Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On Picard: Pretty Much My Last Word

I've finally gone back to see the last four episodes of Star Trek: Picard's first season, including a re-view of the first four episodes and the last one.  I will on no account ever watch the fifth episode again, and the sixth seemed dominated by my least favorite elements, so I skipped it.  Though I didn't intend to write any more about this series, I was persuaded to do so.

I remain impressed by the quality of the acting, and for the most part of the writing and direction.  Patrick Stewart and (in multiple roles) Brent Spiner were classic, and Jeri Ryan brought an effective new personality to Seven of Nine (importing flavors of the character she played on the Bosch series.)  The new actors had to contend with the fragmentation of the story-telling and the fitful writing, especially if Patrick Stewart's experience in not knowing that Picard would die in the final episode generally meant the actors didn't know the full arc of their characters when they started.

 Those that ended up as the new crew also ended up as appealing and differentiated characters, particularly Michelle Hurd as Raffi, though it's not clear to me how they all got there.  The series narrative approach strikes me as more novelistic, and takes some getting used to.  Maybe viewers younger than me get it faster.  Or there were just too many new characters and not enough time.

Though the moral questions confronting individual characters are worthy and dramatic, I don't think that, even at best, the story advances the Star Trek saga very much.  Star Trek VI is perhaps the most specific of many examples that cover much the same territory about fears of the Other, and Generations made the case for mortality as defining what's human (although this series takes it further, to a point that seems dubious to me--but that's a broader philosophical question.) Questions that arise from artificial life forms were dramatized in both the Next Generation and Voyager series.  And to me other such questions were dealt with more artfully in the Spielberg/Kubrick feature film, A.I.

The episode with the Rikers was a high point, less fan service than a concise and convincing portrait of this aging couple, and their tragedy that resulted from the Federation's synthetics ban.  At the same time, their daughter (played beautifully by Lulu Wilson) represented youthful hope.

There were elements of the finale that didn't pass the smell test for me, such as Soji's sudden total identification with the synths, to the point of pleading with Picard to see things from "our" point of view, as they were about to wipe out intelligent biological life, when she had consciously been a non-human synth for about five minutes.   Her villainous doppelganger, like the Romulan sister and brother, was cartoonishly evil.  (But then so is Donald Trump, so maybe that was the point.) The synths we saw on their planet were generally as lively as manikins, and seemed about as smart.

The finale itself seemed rushed, while earlier episodes seemed overly elaborated, even granted the character moments.  But this gets into a broader point of where this series falls in television history, and in Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was born into a world of television in which cable channels were starting to be influential with original programming, but which was still dominated by the three broadcast networks.

 The original series Star Trek got its second and bigger life through syndication (often on small UHF stations with weaker signals that themselves got new and bigger life when they were included on cable systems.) The Next Generation was produced to go directly to syndication, and its success (including a prime time Emmy nomination for Best Dramatic Series) helped change television.

Now television fiction has gone through cable to streaming services, which have developed their own forms and preferences.  The 8 to 12 episode series, sometimes released all at once, has become something of a standard.  Dramatic shows are less often a series of separate stories in a common story universe and continuous time-line, than a single season-long story told in fragments.  The model in many ways for fiction in a fictional and fantastic world became Game of Thrones, with fiction in a purportedly realistic world modeled after, for example,  House of Cards.

 To maintain interest and create buzz, character and plot developments are often sensational and extreme.  There might be a kind of winking quality to this, a "meta" fiction vibe that exploits the most simplistic techniques for effect while simultaneously inviting the audience to laugh ironically at it all--and tweet about it as they watch.

I might isolate two elements of this new television world as they apply to Picard. The first element is the new relationship of fans to the storytelling, represented by the new term, "fan service."

The new dramas depend on buzz that is maintained on social media and through websites, more or less the equivalent of continuous fan magazines. "Tentpole" movies are marketed in a similar way, with creators interacting with fans.  While Gene Roddenberry encouraged and even organized fan expression and interaction during Star Trek's network run and afterwards, he drew a stern line at fans being able to dictate or directly influence story and storytelling. He turned back any such demands with no room for doubt.

To its credit, Star Trek: Picard does little of this.  Perhaps the story gets contorted a bit to include favorite characters, but mostly they add a lot to story and the characters. The continuing chemistry among the Next Generation actors is both well-served and inspiring.  However, bringing back beloved characters just to kill them off (elegantly and not really for major characters, cruelly and distastefully for minor characters) might even be seen as some kind of revenge on the concept of fan service.

The second element is the language and depiction of violence. The broadcast networks controlled and still control these, while cable and especially streaming services are largely free of restrictions. In the past at least, the broadcast networks were partly responding to features of the laws governing signals over the "public airwaves" versus the cable and Internet, which are treated as unregulated private property.  They also had commercial sponsors sensitive to public upset.

In the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry chafed under the restrictions of network drama, including active network censorship.  But his greatest concern was commercial censorship--in the example he often gave (apocryphal or not), characters in a western were not permitted to "ford" a river if the sponsor was Chevrolet.  His approach to language however was to avoid slang and expressions of the time that could become dated, and were not credible in the mouths of characters in the 23rd or 24th century.

Similarly, given GR's vision for the Federation and Starfleet,  the use of 20th or 21st century profanity is not credible, at least in most instances that appear in Picard.  The head of Starfleet has exactly two scenes in the series, with maybe three lines each time--and yet she drops the F-Bomb both times.  While I laughed, I was also taken out of the scene, and the whole sequence became a joke.  I could not take her seriously as head of Starfleet.  As a background speaker starts to say in Star Trek VI, just because you can do a thing, doesn't mean you must.

That goes more than double for the graphic violence, particularly in episode 5.  Perhaps the slasher aesthetic, the Game of Thrones syndrome, softens this for contemporary audiences, but to me it seems at best a lapse of taste, and exactly the opposite experience I expect from Star Trek.  As I've written previously, children who assumed this was the Star Trek they knew could have actually been traumatized by this violence.  I pretty much was myself, also because I didn't expect it in a Star Trek production.  (A similar situation to the violence that opened the fifth episode recurs in the finale, but it is handled much differently.  Was that so hard?)

