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Star Trek: The Lost Era – Deny Thy Father by Jeff Mariotte (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.

In theory, you can probably tell a good story about just about anything. There’s a knack to constructing a narrative and in making particular characters fascinating or compelling. In the right hands, even the most tired and boring premise can generate some measure of excitement and over a glimpse of depth that we never thought was there. For example, I didn’t come out of Star Trek: Generations thinking that I’d ever read a classic story about John Harriman, and then I read the superb Serpents Among the Ruins.

However, some ideas strike you as a little less exciting than others. Some concepts seem a bit riskier to pull off, a bit more daunting in scope. Constructing a compelling narrative around the youth of Commander William T. Riker, probably one of the blandest members of the Star Trek: The Next Generation ensemble, seems like an uphill struggle.

Unfortunately, Jeff Mariote’s Deny Thy Father isn’t up to the task of making the boring father-son relationship glimpsed in The Icarus Factor seem any more exciting.

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William T. Riker is not the most interesting member of The Next Generation‘s impressive ensemble cast. He’s readily overshadowed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Data and Worf. Even outside of that, the character was never especially interesting in his early appearances on the series. In the first season, it seemed like the show wanted us to imagine Riker as a modernised James Tiberius Kirk, right down to the middle initial. (Although “Thomas” is much less impressive middle name than “Tiberius.”)

The show’s writers’ bible described Picard and Riker as “the dual lead characters”, hinting at the desire to create a meaningful role for Riker. (Indeed, the guide also suggests “an unspoken but deep father-son relationship” between Picard and Riker.) With Picard cast as an older actor and mostly confined to the bridge, Riker was generally assigned the task of leading away missions and seducing beautiful alien women, fulfilling many of the Star Trek tropes long associated with James Kirk.

It was Riker who gleefully led the away team to the hedonistic sex paradise in Justice, while seeming to vicariously live through his crew members’ sexual escapades. (Is that really an appropriate conversation to have with Worf, a co-worker?) In Angel One, it was Riker who had to use his raw sexual energy to help explain the concept of equality to a planet of misandrist women. Riker took the lead in planet-side plotlines in episodes line The Last Outpost and who was forced into the “Kirk” role of thinking straight to save the ship in The Naked Now.

However, none of this made him especially interesting as a character. James T. Kirk was a character from the sixties. Even William Shatner’s portrayal of the iconic starship commander had evolved over the course of the films produced concurrently with the early years of The Next Generation. James T. Kirk was a dynamic man of action, a hero for the technicolour pulpy age of the sixties. However, The Next Generation was airing two decades later in the more sterile and intellectual nineties.

So many of the show’s early attempts to play to classic Star Trek sensibilities fell flat. The sexscapades of Justice felt tired and dated and a little out of touch with the sexual politics of the time. The less said about Angel One the better. And Riker, the character cast most obviously in the mold of the original television show, suffered quite a bit. Quite frankly, for a lot of the show’s early episodes, Riker was the least interesting member of the crew.

It was only when later writers added a sense of ambiguity or nuance to Riker that he developed as a character. The Best of Both Worlds dared to suggest that Riker was really self-sabotaging and didn’t really want to be a commanding officer, despite his posturing. Pegasus hinted at a shady past for the show’s perfect Starfleet officer. Chain of Command and Lower Decks both suggested that Riker could be a bit of an unprofessional jerk towards those outside of his high-ranking social circle.

Even the popular fan theory that William Riker is a functional alcoholic is so compelling because it chips away at the character’s “golden boy” early characterisation. Instead of the early Riker characterisation seeming like a failed attempt to offer a fans a substitute for James T. Kirk, these approaches to the character suggest that it’s all an act, a paper-thin illusion with no real substance. it makes Riker seem far more multi-dimensional than the character glimpsed throughout the first two years of the show.

So there is clearly room for a compelling characterisation of William T. Riker, and a way to make a novel about the character’s youth seem interesting. Deny Thy Father hinges on The Icarus Factor, which is a pretty bold choice for writer Jeff Mariotte. The Icarus Factor is hardly an unsung classic of the show’s rocky second season, and extrapolating a whole novel from the clichéd father-son dynamic in that forty-five minute adventure seems a risky proposition.

