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Star Trek: First Contact: Transgressive highs and retrograde lows

Entertainment Geekly’s ‘Star Trek’ series gets freaky

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Paramount Pictures

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise – and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: The Borg get kinky. Last week: The nexus of television and cinema. Next week: “Have you noticed how your boobs have started to firm up?”

There is a moment in First Contact that will outlast our species, and it doesn’t involve our species at all. Instead, here two creatures who are not quite “creatures” in any biological sense. Data is an android, a soy-plastic fauxganism built for maximum strength and cosmic intelligence but zero EQ.

And there is another character. Her name is — well, the end credits give her a name, but no one in the movie labels her, and the precise physics of her nature are explicitly intangible and implicitly grotesque . She —  “she” — represents the Borg, a race of cyborgs who resemble the copulatory midpoint of H.R. Giger’s Alien xenomorph and James Cameron’s Terminator endoskeleton.

The Borg were a hip nemesis in a cultural moment that was both cyberpunk and technophobic: They looked cool enough to cosplay, yet were evil enough to symbolize every intangible fear about technology. They haven’t aged well. They are refuse from the moment when Superman looked like Deathlok and we unironically liked Cable — but more urgently, something about their pure monolithic badness feels retrograde, representing a lack of imagination, a limit to Trek’s psychological frontier. The Klingons’ first appearance looks retrograde, too — the makeup in “Errand of Mercy” suggests at least three different racial stereotypes — but that first story lands on the bracing idea that handsome white-merican Kirk is not really much better than the Otherized dunce cap warrior enemy race. There’s a remoteness to the Borg that’s freaky but empty: They only work on a thematic level, more fun on a wiki page or a term paper than as participants in an actual story.

The grand exception — and the very best villain in any Star Trek movie, I think, even if the movie barely sustains her — is the seductive personification of Borgness played by Alice Krige in First Contact. We meet her first as a voice, then as body horror. A head with shoulders descends from the ceiling of the Engine Room. The skin is plague-corpse gray, her hair a tentacular updo. A mechanical spinal column hangs underneath her. Feel free to read that spine as a phallus; this is the Trek movie that most deserves to be read as a Freudian nightmare.

The head with shoulders finds a body: Mechanical, head-to-toe black, the sort of costume that suggests Clive Barker, pointing ahead to the Goth-chic skintight semi-superhero outfits of the Matrix movies. (She talks like a Matrix character, too: “I am the collective” and “I bring order to chaos.”)

She has taken Data captive, and we know that he has information that she wants. But that seems to be beside the point. “You are a contradiction,” she tells Data. “A machine who wishes to be human.”

This is a restatement of Data’s whole character arc, like calling Robin Hood “a criminal who fights criminals” or telling Travis Bickle, “You drive a taxi, and that’s a metaphor.” Data reminds her that he is programmed to evolve. “We too are on a quest to better ourselves,” she explains, “Evolving toward a state of perfection.” She has been conducting a bit of trench surgery on her android captive. The fake plastic skin on Data’s wrist has been pulled off, replaced by recycled human epidermis. (She has swapped Data’s archetype: Pinocchio is now Frankenstein.)

Follow this: She is an abstract machine consciousness, given life in a robot body and covered with organic matter, and now, she has given this mechanical man some tiny sliver of humanity. You would expect that the ultimate Borg nemesis would be dismissive of Data — why would a perfect machine want to be a perfect human? Instead, she represents a rapacious and explicitly sexual consumption: She wants Data to become organic and synthetic: “We use both to attain perfection.” (The David Cronenberg sensibility permeates this character; she will refer to Data’s “new flesh,” a phrase straight from Videodrome.)

Much of the action of First Contact is shot in steady medium shots. Jonathan Frakes has had a few careers, but as a filmmaker he is a TV director, so too much of this first feature film feels like coverage captured instead of action dramatized.

But there are flourishes, and here’s the finest: This woman who is not a woman leans in close to this man who is not a man, and blows on his skin that isn’t his skin, and the hair on the skin shifts nearly imperceptibly from the breeze.

Data exhales, dramatically, orgasmically. “Was that good for you?” she asks him — and maybe this is the moment when you notice that this personification of all-encompassing techno-fascism took the time to apply luscious red lipstick to her cold dead face.

