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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s the Limit: Suicide Note by Geoff Trowbridge (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.

Suicide Note is another one of those great “expanding from dangling plot threads left at the conclusion of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation stories that are popular in tie-in media. In this case, writer Geoff Trowbridge is building off the end of The Defector, which saw Captain Picard receiving a suicide note from the eponymous defector Admiral Jarok. Jarok had asked Picard to pass the not on to his family, which was not possible at the time.

Of course, The Next Generation never really dealt with these threads, because – put quite simply – it wasn’t that kind of show. So it’s fun to pick up these threads and to try to recontextualise them in terms of everything that has unfolded since. In this case, Trowbridge is able to explore Jarok’s sacrifice in the context of the Federation and Romulan alliance towards the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in the wake of In the Pale Moonlight.

In keeping with Trowbridge’s The Chimes at Midnight, Suicide Note is structured as a critical exploration of American history, through the prism of Star Trek. While The Chimes at Midnight was a brutal deconstruction of the franchise’s roots in the Second World War, Suicide Note is framed in a more modern context.

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It’s surprising that more writers haven’t picked up on what Diane Duane and Peter Moorcock did in The Romulan Way, rather cleverly suggesting that the Romulan Empire could exist as a dark mirror of the Federation as a metaphor for the United States’ political expansion in the later years of the twentieth century. Given that Star Trek is very much grounded in America’s self-image, this depiction makes a great deal of sense.

The Federation – as depicted in The Next Generation – represents the most ideal version of American foreign policy imaginable. The flagship Enterprise brings freedom and good will to the cosmos, deals diplomatically with any crisis, and offers medical or scientific aid whenever necessary. There’s no imperialism at work here, no darker ulterior motives – just the use of political power for the greater good of the entire universe. They just want the universe to be happy and stable, and strive for freedom and democracy for all.

The Romulans, then, offer the other side of the coin. They are cynical and exploitative. In many ways, Romulan interference in interstellar affairs is portrayed as the darker and more cynical view of American foreign policy. It’s motivated by self-interest, with calculated and subversive moves made to prevent the emergence of anything that might threaten Romulan supremacy. They rarely engage with their neighbours in any meaningful level, preferring to set the agenda and pursue their own interests rather than building consensus among the other powers.

This portrayal is arguably rooted in Duane and Moorcock’s development of Romulan history in The Romulan Way back in 1987, written at the height of Cold War insecurity as more and more cracks began to appear in America’s own foreign policy. This was shortly after the Iran-Contra Affair, and as the “Reagan Doctrine” had led to a number of high-profile incidents in Central America, with the International Court of Justice ruling that America owed Nicaragua reparations for actions conducted there as part of American foreign policy.

As such, Duane and Moorcock contextualised the Vulcan schism as akin to the Puritans departing for the New World. Political and social divides on the Romulus presented in The Romulan Way seemed to reflect the contemporary fracturing of the American political scene. In a way, this was all the logical conclusion of what Paul Schneider began back in Balance of Terror by casting the Romulans as space!Romans, right down to naming their home planets Romulus and Remus.

Given that a substantial strand of criticism of American foreign policy has accused the nation of empire building – including frequent comparisons between the United States and the Roman Empire – this makes a lot of sense. In fact, classic Star Trek had even gotten in on the act with an Ancient-Rome-as-modern-America themed episode in Bread and Circuses. So none of this is wildly original, it’s just a very clever way of developing a recurring theme.

Geoff Trowbridge takes this idea and pushes it a little further. Indeed, Jarok’s suicide note feels a little on-the-nose in its criticisms of the Romulan ruling regime:

I know the means whereby the Praetorate achieves their ends. They will manufacture further ‘evidence’ of enemy aggression to promote the imperialist doctrine. They will force out other men of character and fortitude who believe as I do. And in the end, they will collapse under the weight of their own deceptions and paranoia, and bring all of the empire down with them.

Written only a few years after the invasion of Iraq on the basis of falsified evidence of weapons of mass destruction, Jarok’s comments can’t help but seem a little pointed.

It does feel a little heavy-handed, but it works because it allows Trowbridge to underscore his key theme. Building off The Defector itself, Trowbridge repeatedly suggests that humans and Romulans are not so different after all. It isn’t just the Federation that hopes for peace, and our heroes aren’t the only ones willing to put their lives on the line to make the universe a safer place. Jarok is as much a patriot and a hero as Picard, just from the other side.

And so Suicide Note builds off that idea. Visiting Jarok’s family, Picard is offered “hvetollh.” He doesn’t know what it is, but it turns out to be “a beverage, prepared by filtering hot water through the dried leaves of an rreinnte tree.” In other words, even Romulans drink tea. At one point, Picard pauses to note that even the kitchen looks familiar. “On the counter, most of the appliances were recognizable; food preparation was essentially the same no matter which side of the Neutral Zone you were on.”

In most cases, this would be a good thing – Star Trek‘s optimism and humanism shining through. The aliens are really like us, and we are really like them; surely we can all get along? Trowbridge seems to be a good deal more cynical than all that. The Chimes at Midnight was a rather brutal deconstruction of Star Trek as a heroic American post-Second World War narrative. As far as Suicide Note is concerned, the similarities between the Romulans and the Federation are not a good thing.

After all, for all that Jarok accuses the Romulan government of being willing to “manufacture further ‘evidence’ of enemy aggression to promote” their own agenda, Suicide Note is written in the wake of In the Pale Moonlight. In that story, the Federation manufactured evidence to trick the Romulans into joining their war effort. Trowbridge even manages to rather cynically connect Suicide Note up the Romulan politics of Deep Space Nine, by having Jarok provide the Federation with contact details for Koval.

In Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, Koval would be revealed as a Section 31 operative working inside the Tal Shiar – an enemy agent at large inside an allied government. Revealing that Koval’s contact details came through Jarok is a wonderfully cynical plot development. The Federation wind up exploiting Jarok’s optimism just as cynically and brutally as the Romulan government did back in The Defector. Even the most optimistic and hopeful information can be exploited and manipulated to serve the vested interests of those in power.

Suicide Note is a rather bleak little piece, but no less powerful for that.

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

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