Star Trek: The Next Generation: First Contact   Rewatch 
February 4, 2021 5:36 AM - Season 4, Episode 15 - Subscribe

This week on Sikla Medical Facility: Dr. Berel's job is at stake when a patient arrives with bizarre medical conditions like having fingers. Is he even a Malcorian—or a space alien? New Sikla, next daily broadcast…and maybe THEY are watching too!

I'll admit Memory Alpha's enthusiasm for its work is seductive:

• "First Contact" derived from a story that Marc Scott Zicree had pitched in the third season. Zicree recalled, "It's very hard to sell to Star Trek. They've gone months without buying any stories. I had done up something like 50 or 60 stories in pitching to the show. Usually I sell on the first or second story. I must have run fifteen stories by them before we hit 'First Contact.' Piller liked the stuff so he kept saying keep going. At one point Ira Behr was joking and said this guy is an idea machine, we should just lock him in a room and have him slip paper out from under the door. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 1989, and the meeting was at 5:00 in the morning. Everyone was sick of being there and wanted to go home, and it was a hard pitch for a while."

• Marc Scott Zicree later wrote the story for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars".

• Piller found the concept irresistible - to show for the first time how first contacts are dealt with in the Federation. The idea went through various permutations, including versions by "Tin Man" writers Dennis Russell Bailey and David Bischoff, as well as one by Ronald D. Moore and Joe Menosky which took the point of view of the Enterprise crew. At one point the story was considered for the season cliffhanger, and in another called "Graduation" it was to have been Wesley's final episode, in which he was to remain on the planet following the cultural contact mission. According to Zicree, one version had the planet discovering the Federation by taking in a crippled Enterprise shuttlecraft, while in another the members of the away team became celebrities.

• For Piller, what held the episode back was not the idea itself. He recalled, "Our rules told us we never have open shows, and we wrote the first two drafts from our point of view and I realized it wasn't working. The thing that was holding us back was a rule, and I'm very much a supporter of the rules of Gene's universe, but I also love to break them if they're in the interest of the show. I went to Rick and said that even though I know he doesn't like to break format, this could be a special show if he would let me write it from the alien point of view. He did, as long as I let everyone know that we weren't going to ever break this rule again. No other show in the history of Star Trek has taken the alien perspective of our characters, and I think that makes it very special and very unique."

• David Livingston noted, "It's the first episode where we really broke the mold. From a visual standpoint, we tried to create sets, wardrobe and medical instruments that looked evocative of our culture today, but were different, and add enough that they didn't say we just rented a gurney from Central Props. We took a lot of pains in terms of talking about the props and the set dressing, so that it looked a little bit odd. I think this we were pretty successful. It was very hard, but I think the audience identified with these people. It was how I would feel at first contact."

• The scene with Bebe Neuwirth (from the acclaimed sitcoms Cheers and Frasier, also distributed by Paramount) was written in late with her in mind for the role.

• Carolyn Seymour previously appeared as a Romulan in the second season episode "Contagion" and later played a different Romulan in the sixth season episode "Face of the Enemy". She went on to play Mrs. Templeton in two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.

• When offering a glass of wine to Chancellor Durken, Picard says that the wine was given to him by his brother Robert. He is referring to the events of the episode "Family". In that episode, Robert asks him not to drink it alone, and Picard grants his brother's wish here.

• Entertainment Weekly ranked this episode number eight on their list of "The Top Ten Episodes" to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

• Marina Sirtis commented, "I thought it was one of the most interesting episodes of the season. It was something so obvious that we hadn't addressed and an issue that hadn't been brought up in 150 episodes of Star Trek. Of course there are going to be people who are going to get warp power and are going out into space. How do we deal with this? I thought it was a really good episode and Patrick agreed that we were exactly the right two people to go down to the planet and say hi."

• Director Cliff Bole comments, "Originally, when I read it, my challenge was how to handle all the talking, because it was a very talky show. Real talky, and sometimes between just two people. I think we came out all right with it. I don't know how it stands in the [fan] rating. I would like to do a first contact story that results in a nice big conflict. I think that can be an issue show. Look at what's happening in Europe. I think they should make contact and really step into it. Picard actually made references to that in dialogue. He said something about that happening with the Klingons, that the first contact with them became a 100-year war."


"Chancellor, I think... you might want to clear your afternoon schedule for this."
- Mirasta Yale, as she walks into Durken's office with Picard

"It's far more likely that I'm a weather balloon than an alien."
- Riker, to the doctor

"I've always wanted to make love with an alien."
"...It's not that easy, there are differences in the way that my people make love."
"I can't wait to learn."
- Lanel and Riker


Poster's Log:
When this first came out, I was not yet too old to be enraptured by (and yes, envious of) the situation Mirasta Yale finds herself in. So, mission accomplished in that regard. What's maybe more notable is that I never once perceived Durken as a villain. Just really good writing across the board—concept, pacing, dialogue. I suspect it's in my personal top ten.

