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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Masks by John Vornholt (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

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

Generally, I’ve been looking at novels and tie-ins that are specifically or thematically related to specific episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a valid approach to writing about the show, searching out material that expands or develops themes and concepts and characters lightly touched upon during the episode in question. However, some times it is also worth taking time out to look at what was happening in tie-in fiction at approximately the same time.

Obviously, the scripts written by writers working on the show were the result of a careful creative process drawing input from the writers in general, the producers and the studio. They were crafted with a key eye to shaping the future direction of the show, by the people working on the show. Looking at official tie-in material from the same time allows us to venture a bit outside that circle, and to get a glimpse of what The Next Generation might have looked like to a creator outside the writers’ room as it was going to air.

Masks was published in July 1989, after Shades of Grey had aired and the second season had limped off the screen. While author John Vornholt obviously could not have seen the whole season on submitting his novel, it is interesting to get his view of the sci-fi spin-off in its sophomore season.

tng-masks

Star Trek tie-in novels hadn’t really taken off while the original show was on the air. The first Star Trek tie-in, Mission to Horatius, had been aimed at teenagers, was published in 1968, which would have been during the show’s second season. However, the first true tie-in was Spock Must Die!, published in 1970. In a way, the tie-in novels helped keep the show alive during the long gap between the cancellation of the television show and the eventual production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the end of the seventies.

The climate was very different while The Next Generation was on the air. The original Star Trek novels had proven very popular, and so there were tie-ins to The Next Generation published while the show as still on the air, providing some interesting companion pieces to the weekly adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise. Some of these novels were bad, and some were bland, but there were some interesting and some very successful efforts made as well.

Reading Masks, it feels like John Vornholt was writing a story very clearly modeled on the original Star Trek. The set-up and the plot beats all feel like they were lifted from a classic Star Trek episode, rather than an instalment of The Next Generation. Consider the author’s description of Lorca:

“Lorca was settled about two hundred years ago by two separate groups from Earth. One of them was a wandering theatre company—in fact, the planet’s name is taken from a famous Earth playwright. They used Lorca as a rest and recreational stop, a place to rehearse new productions, put on play festivals, and house their nontraveling family members. The other group was a cult of antitechnologists who went there seeking a paradise where they could live a simple communal life. The fruit-and-berry folk hired the acting company to take them to Lorca in their ship, and that was the last Earth ever heard of either group.”

While The Next Generation would stumble across any number of worlds populated by ancient human colonists (The Masterpiece Society comes to mind), the idea of an entire world established and defined by actors calls to mind the surreal Earth-like cultures of the original Star Trek. It’s almost as if the “actor planet” from Masks would fit alongside the “gangster planet” from A Piece of the Action, the “Nazi planet” from Patterns of Force, the “Roman planet” from Bread & Circuses and the “primitive Cold War planet” from The Omega Glory.

I should note that Vornholt has obviously done his research here. He does know all of the characters involved, and is aware of the differences between Star Trek and The Next Generation. There’s the occasionally awkward moment (did anybody on the Enterprise call Pulaski “Kate”, especially Wesley?), but – broadly speaking – Vornholt knows what he is writing. He’s just adjusting these characters and archetypes to fit within the context of a classic Star Trek episode. The tropes and conventions are lifted from the original series, but the characters and the universe are very clearly and distinctly those of The Next Generation.

However, the similarities to the original Star Trek run deep. The supporting character of Fenton Lewis feels more like one of those insane officials from the classic Star Trek, an authority figure on the verge of a mental breakdown. The Next Generation featured its share of obstructive supervisors and admirals, but very few were outright criminal. Most had reasonable motivations for their actions. Here, Lewis is just a plot device to get the action moving and to transition the plot through its various phases.

It’s to Vornholt’s credit that the regular crew can see through Lewis’ façade easily enough, and that his transparent scheming and plotting doesn’t fool anybody involved in the plot for too long. Still, Lewis is a fairly shallow villain. It is pretty clear early on that he’ll probably be going off the deep end, and that helps Vornholt keep things relatively exciting. Still, Lewis feels like the kind of antagonistic official who would be bothering Kirk, rather than the sort of misguided idealist or stubborn obfuscating authority who would bother Picard.

Masks also features Captain Picard leaving the bridge of the Enterprise to lead a risky away team. It’s something that rarely happened on the television show, even early in the run. To be fair, Vornholt concedes the point and acknowledges that the ship probably shouldn’t send down its head honcho into unknown terrain to lead a potentially risky mission. It is, again, the kind of thing that Kirk would do, but it feels a little strange in the context of The Next Generation.

Vornholt even casts Picard in the role of romantic lead, engaging in his own diplomatic relations with a female authority figure on Lorca, if you catch my drift. It’s very weird to read a book that acknowledges Picard has a libido:

Then Jean-Luc chided himself, feeling ashamed. Here he was, mentally undressing the woman. A starship captain acting like a lovesick teenager. He had to curb his unseemly curiosity and concentrate on the mission.

Indeed, Picard is very much swept off his feet here, and acts (and thinks) in an uncharacteristically passionate manner. “He longed to be two people,” we’re told, “one of whom could proudly wear the Ambassador’s Mask and fight and love at her side.” That’s the sort of characterisation that we’d expect of the more romantic and less-grounded Kirk.

Indeed, the version of Picard presented here seems much less formal than the one portrayed by Patrick Stewart in the television show. Consider this scene, where he has just discovered Counsellor Troi:

“Captain?” she called.

