The 25th anniversary of Star Trek: First Contact, easily the best Next Generation movie of them all, has prompted many articles, essays, and podcast episodes about why this particular movie worked, and the other Picard-led films were varying levels of bad. Was it the Borg? The time travel element? The humor? Jonathan Frakes’ direction?
The easiest, most likely answer is that it was the only one with a truly excellent script. The ingenious idea of splitting up the crew, the breathless pacing, and the clever action set pieces set it apart not just from the other TNG movies, but from many of the other Star Trek films too.
But what has always piqued my interest most is the performance of Academy Award nominee James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane, the irascible, alcoholic inventor of warp drive that is sort of the MacGuffin of the entire film. The story revolves around whether or not he can get it together and go on his historic warp flight. I’ve always thought of Cochrane as a stand-in for Star Trek’s own inventor, Gene Roddenberry, and that First Contact is really a movie about the creation of Star Trek itself — a kind of futuristic roman a clef about a deeply flawed man who changed the world.
A far-out theory? Welcome to Galaxy Brains, guys. C’mon.
On this week’s show, Jonah Ray and I are joined by comedian, author and long-time Star Trek fan John Hodgman to discuss whether or not Star Trek: First Contact is a sneaky Gene Roddenberry biopic.
As always, this conversation has been edited to sound less weird.
Dave: I think a lot about Gene Roddenberry as the creator of Star Trek when I watch this movie. Zefram Cochrane in the context of the meta movie that we are watching is the creator of Star Trek. He says the words “Star Trek” in the movie. He invents warp drive. He meets a Vulcan for the first time. He’s this volatile human being with a lot of flaws, who meets his very logical person, and they have a moment of understanding. I always have thought of Zefram Cochran as basically just a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry. Gene Roddenberry has been said by many people, including his assistant Susan Sackett, in her book, and a lot of other people who’ve worked with him that he was kind of a volatile, difficult man. And that’s kind of what Zefram Cochrane’s arc is. He starts off as this guy who’s just trying to make money and make a buck. Star Trek was a means to an end for Gene Roddenberry. But then it becomes this cultural phenomenon, and he changes the world in a lot of ways. Do you see any of this parallel or am I completely off base?
John Hodgman: To continue your sports metaphor, you are on base. You are safe.
Dave: I know you love baseball, John.
John Hodgman: I love you, love baseball, and I love it. You just threw a home base. I mean, you did a good job. Touchdown, indeed. Yeah. I’m not completely familiar with the behind the scenes true life of Gene Roddenberry, but I’m certainly familiar with his deification, you know, and the shadow as a creator that he cast and whether certain storylines would be considered “Gene enough” or “not Gene enough.” Yeah, there’s definitely I mean, whether it’s acknowledged or not, there’s definitely a feeling of, you know, don’t meet your heroes. They’re flawed people. They’re human beings. That’s not even subtext in the movie.
Jonah: It’s text. More than 10 years prior to this was, I think, the big cultural shift in the culture of Star Trek, which was the Saturday Night Live sketch, with William Shatner yelling at the fans to get a life. It did remind me of that thing of just these all the nerds coming up to Cochrane and, you know, being excited and him going like, What’s wrong with you?
Dave: He’s a statue, and he’s so horrified to get the statue at some point since he doesn’t see himself as that important. And I think that’s probably true of most people that we deify.
John Hodgman: I mean, Gene Roddenberry created a calm, egalitarian socialist utopia of tolerance, probably because that didn’t exist in his own mind. That was a projection of something that he wished for, that he didn’t have peace of mind.
Jonah: Something that Dave and I talked about earlier is maybe money did fucking make him an irritable drunk. Maybe he really thought, like if only money didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have to worry about this stuff all the time. There is something to that, like getting rid of money.
John Hodgman: Yeah, right? I was just going to say it’s part of our cultural moment now. It’s like, well, after we shut down the economy for a year and people don’t feel like going back to work at those shitty jobs, we’re all of a sudden thinking, like, is there another way to do this?
Dave: And Gene Roddenberry also created a world where sex was completely different than how we perceive it now, and the idea of sexuality is more just like, yeah, we have sex and we can have sex with lots of different people or aliens or whatever. It was more chill in that respect. And that was something that he was projecting in the real world, too.
John Hodgman: Yeah, he wanted to have sex with everybody. He wanted everybody to have green skin. He wanted to have sex with them.