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I don’t like the name “Borg Queen.” It’s a phrase with too many descriptive associations — insectile, royal, authoritative, medieval — none of which really have much to do with the character’s role in First Contact. Alice Krige only appears in three scenes, plus or minus cutaways and off-screen voiceovers. And, actually, if you graph the film’s plot, you might conclude that she is mere flavor-additive. The writers needed something that wasn’t just another Borg drone; they needed a Borg to encapsulate the Borg. Her whole narrative purpose is The Last Temptation of Data, but no one watching the film really believes Data could be tempted (or seriously threatened) — and indeed, the fact that this seductive omniscient ultra-being is so shocked by Data’s deep-down goodness reduces her “master plot” to absurdity.

You could extricate Krige from the film, and First Contact would be a roughly-identical movie about the Enterprise fighting the Borg. She is geo-located to one place, the Engineering set, and exists in a completely separate film from the lighthearted antics Earthside. You can imagine a version of this movie where the comedy tested great and Paramount Rogue One’d the film into extensive reshoots, extricating the weirdo robo-sex, adding in more scenes where people drink tequila.

Strangely, First Contact only just barely commits to the Krige character’s most dramatic character point. She has seduced both Picard and Data, and that her seduction of the one (making a human more robotic) inverts her seduction of the other (making a robot more human).

But the Picard seduction is a flashback, inserted via exposition mid-climax. (“You were there all the time!”) And that exposition retroactively stamps a subplot onto Krige — she’s a Frankenstein looking for her man-bride —  with the corollary assertion that Picard’s glorious individualism makes him the sexual Singularity. (“Locutus could still be with you, just in the way you wanted.”)

Whatever: Alice Krige in First Contact gives one of the great cosmic performances in the movies, justly praised and still underrated two decades later. Krige was a South African journeyman performer across stage and television, 42 when she incarnated this entity. She bestows upon First Contact a psychotic fascination — a sense of horror that is terrifying and inhuman but above all desirable.

You could draw a line from Krige in First Contact to the ’90s wave of erotic thrillers — the Eszterhasian male gaze that thrilled to the horrors of female sexuality unbound — and like a lot of erotic thrillers, First Contact gets much better when you pretend the femme fatale villain is the secret hero. Because the truth is, Krige — playing a cyborg tyrant who symbolizes the horror of life without choice — is the only person on screen who seems to have a pulse.

By 1996, Star Trek was a going concern of shows and movies and games and books, all filled with well-mannered uniforms stepping carefully over canon where many men had gone before. Besides First Contact, 1996 had Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Both spin-offs get a showcase reference here, which both feel awkward and weighted, like that moment in Thor: The Dark World when Loki becomes SPECIAL GUEST STAR CAPTAIN AMERICA. (Speaking of the second horrible Thor film: Dark World hired Alice Krige and barely used her.)

There’s a curious quality to Krige in First Contact, moments when her dialogue feels like a playful elbow in the ribcage of the whole Trek apparatus. Like this one:

DATA: It would appear you are attempting to graft organic skin onto my endoskeletal structure.

KRIGE: What a cold description for such a beautiful gift.

First Contact has some of the coldest descriptions in the series: “Sensors show chronometric particles emanating from the sphere,” “The damage to her cell membranes is repaired,” “The problem is if we begin firing particle weapons in Engineering there’s a risk we may hit the warp core.” “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.”

At one point, Worf demands to know what is on Deck Eleven, and the guy who’s definitely going to die says, with a requisite lack of emotion, “Hydroponics, Stellar Cartography, Deflector Control, All Vital Systems.” Too much dialogue in First Contact — in a lot of Star Trek, past a certain point — has that same precise tone, the sound of someone reciting a fake periodic table from memory. So Krige is a villain only because she is a brutal corrective for Trek’s paradigm:

DATA: Are you using a polymer-based neuro-relay to transmit the organic nerve impulses to the central processor in my positronic net?

KRIGE: Do you always talk this much?

But you can’t reduce Krige’s performance to just her wit, or just her sensuality. As a concept, she shifts the Borg into a new and fascinating dimension. First Contact features two different futures: A utopian 24th century and a post-apocalyptic 21st. But 20 years later, Krige remains this film’s most convincing prophecy. Androgynous, ambiguously omnipresent, an organic being ascended to a higher machine plane with all her lust and ambition intact: Krige feels much closer to our current existential nature, split between the real and the digital, than anyone onboard the Enterprise. Consider, for a moment, that her main plot-purpose is to make Data more human — a process which plays out with some visual complexity, because Data becoming less “himself” also makes him look more like Brent Spiner than ever.

Consider that this conceit — machine and man becoming one — has appeared previously in the Star Trek movie franchise.

