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Star Trek – Errand of Vengeance: The Edge of the Sword by Kevin Ryan (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

When you think about it, Star Trek finished its first season with its mythology reasonably well established. There were the Romulans, the Klingons and the Federation. (Oh, my!) We knew that Kirk had a brother on the colonies, who died in the season finalé. Vulcan was a hot desert planet. The Prime Directive existed, and we even got a taste of how Starfleet operated. However, these things all developed gradually over the course of the year, and early episodes couldn’t even seem to agree who exactly Kirk was working for.

The Federation was first mentioned in Arena and only fully named in A Taste of Armageddon. The Klingons were introduced in Errand of Mercy, with a cold war between the two galactic powers finally turning hot. Of course, it’s hard to write “finally” when they had only been introduced in this particular episode. So where were the Klingons during the show’s first year? How come we didn’t pick up any of the tension that must have been simmering?

Kevin Ryan’s Errand of Vengeance trilogy attempts to offer some context, suggesting that the Klingon threat had been brewing during the entire first season. It follows Jon Anderson, a new recruit to the ship’s security department, arriving just before the events of What Are Little Girls Made Of? Oh, and he’s a Klingon infiltrator.

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The original Star Trek was highly episodic. You could probably jumble up most episodes and air them in just about any order and nobody would really notice. Sure, there were some obvious examples of the show figuring out how to balance itself in the early adventures, and there were a couple of recurring characters who would pop up, but most of the episodes existed in their own little vacuum, cut off from what was going on around them.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise were the only two Star Trek spin-offs to embrace any real form of serialisation, and even then they only engaged with the concept in their final years. However, even Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager maintained a tighter net of inter-episode continuity than the oldest show in the franchise. For example, the Klingon Civil War in Redemption built off themes and hooks left in two years of Klingon and Romulan stories like Mind’s Eye or Sins of the Father. The presence of the Borg in Voyager’s Scorpion was hinted out in a couple of third-season episodes leading up to the cliffhanger.

On the other hand, Star Trek never quite went in for that mode of storytelling. I suppose you could read the Klingon stories in the second season (Friday’s Child, A Private Little War and The Trouble With Tribbles) as building off the events of Errand of Mercy, but the events of that episode are only ever fleetingly mentioned and their characterisation seems more in keeping with their portrayal as space!communists than any series continuity.

So it’s no surprise that so many writers approaching the show try to fill in the gaps in continuity created by the episodic format. Sometimes, this amounts to attempts to foster character continuity; David R. George’ III’s Crucible trilogy tries to connect Kirk’s series of serious losses in The City on the Edge of Forever and Operation — Annihilate!, neither of which was ever explored on-screen in any depth. Others try to piece together some political or social contexts for the glimpses we see of interstellar affairs; John Byrne’s Romulans: Pawns of War charts the Romulan-Klingon relationship from Balance of Terror to The Enterprise Incident and beyond.

On a surface level, Kevin Ryan’s Errand of Vengeance is an attempt to do that with the Klingons. It tries to provide some background context for the conflict in Errand of Mercy. Ryan even offers a plausible enough explanation for why the Klingons were never mentioned before that episode. “Because Gene L. Coon hadn’t created them yet” is a good answer, but it doesn’t work within the context of the story. So Ryan instead suggests that Starfleet was consciously downplaying the Klingon threat in the build-up to the war, so as to keep their diplomatic options open.

Ryan does a lot of this sort of thing, trying to weave a grand arc between the scenes of a first season that barely had a consistent back story, let alone connecting threads of storylines. Some of these touches are quite clever, and draw a nice sort of fanboy grin. For example, Ryan decides to turn one of the background extras from What Are Little Girls Made Of? into a Klingon sleeper agent.

He did always look rather shifty...

He did always look rather shifty…

It’s the kind of obsessive detail that could easily be distracting, but Ryan writes with enough charm that he gets away with it. There is something deeply hilarious about the idea that a random background extra who gets killed by a giant android turned out to be a Klingon agent conspiring to kill James T. Kirk. Do you reckon the Klingons factored that into their plotting and planning? .05% chance of getting killed by a giant ill-tempered robot?

