Thursday, May 7, 2015

“I'm not saying it was aliens...But it was aliens”: First Contact

I don't get “First Contact”.

To be precise, I don't get the reputation it has. On paper, the episode seems pretty straightforward and self-evident: Do a story about the standard procedure for how the Federation handles first contact situations, preferably one where something goes wrong because something something conflict drama conflict. Even though it comes out of a pathological compulsion to answer the sort of question only a vanishingly small subset of the audience was actually asking and is as such something I don't have an especially deep fondness for just by definition, “First Contact” is at least pretty easy to explain. What I'm not understanding, and have never been fully able to, is why this is considered a timeless classic above and beyond that. Well, at least I certainly hope it's for reasons above and beyond that.

Obviously, the conceit is to explore Federation first contact procedure by taking the perspective of the contactees such that “First Contact” is unique in the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation by being the only episode not focused on the main characters. It is an interesting change of pace as a result and I can sort of see how this episode could be received as particularly memorable because of that, but to me both “Data's Day” and “Clues” had already taken respectively unorthodox looks at the Enterprise crew, so this episode doesn't strike me as being particularly groundbreaking in that regard (though it seems the production team thought otherwise, given the hoops they apparently had to jump through to convince Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman that this was a good idea). Maybe it just seems underwhelming in retrospect given how often the subsequent Star Trek shows broadened their scope beyond their main casts while this was the first story to try something like this, but I don't remember feeling I was seeing something really special and groundbreaking at the time either.

Not to mention that, Holy Shit, how stagnant and insular must Star Trek fans be if this is seen as being truly refreshing and experimental?

Maybe this episode plays into an unspoken desire science fiction fans have. Maybe people identify with Mirasta Yale, a space engineer working tirelessly with prototypical Warp Drive in order to realise her dreams of travelling to the stars (by the way, great to see Carolyn Seymour again. I prefer her as a Romulan though). Perhaps they project onto her at the end when she asks the Enterprise crew to take her with them, and they agree. Certainly there's always been, at least since the early days of the franchise's syndication, this aspirational drive Star Trek fans have to actually insert themselves into their favourite fictional universe. These were some of the first modern fandom cosplayers, after all, and it's no coincidence that it was Star Trek that became synonymous with the Mary Sue archetype.

But in my experience Star Trek fans want a very specific sort of insert fantasy, and it's the existence of the aforementioned Mary Sue that gives this away. What a lot of Star Trek fans want is to be captain of their own starship and to have a subset of the universe dedicated to and revolve around them. I don't know as though they'd relate very well to someone like Yale, who is spirited away a la Richard Dreyfuss' character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind by these great men and women from the stars. Indeed, that would seem to do nothing but dig up the entitlement and superiority concerns fans have about Star Trek: The Next Generation, although it's also interesting that “First Contact” seems to hedge against this with the character of Chancellor Durken and the whole plot about Riker's clandestine mission being compromised.

The key line is when Durken says he's “pleased” to learn Captain Picard “makes mistakes”. It's very much in line with the sort of “oh how the mighty have fallen”, “so, my brother is human after all” mud-slinging that characterized the show a lot last year and to a lesser extent earlier this year, though it's a bit more tempered and humane this time around. I'm still not really a fan of it, though: We shouldn't need to be constantly reminded the Enterprise crew are human (or human-like) all the time, and that there's this belief that we do is indication the writing staff isn't doing a good job balancing the idealism of the characters with their humanity. That's actually what Gene Roddenberry was getting at when he said every story should be focused on the main characters (a declaration that Michael Piller of all people should be totally on board with): What he understood was that Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to be about the personal journey of this specific group of cosmic travellers and should show them growing, learning and teaching through their voyages.

Ironically enough, switching the narrative's perspective to somebody else makes the Enterprise crew seem more privileged and distant than ever before.

But, I'll confess, the real reason I've never been able to warm up to “First Contact” is because of that scene. You know which one I'm talking about. Don't even pretend like you don't. I'm of course speaking of Bebe Neuwirth's infamous cameo as Nurse Lanel. A scene which, to me, never elicited much of a reaction beyond first “oh hey it's Bebe Neuwirth” and then “oh wow what the hell gross” not long afterward, but for some reason has become absolutely iconic and cherished amongst Star Trek fans. Nothing encapsulates my utter bewilderment with “First Contact” better than this one scene. This would be the scene that, to refresh your memories, rests on the emotional cornerstone of “I've always wanted to make love with an alien”.

Seriously show, what the actual fuck?

Is this supposed to be kinky? Charming? Funny? Endearing? It is none of those things. Granted, it's a scene that plays right into the pop perception of who Commander Riker is and the sorts of things he does on the show and that might have contributed to how well remembered “First Contact” is, but look at how uncomfortable Will is through the whole bit! To me that says it all-Will was never Kirk Mark II an doesn't work especially well when shoehorned into that role, even diegetically. And I don't blame him-I'd be incredibly put off too because the whole exchange is stilted to all hell. As is uncomfortably common for Star Trek: The Next Generation, this reads like it was written by someone who had heard of such things as sex and humour but had never actually seen or experienced them firsthand and was thus a little sketchy on the details. You know, almost like an actual alien. Were you written by an actual alien, show?

Apparently not, as according to the credits reference books, this was originally written by none other than veteran sci-fi writer and historian Marc Scott Zicree (unless he's an alien) and pretty much everybody else who had ever written for Star Trek: The Next Generation, including Joe Menosky, Ronald D. Moore, Michael Piller and “Tin Man” scribes David Bischoff, Dennis Russell Bailey and Lisa Putnam White (unless they were aliens). That should probably give you a clue as to how the breaking process for this script went down. Zicree's contribution is particularly worth taking note of: Apparently the guy was sending like 50-60 submissions at a time to the production team, and given his credentials (which include the indispensable Twilight Zone Companion as well as numerous genre fiction cartoons and live action TV shows like Swamp Thing, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and The Real Ghostbusters as well as just generally being a walking sci-fi encyclopedia) as well as the future knowledge that his next submission is “Far Beyond the Stars”, it sort of stands to rights that maybe he's somebody the team should have been paying a bit more attention to. I'd certainly like to see some of those other pitches.

But in spite of the weight Zicree's name brings to things here, in regards to this particular episode, I'm sort of inclined to side more with Jonathan Frakes himself, who said of “First Contact”
“I'm not sure that the writing in that episode was as good as it could have been. I really liked the story idea, [but] it had loopholes. It was loaded with great actors; George Coe and George Hearn and Bebe, who was a delight. What a funny woman. I loved that scene”
But maybe it was just aliens.


  1. I haven't got much to say about First Contact other than a little disdain for 90% of the tropish, or overused story elements. Another example of the actors trying their damnedest but not overcoming the conflux of cliches. But memorably enough for me, I do just plain hate the alien makeup this episode.

    1. UGH, Me too! I can't think of another makeup job more unappealing than the Malcorian ones.

    2. Voyager got pretty lazy with the rubber forehead thing.

  2. "But, I'll confess, the real reason I've never been able to warm up to “First Contact” is because of that scene. You know which one I'm talking about."

    I thought this was the most plodding, dullest story, and yes *that* scene was absolutely awful. I also don't understand the love for this (I had not idea there was any, not being linked to Trek fandom at all).

    Yeah, awful makeup, deliberately making the aliens just slightly ugly but obviously still human-ish.