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First Contact

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 14, 2009 - 1:27 AM GMT

See Also: 'First Contact' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: A gravely injured Riker is brought into a hospital on a planet where the doctors have never seen a being like him before. Though the doctors believe he must be an alien, Riker claims that his physiology is the result of birth defects and claims to be Malcorian, like all of them. While the doctors debate whether to tell the planetary security force, Picard and Troi beam into the offices of Mirasta Yale, the Minister of Science, who has been preparing for her planet's first warp drive test. They explain that her people are about to enter galactic society and admit that they have been monitoring her people as they developed the technology to enter space. Yale advises them not to tell Chancellor Durken that they have had researchers posing as Malcorians, citing the traditional belief among many of her people that they are the center of the universe. She promises to help them find Riker, but before she can do so, frightened doctors beat a still-weak Riker and summon the conservative Minister of Security, Krola, who begins an interrogation. A meeting with Durken convinces the chancellor that the arrival of the Enterprise does not represent the beginning of a conquest, but he is furious when he learns that Picard has failed to disclose that there were Starfleet officers in disguise on the planet. Fearful that Durken will "surrender" to the alien "invaders" without a fight, Krola shoots himself with Riker's phaser in an attempt to convince his people that the Enterprise officers have hostile intentions. Yale leads Crusher to Riker; she saves him and concludes that Krola is not badly injured since the phaser was set on stun. Though Durken accepts that the Enterprise has come in peace, he tells Picard that his people are not ready to join other spacefaring races, and asks the Federation to leave his planet alone.

Analysis: "First Contact" can't quite decide whether it wants to be a commentary on the brilliance of the Prime Directive and a portrayal of why the Federation has been so successful - a look at how wonderfully humans have evolved - or a reflection of the stupidity of 20th century humans whom it's hard to believe could ever join a family of spacefaring races. As a result, though it's nicely plotted, well-paced, and philosophically engaging, it doesn't quite achieve greatness. Whenever we talk about this episode, we refer to it not by name but by its most famous line, "I've always wanted to make love to an alien!" And that's the problem...the lines we remember in this storyline should be the ones about the Federation, the Prime Directive, the care taken in contacting races that have always believed themselves to be unique, the understanding that surveillance done with the best of intentions may backfire catastrophically. For the payoff of a cheap laugh, the writers are willing to reduce the entire concept to a joke. As much as I wish I thought instantly of Carolyn Seymour's wonderful Mirasta when contemplating "First Contact," I inevitably think instead of Bebe Neuwirth's detestable Lanel, and I stop taking the episode's high-minded idealism at all seriously.

What a shame, because it starts out superbly, letting the events unfold not from the expected point of view of the Enterprise officers, but from those of the Malcorians. We see Riker as they do, a being with the wrong number of fingers and toes, with renal organs in unexpected places and more ribs than they know what to do with. Even the conservative doctors aren't frightened of his anatomy, but they fear what he represents: not only a being from another planet, but one who has been disguised to look like one of their own. They're aware that on the one hand, people may think they sound mad if they talk about what they've seen, and on the other, that if they tell a security officer, the patient will likely be dissected.

Why the suspicion? We learn that a few minutes later, when we're given a glimpse into the intersection of science and politics on this planet. Much like ours in the 20th century, many people - including high-ranking officials - reject scientific discovery when it conflicts with the tenets of their system of beliefs. On first glance, this planet seems quite sophisticated; it's apparently peaceful, unified under a single global government, on the verge of an enormous scientific breakthrough. But beneath the surface, an ugly struggle is brewing, with the most conservative people prepared to use violence to defend the status quo. In some ways, it's a reminder that contemporary humans haven't come so far from an era when claiming the Earth was not the center of the universe could get a man imprisoned.

It's no surprise that Star Trek idealizes scientists - most of the doctors who treat Riker are people of great integrity who refuse to participate in his interrogation and who protect him from crowds, while Mirasta is a passionate believer in moving her people away from superstition and out into the galaxy. When Durken decides that there are too many Krolas on the planet to risk alien contact, she chooses to leave with the Enterprise, even though she will have to be entirely reeducated and will never see anyone she knows again. (Of course, the episode doesn't take the time for Picard to discuss all the ramifications of this choice with her, nor do we ever learn what her family, friends and colleages are told has happened to her; like with Gillian in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, we're supposed to take it as a progressive, positive move, not a desperate act by a woman who's never quite fit in to her own place and time.)

It's a little distressing to see just how much power three individuals have to make choices for an entire planet, and I'd love to know what the Federation observed in the previous months that led them to believe it was, in fact, time to approach. If the warp test had occurred as scheduled and been successful, it might have done a great deal to convince some of the more conservative people to look out toward the stars. Now that it has been postponed, I wonder how long Durken will continue to treat his citizens so paternally. Is he going to call all the doctors liars? Will the kind and competent chief of medicine at the hospital where Riker was treated, who lost his job trying to protect Riker, be dismissed as a loony who can't follow orders?

I love the glimpse we get into Malcorian politics, which are obviously much more convoluted than can be explored in such a brief story - the debate over whether the money pumped into the warp experiments should have been spent on education, for instance. Yet again, it's very nearly a tease, trying to guess what comes next. I suppose Durken will have to do the equivalent of shutting down NASA, calling off the warp experiment and explaining that his Minister of Science has vanished quite literally off the face of the planet...might that not cost him his job?

Which circles back to the bimbo who wants to make love with an alien. I suppose someone might have thought it was a realistic touch to throw in a character like that, because it's all too plausible that the writers might have met someone at a Star Trek convention who uttered such a sentiment. But this isn't some guy in Spock ears who's dreaming that Barbarella will drop into his lap. Lanel's supposed to be a medical professional. Her proposition to Riker would be extremely offensive if there were an iota of seriousness to the scene...if it had been Crusher down there and she'd stripped off for a man promising to help free her only if she performed sexual acts for him, is there anyone who wouldn't find it distasteful if not downright repulsive? (Yeah, this is Riker, not Crusher; but it's also Riker, not Kirk.) The scene skirts the specter of coercive sex by camping it up, putting Lanel in nerd glasses and having Riker promising afterward to look her up if he's ever back in her star system, but the fact that it's there diminishes the episode as a whole.

In general, the episode reflects very well upon Picard - he carries on a very delicate negotiation with Durken, and he's always cognizant of the need to put Starfleet's interests ahead of his desire to recover his first officer. There's no defensiveness, no head-shaking though he must be tempted, and he's very quick to admit that he made a mistake in not revealing that Starfleet has sent people before. Yet Starfleet's finest doesn't try very hard to persuade Durken to think a while before he sends the Enterprise away and sends the planet's best scientist away. It's nice to see a first contact that's neither unrealistically perfect nor an unmitigated disaster, but in the end, the episode leaves me wanting...which, maybe, is part of the point.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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