“Deanna!” came a relieved voice.

While Kirk was prone to throw around nicknames for his crew, Picard tended to address his officers (with the possible exception of Beverly) by rank and surname, unless dealing with them in a less formal environment. It’s a small exchange, but it is one that is very hard to imagine playing out with Patrick Stewart.

There are other touches which evoke the classic series more than its first live action spin-off.There’s a weird mysticism which feels more in line with sixties counter-culture than with late eighties rationalism. Masks doesn’t do anything as crazy as making the masks self-aware, but the whole thing has a decidedly New Age feel to it. “The mask itself determines who its wearer shall be,” we’re told, and the idea of masks choosing their wearer recurs quite a bit, hinting at the hand of fate or destiny in it all. It feels quite removed from the more rational world of The Next Generation.

The use of the Ferengi here is very clearly modelled on the portrayal of the Klingons in the original television show. To be fair, Vornholt respects the Ferengi culture as clumsily established in The Last Outpost. They are still arch-capitalists. He even cannily contextualises the energy whip within their money-driven society. “This is quite an effective disciplinary device on some of our mining colonies,” one explains, making the link between Ferengi capitalist culture and the history of slavery explicit.

However, their plot function here evokes the use of the Klingons in episodes like Friday’s Child or Private Little War. Lorca, like primitive worlds in the classic Star Trek, finds itself stuck between two galactic powers, faced with the prospect of becoming a satellite of one or the other. The Ferengi seek to manipulate Lorca in order to undermine the Federation. As Picard notes, this is a tactic the Klingons favoured on the original Star Trek. “But the Ferengi have no equivalent to our Prime Directive. They’ll subvert the government, do whatever it takes, to achieve their aims.”

So it seems like, reading Masks, John Vornholt felt like it would be fun to tell a story that could fit quite well with the original Star Trek, just using the characters and the rules established in The Next Generation. Given that this was written during the show’s second season, you could forgive Vornholt for assuming that this is really what The Next Generation wanted to do, to tell the kinds of stories favoured by the original show, only with a different set of characters and aliens.

After all, it seems like a significant portion of The Next Generation‘s first two years were spent trying to emulate its predecessor. The second episode, The Naked Now, was a direct rip-off of a first-season episode of the classic Star Trek, The Naked Time. The second season of the show opened with The Child, a script adapted from one written for the proposed Star Trek: Phase II, a show which would have continued the adventures of Kirk’s Enterprise.

Even discounting these direct lifts, it’s clear that Roddenberry originally wanted The Next Generation to be a lot closer to the original Star Trek. Episodes like Justice feel like conscious throwbacks to the sixties, and the “free love” alien culture seems rather surreal and outdated in the late eighties. When Katherine Pulaski was added to the crew roster for the second season, the production team hired an actress who had appeared twice on the original Star Trek and very consciously modeled the character on Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

As such, I can understand why Vornholt would have looked at The Next Generation and thought it would be fun to tell a story using narrative devices from the classic Star Trek. And, to be fair, Masks is probably the best tribute that crazy style of storytelling that the franchise did after The Next Generation came on the air. It’s a story that would never work in live action, but Vornholt shrewdly takes advantage of his medium to make all this work.

I won’t lie. As I was reading, I imagined Lorca as the type of deliciously fake sound stage used on shows like Hide & Q and The Arsenal of Freedom. It added to the story’s quirky charm. However, it’s also possible to imagine Lorca as a location on a scale that simply wouldn’t have been possible on a television budget, bringing a classic Star Trek world to life, but without the corny sets or back walls that define the show.

Masks has a delightfully quirky and fun atmosphere, an adventure that really just takes an outlandish premise and plays out a pulpy adventure. There are sword fights and raiders and intrigue and scheming. Vornholt is clearly more interested with keeping his readers engaged than he is with fashioning a tightly-plotted saga, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Masks is a page-turner, and a fun one at that.

The only real problem with the plotting comes towards the end, when the story conveniently resolves itself after a final-act twist. Vornholt sets up this massive conflict and raises the stakes massively… only to resolve everything off-page and have our heroes find that everything has been neatly and conveniently handled for them. It feels almost like Vornholt realised that he was reaching his page limit and had to find a quick way of tying everything up. It’s a logical ending, and one that works with what has been described so far, but it also feels a little bit hallow.

Still, Masks is fun because it feels like an honest and successful attempt to use Picard’s crew to tell a story that feels like it might suit Kirk’s crew better. Appropriately enough, I’d argue that the closest television episode to Vornholt’s novel is the seventh season episode that carries the same name. While the plots really aren’t that similar at all, both Vornholt’s novel and the later television episode are quite similar in tone.

The seventh season of The Next Generation had a sort of a “let’s go wild!” atmosphere, with the writers throwing crazy premises at the wall to see what stuck. “Beverly sexes up a candle!” and “Barcley becomes a spider!” are the kind of things that nobody would have foreseen during the third or fourth seasons. While a great many of these premises missed (and missed horribly), I have a fondness for Masks, because it feels like an attempt to do a final-season Star Trek episode as a final-season Next Generation episode. So there is a strange symmetry between Vornholt’s novel and the later broadcast episode of the same name.

Masks is fun. It’s not a classic Star Trek novel, and it’s not one of the best Next Generation stories ever told. It is, however, a lovely pulpy read, and one that’s worth a look just to see what a Star Trek homage starring The Next Generation would have looked like.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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