If I have a critique, it's that the Malcorians are sketched broadly and quickly due to running time. Mrs. Cheeses remarked that this could have been a TNG film (with a different title, I guess?), and I agree except that something this talky and conceptual would nnnnEVVVVVVer have been greenlit by the studio. Maybe Bole's idea above about an even worse first contact might've gotten sold—that way you get phaser fights and explosions, which no Trek movie can apparently exist without.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
Krola actor Michael Ensign has been in basically everything. He made quite a good Vulcan in an ENT episode.

Mirasta's fate is left undetermined in canon; as you might expect, we never see her again. I have to think she'd be…strongly encouraged not to discuss her homeworld; she couldn't be HELD to the Prime Directive, I suppose, but OTOH I'm sure she would accept the PD argument that she should keep mum until told otherwise.

We are now halfway through TNG! O.o (This is episode #88 of 176.)

Those interested in the writers'-room nerdery associated with this episode should check out the Greatest Gen installment.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Let's just get this out of the way: Loving the Alien. Will Riker: still the Zapp Brannigan of TNG.

This was a pretty bold episode, not only in breaking whatever rule that they'd had (I'm still not exactly what they mean by an "open episode"; they'd do an ep set completely in another culture and time in VOY's "Living Witness") but in general giving the one-and-done characters some real depth. Durken is a progressive who isn't going to make a decision without researching the matter himself, but he finally decides that his people aren't quite there yet and that pushing things too hard too fast would cause more harm than good, although he hopes that that time will come while he's still alive. Krola comes off as a reactionary, but he's willing to sacrifice himself for what he believes in. (Lucky for him that he doesn't know how to set a phaser to kill; he also doesn't seem to change his mind just because they saved his life, which is sad, but realistic.) I, too, am totally envious of Yale, who gets to do the Gillian Taylor thing. And Lanel... well, the heart wants what it wants. (Although, especially given that the aliens in question didn't even have fingers, just once I'd like the post-nookie scene to be the human and alien emerging from seclusion, looking at each other, shrugging, and going, "Well, we tried." Although maybe the principle is similar to the saying about sex toys: any two species are compatible if they're brave enough. Cue the Horta/Tholian slashfic!)

And, really, pretty incredible group of actors. One of the things that fascinates me about George Coe is that he was in the original SNL cast (Belushi, Aykroyd, et al.) for the first few eps of the first season. (They also had Muppets segments before those were dropped as well.) George Hearn has tons of dramacred (an Emmy and two Tonys; it's a pity that they couldn't find an excuse for him to sing). Michael Ensign had a nice turn in VOY's "False Profits", playing about the exact opposite of the character that he plays here. I know Carolyn Seymour mostly from the original Mass Effect game trilogy, where she VAed Doctor Chakwas, the intensely Helen Mirren-esque ship's doctor. (ME is getting a remastering that drops later in this spring, hurrah!) And Bebe Neuwirth... 'nuff said.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:13 AM on February 4


This episode has one of the best cold opens of the entire series.

I am shocked at Riker's ability to maintain his story despite injuries and possible concussion.
posted by hanov3r at 7:34 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


It was the best of Trek, it was the worst of Trek. I agree with everything that's been said. Great episode. Great writing. Great acting. But yeah, too much high concept for a single hour of television, unfortunately. The Malcorians needed a lot more screentime.

About Mirasta and the Prime Directive... In international affairs, there is "amical protection," where a larger power protects a small power, for prestige or out of the goodness of its heart or whatever reason. I assume the Federation does this for the many many non-warp-capable civilizations it comes across and are within Federation space. IIRC, something like this is mentioned in Franz Joseph's non-canon _Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual_. And of course, how many TOS episodes ended with Federation specialists on the way to follow up after the Enterprise. I guess I'm saying, I assume the Federation knows what to do and knowledge of Malcor's existence wouldn't need to be kept secret.
posted by Stuka at 8:40 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


"He has digits on his terminus!" For whatever reason I've always remembered this line when I am trying to pick something up with my feet.

Seymour's Mirasta Yale was probably enough all by itself for the focus a very good episode, her delight at Picard's decision at the end is palpable. It seemed very untrek to have more than one fundamentally good alien (Yale, Chancellor Durken and Dr. Beren), with no real mustache-twirler in the lot. Even Kola seems to have enough going on to make his actions seem internally reasonable.

Very enjoyable, and I can't believe I had forgotten Riker's . . . encounter with Lanel. I wonder if that made it into the mission report.

