Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Star Trek Top 10...

So around this time of year I get a lot of emails and sexts demanding that I blog even _more_ about Star Trek (since I'm not quite nerdy enough on a good day), because - as everyone knows - September 8 is the anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Trek on NBC in 1966.

So this year I'm going to try to pull off a "Star Trek Week" on Whitleypedia, expostulating the 10 best movies in the franchise. Ten best, you say? But there were only 11 films, and several of them were bad. Ah, Gentle Reader, I'm going to include along with that every two-parter from the various series -- that gives us a pretty big sample size over the show's 44 year run.

I'm basing this ranking on a complicated set of criteria, but the main one is the movie or two-parter's legacy: how well did this fit in the Trek canon, honoring the tradition that lead up to it and inspiring subsequent installments.

I don't want to do a traditional "countdown," especially since obviously "Wrath of Khan" is going to be No. 1. So instead I'll just count out according to my own will and pleasure. This time, I'll start with No. 9 -- "Star Trek: First Contact."

Now there's a lot of fan-boy praise for this film, which might make some bristle at ranking it so lowly on the list. But there's also a lot of fan-boy criticism of "First Contact," such as from the inimitable Mr. Plinkett:

So adding my own observations to those in the Plinkett review, here are the problems with "First Contact":

1) The entire story makes no sense. So the Borg travel through time to prevent the Federation from ever happening -- to prevent first contact with the Vulcans, right? The obvious problems with that are

  • If the Borg can travel through time, why wouldn't they have done it before invading Earth and having gotten destroyed by star ships?
  • The Borg exist to assimilate technology. Why would they assimilate a primitive species? Isn't it in their interest to let this civilization develop new technologies and assimilate that? Why would they be interested in this primitive world? Out of spite?
2) The presence of the Borg Queen makes even less sense. Everything we'd heard about the Borg up until then was that they were a collective -- no individuals at all. The reason they assimilated Picard in "Best of Both Worlds" was because they idea of a leader was something new to them. Also, if there is a Queen, why would she be on this vessel? And why would she wear lipstick?

3) The Borg are themselves dumb villains. The Borg were fantastic in small doses - no more than one episode per season on "Next Gen," but in large doses they just get ridiculous. One is because they're shown as so powerful that it's inconceivable that they wouldn't conquer the Enterprise immediately once they show up en masse, and two is because they are - as Lily describes them in the film - "cyborg zombies." The Borg are just zombies. They walk slow; are pale and deathly looking; when they kill you, you become a zombie; and they want to eat your brains (not technically true). This is a zombie movie in space. That's why they had to add the Borg Queen, because otherwise there would have been nothing to do in the third act of the film.

  • See the thing with the Borg, is that if they're not zombies, then they're a Doctor Who villian -- the Cybermen, who were only cool for being lame. (And there's an episode where the Brigadier tells the Doctor, "We've even got gold-covered bullets in case of you-know-what!" I loved that episode.)
4) The movie retcons the Borg. So the thing with the Borg is that they're, as Q says, "the ultimate user" -- "not a he, not a she" -- and otherwise expresses that they have no personality, no humanity, they exist only for technology. This is obviously capturing the zeitgeist of the late 80s where people were afraid that technology would consume their lives to the point that they had no lives (such as staying up late to write a blog post about a 14-year-old movie on a blog no one will read).

  • When Picard tells a drone,"We mean you no harm. Do you understand me?" Q mocks him with, "'Understand you'? You're nothing to him."Okay but then in this movie the Borg's whole deal is that people matter to them, they want to add their "biological and technological distinctiveness to our own." Now, I could accept it if this were, like, a new thing that the Borg were doing, but even then why would they wait until now, after centuries of living as mindless parts in a machine, start assimilating people? Also, everything about the Borg in "Voyager" (see below) follows this trend, ignoring Q's initial description of the Borg in one of the series' best episodes.
  • The thing about when Q says something, is he's "all-knowing, all-seeing," so when you change things that he says, it subtracts somewhat.

There are some other points to nit-pick, but those are the big ones. So, now, moving on to the good things about the film:

1) Best soundtrack in a Star Trek movie.

This is the only music CD I have in my car. It's majestic. It's almost as good as a "Star Wars" movie's soundtrack. Not only is the main title terrific for this, but they final gave the Klingon theme to Worf in a couple scenes. And they play "Magic Carpet Ride."

