eaves that melds the iconic Matt Jeffries concept with that of The Next Generation’s late Enterprise-D.  Likewise, Herman Zimmerman’s interior sets are an appropriate expansion of his previous work.  The new Giger-esque biomechanical look for the Borg courtesy of Michael Westmore makes them an even scarier and formidable enemy and would rightfully earn the film an Oscar nomination.  To top things off, Jerry Goldsmith (with contributions from his son, Joel) provides a classic music score, another career best for the composer that elevates all of the excitement, emotion and atmosphere of the film – the beautifully majestic main theme on par with that of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek: First Contact is simply a great big screen Star Trek entry that’s not only enjoyable for fans but for casual viewers as well and represents a high point for the franchise as an entertainment enterprise (pun fully intended).

Standout moment

Discovering that the Borg plan to use the Enterprise’s deflector to contact reinforcements, Picard leads a mission on to the starship’s hull in order to stop them…

Geek fact!

An early concept for the film had the Borg travelling back in time even further to the Renaissance period and would see Data become Leonardo DaVinci’s apprentice!

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Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

2019 marks four decades since Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ was relaunched on the silver screen…

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Bob Peak’s wonderful poster art for ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1979

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Directed by:  Robert Wise / written by:  Harold Livingston (story by Alan Dean Foster)

What’s it about?

As a mysterious and hostile force advances towards Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk is reunited with his former crew as he takes command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a mission to intercept the intruder…

Retrospective/review

Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this December, Star Trek: The Motion Picture may not be as popular as its 1982 sequel – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – but its place and importance in the history of the franchise shouldn’t be overlooked.  Originally conceived as a pilot for a new Star Trek television series, the production would evolve into a big budget feature film in the wake of the success of Star Wars – although Star Trek: The Motion Picture would take more of a high-concept science fiction approach similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Produced by Gene Roddenberry (who would write the film’s interesting but slightly bizarre novelisation) and skilfully directed by The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Robert Wise with a story, credited to noted SF author Alan Dean Foster, that echoes elements of classic Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is presented on a visual scale that could only have been dreamt of back in the days of the original series.  The film opens as Klingon (the iconic Trek race given a more alien-like makeover for the big screen) warships commence an attack on an approaching force – an expansive and powerful cloud of energy which soon neutralises the aggressors.  As the cloud proceeds on a heading for Earth, an unfulfilled and desk-bound Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) convinces his superiors to place him in command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a desperate mission to intercept and establish contact with the intruder.

Believing the benefit of his experience and leadership will provide the best chance of success, Kirk initially finds himself troubled by an unfamiliarity with the refitted Enterprise and in conflict with her would be captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), whose situation is complicated further by the posting of his old flame, Ilia (the late Persis Khambatta, in her introductory film role) as ship’s navigator (Walter Koenig’s Chekov now occupying the post of security chief).

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Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Dealing with engine troubles and a near fatal wormhole encounter before rendezvousing with science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) along the way, the stakes are raised as the Enterprise intercepts the approaching danger – traversing the energy cloud to discover a colossus alien vessel at its centre.  As Ilia is replaced by an android duplicate serving as a representative of the alien ship, Kirk learns that the intruder is ‘V’Ger’, a life-form on a journey to find and ‘join’ with its creator.  It all leads to a startling finale in which (spoilers follow…) Kirk and his crew face V’Ger, which they are astonished to discover is the lost 20th Century NASA probe, Voyager VI – repaired by an unknown machine race and sent on a return voyage to its point of origin where it can complete its programme of “learning all that is learnable” and providing all the information it has amassed to the creator.  Having gained sentience on its journey, V’Ger has reached the limits of its understanding and must evolve by joining with its creator…and one amongst the Enterprise crew volunteers to do so.