Then again, the fact that all these Klingon agents are red shirts probably suggests that the Empire doesn’t have the strongest intelligence service in the galaxy. While they have the potential to get close to Kirk once in a while, the fatality rates would seem to diminish their value, especially when you consider the effort involved in kidnapping a candidate and the surgery to replace them seamlessly. The only way that infiltrating as red shirts makes sense is if the Klingon plan is to strategically commit mass-suicide, depleting the Federation of valuable manpower.

Still, it’s interesting to see these characters back story. Ryan is essentially giving personalities and histories to various background extras without any lines and only appearing for a few seconds at a time (often only to get brutally killed). This gives the impression that the Star Trek universe is becoming more and more like that of Star Warsright down to the absurdly complicated back stories for characters who only appeared for a few seconds without any lines. Although, given the level of attention that has been paid to various Star Trek bit players, the franchise was never too far off.

I am joking, of course, but one of the stronger aspects of Errand of Vengeance – even more than the Klingon continuity angle, surprisingly – is the way that Ryan uses the book to explore the infamous “red shirts” from Star Trek. Those security officers are often sent places just to die to raise the dramatic tension, and The Edge of the Sword works best when it plays with the idea of what being a red shirt means on a show like Star Trek.

Indeed, rather wryly, one character even jokes about the division’s high mortality rate, asking how many old security guards it takes to change a lightbulb. “It’s a trick question, because—and listen very carefully—there are no old Starfleet security officers.” Acknowledging the cliché is a smart move. After all, the red shirts are something of a pop culture punchline, almost as famous as “live long and prosper” or Kirk’s “KHAAAAAAAAAN!”

The casual death of Star Trek crew members in red shirts is such a pop culture fixture that even the writer of Star Trek: Into Darkness was gleefully promising that it’s just something that is going to happen. The photo of Chekov in a red shirt had people speculating that the film might pull a “Joss Whedon” and kill a likeable supporting character in order to heighten suspense a bit. Even outside the franchise’s latest trip to the big screen, John Scalzi has published a book about the phenomenon, called – appropriately enough – Redshirts.

Will Chekov check out?

Will Chekov check out?

Ryan has some fun imagining what life as a red shirt must be like. These guys don’t sit in on briefings, don’t get to make big decisions and don’t even get to hang around the bridge to overhear the helpful exposition. One nice little moment has a security officer recounting his version of the events of The Man Trap:

Lowering his voice even further, the Earther said, “Well, I heard that some sort of a shapeshifting creature sucked their brains out through their faces. Of course, that’s not what the official log says, but …” Then the Earther shrugged, which Kell recognized as a gesture of, among other things, ignorance. “You can’t believe everything you read in an official log—Federation security, you know. The creature tried to do the same thing to the captain,” he added.

It gives a feeling of how downright weird serving on the Enterprise must seem to those who don’t know they are starring in a sixties pulpy science-fiction show.

Dealing with this stuff up front allows Ryan to delve a bit further, and to try to generate a sense of pathos for his security staff characters. He makes them seem like more than just disposable bodies used to raise the stakes. He suggests that they embody a fundamental part of the Star Trek ideal, the notion of sacrifice for virtue:

“We are trained to do our jobs. Sometimes those jobs put us in harm’s way, but we accept risk. Sometimes we have to accept death, but we never seek it. To those of you under my command, and to those of you we are here to protect, I am not asking you to be prepared to die for duty, or for your beliefs. I am asking you to live for them. The principles on which Starfleet and this settlement were founded demand it.”

Like the attempt to explain the absence of the Klingons from the first part of the season, Ryan is attempting to justify the result of a writing decision, but he’s surprisingly convincing. There is something very noble in these red shirts.

Most of The Edge of the Sword is taken up with an extended combat sequence on a planet, with the security forces taking on a bunch of Orion pirates to protect some helpless colonists. It’s hardly the most dynamic set-up, and devoting a large portion of the book to it makes The Edge of the Sword feel like a very light read. There’s very little sense of plot progression or of any real direction. There are just a lot of extended action sequences with stakes that would be confined to ten minutes of a broadcast episode.