That’s Motion Picture, the triumphant finale, with the avatar of Manhood and the avatar of Womanhood joining with the avatar of Machinehood to create a new being. Seventeen years later, First Contact sours that notion completely: Machine and organic, gross gross gross gross. And I know the Borg are “bad,” and I know that First Contact is more “fun” than Motion Picture insofar as there are big laser rifles and loud music. But there’s a timidity to First Contact, a sensation of being closed off and sealed. (Patrick Stewart apparently didn’t approve of a potential director because they “didn’t know Star Trek” – a popular critique in our age of fandom, easily defeated by the reminder that Nicholas Meyer didn’t know Star Trek either.)

Rumors persist that the character played by Neal McDonough, Lieutenant Hawk, was supposed to be the first openly gay Trek character. I’m not sure that’s true, and I’m not sure complaining about that deletion makes sense. It’s not like it would’ve been a good thing for the first gay guy on the Enterprise to die a redshirt’s death. And anyhow, who’s to say he was the first

But maybe it’s telling that the “bad guy” in First Contact is the only person who exudes any amount of eroticism. Minus a couple brain tentacles, Krige basically looks like a particularly outré club kid. Consider how it contrasts Krige and her (freaky) feminine power with a B-plot that is nostalgic and yearning in its backward vision. First Contact is a franchise visiting its own origin myth, and finding a middle-aged dude who likes drinkin’ and rockin’ and womanizin’. This has some poignant resonance (more on that in a moment), but I think it’s possible that, when you watch First Contact today, you may find that you feel closer to the Borg Queen — a yearning consciousness crisscrossing technological and biological realities — than to Zefram Cochrane, a dude who builds his own giant phallus and shoots it into the cosmos.

Krige became an iconic part of the Trek franchise. Her spirit rebooted Voyager, with Seven of Nine as a heroic Diet Pepsi variation of the Borg Queen. Krige herself appeared in the Voyager finale, another timeline mishap which justifies its existence by pairing Krige off with Kate Mulgrew in old-age makeup. The Borg Queen is always a popular cosplay concept — evidence, I think, that the fandom appreciates the transgression that Krige represents. First Contact classifies that transgression — sexual, feminine, mechanical, unusual — as a horror. And so, for lack of a less dumb way of saying this: First Contact is pretty goddamn judge-y.

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There is a lot to enjoy in this film. We toss around the word “surrealism” too much, but you remember how much Dali loved eyes, and you have to imagine he would have enjoyed the opening sequence, which starts with an extreme close-up on Picard’s eyeball…

…then pulls back to reveal Picard as one among many…

…but then pulls back farther, revealing that the interior of the Borg ships itself resembles a giant eyeball. (See how the circle-within-a-circle forms a pupil within an iris?)

And then, lest we miss the point, the film cuts to a Borg mechanism drilling straight into Picard’s eye — an explicit or accidental Dali homage that points right back to the eyeball-slice in Un Chien Andalou.

First Contact cost $45 million in 1996 dollars, which is remarkably still less than The Motion Picture cost in 1979 dollars. But the advance of special effects means that First Contact begins with the biggest outer-space battle in Trek history, a scene which almost works just because it features Worf yelling “RAMMING SPEED!” Cards on the table: I’m not sure Star Trek is supposed to be a thing with big outer-space battles, and I’m not convinced that “Finally, we have enough money to blow up more Federation ships!” is a sharp concept for a movie.

But the film gets more clever after that opening, using the big-ish budget to explore inwards rather than outwards. The Enterprise isn’t a battleship in First Contact: It’s the battleground, a multifaceted playing field. The crew battles the Borg throughout the ship — and outside of it.

I suspect that there is a great as-yet-unmade Star Trek, set entirely on one Enterprise or another, that treats the ship as a far-out variation of Willa Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, a place where every deck is a new adventure. First Contact comes closest to this funhouse vision when it turns the Enterprise into an actual funhouse: Picard escapes onto the holodeck and defeats the Borg using noir homage.

Credit to Frakes, and to writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, for the delicate little touches in the holodeck scene. Forget the nightclub backdrop (although I could watch Patrick Stewart and Alfre Woodard dance all night). Appreciate how this “chapter” of the holo-novel features a baddie named Nicky the Nose, and appreciate how this throwaway character is rendered as a Dick Tracy grotesque. He lights his match on his metallic nostril. And consider how, in this single little moment, here is another character who is part human and part machine, a man with metallic parts, who is himself a creation of hologram technology.

