Thursday, July 31, 2014

TNG Flashback: First Contact

As many fans of film and television know, multiple credited writers is usually a sign of a rocky creative process and a compromised finished product. But Star Trek: The Next Generation definitively bucked that trend with one of the series' best, "Yesterday's Enterprise." And roughly one year later, they did it again with "First Contact."

On the planet Malcor III, a strange being is brought to a hospital after a severe accident, an apparent alien from another world. But this encounter proves only the beginning, as soon an extraterrestrial named Captain Picard makes contact with the planet's Chancellor, Avel Durken, and leading scientist, Mirasta Yale. He claims to come in peace, representing an interstellar federation of planets. But not all the Malcorians are ready to embrace the revelation of other life in the universe.

One key element sets this episode apart. It's told from the point of view of the alien life forms. It's almost as though our heroes are the guest stars on the pilot episode of an entirely different television series about alien geopolitics. But it wasn't an easy creative road getting there, as reflected by the lengthy writing credits.

Working from a pitch from an outside writer, multiple complete drafts of a script were attempted. In one, a damaged Enterprise shuttle was to have been rescued by the alien life forms. In another, an Away Team made such a splash on the Malcorian world that they became global celebrities. For a while, the writers were considering the story for a season cliffhanger. At another point, they were envisioning this as Wesley Crusher's last episode, with a plan to leave him behind on the alien planet in the final act.

Head writer Michael Piller felt that none of these approaches were working, and he became convinced that the way to tell the story best would be to do it from the aliens' point of view. He faced strong opposition from producer Rick Berman, who finally relented only upon receiving the promise that the show would never break the format in this way again. (And they didn't, although Star Trek: Voyager would much later produce a similarly styled episode.)

Focusing on the aliens forced the writers to build a more convincing world for them. As a result, this episode boasts one of the more realistic cultures of any one-episode aliens ever depicted on Star Trek. We see a delighted scientist eager to embrace change. We see a conservative militant who is deeply suspicious of it, and willing to die a martyr. We see a diplomatic chancellor trying to balance the two views, forced to deal with underlings who are betraying him. We see a medical practitioner following his own code of ethics for guidance. There's even a sci-fi fan girl who just wants to have sex with an alien.

It all comes together because of the impressive guest cast assembled for the episode. Carolyn Seymour, who played a Romulan previously and would later play a different one, is strong as the high-minded Mirasta Yale. George Coe, a veteran character from a number of places (perhaps most notably, Kramer vs. Kramer) is a sympathetic Chancellor Durken. George Hearn, one of Broadway's earliest Sweeney Todds, makes a lot out of his small role as the doctor Berel. Michael Ensign makes enough of an impact as the duplicitous Krola that the producers brought him back once for each of the three Star Trek series that followed.

And of course, most memorably, there's Bebe Neuwirth in the role of Lanel. Her comedic turn came as a late addition to the script, written specifically with her in mind. She was a longtime Star Trek fan herself, and well established with Paramount thanks to her years playing Lilith on Cheers and Frasier. Apparently, this made it easy enough to get her onto the show.

Perhaps most interestingly, the episode doesn't really have a "happy ending" as such. The wounded Commander Riker is rescued, of course. And they even manage to save the Malcorian who tries to kill himself and frame Riker for murder. But in the end, the alien chancellor concludes his planet is not ready for alien contact, and asks our heroes to leave, their mission a failure. It's another unconventional choice for the series, and adds more to the realism.

Other observations:
  • This episode presents the moment of discovering warp drive as the moment when an alien species is ready to be contacted by the Federation. This same concept would later play into the plot of the second feature film using Next Generation characters, which appropriately enough reused this episode's title.
  • The wine that Picard was given by his brother earlier in the season is opened here. As Jean-Luc promised, he did not drink it alone.
  • In a tantalizing bit of fictional history, Picard mentions that it was a disastrous first contact scenario with the Klingons that led to their long decades of hostility.
  • Lanel's bargain with Riker, to help him escape if he'll sleep with her, feels like a throwback to the original series. We all know Kirk would have bagged himself an alien. (He wouldn't have even needed the incentive of escape to do it, either.) It's left a bit ambiguous whether Riker does what he's asked. But Lanel does wind up helping him...
This interesting departure for the series resulted in one of the season's best episodes. I give it an A-.

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