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Star Trek: The Lost Era – Well of Souls by Ilsa J. Bick (Review)

This November and December, 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.

Well of Souls is a story of the Enterprise-C, the ship introduced in Yesterday’s Enterprise. One of the best-received episodes in the history of Star Trek: The Next GenerationYesterday’s Enterprise established Rachel Garrett’s ship as the troubled Enterprise, the tragic flagship, the doomed space craft. Ilsa J. Bick builds on that characterisation in Well of Souls, one small story from some point in Garrett’s command of the Federation flagship.

While Well of Souls feels like a rather unconventional Star Trek novel, it is charming in its own way. Bick connects her tale to the themes of Well of Souls, suggesting a troubled ship manned by a struggling crew. The novel returns time and again to the theme of unfortunate choices, the weight of making the best decision of the options open. Unlike Kirk or Picard, Bick seems to suggest, this version of the iconic starship doesn’t get that many lucky breaks, with her crew repeatedly forced to accept the least bad of a selection of unappetising choices.

Well of Souls is  a thoughtful, introspective piece. It doesn’t flow or pace itself as well as it might, but Bick crafts a compelling picture the never-the-less. While not quite the best of the Lost Era tie-in novels, it’s ambitious and insightful. It lacks the energy of Serpents Among the Ruins or The Art of the Impossible, but it’s still a very worthy read for anybody looking to sketch out a gap in the Star Trek mythos.

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The Lost Era novels have an almost limitless potential. While the twenty-one seasons spread across fourteen years of 24th century Star Trek explored the political and social fabric of the expansive shared universe quite well, there remains a massive gap between Kirk’s “final” voyage at the start of Star Trek: Generations and the christening of Picard’s Enterprise in Encounter at Farpoint.

Roddenberry had created that gap to give Star Trek: The Next Generation enough creative freedom to distinguish itself from its direct predecessor, and restrictions on the overt references to the original television show prevented the writers from filling in the gaps in too much detail. Occasionally, we’d get an off-hand reference to some past event or some historical context for the current episode.

The Wounded revealed a Cardassian-Federation war. Yesterday’s Enterprise explored the fate of Picard’s predecessor. The Way of the Warrior hinted that the Klingons and Cardassians had their own history. The Adversary suggested the Federation engaged in an off-screen war with the Tzenkathi. However, that large stretch of time separating Kirk from Picard remained relatively uncharted and unexplored.

Kirk’s last command, last headlining Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, was the Enterprise-A. It had been built following the destruction of the original craft in the third film of the series. That leaves two relatively undeveloped starships carrying the name “Enterprise” between Kirk and Picard. In many ways, Bick’s Well of Souls feels like a companion piece to the other Lost Era novel about a forgotten Enterprise, David R. George III’s Serpents Among the Ruins.

Crafting a story around a ship and a captain barely established in Star Trek lore, George extrapolated from what little was established about the Enterprise-B to construct a narrative based around the ship’s low-key career. George suggested that the Enterprise-B was a ship that never lived up to its potential, Captain John Harriman living in the shadow of Kirk’s death and while his command never got to chart the unknown or embrace exploration as much as it might have. While Serpents Among the Ruins allows Harriman to make a significant contribution to Star Trek history, he does so quietly and in the background.

Bick’s Well of Souls adopts a similar approach to Rachel Garrett and the Enterprise-C. Unlike its direct predecessor, the Enterprise-C did not fade into idle obscurity. While the Enterprise-B was defined by its lack of definition – its hazy “just sort of being there” – Garrett’s ship was given a tragic back story in Yesterday’s Enterprise. It was a ship faced that made a huge sacrifice that turned out to be vitally important, but one that the crew never lived to appreciate.

While Picard and Kirk made a career out of defeating “no win” scenarios – what with starring on a weekly television show and all that – Garrett and her crew were defined as the ship that couldn’t. Even a fluke sending the ship forward in time away from the Romulan ambush didn’t offer them a convenient out. They just wound up faced with a decision about whether or not to go back and die to help create a better future that they would never be a part of. As Batanides argues at one point, “And the simple truth is, Captain, you and your crew are unimportant. You are not part of the bigger picture.” It’s cold, but accurate.

Bick never explicitly acknowledges the events of Yesterday’s Enterprise in Well of Souls, but it hangs over the book. Bick extrapolates backwards from the episode, suggesting that the ship is a dysfunctional Enterprise, one without the luck or the charm of its direct successor. Bick builds the theme of tough choices into Well of Souls, confronting her protagonists with a variety of poor options and asking them to select the least disagreeable.

