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Star Trek – The Final Reflection by John M. Ford (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.

The Final Reflection was written in 1984. Development on Star Trek: The Next Generation would only be announced in 1986. Sure, there were a bunch of successful movies being produced, but these only amounted to a couple of hours of Star Trek once every few years. And, even then, the movies were aimed at a much broader audience, without the same development and continuity that a television show could offer. Not that Star Trek ever really had that tight a sense of continuity, of course, but it must have seemed unlikely that things could ever go back to the way they had been. Certainly, in 1984, nobody could have anticipated the eighteen-straight years of Star Trek running from Encounter at Farpoint to These Are the Voyages.

As a result, fans had to look to other avenues to expand and develop the rich Star Trek universe. The novels were one such avenue, although they developed slowly. Mission to Horatius had been published while the show was on the air, but it was very clearly aimed at a younger audience. Spock Must Die! would be published in 1970. However, the spin-off fiction developed relatively slowly. Star Trek had yet to become a massive franchise with tie-in multimedia commercial opportunities.

Perhaps because the Star Trek novels had not quite turned into a massive franchising opportunity, and they weren’t under the same level of publicity or scrutiny that they would be in the years to come, writer John M. Ford was able to do something quietly revolutionary with his first Star Trek novel, The Final Reflection. He was able to venture away from our core cast of iconic characters and instead develop the Klingon Empire.

More than that, though, he was able to paint the Klingons as the good guys.

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It’s worth taking a moment to contemplate that last statement. The Klingons are an iconic part of the Star Trek mythos. They’ve been that ever since they become the most frequently-recurring enemy threat on the classic Star Trek show, starting with Errand of Mercy. In fact, the Klingons on the original Star Trek made such an impression that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would actually bring back three of the most memorable guest stars from the show to appear in Blood Oath, nearly three decades later. However, they were introduced as the bad guys.

The Klingons have gone on to be one of the best-developed alien races to appear in the entire franchise. Really only Spock can claim to be a more iconic extraterrestrial. The appear in the opening sequence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, welcoming the franchise to the big screen. They kill Kirk’s son in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Kirk and his crew hijack a nice Klingon ride for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The final original series outing brings things a full circle, as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has Kirk making peace with his enemy.

That reach continues into the spin-offs. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine featured Worf as a leading character. When the network ordered a retool for the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, the network brought in the Klingons. Even the first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, Broken Bow, centred around first contact between Earth and the Klingon Empire. So it’s fair to say that the Klingons are a fairly essential part of the show’s fabric, more than the Romulans or the Borg or the Cardassians.

In fact, they were really the first alien series to develop inside the television show. The original Star Trek series presented the Klingons as worthy opponents at best. Errand of Mercy and The Day of the Dove suggested that Klingons and the Federation could at least respect each other, even while plotting one another’s annihilation. However, it was very clear that these were the bad guys. In Private Little War, the Klingons are shown to be subverting local governments by sneakily supplying arms to rebels.

It was only with The Next Generation that Klingons developed into a complex society with their own value systems. They were more than just an external opponent to the Federation, they were a culture with their own perspective and philosophy. It began with episodes like Heart of Glory and Matter of Honour, before Ronald D. Moore took over the Klingon arc for a series of probing explorations like Sins of the Father and Reunion. That development carried over to Deep Space Nine.

However, John M. Ford got there first. The Final Reflection is perhaps the first Star Trek story to acknowledge that the Klingons are a complex political entity, and not just a convenient adversary. It was a radical idea at the time, somewhat subversive. Barring a short prologue and epilogue, Kirk and the Enterprise do not even appear in the novel. Some familiar faces pop up from time to time, but this is really more about the wider Star Trek universe than it is about the crew of the USS Enterprise.

Arguably, that is a provocative idea on its own terms. In the story-within-a-framing device, the author of the controversial history that Kirk is reading (called, unsurprisingly, The Final Reflection), the author thanks his editor for her support. “And it was Mimi Panitch, my editor, who first decided that the Federation was ready for this story,” we’re told, in a rather obvious piece of meta-fiction. Mimi Panitch was a real person, and she fought to get Ford’s story published.

Indeed, Ford notes that internal resistance against The Final Reflection was so strong that those supervising the line actually changed the rules for submissions in response to the book:

The Powers That immediately announced that no novel could ever again be set out of series continuity (there actually were one or two, but they were -extremely- What The Studio Wanted Done).  Later the ruleset would get comically restrictive, but the only relevance of that to me is to partly explain why I’ll never do another one.

