Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s holodeck fantasy was finally put to good use in Star Trek: First Contact. Not only did fans get to see Patrick Stewart step into Dixon Hill with significantly more production value, the simulation played a crucial role in defeating the Borg in The Next Generation crew’s second trip to the big screen.
The cast chatted with ET on the set of First Contact, which arrived two years after the show’s series finale and their meet up with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in Star Trek: Generations. In these behind-the-scenes interviews, everyone shared their excitement about facing off against the TV show’s iconic antagonists, and for one of their own being stationed at the helm. “[First Contact] is about the beginning of Star Trek,” director and star Jonathan Frakes teased in 1996.
Plus, ET breaks down the movie’s villain, the Borg Queen, and her upcoming return in season two of Star Trek: Picard.
Both TOS (the original series) and TNG (The Next Generation) movie franchises encountered mixed reactions to their inaugural trips to the silver screen, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Generations, respectively. For their second cinematic installments, TOS and TNG resurrected their show’s most popular antagonists. Khan (Ricardo Montalban) for The Wrath of Khan. And the Borg collective for First Contact, which added a new character, the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who provided some flair to the famously flair-less drones.
“We are in conflict with the Borg. The final and ultimate conflict with the Borg,” Stewart teased to ET on the set in 1996. “And it does require us to time travel backwards, which they initiate, in order to prevent them from doing something very significant.”
The actor was putting it mildly. The movie kicks off with the crew discovering the Borg seeking to erase a holy moment in Starfleet history: First Contact Day (now celebrated annually by Trekkies on April 5).
On that day, humanity proved it was worthy of an introduction to the rest of the universe when a pilot named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), as first introduced in TOS (“Metamorphosis”), became the first Earthling to travel at warp speed. Detecting what his ship achieved in space, nearby Vulcans decided to follow through on the titular event and make: first contact.
Speaking with ET on the set, LeVar Burton shared his excitement for exploring this era on the Star Trek timeline, which he described as when “the Vulcans see that warp signature in the Earth’s atmosphere and decide, ‘Well, they can’t be complete and total idiots. Let’s go visit and say hello.'”
THE BAND GETS BACK TOGETHER
After nearly a decade since TNG premiered, the cast remained excited about working together again. “One of the best aspects of this job for seven years was the companionship,” Stewart said. “And the good humor. And the deep affection that everyone had for one another.”
“It’s like we’ve never been away,” Martin Sirtis told ET on the bridge set, which was now the Enterprise-E, following the destruction of the Enterprise-D at the end of Generations. “And we’re making silly jokes and having a good time.”
And for one actor, filming Star Trek was now the easiest it had ever been. In First Contact, Geordi La Forge no longer wears his trademark visor. “We finally get a chance to see those gorgeous eyes of his. It’s been a long time coming,” Frakes said, adding with a laugh, “That visor was never my favorite part of the show. I think you’ll find that he says the same thing.”
ET did find that.
“I’ve been lobbying for this for a long time,” Burton said. While it’s never formally explained in the movie, the visor’s tech, which allowed the blind Starfleet commander to “see” via the electromagnetic spectrum, was transferred into an “ocular implant,” allowing the Roots star to simply wear special contact lenses. “It’s great to have my eyes back.” He added, “I can walk around and not bump into things.”
According to Burton, “80 percent” of his vision was obstructed while he played the Enterprise’s chief engineer in 187 episodes of TNG. “What this guy did, acting behind that fence all of those years — and how much he was able to achieve — was awesome,” Stewart remarked (“awesome” was spoken more in the cadence one might expect from a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and less Bill and Ted).
RIKER TAKES THE CONN
Five weeks into production at the time of ET’s interview, the man behind Picard’s number one was already racking up fun memories from the director’s chair. In particular, the two weeks Frakes spent filming on location in Charlton Flats (in the Angeles National Forest, about an hour outside of Los Angeles), and collaborating with the demolition team. “[The team] said, ‘What do you want to blow up?’ And I said, ‘How about we blow up that building there? That car? This tree?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ Very exciting,” he grinned.
Six years earlier, Frakes became the first TNG cast member to direct an episode of the series (season three’s “The Offspring”), later helming eight episodes all together. Pulling double-duty set a precedent for Stewart, Burton and Gates McFadden to also step behind the camera before the series ended in 1994. Twenty-five years later, Frakes has remained a key director in the Star Trek franchise. On top of later directing for over a dozen TV shows, he’s been a go-to hire for new seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Picard, including stand out episodes “New Eden” and “Stardust City Rag.”
“I feel that I just want to go on being directed by Jonathan Frakes,” Stewart said. “He’s doing a simply dazzling job.”
The actor pointed out that after so many years, he and Frakes developed a mind-meld, so to speak, where they began regularly anticipating what the other is about to say on set. He described an instance in which this occurred while filming a four-page scene for First Contact. “There was one point at the end of the evening, I remember, when Jonathan said, ‘Patrick, why don’t you–‘ And I said, ‘Yes!'” Stewart recalled, snapping his fingers to emphasize the sympatico nature of the moment.
