First Contact 20th Anniversary: Why Picard's internal struggle is more relevant than ever

Contributed by
Nov 22, 2016, 5:02 PM EST

Twenty years ago, the Star Trek: The Next Generation movie every fan was really waiting for finally saw daylight. The Borg, the real Borg, had not been seen since "The Best of Both Worlds: Part Two" some six years earlier, and a feature movie budget meant the Borg, the assimilating, cyborg zombie nightmares come to life, would look scarier and more real than ever. Star Trek: First Contact was that movie.

Twenty years later, in this the year of our Lord 2016, the fear of something altogether Borg-ish is more real than ever, too. The feeling that control has just been coldly ripped away from many of us, that our right to individual selfhood is about to be lost, is something many people are collectively terrified of. We're headed to Thanksgiving celebrations where people we thought we could trust seem to have been assimilated into this hive mind of strangers who genuinely seem oblivious as to why we wouldn't want to be part of making America great again. We're headed into a 2017 uncertain that we'll all get out of it alive.

Resistance, we have been told, is futile.

Twenty years ago when First Contact was released, one of the few complaints leveled against it was that Captain Jean-Luc Picard did not seem himself. Gone was the stalwart leader, calm and able to divine the most diplomatic way toward peaceful resolution. In his place, we saw an action star by way of Captain Ahab, a man coming apart at the seams as he struggles to justify violence and even murder in the name of finally overcoming his white whale.

In hindsight, Picard's emotional shift is arguably one of the best things about First Contact, and it's one of the reasons it's more worthy of a rewatch now than ever. Because of course this Picard is nothing like the one we'd seen before. How could he be? This isn't just a matter of rewriting a thoughtful TV character in the name of big-budget, big-screen action. This is about coming face to face with every fear a person can have writ large and personified in blood-curdling body horror.

Picard could never be truly prepared to stand toe to toe with the Borg, which represent a moment from his history when he could not resist. First Contact begins by reopening a wound that cuts deeper than just Picard's own experience: The Borg are erasing the most important turning point in humanity's past where they set aside war in the name of peace and exploration, just as the Borg erased Picard's individuality and control all those years ago. Throughout First Contact, Picard is trying, with limited success, to manage a damage so severe that it makes him begin to lose purchase on the tenets of morality that define his very nature. The Borg, without the use of even one nanite, are assimilating Picard's identity all over again.

Twenty years later, Picard sacrificing the best of himself in the name of survival and revenge could start to look justified, even righteous. It's hard not to look at the news right now with its chyrons that read "ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER QUESTIONS IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE" and feel as though there are those out there succeeding at rewriting the outcome of World War II, succeeding at making it so, ultimately, the Nazis won after all.

Before humanity made first contact on Star Trek, there was a bloody third world war that nearly ended human civilization before it could even truly begin. That's a trauma the humanity of that world must live with. Here, in our reality, World War II is also a shared trauma for all humanity. Even if you didn't lose someone, even if your family was kept safe, even if you committed no crime, the Holocaust is a stain on all of us forever.  And as we witness exponentially growing hate crimes, as swastikas begin to multiply on the walls of our homes and schools and businesses and places of worship, it becomes more important than ever not just to remember our own history, but to look to the stories we tell, as we struggle to cope.

First Contact isn't just a good movie to watch now because of the parallels we can see between ourselves and Picard's struggle to retain the moral core of his identity. First Contact also forces us to see how Picard's loss of control impacts everyone around him, too. When an officer is beginning to be assimilated, Picard does not hesitate to kill him. When Ensign Lynch lays dead in the holodeck, Picard thinks not of his assimilated shipmate, but of the information his Borgified corpse can provide. Even Beverly and Worf, two of Picard's most trusted allies, are subject to cruel criticism and accusations of cowardice when calculated victory against the Borg at great personal sacrifice is offered as a countermeasure. 

Blow up the ship to save the past? That's not good enough after all the Borg have done. Protect who I can while the country I love is devoured from the inside by bigotry and hate? That's not good enough after everything Trump and his supporters have done. The line must be drawn here: this far, no farther. "And I will make them pay for what they've done." 

