Saturday, May 14, 2011

Perfection For Jonathan Frakes As An Actor Comes In "First Contact!"

The Good: ACTING! Good story, Good philosophy
The Bad: Minor pacing issues upon rewatching
The Basics: In a truly great episode, Riker is lost undercover on a planet on the verge of extended space travel.

It's a rare thing when a show can do a perfect episode. It is even more rare when a great series can produce two near perfect episodes in a row. Star Trek The Next Generation manages to do that in the fourth season, however. First, "Clues" (reviewed here!) dazzles the viewer and then a week later came the cerebral great "First Contact." It is important to note at this time that "First Contact" the episode is not Star Trek First Contact the Star Trek The Next Generation feature film.

"First Contact" finds Riker seriously wounded during a deep cover operation. Surgically altered, Riker - or Rivas, as he insists he is - lays dying in a Malcorian hospital with limited success in attempting to escape. As he is thwarted with escape attempts, Picard and Troi meet with the government leaders of the planet attempting to convince them to help in finding Riker. Picard has decided to break protocol and contact the leaders of the Malcorians, despite the fact that they are a pre-warp civilization. Their appearance causes a political schism in Malcorian society: Picard's appeals to the liberal planet leader cause his conservative minister to threaten Riker, the leader and himself and the liberal scientist Mirasta Yale to push for embracing the offworlders.

The magic of "First Contact" is that it reads with more realism than almost any other Star Trek The Next Generation episode. Why? This episode is very applicable to our current times. "First Contact" is an argument about when a world is prepared for alien contact. The approach is rather unique. By approaching leaders in the political, scientific and theological fields, the episode makes every argument our society has about the presence of extraterrestrials on our world. This is a compelling question: What makes a society ready to meet aliens?

The way much of "First Contact" actually works is as a combination of political thriller and science fiction philosophy. The political thriller buffs will enjoy the way that Picard and Troi negotiate with the Prime Minister of the Malcorians and the conservative minister during the race against time. Rivas' escape attempts balance well with the tension in the political arena to get him released. Add to that the philosophy of alien interaction and you have a compelling masterpiece. The standard for making first contact has been that the Federation will only make contact if the race in question has broken the speed of light.

It's hard not to like "First Contact" in that it takes into account so many views. It manages to make compelling characters. Rivas - the disguised Riker - encounters a Malcorian who wants nothing more than to seduce him. Troi and Picard are masterful in their negotiations, balancing the humanistic compassion with the diplomatic pressure. But Mirasta Yale steals the show as a scientist who wants what she feels is best for the planet: establishing contact with the Federation.

Better than the characters is the acting. Stewart plays Picard with controlled desperation, keeping his posture rigid much of the episode and connoting a position of authority, though we know he is afraid for Riker's sake. Sirtis comes across as far more compassionate than she usually does. She seems more human, or humanistic, than she usually appears. It works quite well.

But two performances rock the episode. First is Carolyn Seymour as Mirasta Yale. She makes a memorable guest stint making someone that feels like anyone of us. She's amazing creating a realistic viable character.

Jonathan Frakes gives a slam dunk performance as Rivas Jakara. Making the wounded Riker so far different in body language and vocal presentation, Frakes seems viable as an undercover agent. His movements seem utterly realistic for those of someone who has been wounded. The great thing is he genuinely sounds - speech patterns and tone - different from Riker.

This is a great episode that has something for everyone: there is humor in Bebe Neuworth's cameo, there is great acting and there is genuine menace in the position Riker finds himself in. Even for non-fans of the series, this episode is worth watching, if for nothing else than to get more people asking the question "What would I do if extraterrestrials contacted me?"

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fourth season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission

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