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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Survivors by Jean Lorrah (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 Skin of Evil.

Writing tie-in fiction is tougher than a lot of people seem to think it is. There’s a notion that you’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox, and that you’re confined and restricted by what has and what has not appeared on screen, knowing that your work will always be secondary. As such, I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for Jean Lorrah to write Survivors. Only the fourth tie-in novel for Star Trek: The Next Generation, it was released in January 1989, around a quarter of the way through the show’s second season. Given the time it would take to edit and publish a paperback, it seems that Lorrah likely had to have the novel ready quite early in the life of The Next Generation.

It’s one thing to try to accurately capture the voice of well-defined characters on a long-running show, but it must be infinitely more difficult when writing based off sketchy early episodes that aren’t always consistent in their own characterisation.

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There is, to be fair, a large amount of Survivors that is quite out of date. Tasha Yar’s home planet is established as “New Paris”, an observation that would be contradicted during the fourth season’s Legacy. In keeping with the intention of early episodes of the show (up to and including Samaritan Snare), we are told that “the Klingons were members of the Federation now.” There’s quite a few continuity hiccups that are hard to reconcile with subsequent developments in the Star Trek mythos. I imagine it was quite difficult to write, trying to find the voice of a new Star Trek only a little while after it had been on the air.

Lorrah also struggles a bit with Data’s characterisation. There’s quite a few points that will seem strange to those of us familiar with the character. There are times when the text makes him seem quite emotional. We’re told that “frustration was one human experience the android was only too familiar with: designed to operate as the perfect information retrieval system, time and again he was denied the opportunity to fully demonstrate that function.” Later on, the novel explains, “There were many times that Data wished he were human, but none more so than when he needed an outlet for frustration.” The story also allows Data to use idioms like “child’s play.”

Indeed, Survivors seems to preemptively dismiss The Measure of a Man, by explicitly accepting the central ideas of that episode and taking them for granted. Troi tells Yar that Data’s self-determination and sentience were already agreed upon when he entered Starfleet Academy, a fairly logical proposition:

Look up the records of his entrance examination for Starfleet Academy. There was no question of his intelligence, of course, or his physical stamina, but one of the entry requirements is that one be sentient. Not only sapient, but sentient, Tasha. Self-aware. That implies feelings. Computers and robots are not admitted to Starfleet Academy. Data was.

Yar herself even considers the mass production of androids like Data, foreshadowing the ending to The Measure of a Man and acknowledging the implicit temptation posed by an army of androids. “If we ever do recover the technology to create androids like Data, each will have a unique personality, born of individual life experience.”

This book was written early in the show’s run, so Data is still defined by The Naked Now, with Survivors returning to the idea of Data as a literal love machine. Asked if he could flirt with the female leader of a planet, he responds, “I am programmed in a broad variety of pleasuring techniques. Among them are 234 forms of flirtation.” It’s hard to blame Lorrah for this focus, which seems slightly surreal these days.

Still, there is some nice stuff around Data here. In particular, Lorrah lightly broaches the issue that Data is more human than he realises, even if it might be down to our attempts to read human emotions and motivations into what he does and says – is Data really more human than he thinks, or do we just project our own humanity on to him? “Still, he  acted  as if he had feelings,” Yar ponders. Rikan explicitly acknowledges that Data seems more human than he realises. “How can you not know, when I know upon one day’s acquaintance?” Lorrah seems to grasp these aspects of the character, even if he was relatively new at the time.

And yet, despite these character and continuity hiccups, Survivors is still a compelling read. I’ve never accepted the argument that the worth of a piece of Star Trek could be determined by its importance to continuity and how tightly it fits with the rest of the franchise. Good stories are good stories, regardless of how they fit or conflict with established mythology. Survivors may fudge a few of the details, and make a few decisions that would be overriden by the show in the next few years, but it’s still a fascinating piece of Star Trek.

The reason is quite simple. It focuses on Tasha Yar. Yar is perhaps the most under-developed lead character to appear on the show. Even if the cast of the original Star Trek didn’t get too much development on the show, the movie generally afforded supporting characters like Uhura or Sulu nice character moments. Unfortunately, Yar was written out of the series during its rocky first season. Actress Denise Crosby didn’t feel that Yar was receiving enough focus as a member of the ensemble.

