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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Requiem by Michael Jan Friedman & 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.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Star Trek is a franchise spanning almost half-a-century with six leading actors and five different television shows. Due to its nature, one of the more enjoyably fanboy-ish pastimes is attempting to reimagine various confrontations and encounters, swapping out the characters involved. How would Kirk have responded to the Borg? Would Sisko have been ideally suited to dealing with the Xindi threat? What if Janeway faced the Doomsday Machine? Different characters have different defining moments, and those moments often play to their particular strengths. It might be fun to watch Khan spar with Picard, but it probably wouldn’t work as well as it did with Kirk. Q and Kirk would probably have difficulty striking it off.

Still, Kirk’s confrontation with the Gorn in Arena stands as one of the most iconic moments in the whole of the franchise, to the point where the weird toga-wearing god-like being at the end barely gets a look-in. Indeed, based on Sisko’s fanboy gushing in Trials and Tribble-ations, it seems to be one of Kirk’s defining moments within the shared Star Trek universe. So it might be fun to take Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and put him through that same sort of confrontation.

tng-requiem

Okay, not that exact same confrontation. That would be silly. Star Trek was always a more physical show than Star Trek: The Next Generation ever was. While it’s fun to watch a young William Shatner throwing down with a giant green lizard man, Patrick Stewart’s gravitas is somewhat wasted if you ask the actor to try to pummel a man in a silly green foam suit. Even imagining that confrontation is a bit ridiculous, and one of the smarter things about Requiem is that writers Michael Jan Friedman and Kevin Ryan realise that.

Still, the novel does get some mileage out of the idea that Kirk’s wonderful fight with the monster is iconic in the universe, in a large part due to the fact that the Metrons broadcasted the fight to the Enterprise and the Gorn vessel like some sort of reality television show gone horribly wrong. There is something very cool about the image of a young Captain Picard doing his research on the Gorn and essentially being able to watch Arena.

“The story never lost its appeal for Jean-Luc,” we’re told, “and for perhaps the hundredth time in his adult life, he watched as the moment of inspiration hit the starship commander.” For the hundredth time? It’s nice to picture Picard as a fanboy, and it’s fun to imagine Patrick Stewart mustering genuine enthusiasm for the adventure. It is also a nice reminder that the cast of The Next Generation are human and that, despite years of evolution and maturity, the image of William Shatner wrestling a guy in a lizard suit is still pretty cool.

There’s a nice sense of humour about the inherent absurdity of Arena. As much as I love that episode (and I do), it’s very hard to take the show entirely seriously. Which, of course, is the point. Writer Gene L. Coon had a wonderful knack for finding the humanity in pulpy science-fiction, but it was still unashamedly pulpy science-fiction and precisely the kind of thing that none of the other Star Trek spin-offs could have gotten away with. When Archer finally faced down a Gorn, Star Trek: Enterprise had to build him a replica sixties set to make the action feel at home.

So it seems that the events of Arena aren’t just an iconic part of the Star Trek franchise, that confrontation has become a piece of the fabric of the shared universe. The novel informs us, “Captain James T. Kirk’s encounter with the captain of the Gorn ship on a stark and desolate world had become legend . . . and simulations of that encounter were a common test of cadets at Starfleet Academy.”

At the same time, Friedman and Ryan concede that the physics of it all are questionable. Recalling Picard’s attempt at the test, we’re informed, “he’d tried Kirk’s trick with the cannon, earning himself painful burns on his hands and four weeks with an eye patch.” As Riker notes, the whole thing is rather dubious:

“I was actually in the middle of trying to reproduce the primitive cannon Captain Kirk had prepared, when I realized what a pointless exercise it was. Besides the risk the cannon posed, the chances of hitting anything—let alone a moving target—were astronomical.”

These are all concerns that would impact the production of The Next Generation more than they would bother the production team on the original Star Trek.