The film is commonly criticised for its slow pace (detractors unfairly labelling it as ‘The Slow Motion Picture’) and whilst this may be true, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is best viewed for what it is – a cerebral cinematic experience that reunites an iconic and beloved set of characters, unfolding steadily and subjecting the viewer to some striking visuals as it presents intriguing and intelligent science fiction ideas.  Despite the more conceptual and visually driven story, the cast are all reliably great – especially the central trio: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, representing, respectively, the celebrated troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  As the main star, Shatner is provided with some decent material as the ever-passionate Kirk wrestles with his regret at accepting promotion and his yearning to return to command of a starship.  Likewise, Nimoy gets to once again grapple with Spock’s conflicted half human/half Vulcan nature, his sensing of V’Ger and an inability to attain ‘Kholinahr’, the Vulcan ritual of complete emotional purging, driving his desire to re-join the Enterprise crew and seek out the mysterious invader.  DeForest Kelley’s Doctor McCoy is once again the cantankerous yet valued conscience and moral centre.

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The glorious refitted U.S.S. Enterprise, designed by Andrew Probert (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The production design and special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture are reasonably impressive considering their age.  The redesigned Enterprise is simply beautiful, brought to life by the superb model work.  The sets are sparse but have an appropriately futuristic feel to them as do the crew uniforms which are a fitting evolution of those in the original series in comparison to the more military-based attire of the sequels.  In terms of the effects, led by 2001’s Douglas Trumbull and Star Wars’ John Dykstra, they remain a key element, the mesmerising sequence of the Enterprise’s penetration of the cloud, the jaw dropping ‘V’Ger flyover’ scenes and Spock’s ‘spacewalk’ being the most obvious highlights – in addition to the wonderfully executed launch of the Enterprise, of course.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score is one of the composer’s best and an inseparable accompaniment to the story and visuals, capturing the romance and majesty of space in the 23rd Century, the grandeur of the Enterprise, the eerie mystery of the enigmatic force that threatens humanity and the wonders of the unknown.

It’s no secret that the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was troubled by last minute script re-writes, increasing costs (its budget inflating to a then eye-watering $46 million, making it the most expensive feature film at that time) and a tight schedule to meet its 7th December 1979 release date, leaving director Robert Wise with no time to produce a final cut and unsatisfied with the film in its theatrical form.  Much of this was remedied with the 2001 DVD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition, a superior edit of the film with Wise reinstating some of the more character-orientated scenes missing from the theatrical version whilst trimming down some of the longer and more superfluous moments, a fresh sound mix and new CGI effects to enhance and embellish the existing visuals.  Unlike the Star Wars Special Editions, the changes made were to benefit what Wise felt was an unfinished film and, largely, choices that would have been made in 1979 had the production been permitted the extra time and resources required.

Despite receiving a critical drubbing Star Trek: The Motion Picture would prove a box office success, paving the way for several sequels and an eventual television rebirth of the franchise.  Whilst Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered to be closer to the overall spirit of the original Star Trek series with a deeper focus on the characters and emphasis on morality play elements (whilst injecting a larger measure of action and excitement), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is perhaps more cinematic and – especially in its Director’s Edition form – an enjoyable and underrated first big screen adventure for Kirk, Spock and company that’s deserving of a revisit and perhaps a reappraisal as it reminds us that “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning”…

Read the classics review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan here

Geek fact!

Mark Lenard, who portrayed Spock’s father in the original Star Trek series appears as a Klingon commander in the epic opening scenes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Have You Seen… ‘The Andromeda Strain’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

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Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) and Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) investigate in ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (image credit: Universal Pictures).

Year: 1971

Starring:  Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, Kate Reid

Directed by:  Robert Wise / written by:  Nelson Gidding (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)

What’s it about?

A group of scientists are brought together to investigate and contain a deadly extra-terrestrial virus before it spreads…

In review – why you should see it

Based on the hit 1969 novel written by Michael Crichton (who would subsequently write and direct Westworld and later on pen arguably his most successful literary work: Jurassic Park), The Andromeda Strain is a science fiction thriller that concerns the efforts of a scientific team to contain the outbreak of a biological infection when an unknown micro-organism is returned to Earth from space.

Produced and directed by Robert Wise, who previously helmed SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (and would go on to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture), The Andromeda Strain is more of a cerebral and speculative affair as opposed to a pacey, action-packed and crowd-pleasing adventure.  So, whilst it may seem lethargic and ponderous to a modern audience – and it most definitely has a slow-burn, intellectually-driven quality to it – the ideas and scenarios it presents are non-the-less intriguing and even a little terrifying.

