Buy it on Amazon!Jonathan Frakes has been in the director’s chair for nearly eight hours by the time I arrive on Stage 29. I walk quickly past the catering table and makeup stations to the radiant corner where filming is underway. The Main Bridge is dormant, lit only by auxiliary lights. Peering over the sound man’s shoulder, I read the daily call sheet. They’re shooting scene 17, the last work of the day.

 The action takes place in Jean-Luc Picard’s ready room, stage right of the bridge. Patrick Stewart is inside, separated from the film crew by a cut-away wall. The space is jammed; he’s barely visible through the clutter of lights, cameras and cables. I sneak up behind Jonathan Frakes and watch the action on the director’s twin Sony monitors.

mrstewart.gif Stewart currently inhabits a position that every actor dreams of: dominating a role so completely that a replacement would be unthinkable. With Captain Kirk in cold storage, only one man alive can bridle the Enterprise, and Paramount wants to keep him happy. As a result, Stewart’s touch can be felt all over First Contact. He edited the script, helped choose some of the music, and lobbied – hard – for the choice of Frakes as director.

Movies are almost never filmed in chronological order. The scene now being shot comes just moments after the opening credits. Picard struggles awake from a bone-chilling dream. Images of his assimilation into the Borg collective, the gory alien surgery that transformed him into a cyborg, invade his memory, and the murmur of the Borg hive rattles through his skull. The inhuman chirp swells in volume, until a bleep from a nearby terminal jars him back to reality.

Picard swings from his cot in full uniform. Visibly shaken, he authorizes the incoming message. A Starfleet Admiral appears on the screen. "Catch you at a bad time, Jean-Luc?" The actor portraying the Admiral isn’t there; his part is read by a script supervisor.

"No, of course not."

"I’ve just received a disturbing report from Deep Space Five," the Admiral continues. "Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know. The Borg."

That’s it: one line. Five words. That’s the meat, the goo, the gold ring that Frakes is after. Once it’s in the can, everyone goes home. But first takes are rarely perfect, and Frakes asks Stewart to do the line several more times. There’s a short delay between each take while the lighting is adjusted, the cameras refocused, and the film rolled up to speed. The clapboard snaps, then: "Action!"

"Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know." The camera zooms slowly in from just below Stewart’s chin line, moving until his face fills the frame. "The Borg."

A beat. Frakes frowns; sound man Tommy Thomas reaches for his New York Times crossword puzzle. After seven seasons as Jean-Luc Picard, Stewart needs no direction. There’s nothing Frakes can say to explain how the line ought to be read. Frakes himself might not know what he’s after, but he knows that wasn’t it. The cameras are realigned, and he tries a fifth take.

"Long-range sensors have picked up…."
"Yes, I know. The Borg."

Still not there. "Again."

"Long-range sensors have picked up…"
"Yes, I know. The Borg."

The weary Stewart sounds like he’s anticipating a visit from his mother-in-law. Frakes, ever cheerful, stifles a laugh.

"Sorry, Patrick…. let’s try it once more, shall we?"

Stewart gives no argument. The two have an excellent rapport, on and off camera, that dates back to the first day they worked together on TNG. Stewart, then a self-described "pompous ass", blew a line, and Frakes playfully dissed him: "I say! That must be what they call British face-acting! Not bad… for a Brit!" The crew howled, and Stewart’s slow, often painful process of Americanization began.

"Everyone ready? Action!"

"Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know. A pregnant pause; so far, so good. "Borg." Stewart groans; he forgot the "the."

The irony of all this is that Stewart excels at live performance, the kind where you’ve got to get it right the first time. A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he’s as comfortable with a monologue as he is in a large ensemble cast. From 1988 until 1995, during winter breaks from the production of TNG, his solo rendition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (in which Stewart played all forty-six characters) drew standing ovations on Broadway. His 1995 appearance as Prospero in The Tempest – performed to enormous crowds in Central Park – was the toast of the town. Prior to First Contact, Stewart appeared in no less than 150 stage productions. Seeing him stumble over this stupid line is like watching Mohammad Ali get beaten up by a kangaroo.

"Action!"

"Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know. The Borg."

"Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know. The Borg."

"Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know. The Borg."

Frakes rises from his chair and approaches Stewart. They speak in hushed tones, a pitcher and manager huddled on the mound. What’s the problem here? Is it with Stewart? Or the script itself? In a very real sense, the film begins with this line; it anticipates everything to come. All the emotions that Picard feels at this instant – revulsion, fear and a wretched awareness of his bond with the enemy – must be expressed in five syllables. I glance around; the grips and gaffers are all mouthing the line, trying to get it right. From the looks on their faces, no one is succeeding.

Because it’s not Stewart, and it’s not the script. It’s the fucking aliens themselves. The Borg. It looks great on paper, but you just can’t say it; much less with a British accent. Bawg. The Bawg. Klingons, Cardassians; these names roll off the tongue like restless fillies. But Borg articulates like a belch, and there’s no way to save it. I know it, the crew knows it and I have a big feeling that Stewart and Frakes know it, too. What to do? The word must die, but die it cannot.

Frakes returns to his seat and takes a long swig of designer water. "Okay, quiet everybody. Last time… we hope. Lights…. action!"

"Our colony on Ivor Prime was destroyed this morning. Long-range sensors have picked up…."

"Yes, I know. The Borg."

Stewart peers hopefully into the camera, his face cloned double on the director’s monitors. "How was that, Jonathan? Much better, I think."

"Uh…. great." Frakes turns toward his peanut gallery, holding his nose. "Try it again, Patrick."