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Star Trek – Operation Assimilation (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 many ways, Operation Assimilation feels like a cynical cash-in. It’s a one-shot Marvel comic book published in the wake of the release of Star Trek: First Contact that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, doesn’t seem to seed any story points that might pay off later and doesn’t seem like it has anything particularly insightful to say. It really feels like Marvel just wanted to reaffirm the fact that they had the license to publish Star Trek comics towards the end of First Contact‘s theatrical release cycle and before the film’s home media release.

The cover does little to help this impression. Several months before Star Trek: Voyager would introduce the world to a sexy Borg drone, the cover of Operation Assimilation features a female Borg drawn in a pose (and with a costume) intended to emphasise her cleavage. “Collector’s Item Issue!” the cover boasts, reminding the reader that it is a product of the late nineties comic speculation boom that almost destroyed the industry. The shiny “1” on the cover makes it feel like more of a marketing exercise, along with a fairly light interview with Jonathan Frakes on the last few pages.

It feels almost like Operation Assimilation says more about late nineties comic books than it does about Star Trek.

Cue cheap joke about implants...

Cue cheap joke about implants…

It’s a shame, because there is a good story here somewhere. Intended as a prequel to The Neutral Zone, Operation Assimilation is set before the Borg incursion into Romulan and Federation space at the end of the first season. Following a disgraced Romulan commander on the frontier, it sees the Romulan Empire coming into contact with the Borg Collective, and the mass slaughter that results.

It’s a very slim story, running twenty of the issue’s thirty pages. And, yet, there are some intriguing ideas suggested. For one thing, writer Paul Jenkins manages a rather impressive play on the “Romulans as space!Romans” schtick by giving us a glimpse at what life on the Romulan frontier must be like – subjugating alien races and bringing rogue planets to heel for the greater good of the Romulan Star Empire.

For the glory of Romulus!

For the glory of Romulus!

Jenkins even manages a nice twist on the old “decimation” routine, a word which has its roots in Roman disciplinary action, with our heroine responding to a local uprising with her own variation on that punishment. “Two in five of your insurgents will be transported into the vacuum beyond your atmosphere,” she informs some defeated rebels, rather matter-of-factly. It’s a very cold way of doing business, but it’s also nice to see Jenkins getting mileage out of the “Roman Empire… in space!” aspect of the Romulans.

It’s always interesting to imagine Star Trek stories unfolding from a perspective of one of the other alien races. The third and fourth seasons of The Next Generation got a lot of mileage by throwing the Enterprise into the middle of intrigue between the Romulans and the Klingons, but it’s also fun to imagine what a conflict between the Klingons and the Ferengi might look like, or what the Romulans really think of the Cardassians. That’s one of the luxuries of such an expansive universe, there’s so much potential to mix and match philosophies and outlooks.

Trying to square it with their understanding of the universe...

Trying to square it with their understanding of the universe…

While most of Star Trek‘s alien races tend to mix and match across the run of the franchise, the Borg have remained a monolithic threat to the Federation. This makes a great deal of sense from the show’s perspective – the Borg are such a huge threat that they don’t play in the same sandbox as the Romulans or the Klingons or the Ferengi; they pose such an existential threat that we shouldn’t be thinking about how the Romulans will deal with them, we should be concerned with how our heroes will escape.

And yet, despite that, it feels strange that we’ve never really seen the Klingons or Romulans try to deal with the Borg threat. After all, it was the threat of the Borg that convinced the Romulans to venture out from behind the Neutral Zone and to re-engage with Alpha Quadrant politics. Surely there’s an interesting story to be told about the way that the Romulan Star Empire responded to the existential threat of the Borg?

Collective concerns...

Collective concerns…

How did the Tal Shiar respond? Did the government try to cover up the destruction of the bases? Was research into weapons technology increased? Was there speculation that the Federation was just spreading rumours to try to solidify its power base in the quadrant? Were missions dispatched toward the Delta Quadrant to investigate the disappearances of the outposts? Was there ever any Borg technology recovered and investigated? These are all vaguely interesting questions that might be fun to play with. After all, televised Star Trek can’t delve that deeply into the shared universe, but it might be fun to play with in comic book form.

