Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by Jonathan Frakes) finds the Next Generation crew coming into their own. Unburdened by establishing a linkage with the previous series (and with accomodating William Shatner's ego), it has more room to breathe, establish the narratives for its characters, and generally tell an unforced narrative. It's one of the best of the Star Trek films; it's the Next Gen crew's Wrath of Khan. You cold make a case for First Contact as the best of the Star Trek movies. While the previous films have always had a level of rollicking adventure, this one tackles more existential themes. I like that it doesn't have an allegorical ax to grind, which has often been the Achilles Heel of Star Trek. Instead, it tackles science fiction qua science fiction, as a crucible for examining the human heart in conflict with itself rather than as a sociological funhouse mirror.
The story finds the Borg invading human space at last. The Enterprise had already encountered the Borg, a race of cyborgs who destroy whole races in order to absorb their technology and biology into their own collective, six years earlier. In that encounter, Captain Picard was captured by the Borg and assimilated into them. Star Fleet, understandably, doesn't trust Picard and relegates the Enterprise to patrolling the Romulan Neutral Zone while it does battle with the Borg cube ship. Picard, sensing that the battle is going badly, ignores his orders and joins the battle anyway. His knowledge of the Borg turns the tide, but they escape into a time warp. The Enterprise follows. The Borg's intent is to travel back in time to prevent the inventor of warp technology, Zefram Cochrane, from making his maiden flight, which is the lynchpin to the founding of the Federation. The Enterprise's dual task is to make sure that history is maintained, and to fight off a Borg invasion of their own ship...
What we see coalescing in Star Trek: First Contact is the organization of the Next Gen films around basically three characters: Picard (Patrick Stewart), Data (Brent Spiner), and Worf (Michael Dorn). This replicates the pattern of the original series where the three main protagonists were Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Oh, the original series went out of its way to give its secondary players their places in the spotlight--a tradition continued and amplified here--but the stability of the trio ultimately asserts itself. I should note, however, that the Next Gen characters tend to be more interesting as a group than the original crew, so these diversions aren't nearly as annoying as, say, Chekov's encounter with the US Navy in Star Trek IV, or Uhura's fan dance in Star Trek V. Also, Next Gen's actors are better. This is especially true of Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart, who commands the stage like Shatner never did. He has a voice for commanding armies. First Contact makes great use of this, in the main by giving him a foil to play against in Lily Sloane, Alfre Woodard's character, a mid-21st Century survivor who is singularly unimpressed with Picard, and by giving Picard a thorny crisis of identity. At some point, Picard's resolve against the Borg turns into an obsession. Woodard's character reminds him that one mustn't become a monster to fight monsters. "And he piled upon the whale's white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it," Picard quotes when he realizes that she's right.
The film also provides the series with its first really satisfying villain since Khan. The Borg queen, played with disturbing playfulness by Alice Krige, represents a bondage freak version of sexuality. She's a sci fi version of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser movies, who promises damnation, but such sweet delights in damnation. Picard, of course, will have none of it, having experienced the loss of his self six years earlier, but Commander Data is another matter. Assimilation into the Borg for Data would represent his true introduction of this imperfect flesh and all the pleasures and pains that go along with it. In the very first episode of the TV series, Commander Riker is introduced to Data and ends the encounter with "Pleased to meet you, Pinocchio." The Borg Queen is The Blue Fairy to Data's Pinocchio. Or perhaps she's a conflation of The Coachman and the Blue Fairy: she'll make you a real boy, but then it's off to Pleasure Island to have your humanity stripped away. The back and forth between The Borg Queen and Data has the feeling of some kind of S&M courtship: "Is it becoming clear to you yet? Look at yourself, standing there, cradling the new flesh I've given you. If it means nothing to you, why protect it?" And further:
"Borg Queen: Are you familiar with physical forms of pleasure?
Data: If you are referring to sexuality, I am... fully functional, programmed in... multiple techniques.
Borg Queen: How long since you've used them?
Data: Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, four minutes, twenty-two...
Borg Queen: Far too long."
This subplot, along with Picard's horror at being re-assimilated by the Borg, go to the heart of why the Borg are Star Trek's most terrifying nemeses. They are us, ultimately, after humankind's technology has stripped us of our humanity. Where the Romulans and the Klingons have always been the Indians to the Federation cowboys, The Borg are the pods from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the siren song of Videodrome rolled into one. Long live the new flesh.
The other concurrent storyline--almost an afterthought, really--follows Zefram Cochrane's date with destiny. He's not interested in glory. He's interested in drinking himself stupid, listening to old rock and roll, and hitting on pretty girls. While the scene with Troi getting drunk as she gets close to him is awkward, James Cromwell's performance as Cochrane keeps the whole thing from collapsing into cutesiness. Cromwell and Woodard constitute the best guest stars the series has ever had, at least in terms of performance (Ricardo Montalban is in another class, really).
This is all juggled by director Jonathan Frakes in a way that makes it look easy. There are so many loose plot threads to manage that it's a miracle that this has enough time for arresting stylistics. But it does. The opening shot, in particular, is a corker, beginning in the depths of Picard's eye and pulling back through the vast cathedral of a Borg cube ship. Likewise, the Gothic tech look of the Borg--especially the H. R. Giger-ish Borg Queen--is horrific, ornate, and fascinating to look at. This is the first of the Star Trek movies, too, to really take advantage of the advances in CGI special effects. This is very much the best-looking of the Star Trek movies, and it's the first one since the Star Trek: The Motion Picture that doesn't look like it was done on the cheap. Sadly, that would not be the case with the next two installments. But that was still in the future. First Contact remains the the Next Gen crew's blaze of glory. It shines very brightly, indeed.