The wrath of Khan. The search for Spock. The death of James T. Kirk. We’re talking major events here, the kind that separate Star Trek movies from Star Trek TV episodes. Big-bang special effects aren’t enough; the stories have to be big too. Like any movie adapted from a TV series, Star Trek needs that larger scale to give people a reason to pay for an entertainment experience they’re used to getting for free. Perhaps with that in mind, Star Trek: First Contact revives some outsize villains from Star Trek: The Next Generation: The dreaded Borg are back, and as Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) says, ”This time there may be no stopping them.”
You don’t have to be a hardcore Trekker to know that the Borg are the most relentless race of conquerers the next generation has ever encountered. Having first appeared in 1989, the series’ second season, they reemerged on three other occasions, each time evolving into a more irresistible, indestructible menace. For their latest assault, these cybernetic humanoids look scarier than they ever did on TV, newly redesigned to sport a more repulsively organic synthesis of metal and flesh. Darned if these Borg aren’t smarter, too. They’ve figured out that if they time-warp back 300 years, they can conquer Earth before a scientist named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) becomes the first human to achieve ”warp speed,” leading to ”first contact” with other worlds. This means that once again the future must be saved by Picard and his starship Enterprise crewmates, who’ve zapped back in time right behind the Borg, to make sure that Cochrane keeps his date with destiny.
Of course, this isn’t the first time an Enterprise captain has faced a showdown against a formidable TV foe (see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Nor is it the first time an Enterprise crew has traveled to the past to save the future (see Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). What’s impressive about director Jonathan Frakes’ First Contact is how it reworks familiar themes and weaves them together to go places no Star Trek film has gone before. Defeating the Borg? That’s inevitable. Meeting the father of warp-drive? Who could have imagined?
Still, what made this an event in theaters wasn’t the Zefram Cochrane story nor even the time-travel hook. It was the spectacle of those deep-space battle scenes, the startling entrance of the strangely beautiful Borg Queen (Alice Krige), and the cataclysmic finality of her defeat. The video experience can’t match such sensory overload, but it does have its compensations. Watching First Contact on a small screen, with its pyrotechnics scaled down, you can almost imagine you’re watching a two-hour season finale. B+