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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Embrace the Wolf (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 episode Elementary, Dear Data.

The concept behind Embrace the Wolf is quite ingenious. The execution is slightly less so. Recognising that Star Trek: The Next Generation had a recurring interest in Victorian London, in Data’s interest in Sherlock Holmes, it seemed quite logical to drop Redjac into that scenario. Redjac was the non-corporeal serial killing entity introduced in Wolf in the Fold, one of Robert Bloch’s contributions to the second season of the classic Star Trek. As part of Wolf in the Fold, and playing into Bloch’s fascination with the notorious serial killer, Redjac was explicitly identified as the spirit of Jack the Ripper. As you do

So, pairing up Data’s Sherlock Holmes with Redjac’s Jack the Ripper should make for a decidedly pulpy adventure. Unfortunately, the end result is a little generic and unsatisfying.

Wolf in the holodeck...

Wolf in the holodeck…

To be fair, the concept of pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper is hardly new. Indeed, A Study in Terror played with the idea a couple of years before Wolf in the Fold was broadcast, with John Neville’s Sherlock Holmes on the trail of the Ripper. Indeed, the idea seems to have informed quite a lot of pop culture Victoriana. Even Guy Ritchie’s 2009 cinematic update of Sherlock Holmes pit the master detective against a criminal whose crimes were intended to evoke those of the Ripper. The same year Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow offered an account of Holmes’ battle with Ripper.

So the idea of pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper is hardly novel. That said, there’s no small measure of brilliance in trying to transpose that conflict into the structure of Star Trek, where you can actually run with a crazy concept like the dispossessed spirit of Jack the Ripper seeking refuge in a computer-generated Sherlock Holmes fantasy crafted by an android. That is a rather wonderful story hook for Embrace the Wolf. It’s hard to resist the wonderful pulpy charm of a premise like that.

The game's afoot!

The game’s afoot!

Unfortunately, Embrace the Wolf never quite works. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is the amount of time devoted to the framing story involving an entire alien civilisation driven insane by Redjac. It’s not a bad idea of itself. After all, the concept of “contagious insanity” is very much in step the sort of crazy alternative psychedelic sixties mindset that produced “Jack the Ripper travelling through space as a non-corporeal entity.” In fact, the original Star Trek had even touched on the concept of contagious insanity and societal breakdown in Operation–Annihilate!

The problem is that Embrace the Wolf is not a classic Star Trek comic. It’s very much set in the world of The Next Generation. So these sixties concepts feel a little out of place among the more sterile aesthetic of that piece of eighties and nineties television. The notion of an entire world driven to the brink of destruction by the consciousness of Jack the Ripper is intriguing, but also off-the-wall. It needs a bit more energy and enthusiasm than it gets here, where considerable it exists primarily to generate a threat to the Enterprise: when Redjac gets into the Enterprise’s computer, the aliens seek to destroy the ship to destroy Redjac.

You know, you think the Enterprise would have a firewall for this sort of thing by now...

You know, you think the Enterprise would have a firewall for this sort of thing by now…

This leaves little room for the story’s central attraction: android-as-Holmes tracks entity-as-Jack-the-Ripper. And what we do get feels a little generic and bland. Redjac creates a body for himself that looks like a generic nineties supervillain. The contest between Data and Redjac doesn’t rely on deduction or wits so much as it does on physical combat. It’s all frightfully bland, and a disappointing execution of a wonderful concept.

Some problems are more fundamental. When Redjac abducts members of the crew, he winds up abducting both of the female regulars to put them in peril. Picard and Worf are also abducted, but they both get to be more proactive than Crusher or Troi. In particular, Troi is tied down and threatened while waiting for Data to save her. The Next Generation had a lot of issues with gender roles, but reducing Crusher and Troi to would-be victims feels like a very unfortunate choice.

He's a sober man and true... and attentive to his duty...

He’s a sober man and true… and attentive to his duty…

Which is a shame, because there are some nice ideas here. In particular, it’s a pretty great twist on the whole “the holodeck goes crazy!” subgenre. Computer malfunctions are a dime-a-dozen in Star Trek, and it’s a wonder anybody on the ship agrees to use the damn thing. At the same time, if you absolutely have to do this sort of plot, then you might as well do it properly and go all in. “The holodeck?” Picard wonders as Redjac transfers power. “What on Earth could it hope to accomplish from there?” It’s clear Picard hasn’t been paying attention to how deadly the holodeck actually is.

“I want to have a little fun before I kill you all,” Redjac boasts, and the plan makes a certain amount of sense. If I wanted to turn the Enterprise into a deathtrap, I’d start with the holodeck. “Malevolent entity decides to torture and kill the crew using the holodeck!” is a totally insane premise, but at least it’s interesting. It’s nice to have a holodeck malfunction that isn’t actually a malfunction, and instead the sort of freak occurrence which underscores just how dangerous and ridiculous the basic premise of the concept happens to be.

Picard thanks his lucky stars Robert Bloch never wrote for The Next Generation...

Picard thanks his lucky stars Robert Bloch never wrote for The Next Generation…

Sadly, Embrace the Wolf never quite lives up to the promise of its premise, despite a wealth of wonderful high concepts.

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

5 Responses

  1. All of the TNG books produced by Wildstorm could have the same review: Potential wasted.

    Of all the publishing houses to produce Star Trek comics, I feel that Wildstorm got it the most wrong. Though I must admit they earned some of my respect for trying new things. After all, New Frontier was the first, to my knowledge, non-televised spin-off in visual media. A certain dull darkness pervades the comics though. Maybe we can blame the western world’s struggles with identity at the time the comics were produced (early 21st century), or Star Trek’s own struggles with identity at the time.

    It really feels like a bad marriage of two previously successful models for Star Trek comics. Between DC’s busy world-building and Marvel’s pulpy space operas of the mid-90s, we got some great Trek comics. WS seemed to take the wild concepts of Marvel and the seriousness of DC to produce their Trek comics. And what we have is a series of stories that are oddly self-serious presentations of otherwise typical episodes.

    That said, some of the art in these books is quite impressive. It may not fit the story, but it is nice to look at. And, the one comic with Spock, Sarek, and the Cardassians was a nice bit of typing up loose ends.

    • haha..I just remembered Marvel’s super-fun Starfleet Academy spin-off, which would have preceded New Frontier’s comic adaptation.

      • Yep. And Early Voyages… kinda counts, maybe? (Which is, I think the best of the Marvel Star Trek comics, but I’ve yet to dive into Starfleet Academy.)

    • Those are actually some wonderfully accurate summaries of the DC and Marvel tie-ins, actually. I think the strongest Star Trek comics ever written were Peter David’s TOS tie-ins. On average, they were just good comics, and just good Star Trek. Which is something I think that tie-ins have difficulty with. I think Friedman does good Star Trek, but bad comics – for example.

      Like you, I’m lukewarm on Wildstorm, but also non-John-Byrne IDW. I mean, Byrne’s stuff has some issues, but it’s more proficient and well-constructed than most other Star Trek tie-ins. With a lot of the IDW and Wildstorm stuff it’s – as you said – some great hooks with some unambitious execution. (Then again, there are exceptions. I quite liked the Enter the Wolves story you mentioned from Wildstorm.)

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