Ironically, I’d disgree with that assessment. Yar got quite a bit of attention in early episodes like Code of Honour, Where No One Has Gone Before and The Naked Now. Compared to characters like Geordi or Worf, Yar got a considerable amount of focus in the first season. The problem wasn’t lack of focus. The problem was that the writers very clearly had no idea how to write Yar. Yar is the female Chief of Security on the most important ship in the universe.

Tasha Yar should – by all accounts – be a feminist icon, a belated apology for the way that the classic Star Trek would objectify or dismiss female characters. Unfortunately, she wasn’t. At the best of times, she was ineffective. Lorrah sets Survivors directly following The Arsenal of Freedom, and even the book concedes that Yar was a little bit useless on that away team. “Security is  my  job! I was there to protect them, not the other way around. If I cannot trust myself—”

She even laments the way that she always gets incapacitated. “What good is a security officer who can’t act?” she demands, perhaps channelling the audience of the show tired of failures like The Battle or Hide & Q, where Yar seemed ridiculously ineffective. Worf spent most of his time as Chief of Security getting brutally beaten up by the menace of the week, or watching Picard and Riker continually overrule his (mostly sound) security advice. Worf gets in trouble despite his best efforts. Yar never seemed to know what to do.

To be fair to Lorrah, she tries her best to rework some of the show’s more awkward Yar moments, to fashion a compelling character from the evidence on screen. For example, she suggests that Wesley’s capture in Justice struck a personal chord with Yar due to her own personal history. it’s a great character beat, but it doesn’t really work since Yar is too busy getting some beefcake to really be too bothered about Wesley’s difficulties.

Similarly, the problematic portrayals of Yar’s sexuality in Code of Honour and The Naked Now are hard to reconcile with the account in Survivors (building off a flashback in Where No One Has Gone Before) of a girl who was sexually assaulted at the age of twelve. The notion that Yar could be sexually attracted to a misogynist abductor like Lutan feels all the more incongruous given what Yar went through as a young woman. It raises some uncomfortable connotations, and reinforces the idea that writers of The Next Generation really had no idea of how to write female characters.

So the biggest problem facing Jean Lorrah in crafting Survivors is that fact that she’s writing for a character who is a mess of contradictions and poor writing choices. And yet, despite that, Yar is a blank canvas. Given that she had been killed off in the show’s first year, it gave Lorrah a surprising amount of freedom in imaging a back story for Yar as a character, and giving her the sort of motivation and background that was sorely missing from what appeared on-screen.

And, to be fair, Lorrah does a nice job with Yar. She creates a relatively three-dimensional character cobbled together from bits of characterisation scattered across the first season. More than that, though, she suggests a logical niche for Yar as part of the ensemble on The Next Generation, one that Denise Crosby never got to grow into. The first season of any show is a difficult year, as the cast settle into their patterns and routines.

By the end of the first season, we knew that Data was this show’s version of Spock, and the Riker was Kirk. We knew that Picard was more of a philosopher than a fighter, and that Worf was part of a culture distinctly alien. In contrast, we didn’t know much about Yar before she died. Lorrah does an excellent job taking what little we know about Yar and imagining a perspective that would make her unique among the regular cast members on The Next Generation.

That contrast is obvious, and it’s a shame it took a tie-in novel to acknowledge it. Yar is different from most of the crew because she didn’t grow up in a loving family. She didn’t grow up surrounded by the ideals of the Federation, inside an intergalactic alliance where scarcity is a thing of the past. Worf lost his parents at a young age, Riker never connected with his father and Data wants to discover his roots. Despite that, however, everybody except Yar grew up in a culture of transporters and replicators, living in a post-scarcity economy.

The crew of the Enterprise don’t question the ideals of the Federation, because they’ve never existed outside it. Even Worf’s fixation with his Klingon heritage is that of an outsider looking in – something Ronald D. Moore would explore with a brutal sense of irony. In contrast, Yar grew up in a very different climate. She grew up on a failed colony, a New Paris that was “far more like the Paris portrayed by Victor Hugo than that depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec.”

More than that, we’re told that New Paris officially left the Federation. “Historians discovered in records no one on the planet remembered that the turning point on New Paris had come when it seceded in absentia from the Federation it blamed for abandoning the colony.” This makes Yar the only member of the primary cast to be raised outside of that culture. Even if Wesley isn’t an officer yet, his partents were both Starfleet officers. This, understandably, gives Yar a very unique perspective among the crew.

