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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Imzadi by Peter David (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.

As far as tie-in novels for Star Trek: The Next Generation go, Imzadi is the big one. It’s Peter David’s magnum opus for The Next Generation – a wonderfully clever character study that allows David to bask in the character dynamics of the show, while playing with big ideas and grand themes. It’s very easily the strongest Next Generation novel published while the show was on television, and remains a strong contender for the best Next Generation novel ever published.

tng-imzadi

There’s a lot to love about Imzadi. While the dynamic between Riker and Troi is pushed to the fore – even on the cover – there’s also a sense that David is having a bit of a go at one of the franchise’s sacred cows. What’s most notable about the structure of Imzadi is that it’s very clearly an inversion of The City on the Edge of Forever. That classic Star Trek episode had James T. Kirk sacrificing the love of his life in order to preserve the timeline.

Here, an older and bitter William T. Riker decides that love really is more important than maintaining the integrity of time itself, and so embarks on a journey through time to change his own history. He plots to prevent the death of the woman he loves and to re-write history itself to bring the two of them together. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of the plot to the aired version of The City on the Edge of Forever, even if it has echoes of Harlan Ellison’s original story idea.

David acknowledges Ellison in the foreword of the Signature Edition and has assured fans that Ellison approves of David’s use of Ellison’s script and concepts – if only because David explicitly sought permission before incorporating them into the novel. Indeed, the story opens acknowledging this debt – and the importance of The City on the Edge of Forever in the history of Star Trek – with an older version of Data finishing a re-run of The City on the Edge of Forever playing on the Guardian of Forever (“That moment,” we’re told. “It’s one of the most popular.”)

David does a number of really clever things here. He builds off the concept of the Guardian of Forever as portrayed in The City on the Edge of Forever, treating it as more than just a window into time – but a window across dimensions and possibilities. older!Riker repeatedly describes the Guardian as “God’s window.” It isn’t just a window to what was. It’s a window to everything that might have been. “Well, Mr. Data,” he explains, “the Guardian is the resting place of all the souls, throughout all time! It’s God’s window on eternity!”

The Guardian of Forever is also a television. It’s an obvious comparison, but one that David implicitly makes throughout the book. In a way, he’s building of the aired version of The City on the Edge of Forever, where Spock and Kirk are able to record and play back the Guardian’s footage in order to figure out vital plot information. However, it’s made even clearer here. Data watches the Guardian of Forever as if he’s watching television. It’s showing The City on the Edge of Forever, a well-loved repeated.

However, with the revelation that the Guardian allows observers to see more than one reality expands the metaphor a great deal. The Guardian is no longer just one repeating television show. It’s possible to change the channel, to adjust the image appearing on the set. It’s possible to navigate a universe of possibilities simply by flicking one way or the other. In a way, this expansion of the Guardian’s function mirrors changes in the medium between the broadcast of Star Trek and The Next Generation. Star Trek was produced for a single television station. In contrast, The Next Generation was syndicated.

In a way, this provides a nice metaphor for Peter David’s approach to alternate universes within Star Trek: The Next Generation, as reflected in several of his novels – most notably here and Q-Squared. If The City on the Edge of Forever suggested that there was a single absolutely “right” timeline that needed to be preserved at all costs, Imzadi suggests a diverse range of possibilities. Each possible outcome to any given event leads to a different universe, each of which can make its own claim to validity.

The great twist to Imzadi is that the story begins in the universe that would be labelled as the “wrong” universe in The City on the Edge of Forever – the alternative created by time travel and meddling in the time stream. However, this isn’t the desolate and empty universe that we glimpse in The City on the Edge of Forever after McCoy journeys back to New York; this is a universe where Wesley gets to command the Hood and Data takes charge of the Enterprise. Riker might be unhappy, and there are a few suggestions that the Federation has had some roughed external relations than it might otherwise have had, but this is no dystopia.

So time itself is presented not as a single undisturbed line that absolutely must flow in a given direction along a given path. Instead, it’s portrayed as a branching multi-verse with an infinite number of possibilities. The Guardian is no longer a television set with only one channel. It now has access to a wide range of channels showcasing absolutely anything that anybody might possibly want to watch. David is suggesting a less deterministic cosmos, one that embraces any number of things that might happen.

