For fans, there was life before and life after Star Trek: First Contact.
Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 22, 1996, the second film featuring Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the rest of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew promised an action-packed adventure, pitting the Starfleet officers against their most lethal adversary: the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings hell-bent on going back in time to assimilate Earth at a vulnerable point in its history. Making the stakes that much higher was how Picard’s past trauma with the Borg threatened to get in the way of saving humanity’s future, as his experience being assimilated into their collective boiled over into revenge.
In between explosive space battles and tension-filled set pieces featuring a Borgified new Enterprise, first-time feature director (and Next Gen actor) Jonathan Frakes gave fans a Star Trek movie unlike any other; a riveting action-horror sci-fi blockbuster that was only the second Trek film at the time to ever achieve crossover audience appeal outside the core fan base. (The first was 1986’s time-traveling, “save-the-whales” romp Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).
Two years earlier, the Next Gen crew beamed onto the big screen with 1994’s Star Trek: Generations. While the Rick Berman-produced feature was a financial success, its writers, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, knew it fell short creatively. (Blame the strict mandates from Paramount Pictures on how they could braid William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and other Original Series characters into the narrative.) The writing team, especially Moore, wanted a chance to not only redeem themselves for that noble misfire, but to also give fans and this cast what they deserved: a true Next Gen movie. One that could hold its own among the franchise’s best.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of First Contact, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Moore on how that second chance came about, peeling back the curtain on some behind-the-scenes secrets — including an uncomfortable clash with Stewart over the script that ultimately resulted in the making of one of the best Trek movies ever.
And it all started with a phone call.
“Generations was still in theaters when [then-Paramount studio head] Sherry Lansing called Rick [Berman] and said, ‘Let’s do another one,’” Moore recalls. “And when Rick came to us with that, we were very eager to go back in. There were no mandates or edicts like on Generations. It was just: ‘What do you want to do?’”
What Berman wanted to do was a story about time travel, and Braga wanted it to feature the Borg. To give the Next Gen‘s iconic baddies a big-screen upgrade. During early development, Moore and his writing partner conceived a story outline that featured the crew of the Enterprise-E following the Borg back in time to the Renaissance era. “But that quickly got shot down because there was no way Patrick was going to wear tights again,” Moore said. (Picard and crew previously donned the skintight attire in the Next Generation episode “Qpid,” which featured the omnipotent Q in a Robin Hood-inspired storyline.)
The production also bounced around some “pie-in-the-sky” casting options for the role of Zefram Cochrane, the cantankerous inventor of warp drive whose work the Borg target. With Cochrane’s prototype warp ship damaged during the Borg attack, the Enterprise crew must help him achieve his first test flight in order to ensure the birth of the Federation and Star Trek itself. The role eventually went to James Cromwell, but an Oscar-winning Trek fan was rumored to be in the running for the part: Tom Hanks.
“It never got that far,” Moore says. “At that point in the process, there are lots of names on a wishlist for many, many reasons. I’m sure his name was floated in some capacity, but it was never really on the table.”
From there, Moore and Braga executed what Moore calls an “upstairs, downstairs” take on the story. They put Commander Riker (Frakes) on the Enterprise fighting the Borg and put Picard on the planet helping Cochrane. “We did at least a draft or two of that version, and I know Patrick wanted to be on the ship,” Moore explains. “Patrick had really liked doing the [TNG episode] “Starship Mine,” where he was alone on the Enterprise-D and running around. And I think he overtly referenced that in a way like, ‘I would really like to be the one on the ship fighting the Borg, instead of down on the surface.’ And Rick Berman relayed that to us, and I think Brannon and I just immediately went: ‘That’s better. That makes more sense.’ So we flipped it.”
With Picard now on the Enterprise-E fighting the Borg alongside Cochrane’s very capable colleague, Lilly (Alfre Woodard), Moore and Braga next had to find a way to re-establish the Borg threat for the non-Trek fans, as well as do it without overwhelming Trekkers who already knew of their history with Picard. Years of writing exposition scenes set inside the Enterprise-D’s observation lounge on TNG helped the screenwriters when it came to scripting yet another briefing room info-dump, this one occurring prior to the massive starship battle with a Borg cube that opens the film.