It creates a fascinating contradiction at the heart of Yar’s character, the essence of good drama. On the one hand, Yar doesn’t unquestioningly embrace the moral philosophy fostered by years of clean living with no needs that can’t be met. Talking to Data, she confesses, “I failed the Ethics and Moral Principles course—I simply could not accept, even as a hypothesis on which to base a reasoned argument, the belief that life is sacred. Everywhere.” Yar understands more of humankind’s capacity for inhumanity than anybody else on the ship, and that makes her a potentially cynical character.

At the same time, however, this cynicism is tempered by a loyalty and a faith that is arguably stronger than her contemporaries. Unlike any of her fellow officers, Yar knows what happens when society breaks down. She has lived in a world without any of the freedoms and securities that the Federation takes for granted. As such, she appreciates them in a way that her colleagues simply cannot. Lorrah retroactively justifies the surreal sex scene in The Naked Now, establishing both Data and Yar as two outsiders looking in on the Enterprise crew.

It is very smart characterisation from Lorrah, and it’s a shame that the television show could never quite realise this. It ties pretty much everything we know about Yar together into a neat little package. In many ways, Survivors hints that Yar was really on the wrong show. In order to make the character work, the show would have to be willing to embrace a cynicism that Gene Roddenberry typically shied away from. The version of Yar proposed by Lorrah – perhaps the best of all possible Yars – would feel more at home on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than on The Next Generation.

Fittingly, Survivors is actually quite cynical about the Federation. We discover that it is possible for the insitutions of the Federation to make a mistake, which was something quite rare in the first season of The Next Generation. We also hear some legitimate criticism from a former officer, who argues that the Federation is becoming too weak and complacent. “The Federation certainly have their faults, but if anything they lie in the opposite direction: there is so much of everything to go around that people grow weak with indulgence. No one has to struggle to survive anymore—and without struggle there is no strength.”

It’s not a flawless argument, as Yar seems to demonstrate that the Federation is an ideal worth worth fighting for. However, it’s to the credit of Lorrah’s Survivors that his point isn’t dismissed out of hand, and it’s a smart idea. Indeed, the following season, Q Who? would directly challenge the Federation’s complacency, making Lorrah seem just a little bit ahead of the curve. The first season of The Next Generation was far too unquestioning of human and Federation superiority, so Lorrah’s cynicism here is effective.

Indeed, Dare’s cynicism about the Federation seems to foreshadow some of Deep Space Nine. A Starfleet Security officer who betrays the organisation to become a romantic rebel, Dare almost seems like a progenitor to Michael Eddington. Eddington famously betrayed the Federation (and Sisko) in For the Cause, accusing the organisation of being corrupt and insideous. Some of Dare’s accuastions seem remarkably similar to those Eddington levels at Sisko.

“Rehabilitation!” Dare protests when Starfleet threatens to send him to prison. “Brainwashing—that’s what they do in those hell pits, no matter how they try to disguise it. The patients might seem happy—but they’re drugged or hypnotized into submission until their wills are broken.” Eddington would make a similar accusation, accusing the Federation of brainwashing their opponents, allowing their values to erod away the core of alien societies and effectively assimilate them from the inside.

That said, Lorrah tempers her cynicism with some measure of optimism. This is Star Trek, after all. While Survivors is a bit more morally complex than most episodes of the first season of The Next Generation, it acknowledges that the Federation is still an ideal to aspire to – even if there are inevitable flaws. More than that, though, Survivors suggests a very humanist philosophy, expressing the uplifting idea that society inevitably marches forwards and that utopia must be the inevitable outcome of that process:

But as the level of technology on a planet climbed, the education of its workers had to follow or there would be no one capable of designing the equipment or doing the work. With education quickly came discontent—and insistence on sharing in the wealth they created.

Once the people acquired economic power, political power quickly followed. Governments changed from tyrannies, monarchies, oligarchies, to the many variants of rule by the people.

If that isn’t uplifting, I don’t know what is. It justifies Yar’s faith in the Federation as a concept, and immediately establishes that Survivors can be just as optimistic as any other Star Trek story.