The cast and crew seem like familiar echoes of Star Trek archetypes, only more dysfunctional and a bit more broken. We join the story shortly after the death of Nigel Holmes. Evoking comparisons to the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay, Garret reflects that Holmes might have been “maybe a little more than just a friend, though she would never, ever admit that to anyone, much less herself.”

The rest of the crew would appear to have more personality and more drama than the cast of many Star Trek spin-offs (particularly The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager), but Bick proceeds to suggest that maybe there’s a reason that so many Star Trek characters seem relatively bland and why there’s so little interpersonal drama. As Seth McFarlane joked about the Enterprise-D in Inside the Writers’ Room, Picard’s Enterprise is one of the most professional (and realistic) working environments in television history.

While interpersonal drama and mysterious pasts and personal issues make for interesting characters, Bick seems to make the case that they don’t lend themselves to a healthy dynamic in the work place. It’s only as the crew learn to work through these problems that they function as a team, perhaps suggesting that the lack of melodrama in The Next Generation is down to professionalism. By creating a cast of characters dealing with their own individual issues, Bick gets to extrapolate that it is not conducive to good working environment.

There’s some sense of in-built tragedy to Bick’s version of the Enterprise-C, feeling like something of an island of misfit toys. Most of the ensemble are very deeply damaged and broken, and the first third of the novel makes for quite a depressing read as we meet a bunch of unlucky and ill-fated characters who we know are not going to have a happy ending. It occasionally gets a bit oppressive, a little grim, a tad overwhelming, but Bick does an excellent job cultivating a cast of mostly new characters.

Indeed, probably the biggest problem with the pacing of the book is the fact that Bick has to essentially introduce a whole collection of characters in increments. We are introduced to a core cluster of cast members, and then she progressively widens the circle. We are still being introduced to the ship’s senior staff at around the half-way mark, which lend sthe book a somewhat disjointed feel. George had a similar problem in Serpents Among the Ruins, but mitigated it by keeping his focuse tight on his lead.

Due to the nature of the story Bick wants to tell, that isn’t really an option here. In order for the story to come together as well as it does, she has to start by introducing us to various characters and then developing the rest of the cast around those, spiralling outwards until the circles connect. Garrett is the character we know best, but the story branches out to her new executive officer, and to her ex-husband and son, both initially on different tangents.

Interestingly, Bick refuses to clearly articulate everything about her characters. While we get details of key events from the past of Halak or Bat-Levi, there are constant hints dropped at a more fleshed-out back story for Garrett. There are occasional references to a tragedy featuring her younger sister, never completely developed. I’m not sure if Bick was setting up threads to be paid off in further stories featuring the characters or simply wanted texture, but it helps create the impression that the characters exist outside the framework of this single novel. It’s nice.

That said, the set-up can be quite distracting in the early part of the book, and it takes Bick a little while to find her rhythm. That said, once Well of Souls finds its feet, it’s wonderfully engaging – and all the more effective for the time devoted to character and world-building. Well of Souls feels like a substantial story, and it develops its cast remarkably well. There is a very clear sense that this is still a Star Trek story, but it is its own Star Trek story, not beholden to a massive shared universe or too much continuity.

That said, Bick very clearly knows her stuff, and there are a lot of elements here that demonstrate how familiar Bick is with the Star Trek mythos. Like quite a lot of the Star Trek tie-in novels featuring Cardassians after 1999, it’s clear that Bick has been heavily influenced by Andrew J. Robinson’s superb A Stitch in Time. In particular, the eponymous archaeological site here draws subtly on Tain’s wonderful “night people” speech.

However, Bick’s influences also extend outside the franchise. In particular, it seems like Bick isn’t just imagining what a story building on the themes of Yesterday’s Enterprise might look like, she’s also postulating about what form a Star Trek story told before The Next Generation might take. The Next Generation was a product of the late eighties, the end of the Cold War and an era of peace and prosperity for the United States. The show was a product of that.