This kind of violence and language has a particular ramification.  One result of both network standards and GR's vision of the future Federation was that Star Trek was a show that children could watch, as well as adults.  This was true even when Next Generation was not as directly controlled, since it was produced independently.

This became a cherished characteristic of Star Trek: not only that children could watch it--and then watch it again as adolescents and adults, seeing new things within it each time--but that families could watch it together.  Star Trek became something which parents introduced to their children, and they in turn introduced to their children.

But today's television environment is intentionally fractured, and programs are specialized.  This has become the trend within the "tentpole" "franchises," or storytelling universes, like Star Wars and Star Trek. Even when Star Trek had three new series running at the same time, the audience--a general audience-- was broadly speaking the same for all of them. Today's Star Trek television shows are fairly rigidly divided into the action-adventure of Discovery, the adult drama of Picard, and now the comedy of Lower Decks.  Picard is now and forever an adults-only space.  And that's more than a pity.

I would suggest a further implication of all this that seems to me expressed by the Picard series, especially when combined with some internal Star Trek history.

Two things changed the Star Trek universe: the Dominion war in Deep Space Nine, and 9/11.  It has never changed back, nor gone forward.

In an effort to darken the Star Trek universe and introduce more (or easier) dramatic conflict, writers chafing under GR's vision for Starfleet and the Federation went back to old war movies for their continuing story of the Dominion War.  Like those war movies, these stories weren't realistic, but pushed adrenaline buttons with hatred, intrigue and revenge.  Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coons and other writers and participants who had actually been in World War II and Korea, who knew the reality that no drama could fully express, had a far different vision for the stories they wanted to tell. They told the stories that made Star Trek different, and that gave this storytelling universe its character.

The alien terrorist attack on Earth in Enterprise
Then just as the new series Star Trek Enterprise was about to take Star Trek back to the wonder of discovery and exploration, two passenger airliners hijacked by terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, another crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth was brought down into a Pennsylvania field by a revolt of passengers.  This was the day forever known as 9-11, and Enterprise immediately changed its emphasis to fictionalize such a situation.

It was not a temporary adjustment.  Even after Enterprise stopped production, Star Trek novels continued to obsess over terrorism, covert operatives and--reflecting the new U.S. policy--torture.  One Next Generation novel actually had Picard's Enterprise (and Counselor Troi!) torturing prisoners for information--an explicit rejection of one of the series' most famous episodes.

The J.J. Abrams films continued the mood, with an increasingly militarized Starfleet, complete with Nazi-style uniforms.  All of this tended to reshape GR's Star Trek universe until new Star Trek had little in common with it but the names and technologies.

In terms of the soul of Star Trek, this comes back to the essential point: the Star Trek future was at its best a model, a beacon of hope, a thought experiment that said, what if society consciously institutionalized the best human qualities, while guarding against its worst?  What if we actually learned from centuries of bloody mistakes, so it was in some sense not all in vain?  What would that look like?

What it did look like was unlike anything else on television or at the movies.  But now the Star Trek universe seems to me all but identical with other mostly dystopic portrayals of the future, especially the cycles of war and chaos in the Star Wars universe.   It is true that the moral questions in Picard are vastly more sophisticated--but those decisions confront individuals, the basis of most drama.  It's valid and worthy drama. But the universe is mostly wrong.

In this story universe, the Federation is so panicked that it turns away from anything synthetic after a single horrible outcome, with a fanatical rigor such that even medicine is affected. It abandons the Romulans, insuring that they will again be enemies, having learned nothing from the Treaty of Versailles after World War I (or, in the opposite way, from the Marshall Plan after World War II.)

Starfleet is so stupid that its head of security is a Romulan general, a spy and the fanatical head of a Romulan cult within its secret police. As presented in this series, it's cartoonish.  That she passes herself off as Vulcan is interesting, but undeveloped.

 It may seem also a reflection of contemporary reality, when the most transparently buffoonish people run governments. Or when everyone is so easily manipulated, even as the synthetics are convinced by a ploy (colluding in the killing of one to instantly motivate the others to kill every biological intelligence in the universe) that wouldn't pass muster in a Horatio Hornblower novel about warfare in the early 19th century.

But grant historical precedent to the ease of this deception. That history doesn't have to repeat itself was precisely the message--or the model-- in many if not most Star Trek episodes of the GR era.

Yes, Star Trek always reflected issues of the contemporary moment. But it confronted those issues within the 23rd or 24th century context of the Federation and Starfleet. How do they handle what we can't handle?  Instead, this Federation and Starfleet only tell us that humanity hasn't learned anything.  Not much of a future to aspire to.

In the finale of Star Trek: Picard's first season, Starfleet rides to the rescue anyway, and our new Picard crew warps off to new adventures, each of them changed, apparently in a changed universe.  Maybe the future is better.

Monday, May 04, 2020

On Picard: Not the Last Word

Not that anyone is waiting for my follow-up, but I did leave my response to the first season of Star Trek: Picard at its midpoint.  The reason I haven't posted is that I haven't seen the following episodes, and by now it's clear to me that it will probably be awhile before I do.

That's because of where I saw it going in that fifth episode combined with everything I've read about the rest of the story.  Though it's clearly unfair to judge a series by the opinions of others, everything I know about the story makes me very receptive to the sentiments expressed, for example, in Stephen Kelly's piece in the Guardian titled "Star Trek Picard is the dark reboot that boldly goes where nobody wanted it to."  

Kelly puts his finger on an overriding issue, which I wonder if post-Roddenberry era Star Trek creators really understand: "Yet the idea that the grittiness of shows such as Picard makes it mature and relevant, while the ethos of yesteryear Star Trek is now naive or too old-fashioned to survive, feels misjudged. The hope, optimism and sincerity of the original 60s series was in itself a radical act: a way of portraying the future as it should be (a multiracial cast in a time of civil rights struggle; peace and cooperation in a time of nuclear terror), rather than merely wallowing in things as they were."

