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Star Trek: The Next Generation (DC, 1989) Annual #1 – The Gift (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.

You can see why DC comics jumped at the chance to publish The Gift. After all, a comic about Q written by the actor playing Q is a hell of a hook. The publisher had already done something similar, with actor Walter Koenig providing a script for the nineteenth issue of DC’s first Star Trek comic book series. At the same time that The Gift was published, George Takei collaborated with Peter David on a Star Trek annual story, So Near the Touch.

John deLancie isn’t a bad storyteller. Indeed, his published tie-in novel – I, Q written with Peter David – is quite enjoyable. However, The Gift is just an absolute mess of a story, with a couple of interesting high concepts buried beneath two horrible clichés tied together to create a rather unfortunate narrative. The Gift is a disappointment on just about every level.

Cue Q!

Cue Q!

To be fair, deLancie wasn’t alone on The Gift. Regular Star Trek: The Next Generation comic book writer Michael Jan Friedman is credited with “additional dialogue”, a somewhat hazy credit that obscures the quantity of Friedman’s contributions to the finished story. Friedman is generally a competent writer – he’s strong on structure and his writing rarely offensive. The problems with The Gift don’t lie so much in the execution as the core idea. As such, it seems like the bulk of the story for The Gift came from deLancie himself.

And not everything here is bad. The notion of an angry and vindictive Q returning to the Enterprise following the humiliations of Encounter at Farpoint and Hide and Q is intriguing. Although written and released after the broadcast of Déjà Q, The Gift seems to write Q as the character that the Enterprise encounter in its first year or so. This is a petty all-powerful being, one with an immense ego who is more than mildly frustrated by the way Picard has outwitted him.

All's well that ends well...

All’s well that ends well…

When Picard asks why Q is trying to unravel his personal history, Q explains, “You though to embarrass me, to outwit me, to make me look small with my people.” There’s a maliciousness in Q’s repeated attempts to humiliate and diminish Picard – first by turning him into a goat and then by trying to steal his past. These are perfectly within Q’s character, but there’s a vicious streak to his behaviour here which is quite unsettling. “This is nothing more than a mean-spirited child pulling the wings off a fly,” Picard observes, and he’s not incorrect.

Again, this portrayal is one that feels a little dated. Q Who? was the first episode to really hint that Q had a deep-seated fondness for humanity, and that his actions where kinder and more well-intentioned than he would willingly admit. Déjà Q took that idea one step further, with a desperate Q seeking amnesty on the Enterprise, but also willing to share his gratitude and enthusiasm with the senior staff on returning to the Q Continuum.

Reality Q'bed...

Reality Q’bed…

The last few pages of The Gift hint that Q might have somehow had Picard’s best interests at heart all along (hence the title of the story), but his conduct in The Gift feels much pettier and aggressive than any of his behaviour from the second season onwards. There’s a sense that deLancie hadn’t quite yet got a handle on where the writers were taking the character, but that’s excusable. Given how the episode showhorns in its reference to the events of Déjà Q, confining them to a conversation between Worf and Riker, it’s possible the story was drafted while that episode was in the early stages of production.

And, to be entirely fair, deLancie has some good ideas. In a way, The Gift provides the template for the sixth season’s Tapestry. Q affords Picard an opportunity to venture into his personal history to change a grave mistake. Picard “fixes” his past mistake, only for Q to return him to an altered present – revealing that the event had unintended side effects. Picard then urges Q to make things revert to the way that they were. Q does so, and the whole adventure is structured as an important lesson for Picard. He would not be the man he is today without that loss.

This doesn't phase Picard in the slightest...

This doesn’t phase Picard in the slightest…

It’s a nice basic plot structure, and there’s a reason that Tapestry is regarded as one of the finest episodes of The Next Generation ever produced. It is touching, sweet, sincere, honest and reflective. It has a depth of emotion that really demonstrates how wonderful these characters could be. It has two fantastic lead performers in John deLancie and Patrick Stewart. It has one of the best scripts that Ronald D. Moore ever wrote, drafting it as an autobiographical tale.

