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Star Trek: The Next Generation (DC Comics, 1989) #19 – The Lesson (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.

One of the biggest problems that the writing staff had on Star Trek: The Next Generation was the insistence that the show was episodic. Themes and characters were rarely carried from week to week. Occasionally, a plot point or character might recur, but the bulk of the show was intentionally designed to be readily accessible in just about any order imaginable. In the era of HBO and “televisual novels”, this approach seems quite quaint, but it was very much the reality of late eighties and early nineties television.

However, there were no such restrictions on comic book story telling. Far from downplaying continuity and long-term plotting, mainstream American comics pride themselves on their serialised nature. It’s quite common for characters to suddenly reappear after absences of considerable time, and for writers to make callbacks to events that occurred decades ago. Publishing twelve issues a year, typically from the same author, The Next Generation comic book did afford the opportunity for a slightly different type of storytelling.

All set...

All set…

And, to be fair, that was one of the strengths of Michael Jan Friedman’s approach to The Next Generation comic book. He was fond of focusing on supporting characters, or giving page space to characterisation, or even basking in the show’s continuity in a way that wasn’t possible on television. Sure, Friedman could occasionally get a little obsessive in his continuity references, and could occasionally have difficulty tying everything into a cohesive story, but this was one way the author capitalised on the shift in the medium.

The Lesson is a single-issue story that is all the more intriguing for essentially existing as a series of character moments, with little in the way of an over-arching plot. The writing is a little clumsy and on-the-nose, with the comic earnestly offering its readers a rather ham-fisted message of the week, but it’s notable for the way that Friedman seems to bask in the freedom afforded to him by virtue of the fact that he’s writing a comic book (rather than an episode) of The Next Generation.

They've really bonded...

They’ve really bonded…

The Lesson features a number of small little subplots, all linked by Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher taking a trip to the holodeck to celebrate Crusher’s birthday. Riker teaches one of Wesley’s classes. Data settles an argument with Geordi and O’Brien. Worf receives a letter from Jeremy Aster, his adopted son from The Bonding. Now, there’s a name we never expected to hear again. As Ronald D. Moore notes on the episode commentary, Jeremy was a character who was never intended to recur:

We did talk about it on the staff, periodically: what about bringing back Jeremy? And, in the early days, we just didn’t do that sort of continuity. You didn’t tie episodes together like that. And so that was the kind of thing that we didn’t do. And by the time we started doing that sort of thing with the Worf story, with Redemption and all that, we had then given him a child by K’Ehleyr and the show had gone in a different direction. So we said, “Yeah, Jeremy’s just off with his parents on Earth and he still loves Worf!” And he gets a postcard every once in a while!

Moore is right, Jeremy becomes somewhat redundant when you add Alexander to Worf’s back story. And The Next Generation was simply not in a place where it could start introducing character arcs that would carry across like that. Moore would help pioneer one of The Next Generation‘s first properly serialised character arcs with Sins of the Father, but while Jeremy was a fascinating character in the context of The Bonding, he was never a character the show could bring back. And, but the time the show had evolved to a point where it could bring him back, it had already replaced him.

Trekking up that hill...

Trekking up that hill…

This is really one area of the franchise where comics have a bit of an advantage. Writing a Star Trek comic book, Friedman has a lot more freedom to play with the history of the characters and the franchise. He’s playing to a more engaged audience – those reading the comics are pretty much assured to be Star Trek fans, so he doesn’t have to worry about alienating them. Instead, Friedman has the opportunity to do little sequences like this, creating cohesive character studies, and integrating various loose elements of continuity, in a way that the television show simply can’t.

To be fair, a balance has to be struck. It’s very easy to wallow in continuity fetishism, to focus on the idea that the comics exist to reference various little bits of continuity, or to connect all the dots. Friedman occasionally veers into that sort of storytelling, where it feels like the writer is trying to expand out a stray line of dialogue from an aired episode into a comic book story arc – counting on the fact that some of this is vaguely familiar to help carry an otherwise mediocre or generic space adventure story. It’s easy to get drawn to extremes.