The objection isn't to the depiction of darkness, or of troubled characters.  It is partly on the dominance of darkness, partly on how it is depicted, and partly on what seems to be missing, some of which is fundamental to Star Trek.  But I might test my doubts by seeing these episodes if I was drawn to the story.  While I recognize Michael Chabon's particular interest in the golem (a theme in his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and its fictional descendants,  I don't share that enthusiasm.  New Trek's obsession with "synthetics"--perhaps the least credible creations in the Star Trek universe, apart perhaps from Romulans with Roman names--leaves me completely cold, and frustrated.  There are so many more important and relevant--even crucial-- themes to explore.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  All I wanted to say here is that what I've read about the story has left me profoundly disconsolate.  Maybe someday I'll end up appreciating this series.  But right now I'm not yet ready to risk disappointment even in parts of this series I was looking forward to, notably the episode with the Rikers.  In the grips of coronavirus lockdown, things are just too weird now to invite more disillusion.

However, I do intend to resume posting here with essays on Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis, and explorations of the soul of the Next Generation, the series.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Star Trek's End? (With Update)

Just as I can't un-see what I saw in the fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard, I wonder if the damage it has done to the Star Trek universe can ever be undone.

The episode opens with the most graphic violence in the Star Trek saga, by far.  It was the worst moment I have experienced in watching television for a half century.

But that wasn't all.  There was further shock-inducing violence.  There were fine moments and performances.  Michelle Hurd played an affecting scene as Raffi. Jeri Ryan played Seven of Nine with a new wit and panache, more like a character I saw her play since her Star Trek days, on the Bosch series.  She presented an ethical dilemma, and her scenes with Picard were excellent.  Though she engaged in violence that was less graphic, it was still shocking. It's not just that she vaporized her antagonist, but that she casually killed a number of others in the process.

And then the final act of wanton violence, in the twist, when the character that seemed to embody the audience's innocence--a kind of Wesley character--turns out not only to be a deceptive double agent but commits the cruel murder of a former lover, and watches him suffer and die, as we do.  And that was pretty much the end of it for me.

People die in science fiction, but the manner of death as well as the reason for their deaths are important.  This is but one aspect of this episode that seems to attack the very nature of Star Trek as a television and movie saga.  The other is the now unremitting bleakness of the future it portrays, the apparent moral corruption of Starfleet and the effective collapse of the Federation.

I was in the first audience for Star Trek in the 1960s.  The times had elements of hope and adventure, but they were also very bleak, and we felt the assault and despair, every single day.  We were just a few years from the day in 1962 when I went to school feeling that I might not come home, on the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the possibility of thermonuclear fire and fallout were also part of everyday life, and had been since early childhood, including the Duck and Cover drills of first grade.

It was a time not only of political strife but of political violence. I was in school when my hero, President Kennedy, was shot and killed, and I saw the gunning down of his alleged assassin on live television.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy--my hope for the immediate future--were killed within weeks of each other in 1968.  In between several other leaders were shot and most were killed.  In addition, there was racial violence, and several times there were entire areas of American cities that burned.

Above all there was the despair of the Vietnam War.  Leaders were lying, and my contemporaries were dying.  Taken by force of law into the armed forces, their lives were never to be the same.  More of us suffered trauma, disability and death than any generation since.

The point of this summary is to suggest that these times we are experiencing right now are not the only bleak times, though I won't try to make comparisons.  The 60s was when Star Trek began--and while it told stories involving then-current moral and political issues, it depicted a better future.

It did so during the political, economic and moral traumas of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  And there was plenty of despair to go around in those decades as well.

Star Trek was a beacon of hope to so many because it modeled that better future--not just the technology but the behavior, the culture of Starfleet and the Federation. As such it was also a guide for how people could live their own lives in the present.  There is plenty to document all of this.  Despite the bleak times, Star Trek showed how things could be better--and people could be better.

This is essentially, more than any other one aspect, the soul of Star Trek.  Crucially, it was also part of the experience of watching Star Trek.  One of many unique qualities of the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek (from the original series through Enterprise, and the first ten movies) was that it entertained and inspired viewers of all ages, from children to their grandparents.  Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular were rare instances of shows that several generations of a family could watch, together.  

I can't comment on Star Trek: Discovery because I've seen very little of it.  But clearly this is no longer the case with Star Trek: Picard.  If I lost sleep over what I saw, I assume that even children of today could be damaged by seeing it.  I don't see a family watching this together.

I could let Discovery go by, and be watched by contemporary audiences used to this kind of television (the manipulation and contrivances, shock for effect, etc. that I've seen in the few episodes I watched of other popular sagas.)  Eventually I made peace with the Abrams movies, and what I didn't like about them.  For they were all the products of creators unrelated to the GR Star Trek.  They were of little relevance to me, but they didn't disturb the prior Star Trek TV and movies, which also remained the bedrock for many if not most Star Trek fans.

But I cautiously and somewhat skeptically looked forward to watching Star Trek: Picard, because of confidence in some of the people involved, especially those who carried with them the knowledge of that earlier Star Trek era.  Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes were of course a big part of it.

I was heartened as well as challenged by the first four episodes.  So I let myself look forward to Thursdays and a new episode of Picard. That ended with episode five.  A day after seeing it, I still feel that the nature of that violence, and the entire tenor of this episode, undermines the Star Trek universe.  It makes it hard even to see Star Trek's past in the same way.  If this is the future that follows all that we saw, what was the point?  The future is bleaker than ever.  Humanity has failed.  This may reflect what many of us feel about things at this historical moment, but except for individual commitments, it is no model.

