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Star Trek – Assignment: Eternity by Greg Cox (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Assignment: Eternity is pretty much exactly what you might expect from a sequel to Assignment: Earth written by Greg Cox. It is a functional story a number of nice clever continuity touches, but no real interest in playing with the big ideas suggested by the source material. Instead, it feels like an act of connecting various dots, stopping occasionally to wink at the audience, but never having anything particularly clever or insightful to say about its inspirations.

Like The Eugenics Wars or To Reign in Hell, the result is a competent piece of Star Trek continuity, albeit one that feels more than a little lifeless.

tos-assignmenteternityThe genesis of Assignment: Eternity came from editor John Ordover, who suggested telling a story featuring the abandoned characters of Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln. Greg Cox took up the assignment and made his mark. In fact, Assignment: Eternity was so successful that it ultimately led on to The Eugenics Wars, although Cox insists it was never planned:

As for the Eugenics Wars books, I had actually set that up at the end of the previous Seven/Roberta novel (mentioned above), where Spock mentions to Kirk that his historical research had revealed that Gary and Roberta had been instrumental in the overthrow of Khan Noonien Singh. Honest to God, at the time I wrote that I didn’t have any sequels in mind; I just thought it made a nice punchline to Assignment: Eternity. Then John asked me if wanted to write that story…

Nevertheless, Greg Cox quickly established himself as the expert when it came to handling Supervisor 194. In fact, he has since joked that other writers have consulted him about using the characters:

One of my fellow Trek writers recently asked me if it was okay to “borrow” Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln for one of his books. I appreciated the courtesy, but he didn’t really need to do that. When you’re writing media tie-ins, you can’t get too proprietary about the shared worlds and their characters.

Cox has a fair point, of course. However, tie-in writers can still develop a sense of – completely unofficial – “ownership” of particular facets of the shared universe. There are fans who consider Diane Duane more of an expert on Vulcans and Romulans than anybody who worked on Star Trek: Nemesis, for example.

Reading Assignment: Eternity, it is quite clear that Greg Cox has a lot of affection and enthusiasm for his subject. The novel jumps around in time and space, from sixties America to the climax of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. The plot covers a lot of ground, and a lot of continuity. It is an epic story, involving galactic politics and the fate of the universe itself, while also expanding the mythos behind Gary Seven himself. As one might expect from a Star Trek tie-in, the book works hard to anchor the character in the Star Trek universe.

However, the most interesting aspects of Assignment: Eternity are how Cox fits it into continuity. This makes sense, as one of the most impressive accomplishments of The Eugenics Wars would be tying together a fictionalised twentieth century based on various hints scattered throughout the franchise. Rather cleverly, Cox positions Assignment: Eternity as something of an inversion to Assignment: Earth. The episode saw the future invading the past; the novel sees the past invading the future.

In fact, Cox quite cleverly positions Assignment: Eternity in continuity. If Assignment: Earth was the prologue to a show that never got started, then Assignment: Eternity is a note following the ending of a show prematurely cancelled. Assignment: Earth was written as a lead-up to another television show, essentially a back-door pilot that would not be part of the show that was to be produced. It was the “zero-eth” episode of a show that ultimately never materialised.

In contrast, the bulk of Assignment: Eternity unfolds “less than a week since that nasty business with Dr. Lester.” That is to say, the story takes place after the last episode of Star Trek that ever aired. There is a very weird symmetry at play here, but one that feels entirely appropriate. Cox knows and understands Star Trek continuity, and even the setting of Assignment: Eternity feels meticulous and well-considered. Unfortunately, it hits the same problems that plague The Eugenics Wars; the continuity stuff is the most interesting thing about it.

That is not entirely fair. Cox does manages to make Roberta Lincoln more engaging than she appeared in Assignment: Earth, very cleverly positioning her as the viewpoint character for most of the story. This allows Cox to flesh Roberta Lincoln out a little bit, but also helps to keep an air of mystery and ambiguity around Gary Seven himself. Cox cleverly uses James T. Kirk as the novel’s other central viewpoint character, which means Gary Seven remains largely enigmatic.

However, Cox’s other stylistic quirks are on full display. Most notably, the author is never particularly subtle or nuanced. When Assignment: Earth has something potentially interesting, it does not just say it; it trumpets it. Consider how Cox conveys Gary Seven’s sense of detachment from humanity:

“You know,” she said, “the way you talk, sometimes I think you forget that you’re part of the human race, too.”

The wry smile disappeared from Seven’s face, replaced by a more pensive expression. “Very perceptive, Miss Lincoln,” he said, a touch of melancholy deepening his voice. “You may have a point there. Knowing what I do, having been where I’ve been, there is a bit of a . . . distancing effect.” He gave her a serious look from across the room. “I’ll have to count on you to keep me in touch with the rest of my species.”

It feels like a paragraph copied and pasted from a show’s bible, rather than organic dialogue between characters. It tells us exactly what Cox wants us to think of Gary Seven, in no uncertain terms. It feels like the novel is using a mega-speaker. It undercuts other efforts to maintain mystery of ambiguity around the character.

To be fair, the idea of bluntly stating theme through dialogue has caught on in recent years. Modern blockbusters are very effective at having characters clearly articulate the film’s logic and world view, in a way that can eel like a statement of intent from the author. However, this is a narrative approach like any other; it depends a lot on execution. Christopher Nolan’s films are very good at having characters state their philosophical values through lines of dialogue; Greg Cox is not quite as eloquent.

Similarly, while there is something potentially interesting in watching Roberta Lincoln’s reaction to the world of Star Trek, Cox simply falls back unquestioning and uncritically on the mythology built around the show:

Just looking around the bridge where they’d first arrived, Roberta had seen a black woman, a Japanese man, a couple of Americans, a Russian and an honest-to-goodness alien, for pete’s sake all cooperating together peacefully. Compared to 1969, it was like some sort of wild, utopian fantasy.

Again, it reads like an introduction to a collection of essays on the deeper meaning of Star Trek, rather than an honest character reaction to a strange situation.

By the time Roberta notices that “Kirk talked about Romulans the same way Americans of her time talked about the Russians or the Red Chinese”, it feels a little heavy-handed. Yes, it is impossible to talk about Star Trek without talking about these aspects of the show; yes, it is interesting to see Roberta react to these elements as an immigrant from an unproduced sixties television show. However, there is nothing organic or engaging in how Assignment: Eternity conveys this information; nothing particularly clever about what the novel does with it, either.

Assignment: Eternity also indulges in the sort of continuity fetishism that would haunt The Eugenics Wars. To be fair, regardless of how awkwardly those novels actually read and how little they worked as stories, Cox elevated the continuity reference to an art form of itself. Assignment: Eternity seems to wander casually off for a continuity reference every few pages, as if constantly attempting to assert its own nerdy bona fides, as if the novel feels compelled to assure the reader that it knows the source material.

So the appearance of the Romulans immediately merits a reference back to The Enterprise Incident. The presence of Gary Seven’s pet cat invites a meditation on the events of Catspaw. A question of Spock’s loyalty lead to a citation of The Menagerie. Gary Seven even makes reference to Kirk’s death in Star Trek: Generations. None of these references actually serve the story being told here; they simply demonstrate that Assignment: Eternity has done its homework. Setting the opening scene at the end of The Undiscovered Country does that quicker and cleaner.

Assignment: Eternity ultimately feels like a soulless tie-in that is too busy venerating and referencing its source material to do anything interesting with it.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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