2) Zefram Cochrane. One of the problems with Star Trek movies is that there are so many characters in the cast that the films frequently feel crowded. This film had several supporting characters (and cameos) and none of them feel lost: James Cromwell makes an otherwise forgettable throwaway character from "The Original Series" vibrant and fun. They also avoid the sci-fi cliche of having to go to some lengths to persuade him to join their mission. They just explain everything (off camera) and he says "why not?" Beautiful. When I was watching the film I braced myself for the extended, tiresome exposition and debate, and they just flipped the page. Nice. Which brings me to point 3:

3) Pleasantly surprises for the viewer. So the first time watching the film, you assume it will just be a knock-off of "Best of Both Worlds," with some kind of plot that culminates in a big space battle. But then it isn't. They get the space battle out of the way within about five minutes, and then the movie starts. There are some movies that, after you see the trailer, you no longer need to see the movie. "FC" doesn't fall victim to that. Even though it came out in 1996, the film's special effect have held up remarkably.

4) The film is beautifully directed. Jonathan Frakes (Riker) directed this and did a fantastic job. Not only does he juggle the many different characters and locations, but he strings everything together cogently and effectively. It's almost (though not quite as good) as "Terminator 2" in terms of balancing just the right amount of action, then exposition, then action, then character development, then action, then plot twist, etc.

  • Best evidence of that is how he films the Borg cube in that scene above. Note: it is very difficult to make an evil space ship look evil without looking like a sad rip-off of the opening scene to "Episode IV." The cube is shot vertically, to make it look like a tall, scary building, rather than lengthwise, so the comparison is never made. Brilliant.
5) The "who's your daddy" effect. Here's the thing about Star Trek ... without question, "Next Generation" is the best series. There. Is. No. Question. None of the other series had a lead as strong as Patrick Stewart -- and I said strong, not kitchy, which is why Stewart beats out Shatner, even though Kirk would be more fun to see a baseball game with than Picard. None of the other series produced episodes of the quality of "Best of Both Worlds" or "Tapestry" or "Yesterday's Enterprise." None! There's more nostalgia for "The Original Series," because the characters are so lovable and because they ended on a supremely high note, with dignity and class (except for the three that came back for "Generations"), rather than starting their film franchise on a supremely low note (like "Generations"). "First Contact" makes a concerted effort to incorporate elements from all the installments of Star Trek to show that this is a shared universe, rather than just theirs, while profoundly showing "who's your daddy."

  • Deep Space Nine. The film pays homage to "DS9" with Worf leading the Defiant into battle. Riker makes a wisecrack about how it's a "tough little ship" (which is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the episode of "DS9" where Thomas Riker hijacked the Defiant).
  • Voyager. The film sweetly has cameos for two "VOY" actors - Robert Picardo playing a version of the EMH and Ethan Phillips playing a character one-gazillion times less pointless than Neelix: a night club host. There's even a bit where Beverly makes an utterly pointless reference to the Delta Quadrant, just to tell the audience -- "Hey! There's also this show 'Voyager'! And we're not ashamed of the association!"
  • Original Series. The entire culmination and surprise ending (though you could kind of guess who it was going to be) of the Vulcans' first contact with humans is a loving homage to "TOS." "TNG" surreptitiously avoided use of Vulcan characters to avoid the obvious comparisons with Spock, but "TNG" reverently acknowledges, at the climax of its best film, that it got to where it was only by standing on the shoulders of the giant who came before: "TOS."
which brings me to

6) Legacy. This is why I place "First Contact" so highly, even though the story - as I said - makes no sense. Everything that came after "First Contact" has tried to duplicate it. You have two storylines - the Borg on the ship and Zefram Cochrane in Montana.

  • After this movie was released, "Voyager" completely shifted gears to emulate the a) storyline, relying more heavily on the Borg and introducing Seven of Nine. (I don't know if this was for the best, since they took the worst threat ever and made them the monster of the week, but it was probably better than what was going on with the show otherwise.)
  • The entire show of "Enterprise," which got far worse than it deserved and went before its time, was based on the b) storyline with Cochrane, which is ultimately the much better part of the picture. (Note that all my complaints are about the a) storyline.) James Cromwell appeared in several episodes, the characters make constant reference to him, and there's even footage of the Phoenix in the show's opening credits. The cold open to the episode "In A Mirror, Darkly" is just lifted from "First Contact."
  • “First Contact” also features a beautiful piece of Trek legacy – both in canon and in fandom – Lily compares Picard to Ahab from “Moby Dick,” which Picard proceeds to quote, chapter and verse. Lily confesses “I never read it,” echoing the fact that most Trek fans know the story, not because they’ve read the book, but because Khan quoted it in “TWOK.”

So despite the fact that the story made no sense, and the Borg had lost relevance as villains after "Best of Both Worlds" (heck, even in "I, Borg," they weren't the bad guys, prejudice against Borg was the bad guy in that one), "First Contact" is still terrific. It's also the only watchable "TNG" film.

Number 9: "First Contact"

1 comment:

Bryce's Ramblings said...

Just wanted to say that I read your post--and I liked it. So don't feel like nobody's watching. We're lurking. There's a difference. :-)


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