Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
Star Trek: First Contact is without a doubt my favorite Star Trek film, even over Wrath of Khan. I’m well aware that I have a bias towards the Next Generation crew, but there is so much in First Contact that makes me pick it over the other 10 films. It has a great screenplay by longtime Trek writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, which gives all of the characters moments to shine and shows an intimate familiarity with the universe. The same goes for Jonathan Frakes, who directs the film with a light touch that can only come from years of working with the same cast and crew. It has some of the best action of the series and a great villain in the Borg. The non-TNG cast are great, especially James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard. The effects are a huge step up from previous efforts and the new Enterprise-E is gorgeous. Beyond all that, the film has some interesting ideas both about our past and our future.
There’s one moment that really cements the film in my mind, but it requires a bit of plot background. In First Contact the Borg travel back in time to 2063 to stop humanity’s first warp flight. The first warp flight is important because it alerts Vulcans to our level of advancement and initiates first contact between Vulcans and Humans, which shows us that we’re not alone in the universe. Within 50 years of this event, poverty, war and disease will be eradicated on the way to the semi-utopian Federation lifestyle seen in the Next Generation era of Star Trek (some 300 years after First Contact). After the Borg attack the missile complex where Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) is building the first warp ship, the Phoenix, the crew of the Enterprise beams down to the surface to help repair the ship to assure that First Contact happens as their history recorded.
Things don’t go exactly as planned, of course. Troi, Riker, Geordi and the repair team are stranded on Earth after the Borg attack the Enterprise in orbit, and are forced to improvise in order to accomplish their mission. But beyond that, they find that Cochrane is a drunken, undisciplined pig of a man, who clashes greatly with both their 24th century attitudes and the ideas they have about him from the history books. However, the group manages to repair the Phoenix in time and as it is about to lauch, this happens:
Beyond being simply a great gag, this moment represents much of the heart of Star Trek: First Contact. Yes, the choice of “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf is absolutely perfect, but that’s just one aspect. To really get into it, it’s important to look at what the film is really all about. Most (but not all) Star Trek movies have a theme. Wrath of Khan is about aging and the transitions we face in life, The Voyage Homeis about environmental responsibility, The Undiscovered Country is a Cold War allegory, and Generations is also about aging but from a perspective of time and death. As for First Contact, the focus on the film is what it means to be human.
Interestingly, First Contact tackles the topic of humanity from a variety of perspectives. Of course there is Data’s unending desire to become human, which in the film is tested by the Borg. When he is captured he is given living skin in an attempt to seduce him into aiding the Borg, but in the process he learns the simple but profound lesson that what’s on your outside doesn’t make you human, it’s what’s on the inside. Picard and Cochrane’s journeys actually mirror each other. Picard, with Cochrane’s friend and copilot Lily (Alfre Woodard) as a companion, battles the Borg aboard the Enterprise while explaining to Lily about the wonderfully evolved future from which he comes. However, as the battle progresses Picard’s savagery and lust for revenge emerge and it becomes clear that his evolved sensibilities are not nearly as high and mighty as he thought they were. Picard, over the course of the film, eventually comes to grip with the fact that imperfection is a part of being human, and despite our emotional desires we have the ability to make the choices. He chooses to acknowledge his desire for revenge and then to set it aside for the good of his crew, but he also confronts the Borg in an emotional attempt to save Data. His journey shows how humans can still be messy despite an outward appearance of control.
On the other end of the spectrum is Cochrane. The Enterprise crew grew up hearing stories of Cochrane and the Phoenix, learning about it in school, visiting the historic site in Bozeman, Montana and seeing giant marble statues of the man. Geordi even went to Zefram Cochrane High School. Immediately following the attack, as they search the missile silo containing the Phoenix for survivors, Picard says that Cochrane has to be in the building, because the ship was his dream. Of course, once they actually meet Cochrane, their pristine image of an Earth hero is shattered. Cochrane wasn’t with the Phoenix during the attack because he was at the bar getting drunk. He spends most of his spare time doing tequila shots and listening to Roy Orbison on the jukebox. While some of the repair team (Barclay in particular) still idolize him, the rest are somewhat disappointed, torn between the legend of history and the man they’re forced to deal with.
Cochrane struggles with the pressure of his potential future importance. He doesn’t like the attention and doesn’t exactly have a high amount of confidence in himself. He even runs away at one point, only to be stunned by a phaser shot from Riker. As the launch approaches, Riker and Cochrane have the following conversation:
Cochrane: Please! Don’t tell me it’s all thanks to me! I’ve heard enough about the great Zefram Cochrane! I don’t know who writes your history books or where you get your information from, but you people got some pretty funny ideas about me! You all look at me as if I’m some kind of… saint, or visionary or something!
Riker: I don’t think you’re a saint, Doc. But you did have a vision. And now we’re sitting in it.
Cochrane: You wanna know what my vision is? Dollar signs, money! I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity. You think I wanna see the stars? I don’t even like to fly! I take trains! I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island… filled with naked women. THAT’S Zefram Cochrane. THAT’S his vision. This other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will.
Riker: Someone once said “Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”
Cochrane: That’s rhetorical nonsense. Who said that?
Riker: You did, ten years from now.
What the quote really means is to just be human, as in “Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a Human.” In other words, don’t worry about having faults and being imperfect. Even the most unlikely candidates are capable of doing great things. It’s easy to see in the Star Trek universe why humanity both frustrates and fascinates species like the Vulcans. We’re capable of both great mistakes and great accomplishments, but worrying about appearances is both distracting and disingenuous. This goes for both Picard and Cochrane. The goal is to be in touch with who we truly are on the inside.
In the film, the Borg talk about their perfection, which they achieve by erasing the individuality of their members. First Contact is all about embracing individuality, whether it is admitting you’re not as perfect as you think, realizing that trying to conform to a particular exterior doesn’t make you human, or dismissing the expectations of others. It’s very telling that First Contact is the only instance of rock and roll appearing in a Star Trek film, as it is used here as the ultimate expression of individuality. In the Star Trek universe it’s something that’s uniquely human. I don’t mean to read too much into this one moment in the film (although that’s generally what I do here on this blog), but Cochrane’s urge to rock out as he blasts off is the essence of being human.
What do you think? Did you like the choice of “Magic Carpet Ride”? What’s your favorite moment in Star Trek: First Contact? What do you think the parallels between Cochrane, Picard and Data as they struggle with their humanity? Let me know in the comments!