In his excellent piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, Gerry Canavan says, “The Idea of Star Trek is that the future might be good; we might be good; we might find a way, somewhere far beyond the stars, to become our better selves.” And much of the article is taken up with how shockingly little of “actual existing” Star Trek lives up to that Idea or even seriously tries to.
It seems to me that among the films, First Contact does the best job of living up to the Idea, even as it complicates it and potentially undermines it. Gerry emphasizes that in Star Trek mythology, the utopian future is not a natural outgrowth of our present. The progress of liberal democracy and individual liberty does not lead to the Federation, but just the opposite: it collapses into the horror of endless war, and only on the other side of that horror do we finally start building something new. And First Contact dramatizes how fragile that transition really is, because it turns out to hinge on an independent inventor, Zefrem Cochrane, testing his new warp drive technology while a Vulcan ship is around to notice him. This leads to the titular “first contact” with the most iconic Star Trek aliens, and it is this momentous event that the Borg seek to prevent by traveling back in time.
As far as I can tell, this is the first and only time that the transition from the chaos and barbarity of war-torn future earth to the utopia of Star Trek is directly presented. And while we can deduce that it “originally” happened spontaneously, the version we in fact see results from Cochrane interacting with Star Trek characters and hearing stories of their future. He even says the phrase “star trek” at a certain point, the only time that phrase occurs “in-universe.” We could therefore take Cochrane as a stand-in for a Star Trek fan, who believes in the Idea and takes the action that seems necessary to make it real — in this case, a major scientific breakthrough leading to an even greater cultural breakthrough.
Cochrane represents the B-plot. The A-plot is much less optimistic, because it seems that the future brings its own dangers with it. At the moment when humanity is most vulnerable and yet most promising, the Federation’s most fearsome enemy, the Borg, decides to drop in. And in fact it is only Picard’s personal grudge against the Borg, who had kidnapped and assimilated him, forcing him to serve their purposes in a battle against everything and everyone he held dear, that puts him in the right place at the right time. The future is not all fun and games — it also opens up whole new frontiers of domination and violation.
We know how it has to end. Like many Star Trek plots where our heroes travel back to their distant past (often our present), they have to intervene in such a way as to put things “close enough” to how they were for their future to unfold as it did. From their perspective, they really could fail, and Picard even makes contingency plans for the crew to settle in the past if they can’t make it back. And from Cochrane’s perspective, of course, the situation is even more radically open. How does he know that these are the good guys, that this all isn’t just a ruse to steal his warp engine concept, that they haven’t been sent to facilitate the invasion of Earth by aliens, etc., etc.?
The drama comes from presenting a moment in history as though it were still open once again — quite literally, even the dead will not be safe from the Borg if they are victorious. But once it has happened, it is retrospectively presented as predestined, in both Voyager and Enterprise. The “interfered-with” version was always the way it really happened; the “original” flight of Zefrem Cochrane is just a hypothetical reconstruction. Watching the story in the moment, we see a flawed but ultimately optimistic human scientist taking a bold historical risk that will change everything — looking at it in retrospect, Star Trek is causing its own future, enclosing itself into a paradoxical time-bubble. It’s bad enough that we needed the Vulcans to set us on the right course, but now we turn out to need our own impossible future selves, who can only come about if they come back and cause themselves to come about.
In some ways, the 2009 reboot film, entitled simply Star Trek, restages this scenario, where the good (Spock) and the bad (Nero) possible futures both come simultaneously. But by now, the bad is so overwhelmingly powerful that the good can only sit back and watch as the future is destroyed through an act of genocide on an unimaginably large scale. Where the Enterprise crew could nudge Cochrane toward his historical role, all Old Spock can do is give the young Kirk and Spock a vision of a future that can never be theirs. By the time the most recent film starts, the final frontier has become just another job — and the advanced space station at the edge of Federation space appears to be filled with 100 interwoven cities full of office drones.
The fifty years of Star Trek have been fifty years of continually betraying the Idea, to the point where it is no longer even legible in the last decade of new material. But the Star Trek mythology presents us with a story where things get much worse before they get better. Perhaps Star Trek can hear the message from its own future once again and respond with openness and hope rather than self-referential cynicism.