I think it's really interesting how Riker's cover story sounds so much worse in 2021 than it might have in 1991. He's a tourist from the "southern continent", he's got no family, no address besides "the Marta community", his doctor's on sabbatical. He should have had a phone number that connects somehow to the Enterprise, with someone on standby to provide cover and support.

Anyway, this would make a great two-parter or movie, or even a spin-off series. You could have a small team on a long-term surveillance mission, trying to integrate into society as much as possible, deal with the stress of maintaining cover without losing their own identities, accomplish the goals set by Starfleet, and maybe have a handler with unclear motivations. Yes, I'm asking for Star Trek: The Americans, and I'm not backing down.
posted by skewed at 11:11 AM on February 4 [7 favorites]


Yes, I'm asking for Star Trek: The Americans, and I'm not backing down.

Nor should you! That's basically "By Any Other Name" or "Carbon Creek" but flipped around.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:34 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I mean, look no further than Star Trek Discovery's Commander Saru as an example of someone who is personally a part of the Federation, a Starfleet officer even, despite his planet not having been officially contacted. It's possible that the Prime Directive dictates that she can't go back home and use her knowledge to influence her civilization, but I could just as easily see the Federation using her as a loophole by sending her back to be a sort of shadow ambassador, exerting subtle influence to prepare her culture to join the Federation. Where's the Federation's equivalent to Special Circumstances? It's not Section 31, is it?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:02 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Initiating contact before they actually build an interstellar spacecraft seems like it might take the fun out of it.

Uncontacted civilization: “Space, the final frontier!”
[Transporter sound effect]
Starfleet representative: “Howdy neighbour! Here’s a copy of the HOA rulebook.”
posted by rodlymight at 7:40 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]


I love Mirasta! She's hands-down one of my favorite guest characters, and I just feel such intense sympathy for her being surrounded by a bunch of xenophobic or wishy-washy assclowns. It's so great to see her get rewarded at the end and I love thinking of her journeys in the future.

I'm far less disposed towards kindly thoughts for Krola, because he's the sort of narrow-minded Peter Principle dude I've had to watch get away with things my whole life, and it's especially tough watching it now after years of Republican manipulation of many such similar narratives. I also love Lanel, the wannabe monster-fucker--you go, sis, you get that alien lovin' and make some nice memories.

I see they're still using the leftover Miami Vice sets, most recently worked into Devil's Due. Amazing how all those planets got the same interior decorating firm.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 8:47 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]


He should have had a phone number that connects somehow to the Enterprise, with someone on standby to provide cover and support.

This reminds me of another critique, and one that a 2-part episode probably would have addressed: Picard says that the teams sent to planets like this for pre-first-contact research spend years there and are exhaustively trained. So…where are they, and why is Riker even there?
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 6:07 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


COB, probably the best explanation for that that I can think of is that Riker got the E-Z-Quik plastic surgery to check on the team that was in place--implicitly, at least in part to make sure that they hadn't gone native--and they were pulled out after he went missing.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:15 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


implicitly, at least in part to make sure that they hadn't gone native

Sure; I mean, as Riker can personally attest, once you go Mitten you'll always be Smitten

…I'll see myself out
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 6:33 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


COB, probably the best explanation for that that I can think of is that Riker got the E-Z-Quik plastic surgery to check on the team that was in place--implicitly, at least in part to make sure that they hadn't gone native--and they were pulled out after he went missing.

Ah, I see now, Riker *was* the handler with unclear motivations. Will incorporate this into my spec-script, thanks.
posted by skewed at 7:41 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I'm confused. All this talk about First Contact and I see nothing about time travel, the Borg, or Zefram Cochrane!
posted by Servo5678 at 9:46 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I'll admit Memory Alpha's enthusiasm for its work is seductive:

I dunno if this is an unpopular opinion, but Riker is mangled up in a hospital and one of the staff coerces him in exchange for his life. I find it kinda uniquely horrifying in TNG and the fact that it's played as fanservice is one of, if not the, the most uniquely despicable bits of storytelling in the whole series.
posted by StarkRoads at 11:04 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]


I dunno if this is an unpopular opinion, but Riker is mangled up in a hospital and one of the staff coerces him in exchange for his life. I find it kinda uniquely horrifying in TNG and the fact that it's played as fanservice is one of, if not the, the most uniquely despicable bits of storytelling in the whole series.

Totally agree. Try gender-swapping that scene and see if it still plays for laughs. I suppose the ep is trying to imply that Riker doesn’t mind, but to me that doesn’t cut it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:38 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]


“ I would like to do a first contact story that results in a nice big conflict. I think that can be an issue show. Look at what's happening in Europe. I think they should make contact and really step into it.”

Uh.... Bole is apparently thinking of post-Communist Eastern Europe?!?
posted by Bwithh at 3:45 PM on March 5


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