This the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s great to see such attention paid to something that would have been so small a part of a classic Star Trek episode. It’s interesting to see a generic alien encounter from the perspective of the “red shirts” who lay down their lives to deal with this sort of problem on a daily basis, in the back ground of whatever problem Kirk is handling. It feels almost like a version of Lower Decks centring on the original Star Trek. Here, Kirk is pushed to the background, so they can shine.

However, the problem is that the story feels relatively unfulfilling. I know this is the first in a trilogy of books, but – on its own terms – it isn’t an entirely satisfying adventure. This problem is compounded by the fact that this is the story of how John Anderson comes to respect and trust the humans he has been sent to infiltrate. It’s a nice hook, but the relatively condensed timeframe of the book means that Ryan has to layer his conversion on just a little bit too heavily.

Anderson’s growing esteem for his colleagues feels rather sudden, changed a little too fast for a man trained to hate those around him. Had the novel been extended a bit, or the cope widened, the development might feel more organic. Instead, we got some very well-structured action scenes punctuated with forced self-doubt from the spy and assassin. It just feels a little bit too much for a story like this. The fact that a raid seemingly organised by the Klingons serves to lead him to embrace his human colleagues should be masterful irony, but instead feels a little forced. This is his first real assignment? It seems a tad contrived.

Still, that’s the only major problem with what is otherwise a fascinating read. The red shirt stuff is arguably the best part of the book, but Ryan does some interesting work with the Klingons. Writing the Klingons who appeared in the original Star Trek is a tough task, as they don’t entirely conform to the popular image of Klingons as honourable and duty-bound. In quite a few cases, the Klingons from the original Star Trek seemed like dirty cowards.

Again, Ryan tries to rationalise a behind-the-scenes shift, and offers a plausible explanation. It’s not the most elegant of his ideas here, but it fits well enough. Ryan suggests that there was a cultural divide during the original Star Trek, with some Klingons retaining their faith in Kahless while the majority abandoned the mythic figure. Ryan links Kahless to those Klingon virtues evidenced elsewhere in the franchise:

The Klingon’s teachings were interesting and called for a strict adherence to principles of honor. He wasn’t sure, but he thought those principles might be the key to dealing with the Klingons. While not all Klingons followed Kahless, the believers seemed to be growing in number. And since the teachings seemed to codify cultural norms and rules about duty that existed almost everywhere in the Klingon culture, many of the teachings would be relevant to nonbelievers as well.

The implication is that Kahless’ followers eventually seized control of the Empire at some point between The Turnabout Intruder and Encounter at Farpoint. It isn’t bad for an attempt to explain a production inconsistency, but it feels like Ryan might be trying just a little bit too hard to make it all fit together. Then again, that is one of the joys of being a fan.

To be fair, I am a sucker for Star Trek stories that offer an exploration of the franchise’s alien cultures, and in particular a glimpse of the Federation through the eyes of its opponents. I think it’s quite reasonable to suggest a critical reading of the Federation, and to suggest that it is far from the utopia that it claims to be. Ryan acknowledges this, by framing Anderson’s opinion of the Federation from the perspective of an outsider.

Ryan observes:

That notion, he knew, was at the heart of the Federation’s greatest deception: It called its own gross imperialism exploration. Meanwhile, every year the Federation annexed world after world, becoming a greater and greater threat to the Klingon Empire. Still, they seemed to take great care to maintain the deception of scientific study and exploration—even among only themselves, going so far as to allocating large areas to sensors and scientific equipment.

While that is undoubtedly an exaggeration – and intended as such – it’s clear that the Federation is expansionist and that it champions its own values above all others, with little real respect for alien cultures.

Ryan draws the character of Partick West into his story, the man who would become Colonel West, a background character who only appeared in the director’s cut of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. again, Ryan works to contextualise the classic Star Trek and to account in the subtle shift of Federation values between Star Trek and The Next Generation. Like the Klingons, they changed too, and Ryan hints that this philosophical shift took place in the background during the classic Star Trek.