So Picard doesn’t fit easily into the framework of Arena. You can’t just lift Kirk out of that story and graft Picard in his place. It’s a very enlightened and considered view of that sort of frequent fan debate. Changing the players fundamentally changes the scenario. I also like the revelation that Riker actually managed to defeat the Gorn, like Kirk… by hitting it really hard with a rock. We can just add that to the list of reasons that Riker will never be as cool as Kirk. It would fit right under “Thomas is not as cool a middle name as Tiberius.”

The Next Generation is not the same show as the original Star Trek. And that is okay. I actually like that diversity. It seems like it took The Next Generation a long time to accept that fact, with quite a few early episodes feeling like hold-overs from the sixties. The Naked Now and Justice can only be forgiven as attempted throwbacks to the classic Star Trek show. Otherwise, they are just truly worthless hours of television.

The spin-off only really began to come into its own when it realised that it was a very different animal from its predecessor, the product of a very different time. Towards the end of the first season of The Next Generation, the show began to put its own slant on familiar Star Trek ideas, rather than just copying them and hoping for the best. These concepts were updated to reflect the fact that The Next Generation was, broadly speaking, a more intellectualised show and less of a pulpy adventure.

When Kirk encountered the Romulans in Balance of Terror, he raced to destroy them before they could report on Federation weakness, which led to submarine warfare… in space. When Picard dealt with the Romulans during the serviceable half of The Neutral Zone, he was trying to avoid conflict, which involved a lot of sitting and talking. When Kirk encountered an innocent alien life form responsible for several death in The Devil in the Dark, he continued trying to kill it until he figured out its motivation. In Home Soil, the episode is wrapped up the moment Picard figures out there’s a life form on the planet surface.

So it is to the credit of Friedman and Ryan that they realise a straightforward retelling of Arena swapping out Kirk for Picard is not the best way to tell this story. The book seems to get off to a solid start with Picard opening negotiations with the Gorn. The Next Generation generally handled world-building politics a little better than its parent show, and is more suited to a “let’s talk this out” narrative than a “let’s build a diamond cannon” adventure.

Indeed, a story about Picard engaging in diplomatic negotiations with the Gorn would arguably be the best possible way to tell a similar story using the character. Kirk was a character suited to life in the field, making split-second decisions and tackling problems with two fists and a shirt that always tore in the exact same place. Picard, on the other hand, was more suited to the art of statesmanship and diplomacy. Pitting Picard against a race that doesn’t normally go in for that sort of thing is pretty much as close as you can get – conceptually – to “Kirk fights a lizard man.”

However, Requiem runs into trouble pretty quickly, because it turns out that the actually negotiations with the Gorn are confined to the brief prologue and epilogue. The bulk of the story falls into the classic “the Enterprise has a deadline and one of the crew goes missing” template that has been a franchise staple since The Galileo Seven. To be fair, there’s a reason that it sticks around. It is a good template. Since I’m being quite kind to Enterprise in this review, I’ll point to Shuttlepod One, which is probably the best episode of that show’s rocky first season. Stranding a crewmember and setting a deadline adds nice dramatic stakes.

The problem with Requiem is that the book doesn’t bother to do that much with the premise. Again, like the prologue and epilogue, the core ingredients are good. Picard finds himself thrown back in time to Cestus III, the colony ravaged by the Gorn at the start of Arena. Knowing the colony must be destroyed (and the innocents must be massacred), Picard must try to get home without damaging the time line. Ignoring the fact that the basic premise feels quite derivative of The City on the Edge of Forever and the unproduced Phase II script Tomorrow and the Stars, this isn’t a bad hook.

However, the book runs into several problems off the bat. One of the strengths of The Next Generation and of Picard as a character is the way that he approaches reason, and his willingness to sacrifice so much for what he perceives to be the greater good. Much like a large amount of the dramatic weight in The City on the Edge of Forever came from Kirk’s struggle to justify the death of the woman he loved, you’d imagine that putting Picard in a similar position would generate considerable angst.

When he wakes up on Cestus III and interacts with all the colonists, he knows that they must die. Even though he may grow close to them, these are people who have to die so that the course of history can be maintained. That has to hurt. Picard would never concede such emotions were clouding his judgement, but they are there bubbling beneath the surface. Patrick Stewart had a gift for conveying that conflict. Requiem obviously doesn’t have Patrick Stewart, but it does have the advantage of being a book. It could offer the reader insight into Picard’s thought process and his rationalisations.