Maybe that's the point.  But I repeat: Star Trek did not chiefly reflect the bleakness of the 1960s.  It modeled a possible future that gave some focus to the present, and some escape to a better world.  Many people watched it like they watched The West Wing during the Bush years, and some people--including me--watched Madame Secretary during these horrific years.

Of course there is dramatic justification for everything in episode five.  But for me Star Trek: Picard has become more 2020 television than Star Trek, and I will treat it as such.  I have no idea what the big secret is at the heart of this story, and I now no longer care enough to watch each episode as it becomes available. It's not worth it. My trust in this series and the people creating it is on hold.

More to the point, I will no longer innocently watch these upcoming episodes.  I will read the plot summaries after they air.  If I'm sufficiently interested, I'll watch them after the series concludes.

I gather from the day-after reviews and comments I've read online that this is a minority if not unique view.  People seem more upset that the same actor wasn't used for a couple of the returning characters than the violence of their demise.  So I'm also not confident that even spoilers will alert me to similar scenes in future episodes.  But for me this crossed a line that may not be able to be uncrossed, whatever happens in the rest of the series.  And it colors all of Star Trek with darkness, perhaps fatally.

Update: On his Instagram, Showrunner Michael Chabon responded to similar critiques of this episode, notably on its violence. His response was reproduced by various sites including Trek Movie here.

In my post here, I perhaps overdramatized the effect of this episode on Star Trek as a whole, and perhaps lacked patience in seeing how Starfleet and the Federation come out in this story, which is the first and only story so far to be set in its time period after the last TNG movie, apart from the setup in Abrams' first movie.

But otherwise I stand by this post, especially my interpretation of Star Trek's history and soul.  I continue to feel strongly that the specific violence that opened this episode is a lasting scar on Star Trek storytelling, as well as a bewildering failure of taste.  I am aware of Chabon's skill as a fiction writer.  I've followed his career since his first novel, and a little before that--as I taught briefly in the same University of Pittsburgh writing program in which he was a student, though I believe my time was a few years after his. I found his at times convoluted response on this episode to be reasonable but somewhat troubling in terms of Star Trek. In any case I have read summaries of the sixth episode but have not watched it.  I don't plan to change that procedure before the series ends.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Star Trek: First Contact (Star Trek VIII)

This the eighth of a series of essays on the first ten Star Trek movies, the Trekalog.

by William S. Kowinski

The 2020 television series Star Trek: Picard begins with a sweet dream, of Picard and Data playing poker on the Enterprise-D, though it ends suddenly with destruction. When asked about his dreams Picard says, "The dreams are lovely.  It's the waking up I'm beginning to resent."

The 1996 feature film Star Trek: First Contact begins with a nightmare.  Captain Picard relives his partial assimilation into the Borg collective, seems to wake, but the nightmare is not over.  Nor is the nightmare of the reality that is to come.

When the Next Generation crew were scheduled to make their first solo movie (after the transitional Star Trek: Generations) probably the easiest creative decision to make was selecting the antagonist.  It had to be the Borg.

The chief antagonist of the original series 23rd century crew was the Klingons, who captivated viewers and had an expanding presence on subsequent series and original crew feature films.  The antagonist of the 24th century Next Generation crew that seized imaginations and quickly became iconic was the Borg, even though they appeared sparingly.  "Resistance is futile" became almost as familiar as "Beam me up, Scotty."  (So it's not surprising that the Borg show up in the plot of Star Trek: Picard's first season.)

From "Q Who." Screencaps via TrekCore.com.
Developed by writer Maurice Hurley from an idea by Gene Roddenberry, the Borg were cybernetic beings (or cyborgs), organisms physically  augmented by technological implants.  The individual Borg were linked into "the Borg collective," constantly communicating and operating with a single plan and purpose. Their general purpose was to "assimilate" other civilizations by physically absorbing and transforming other beings into the Borg.  Their technology was much more advanced than that of the Federation, so they appeared unstoppable.

The Borg then are the sum of many sci-fi fears, taking on characteristics of machine beings, as well as relentless biological beings like ants, and the various forms of zombies in folklore and fiction. (In fact, in First Contact, the 21st century character Lily calls them "cybernetic zombies.") Their closest conceptual ancestors were probably the Cybermen from Doctor Who.  At least at first glance the Borg are the paradigmatic Other or alien, so different from "us" that there is no common ground, nothing to engender empathy, let alone rational communication.

The role of the Borg is related to that other iconic TNG creation, the omnipotent cosmic being Q.  The  Enterprise first encountered the Borg because Q brought them together.  The Borg originate in the vastly distant Delta Quadrant, and otherwise might not have come across humans for centuries, if ever.

In Q's first appearance in the series premiere ("Encounter at Farpoint"), he was particularly annoyed by what he saw as human arrogance.  Indeed Captain Picard does exhibit this Achilles Heel of an advanced society that had radically bettered itself.  Though the transformation merits satisfaction and self-confidence, Picard sometimes sounds a little smug and self-righteous.

Picard bests Q in this encounter but in a subsequent meeting ("Q Who"), Q is again annoyed by Picard's overconfidence. With his vast experience of the cosmos, Q introduces an adversary in the Borg that Picard is forced to admit is beyond what the Federation can cope with or even understand.

Later, in "The Best of Both Worlds" two-parter, Picard's confidence is turned into utter humiliation when he is partially assimilated by the Borg, and his knowledge of Starfleet is used to destroy the armada assembled to defend Earth.  The Enterprise crew rescues Picard, who then provides the key to destroying the Borg cube.  In the next TNG episode ("Family") Picard is shown at his ancestral home--the Picard vineyard in France-- trying to deal with the traumatic aftereffects.

But remnants of that trauma remain buried in Picard, and this is a starting point for the First Contact feature.

Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, writers of the previous feature Generations, were assigned to write First Contact.  They started with the Borg and the device of time travel, but the story went through many versions and iterations. Eventually they hit upon the premise of the Borg trying to stop the first warp drive flight and subsequent first contact of humanity by alien beings that transformed human history and sent it on a trajectory that included Starfleet, the Federation and the 24th century home of the Enterprise.

