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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Malibu Comics) #29-30 – Sole Asylum (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Whatever happened to Thomas Riker?

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine receives a lot of credit for its move towards serialisation as a prime-time genre show. It wasn’t a pioneer in the same way that Babylon 5 was or even Murder One had been, but it was was definitely ahead of the curve. Deep Space Nine arguably holds up better today than any of the other Star Trek shows, and part of that is down to the way that the show leaned into serialisation. Actions had consequences, effects lingered after the credits.

Hostage of fortune...

Hostage of fortune…

The show was very much leaning that way in the second and third season, building up plot threads that would pay off down the line. The Dominion had been seeded in the show since Rules of Acquisition. The Romulan and Cardassian pre-emptive strike was foreshadowed by episodes like Defiant and Visionary. In the third season, it became clear that Deep Space Nine was ready to commit to some long-form storytelling, in a way that was unusual for a high-profile syndicated genre show in the nineties.

However, it is tempting to give Deep Space Nine a little bit too much credit. There were points where the show seemed to struggle with pay-off and arc-building. In Emissary, Sisko was tasked with bringing Bajor into the Federation; that never happened. After Battle Lines, Kai Opaka never appeared again. Characters who seemed important dropped into and out of the show at random; characters like Martok’s son Drex, Bajoran First Minister Shakaar Edon, Subcommander T’Rul… and Thomas Riker.

The welcome wagon...

The welcome wagon…

“I give you my word,” Kira vowed at the end of Defiant, as Thomas Riker surrendered himself to the Cardassian authorities. “We’ll get you out of there, Tom. I promise you that.” It was a line that teased a future story thread – a piece of dialogue closing out the episode that suggested more was to come. After all, the secret Obsidian Order fleet hiding in the Orias System was also clearly set up to pay off down the line. So fans were not being unreasonable in expecting more of Thomas Riker on Deep Space Nine.

However, it never came to be. This isn’t surprising. J. Michael Straczynski plotted out Babylon 5 years ahead of time – to the point where behind-the-scenes events could cause considerable problems. In contrast, the writing staff on Deep Space Nine plotted by the seat of their pants. They did not know what the Obsidian Order was doing in the Orias System when they wrote Defiant. Indeed, they didn’t know that Improbable Cause was going to be a two-part episode until they reached the last act of the script.

Badge of honor...

Badge of honor…

There are other high-profile examples. The production team did not realise that they would want to make Martok a recurring character until they saw J.G. Hertzler in the role. The entire fourth-season arc was heavily re-worked at the last minute when the production team was instructed to boost the ratings. The whole conflict with the Klingons was essentially one big stalling tactic before they could circle back around to the confrontation between the Federation and the Dominion.

In light of all this, it is no surprise that Thomas Riker got a little bit left behind. Ronald D. Moore found himself repeatedly confronted with questions about the fate of Thomas Riker, consistently disappointing fans clamouring for a little more Jonathan Frakes in their Deep Space Nine. Frakes himself allegedly proposed that Thomas Riker could reappear in the final season as a member of Damar’s rebellion, giving the character one last hurrah before the credits rolled on the fate of the Alpha Quadrant.

They really are testing him...

They really are testing him…

In hindsight, it makes sense that Thomas Riker should end up a one-episode-wonder. The third season of Deep Space Nine was written at a point where that show became the more senior Star Trek series. Star Trek: The Next Generation had graduated from television into feature films. Deep Space Nine was – for a brief period in 1994 – the only Star Trek on television. There is just a hint of insecurity in those early third season episodes, with recurring themes of identity and individuality.

Thomas Riker was the right character at the right time. Jonathan Frakes was a suitable ambassador from The Next Generation. He was not as iconic and distinguished as Patrick Stewart, but he was well-known enough that he could spoof himself on Cybil. However, bringing in William Riker might have seemed like a cynical ratings ploy. However, bringing in his goateed transporter duplicate from a low-key episode of the sixth season of The Next Generation? That was just weird enough that it would feel uniquely Deep Space Nine.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

So there was a very narrow window where Thomas Riker seemed to fit comfortably. However, that hasn’t stopped the expanded universe from trying to utilise the character. Thomas Riker has become a fixture of various tie-in novels and stories set within the wider Star Trek universe. His son appears in Star Trek Online. He was a character in the videogame Star Trek: Dominion Wars. He was featured heavily in Peter David’s novel Imzadi II. His legacy has been touched on in several of the relaunch novels.

In light of all of this, Malibu Comics got in on the act fairly quickly. Sole Asylum was published in October 1995, about a year after Defiant aired. The character design for Sisko suggests that the story was written and drafted some time between Explorers and The Adversary. That is a very quick turnaround, particularly for a character who might possibly appear again in a later episode of the show. Normally, such characters are kept out of reach of licensed tie-in writers.

Dressing down...

Dressing down…

In a way, the fact that writer Mark Paniccia  and artist Rod Whigham were allowed to use the character of Thomas Riker suggests that the show’s creative team weren’t worried about the story conflicting with any plans for the character. Sole Asylum is careful enough to leave William Riker in the same status quo he had entered at the end of Defiant, but the fact that he was considered “fair game” for a two-issue comic book adaptation suggests that the writing staff were not working too hard on anything in-house.

