Views of First Contact

25-May-11 6:17 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; Comments Off on Views of First Contact

This past April 5 was First Contact Day, marking only 52 years until humans first encounter beings from another world. I observed the occasion by watching the film that introduced this milestone into Star Trek canon: First Contact, the first film to feature the TNG crew exclusively.

But it wasn't until this week that I finally popped in the set's second disc of bonus features. I'm not usually a fan of such material and can't remember the last time I listened to a director's commentary, but I'm always willing to make an exception for Star Trek.

As I expected, this disc was a welcome addition to the set and not just some tacked-on money-grab. Some of these featurettes were filmed on the set of the movie, but others were shot exclusively for the special edition DVD's 2005 release. They're broadly broken down into "The Star Trek Universe", "The Borg Collective", "First Contact Production", "Scene Deconstruction", and "Archives", for a total of 19 pieces.

Star Trek First Contact menuI first watched the 11-minute "The Legacy of Zefram Cochrane", which details the inventor of the warp drive and how he was cast and written for First Contact. The interviews with Rick Berman, Michael Okuda, James Cromwell, and Brannon Braga focused primarily on the First Contact portrayal of the character but does include some clips and discussion of Glenn Corbett, who debuted as Cochrane in TOS. (Corbett died in 1993, well before Cochrane's reinvention for First Contact.) No mention of a very different interpretation in the non-canon novel Federation was made, though.

I spent the next 18.5 minutes with "First Contact: The Possibilities", which was in fact not a montage of scenarios from science fiction or hypothesis of humanity's first encounter with extraterrestrials, but was instead a profile of real-world, modern-day efforts to detect signs of alien intelligence. Representatives of SETI and the Planetary Society shared their methodologies and hopes, detailing some interesting intersections with Star Trek. For example, I had no idea that SETI@home would not exist if not for Paramount Studios!

"Design Matrix" dissected the artistry of the Enterprise and its cybernetic inhabitants, the Borg. Although I imagined the budget of the silver screen allowed for more complex cyborgs than their television roots did, I had never consciously noted some of the differences — for example, TNG Borg had helmets and caps, and movie Borg did not. The attention to detail that the First Contact Borg received also allowed for eyepieces that you probably didn't know blinked Morse code messages, usually the names of the electrician's friends and pets. With so much investment in each outfit, the crew had the time and budget to design only eight individual Borg outfits, which were reused time and again in this film and in Voyager. Director Jonathan Frakes was quick to give credit where due, a quality consistent with my meeting him at the Super Megafest a few years ago.

"The Story" revealed some alternative angles the scriptwriters tried, including putting Picard in Montana with a local photographer as a love interest, or even setting the entire film in Medieval Ages. I'm not surprised that MAD Magazine spoofed this film when it came out, but I didn't know that their parody was apparently based on one of those earlier scripts. Now I'm keen to get my hands on that lampoon!

I was disappointed to find the featurette dubbed "From A To E" was not about the history of the Enterprise, but rather the putting together of First Contact. The crew's analogies amused me, from Ronald D. Moore calling the film "Die Hard on the Enterprise" to Brannon Braga describing the film's conclusion as the "Star Trek nativity scene, with three wise Vulcans". Throughout these interviews, though, Braga and Rick Berman rarely cracked a smile, even as other cast and crew cheerfully shared that "Star Trek is so much fun!" and "First Contact is my favorite film." It was a sharp contrast.

There are also a few scene breakdowns that show how the CGI was done (ever liken the Borg sphere to the Death Star?), with narration by ILM special effects supervisor John Knoll. This and some Easter eggs topped off a great package, though a lack of deleted scenes was noticeable.

Star Trek First Contact bookAs much as I appreciated learning more about my favorite Star Trek film, what truly gave a new perspective of it was the novelization. Whether a movie is being adapted to book or vice versa, the source material is almost always superior, but there are nonetheless opportunities to explore the characters and plot in a way unique to that medium. In the case of First Contact, the J. M. Dillard's novel explains to us why Zefram Cochrane is both brilliant and an alcoholic. It gave our protagonist much more gravitas and let me better empathize with him, rather than seeing him almost as the film's comic relief.

Two negative changes the book featured (perhaps due to working off an unfinished script) were relatively minor. When Picard claims the phaser from Lily and she demurs "It's my first ray gun," the preceding line in the film indicates that the weapon was set to kill. In the book, it's on its lowest setting, which would've given Picard only a bad burn, making the perceived threat of the scene into fantasy. Finally, before Data's novelized betrayal of the Borg, he gives Picard many not-so-subtle cues. I much prefer the tension produced by his last-minute cinematic revelation.

That there are so many important details, both within and behind the scenes, demonstrates how much love was poured into this movie. It's the Star Trek film that I've returned to time and again, and I look forward to celebrating many more First Contact days.

Comments are closed.