In fact, when author Diane Duane attempted a similar cultural development of the Romulans in her Rihannsu books, apparently even Gene Roddenberry himself took exception. Which is a massive shame.

Let’s talk about tie-in novels for a moment. There’s really two approaches you can take with material like this. You can try to write them as substitute adventures featuring the regular cast – sort of imagining the series as one running parallel to the televised adventures and existing to offer just more of those sorts of stories in a different format. Of course, that format doesn’t have a casting or special effects budget, so the possibilities are endless. There’s just a conscious decision to treat it as “an episode of Star Trek, written down.”

And, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that approach. We’re talking about a time when Star Trek had been off-the-air for over a decade. One movie every few years wasn’t going to satisfy the urges and the needs of fans, so there’s a reason why it’s tempting to do generic run-arounds and to use the novels as a literary Star Trek show, “more of the same” at a time when “the same” hadn’t been around for quite some time.

The other approach you can take is to broaden the horizons. These novels are going to appeal to a particular fanbase by default. They aren’t aiming to catch the 18-34 young male demographic. They are aiming for fans of Star Trek and fans of science-fiction. You should be able to treat your audience to slightly more challenging material. More than that, though, you can acknowledge that a novel is a different format from a movie or a television show. It can be more expansive, it can have a larger reach, it can have a deeper scope.

And that’s what Ford does with The Final Reflection. The beauty of The Final Reflection isn’t just that it is a damn fine tie-in novel. The beauty of The Final Reflection is that it’s a solid and fascinating piece of science-fiction on its own terms, exploring an alien society on its own terms. The people interested in this sort of in-depth look at Klingon culture aren’t going to be the casual television viewers tuning in for Encounter at Farpoint or buying tickets to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. These are going to be people actually interested in literary science-fiction ideas.

I’m not suggesting one approach over the other. I have a number of paint-by-numbers Star Trek novels that I actually quite enjoy. However, I think it’s a mistake to insist that Star Trek tie-in novels should conform to one approach, and not the other. To insist that the line must be anchored to a set vision of what a Star Trek adventure is or should be hems the franchise in. It does the show a disservice. Part of the beauty of Star Trek was the way that it offered viewers something they hadn’t seem on television before. Why is it wrong for The Final Reflection to do something similar?

After all, we know how the novels must end. Despite the attempts to shake-up the Pocket Books line after Star Trek: Voyager went off the air, we know that there’s no way that Gene Roddenberry or any of the editorial staff would let the books kill off or radically alter any of the characters. If we confine ourselves to literary Star Trek episodes, everything becomes so formulaic and so trite and so familiar.

More than that, though, it does the novels a disservice. The novels can’t compete with the television episodes. If I want a Star Trek story with Kirk and Spock, I’m more likely to put on a repeat than read a book. As compelling as the writers might be, a lot of the essence and charm of Star Trek comes from the performances of Shatner, Nimoy and the ensemble. The visual aesthetic of the series is so unique that it feels a same to relegate the books to prosaic imitation.

Besides, The Final Reflection is very, very good. There’s a legitimate argument that it might be the best Star Trek tie-in ever published. To be frank, any editorial policy which goes out of its way to make a book like this seem less likely to get published is worth opposing on that ground alone. A wise man once argued for “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” It’s good advice, and it seems strange that the publishing line was so resistant towards it.

So we’ve established that the notion of a Star Trek book that was only tangentially focused on the crew of the Enterprise is somewhat subversive and counter-establishment. That’s part of the charm of The Final Reflection, the tease that we’re getting a glimpse into something naughty, something out-of-the-norm. The framing device establishes the book as a publication that the Federation was afraid to see published. Based on how strong institutional resistance was to Ford’s manuscript, it seems an appropriate metaphor.

The Final Reflection is essentially a look at Klingon culture. A lot of it has been re-written and ignored and re-worked by the television shows that followed. That said, Ronald D. Moore has conceded that it was a major influence on his early Klingon stories, and I think it’s safe to say that the influence of The Final Reflection can be felt on The Undiscovered Country and Heart of Glory among other Star Trek stories.