Unfortunately, Requiem is rather shallow. The novel makes repeated reference to the fact that all these characters are going to die, but Picard’s response to it all feels pretty shallow. Instead, the actual structure of the episode almost recalls the first season episode The Big Goodbye. The Enterprise is assigned to make diplomatic contact with a hostile alien species, relying exclusively on Picard as a point of contact. Picard indulges his curiosity a while before the meeting, and then disappears into the past while pretending to be Dixon Hill.

That wasn’t a terrible story during the show’s rocky first season. However, we’ve moved a bit beyond that at this point, and the novel’s allusions towards both Arena and The City on the Edge of Forever deserve more thought and more scrutiny. The set-up seems to invite an introspective exploration of how terrible events might lead to great things, and that the good and the bad of history are inexorably (and inseparably) linked. Instead, Friedman and Ryan pitch it as an adventure story in the past, where Picard has to accomplish a list of objectives without provoking suspicion, with some gratuitous fight scenes thrown in.

Towards the end, in the epilogue, it seems like the book might pick up on some of those themes. One of the more interesting aspects of Arena is that the Gorn weren’t really held to account for their mass slaughter. The reveal that they considered Cestus III to be their territory seemingly justified the murder of the innocent inhabitants (including children) without warning.

It might be interesting to explore the consequences of that, to suggest that while the Federation were clearly invaders, the Gorn response was something meriting condemnation as much as forgiveness. There’s a nice moment towards the end of the novel where Picard, having lived through the brutal massacre, confronts a Gorn:

An anger rose up inside him, a geyser of hate and loathing that threatened to consume him utterly. And why not? Was this not the face of the enemy, the inhuman destroyer?

Now, that would make an interesting story for Picard. The character trying to put aside his own feelings of disgust and hatred while negotiating for peace. It’s the kind of story that suits Picard, the notion of the stoic diplomat wrestling with feelings he feels will compromise him. Unfortunately, this is relegated to the closing chapter of the novel, and Picard gets over it in a paragraph. Yes, Friedman and Ryan set it up, but the conclusion feels shallow and clumsy and unearned.

Despite this fundamental and central problem, one which makes the book quite a disappointing read, Friedman and Ryan do make some interesting observations. In particular, they make some nice observations about the social and cultural differences between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, with the suggestion that the Federation is a far more conservative organisation than it used to be. Picard considers how risky settling on Cestus III must have been, and how it would never happen in his time. “In his time, no colony was ever set up that didn’t have a reasonable chance of reaching its objectives.”

Friedman and Ryan also seem to concede that a lot of the broader philosophical shifts between the somewhat dirtier and edgier original Star Trek and the more sterile Next Generation are grounded in the fact that the Federation is presented as much more advanced and also much more prosperous. Considering the lack of families on 23rd century ships, we’re informed, “It wouldn’t be until replicator technology made food preparation simple that families would be regularly deployed on starships—and Picard doubted that that was a coincidence.”

At the centre of these differences is the idea that the Federation and Starfleet have expanded to the point where it can meet almost anybody’s needs. When one officer complains about being unable to secure a starship posting, it’s confirmed that the 24th century has even – to alarge extent – eliminated scarcity in work placement:

In this time, there were only twelve heavy-cruiser-class starships in service. Thus, there were less than five thousand of the coveted positions on board the vessels that were at the forefront of space exploration. In his own era, he knew, there was substantially more opportunity.

Still, Requiem feels like a wasted opportunity. It’s always fun to imagine what might happen if you add a new ingredient to an established recipe. Friedman and Ryan earn points for observing that substituting Kirk for Picard would change the story structure dramatically, but they lack the follow-through. While Requiem demonstrates that Kirk is probably the only Star Trek lead who could fight the Gorn, it never manages to offer a compelling examination of how Picard would handle a similar situation. All it does is just mass up a bunch of familiar Star Trek plot tropes and execute them in a rather generic fashion.

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

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