Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"First Contact"

****

Air date: 2/18/1991
Teleplay by Dennis Russell Bailey & David Bischoff and Joe Menosky & Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller
Story by Marc Scott Zicree
Directed by Cliff Bole

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

While undercover on the alien world of the Malcorians, Riker is seriously injured and rushed to a hospital where the Malcorian doctors discover his anatomy is nothing like theirs. "What are you?" they ask in astonishment. Riker attempts to maintain his cover by claiming he was born with numerous birth defects, but the Malcorian doctors are not persuaded. Could he be an alien from another world? The Malcorians are on the brink of warp space travel, but do not yet know that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Indeed, many in their society believe the universe revolves around Malcorian life. That belief may be about to change.

"First Contact" is one of TNG's underrated gems. It is actually about the very core of the Star Trek ideology: seeking out new life and new civilizations while observing the Prime Directive. It pursues these Trekkian themes using an approach that feels completely fresh and original. The episode's wisest choice is to tell the story primarily from the Malcorians' point of view; we come into the story with scarcely more information than they do, which means we, like they, must play catch-up. Aside from Riker, we see none of the Enterprise crew until the moment when Picard and Troi beam into a room with Mirasta (Carolyn Seymour), the Malcorian minister of science, to announce "first contact." Watching this happen through Mirasta's eyes is a crucial part of the effect; we're allowed to feel the disbelief, then fear, then astonishment, that she feels. It's like Picard and Troi truly are aliens from another planet.

Another reason this story is fascinating is that it shows us the nuts and bolts of how the Federation actually handles these delicate new encounters. Riker is just one of several other (unseen) undercover Starfleet officers who have observed and listened to Malcorian society for years in order to decide when might be the best time to initiate first contact. Riker going missing necessitated the process to be accelerated.

Next the Enterprise crew contacts the leader of Malcorian society, Durken (George Coe). Picard carefully tries to explain his intentions while putting Durken at ease, and in these scenes we get intriguing material that subtly reveals the apprehension both men feel in stepping wrong in these discussions. Durken suddenly realizes that he is but a speck of insignificance in the universe, and both Picard and Durken know that the Malcorians' fear might be viral.

Through Durken and his political administration we see the complexity of first contact in how it affects the society being contacted. It's possible — given the sociopolitical tendencies to maintain the status quo — that the Malcorians are not even ready to join the galaxy's community. Early scenes show more conservative elements, like Durken's security minister, Krola (Michael Ensign), expressing reservations over even the proposed warp flight, which didn't even assume that other life was out there. And there's talk about how Malcorian society should be taking care of itself before it starts going to other worlds. It's not often that TNG shows political details in a society that feel like they could plausibly come from our own current world, but these do.

Another detail I felt was important was how Picard puts the first-contact mission first, and only gradually moves toward the issue of getting Riker returned. This feels right; a Starfleet officer would put the diplomatic mission ahead of the man, especially with the stakes so high. Meanwhile, the hospital administration tries to keep a lid on the fact that they have a space visitor lying in one of their beds; they debate among themselves the implications of what they've got on their hands. When the lid does come off, there's a violent reaction and then political maneuvering by Krola to try to keep Durken from moving forward. Krola's maneuvering fails, up to a point.

In the end, a larger universe can't trump the societal status quo, and Durken declines Picard invitation, saying that his people aren't ready. Essentially it's a debate of progress versus what society will reasonably accept. "First Contact" has a lot of imaginative details about how this sort of encounter would play out using the Trek rules, and, for the most part, all the details feel right.