Still, there’s a chance to develop the characters, perhaps. There might even be a chance to redeem that very flawed piece of television, and the character dynamics presented therein. Perhaps Mariotte can do what Margaret Wander Bonanno did for The Menagerie in her rather wonderful Burning Dreams, compose a companion piece which actually expands and broadens the source material, adding a great deal of complexity and nuance sorely missing.

After all, even director Robert Iscove conceded that the emotional beats of The Icarus Factor fell flat, so there’s definitely room for Deny Thy Father to help develop the relationship and dynamic between William T. Riker and his father Kyle. It’s a very tough order, given how broken the dynamic was in the televised episode, but it’s far from impossible. Other writers have managed similarly impressive feats.

However, Mariotte’s Deny Thy Father is far from up to the task.

Everything about the novel feels as shallow and rote as The Icarus Factor, making for a fitting (if far from satisfying) companion piece. The dynamic between Kyle and William remains two-dimensional and cliché, to the point where apparently Kyle doesn’t even know that his son enrolled in Starfleet:

You should have known Will was at the Academy, he thought. Or you should have remembered, if you did know. He thought maybe he’d heard something about it before, and just forgotten. But the last couple of years had been hard ones for him, and most everything that wasn’t immediately crucial to his survival had gone by the wayside in favor of the physical and emotional therapy he had needed to get back on track.

It’s a very lazy way of making him a bad parent, not that Mariotte’s characterisation is especially in-depth or insightful.

At one point, we’re told that Riker considered ditching the family name, and only kept it because it was easier than getting rid of it. “He’d decided against that—what else would he call himself? He’d have to make something up, and that wasn’t the kind of thing he believed himself to be good at.” Later on, however, we discover that Riker actually feels a strong kinship with paternal ancestors, holding a great deal of respect for a Riker who served in the American Civil War. He reflects on how military service is a family tradition, which feels strange coming from a man who would readily drop the surname if only he could be bothered.

There are times when Riker’s time at Starfleet Academy feels like something of an “after school special.” He learns the virtues important in a commanding officer, discovers that sometimes other people are jerks and that you shouldn’t try to cheat to get ahead – even to help others. It’s all frightfully and frustratingly earnest. There is a very clear connection between Riker’s time at the Academy and his subsequent characterisation, but it’s the most crude straight line connection possible.

At one point, trying to decide whether friends are more important than his grades, he considers, “If this sort of thing—disagreements with friends and lovers—could draw his mind away from one of his favorite lecturers, then it was dangerous.” Early in the book, we’re told “he really wanted to get back to his room and get started on some of the homework. It seemed to get more and more difficult as the year went on.” He is so dour and so serious about these things.

It’s not that Riker’s position is unsympathetic, or that it doesn’t make sense, it’s that Mariotte’s prose and structure is as blunt as possible, trying to forge the necessary connections. Deny Thy Father would be much stronger with some nuance or ambiguity or sophistication. Instead, Riker’s position is presented as completely justifiable, and his friends look like manipulative sociopaths in order to make Riker’s decisions more straight-forward. It’s hard to argue that Riker is being overly selfish or self-centred when he refuses to allow a friend to bluntly emotionally blackmail him into helping that friend cheat in his examines.

However, the book’s characterisation of Riker isn’t its only problem. It is just the most obvious one, given how Riker is a character just begging for some development and expansion. (And the fact that his face appears prominently on the cover the book.) Deny Thy Father has several major problems to do with plotting and characterisation, and it feels like a pretty significant failure on just about any level.

For one thing, the plot meanders incessantly. It has a fairly simple concept. It juxtaposes Riker’s time at Starfleet Academy with his father’s time as a fugitive from a massive interstellar conspiracy. Those are two pretty simple plots. However, the book seems unable to focus on advancing either, and instead makes several bold steps sideways rather than logical steps forward. Riker’s characterisation develops in stops and starts, but his father gets the worst of it.

