Whether you love or hate Star Trek: First Contact, there’s no denying that it came out at a time where Star Trek, as a franchise, was still at its zenith. It was Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, there were two successful series on the air, and along came First Contact to become, at the time, the second most successful Trek movie in the history of the box office. Nearly 10 years after the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it seemed like this was a ride that was never going to end, but in re-watching First Contact now I couldn’t help but hear a double meaning in the Borg Queen’s words. “Watch your future’s end.”
What I mean is that it was all down hill for Star Trek after First Contact. The two remaining Next Gen films came no where close to being as successful, Deep Space Nine and Voyager just didn’t have the cultural reach of their predecessors, and it would be another nine long years when this run of Trek came to an inglorious end when Enterprise ran out of gas and was cancelled. Just as the world of genre entertainment grew to include Buffy, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings movies, and the return of Star Wars, Star Trek, beginning here with First Contact, started to fade away.
Perhaps that was inevitable. Perhaps no franchise can maintain such success for more than a decade. It was nobody’s fault in particular because competition got fierce; the cultural landscape changed, and Star Trek, stuck in its ways after over 10 years, just couldn’t compete anymore. Yet the process was definitely helped along by those who were in charge of Star Trek, and the lessons they learned, and didn’t learn, from First Contact.
To begin with, let’s talk about the Borg. Making the Borg the villains of First Contact made sense because they were *the* villains of Next Generation; it would be like making a Batman movie trilogy and never addressing the Joker. The Borg, when they were introduced, were meant to be a formidable enemy the likes of which the Federation had never encountered, a homogeneous body that thinks with one mind, with one purpose, and cannot be negotiated or bargained with. They were a commentary on technology run amok, they were a warning shot about cultural hegemony, and a commentary on the dangers of group think and losing one’s individuality. The Borg were 1984 in a cube, and they were cool looking to boot. More Borg? Yes please!
Credit where credit is due though because First Contact director Jonathan Frakes made the Borg even cooler. Resistance was futile, to put it another way. Seemingly inspired by body horror movies, Frakes made sure the Borg seemed even more like cybernetic zombies than previously implied. All they had to do was grab you and you were toast as tendrils came out of their knuckles to inject their victims and instantaneously causing their victims’ bodies to start growing implants. Funky arm replacements and laser guided eye attachments came later, but like any zombie movie, once you’re bitten your it’s game over!
The “zombie effect” wasn’t lost on the franchise either. In so much as The Walking Dead proved that people went nuts for zombies, the Star Trek overseers thought that more Borg equaled more ratings, particularly for Voyager. It wasn’t long after First Contact that the Borg arrived on Voyager, or rather Voyager arrived in Borg space to be precise. “Unity”, the first appearance of the Borg on Voyager, aired less than four months after First Contact debuted, starting a long and complex relationship that saw the ultimate Star Trek boogeyman slide into self-parody.
No, that’s not a knock against Jeri Ryan, who despite the seeming cynicism of the part (hot woman plus Borg equals ratings gold), actually did interesting complex work as Seven of Nine. Watching Seven reclaimed her humanity despite being raised in the Borg Collective was almost like the serious, sci-fi version of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, she was free of a cult that stripped her of her individuality and was forced to relearn who she was, and what she was capable of. It was good stuff, and if Voyager had stuck to getting their Borg fun through Seven of Nine alone, the Collective might still be seen as a serious threat.
Instead, the Borg became as much of a crutch on Voyager as time travel, and lame ongoing Holodeck adventures in Irish villages. The once fearsome adversary that tore through a Starfleet armada like a kleenex at a snot party couldn’t assimilate one small ship alone at the ass end of the galaxy, and more than that, it seemed to become pitifully easy for Voyager to not just escape assimilation, but outsmart the Borg. In “Dark Frontier” they lead a Borg ship into a trap, destroy it, and strip it for parts. Was Janeway that good, or where the writers getting really lazy writing the Borg at this point? And that’s to say nothing of the time that the Borg popped up on Enterprise and Dr. Phlox found a cure for assimilation. Sadly, that episode marks the last time we saw the Borg on screen.