The story would travel back in time, but to an era that was, from the perspective of the movie's audience, still in the future,   This decision would mean writing Star Trek history concerning the mid- 21st century, augmenting if not completing the story of how the Star Trek universe began.

Even at this point, however, the story went through major changes.  The first draft that made the rounds within the production had Captain Picard on the 21st century Earth's surface, trying to make sure the warp flight happens on schedule, while Commander Riker is on the Enterprise in orbit above, battling a Borg incursion. Among those objecting to this draft was Patrick Stewart, who felt the Captain belonged on the ship.  The decision to switch the Picard and Riker locations was the key to First Contact's success, as a movie and as probably the most profound exploration of the soul of Star Trek in any single story.

Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab
in 1998 TV film of Moby Dick
It's not clear at what point the writers decided to invoke Herman Melville's Moby Dick in a key scene late in the movie, nor if they consciously structured Picard's story to refer further to Melville's novel, even mapping it to some extent.  It may be that they--or others involved --had studied the novel and knew it well (for instance, Patrick Stewart, who provided the paraphrased quotation Picard recites, and who just two years later starred in a film version.)  Or at the other extreme they only knew its basic premise and had never read it, like Lily in this movie.  But the echoes add to this story's profundity, not only in the arc of Picard's character, but that of Starfleet, the Federation and the Star Trek universe itself.

Picard's nightmare that opens the movie story is of his real experience with the Borg, numbed and violated with implants, a technological torture.  (The camera pulls away from him to show for the first time the immense size of the Borg cube, a move that is quoted in the first episode of Star Trek: Picard.)  His secondary nightmare is that the nightmare is over, he's safe and intact on the Enterprise, but he's not--an implant erupts from his skin.  Then he awakens to the real nightmare of the Borg invasion of Federation space.

At first the residual effect of his assimilation experience seems to be a ghostly connection with the Borg collective mind, an ability to faintly hear what it is saying to itself.  Sidelined by Starfleet (because of his assimilation, he's not trusted) as the Borg approach Earth, he ignores orders and arrives as the fleet is being destroyed by a Borg cube, a repeat of the past.  But this time his knowledge of Starfleet is not being used by the Borg; instead he is able to use his knowledge of the Borg to locate the vulnerable spot, and the cube is destroyed.

But not before a Borg sphere emerges and heads for Earth, with the Enterprise pursuing.  The sphere creates an envelope that travels back through time, with the Enterprise-E caught in it.  (The Enterprise-D was destroyed in Generations, providing an opportunity for a new, more feature-film friendly set.  First Contact was made as the Deep Space Nine series portrayed a darker 24th century, and the Enterprise-E is more of a ship of war.)  Before it leaves the 24th century, the Enterprise observes the Earth changing to a Borg planet.  The Borg sphere is about to change the past in a way that totally alters the future.

Following the sphere back into the past, they see it fire on a target on the Earth's surface.  The Enterprise quickly destroys the sphere, undefended against technology they did't expect to encounter.  But what was the target?  It was an old missile complex in Montana, from which the first warp drive rocket would be fired the very next day.  Its warp signature would in turn alert a passing starship, and the ensuing "first contact" would lead to transformations that later would lead to Starfleet and the Federation.

But none of that would happen without that first warp flight, accomplished by one of the 24th century's most revered historical figures, Zephram Cochrane.  By preventing that, the Borg changed the future.  Now it was up to the Enterprise-E to save that future.

"Encounter at Farpoint"
As the Enterprise finds itself orbiting above a mid-21st century Earth, we get the first new glimpses of that historical period in the Trek universe since TNG's series opener, "Encounter at Farpoint."  We learn that what is now called World War III left 600 million dead and most major cities destroyed, paving the way for the regression of civilization and the post-apocalyptic horror suggested by Q's inquisitional court in "Farpoint."

Viewers of this movie today, even more than its first viewers, have cause to shudder at the chronology.  The mid-21st century is just a generation or so in our future, and scientists expect that global heating will be creating major stresses on many places and on many governments at about that time.  The US military and other experts have been warning for years that the climate crisis is the most dangerous threat to the future, partly because of the warfare it could easily engender.  If there is a nuclear war, issues arising from climate would be the most likely cause, in our future.

Dr. Crusher inoculates herself and crew against radiation poisoning
before beaming Lily up to the Enterprise for treatment
The Enterprise arrives about a decade after the war.  But in Montana, Zephram Cochrane (played by James Cromwell) and his associate Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) interpret the Borg missiles as an attack by a combatant faction of that war.

 So when Captain Picard and his away team arrive, Lily assumes they are hostile and fires on them.  Data disarms her, and Dr. Crusher beams her back to the Enterprise to be treated for radiation she absorbed while checking out the damaged warp ship, a converted intercontinental ballistic missile, aptly renamed the Phoenix. (The movie shot these scenes in a real decommissioned ICBM silo converted to a museum, with a spacecraft cockpit constructed to fit neatly on top of a missile where the warhead would have been.)

But when he checks in with the Enterprise, Picard understands what apparently minor problems with environmental controls actually mean--somehow the Borg transported from the sphere into the Enterprise undetected, and were beginning to assimilate the ship, after which they would assimilate the planet, and the future with it.

Picard and Data immediately return to the Enterprise, while Riker, La Forge and Troi remain on the surface to make sure the warp drive flight really happens.  The action in these two locations, with this configuration of characters, comprises the rest of the movie.

The story on the surface is relatively straightforward, often with a comic tone, beginning with Troi getting drunk with Cochrane (this is probably the best-remembered scene featuring Marina Sirtis.) The main action is getting the Phoenix ready for its scheduled flight. Its running gag is that an obviously flawed Cochrane is increasingly uncomfortable learning of his heroic status in the future.