Previous episode: Clues
Next episode: Galaxy's Child

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21 comments on this review

philaDLJ - Sun, Mar 23, 2008 - 8:45pm (USA Central)
Riker getting laid by that nerdy Malcorian nurse - real Prime Directive-y...
stviateur - Tue, Jul 12, 2011 - 2:00pm (USA Central)
First Contact as indeed an excellent change of pace show primarily due to its POV. However, I found it difficult to believe that the chancellor could speak for the entire planet. How unlikely was it that the planet had a single world government and that people everywhere thought and believed the same thing? In reality, there would be a spectrum of beliefs with the Chancellor not authorized to speak for the whole planet. This has been one of the failures of Trek in that too often (if not always)it assumes every alien world possesses one culture, one government, one belief system. More likely most would be like our own, divided into many different nations and belief systems etc.
Jay - Sat, Sep 10, 2011 - 10:33pm (USA Central)
Odd to hear the Chancellor in "First Contact" refer to his home planet as "Malcor III". It's like us calling Earth Sol III.
Latex Zebra - Fri, Mar 30, 2012 - 3:38am (USA Central)
@ Jay

If the Federation have been watching the planet for a while then surely they have got the planet name from the inhabitants. We might call a system Alpha Proxima but if we met life from that system that called it Bert, so would we... Wouldn't we?

Love this episode, I actually think there is more than one episode in this kind of story.
Jay - Tue, Jun 19, 2012 - 2:17pm (USA Central)
Bert and Ernie would be the best names for a binary system ever...
William - Wed, Aug 29, 2012 - 11:22pm (USA Central)
I thought this was a fantastic episode, and I'm sorry that Mirasta (Carolyn Seymour) didn't become a semi-regular character. She would have made a nice addition to the crew. (Though she was great as a Romulan down the road).
PeteTongLaw - Sun, Mar 24, 2013 - 6:20pm (USA Central)
Krola is a complete moron and prima facie appears unbelievable as a character, but then I thought about it more and figured Donald Rumsfield was probably also just as stupid and single-minded, so i guess it works.
Jons - Sun, Dec 29, 2013 - 4:52pm (USA Central)
The scene where Picard and Troi appear is unbelievably great. I truly felt they were aliens. I could perfectly understand the Chancellor's astonishment and awe. A masterful scene.
Nissa - Fri, Jan 10, 2014 - 12:18am (USA Central)
Um....so it's alright for the Federation to send secret agents on a pre-warp planet? That doesn't violate the prime directive? Quite frankly, this is preachy Trek at its worst.

PeteTong, labels are for manufactured goods, not rational people. Don't talk about people you know nothing about.
Chris - Fri, Mar 14, 2014 - 11:33am (USA Central)
I agree with Stviateur. I was uneasy with Picard deferring completely to one man's quick decision about contact with the Federation. Even if we accept that the planet had one government, it still seemed to have a cabinet and Picard doesn't even wait to hear the cabinet's view. Was the planet even a democracy? And for Picard to say, they'd never come back? Why not say they'll check in again in 5 years or so. If Earth were contacted by a higher intelligence, citizens would want to know and would want to discuss and assess the pros and cons of contact. Another thing- Picard saying we won't give you our tech! So a society should be deprived of medical advances because of some concerns about social cohesion? Seems cruel of Picard to say that. This episode was quite good (loved Bebe Newirth; Rarr!) but it diminished my respect for Picard. He acted in an undemocratic, paternalistic manner by completely deferring so quickly to the one leader rather than consulting more broadly with the population. And he didn't even explore how the Federation's technology might help the planet. He just mechanically followed the Prime Directive. The Malcorians deserved better I say!
Jack - Wed, Mar 19, 2014 - 5:02pm (USA Central)
Troi tells Mirasta that Picard is "from a planet over 2000 light years from here". This is quite the deep space assignment...by Voyager's reckoning, where 70,000 ly is 70 years at high warp, then here the Enterprise is (assuming it can go as fast as Voyager can) two years away from Earth. But the Enterprise was just at Earth as recently as "Family" just a few months earlier...
SkepticalMI - Wed, Mar 26, 2014 - 6:22pm (USA Central)
Huh. I remembered the first part of the episode and absolutely nothing else about it. This may very well have been the first time seeing the episode all the way through, and thus my first comments on an episode with fresh eyes. Or maybe it just didn't capture my interest much when I was a kid.