Unfortunately, John deLancie and Michael Jan Friedman are not Ronald D. Moore. The Gift has a rather clever core idea, but then deLancie and Friedman decide to up the ante. Since Picard’s family history had not been discussed on the show up to this point, they decide to develop that. Again, it’s not a bad idea. It’s nice to have well-rounded characters, and a trip home is a nice way to develop character. Again, Moore would do something similar in Family.

Face-off!

Face-off!

However, deLancie and Friedman decide to give Picard a dead brother. Already, the plot feels a little awkward. Dead siblings, particularly those who died young and are suddenly mentioned out of nowhere, are something of a storytelling cliché. They are a convenient way of evoking a particular set of emotions from the audience, and playing on a certain set of basic feelings. There are stories that can pull this sort of idea off quite well – Park Chan Wook’s Stoker comes to mind – but they are rare. And The Gift is not one of them.

This would be problematic on its own – Q using his powers to allow Jean-Luc to travel back in time and resurrect a convenient dead sibling who was only just mentioned in this story. It’s hardly the most organic storytelling idea, as much as “Q allowing Picard to atone for a past mistake” is a great hook. However, The Gift becomes a lot more questionable quite quickly. After all, you need a strong reason for Picard to reset the status quo at the end, as “Picard owes Q a debt for resurrecting his brother” is not the kind of change to canon a comic can get away with.

A Terran Terror...

A Terran Terror…

So – and this is where somebody probably should have politely stepped in and suggested that the idea needed a bit more work – Picard’s resurrected brother who was never mentioned before this story turns out to be a fascist racist pig who conquers the Federation and leads the whole galaxy to war. Again, The Gift is hitting on a familiar cliché. “Could you kill Hitler as a child?” is a common enough time travel plot. As The Boston Globe sarcastically noted:

Google the phrase “go back in time and,” and the search engine will suggest completing the phrase with a simple directive: “kill Hitler.” The appeal of murdering the Nazi dictator is so great that it has its own subgenre within speculative fiction, a trope known as “Hitler’s murder paradox” in which a time traveler journeys back far enough to nip the leader — and World War II — in the bud, typically with unexpected consequences.

The issue opens all sorts of pragmatic and ethical questions – some of which are surprisingly intriguing. However, the use of the trope in The Gift feels a little superficial and convenient. Why can’t Picard’s never-mentioned-before deceased sibling be revived and allowed to live? The answer is “because he’s really future!Hitler.” It’s a little trite, existing as a justification for why this story can’t change the status quo.

Some hot air...

Some hot air…

It’s worth reflecting on the implications of this trope. For one thing, it completely demolishes the idea of free will. Apparently the alternatives are binary: either Claude Picard is future!Hitler or he is dead. There’s no set of circumstances where Claude Picard is alive and not future!Hitler. That’s a pretty bleak existential idea to just drop into the story, and getting a proud strong-willed individual like Jean-Luc Picard to the point where he accepts this needs a lot more work and nuance than The Gift can afford.

Instead, this is treated as a life-affirming morality tale about how Picard needs to let go of the past – to move past the tragic death of his infant brother. The comic ends with Picard deciding to join the crew for an evening of revelry, and Q smiling knowingly. The implication is that Q has somehow done Picard some service by allowing him this opportunity. This feels a little awkward. One imagines that “if your brother lived, he would have been a genocidal madman” would put an even heavier downer on Picard.

Shaking things up...

Shaking things up…

Does that mean that mental illness is in his genes? Does this put him in the horrible position of being happy that his brother died at a tender age? Does Picard just accept that there’s nothing anybody could have done to help Claude? How can he look at the family portrait again? Given his demand that Q wipe his parents’ memories of the experience, how will Picard deal with any future family encounters? These are big and important questions raised by The Gift, and the story never addresses any of them.

So The Gift feels like a bit of a disappointed, a wasted opportunity – a core idea that isn’t bad linked with two very questionable story choices. Still, deLancie will at least do better in his next collaboration.

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

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