The effect of the Borg though is hard to deny in First Contact, as is the charisma of Alice Krige as the then-newly introduced Borg Queen who makes one of the most memorable entrances of any character in Star Trek lore. The Borg Queen was perhaps the last fully realized villain that any Star Trek movie has had, and was thankfully not driven by revenge, or at least not solely driven by revenge. The Queen herself is like Cronenbergian creation, like she’s the personification of sex and machinery and the aesthetic the filmmaker was going for with his movie Crash, which was released just a few months after First Contact. A lot of people thought that the idea of a Borg “Queen” dumbed down the idea of the Collective, but Star Trek‘s has always explored its themes through character, and that’s hard to do when half the conversation involves what are literally mindless drones.
Character was key to what made First Contact work, the action was informed by the characters decisions, and many of those characters were tested in new and compelling ways that forced them to grow. Picard, normally the cool, calm face of diplomacy goes full Ahab against the Borg and is driven by equal parts guilt and disgust about previously being used by the Collective. Worf, now imbued with command authority thanks to his time on Deep Space Nine, is the only one to stand up to Picard when it looks like his captain, a man he’s admired for years, is going off the rails. Data, meanwhile, is tested for the first time on an emotional level, teased by the Borg Queen with being made human in ways he never considered. The most subtly creepy effect of the film is seeing “two-face” Data with organic skin and seemingly under the thrall of the Borg Queen.
Considering the success of First Contact, the team behind it seemed to be given license to do what ever they wanted for the next sequel, and what they wanted to do was go backwards. Frakes and producer Rick Berman oversaw Insurrection as a supposed throwback to the banner days of The Next Generation, seemingly without consideration that the series was more well-known and appreciated for its deliberately paced morality plays than it was for its action/adventure quotient; it’d be like turning Law & Order into a Fast & Furious movie. Picard reverts make to being the man on moral high ground, Data takes a break from his emotion chip, and Worf just turns up because Michael Dorn‘s DS9 contract said he still had to be in the Next Gen movies.
When Insurrection became the second-worst performing Trek movie behind The Final Frontier, the studio did what I referred to in the last Trek Bastard column, and “pulled a Wrath of Khan.” They went and borrowed from an established formula – one that frankly had nothing to do with what made The Next Generation, or its characters, a success – and seemed purely driven by the profit motive of making the biggest Star Trek ever that was also the “final voyage” of the Next Gen crew with the caveat that box office receipts could buy one more last time. The result was that Star Trek: Nemesis became the worst Trek film of all time in terms of box office. It came in second place on opening weekend, defeated by the Jennifer Lopez rom-com Maid in Manhattan.
By then it was clear that there would be no Deep Space Nine movie or Voyager movie to pick up the torch, and halfway through its second year, Enterprise was already looking like a tired old horse. I would argue that Enterprise did get better with season three, and that Deep Space Nine was as ambitious and expansive as any series made during the Peak TV era, but looking back, the writing was on the wall. The future was over, and it had to wait for J.J. Abrams to start it all over again in 2009. Like anything with the stink of failure on it, you’ll note that all Star Trek projects, at least on screen, have taken pains to avoid the Next Gen, or post-Next Gen era, even the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery is a prequel.
Of course, none of what happened after the fact is Star Trek: First Contact’s fault. It was (and is) a solid movie, and an effective entry in the Star Trek canon that brought all the elements of Trek together in an effective way: great villain, time travel, character depth, and a positive message about humanity and its possibilities. The take away with the powers that be though was that the Borg equaled money, and people will show up for Star Trek anything because all they cared about was the label. But like anyone else, Trekkies are discerning, and if you don’t keep changing it up, even the die hards tune out. Nerds, like the Borg, must constantly assimilate new things to survive. Even non-Trek things.