Anyway, there were two major problems with this episode:

- The gratuitous sex scene between Riker and the alien was not only unnecessary but insulting. First of all, it added nothing to the plot, as the escape attempt failed anyway. Second of all, if it was supposed to be funny, it wasn't. And third of all, it was very uncomfortable. This was, essentially, akin to rape, and would certainly never fly if the genders were reversed. Then again, Menage a Troi also had sexual assault as comedy, so, you know, whatever. I'm just not sure why they think it made sense to do this. I suppose it's another side of the whole alien encounter thing, as some people might be... curious. But it was horribly uncomfortable and insulting, and it's pathetic that Riker went along with it.

- The overly evil security advisor was rather trite. For one, do we really need yet another troglodyte security guy? Isn't that Worf's job to always be negative and contrarian and be shot down by the enlightened scientists? Blah blah blah, science is the future, yeah, whatever. But there's nothing wrong with keeping an eye on security, or else the show wouldn't have a security officer in the first place. So why do we always see them as the bad guys, as stereotypical distrustful lying fear-of-the-unknown monsters? Did we really need another one?

The central conflict on the planet was also not clear. Evil security guy kept arguing for traditions. First of all, traditions are not bad. Or else why would the Federation name their flagship the Enterprise-D? Second of all, it switched around between being about traditions and being about believing their race was the center of the universe. So what was the real motivation here? What was evil security guy's motivation to try to kill Riker? It made no sense. Nothing in it made sense. Unfortunately, my guess is that this was a case of typical Hollywood stereotypes of politicians. We have the so called enlightened, tolerant side and the evil, hate-filled, closed-minded side. Sure, that isn't actually the case in the real world, but it makes people feel good. So we show that instead.

Which isn't always a deal-killer. But in this case, so much of the episode depends on this central conflict. Since it's such a big part of the show, it needs to stand on its own, and it doesn't. Because the conflict was simultaneously muddled in its reasoning and transparently a good vs bad setup, it didn't hold my interest.

In contrast, the leader did do a good job of balancing things, and when we focus on him it almost beings to make sense. For starters, there's a nice scene with Picard where he mentions a tradition he had of always eating dinner with his family. So here, we see a hint that he knows traditions are not bad and that he feels that as part of his personality and culture. It's subtle, as he doesn't hound on this fact or make it clear that this is part of the conflict, but it's there. We see some of what he is talking about. And he was very cautious in dealing with the Enterprise crew and was understandably upset when he discovered the spying. In the end, his decision to delay the first contact was pretty reasonable.

On the whole, it was still an interesting story and an interesting approach. A good episode, but I just don't hold it in as high a regard as some others.
DLPB - Wed, Mar 26, 2014 - 6:59pm (USA Central)
This was, essentially, akin to rape
-------

Please don't use that word where it is not needed. It simply waters down the true meaning of the word. Two consenting adults having sex is not rape under any meaning.
-

Onto this episode. It was pretty decent. There were a few issues here and there, and parts that suffered from a lack of logic (for example, a sceptical chancellor decides to drink a beverage offered to him by an alien, which could have been poisoned) but for TV show it was reasonably well made and entertaining.


Jack - Thu, May 1, 2014 - 9:26am (USA Central)
^^ Though I wouldn't have chosen that word to use, it's rather absurd to claim that Riker was really a consenting party here. He was doing what he felt he had to do to escape.