In contrast, there are at least three threads to follow on the Enterprise, with three distinct tones.  One is the relationship of Lily and Picard, after Lily escapes from sickbay armed with a phaser.

The Enterprise officers must divulge the future to both Cochrane and Lily, for somewhat different reasons.  On the ground, Cochrane's cooperation is needed to repair the Phoenix and complete the warp flight that will restore that future.  On the Enterprise, Picard must first of all prevent Lily from vaporizing him, and then soothe her into her fantastic surroundings, though he must also tell her about the Borg.

The result is bringing together and augmenting strands of Star Trek mythology and stating them more definitively than before.  On the ground, Riker, La Forge and Troi explain the stakes of the warp flight to Cochrane.  A passing survey ship of unnamed but friendly aliens notices the warp signature of the Phoenix, and decides to land and initiate first official contact with Earth.  It changes everything.  It brings the peoples of the Earth together in ways no one thought possible, Troi tells him, unified by the knowledge of a populated universe.  Within fifty years, Earth sees the end of poverty, disease and internal warfare, while humanity begins its star trek (Cochrane blurts out the two words himself.)

Cochrane sees only the distant Enterprise through his telescope.  But Lily is our stand-in on the ship,  as we again experience the wonder of all this, beginning with her first view of the Earth's surface from orbit ("You're not in Montana anymore," Picard said, which is a literal statement of fact as well as a smile for those who get the Wizard of Oz reference. This line was apparently a late addition, as it doesn't appear in the novelization.)

Picard tells her about the Federation, comprised of over 150 worlds spread across 6,000 light years of space.  She wants to know the size of the Enterprise--Picard tells her it's 24 decks and nearly 700 meters long (facts that--according to Jeff Greenwald's book Future Perfect--the writers had to get Star Trek technical guru Michael Okuda to estimate on the fly, after first admitting that he didn't really know. The Enterprise-E was that new.)

Picard also explains to Lily a key Star Trek concept, previously mentioned but fully articulated for the first time here, though according to the movie's commentary by writers Braga and Moore, the words were from something written by Gene Roddenberry. When Lily asks how much the ship cost, Picard replies: "The economics of the future are somewhat different.  Money doesn't exist in the twenty-fourth century...The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.  We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."

This core idea, bizarre to some (including Ron Moore) but increasingly intriguing to others (see my post on Trekanomics) speaks to the destructive distraction of money--the need to use up time in "making a living" instead of living, and especially to the energies it absorbs that could be better employed.

 Apart from economic technicalities, the idea is a dividing line.  On one side are those who believe humans are inevitably lazy and corrupt, captives of the deadly sins of avarice, greed and sloth who wouldn't lift a finger without the enticement of riches or the whip of the necessity to earn money across their backs. On the other side are those that believe creativity and self-fulfillment as well as compassion and idealism would flourish without the self-deadening restrictions, general enslavement and selfish self-fulfilling prophesies of money.

Original crew's unfamiliarity with money is played
for laughs in Star Trek: The Voyage Home
Gene Roddenberry's idea of a future without money was an exciting concept that motivated a number of participants in creating Star Trek. "You don't have to work at something you don't like," noted production designer Herman Zimmerman. "You can find the thing that allows you to contribute and that is what you can do for a living."

"'Where is my next meal coming from?  Am I going to have a job next year?' These concerns have been eliminated, so humans could focus on their own inner growth," said producer Jeri Taylor.  "When you take away the need to make a living, a lot of other things are possible."

But there's another element in Picard's calm evocation of his 24th century reality, that of a self-satisfaction that suggests smugness, that human society has been perfected and human individuals will always act according to what he later calls their "more evolved sensibility."

While Picard's statement to Lily indeed expresses, as Braga calls it in the commentary, "the soul of Star Trek," the human soul is still complex.  According to some ancient philosophers as well as contemporary thinkers, "soul" is the essence that involves a dynamic harmony among human elements that involve the head and heart, the mind, spirit and body.  A further illustration of this is the Data story in this film.

Data has been captured by the Borg on the Enterprise, and he meets the Borg Queen--another new element in this movie. She is meant to be an embodiment of the Borg collective, yet she has a singular personality.

 Data has famously been endeavoring to become more human since the introduction of his character in "Farpoint," and has taken an additional step in that direction in the previous film, "Generations," when he installs and activates his emotion chip, and has a range of human feelings for the first time.  In this film, in order to gain Data's cooperation (and the encryption code to the Enterprise main computer), the Borg Queen links his emotional capabilities to a new physical dimension--she gives him living human skin.   He must deal with the pleasures, dangers and temptations of the flesh.  As played by Alice Krige, the Borg Queen is creepy and sexy simultaneously.

Meanwhile the basic story thread on the ship is Picard's battle with the Borg. These scenes are as dark as TNG ever got.  Picard and Worf lead teams armed with phaser rifles through the dark corridors among Borg drones.  The mood of horror is accented by Jonathan Frakes' directing; in his commentary he talked about using horror movie moves.

This is also where we see another residual effect of Picard's violation by the Borg.  At first it seems that Picard is only proceeding with the focus and serious intent commensurate with the threat they face.  But gradually we see the darkness within him emerge.

When a crewman in the process of being transformed into a drone calls out to Picard for help, and Picard responds by killing him with a phaser blast, it could seem like only a grim necessity.

But when Picard ingenuously traps two Borg drones in a holodeck simulation (of the Dixon Hill detective novel world of 1940s San Francisco in the early TNG episode "The Long Goodbye,") he kills them with a machine-gun--a weapon for which they are unprepared--with undisguised rage, continuing to fire after they have fallen.  Lily is shocked by this, as well as his apparent disregard for the humanity of the Enterprise officer (Ensign Lynch) assimilated into one of the Borg drones he killed.