The main cast comprises Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone, James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall, David Wayne as Dr. Charles Dutton and Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt – specialists assembled by the U.S. military to retrieve a downed satellite thought to have brought a mysterious contagion with it from a small isolated town in New Mexico whose population, with the exception of a young baby and homeless man, have all died.  Transported to an advanced, multi-level underground laboratory facility known as ‘Wildfire’ (equipped with a nuclear self-destruct system), the team find themselves pressed into an increasingly desperate race against time to understand the source of the contamination – codenamed ‘Andromeda’ – and how to combat it, discover the reason why the two survivors were unaffected and prevent any possibility of a wide-spread pandemic.

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The ‘Wildfire’ team assemble to assess the threat of the contagion (image credit: Universal Pictures).

The story unfolds steadily and, again, although the pacing may be challenging to some (the sequences depicting the various decontamination procedures the characters undergo might be particularly testing for those of that disposition), it’s the interplay between the key cast members (the highlight of the group undoubtedly being Kate Reid’s grouchy Dr. Leavitt) and the ideas and themes posited in The Andromeda Strain that make for an often fascinating watch.  There’s the obvious scientific interest in terms of how the team apply the expertise of their various fields in the study and diagnosis of the infection (and the technology and methods employed to carry out their work) but there’s also an ethical and moral standpoint as the true purpose of the military’s project ‘Scoop’ and the Wildfire facility become known and a strong philosophical component as the identity of Andromeda as a living alien organism is discussed, as is the “what if?” theory that the infection may simply be a method of one life-form attempting to establish communication with another.  Yet, it’s the overall lethal nature of the micro-organism’s biology that facilitates the terrifying aspect of The Andromeda Strain and the possibility that despite all the technology, knowledge and skill available at our disposal the fate of the human race may be sealed by the inability to control something it doesn’t understand.

As a production, The Andromeda Strain though quaint by today’s standards holds-up well for its time and is especially noteworthy for the effects work designed by 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull (who would collaborate with Wise again on Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and the inventive use of the split-screen technique in a number of scenes.  The set designs are straightforward and have a believably utilitarian and functional quality that, despite the hi-tech nature of the equipment, adds a sense of authenticity.

Working from Nelson Gidding’s screenplay, Robert Wise directs with efficiency and attention to detail, rising to whatever is required, building a feeling of eeriness in the earlier scenes with Hill and Olson as their protective-suited characters explore the corpse-littered New Mexico town (enhanced by Richard H. Kline’s cinematography) whilst proving equally adept when cranking up the tension and suspense as the film’s frantic final act unfolds.  Gil Melle’s unconventional soundtrack adds a suitable touch of techno-electronica to a thought-provoking and enjoyable science fiction film from a bygone era.

Geek fact!

The Andromeda Strain would once again be adapted as a television mini-series in 2008, produced by Ridley Scott and with a cast that included Benjamin Bratt and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “Encounter at Farpoint”

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An all-new Starship Enterprise for a new ‘Star Trek’ venture…

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Denise Crosby, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, John de Lancie, Michael Bell

Series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

Written by:  D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry / Episode directed by:  Corey Allen / 1987

What’s the episode about?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise find themselves placed on trial by a powerful alien entity and must prove that humanity is no longer a savage race as they attempt to solve the mysteries of the enigmatic Farpoint Station…

Retrospective

It’s hard to believe that Star Trek’s second –and highly successful – foray into television is now thirty years old.  Whilst the original voyages of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the U.S.S. Enterprise are arguably Star Trek at its purist and best, for many it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that was their gateway drug to a vast science fiction universe and a worldwide phenomenon that endures today.

With the popularity of the original Star Trek cast’s big screen adventures (which hit fever pitch with the release of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986) a new series made for an easy sell – albeit a risky one when the concept meant introducing a whole new set of characters and an all-new Enterprise and their adventures in the 24th Century, almost 80 years after the times of Kirk and his crew.

