Five years after humans began venturing into low orbit over earth, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series first aired on network television in 1966. The show was a projection of an idealized technological future where fleets of sleek and powerful vessels, crewed by courageous souls, bent the universe to their wills so as to satisfy our curiosity for “strange new worlds” and inspired viewers to bring that confident future closer to reality. At the center of the show was the starship Enterprise that was the length of a modern aircraft carrier and propelled through space by a faster-than-light warp-drive (which yes, violated the tenets of special relativity, but it was the gimmick that prevented missions from taking millennia to complete). Captained by James T. Kirk (played by the iconic William Shatner), the Enterprise was crewed by an intrepid, competent, and ethnically diverse crew (and in the case of Mr. Spock, a diversity of species as well!) that reflected an ambitious civilization of the twenty-third century that was capable of building an armada of such spacecrafts.
The Rise of a Franchise
Although space opera-style science fiction had been popular with series such Flash Gordon (1936-40) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1939), the cost of producing the special effects required for showing space travel prohibited the genre from gaining traction in film. Although a few such films from the 1950s, particularly Forbidden Planet (1956), did offer similar fare, it was not until the Star Trek series came along, with its broad tapestry of societies that could embark on such interstellar alliances, that the genre started to gain a footing again. Unfortunately, the original show was cancelled after a mere three seasons, but when Paramount Pictures put the show into syndication it gradually gained a following among viewers who had missed its original airing. And from that point on, it encouraged an entire generation of cognitively savvy youth to delve into engineering, scientific and medical professions.
However, after the massive commercial success of George Lucas’ film Star Wars in 1977, Paramount Pictures, like all they other major movie studios, latched onto the genre’s newfound success and began producing films based on the original series. First with Star Trek the Motion Picture in 1979 and then with uneven receptions for the next two decades until the tenth movie in the franchise, Nemesis, was released in 2002. On the small screen, a spinoff series The Next Generation (TNG) began airing in 1987 which took place eight decades after the original series and for seven seasons featured an even larger “Galaxy-class” successor to the original Enterprise. The show’s massive success led to subsequent contemporaneous spinoffs starting in its sixth season with Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and then Voyager (1995-2001) after TNG concluded in 1994. A prequel series Enterprise (2001-2005) and Discovery (2017-present) followed afterwards to decidedly mixed reviews (with Discovery being, in my own estimation, unwatchable.) An aftermath serial Picard began streaming in 2020 and picks up in the wake of the Romulan devastation brought on in the 2009 reboot Star Trek, which itself spawned two sequels Into Darkness (2013) and Beyond (2016).
The One that Sticks Out
Of all the Star Trek movies, my personal favorite is the eighth, Star Trek-First Contact, which was released a quarter-century ago in 1996 and was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who also resumed his role as Commander William Riker. The film exhibits heroism and improvisation in the face of the crew’s old adversary the Borg which first appeared in the second season of TNG series in the episode "Q Who?" The Borg are a merciless and tenacious hive of cybernetic humanoids whose sole purpose is to enslave and co-opt any civilization that attracts its acquisitive attention. They are a collectivist empire that has best been described by The Everyman’s own Caroline Furlong, as combining the terror of dehumanization with the despair of inevitability. Imagine Antifa as a multi-prosthetic-outfitted Robocop-style figure marching under the Chinese Communist Party banner, and you kind of get the idea.
With the opening score’s fanfare paying tribute to the original series, before segueing into Jerry Goldsmith’s somber cadence (which still brings tears to my sentimental eyes), First Contact opens with the Enterprise crew assigned to a brand new "Sovereign-class" starship also named Enterprise, given that the TNG vessel was crashed in the 1994 Generations film. The Borg have returned from their defeat in the TNG third season with an enormous cube of seemingly isomorphic multi-adaptable components that is making its way to Earth. While in exile at a remote territorial border, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) tunes into subspace audio chatter that confirms that the Borg are gaining the advantage against earth’s defenses. In defiance of his orders Picard “engages” the Enterprise to the rescue.