Filling a gap...

Filling a gap…

However, the comics do have a great deal more freedom than the show in a number of ways. Obviously, Friedman was restricted by the ever-vigilant pen of Richard Arnold, and the stories are hemmed in by broadcast Star Trek, but Friedman has a completely different set of storytelling tools at his disposal, a completely different medium in which to tell his story, a completely different bunch of expectations riding on his work here.

The Lesson is a one-issue story that is easy enough to like. It’s essentially an issue about the main cast hanging out together. The closest comparison in the Star Trek canon is probably Family, another story without an overt science-fiction element focused on reinforcing the humanity of the characters inhabiting this world – their friendships, their connections, their humanity. Indeed, The Lesson was released in July 1991, which would have allowed ample time for that story to influence Friedman’s work here.

Need more data...

Need more data…

The difference is that Family was the kind of televised story that The Next Generation could get away with once. While The Lesson is perhaps the most extreme example of this style, Friedman has a lot more latitude to focus on unconventional Star Trek stories than the writing staff on the television show. Throughout the run of the comic, Friedman has a habit of frequently cutting back to new supporting guest characters on the Enterprise, or inserting character-building “meanwhile…” sections into his plots. These are choices that would not be feasible on the television show, but can work in the context of the comic.

To be fair, The Lesson is quite trite in places. It lacks the charming nuance or sophistication of something like Family. Everything that Friedman writes is incredibly obvious. It’s clear what Troi is trying to teach Beverly with that journey up the mountain. When Data is asked where he would most like to be, he replies, “I do not wish to seem unimaginative, gentlemen. But I have learned that there is only one place for me… and that place is here aboard the Enterprise.” It’s not earned enough to seem sweet. Instead, it feels a little coy and manipulative.

Teaching Riker a thing or two...

Teaching Riker a thing or two…

The lesson that Riker teaches Wesley, and how Wesley subsequently applies it, is also very heavy-handed. It feels like something like the Wesley-centric subplot from Pen Pals. “All kidding aside, Wes, I meant what I told your friend,” Riker offers with all the earnestness of an after-school special. “No special treatment just because you and I know each other outside the class room.” It feels like The Lesson is patronising and condescending to its audience, and that it’s not quite smart enough to be as emotionally effective as it clearly wants to be.

At the same time, though, it is charming enough to enjoy on its own merits. Troi and Crusher would occasionally get scenes together in the show, which was nice, but we never really got to explore their relationship as much as the relationship between Data and Geordi. It is slightly troubling that the two female characters shared their strongest relationships with their potential romantic partners – Troi is Riker’s “imzadi”, while Crusher’s primary relationship isn’t with Wesley by with Picard. In contrast, Picard has a wealth of different relationships with the majority of the cast.

It's a jungle in there...

It’s a jungle in there…

It’s nice to see Troi getting to do some counseling, and Friedman makes good use of the holodeck. Seen as the device seems to have been put on the Enterprise in order to occasionally go berserk and try to kill main cast members, it’s refreshing to see the device functioning properly. More than that, it makes sense that Troi would use the holodeck as a counselling tool. The potential of such a device on a ship like the Enterprise is never really explored. Then again, Troi’s function on the ship is also often overlooked.

The Lesson isn’t the strongest Star Trek comic ever published. Indeed, Peter David’s contemporaneous Once a Hero... does leave Friedman’s scripting standing in the dust. However, it is a nice demonstration of just what can be done with comics that wouldn’t be possible on the television show, and does demonstrate some of the potential of a monthly comic book based on The Next Generation.

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

2 Responses

  1. Pretty much with everything you said. Interesting point about how little points can be developed in a comic book and not in a tv show. Do you
    plan to review any of Friedman’s books like Reunion?

    • Actually, I did Reunion a few eeks back. Will try to dig out the URL. I will say that I respect Friedman a lot more than I enjoy his work. He’s prolific, but also quite formuliac and quite conventional. (I much prefer David, who is a bit more erratic, but also generally a bit more ambitious, I think.)

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