Sole Asylum is a rather sturdy little story. The two issues are divided in half, with half of each issue devoted to Sole Asylum and the other half given over to Enemies and Allies. As a result, Sole Asylum and Enemies and Allies are roughly the size of a regular single-issue story. It feels like something of a vignette. It is a story that is not designed to shake the foundations of Star Trek universe, but instead contemplates a number of clever ideas.

It doesn't scan...

It doesn’t scan…

Perhaps the most interesting is the suggestion that the Cardassians are seeking to weaponise Thomas Riker. “We could become the greatest galactic empire in the quadrant… possibly the galaxy!” one official insists, contemplating the sheer possibilities at his fingertips. “If we can harness the power that created Thomas Riker!” They plan to reverse-engineer the transporter duplicate in order to create a massive standing army.

Riker remarks that he isn’t being tortured, but is instead subject to intense scientific scrutiny. “Their objective, it seems, is to explore the possibilities of creating an army of duplicates.” It is a rather beautiful little story hook, one that is built around a deconstruction of one of the most common Star Trek storytelling tropes. Given the implication of certain transporter accidents or holodeck malfunctions, it seems inevitable that somebody would try to exploit it for a cynical end.

A tortuous journey...

A tortuous journey…

Star Trek is full of all sorts of strange happenings that occur in order to spur on forty-five minutes of drama, but have horrifying implications in the context of the larger universe. After watching a few years of Star Trek, you begin to wonder why anybody would even use a transporter or a holodeck. Other times, you wonder if the crew hasn’t accidentally discovered something that should really change everything we know about the world.

(Thomas Riker is just the thin end of the wedge. The implications of an episode like Elementary, Dear Data are truly staggering. If the Enterprise computer is capable of producing a sentient hologram that can outwit Data, surely it could create a sentient hologram that could outwit the Dominion or any other potential enemy of Starfleet? If the holodeck can create new life so flippantly and so casually, the morality of the device becomes absolutely horrifying.)

The transporter apparently even changed his shirt colour!

The transporter apparently even changed his shirt colour!

The idea of exploiting Thomas Riker’s transporter accident origin is a great hook, but Paniccia and Whigman only use that as a springboard to the story’s central themes. Ironically, held captive on Cardassia, Riker discovers a decent and moral Cardassian – challenging his assumptions about the species. More than that, Doctor Nol realises the horrifying potential of an army of transporter clones by accepting Thomas Riker’s individual identity and personality.

Explaining why she could never help the Cardassian government to weaponise the accident that created Thomas Riker, Nol notes, “… You are still a person. I can see that much. And you suffer because of a war.” It is a beautiful moment. It allows Riker to see that Cardassians are not all monsters, but it also affirms Thomas Riker’s individuality. Defiant was largely built around Thomas Riker’s insecurities and anxieties. Here, on Cardassia Prime, he discovers somebody who sees him as an individual.

A Comm-anding presence...

A Comm-anding presence…

It helps that the script is structured very efficiently. Although Paniccia doesn’t get enough time to develop a relationship between Sisko and Riker, it is great to see Sisko offering Riker a token of his rightful place in Starfleet. It might have been better to have more room to explore Sisko’s issues with the Maquis, and perhaps how his attempts to redeem and rescue Thomas perhaps reflect his unresolved issues with Calvin Hudson, but there is only so much space available.

Paniccia also mines the beautiful irony of Thomas Riker’s two appearances in Star Trek. Second Chances opened with the revelation that Thomas Riker had spent years isolated on a hostile planet. Defiant closed with Riker surrendering himself into captivity. There’s a weird and horrific symmetry to that – something that paints Thomas Riker as a fundamentally tragic figure. “I have gone from one life of solitude to another,” he reflects.

One of the better gags - tying into Tom Riker's "evil goatee" - is the suggestion that the Enterprise simply picked him up from an alternate universe...

“Terrans call this goatee style ‘the Evil Spock’.”

The script is populated with clever touches. Indeed, one of the better gags – tying into Tom Riker’s glorious “evil goatee” reveal in Defiant – is the suggestion that the Enterprise simply picked him up from an alternate universe. This comes after several panels of the Cardassians pointing out how crazy it would be if transporters worked in the way that the plot for Second Chances requires them to work. Even as the story deals with pretty heavy themes, there’s a sense that Paniccia is having some fun.

The art for the story is provided by Rod Whigham, who does some wonderful work with character likenesses. Sole Asylum is mostly talking heads, but Whigham does great work with body language and facial expressions. It is a shame that Whigham did not do much more Star Trek work. This is one of only two Deep Space Nine stories illustrated by Whigham, who pencilled twenty issues of DC’s second volume Star Trek comic, including the superb Tests of Courage.

Always patient...

Always patient…

Sole Asylum is a delightful and thoughtful little story. It provides an effective coda to the story of Thomas Riker.

You might be interested in our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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