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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Vendetta 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.

Vendetta was published in May 1991, which is an astonishingly quick turnaround for a novel building on the events of The Best of Both Worlds, which was broadcast in 1990. Vendetta is billed as “the giant novel”, in the spirit of Jean Lorrah’s Metamorphosis – the March 1990 novel building off The Measure of a Man and advertised as “the first giant novel.”

It’s offers a suitably epic premise – the Enterprise caught between the Borg and the Doomsday Machine with the fate of the universe at stake.

tng-vendetta

Much like Lorrah’s  Metamorphosis, Vendetta opens with a disclaimer identifying the story as apocryphal:

The plot and background details of Vendetta are solely the author’s interpretation of the universe of Star Trek and vary in some respects from the universe as created by Gene Roddenberry.

The result of meddling from Gene Roddenberry’s office, driven in a large part by his associate Richard Arnold, a similar disclaimer had appeared on a number of tie-in books in the early nineties. Home is the Hunter and A Flag Full of Stars also got the same treatment. Apparently, Vendetta and these stories represent a special sort of imaginary story as distinct from all the other imaginary Star Trek stories.

One has nightmares about Arnold trying to retroactively do this to the first season of the original television show, sticking the disclaimer in front of episodes referencing “the Earth ship” Enterprise, describing Spock as a “Vulcanian” or casually referencing the conquest of the planet Vulcan. These scripts are obviously hard to reconcile with the grand mythology of Star Trek that has emerged in the year since, which is perfectly reasonable and entirely expected. Something like Star Trek is organic and expansive, prone to changing and evolving.

Attempting to impose a rigid and structured continuity upon that is a fool’s errand, one which loses sight of the important things. It doesn’t really matter if a story has a few inconsistencies or divergences from what came before or what would soon follow. The really important question is whether it’s a good story, and whether it has anything worthwhile to say. The attitude that Arnold brought to Star Trek in the early nineties was incredibly petty and small-minded, and had long-term side effects.

Consider the long and pained debates over the “canonicity” of Star Trek: The Animated Series, which weigh the “importance” of the show ahead of the quality of some of the storytelling. Yes, some episodes are terrible, but lots of live action Star Trek episodes are terrible – however, framing the debate about The Animated Series solely in terms of “does it count?” does the franchise as a whole a disservice.

It’s also worth reflecting on the fact that Arnold was also prone to making very questionable calls. Let’s consider, for a minute, what led Arnold to declare Vendetta apocryphal. As Peter David explained in Voyages of the Imagination, it was the most trivial of matters:

The plot element that forced the disclaimer was that I had a female Borg. Richard [Arnold] told us that there was no such thing as Borg females. They are completely sexless. They are obviously male. Anyway, he wanted me to take out the character Rhiannon who was a female Borg. That’s why there had to be a disclaimer.

Let’s ignore – for the moment – that Arnold’s complaints are completely invalidated by the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast of Star Trek: Voyager. That was still some time in the future. Even without that context, Arnold’s demand feels a little strange.

As David himself as remarked when discussing this particular story, the decision that there are no female Borg is a little hard to reconcile:

This seemed preposterous; they assimilated entire cultures—but only the men? Was Borg society based on Orthodox Judaism? The existence of the female Borg seemed a given. Nope, no female Borg, we were told. “Change it,” was the dictate from the flunky. Well, it was too late to change it. The book was already being typeset, and the cover, with a female Borg, had been printed.

There’s a rather disturbing undercurrent to Richard Arnold’s editorial work on Star Trek.

Some of his comments about female writers and the concerns of gay fans reflect some uncomfortable attitudes for a person in charge of the tie-ins to a bright and cheerful future. The insistence that there are no female Borg seems a little arbitrary and strange – particularly as Q Who? had explicitly established that the Borg were born as organic life forms and The Best of Both Worlds confirmed that they could adapt outsiders into their collective.

Arnold might be forgiven for suggesting that the Borg are entirely asexual, but that’s not what he’s suggesting. When Picard was transformed into Locutus, he remained a male character. There’s no indication that his gender was altered in any significant way – the invasive surgery conducted by the Borg did not make him seem any less masculine. (Indeed, the sculpted abdominal plate emphasised traditional masculinity.) So excluding the possibility of female Borg drones basically turns the Borg into a race that is entirely masculine.

As such, it can’t help but feel like Arnold is trying to keep the Borg a “boy’s only” club, implicitly suggesting that the Borg have no interest in any females they encounter. This reflects an uncomfortable streak in cult fandoms that is occasionally prone to outbursts of misogyny. (Something that has really been pushed to the fore in the internet age.) There’s really no other way to justify Arnold’s creative mandate.