Realizing it is about to be destroyed by Picard’s coordinated salvo with the remaining Starfleet ships, the Borg cube launches a spherical probe into a temporal vortex to time-travel into the past – April 4th 2063 – the day before humanity’s first warp-drive trial. It was a date that marked a time in Earth's history when the planet had finally put the world wars of the past behind them, and the beginning of the interstellar era and when “first contact” was made with an outside space-faring civilization (and which, as die-hard Trekkies will note, is off by a century from its mention in the original series, but never mind). The Borg’s purpose is to prevent this warp-trial by attacking its launch site in a remote Montana campsite and then conquer earth. The Enterprise destroys the sphere and sends an “away crew” down to hastily repair damage to the Titan missile that contains the proto-warp drive which a scientist named Zephram Cochrane has dubbed the Phoenix, as well as beaming aboard the ship civilians who were seriously injured in the Borg attack.
However, it is later discovered that during the destruction of their sphere, the Borg had clandestinely infiltrated the Enterprise’s engineering spaces, and have begun killing and assimilating the crew members deck by deck. In the melee, the Borg capture Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) who is an android and he is brought to meet the Borg queen (Alice Krige), who seeks to recruit him into the collective. At the same time, an injured member of the Phoenix crew named Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) is awaked in the sickbay as the Borg are taking over the ship, and later escapes on her own and runs into Picard. After some arguing, Picard explains their predicament and the two of them discover the Borg’s plan, and thwarts that effort with an excursion on the hull’s underside.
Nevertheless, the Borg regroup and Picard, who is determined to exact revenge, loses his composure and grimly orders the crew defend the ship to the death. When Lily chastises him for resembling Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Picard realizes the futility of retaking the ship intact and instead orders its self-destruction and for the ship’s personnel to evacuate during the countdown. While the Phoenix prepares to launch, the Borg, who think they are still in control of the ship, plan to use photon torpedoes to obliterate the tiny craft. As the crew abandons Enterprise, Picard descends to engineering decks to bargain for Data, but the queen rebuffs his overture. Data unexpectedly releases a toxic coolant that neutralizes the Borg, while Picard escapes. With the Borg’s defeat and the successful return of the Phoenix after its historic warp flight, the crew say their farewells and return to the twenty-fourth century.
The Film’s Enduring Legacy
A quarter of a century later, the film's theme of good eventually triumphing over evil, which forms the locus of many other inspiring tales, still resonates with me and audiences alike. However, when it comes to First Contact, the evil depicted denotes an identity-suppressing mind-erasing centripetalist tyranny intent on denying individual agency and replacing personal responsibility with compulsory obedience. That such a concept perhaps evokes more pathos in classical liberals than in their opponents may hint at the latter’s refusal to accept freedom’s aspirations as a heritage for everyone rather than monopolized solely by self-righteous social justice snowflakes, but both can watch First Contact and decide for themselves.
In the 1954 movie Twenty-thousand Leagues under the Sea, Captain Nemo (James Mason) although accepting the tragedy of his vanquished aspirations, nonetheless optimistically reflects, “There is hope for the future. When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass… in God’s good time.” Heroic stories, both fictional and historical, serve as reminders of humanity’s striving to explore the unknown and achieve the previously impossible. The woke have no such imagination, so their narrow quest for power in boardrooms and on the streets will ultimately prove quixotic.
In the meantime, as we wait for the current Borg-like social madness to subside and saner voices to prevail, SpaceX continues to launch and land starship prototypes in preparation of future lunar missions, and inoculations against the Wuhan-originating SARS CoV-2 virus proceed apace. Thus, despite whatever social or technological setbacks me may have suffered in the past or have yet to be encountered, the Star Trek franchise has always been able to present an image of the future that far exceeds the imaginations of the reactionaries and revolutionaries of any age. And in terms of First Contact, the film’s story of triumph amid turmoil, even in the wake of war and collectivist tyranny, reminds us that in the end we shouldn’t despair. Instead, we should confidently sustain our hope on both philosophical and technological fronts as we make our way into an uncertain future.
Photo Credit- denogeek.com