Why doesn’t First Contact work for me? Why is this my least favorite of the nominally “great” Trek movies? I don’t know, and I certainly don’t hate it. I might groove onto the weirdo Freud stuff, but one of my favorite scenes in the movie is the single goofiest: Counselor Troi, inebriated.

This scene is wildly over the top — Marina Sirtis drunk-acts the way college freshman drunk-drink — but it’s light, and funk, and suggests the whimsical comedy that maybe the Next Generation cast should have always been allowed to make. (“Don’t go criticizing my counseling techniques!” is an all-time Hall of Fame Troi line.) But it brings up a minor problem that maybe runs throughout all of the Next Generation movies. The original films came out a decade after the original show’s cancellation, and there’s a sense that every film starring the original cast needs to re-justify this franchise’s existence. Whereas you could argue that First Contact and 1996 represent the absolute apex of power for Star Trek.

And as First Contact makes clear, this is a franchise that wants to believe that power can push humanity into better things. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives,” says Picard. “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.” But the truth is, operating from a position of strength doesn’t necessarily lead to exploration. Popularity can be a crutch, and fandom can be a trap.

There’s a plastic quality First Contact, a sense that the characters are pieces to be arranged instead of people with feelings. Frakes loves to cut to the Enterprise officers for reaction shots — count how many times the camera shows Troi considering something that someone else has said. Part of what made The Next Generation fun was its democratic vision — the point where “Miles O’Brian Arguing With His Wife” got the high plot status that used to be reserved for mysterious higher intelligences and enigmatic nebular activity. But First Contact can’t ever commit to the notion of itself as an ensemble. The “hardcore action” aspect of the film actually hurts, I think. It’s an act of narrative peacocking: “Look! All these people have finally stopped talking and picked up their big guns!”

The writers blended two different concepts together for First Contact, a “time travel” story and a “Borg” story. Crucially, the two concepts never really overlap — and so this is the first Star Trek movie that feels genuinely structured as a TV episode, with an action A-plot about fighting the Borg and a lighthearted B-plot about building a spaceship.

That B-plot focuses on Zefram Cochrane, a man lionized forever after as the man who launched humanity into the stars.

The Starfleet characters have a nostalgic, heroic vision of Cochrane. The truth of history is, delightfully, less shiny. Cochrane is a coward and a degenerate; he only built his starship in the hopes of reaping tremendous financial reward. “You people got some pretty funny ideas about me,” he tells the characters. “You all look at me as if I’m some kind of saint or visionary or something.”

It’s a simple but fun story riff — history is never as easy/always more complicated than the history books tell you! — but I find that, for Star Trek, there is stunning resonance. Cochrane is the Star Trek universe’s in-world creator, the man who made everything afterwards possible. Is it possible that he is a stand-in for Star Trek‘s actual creator: Gene Roddenberry, well-known for his love of drink and women, remembered now as a visionary but also unmistakably a Hollywood capitalist devoted to expanding his intellectual property across decades and platforms?

There’s a provocative idea in there, somewhere: that the Federation reflects ideals its own inceptive creative force didn’t believe in, that maybe the whole point of a next generation is to believe the lies of the previous generation until that becomes the new truth. But in that version of the movie, Cochrane would need to be just a little bit more of a cad, a bad guy forced into goodness, not a basically good dude pushed into greatness. It’s an act of image maintenance masquerading as a deconstruction, a way of saying, “Well, he wasn’t perfect, but that made him more perfect.” So First Contact prints its own legend and makes Cochrane a brilliant scientist who dresses like a character from a fantasy RPG starring Phish fans, who likes Steppenwolf and Roy Orbison. In the world of First Contact, there’s maybe a heavily embedded joke there — liking 1960s rock in 2063 would be like tweedily obsessing over John Philip Sousa in 2016.

But contrast Cochrane and Krige’s Borg persona, and the problem of First Contact becomes clear. He’s dad rock; she’s punk rock. (Hell, she’s krautrock.) The movie is fine, as action movies go, but it feels like a missed chance for the franchise — an acknowledgment that, at this stage of its life cycle, it preferred to stick with the classics, to cycle back to the origin story of the whole saga by way of reconfirming all its essential ideals.

Twenty years later, we are all hooked up to mainframe, smartphones all-but-attached to our bodies, infinite knowledge a few clicks away. We aren’t the Borg, but maybe we are the Borg Queen. All hail the new flesh.