“Almost anytime we had to reference prior episodes in a storyline on Next Generation or backstories, we had to kind of give succinct pieces of exposition in those briefing room scenes,” Moore notes. “So we did have sort of a black belt in terms of explaining complicated things for the audience. There was a bit of a checklist because you had to get around the table. Everyone had to participate and Picard is always at the center, making the final decision. Riker almost always has to say something that’s the wrong course of action. Worf would say something like, ‘We should shoot them all’ while grumbling in the corner or something, and Data or Geordi has a theory that no one’s ever thought of. So we had to do a version of that with the scene in First Contact, get that information out very quickly — and it is all about clarity.”
What would soon become clear for Moore during production, and then later uncomfortable, was when he and Braga found out they were being replaced as writers.
“There was a point where Patrick wanted some rewrites of his scenes, and he pressed Rick to bring on his own writer to do that,” Moore remembers. “Rick did it, and Brannon and I were not happy. I wasn’t particularly aggrieved about it, but then, that didn’t work out.”
That writer’s pages were eventually thrown out, and Moore and Braga were brought back in, which led to an eventual encounter with Stewart.
“We were shooting in Arizona, where [Cochrane’s] missile complex was for his [warp ship] the Phoenix, and I went to set with Brannon to see Patrick in his trailer. And there was a sort of tension walking in because this is the first time we would have been in the same room together since this had all gone down,” says Moore.
The awkwardness in the room was quickly addressed by the actor, according to Moore, who recalls the following exchange in a near-perfect Patrick Stewart impersonation: “I remember Patrick at the outset just said something like: ‘It’s good to see you. I hope that we can all move on from the things that have happened, and now let’s just concentrate on the work.’ And I took that in the spirit it was given: [He] wants to move on from this, he’s not going to apologize outright, but he kind of is apologizing. And it was never spoken of again. So we just moved on.”
One thing the production couldn’t get the studio to move on from, however, was its rigid position when it came to the visual effects budget — especially in regard to scenes involving the aforementioned space battle, or any set pieces involving Picard, Data and their posse of tense Starfleet officers exchanging phaser rifle fire with the Borg.
“You were just arguing; it wasn’t a creative conversation about what you needed for the film or what the possible options are,” Moore remembers. “Paramount had their formula. They said that Star Trek movies only make this amount of money. So, therefore, you can only have this amount of budget to make it. And, at that point, we were still — just like on the TV show — counting phaser beam effects shots. It was just: ‘The movies only make this much, we want this much profit.’”
Paramount would prove to be very happy with its profit margins this time around, as Star Trek: First Contact opened to $30.7 million, on its way to over $90 million at the domestic box office ($190.5 million adjusted for inflation). A large draw for audiences at the time was then one of the biggest set pieces in a Star Trek film: a confrontation with the Borg on the Enterprise’s hull — near and around the ship’s main deflector dish — with Picard, Worf and Red Shirt Lt. Hawk (Neal McDonough). While the writers rarely came down to set during the series’ run, Moore did get to watch this sequence being filmed.
“That was pretty cool. It was very time-consuming, though; this was all pre-CGI and lots of wire work,” says Moore.
But Moore’s most memorable time on set was when he and Braga were extras during the scene where Picard lures the Borg into an old-timey holodeck program based on one of the captain’s favorite noir detective novels. Here, Picard murders a Borg drone with a Tommy gun.
“We were shooting down at Union Station, in Los Angeles, and we were dressed [in costume] and in makeup, and I am there with my wife at the time — it was my anniversary gift to her, appearing as an extra in the movie,” says Moore. “[Frakes] tells us, ‘I got a great scene for you. You’re gonna be sitting at this table, we’re not shooting yet, but it’s going to be great.’ We’re there the whole fucking day, and it never happened. They never shot it. It was literally we got all dressed up with no place to go.”
While Moore’s anniversary gift didn’t quite pan out, his intentions to make a great Star Trek movie certainly did. Twenty-five years after its release, Star Trek: First Contact still frequently ranks high on fans’ lists — often bested only by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The film’s enduring legacy is not lost on the writer, who is very proud of not only what the filmmaking team accomplished, but how fans have responded to the movie for the last quarter-century.
“The movie just works,” Moore says. “I think audiences just really get involved with Picard’s storyline, and Patrick’s performance, and seeing this big-screen payoff to a chapter that started on the TV show.”
Among his fondest memories was opening night, when he and Braga rented a limo and went from theater to theater. Says Moore: “We stood in the back and just watched various audiences’ reactions to different sections of the movie. The parts that we smoothed out, they all landed. They still do.”