Even if the version of Klingon culture established here doesn’t perfectly line-up with that shown on television, that’s not suggest that The Final Reflection is worthless. I’m not a big fan of the idea that a piece of fiction is only as good as it is important to the “canon.” Just because some of Ford’s insights and ideas have been overlooked or ignored doesn’t mean that they aren’t clever, and doesn’t mean that they don’t offer a compelling look at an alternate version of the Klingons. And, to by frank, it’s not too alternate.

I am tempted to suggest that it is sympathetic to the Klingon, but it can be quite brutal in the depiction of Klingon society. This is, after all, a society built on slavery and lobotomising Vulcans. They send their children to fight and die for the purposes of entertainment and in the name of strength and honour, and many of their commanding officers work as privateers in their own time. However, despite this, it doesn’t condemn the Klingons as the villains that Star Trek often wanted them to be, especially in their early stories.

The Final Reflection is, perhaps, best viewed as a story about moral relativism – the idea that we cannot categorically define something as “evil” because it is different from our own value system. As the introduction to the book notes, eve the Klingon idea of slavery is different from our own:

The translation of kuve as servitor may raise eyebrows, especially among my Vulcan readers, but it is a growing belief among experts on the Komerex Klingon (or at least it was) that the usual translation as “slave” is not only inaccurate but inflammatory, much as the phrases “Centaurian lover” and “filthy Ghibelline” of Earth’s past.

It’s a controversial point – it’s hard to argue that the treatment of these servitors is anything short of barbaric. At one point, our lead character – Krenn – witnesses the brutal torture and murder of the house kuve at his family home. While the “law of assassination” assure the Klingons a clean and honest death, the alien races are shown no such courtesy. It’s a disturbing scene, but it’s meant to be.

Moral relativism is meant to be tough. Even when we can accept certain acts as inherently brutal or vile, it’s important not to allow them to justify casual racism. Just because these practices are distasteful and alien to all we hold dear, we must not assume that there is no common ground, or that those committing those acts must be inherently evil. This respect for different cultures is a cornerstone of the franchise, but one that is occasionally ignored or forgotten. Consider, for example, the introduction of the Ferengi in The Last Outpost, where their unchecked capitalism is used as an excuse to mock or condescend to them.

For example, the kuve hold a strange position in Klingon culture. They are clearly considered to be racially inferior to their Klingon masters, and yet are respected and trusted. The statements from the Vulcans are presented as absolute fact. “No one would appear so foolish as to doubt a Vulcan’s word,” we’re assured. The Klingons place absolute trust in their slaves to operate the transporters. “A Captain lent his life to the one he trusted as transporter operator, each time he used the machine: the one chosen must be of special quality.”

And we are, repeatedly, reminded that the Klingons are not the only creatures with morally questionable social structures and practices. The Vulcans are accused of sending their own people to the Klingons, to be lobotomised and turned into slaves. The objective is to observe the Klingon lifestyles. In a brief interlude with Vulcan ambassador Sarek, Krenn wonders if the half-human Spock is the product of cold logic rather than warm love.

“My father says that this is his task,” the young Spock explains, “to communicate logic by example.” This prompts Krenn to wonder, “Is that why you were caused to exist? … As an example?” Spock is an embodiment of the ability of Vulcan and Earth to coexist. If you divorce paternal love from the equation, Spock’s existence seems quite logical as an example. It’s worth noting that these facts aren’t used to paint the Vulcans as villains. Indeed, during the Federation crisis at the climax of the book, the characters concede that the Vulcans are probably the only race who will be smart enough to cling to the ideal of the Federation no matter what.

Which, of course, brings us to the Federation. I suspect that one of the reasons that so many people so close to Star Trek took such an exception to The Final Reflection was due to its portrayal of the Federation. In a way, this is perhaps the most cynical depiction of the Federation that we’d see until In the Pale Moonlight. Ford suggests that the Federation is not an inherently stable structure, and that the Klingons provide an effective bogeyman to keep the members in line.

The necessity for the existence of the Federation is notably justified in pragmatic political terms, rather than the idealistic philosophical arguments that Roddenberry favoured. The Federation isn’t an expression of mankind’s ability to bring peace to the stars, it’s a very rational and necessary defence against a hostile universe. An industrialist concedes that the Federation is held together as much out of fear of the Klingons as by any more meritorious virtue:

Winston said quietly, “Every delegate to Babel knows why, Admiral. We’d never dare dissolve the Federation if we thought some alien menace was waiting to gobble us up piecemeal. I admit, and I’m not proud of it, one of the reasons I was for unity was that I was… afraid of the Klingons.”