New addition Alfre Woodard, who plays Lily Sloane, one of Cochrone’s collaborators in developing Earth’s first warp-capable ship, was already familiar with TNG on account of her friendships with Burton and Frakes. In particular, the latter, as they both arrived in Hollywood around the same time as hopeful actors. “I’ve known [Frakes] for about 18 years. We’ve been really close friends,” Woodard said, admitting, “We could both make a mint at the National Enquirer [with information] about each other.”
Woodard also said she witnessed what Stewart described as the set’s “hocus pocus” atmosphere, referring to how accustomed the cast is to goofing off in between takes. “There’s a definite Frakes-Stewart little puppet show that goes on,” Woodard observed. “They’re a laugh riot together.”
Krige echoed Woodard’s comments to ET at First Contact‘s premiere party in 1996. “It was wonderful. Just wonderful,” she recalled. “There was a constant sense of carnival and laughter on the set. And they are amazingly talented people.”
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN
The first season of Picard saw Jean-Luc continuing to endure residual effects from his time as Locutus of Borg (which played out in TNG‘s “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts I & II). First Contact also illustrated the Captain’s PTSD, showing newly-shot flashback moments from his short-stint as a member of the collective, while also revealing the Borg Queen’s role in his assimilation. Images from those scenes were later repurposed for the show’s sixth episode, “The Impossible Box,” flashing through Picard’s mind as he struggles to confront his past trauma while visiting a Borg cube. And for season two, Picard‘s connection to First Contact is about to dig in even deeper.
Earlier this year, it was revealed the Borg Queen will be the second character from TNG‘s canon slated to appear, in addition to previously announced fan-favorite character Q (John de Lancie), with Annie Wersching now sitting on the drone throne. No specifics have been offered about the Borg Queen’s return, except for brief glimpses seen in the most recent trailer. As Picard explains in the preview, the prime timeline has been corrupted (likely at the hand of Q), turning Earth “into a totalitarian nightmare.”
“I will get us home… together,” he declares. “The only way to heal our future is to go back and repair the past.”
How will Picard travel back in time? And, presumably, back to the future? Several methods have been applied to this end across Star Trek history. The Borg Queen and the collective are well-versed in temporal vortexes, themselves. And if their downfall in First Contact didn’t transpire in this altered timeline, it’s possible they become unlikely assets for Picard if he’s going to fulfill the aforementioned promise to the La Sirena crew. No one will know for sure how the Borg majesty herself will be assimilated into Picard until season two debuts in February.
Another consideration is Whoopi Goldberg‘s all but confirmed reprisal as Guinan following Stewart’s heartwarming invitation last year. Details about Guinan’s past have always been kept vague with only a couple of exceptions, one of them being that her mysterious alien species was all but wiped out by the Borg once upon a time, as revealed in TNG‘s “Q Who.” In that same episode, it’s worth noting that Q becomes the first to warn Picard about the collective and what they’re capable of. With so many Borg-affiliated characters slated to appear, the iconic battle cry, “Resistance is futile,” has proven to be more accurate than ever.
For First Contact and The Wrath of Kahn, utilizing a past foe didn’t turn out to be just a case of hedging one’s bets at the box office. Both movies were applauded for using established villains as an opportunity to expand perceptions for what a Star Trek movie can look like. Beginning with its presence in TOS and The Voyage Home, First Contact had also now solidified time travel as one of the franchise’s most fertile motifs on TV and in theaters.
Meanwhile, the Borg Queen went on to become a memorable villain both in and outside of Star Trek. She went on to appear several times throughout Voyager, where she was played by Susanna Thompson (Krige returned as the Queen for the Voyager series finale). Just this year, Krige stepped back into the role for a funny cameo during season two of Star Trek: Lower Decks.
A frequent testament to First Contact‘s success is how it pushed Star Trek out of its comfort zone with a story where references and homages were icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. “The movie has everything that will satisfy action fans. Science-fiction fans. Even Star Trek fans,” Stewart quipped to ET in the days leading up to the film’s release on Nov. 22, 1996.
From Stewart’s end, his praise focused on screenwriters Ronald D. Moore (Outlander, For All Mankind) and Brannon Braga, who also wrote Generations (and both veterans of TNG and Deep Space Nine writers rooms). The actor found satisfaction from critics who acknowledged their efforts in early reviews of the movie. “It’s gratifying to all of us — [Executive producer] Rick Berman and the writers, Ron and Brannon — that [First Contact] is being perceived as a real development [and] not just a regurgitation of Star Trek stuff. But we have shifted it into a different sort of place. A different tempo. A different mood. A different quality of film.”
Stewart added, “I wanted to make the best movie we could — that just so happens to be a Star Trek movie.”
Star Trek: First Contact is streaming on Paramount+. Star Trek: Picard season two premieres exclusively on Paramount+ in February 2022.