If you, say, threaten someone's life if they won't have sex with you this minute, and then they, faced with that, agree to do so, I certainly wouldn't call that consent.
Chris - Thu, May 1, 2014 - 11:44am (USA Central)
Since this race seems to expect ribs to be in the abdomen and digestive organs in the chest, I'm surprised the women didn't have breasts much lower on their torsos. They seem to be in the "usual" place.
Grumpy - Mon, Jun 16, 2014 - 12:35am (USA Central)
Wait... the sensors couldn't distinguish human from Malcorian lifesigns (which, nobody ever explained how that could possibly work anyway), yet when they want to find Mirasta Yale, the sensors are good enough to pick her out from every other Malcorian. Sure, the field agents might've supplied the address of her office, but how did they know she was the one working alone? If again the field agents are responsible, then surely they could've gumshoed around local hospitals to find Riker. Granted, he was a secret patient...

To address Nissa's PD nitpick... it would only be a violation if they revealed themselves, cf. "Bread and Circuses."
NCC-1701-Z - Sat, Jun 21, 2014 - 11:49pm (USA Central)
This episode got me thinking: What if advanced aliens made contact with Earth tomorrow in the manner of the Enterprise crew in this ep? If the scenario depicted in this ep occurred, but with 21st century humans in place of the Malcorians and some peaceful, super-advanced, spacefaring alien race in place of the Enterprise crew, how would we respond?

I'm not sure we humans would react all that different than the Malcorians. Call me cynical, but considering the animosity between different countries, not to mention the intense disagreements we have on many issues just within the US, I think this ep is eerily close to what would happen if advanced spacefaring aliens did make contact with us.

I liked this ep a lot, it reminded me a lot of the original "Day the Earth Stood Still" in some ways (especially the paranoia issues), and as mentioned above, I think the Malcorians are a good stand-in for 21st century humans. And that's the brilliance of this episode.

I wish Star Trek had, just once, depicted an alien world divided into different regions, languages, biospheres, etc just like our own world. The Malcorian chancellor seemed to speak for the entire planet, it seemed a bit too simplified. (TNG S7's "Attached" came close.) Not to nitpick the episode though, I loved the fresh point of view from the aliens' perspective.
NCC-1701-Z - Sat, Jun 21, 2014 - 11:54pm (USA Central)
Picard: We learn as much as possible about a planet before we make first contact.
Troi: One of the things we monitor are your broadcast signals, your journalism, your music, your humor, try to better understand you as a people.
Mirasta: I hate to think how you would judge us based on our popular music and entertainment.

I laughed when I heard that line. Meta-commentary perhaps? I can only imagine what aliens would think of us if they had been studying our pop culture(s) for a while ;)
not-dead-yet-jim - Wed, Aug 20, 2014 - 9:52am (USA Central)
Bebe Neuwirth - nuff said!
kubel - Sat, Oct 4, 2014 - 10:50pm (USA Central)
Re: Rape
The nerdy nurse wasn't keeping Riker captive. She was a nurse. She offered a service (distraction and guidance for escape) in exchange for pseudo sex. A legitimate and voluntary exchange, not rape. Compare this to prostitution. You may have your objections, but it's voluntary and involves mutual consent.

Re: Dictatorship
I too have objections to this decision to essentially stick everyones heads into the sand just because one ruler decided so- and then cover things up (total corruption). But the particular flavor of statism that comes out of the Roddenberry universe is some strange mix of a socialist egalitarian oligarchy with a touch of a constitutional republic. It's very contradictory. On the one hand, you have a collectivist nanny stratocracy known as the Federation. On the other hand, you have the Federation battling the collectivist Borg race. The one system where people would have an absolute say in their own future, anarchism, in the rare case where it's mentioned, is condemned outright as a society of a bunch of violent rapists and mind torturing maniacs. No one, apparently, may speak for themselves in the Star Trek universe. Only their rulers can decide their future.

Re: Malcor III
Yes, Malcor III is a silly name for a planet of people who still believe in geocentricity.

Anyway, I have my complaints- but this is one of the best TNG episodes. It was well thought out and deserves the 5 stars it received here.
Peremensoe - Sun, Oct 5, 2014 - 1:27pm (USA Central)
I assume the Malcorians aren't actually calling their world "Malcor III." That's the UT rendering.

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