I alluded to the comparison earlier, so let’s just get it out of the way now. Where the original series had ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’, the ‘Next Generation’ had ‘Star Trek: First Contact’. Do you really need me to tell you that it’s a good one? I mean, I’m going to because it’s my job, but come on! While I’m not sure I’d give it the top spot, ‘First Contact’ easily ranks among the best ‘Star Trek’ movies ever made and is certainly the best of the ‘Next Generation’ films. And while ‘Star Trek III’ and ‘Star Trek V’ both have their moments, I think it’s fair to say that Frakes acquitted himself far better in his feature debut than either Shatner or Nimoy had a decade prior.
And make no mistake, if ‘TNG’ has an equivalent to ‘Wrath of Khan’, this is it. And what makes that so interesting is that ‘First Contact’ actually gets away with it. If you’re wondering what I mean by that, think back to ‘Star Trek: Nemesis’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’. Both of those films were written with the explicit intent of mirroring or paralleling ‘Wrath of Khan’ in one way or another, with ‘Nemesis’ writer John Logan inviting the comparison during production and ‘Into Darkness’ in many respects being regarded by many as a quasi-remake. So why did it work for ‘First Contact’? Maybe because despite the obvious parallels (second film in a run, revisiting a villain from the series with whom the captain has a weighty past, themes of vengeance, ‘Moby Dick’ quotes), they weren’t actually trying to recapture lightning in a bottle.
That’s not to say that Moore and Braga weren’t aware of these elements. In fact, they nearly nixed the ‘Moby Dick’ reference that undergirds Picard’s emotionally fraught confrontation with Lily and subsequent epiphany because they worried that it might be too similar to ‘Khan’. Thankfully they thought better of it, but we came perilously close to losing one of the film’s most memorable moments because the writers were wary of being too similar to ‘Wrath of Khan’.
And speaking of avoiding parallels to beloved ‘Star Trek’ films, that’s where the film’s twenty-first century setting comes in. The other settings that were discussed for the movie were all further back in history. In addition to straining credibility (in the sense of whether or not the Borg would see the assimilation of a pre-industrial Earth as being worth the effort) it also would have threatened to turn the film into a fish out of water affair, territory that the franchise had already covered in ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ (and too many episodes to count). Instead. the near future setting keeps things fresh in a way that a more “standard” time travel story simply wouldn’t have. Not only do we avoid the usual tropes, but the fact that the audience (thankfully) isn’t all that familiar with what shanty towns in Montana are like in the wake of a nuclear war means that the characters have more familiarity with the period than might have been expected or allowed if the story had been set in the then-present, it also has the effect of making it easier to play things straight. That is, it’s hard to write “future people don’t understand present day things” jokes when those future people have been transported to a slightly less far-flung future.
Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the Borg. There are two stories, following their introduction in ‘Q Who‘, in which the Borg really became the Borg. The first was ‘The Best of Both Worlds‘, which refined the concept of the so-called “ultimate user” by introducing the idea of assimilation, and the second was ‘First Contact’ which synthesized what had come before into what you might call a final draft. While they had been fairly well established on the series, ‘First Contact’ codified their portrayal (whereas previous stories all did something a bit different with them).
The Borg’s presentation here takes what worked in the past (which, honestly, was most of it – we don’t talk about ‘Descent’), streamlines it a bit, and sets the tone for how they would be handled on ‘Voyager’ and… ugh… ‘Enterprise‘. All the while, it adds new flourishes like the Borg Queen (who presents and oddly compelling figure in spite of the fact that her mere existence – and the very idea of putting a face on the proverbial swarm of locusts that the Borg had been to this point – contributes to the dilution of the original concept that often accompanied new Borg stories), the first depiction of the voices described by Hugh in ‘I, Borg’, and assimilation by way of nanoprobe tubules (“Don’t let them touch you!”). It also arguably marks the root of Brannon Braga’s reputation as “the Borg guy,” a role he would more completely embrace during his subsequent years on ‘Star Trek: Voyager’. All in all, it is the definitive portrayal of the Borg.
And make no mistake, that definitive portrayal includes the overhauled (and equally definitive) visual presentation. With a feature film budget at their disposal, the production team took the design of the Borg and their ships (the interiors, anyway) to the next level. Everything is recognizable, but better (unlike a certain warrior race featured on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’…). Essentially, they took what worked and turned it up to eleven. Where the Borg had once been creepy, now they were scary. I can’t say enough good about the revised Borg makeup. It’s much more… organic might be the best way of describing it. As originally presented on ‘The Next Generation’, the Borg looked like pasty humans with an assortment of tech bolted onto their bodies. But in revamping the design for ‘First Contact’, makeup maestro Michael Westmore instead made it look as though they had been assimilated “from the inside out”. He also for the first time designed the makeup to reflect the fact that the Borg have assimilated species from all over the galaxy. So now we can see Borgified Klingons, Bolians, etc. And on top of all that, they’re sweaty. It’s subtle, but it gives them a grimy look that can be genuinely unsettling in the right light.