All of this leads up to climactic scenes on the bridge and in the adjacent observation lounge.  After going out on to the Enterprise hull (a unique scene) to successfully foil the Borg attempt to set up a beacon to alert reinforcements, Picard and Worf return to the bridge to hear his officers report that their weapons are now completely useless against the Borg. Picard now has only one card left to play: the Borg have not yet broken into the main computer.  He can evacuate the crew from the Enterprise and order the ship's self-destruction, destroying the Borg in the process. Both Worf and Beverly Crusher advise that he do this.

When Picard refuses, Worf calls him on it. "With all due respect sir, I believe you are allowing your personal experience with the Borg to influence your judgment." But he doesn't reach Picard--he only inflames him, and Picard calls him a coward.

Then Lily confronts him in a now classic scene.  She repeats what she has heard: his officers have advised a plan that will save the crew and destroy the Borg.  But they don't know the Borg as he does, Picard says, and describes his assimilation, "cybernetic devices implanted throughout my body...every trace of individuality erased."

Now Lily understands: it's personal.  "This is about revenge.  The Borg hurt you and now you're going to hurt them back."

The important thing to remember about the unconscious, Jung said, is that it is really unconscious.  It hides, and it has methods to remain hidden.  One is the defensive instinct of denial.  This is accompanied by rationalization--reasons that may in fact be reasonable, but aren't the real motive, perhaps in part or maybe at all.  (Understanding that the unconscious provides rational explanations was a key insight for me in even accepting the idea of the unconscious.)

So first Picard angrily denies the charge, and here his confident assumptions about his advanced society provide an automatic answer, as a further explanation to this primitive of the 21st century: "In my century, we don't succumb to revenge.  We have a more evolved sensibility."  It is the kind of smug Picardian statement that drove Q crazy.

But Lily is more succinct.  "Bullshit," she calls.  She mentions his disregard of Ensign Lynch, but that troubling memory is too much of a distraction for Picard, who orders her out.  "Didn't mean to interrupt your little quest," Lily says. "Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale."

Now she has Picard's attention.  Throughout the series, Picard's regard for the wisdom embedded in literature was consistent.  He knows the reference and at first rejects it with the reasonable rationalization: "This is about saving the future of humanity!"

"Then blow up the ship!" Lily cries.

"No!" shouts an enraged Picard, who gestures with his phaser rifle with such force that it breaks the glass of his display of ship models.  Yet he maintains his brain's emphasis on the common good, and delivers lines well remembered from this movie, though often for the wrong reasons: "...they assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back!  Not again!  The line must be drawn here--this far and no further!"  But then another truth slips through.  "And I will make them pay for what they've done!"

Now he's said it, and he's heard himself say it. He is after revenge.  As Lily starts to leave, Picard recites from memory lines from Moby Dick.  When Lily admits she hasn't actually read it, he summarizes the story.  "Ahab spent years hunting the white whale that crippled him.  A quest for vengeance.  But in the end, the whale destroyed him, and his ship."

He goes back onto the bridge, and orders the crew to evacuate the Enterprise.

Various writers used the basic Moby Dick story in episodes of one Star Trek series or another, and it was an extended subtext for the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan.  When Starfleet officers first come upon Khan's compound, they find a paperback copy of the novel on a empty bunk.  Later, Khan himself recites entire speeches spoken by Ahab in the novel, though without attribution.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The obsession for revenge is an ancient motivation in stories, and all too common in today's movies and television dramas.  Like Khan's, it is often revenge for the death of a wife or family (as it was again in the J.J. Abrams' Star Trek feature.)  In fact, it is so overused that its appearance as motivation is a kind of signal that the story isn't really about the motive; the motive is just an excuse for the action.

Perhaps even more insidiously, revenge as motive is seen about as often for heroes as villains. As such, it is usually accepted completely and never questioned.  Sometimes it is somewhat masked as "getting justice" but clearly it is "payback" or revenge.

But here in First Contact, it is shown to be irrational and self-destructive, but also wrong, partly through the Moby Dick resemblances.  Picard is angry on behalf of others--especially all the members of Starfleet who were killed by the Borg, as well as all the civilizations that were assimilated.

But rage over his own violation by the Borg, reflected in the opening nightmare, has been awakened, though it seems to have slumbered for a long time, obscuring his ability to see beyond it and judge the situation before him.  This is similar to what Melville says about Captain Ahab in Moby Dick"…his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. Then it was only then, on the homeward voyage, after the encounter, that the final monomania seized him…" 

The power of that rage is expressed in the passage from the novel which Picard slightly misquotes, and which Patrick Stewart selected, who knew the novel well and just a couple of years later played Captain Ahab in a film version of Moby Dick.  (For those who are interested, here is the appropriate passage as Melville wrote it: "He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." 

And here is the passage as Picard recalls it: "He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race…If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it."  )

But most importantly, though Ahab and Picard felt the same obsessive rage for vengeance, Picard was able to consciously see the error his unconscious was making, and correct it.  This is a meta-message of all of Star Trek.  It is possible to take a step back and understand, and to act on that understanding.

This takes a certain intelligence and a certain humility. In this case, it was also because Picard knew the whole story as Melville wrote it.  He had that objectivity, because he knew the literature.  This is a function of literature, from the great tragedies to the cautionary tales of science fiction.  We can learn from it, and change our minds--or more specifically, change our behavior.  Perhaps even more than the Roddenberry quote, this is a crucial example of the soul of Star Trek.  It's not that 24th century people don't feel the rage for vengeance.  It's that they can engage the perspective to understand it and its endless loop of self-corruption and mutual destruction. They can overcome it, because they understand how important it is to do so.

Picard, his humanity reclaimed, stays behind as the crew evacuates, in order to rescue his missing friend, Data, who is a Borg captive in engineering.  He confronts the Borg Queen, and his memory of her is revived--she had wanted him, as Locutus, to be by her side as an equal.  He had refused.

 Now he accepts that offer, if she releases Data.  The Borg Queen admires his nobility, but she has already won Data's loyalty.  Data cancels the Enterprise self-destruction sequence, and she orders him to fire torpedoes to destroy the Zephram Cochrane ship, now in flight but not yet in warp.  He seems about to do so, but the torpedoes go astray and Data punctures a pipe that releases plasma coolant, deadly to flesh and organic life (a plan that Picard has proposed earlier in the story.)