Kirk’s version of the Federation is often expressly expansionist, particularly in episodes written by Gene L. Coon. In Arena, they annex a Gorn planet without a second thought about who it might belong to. In A Taste of Armageddon, the Federations seeks to secure treaty ports with a planet that would rather be left alone. In Errand of Mercy, Kirk competes for a populated planet that has “little intrinsic value” outside its strategic position.

In contrast, the Federation of The Next Generation is a little more high-minded. Picard won’t intervene to save the lives of his crew in Code of Honour or Justice, for example. He struggles to find a way to help in Symbiosis. It’s no coincidence that the frnachise only began a respectful on-screen exploration of Klingon culture at this point. (It’s also important to note that the Federation never embraced moral relativism. They still looked down their nose at what they deemed to be “primitive” cultures like in The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us. They just didn’t meddle in those cultures.)

Ryan suggests that Federation seen in Kirk’s era was less likely to understand divergent viewpoints. West suggests that the cold war with the Klingons stems from the fact that the Federation never actually defeated the Empire, believing that the Klingons would prefer negotiated peace to wholesale slaughter. As West argues:

“The Klingons have hundreds of words in their language for conflict, for war, for violence. Conflict is the context through which they see much of their lives. And every communication with an enemy—or in the Federation’s case a potential enemy—can be seen as a form of combat.”

“I suggest we try to understand the Klingon mind-set, and not treat them as we would expect to be treated, but as they would. And they expect conflict, they respect it. From what we know, in Klingon politics and military service, succession is a violent and challenge-driven process. We have no reason to believe they treat diplomacy any other way.”

It’s an important idea for the Federation to adopt, and referencing that shift in values between classic Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation is a smart idea.

Ryan also recognises something that very few writers outside of Ronald D. Moore appreciate. As much as the Klingon political philosophy might be internally consistent and well-characterised, that doesn’t make it especially productive. Ryan suggests that the Federation’s value system can be cynically described as ethno-centric and imperialist, but the Klingon system of assassination and internal conflict isn’t exactly conducive either.

Talking about an officer on a Klingon ship who must deal with the constant fear that he may killed by a power-hungry underling, Ryan observes that living in such an environment does not promote selfless decision-making.

Keeping the officers pitted against each other in that way ensured that his own authority would not be challenged—certainly not by more than one Klingon at a time.

It was a good method of command to insure a Klingon’s own power. It was, however, disastrous for battle-readiness and kept junior officers embroiled in petty disputes. For the Klingon Defense Force to maintain its full power, a warrior’s first concern had to be his duty to the Empire, his second had to be his duty to his ship, and his third had to be his duty to his own fighting force, which in this case was the group in the disruptor room.

Ryan seems to understand that the society-wide value on strength and the appearance of ritualised honour creates a system where the skills necessary to survive are not necessarily the skills that make a good leader. Moore’s characterisation of the Klingon Chancellor Gowron was a fascinating study in that thesis, and Ryan seems to have been paying attention.

Ryan’s style is nice and fluid. It moves along briskly. The author has a nice sense of humour about Star Trek. As well as alluding to the reputation of the red shirts, I like that one the ship’s training drills involves “an Earther in a costume, some sort of rubberized polymer.” Anderson “could see the seams where the rubber was fitted together. He also noticed that the joints were unnaturally wide with the rubber skin bunching and buckling around them.” How very Star Trek.

Slightly less satisfying is the revelation that apparently Anderson’s cosmetics are only skin-deep. To be fair, this is in keeping with the other Klingon infiltrator seen on the show, Arne Darvin in The Trouble With Tribbles, but it really makes Starfleet look incompetent. When John Byrne used the same trick in Crew, he made the skipping of the crew physicals a plot point. The idea that a spy serving on a starship could avoid getting a simple medical scan makes McCoy look rather absurd, particularly when serving as part of the department most likely to need medical attention.

The Edge of the Sword might be a bit light in places, but it is a fascinating read for anybody interested in what a broader look at the classic Star Trek universe might look like. Ryan’s authorial voice keeps the plot moving at a brisk pace, and helps account for some of the plotting shortcomings.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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