Kyle Riker is forced to run from a conspiracy at work within Starfleet. It’s not a bad premise, and presenting Kyle as an interstellar man of mystery would provide a reasonable justification for hos absence from his son’s life. A spy thriller within the Star trek framework could potentially be great fun, particularly with the accused forced to flee the nigh-omnipresent Federation.

The problem is that Mariotte never really exploits that premise especially well. Instead, Kyle has a bunch of episodic adventures that are occasionally tenuously thematically linked to his relationship with his son. Early on, he stumbles across a young Ben Sisko, at the birth of Jake. As the book concedes, “Running into Ben Sisko and seeing Jennifer and brand-new Jake, born on Father’s Day, so soon after being reminded by Admiral Paris that his own son Will was on the Academy campus less than a kilometer away, had been surprisingly jarring.” Also, surprisingly convenient.

So we get Kyle’s random encounters with other Starfleet dads (Ben Sisko and Owen Paris), his time on the run. He travels on a space cargo ship, meets some people, hides on a planet, gets involved with a revolution and then comes home. None of these feel like fluid progressions. Instead, they feel like awkward attempts to keep the story going by switching the elements around.

This is evident even in the parts focusing on Will, with an entire chapter pretty much devoted to a random memory from the Civil War featuring Thaddeus Riker, the ancestor mentioned in Death Wish. And, of course, the events of that episode are referenced, because there’s no way that a reference to a previously mentioned character could be made in isolation.

Indeed, Mariotte falls back on one of the greatest crutches in writing a tie-in Star Trek book, counting on continuity references to paper over the flaws in his work. There are cameos from two of the lead characters from the Star Trek spin-offs, with a late addition cameoing as a chapter-ending cliffhanger, as if to suggest that the appearance is a hook in and of itself. When Kyle Riker tries to figure out what is going on and who is trying to kill him, he spends a few lines wondering if it could be related to the attack on the Stargazer referenced in The Battle… just because.

Even his son’s time in the Academy is over saturated with shout-outs and references. At one point, for example, we discover that a survival exercise is modelled on the events of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, right down to characters quoting from the film. It’s intrusive, and it presents a very limited view of what Star Trek is and should be. It seems to suggest that the universe is tight and cramped, confined to events and characters referenced on television, and suggesting that the worth of a tie-in is measured in how firmly it can anchor itself in the continuity established by the show.

Which is a shame, because there is the root of a good idea to be found here. The conspiracy against Kyle is so under-developed it almost feels rote, and there’s a last-minute twist relying on a character who is never really developed beyond a few early appearances. The revelations don’t come out of left-field, and there’s enough information provided to figure out the rough outline of what’s going on, but the twist itself is ill-suited to being resolved in the last couple of pages of a novel like this.

Mariotte makes Deny Thy Father hinge on a bit of pseudo-science the franchise has hinted at a couple of times (particularly in early episodes like Where No Man Has Gone Before) and has been relatively unexplored within the grander mythos. It’s a nice idea, and there are several interesting thematic or continuity hooks that Mariotte could use to explore this angle, perhaps even using it foreshadow some of the major developments of The Next Generation era.

I complained about Mariotte’s excessive reliance on continuity above, but it’s more a problem with how the novel uses it. The implicit connections and thematic links that could tie into the novel’s revelations feel more substantive than most of the book’s shout-outs – which generally consist of little more than “let’s reference this thing that happened this one time.” Unfortunately, the revelation is included as something of a footnote and a convenient way to resolve the main plot, rather than an interesting development.

Deny Thy Father is easily the weakest of The Lost Era tie-in novels, the books designed to fill in the gap between Star Trek: Generations and Encounter at Farpoint. Quite frankly, it has nothing interesting to say, no insight to add, nothing to expand upon. Instead of serving as an interesting story told in an unexplored part of the franchise’s history, it feels like a second-rate knock-off of a third-rate episode.

William Riker is a character deserving some development and expansion. Unfortunately, Deny They Father isn’t up to the task.

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

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