Although, to be fair, while the female Borg character was what ultimately mandated the disclaimer, Peter David has revealed that it was far from the only bone of contention that Arnold had with the manuscript:

I have two official memos from the Trek office which directly contradict each other.  The first, dated 9/11/90, states several concerns of a technical nature in regards to the original VENDETTA proposal, all of which were easily fixed in a revised proposal.  No mention there of problems with crossed universes and such things.  The memo was also reasonably phrased and easy to deal with.  The second memo, dated 9/25/90, suddenly stated that the proposal contradicted everything known about the Borg (it didn’t) and was unacceptable.  Hence the eventual disclaimer.

Anyone who has read VENDETTA will know that the various so-called objectionable elements that Richard cites–excess info on Guinan’s background, Wesley pursuing hormonal rushes in the direction of the Borg soldier–are not present.  Vengeance themes not acceptable, Richard?  There goes Doomsday Machine and Obsession.  Crossed universes?  Kiss good-bye to Naked Now, Sarek, and Unification.

All of which is a round-about way of pointing out that that Richard Arnold really had no ground to step in on the book.

Besides, Vendetta has its own problems – none of which have anything to do with continuity or precedent or “canon.” The novel is Peter David’s third solo Star Trek: The Next Generation novel, following on from Strike Zone and A Rock and a Hard Place. David had a wealth of experience in writing Star Trek. He’d written for both of DC comics’ Star Trek comic book series, a solo Star Trek novel and a number of collaborations with other writers and editors.

However, Vendetta is really David’s first “big” story in The Next Generation universe – his first gigantic blockbuster adventure. The descriptor “giant novel” applies as much to the scale of the cosmic drama as it does to the page count. David would go on to pen a whole bunch of these sorts of stories in the year ahead. Indeed, he’d even get to make a few references back to Vendetta when he wrote Before Dishonour, another epic Borg adventure.

The problem is that David’s particular strengths don’t necessarily play towards the epic. David is a writer who excels at character work – that’s one of the defining traits of his Star Trek writing. Events seem to be things that happen around his characters, spurring on moments of insight or interaction. David is very good at this. When it comes to drama generated by characters interacting, David is possibly one of the stronger writers in the franchise.

David is less good at consciously “epic” storytelling. He can write a solid action sequence, and knows how to stage an exciting set piece, but he’s not as adept at managing the sort of epic universe-spanning scale that Vendetta requires. Even Imzadi, David’s magnum opus on The Next Generation, is constructed as a love story between two characters with an epic time travel story inserted as something of an after-thought.

Vendetta lacks that personal touch. David does try a number of different ways of giving the story a personal element. Most obviously, he tries to root the story in Picard’s personal history – tying it back to Picard’s Academy days, and therefore giving Picard a personal stake in the action. It’s not a bad idea, but it winds up feeling a tad convenient that Picard should have this never-alluded-to-before incident in his past that tethers him to this event.

Reading the book in hindsight – after the broadcast of I, Borg and Star Trek: First Contact – it seems strange that David feels the need for this plot convenience to get Picard invested in the novel’s central conflict. This is a man who has survived a horrific assault from the Borg, and who carries deep scars. That should be personal investment enough, and the joy of watching Patrick-Stewart-as-Picard-as-Ahab anchors a lot of First Contact.

Of course, this is in hindsight. Given the episodic nature of The Next Generation at the time, David can be forgiven for only making passing fleeting references to the trauma – probably expecting to never be raised again. Even if David had decided to pursue that angle, it seems unlikely Richard Arnold would have been too fond. After all, “Picard as a rape survivor” is diametrically opposed to Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre “Picard as John Wayne” approach to the lead character.

Since Picard’s thread really holds the story together, the fact that it feels a little contrived and convenient diminishes the novel. David does offer lots of other nice character moments throughout the book – a Ferengi encounter with the Borg, a wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the two aliens created explicitly as arch foes of the new Enterprise. “The concept of keeping the shipful of Ferengi was a useless one,” we’re told, an explicit acknowledgement of where exactly the Ferengi now rank on the Star Trek villain hierarchy.

Similarly, Geordi’s attempts to get through to a liberated Borg drone are suitably affecting, and a nice precursor to Seven of Nine’s arc on Voyager. She’s even a very early human assimilated by the Borg, abducted before the Federation explicitly knew about the cybernetic menace stalking the space ways. Between that and the basic premise of “ship caught between the Borg and a bigger bad”, Vendetta certainly seems ahead of televised Star Trek. Sadly, these feel more like interesting tangents than part of a grand tapestry.