Picard grabs a cable and climbs up beyond the coolant's spread, as the Borg Queen attempts to follow.  But Data--his new flesh seared off-- pulls her down, and Picard later severs what's left of her spinal cord.  Just as Picard has overcome the pain that fueled revenge, Data has overcome the temptation of sensual pleasure that threatened to undermine his integrity.  He'd considered it, he admits to Picard--for "0.68 seconds.  For an android, that is nearly an eternity."

While all this was happening on the Enterprise, Riker and La Forge were in the Phoenix, behind pilot Zephram Cochrane.  As they prepared for launch, Cochrane has finally had enough of the 24th century revisionism about his heroic vision.  He admits that he built the warp drive not for a noble cause but to make money, so he could retire to a tropical island.

When the Phoenix deploys its nacelles, it's a visual connection to
starships to follow.  Theater audiences applauded.
This is the final payoff to the anti-hero portrait of Cochrane, doubly ironic in that it both complicates the hero worship that had become much too larger than life by the 24th century, and it asserts that the future without the degradations of money began with money as the motivating desire.  (Though it is likely that Cochrane is exaggerating a bit.)  The warp flight is accomplished.

The Cochrane scenes are clever, and thanks to actor James Cromwell, they work within the movie, especially as release from the intense Enterprise scenes. And whether intended or not, this portrait of Cochrane inevitably suggests a covert take on another flawed hero with a vision: Gene Roddenberry.  But Cochrane as portrayed--as a fairly clueless drunk with a taste for rock and roll-- lacks credibility as the inventor of warp drive.

However, J.M. Dillard's excellent novelization adds details (which may have been part of earlier scripts) that makes this Cochrane more believable.  As a physicist before the war, he was one of a group of scientists working on practical applications of the theories on hyperspace.  As a university student, Lily heard rumors of an imminent breakthrough.  Then the sudden nuclear attacks and the war ended all of that.

Additionally, Cochrane was diagnosed with a manic-depressive mental illness, for which there was effective treatment--until the war ended that as well.  By the time he made his way to Montana, Cochrane was self-medicating both his manic and depressive episodes with alcohol.

But he still had his notes with him, and he kept working on warp drive ideas. Then he realized that the nuclear warhead of the missile at the Montana complex could be used to fuel his warp experiment.  In a particularly frenzied manic episode, his constant and concentrated work resulted in a workable warp drive.  When Lily showed up at the same complex, with a skill for acquiring materials one way or another, together they could convert the missile to the warp drive rocket, the Phoenix, rising from the ashes of human civilization.

In the movie as well as the novel, Cochrane pilots the Phoenix into orbit, and then on the first warp into space.  By the time he is back at the Montana colony (by means not explained, although it's likely the Phoenix crew were beamed back by the Enterprise), he is--according to the novel--permanently cured of his mental illness, thanks to Dr. Crusher's hypospray.  He is now ready to become the first human to greet a being from another world.

Recall that First Contact made its first contact with theater audiences in 1996--in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, well before the social media universe. As a member of such an audience, I can testify to the experience--especially this part of it.  When an alien ship slowly landed in the Montana night, and its door opened and walkway extended, we in the audience did not know who we were going to see emerge from that ship.  The identity of the species to make first contact had been a secret, and it was kept.

So when the tall alien lowered the hood from his head and we saw the Vulcan ears, there was an audible gasp all around me.  A quiet thrill ran through the rows of us, bathed in the same light of wonder, joy and hope.  A Star Trek circle was joined, from Spock and Kirk to the 24th century and back to the beginning (including the 22nd century to be explored in the series Enterprise), and even further back--to us.

So much came together in First Contact--the Star Trek TV and movie universe at its most popular point, the continued creativity at a high level of Star Trek veterans like designer Herman Zimmerman and composer Jerry Goldsmith, the story and script that came from Moore and Braga, but also Rick Berman, Patrick Stewart and others.

That a narrative with so many moving parts appeared seamless was partly miraculous but largely due to Jonathan Frakes' direction.  It combined the extra juice and creativity inspired by a first feature with Frakes' familiarity with the Star Trek universe, and his great working relationship with his fellow actors, friends and Enterprise crew members.

I re-watched the Special Collectors Edition DVD with Frakes' commentary that is also included with the Blu-Ray.  Frakes takes what has become an unusual approach to commentaries: he responds to the scenes he's actually watching rather than talking about whatever comes into his head (Braga and Moore mostly do this also, though they wander off on meeting Prince Charles during key scenes.)  Frakes is engaging and interesting, and a perfect companion.

Neal McDonough as Hawk
Frakes credits his prior friendship with 1983 Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nominee Alfre Woodard for helping to get her in the cast.  James Cromwell was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar the same year as First Contact was released, for a film he'd made the year before, Babe. Neal McDonough, who played the unfortunate bridge officer Hawk, went on to appear in many movies and TV series, including Minority Report, Captain America, TV's Arrow, Van Helsing and the current series Project Blue Book.

First Contact was made as CGI visual effects were starting to mature (all the ships exteriors were computer generated, with the exception of the huge Enterprise deflector dish set) while traditional sets, models and practical special effects were also employed. According to Frakes' commentary, this was the last Star Trek movie to use visual effects by the Star Wars-associated Industrial Light and Magic.  A lot of the film was shot on actual locations: the Arizona missile museum and Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles standing in for Montana, and the art deco lobby of the Los Angeles Union Station train depot as the nightclub in the Dixon Hill holodeck scene.

It was so successful as a Star Trek movie that fans mostly overlooked plot holes, and beyond fandom, it was arguably the most successful Star Trek film with general audiences since The Voyage Home.  It remains secure within the Star Trek canon as a high point of The Next Generation and an expression of the soul of Star Trek.