Lorrah came to The Next Generation following two published novels for the original Star Trek, something she covers briefly in a pleasant introduction. (If you look at the cover, you’ll note that Dare is wearing a uniform from the classic Star Trek show, cementing a link to the past.) Indeed, Lorrah offers a nice exploration of the cultural shifts that have taken place between the time of Star Trek and The Next Generation, offering some in-universe rationales for shifts in the show’s central philosophy.

The universe has changed, and Lorrah grasps the distinctions quite quickly. The Next Generation is not the same sort of “western in outer space” that Gene Roddenberry crafted as the original Star Trek. Everything is now a bit safer and bit more sterile. Lorrah explains this shift in terms of the changing demographic on the Enterprise, which now includes children:

Nor could they have chosen a better time for it. In the past, Starfleet marriages were risky endeavors, often doomed in the attempt to balance two careers, forcing choices between refused promotions or long separations. Either way, domestic pressures added to an already stressful lifestyle resulted in an unconscionably high rate of broken marriages.

But now, in recognition of the human need for family, Starfleet was building new Galaxy class starships, designed for long exploratory voyages upon which whole families would journey together.

As Yar notes, this new Enterprise should be a much safer ship. It isn’t venturing as far into the unknown and hostile wilds of space as Kirk’s ship. In fact, Lorrah hints that reason the Enterprise has such an incompetent security staff might be down to the fact that none of the best security graduates would be too interested in a career on a ship full of families. “To people adventurous enough to choose a career in Starfleet Security, a ship safe enough to carry children held little appeal.”

To be fair, despite all these great ideas, Survivors has its flaws. For one thing, the main plot feels a bit paint-by-numbers, despite all the fascinating character work going on in the background and the interesting exploration of twenty-fourth century politics. The resolution to the main storyline feels rather abrupt and a little bit too convenient after all the build-up. It seems like the story is heading towards an absolutely massive climax, only for everything to neatly tidy itself up at the end of the adventure.

There are also more than a few moments where Lorrah’s writing seems a little too earnest. There’s a bit about the advertising of alcoholic beverages which feels strangely out of place:

Intoxicants might be the reason for the Trevans’ dulled sensibilities. The children seemed more normal because they did not use those substances. He focused his concentration for a moment on the teacher of the class he was visiting, to lead the conversation around so he could ask, “Are you educating the children against the use of intoxicants?”

The teacher seemed completely puzzled. “Why should we do that? Intoxicants put joy in life—a well-earned pleasure after a job well done.” She was parrotting one of the advertisements, apparently quite unaware of the source.

Star Trek can often handle social commentary reasonably well, but the weird fixation on alcohol advertising feels just a little bit heavy-handed, particularly when it proves be a bit of a distraction and a clue rather than a solution to the mystery itself. There are a couple of similarly clumsy moments that take the reader out of Survivors, but not too many.

Lorrah also, occasionally, makes too much reference to adventures for the show’s first season, to the point where catching the references to stories like 11001001 and The Big Goodbye seem almost distracting. The story references “a recent lapse of security with renegade Klingons”  and Data explains, “I… ‘snooped, sneaked, proceeded by stealth.'” These references are distracting, seeming to exist so that Lorrah can demonstrate the story is very firmly rooted in the source material.

While some of the references are a little heavy-handed, Lorrah makes some nice use of continuity. In particular, I like the questions she raises about Picard’s decisions in Skin of Evil, hinting that Picard’s decision to strand Armus and his attitude towards the creature might have been driven in some small way by spite. “What you are asking, Data,” Picard explains, at one point, “is whether I acted in revenge, with the same sadism as Armus.” And he concedes that he cannot answer.

It’s a lovely moment, and one that feels more honest and more emotional than anything in the final cut of the episode. After all, one of the biggest problems with Skin of Evil is that Yar’s death really has no impact on how the plot plays out, or how it impacts the characters. It’s smart of Lorrah to retroactively remedy that by constructing a compelling argument that Yar’s death did have an impact on that encounter.

Survivors isn’t the perfect Star Trek novel, but it does an excellent job of fleshing out an overlooked character in the mythos. Tasha Yar was the first Star Trek character to die without being resurrected, and yet she remains nothing more than a collection of broad strokes. Survivors does an excellent job fleshing out Yar as a character, and makes her departure far more tragic than Skin of Evil. Here we get a glimpse of Yar, not as she was, but as she could have been.

And that is far more interesting than anything which made it screen.

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

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