These are not words that respect the lives that have been lost, and they are not words that could rally even the most faithful crew to victory. They are words of revenge, nothing more. First Contact is the story of how Picard looked at death from an oncoming war, looked at the consequences of those deaths, and almost decided that more death and more war was the answer. Almost.

The Borg Queen, campy though she may be, represents a very understandable temptation for that war. She wants Picard to freely give himself to the Borg. She wants to seduce Picard into becoming exactly what the Borg is: an unresistable force impossible to reason with. And for much of First Contact, although the Borg Queen may not realize it, in a way she has already succeeded in turning Picard into exactly that.

Sometimes it takes one voice. Just one. In First Contact it is the voice of Lily, someone from humanity's past who helped Zefram Cochrane build humanity's first warp ship, the Phoenix. Lily is someone whom Picard has only just come to know. She cannot know his struggle nor he hers. But Lily knows enough. After all, she is a black woman, one of the people humanity historically oppresses most. Lily has just survived a third world war and yet still dreams of hope. It's never spoken aloud, but it's clear from Zefram Cochrane's drunken, half-crazy demeanor that it was Lily's even-minded, optimistic drive that saw the Phoenix to completion. Without Lily there is no First Contact. Without Lily, there is no end to war, famine, and suffering on the planet Earth. And without Lily, the Borg might still have prevented it all because Picard couldn't let go of his need for personal vendetta.

But Lily does speak. She accuses Picard of being like Captain Ahab, even though she's never read Moby Dick. Because she knows enough. She knows that Picard has started shouting more for his own loss than he has for anyone else's. There's no guaranteed victory against an adversary like the Borg, but what Picard is doing is snatching defeat from the hands of what victory there could be in the name of his own pain.

Lily speaks and then the other half of the equation, the only path to survival in times of great conflict, happens: Picard listens. He hears through Lily the voice of his better angels, the ones that haven't just defined his career, they have defined his existence: respect life and protect it. Protect the rights of all lives and all civilizations and do so with words always before weapons, with peace always before war, with service and personal sacrifice and never malice. 

In his moment of greatest terror, Picard lets go of his fear and his anger and remembers why he and the Federation survived the Borg the first time around, why Zefram and Lily and the rest of humanity survived a third world war to see the birth of that United Federation of Planets: the belief that humanity can be better -- that each of us can be better, no matter the adversity from within or without.

When Trump was elected, one of the first things I did was go to a protest planning meeting. Most of the people there were seasoned, most of them had been actively protesting in the Black Lives Matter movement for a while. They reminded me that these protests post-Trump were not a start, but a continuation. And while that could sound crushing, as though the struggle never ends, what matters most is that they are still here. These people who have been protesting for years are still talking, still marching. Life is struggle. And sometimes we say and do things that could damage us irrevocably. But for those few hours, I just sat there and listened and that was enough. I was ready to go full Ahab (sometimes I still am) but when I hear the voices of these black people who have been in the streets dealing with oppression in ways I never have, they remind me that I can be better, that we can all be better.

Picard thought he overcame the pain of having been assimilated until the Borg came back and then he had to fight them and himself all over again. I always think I've overcome my fear from anti-semitism until another barrage of nasty tweets and emails show up because I said words someone on the internet didn't like. I always think I've overcome the agony of my mother rejecting me for being genderqueer until a lost election is blamed on trans people and "identity politics." And then I have to fight with myself not to justify war. I have to focus on the needs of those suffering around me and fight against the desire to give into the wants for revenge because of my own pain.

We don't live in a world like Star Trek's yet. But if First Contact, twenty years on, can teach us anything, I hope that it is that in our moments of greatest fear and anger that we must believe that we are capable of building a world like that one. It's important to remember that even Captain Jean-Luc Picard can give into grief and rage sometimes. -- but he can find self-respect and the respect for the duty he owes to the people and the worlds he loves in order to overcome those feelings. And so can we.

Happy 20th Anniversary Star Trek: First Contact. I hope everyone watches you today -- we need your lessons now more than ever.