(It’s worth noting that The Next Generation itself would suggest such a possibility in its final year. The episode Parallels is based on the idea that any number of equally valid alternatives to our universe exist, ignoring the sort of “set right what once went wrong” conservatism inherent in many stories like this. Of course, all these possibilities do raise questions about free will and self-determination, but it’s still a marked contrast to the linear “this is the way things always were and must always be” attitude of The City on the Edge of Forever.)

So older!Riker is willing to throw the whole cosmos into jeopardy in order to protect the live of the woman he loves. older!Data, who is introduced watching The City on the Edge of Forever and rigorously adheres to the world view espoused in that episode, tries to stop him. And here is where Imzadi gets truly interesting. older!Riker is selfish and manipulative, but he’s also portrayed as unambiguously heroic.

In contrast, older!Data is portrayed as something akin to the Reverse Terminator – the robot sent back in time to kill a defenceless woman to preserve the way he thinks that things must be. In case there is any lingering doubt about which side the story expects us to take, older!Data explains how far he is willing to go. “But I am prepared to accept that her death is a requirement in the natural order of things, and to preserve that order, I will do whatever I have to do.”

older!Data is cast as a character who cannot understand the potential of things to be different, or even better. Using phrases like “the natural order of things” and his willingness “do whatever [he has] to do” to “preserve that order” leaves a distinctly uncomfortable impression. older!Data would murder one of his closest friends in cold blood because he cannot face the possibility that the universe might change somehow.

It reads as something of a criticism of the central thesis of The City on the Edge of Forever, which comes uncomfortably close to suggesting that sometimes utopian idealism is as much a hindrance as a boon and that the deaths that history demands must be accepted, even when the victims are innocent. For a franchise that has established a reputation for being liberal and optimistic, The City on the Edge of Forever is a brutally cynical piece of television.

David seems to be consciously playing with and exploring the implications of that philosophy. Sure, he does eventually reveal that Riker is really foiling an assassin from the future and thus resetting the timeline back to something approaching what it was originally, but there’s still something very subversive about the time travel plot of Imzadi. It’s also worth noting that the characters here at least get to be aware of the meddling of their future selves, which makes it clear that the resultant timeline is not identical to the one that existed before any interference, even if it might be closer than it had been.

Of course, that’s not the only part of Imzadi which feels like a gentle and affectionate criticism of classic Star Trek. Consider the romance between Troi and Riker as portrayed in the novel. Riker is positioned – much as he was in the early years of The Next Generation – as a spiritual successor to James T. Kirk. Riker even invokes the comparison himself, suggesting that he’s competing against Kirk in his path towards command. “I want to beat Kirk’s record,” he boasts, proudly.

As such, the romantic subplot of Imzadi is structured in such a way as to call to mind Kirk’s romantic technique. Riker arrives on a beautiful planet to help protect the natives. He catches the eye of a beautiful and innocent native girl. She’s swept up in his charm and can’t resist him. Imzadi even has Riker engaging in an aggressive rescue sequence in the heart of an exotic jungle. It feels like Riker is being cast in the same heroic action hero mould as Kirk.

And yet, despite that, Imzadi is sharp enough to question Riker’s technique and his approach towards romance. At one point, Troi explicitly outlines his romantic strategy, and it seems quite close to Kirk’s patented seduction technique:

“You really can’t figure me out, can you, Lieutenant. You think that all you have to do is smile at me, wink devilishly, overpower me with your charm and strength, and I will willingly succumb to your overwhelming manliness.”

“Something like that.”

“Commander, welcome to the twenty-fourth century. I don’t know what goes on on Earth, or even aboard starships… but on Betazed, a woman wants more from a man than for him to simply be a strong hero figure. Someone who is going to carry the helpless damsel off in his big, muscular arms, causing her to swoon and give herself over to him in hot and sweaty throes of passion. Women aren’t like that here. I’m not like that.”

The argument is that such a cliché and stereotypically sexist portrayal of interplanetary romance is outdated, both within the context of the narrative and the franchise itself.

One of the more dated aspects of The Next Generation is the show’s tendency to fall back on these romantic clichés, where male characters are typically sexually aggressive, while female characters are typically objects to be pursued and won. Compare The Price and The Vengeance Factor in how they treat their romantic leads – Riker is allowed far more agency than Troi in romance. Typically, when the show’s female characters do become sexually empowered (Troi in Man of the People, Crusher in Sub Rosa), their sexuality is presented as unsettling or scary.