Paramount television felt it was worth a shot and enlisted Gene Roddenberry to create this new iteration – Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Assembling some familiar faces in his production and writing staff including Star Trek producer Robert Justman and writers Dorothy ‘D.C.’ Fontana (who also served as head writer on the vastly underrated animated series) and David Gerrold (mastermind of fan favourite episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”), Roddenberry set out to perfect his vision of the future.

Originally intended as a single hour story, written by Fontana, “Encounter at Farpoint” was expanded into a two-hour premiere at the insistence of Paramount and the reticence of Gene Roddenberry who would add a framing plot to the overall story – coupling Fontana’s Farpoint Station mystery – where every visitor’s needs and requirements are miraculously and inexplicably catered for – with the Enterprise’s encounter with an all-powerful alien entity known as the ‘Q’.  With impressive special effects (that hold up well today in the series’ fully remastered Blu-ray release) and production design the result is, though not a fair reflection of how good The Next Generation would ultimately become, remains entertaining and enjoyable despite some of its hokey execution.

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Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) faces the charges of ‘Q’ (John de Lancie).

In its premiere, the characters fans would eventually come to know and love are not fully formed and the actors not immediately in the ‘groove’.  Despite this and the odd piece of cheesy or clunky dialogue, the cast of The Next Generation turn in respectable performances.  Patrick Stewart is a strong lead albeit the Captain Picard here is a little different from the Picard we see later on, being a more distant and irascible version of the character who happens to have no patience with children (the Enterprise ‘D’ compliment including crewmembers’ families).  Stewart receives solid support from Jonathan Frakes as First Officer – aka ‘Number One’ – Commander William T. Riker as well as the rest of the Enterprise crew, most notably Brent Spiner’s Lt. Commander Data, a Starfleet android who yearns to be human – the Pinocchio analogy aptly drawn on by Riker during their first meeting.

The crew is rounded out by Security Chief Lt. Tasha Yar (played by Denise Crosby, granddaughter of Bing and who would depart the series before the end of the first season), blind crewman Lt. Geordi La Forge (Roots’ LeVar Burton), Chief Medical Officer Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) together with her son Wesley (Wil Wheaton, of Stand By Me fame), Ship’s Counsellor and old flame of Riker, the empathic ‘Betazoid’ Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and significantly – Klingon officer Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), his race now at peace with the Federation.

As for the main antagonist, John de Lancie is quite simply superb as ‘Q’ and so well received that he would go on to reprise the role in several more episodes of The Next Generation in addition to appearances in future Trek spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  Much like Picard, the Q of “Encounter at Farpoint” is quite different from the lighter, more comical version of the character we would see in later seasons and this earlier take on Q is much darker, more malevolent and a credible threat to the Enterprise and her crew which drives the high stakes drama, his ‘trial’ of humanity and their handling of the great mysteries of Farpoint facilitating the morality play aspect of the narrative which Star Trek fans had become accustomed to.

Not forgetting its roots, a highlight of “Encounter at Farpoint” is a cameo from DeForest Kelley as the elderly (human life expectancy greatly increased by the 24th Century), even more cantankerous Admiral McCoy in a wonderful little sequence between McCoy and Data that hands over the baton from one generation to the other and is a real treat for fans.

Beyond “Encounter at Farpoint”, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a little shaky and uncertain but things began to improve in its sophomore year (which saw the introduction of iconic villains the Borg) and further refined with changes to the writing staff in the third season which saw the series become more character focused, Star Trek’s return to television would prove to be a huge success and The Next Generation would run for seven seasons (a total of 178 episodes) and spawn four feature films.  Along the way it would gain Whoopi Goldberg as a recurring guest star, pick up numerous Emmy Awards (as well as being nominated for several more – including Outstanding Drama Series in 1994) and launch a golden age of small screen science fiction.  Star Trek: The Next Generation demonstrated that the appeal and durability of the franchise was strong and is a series that continues to be loved all these years later.

Geek fact!  Riker and Troi were based on officers Decker and Ilia, characters who were to be part of the aborted 1970s Star Trek: Phase II series.  They would eventually be portrayed by Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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The cast of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ as they were in 1987.