Although there are points the feel like compromises from David. Most obviously, the relationship between Guinan and Delcara seems as if it is unnecessary convoluted. Delcara survives a decimation by the Borg, becomes a part of Guinan’s extended family, and then has her home destroyed a second time. The novel would probably work a bit more fluidly had David just came out and made Delcara Guinan’s sister by blood.

That’s not to suggest the bond is lessened by the fact that Delcara is not a blood relation, merely that the way the novel positions Delcara as “Guinan’s sister-but-not-really-sister” feels like an attempt to avoid committing to anything. It feels like a concession towards the types of demands and impositions made by Richard Arnold, even if a draft of the manuscript with Delcara as a direct relation of Guinan was never submitted or even written.

That’s not to say that Vendetta is an especially weak novel. It’s well constructed, clearly structured, has a raft of interesting ideas bubbling under the surface. In particular, I love that the entire basis of this epic space opera comes from the fact that a throwaway line in The Doomsday Machine makes no sense. “Projecting back on our star charts,” Mr. Spock observed, “we find that it came from outside, from another galaxy.” As David has Picard points out, it makes no sense for a machine powered by eating planets to travel through an almost infinite matter-less void.

There are points where David’s continuity-wrangling does get a bit heavy (you can see the writer fashioning a complex historical continuity tying together all manner of different threads of Star Trek references), but it’s not a bad idea. In fact, the idea of pitting the Borg against a worthy adversary with the Federation trapped in the middle is such a great premise that Voyager would later use it as the jumping off point for the superb Scorpion.

Similarly, you can see Peter David himself building towards some big ideas of his own. If Between a Rock and a Hard Place featured a guest character who seemed like a template for Mackenzie Calhoun, it’s telling that Vendetta features a supporting role for Commander Shelby. David would continue to seed characters who would eventually become part of his New Frontier series throughout his work on The Next Generation, working several such characters into his three Starfleet Academy young adult novels. This, along with the radical shift in scale, suggests that Vendetta is part of David’s evolution as a Star Trek writer.

And – it’s worth stressing – Vendetta is a solidly entertaining read. The script sparkles with Peter David’s wit. The book breezes by, with David frequently evoking smiles and shock and even the occasional chuckle. It may have the best opening line in the history of Star Trek tie-in fiction. (“Jean-Luc Picard leaned against a wall and ran his fingers through his mop of thick brown hair.”) Despite the stakes, David never lets it get too heavy.

At one point, David even stops to offer some criticism of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, pointing out the hypocrisy of breeding nanites to use against the Borg as suggested in that staff briefing:

“The argument has been,” he said, “that breeding a race of sentient beings, such as the Nanites, for the express purpose of war and destruction is contrary to all the Federation principles and beliefs. The goal of the Federation is to promote galactic harmony. Creating a ‘warrior race’—even a highly specialized warrior race such as the Nanites—would undercut everything that the Federation purports to be about.”

It’s a wonderfully clever little moment, and a demonstration of the level of thought that David puts into his work, and why he is so well-suited to these novels. Still, there’s a sense that the whole is less than its constituent parts. Vendetta really works much better as a series of differing perspectives and character stories spinning out of the same series of events rather than a big event itself.

Then again, it’s understandable. Something like Vendetta was the logical follow-up to The Best of Both Worlds, an attempt to dramatically increase the stakes. The urge must have been to push the Borg as an even greater threat to the existence of the galaxy; to put the Enterprise in an even more inescapable situation; to make it clear that the Borg were a long-standing threat to the universe at large, and the invasion of Earth was just a microcosm of the risk they posed.

Peter David is a pretty spectacular Star Trek writer. You’d be hard-pressed to name a more prolific and consistent tie-in writer for the franchise during the nineties. However, the requirements of a story on the scale proposed by Vendetta are just mind-boggling. When the tie-in novels wanted to re-establish the Borg in the wake of Endgame, they’d return to Peter David. While suffering from a few more problems than Vendetta, Before Dishonour faced a few similar obstacles in establishing the Borg as a credible adversary for our heroes.

It would take a trilogy of novels to allow David Mack to establish the level of threat in Destiny and – even then – he also tried to make the story a bit more intimate in contrast to the epic scale. Not just galactic destruction, but history and origins – and a suitable kicker and climax that would never have been possible in the context of Vendetta as a semi-authorised (if disclaimed) tie-in to a popular on-going television show.

In a way, the difficulties with Vendetta make it quite clear that “bigger” wasn’t really a workable direction to take the Borg… at least not at this point in time. In the wake of The Best of Both Worlds, the answer lay in the opposite direction – to make it smaller and more intimate…

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

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