The problem with Operation Assimilation is that it’s all drawn so broadly and so generically that it’s hard to engage with the story. There isn’t a clear structure to the story here. Moliok is a Romulan commander who has had some difficulties with her people. She encounters the Borg. She is assimilated. The end. It’s not really an exciting or compelling narrative. It doesn’t grip the reader and get them to care about what’s unfolding.

Everything's hardly ship shape...

Everything’s hardly ship shape…

To be fair, Jenkins isn’t doing anything too unreasonable here. One of the strengths of the first appearance of the Borg in Q Who? was the way that the episode refused to be structured like a standard piece of Star Trek. The bulk of the show is about the Enterprise crew trying (and failing) to wrap their heads around the Borg. The Enterprise doesn’t win the day, Q magically waves his hand and the problem is suddenly thousands of light years away.

So you could argue that Jenkins is trying to adhere to that sort of structure with Operation Assimilation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Q Who? could get away with loose structure and a non-ending because it closed with the promise of a follow-up. Q Who? is a brilliant piece of television, but only because it’s an extended detached prelude to The Best of Both Worlds. It’s a promise that the Star Trek universe is a whole lot less safe and comfortable than The Next Generation has been suggesting.

For a Borg drone, she has some pretty strong lipstick...

For a Borg drone, she has some pretty strong lipstick…

Operation Assimilation has no such promise. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens that will never be mentioned again. It’s a shaggy dog story about that one time some Romulans met some Borg and it did not end well. There’s no conclusion here, no twist, no moral, no point. It’s just a fairly bland retread of Q Who? with less mystery and wonder, starring characters we’ve never met before and will never encounter again.

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

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7 Responses

  1. This was certainly a blast from the (surprisingly distant) past!

    I agree this leaves a sour sell-the-toys-with-a-comic taste in the mouth. When I was 13 though, I loved this story. First Contact was my first exposure to the Borg, so this comic’s bleak and stark ending gave me that sense of unstoppable-ness.

    I bought it for the …*ahem*. Justified the purchase with the Star Trek title. And frantically searched for No. 2. My young teen self had to accept that sometimes you’re just doing your own thing and the Borg, or a convenience store thief, or a car accident ends your story for you.

    • I agree with the last line – that would be a great premise and I can kinda see the comic that way if I squint, but…

      I don’t know. It is kinda nice to have a Borg story where the Borg are just something that happens when you’re in outer space. A law of nature. A cosmic horror. No technobabble. No god-like-being to help you out. Just inevitability.

      On the other hand, the story never feels properly grounded enough for me to care about these characters in this mess. Maybe a bit more atmosphere leading up to the encounter, maybe more of a sense of the routineness of the assignment, maybe some more characterisation. It just felt like “suppressed rebellion and then THE BORG!” when it should be more like “another day, another rebellion, another miss — WHAT IS THAT CUBE THING?” It’s hard to really put into words, but it just felt very… lean.

  2. Good points. It wasn’t not a terrible story there just was not anything really memorable about it. Jenkins also had a year and half run on the Hulk that seemed to suffer from the same problems.

    Would you consider Q,Who? to be the episode that marked the change in the Next Generation. Just wondering.

    • I’d argue Q Who? is one of two that changed The Next Generation forever by upsetting the rules of the series.

      Q Who? basically proved that the Enterprise was not invulnerable and not so advanced that they knew everything and could solve any problem. Which is important for a show about exploration, and really paved the way for the rest of modern Star Trek. Too much of the first and second season has the Enterprise arriving and solving a problem using technobabble rather than having real stakes. (See Unnatural Selection, Pen Pals, Justice.) It also suggested a measure of arrogance in our leads, which made them much more interesting than “they’re perfect!”

      The Measure of a Man did something similar, basically suggesting that any culture entirely without conflict would be a dystopia rather than a utopia. Culture is necessary for us to grow, and reasonable people can disagree about things and have to argue about them. This is how development and growth happens. Again, something that the rest of the first two seasons didn’t really grasp.

  3. The episode title is “Q Who,” not “Q Who?”–it’s not meant as a question, but as a reference to “You-hoo,” as in Q saying “Hey, look over here, it’s something you’ve never seen before.”

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