Considering the worse case scenario, he imagines how easily everything could fall apart. When the members present hesitate to do what needs to be done to preserve the Federation, Winston suggests, “in forty-eight hours there won’t be any Federation citizens, or any Federation, or any Starfleet: just five hundred tiny little Empires. And the Klingons, and the Romulans. And if you think this deal is rotten, just wait and see what happens then.”

It is pretty dark stuff, and it casts a fascinating light on the way that the Federation actually works. Of course, all the philosophical arguments about strength in unity remain valid, but Ford raises some fascinating points about the glue that must hold that structure together. At one point, the Rigellians note that apparently they were bullied into joining by the Andorians. It’s hardly the history that Kirk and Picard celebrate but it seems plausible. Given how much compromise Deep Space Nine forced the Federation to accept, it’s safe to say that Ford was well ahead of if time.

Of course, Ford also foreshadows future Star Trek stories like The Undiscovered Country or even Conspiracy, as he suggests that it isn’t just Klingons who long for war. It’s not just those conspiring to use the Klingons as a handy boogeyman to keep the Federation stable. It’s those who have formed opinions of these aliens and refuse to let those opinions evolve or change. “Don’t misunderstand me, Captain,” one Federation officer comments. “I still hate you, and all Klingons. I don’t think I’d stop hating you if I found out Jesus Christ was a Klingon.”

We need to be able to change, to evolve, to move past our hatred and prejudice. Isn’t that the very spirit of Star Trek? The notion that mankind needs to be able to transcend our petty grudges and our base emotions? This idea is found at the heart of The Final Reflection, despite all the cynicism that Ford channels into the book. I’d argue that these hints of potential change are all the stronger for the darkness surrounding them. Even that angry officer concedes, “But you’ve… made me think. It’s as if… dead things were alive again.” There is hope, even in darkness.

However, despite its comments on the human condition, The Final Reflection is a story about Klingons. And it’s a fascinating read. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here. While the superficial trappings might differ from the culture that eventually made it to screen, the Klingons are still easily recognisable. It’s still a culture built on strength, and the assumption that strength carries with it moral authority.

Several ideas carry over directly. “Only a fool fights in a burning house,” we’re told, a piece of wisdom that has appeared time and again as a Klingon proverb. The ideas about Klingon death rituals in Heart of Glory also seem to be foreshadowed here, as it is made clear that the Klingons regard a dead body as an empty husk.

Ford also does something here that is quite different from the future development of the Empire in the television show. He actually establishes the Klingons as a racially-diverse group, with interbreeding fairly common and so many subject races that our young protagonist doesn’t even recognise some of the kuve he comes into contact with. Of course, there’s a reason this development didn’t happen on television. It would have been too expensive, or too confusing, but it’s still a fascinating idea. Indeed, it actually establishes the Klingons as an Empire, rather than just a vicious race.

And Klingon philosophy is succinctly explained, in terms that make the historical progression of the Empire seem logical, while inviting comparison to the Federation. “We have a word,” Krenn explains at one point, “komerex: your translator has probably told you it means ‘Empire,’ but what it means truly is ‘the structure that grows.’ It has an opposite, khesterex: ‘the structure that dies.’” You are apparently either one or the other, and it’s clear what the Klingons want to be.

That, however, is where things get interesting. The Klingons represent a darker mirror to humanity. It’s fascinating that Ford has the Klingons relying so readily on their version of transhumanism (transklingonism?), in contrast to humanity’s hesitance to do so. We’re introduced early on to Klingon cyborgs and augments. Krenn learns Federation standard by “dream-learning” and “RNA Transfer.” This is the kind of stuff that no human character on Star Trek would ever consent to.

There’s also a suggestion that the Klingon Empire is tangibly more advanced that the Federation. Wondering why the Federation insist on riding a shuttle to the station, Maktai suggests, “They don’t have particle transporters.” It’s made quite clear that the klingons knew about humans long before humans first recognised Klingons. The novel’s finalé suggests Klingon engineering technology is already well ahead of what the Federation has to hand.

