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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s The Limit: Meet with Triumph and Disaster & Trust Yourself When All Men Doubt You by Michael Schuster & Steve Mollmann (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. This is actually supplementary to the first season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode Encounter at Farpoint.

The Sky’s the Limit was an anthology released to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 2007. It was a bit of a no brainer, edited by the wonderful Marco Palmieri in the style of anthologies like The Lives of Dax or Prophecy and Change. The goal was to draw together a bunch of talented writers to fashion stories involving the crew and the ship at various stages in the life cycle of the Enterprise. There is a short story for every season of the show, save the fourth, and between each of the movies.

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The Sky’s the Limit is bookended by two stories written by by Michael Schuster & Steve Mollmann. Meet with Triumph and Disaster is set during the Enterprise’s construction, and features the original captain of the mission. Trust Yourself When All Men Doubt You is something of an epilogue to Star Trek: Nemesis, featuring Picard composing a letter of advice to Captain William T. Riker on taking command of the Titan.

What’s interesting about both stories is that they fixate on the character of Thomas Halloway, a character who was only mentioned once, fleetingly, in an episode of The Next Generation set in an alternate universe. Indeed, it works out so that both the first story and the last line of the collection focus on a character who has never appeared on screen. It’s certainly an interesting choice for an anthology intended to celebrate The Next Generation.

However, in retrospect, it seems like a fair choice. Picard was always a character distinct from Kirk. While Kirk was a man whose “first, best destiny” would always by commanding a starship named Enterprise, Picard always seemed like more a renaissance man. Picard was a character with a passion of archaeology, and it’s easy to imagine him digging up fossils on some alien world or teaching in a university. You could even imagine Picard sitting behind a desk or working as a diplomat or scholar.

That was, indeed, one of the points of Christopher L. Bennett’s The Buried Age, the suggestion that Picard was a character who could very easily have missed the launch of the Enterprise, who could have done something else or been someone else. As such, it makes sense to rope in the character of Thomas Halloway, the unseen alternate Enterprise captain from the alternate life Picard lived in Tapestry.

Halloway is just a convenient stand-in. He’s a shell. He’s pretty much just “the guy who would have commanded the Enterprise had Picard not been around.” Whereas JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek suggests that even an altered and broken history would try to realign itself to get Kirk back in the command chair, the same simply isn’t true of Picard. The universe could get on by perfectly fine without him.

The universe just keeps ticking over in his absence. Picard is a more intellectual man than Kirk, more prone to reflection or introspection. (Kirk seemed quite unaccustomed to introspection when he came across it in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or even Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.) While Kirk stole the Enterprise after he was promoted, and got demoted to serve on its replacement, Trust Yourself When All Men Doubt You reveals that Picard was more prone to self-doubt.

Indeed, Picard had to think seriously about accepting the command of the Enterprise-E following the destruction of the Enterprise-D:

He’d thought these thoughts before, of course. When he’d been forced to abandon the Stargazer at Maxia Zeta, he’d deemed himself unfit for command before he’d even been summoned before the Starfleet court-martial. And when the Enterprise-D had crash-landed on Veridian III, he’d spent almost a year contemplating alternatives before finally committing to her successor. With the help of his friends, he had pulled through the self-doubt that had plagued him.

It’s an interesting take on who Picard is, and what being captain of the Enterprise means to him – how it’s different than it was for Kirk.

It’s a very philosophical position for The Sky’s the Limit to take, bookending itself with two pieces contemplating the sheer chance that led Picard to command the Enterprise. Reflecting on the fact that he eventually replaced Halloway in the captain’s chair, leading to a chain of events that brought Halloway to Wolf 359, Picard concedes to himself that “in a way, he had killed Thomas Halloway.”

That’s true in a number of ways. In a literal sense, Picard had been on that Borg Cube, assisting the enemy. In a metaphorical sense, Picard took command of the Enterprise, setting the chain of events in motion that led to Halloway’s death. In a metafictional sense, Picard filled the narrative void that Halloway would have occupied. In a way, this lends The Sky’s the Limit a strangely funereal air. It’s bookended by stories meditating on what might have been and what almost was.

Indeed, Meet with Triumph and Disaster focuses on the fairly tragic back story of the Enterprise’s development. There’s reference to the murder-suicide as seen in Eye of the Bolder and another accident involving the loss of twelve lives. In a way, it suggests that the Enterprise’s launch was a painful process – which is certainly true. Anybody who watched the first two seasons can testify to that.

There’s even a note of disappointment in the way that the Enterprise’s mission to explore “strange new worlds” fell so quickly by the wayside, following the promise of Encounter at Farpoint. As Schuster and Mollmann astutely point out, the Enterprise seems to spend most of its time ferrying diplomats or investigating pre-existing mysteries or dealing with scientists and politics. This trend started almost immediately:

Despite her original charter to explore the unknown galactic mass beyond Deneb IV, the Enterprise-D had been forced to turn back only a couple of weeks into her journey, to answer a distress call from one of the science vessels assigned to tail the Enterprise and follow up her discoveries in-depth. The ensuing crisis was taken care of, but the backtracking had put the Enterprise in a position to be the closest ship to Ligon II when Starfleet found itself in need of a vital vaccine from that planet.

That’s a rather clever bit of continuity fixing, explaining how the events of The Naked Now and Code of Honour led the Enterprise to the show’s actual status quo, away from the romantic exploration promised in Picard’s opening narration. Another difference from Kirk’s Enterprise, which did seem to spend a lot of time exploring new worlds and new civilisations.

Of course, there’s a flip side to all of this, and The Sky’s the Limit seems to hint at this more optimistic interpretation. After all, had Picard been replaced by Halloway before the show began, would we have known the difference? Maybe the French back story would have been changed, but the character could easily have been the same template. He might even have been played by Patrick Stewart.

What made Picard into the character we know and love is the character development that followed on from Encounter at Farpoint. While Picard’s Enterprise might not have explored in the same way that Kirk’s did, and Picard himself might not be the same dynamic lead as Kirk was, The Next Generation ultimately developed other strengths. While the classic Star Trek opened with a phenomenal first season,  The Next Generation didn’t begin particularly strong.

Instead, it grew into a more ambitious and intriguing piece of television. The Next Generation was a show that didn’t succeed because of destiny or exploration. It was a show about a bunch of people who grew into something of a family unit. Picard might not have been destined to command the Enterprise in the same way that Kirk did, but the Enterprise provided him with a surrogate family. While Kirk was always close to Bones or Spock, the original cast never seemed as close as Picard’s Enterprise crew.

That’s what makes The Next Generation such a powerful show, and it has nothing to do with Picard belonging in the big chair, or the Enterprise’s somewhat haphazard explorations. As much as Picard might have wanted to see what was out there, the beauty of The Next Generation was Picard discovering what lay inside – getting to know his crew and his colleagues. Growing into a family unit. After all, the anthology’s title comes from the final line of the series, from the moment the family is completed by Picard’s decision to join the crew’s poker game.

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

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