So David seems to be acknowledging this and trying to work past this, by calling out all these shallow clichés. These were attitudes that were already questionable in the context of sixties gender politics, but they have no place in a nineties television show. And yet it remained a part of the fabric of Star Trek into the nineties. It wasn’t until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that the producers seemed to figure out how to write romance that didn’t have those undertones.

At one point, Riker engages in the sort of dynamic approach employed by Kirk quite a few times, leaning in to kiss a woman who has made it clear that she does not want to be kissed. It’s typically presented as an uncomfortable male fantasy. (“Her lips said no, but her eyes said yes,” to quote dodgy noir and rape apologia.) However, David brutally calls him out on it:

They looked at each other for a long moment, and Riker saw something in her eyes… something that beckoned to him.

He reached across, grabbed her by the arm. and pulled her to him. She fell to the ground with a startled cry of exclamation. For a moment he felt her body go limp against him, and he brought her face to his, pressed his mouth against hers. He felt something electric pass between them….

And then he felt her knee in the pit of his stomach.

Troi even explicitly calls Will out on this attitude. “Lovemaking, Will, is when two people voluntarily decide to give control over to the partner. I wasn’t voluntarily relinquishing anything.” It’s a rather biting criticism of the franchise’s historical approach to romance.

So David’s Imzadi feels boldly critical of Star Trek, but never in a mean-spirited or malicious way. David is a writer who is never afraid to call the franchise out for its perceived shortcomings, and that’s part of what makes his writing so interesting. He’s always actively engaged with the franchise; he seldom seems to be writing to reach a quota or a page count. He is writing about something that he cares about, something that has made him think.

There’s a knee-jerk reactionary aspect to Star Trek fandom that seems to respond instinctively to any perceived criticism of the franchise’s weaknesses and oversights – often with anti-intellectual rhetoric. However, this ignores that most critiques are rooted an abiding fondness for Star Trek. Most discussions of the flaws come from a desire to call attention to an issue so that it might be fixed, or so that the other strengths can be noted, or even because the writer thinks that some aspects of the franchise are being obscured or fudged over by the grand creeping mythology of Star Trek.

(For example, it’s important to qualify that “Star Trek was progressive for sixties television” with “it was also horribly sexist, even by the standards of the time.” Or “the franchise did a lot to raise awareness of important causes” with “the franchise made a conscious effort to avoid homosexual rights in the eighties and nineties.” These observations don’t invalidate the good work done by Star Trek in civil rights or in providing a vision of an optimistic future, they just point out that it was far from perfect. And being aware of these shortcomings helps improve things going forward.)

David himself provides some context for these reflections. Discussing his current situation with Captain Wesley Crusher of the Hood, older!Riker reflects that “there comes a time in everyone’s life where they start to see their heroes for what they really are: namely, people. Flawed… ordinary… people.” In a way, this is an illustration of what makes Peter David’s writing so good. He never loses sight of the people at the heart of this mythos. He never gets distracted by the scale or the weight of history behind him. David’s best novels are driven by characters rather than events.

At one point, the characters recall using the Guardian to look back at the origins of a long-running epic conflict that has spanned generations and cost countless lives. It turns out, appropriately enough, that the origins of this long-running feud were decidedly personal:

Understanding spread across Blair’s face. “You mean the guy’s dog ate her pet cat?”
“That is essentially correct.”
“And that led to centuries of hostilities?”

That’s perfectly in keeping with the novel’s philosophy.

That’s why Imzadi works so much better than David’s other two big “epic” novels (Vendetta and Before Dishonour), despite the scale of the story. This might be a story about the fate of the universe and billions of lives, but it’s also a story about two people in love with one another. It’s rooted in the idea that one person’s love for another can be more important than time itself, which is really the perfect example of the appeal of David’s work.

The time travel is incidental. It’s all window dressing. Interesting window dressing, well-thought-out window dressing, but it’s not the point of the story. The story is about how trivial all that stuff is. It gets wrapped up almost as an after-thought. “Oh, yep, it turns out the universe was messed up anyway.” The real story is about Riker and Troi, and how Riker would tear the universe apart to reunite with his love.

Yep. Imzadi is an absolutely brilliant novel, because it doesn’t try so much to make the intimate epic; it makes the epic intimate.

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

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