Any story told about Picard’s direct predecessor, Bick seems to suggest, would more likely be a product of the mid-eighties, playing to the concerns and the pop culture of that particular era. As the name implies, Well of Souls is an archaeological thriller, and it can’t help but evoke the Indiana Jones films. The “Well of Souls” was reputedly one resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the eponymous artefact in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Well of Souls features evil spirits haunting an old religious site and artefact – in this case a mask – and it seems like Bick is channelling that mid-eighties pop culture fascination with archaeology into her book. After all, while the Indiana Jones films ranked among the most respected blockbusters of the eighties, there were a rash of archaeological adventure films produced at the time – including Romancing the Stone and King Solomon’s Mines. With its themes of archaeological greed and morally questionable crusading, Bick’s Well of Souls feels like something of an affectionate tribute.

I should also note that I like the recurring theme of archaeology feeding through these “Lost Era” novels – it’s also a major part of The Buried Age. After all, these books are an archaeological expedition into a mysterious era in a fictional television show, a form of excavation themselves. Bick cleverly turns that into a theme of the book, and Well of Souls is the stronger for it.

And Bick also plays into the social issues of the time. If The Next Generation often served as a vehicle to explore the problems of the nineties, Bick seems to suggest that a story about an earlier Enterprise should perhaps reflect earlier social problems. Here, there’s a very clear “war on drugs” subtext to the story, with constant references to a drug called “red ice”, apparently “a genetically altered opiate.”

To be fair, The Next Generation engaged with the drug problem quite a bit in its first year. Q made reference to soldier controlled by drugs in Encounter at Farpoint, accidentally foreshadowing the Jem’Hadar. Tasha Yar originated from a failed colony with rampant drug abuse. Symbiosis featured a planet of drug dealers preying on a planet of drug addicts. However, those references faded quite quickly and the show mostly disengaged from the issue – perhaps as it moved out of the eighties and into the nineties.

Here, Bick not only offers a Star Trek metaphor for the war on drugs, but also mounts some rather stinging social commentary. Despite the protestations of Starfleet Intelligence that they are concerned about the spread of the addictive “red ice” to Federation worlds, Garrett herself is sceptical:

“Theory? The Cardassians are into expansion. We know that. So maybe they’re developing a new weapons system. Cloaking technology, maybe. I don’t know. I’ll tell you one thing, though.” Garrett looked grim. “This isn’t about drugs, not anymore.”

In many ways, this reflects some rather cynical opinions concerning the United States’ involvement in the war on drugs, and how it was often secondary to the political and military concerns of the Cold War. As Cold War, US Foreign Policy and the War on Drugs: Displacing the Cocaine and Heroin Industry argues:

When news spread about the number of US soldiers in Vietnam consuming heroin, when the criminal activities of US proxies became a big topic in public debate, and when it became apparent that Southeast Asia was supplying increasing amounts of heroin to the US, Congress and the American public challenged the administration’s implicit Cold War reasoning that Communism came first and drugs second. Reluctantly, the administration adopted drug control measures in Southeast Asia.

Indeed, Bick doesn’t just draw on the social and political and pop culture context of the gap between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation to create a framework for her take on The Lost Era. She even seems to extrapolate a bit backwards. As noted above, the references to the war of drugs seem to echo backwards from the first season of The Next Generation.

While Bick’s writing style is far stronger than any authorial voice on that rocky first year, she does seem to make a conscious effort to incorporate some ideas and themes to helps her fabricate connective tissue between the two eras. For example, the revelations about “the night people” can’t help but echo the origin story of Armus in Skin of Evil. “Brothers,” they explain, “they were our brothers, but they said that we were evil, darkness, the night side of their own souls.”

It works a lot better here, but it seems like Bick is making a point of using some of the storytelling techniques favoured in the early days of The Next Generation to create a sense of continuity that extends beyond name-dropping characters or aliens or events. Instead, it’s a sort of thematic continuity which creates the impression that this is a story that could have been told before the first season of The Next Generation. That said, Bick seems to be a much stronger writer than anybody on that staff, or maybe she is just less hindered.

Bick also capitalises on the fact that she is writing for prose rather than television. It seems like it should be obvious, but it’s a mistake that quite a few tie-in authors make. Bick takes advantage of the format by incorporating elements that would be very difficult to work on screen, for example, a dependence on telepathy – which relies on “something as insubstantial as thought” and would be quite difficult to translate to another medium.

Well of Souls is a nice little novel, even if it falls shy of being the best of The Lost Era novels. It’s thoughtful, introspective and well-constructed. Well worth a look for anybody wanting a glimpse at what an average adventure of the Enterprise-C might have looked like.

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

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