Monday, August 22, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: First Contact

The Next Generation, Season 4
"First Contact"
Airdate: February 18, 1991
88 of 176 produced
88 of 176 aired


Commander Riker is undercover on an alien world that is on the brink of achieving warp travel. He is injured, and in the hospital, the doctors discover he is an alien. This complicates an already delicate operation. Captain Picard must now find a way to rescue Riker and not destroy their delicate new relationship with a new species.

Take me to your wiener!


Kevin: The episode's strength for me comes from a taking an ordinary Star Trek plot, first contact, and turing it on its ear. See how another race reacts to Federation presence from their perspective manages to accomplish a lot of things. First, the Malcorians, more than most other non-galatic power species, feel like a real people. We see a diverse range of opinions and presumptions. We get nice, concise dialogue about social change. Everything felt natural and organic, right down to the fact that they have television, and it made me care about what happened to them.

Matthew: Yeah, this was an inventive change of pace. It took a story somewhat similar to "When the Earth Stood Still," and reversed the roles - making our heroes the interlopers. This is great sci-fi, because it focuses the lens squarely on who we are now. Not with sanctimonious preaching about our flaws, but with DRAMA.

Kevin: The scenes in the hospital were particularly awesome. There was of course the lovely riff on the alien invader plotline. What made the Riker plot succeed for me was that by introducing it in the teaser, the threat to Riker's life drives the episode instead of being a forced attempt at inserting drama. I have some ethical issues with the comedic elements of Riker's escape. On the one hand, it's an interesting twist to see Riker on the receiving end of aggressive sexual attention, but if it were a female officer being told by a man that she can only escape if she sleeps with him, would it be funny then?

Matthew: To be sure, current sexual politics make it funny when a female demands sex of a male, creepy when the sexes are reversed. It might have been interesting to see it so reversed, to show how the mores of 24th century humanity have grown. Nonetheless, funny is funny, and this scene was definitely funny. I wonder what the "differences" are? Maybe Riker did something other than have intercourse with her. Anyway, it gave the actors some really juicy comedic scenes.

Kevin: I love what the episode reveals about Federation first contact policy. I like the idea that the policy is a compromise of competing interests. This does seem to be a boderline violation of the Prime Directive, to force contact, but I understand the desire to try to control that contact. It's mildly annoying they pulled an officer off the Enterprise but not send a specialist, but that's a minor complaint. I also liked the slight nod to the nerd community that we would be better sutited to making first contact with aliens.

Matthew: Yeah, the notion definitely occurred to me that this was "interfering with natural development" at its height. I suppose you could argue that achieving warp velocities leads inexorably to said changes, and the Federation wants to make them the most benign changes possible. But this sounds like the sort of paternalism that the PD is intended to prevent. What if the Malcorians would prefer to trade weapons with the Klingons, or drugs with the Ferengi? I had some other logic questions as the episode progressed. Couldn't they just scan for a find Riker, beaming him away? They hang a lampshade on this problem with a weak line by Data about "having problems scanning the surface." Picard tells Durken that "all their reports indicated that the Malcorian reaction to their arrival would be negative." Then why in the hell did they reveal themselves at all? It might have made more sense if the reconaissance team had determined that first contact was a bad idea, and only Riker's accident forced the issue.

Kevin: The scenes between Picard and the Chancellor and Picard and Yale were awesome. I always assumed the bottle of wine they were drinking was the bottle given to him in Family. There were notes of the scenes with Nuria in "Who Watches the Watchers?" His final scenes with both in the ready room were touching, and it made me sad we never go back to this planet.

Matthew: This was such an intelligent, adult drama. Yet it never felt boring or preachy. This story was quintessential Star Trek - a discussion of the destinies of species, and whether they were ready for the wonders that awaited them. This episode is everything that Abrams' movie is not.


Kevin: Carolyn Seymour is awesome again as a guest star. Her range of shock and curious joy and concern played credibly and engagingly. Her scenes with the Durken were great, and it really read like they were real people with a long relationship. Durken also did a great job. He really rises to the occasion and seems like the leader of a planet. He had great gravity.

Matthew: Seymour is one of my favorite TNG guest actors. The way she delivers her lines, telling Picard and Troi about her childhood dreams of space exploration, is really moving. I agree also on George Coe's Chancellor. I wish we had leaders like him on Earth...

Kevin: The remaining guest stars were also great. George Hearn and Bebe Neuwirth show their Broadway roots by really infusing small parts in the hospital with life and vitality. The episode could have focused on either of them and they acted like it. Michael Ensign has made a career of being an officious twit, and he played his role with conviction.

Matthew: Definitely, George Hearn's doctor oozed conviction and integrity (luckily for Commander Riker, the Malcorians seem to have their own Hippocratic Oath...). Bebe Neuwirth was really, really funny. And Michael Ensign's Krola, far from being a twit for me, really seemed to have deep held convictions that he was willing to defend with his life. What made his role, and the episode, so believable, was the depth and realism he brought to the role of the "opposition."

Kevin: I don't really have a lot to say about the main cast, but that's because it gets repetitive to say that good actors familiar with their parts tend to do well know...acting.

Matthew: Sadly, about half of the main cast went largely unused. Data got two lines, Worf one, Geordi basically none.

Production Values

Kevin: We don't get much in the way of grand locations, like the Klingon Great Hall, but what we do get is as special in its own way. The hospital, the lab, and the Chancellor's office are all nicely detailed, but very different places. Malcor III felt like a large, diverse place, and it helped make the Malcorians feel more real.

Matthew: I was much more impressed by the production values. The sheer level of detail and depth is truly impressive. Chancellor Durken's office, for instance, seems to be on a really nice location, with gardens in the background. It is decked out with really tasteful furniture and drapes, that match the rectilinear sort of aesthetic we see in other Malcorian sets. In Mirasta's lab, a totally kick ass scale model of their warp ship is lit in an alcove, and it looks like a believable experimental interstellar craft, almost like some of our proposed fusion/ion drive crafts (which, at this rate, won't be ready even by the 24th century). The hospital is swimming with props, which look realistic, but slightly off. The graphics, all on old-style CRT monitors, are really cool. This is an episode that doesn't have "money" shots. But it sure as heck has detail. Even the Malcorian fashion sense is well represented, with some of the best alien clothing we've yet seen - all of which looks different from outfit to outfit, as well as being ready-to-wear.


Kevin: This is such a Star Trek story told with such depth and ease and confidence, I'm hard pressed to give it anything other than a 5. This entire outing is lovely. The story is a great twist on a classic idea, and everyone and everything about it contributes a credible well developed people and planet and a story that I found genuinely moving.

Matthew: No doubt about it, this is a 5 all the way, for a total of 10. It is so strong on all three axes of our rating system. If I had to choose the strongest element, it would be the superb guest cast. This episode, since it is told from the Malcorian perspective, lives or dies on the strength of that cast. The actors they assembled were worthy of a movie, not just a television show. Insurrection could have been this story told over two hours instead of one, and it would have been much the better for it.


  1. so i was looking at your review of First Contact and mistook it for this one and thought to myself how amazing it was you gave it a 9 when in my opinion, it is barely worth a 1. And then i found the correct episode just to find out you GAVE IT A 10. Oh my!! :)

    Anyway, this episode is such a snoozefest. I always skip it on rewatch and find to be so amazingly boring. I like smart, cerebral episodes but this one bored the hell out of me.

  2. ...and i mean in terms of peoples who think they are the center of the universe and dont want that notion jeopardized by anything or anyone new, I think Voyager's "Distant Origin" episode did a far better job than this one, which just dragged on and on to make the point ( which I guess has led to my feeling very bored).