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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Last Generation (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.

The Last Generation, a five-issue miniseries written by Andrew Steven Harris and illustrated by the wonderful Gordon Purcell, feels like a companion piece to Harris’ Alien Spotlight: Borg issue. Both are essentially stories about the morality of using time travel to re-write history, and both can be read as a reflection on Star Trek continuity as a whole.

Published from November 2008 through to March 2009, The Last Generation feels like something of a preemptive rebuttal to JJ Abrams’ May 2009 reboot of Star Trek. Much like Alien Spotlight: Borg before it, it feels like a conscious attempt to vindicate and validate the franchise from the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation onwards.

Given the fact that the “reboot-in-all-but-name” back-to-Kirk nature of Abrams’ film was openly discussed well ahead of the release, it’s hard not to read The Last Generation and Alien Spotlight: Borg as protests against the decision to set the clock back on the franchise and start with Kirk yet again.

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

After all, The Last Generation is set in a timeline that diverges in within the last ten minutes of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It’s hard to imagine another story structure that would allow Kirk to remain the cornerstone of the Star Trek pantheon, while completely unravelling all that followed. In fact, this whole craptacular alternate timeline is portrayed as the attempt made by a madman to write Picard and all the other Berman-era Star Trek characters out of history. It’s telling that the only surviving Original Series cast member is Sulu, the character whose actor always seemed to be angling for a spin-off.

Naturally, everything that accomplished by the Berman-era characters did gets written out with them – all the progress made by The Next Generation as a franchise. None of the human characters seem to have the familiar warmth and humanism that The Next Generation imbued in its characters. Even Picard himself seems quite ready to murder Klingons, who have never evolved past the generic bad guys who appeared in those early original Star Trek episodes. Without The Next Generation, the Klingons are just goons and adversaries, rather than an interesting culture worth exploring and a civilisation to make peace with.

A walk in the park...

A walk in the park…

In fact, the possibility of peaceful coexistence is so alien to this timeline that Wesley tries to murder Picard for suggesting making peace with the Klingons. Even Picard himself can barely fathom the possibility. The best he can do is travel back in time to seed the possibility of peace. The universe is so profoundly broken that Picard cannot use his diplomatic skills to secure peace in the present. The Last Generation is really an extrapolation of Federation/Klingon relations from the classic show, untempered by the development that had occurred in the years since in episodes like Heart of Glory or Sins of the Father.

Harris really lays his cards on the table at the conclusion of the series. The Last Generation ends with an alternate version of Picard affirming the place that he and his crew hold in the grand scheme of things, right down to name-dropping the name of his television show. He makes an appeal on the strengths of forward momentum, of the application of progress rather than stagnation. “Some people think the future means the end of history,” Picard observes, in a nice nod to Fukuyama, one of Nicholas Meyers’ influences in crafting The Undiscovered Country. “But we haven’t run out of history quite yet.”

This version of Wesley is a shady character...

This version of Wesley is a shady character…

It seems like Harris is making a case, through Picard, for the value of continuing onwards rather than simply focusing on the past. Embracing new possibilities, rather than giving up and retreating to the familiar. After all, The Next Generation was a bold gambit that paid off in the late eighties, there’s no reason why another jump forward could not work in the twenty-first century. “People can be frightened of change,” Picard confesses. “I know I was.” However, the future does have its benefits, as Picard observes. “It can be whatever we want.” The potential is limitless, in contrast to the past that is already written.

It reads like an attempt to validate the successes of the Berman era, rather than using the failures as an excuse to cast all that aside and regress. Guinan even explicitly compares the future to a wound, suggesting that the box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis and the ratings collapse of Star Trek: Enterprise provide an understandable motivation of a reboot. “The future isn’t some scar, etched in stone,” she assures Picard. Instead, she focuses on it its strengths. “It’s a combination of our hopes, our fears, our dreams.”

There's blood on his hands...

There’s blood on his hands…

As such, The Last Generation feels like a retreads a lot of ground that Harris already covered more succinctly in Alien Spotlight: Borg – the importance of pushing forward as opposed to venturing backwards, the validity of an expansive and evolving future. It’s a nice solid theme, and Harris does manage get all five issues out of it, with fantastic pencil work from veteran Star Trek artist Gordon Purcell. At the same time, it feels a little too familiar, a little too under-developed.

There’s also a sense that Harris is working too hard to fit in as many references to Star Trek continuity as possible, and to pander to Star Trek fandom a little too enthusiastically. Outside of the fun of seeing Picard as a rebel leader and many of the individual Next Generation characters recontextualised, The Lost Generation does feel like something we’ve seen before – or, rather, a composite of lots of little things that we’ve seen before.

Giant steps are what you take...

Giant steps are what you take…

The notion of a war between the Federation and the Klingons is a Star Trek staple, to the point where the studio could direct Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to spice things up by turning the Klingons into baddies. However, The Lost Generation feels like it owes a particularly indebted to Yesterday’s Enterprise and the Deep Space Nine era mirror universe episodes. Like Yesterday’s Enterprise, we get a sense of the Klingons being much better at warfare than their Federation counterparts, even at an economic disadvantage. Like the Deep Space Nine mirror universe stories, we get Worf as an evil overlord oppressing humans.