There’s a catch, of course, and this might be the point where Ford most accurately foreshadows the arc of the Klingon Empire through to Tacking into the Wind. Without explicitly stating it, Ford suggests that the Klingon Empire might be in a state of decline and decay. The fixation on broadcasting displays of military power – the torture of a Romulan, the show Battleship Vengeance – suggests a version of Roman “bread and circuses.”

It is made clear that Klingon technology has advanced so quickly that the Empire is coming close to running on empty. We meet a Klingon marine in the closing part of the book, who ages sixty-four times faster than a regular Klingon. Even then, Krenn concedes that Klingons age faster than humans, and die younger. It’s even hinted that the Klingon Empire might not be as sustainable as those in power would hope.

Krenn’s adoptive father, Kethas, doesn’t have an heir – despite fathering eight children. “I have had eight children, which ought to be enough to preserve a line. But seven of them are dead in seven parts of space; and the eighth has changed his name to begin a line of his own, and when his last brother died it was too late to reverse this course. And I have spent many years in space, on the old thin-hulled ships, when the power came from isotopes, and I have taken too much radiation; my children now are monsters, that bubble and die.” There’s no reason to suspect that Kethas is an exceptional case.

In fact, it’s suggested that exposure to the engines that make Klingon ships run has taken a toll on Kethas. He carries Delta Ray scars. “Kethas had been burned by either an unshielded warpdrive, or Romulan lasers.” It suggests that the deep space travel sustaining the empire is inherently damaging. As Krenn notes to an Engineering colleague early on, “I think I’ll stay up front in the pod. Away from the radiation.”

Krenn suggests that dilithium will stabilise Klingon space travel, but the novel suggests that the damage has already been done. The Klingons are clearly more powerful and more advanced than the Federation, but we know that this will change. After all, the events of The Final Reflection serve to buy the Federation time, and time is really the only thing that the Federation needs. Krenn observes that “the weapon of patience” is the weapon “against which Klingons had no defence.”

In fact, some Klingons fear the potential influence of human values eroding their culture. “You can’t see, can you?” one of Krenn’s crew demands, referring to the Federation Ambassador. “How that thing in there has you… enslaved?” Not through force or coercion, but through reason and debate. That is – as Deep Space Nine noted – the Federation’s own subtle method of imperialism. The idea that human value systems can erode and overwhelm any alien culture, given enough time.

It’s no wonder that language plays such an important part here, and why The Final Reflection has so little time for the convenience of the universal translator. Language is more than just the way we communicate, it also shapes the way that we think and the way that we perceive. The above example of kuve is enlightening – translated as “servitor” or “slave”, the context (and our reaction to it) is subtly different.

In The Final Reflection, Ford hints that Krenn’s study of English affects the way that he thinks and processes and weighs information. “I am drowning, he thought, in Federation Standard. Please inform the UFP Consulate.” That is a fantastic line. Does it mean “he thought in Federation Standard”? Or “I am drowning … in Federation Standard”? Two very different meanings, but some wonderful wordplay. I like the implication of the latter.

Similarly, the use of Federation Standard even alters his perception of the dispute over territory. We’re told, “The main display showed the area of space ahead in large scale, the Disputed Zone — what the Federation wanted to call a “border”–marked in white.” The fact that the word ‘border’ is so alien to Krenn explains how the Klingons have such difficulty respecting the concept. Similarly, his sudden ability to comprehend the word means that Krenn is in a better place to understand humanity’s point of view.

It’s fascinating and clever stuff. Though, to be fair, a lot of The Final Reflection is astonishingly great science-fiction and truly wonderful Star Trek. The Final Reflection is a superb piece of Star Trek, and easily one of the best tie-in novels ever published. It’s thoughtful and well-constructed. Although the final form of the Klingon Empire may differ significantly from the version presented here, The Final Reflection still overs a tantalising glimpse of the Klingon soul. The fact that it was the first tie-in to really push the boundaries of what was possible with a Star Trek novel just makes it all that much more incredible.

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

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3 Responses

  1. This is a very well written review. It is surprising that no one else has has commented on it. Actually I was gong to to reply to a few weeks ago and tell you this. Your thoughts on how this was of the first stories to question the utopian vision of the Federation is especially interesting. This is was almost of unheard of in professional fiction or filmed versions of the franchise until Deep Space Nine came on. So it is the book is almost a decade ahead of its time in that respect.

    Right now I am on chapter two. It is going a bit slowly but hopefully the pace will pick up.

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