In fact, the whole Terran Rebellion feels very much like something from those Deep Space Nine episodes. It’s hard to imagine a murderous and scheming version of Wesley outside that context. (Indeed, Diane Duane even used the Oedipal subtext of Wesley trying to kill Picard as an expression of the mirror universe’s perversion in Dark Mirror.) We get our usual heroic characters playing cynical anti-heroes and crazy romantic pairings that would not be possible under other circumstances.

Alexander the not so Great...

Alexander the not so Great…

There’s also a sense that The Last Generation is trying a little too hard to give fans what it thinks they want to see. So, for example, we get an issue focusing on Worf’s son Alexander as a failed warlord. He’s a screw-up in any reality, but here he’s treated as an object of malicious scorn. After proving completely ineffective at confronting our heroes, he is “ritually executed, then blown out of the airlock.” Worf never really seems too bothered by his son’s death, never even following up on the circumstances.

We also get other attempts at fan service, a sense that Harris is really just playing with the tropes that Star Trek fans take for granted – making the whole storyline feel a bit more like a Deep Space Nine era mirror universe story than a spiritual companion to Yesterday’s Enterprise. The script treats us to Sulu fencing, lots of name-dropping and quite a few guest appearances. At one point, Troi shows up for a few pages so Worf can brutally murder her.

Bad Worf!

Bad Worf!

The villain behind all this is Captain Braxton, a recurring Star Trek: Voyager guest star. Much like in Relativity, there’s a sense that Braxton is being used because he’s familiar, rather than because his involvement is organic. As in Relativity, his insanity is presented as justification for his meddling, which ultimately leads to the plot of the comic. Never minding the logical conundrums raised by his meddling, it feels a bit trite.

There is an interesting idea presented in his exchanges with Picard. Explaining his justifications, Braxton offers, “What does matter is that the only timelines where this doesn’t occur – the only ones where the galaxy itself survives – are the ones in which the Federation no longer exists.” This excuse is casually dismissed later on as the rambling of a mad man, but there’s the root of a clever idea here.

Aiming for greatness...

Aiming for greatness…

Stories like The City on the Edge of Forever and Yesterday’s Enterprise assume that the default Star Trek universe is the “right” timeline, and that all other timelines are inferior. This is an ethically problematic position, because the main justification always seems to be “it’s the right timeline because it’s the one that existed before.” This is an uncomfortable position for Star Trek to adopt, and it’s an issue that Deep Space Nine would touch upon in Children of Time.

The problem with this perspective is that the timeline isn’t justified on its own merits; it’s just compared to an alternative that is apparently inferior. The goal isn’t to “improve” history, it is to “restore” it, as if the status quo is an ideal. There’s never the possibility of a “better” outcome. In The City on the Edge of Forever, there’s no alternative where Kirk completely averts the Second World War saving millions of lives. In Yesterday’s Enterprise, there’s no peace without the loss of the Enterprise-C.

Flying Sulu...

Flying Sulu…

Braxton’s dialogue hints at a brutal twist on this approach to time travel. If there is only one “right” universe, then what if we don’t live in it. What if everything that we have seen Picard experience over the past twenty-odd years is part of a “wrong” timeline? Without the narrative convenience of a Klingon victory to tell us that this timeline is “wrong”, there’s a lot of drama in that idea. It’s a fairly effective criticism of the idea that there must logically be one “true” timeline and all others are demonstrably inferior.

Unfortunately, The Last Generation isn’t quite willing to deal with the philosophical implications of that idea. Although The Last Generation unfolds under the Myriad Universe banner that Pocket used for its alternative Star Trek novels, there’s a big difference between The Last Generation and something like The Chimes at Midnight or Brave New World. Those stories build off the idea of alternate and (at least nominally) equally valid universes existing.

Picard's street crew...

Picard’s street crew…

The timelines in those Myriad Universe novellas branched organically as a matter of multiversal growth. There’s no indication that any one story is an “aberration” or any less valid than the mainstream universe, save the reader’s perspective as somebody invested in over seven hundred hours of Star Trek set in one particular timeline. These novels seem to fit with the view of the Star Trek multiverse presented in episodes like Parallels, were they are logical offshoots.

The Last Generation is something radically different. This isn’t an organic outgrowth. Instead, it’s an alternate universe created by time travel. It is, demonstrably, a “wrong” timeline – and there is, therefore, a “right” timeline. It feels a bit like The Last Generation is trying to offer an easy outcome to all of this, a nice convenient resolution to this horrible alternate universe that Picard inhabits. It makes the story seem simpler and less complex than it really should.

History repeats...

History repeats…

The Last Generation is a reasonably solid alternate universe story, hindered by a sense that we’ve already seen all this before and a sense that everything is just a little too neat.

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

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