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Returning to Star Trek: New Frontier

About twenty years ago, I started reading the Star Trek novels published by Pocket Books.  At the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the air, probably in the second or third season.  There were no other spin-off shows, and only four Trek movies.  I’d seen those four movies many, many times, and the new episodes of Next Gen weren’t enough to satiate my cravings.

When I discovered the novels, I was delighted.  Not only was there a big backlog of new Star Trek adventures to discover (each of which took me a lot longer to consume than an hour-long TV episode) but a new book was published almost every month.  As I recall, at the time the books alternated: one month there would be a classic Star Trek adventure (featuring Kirk/Spock/McCoy), and the next month a new Next Gen adventure (with Picard, etc.).

I enjoyed all of the books, but quickly there was one author whose work stood out to me.  One author who, when I saw his name on the cover, I knew to be excited because his name was a guarantee of a particularly entertaining book.  This author was Peter David.

Some of those Next Gen books that Peter David wrote back in the late eighties/early nineties remain my very favorite Star Trek books ever written.  There was Q-in-Law, in which Mr. David brilliantly combined Next Gen’s two most popular guest-star characters, Q and Lwaxana Troi, in a hilarious romp that was so much funnier and sexier and fun-filled than even the best Trek episode.  There was Imzadi — still considered by many to be the very best of the Trek novels — which not only told the story of Will Riker and Deanna Troi’s love-affair on Betazed, years before they would meet again on the Enterprise D in “Encounter at Farpoint,” but which also wove a terrifying alternate-universe story in which a premature end to that relationship lead to catastrophic consequences.  Then there was Vendetta — my personal favorite Trek novel — in which Mr. David told what still, twenty years later, stands to me as the ultimate Borg story.  Set just about a year after the events of “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Captain Picard was assimilated and one Borg cube nearly succeeded in destroying Earth, the Borg return to Federation space, this time with three cubes.  It’s a ferocious, epic-scale but also deeply personal story that has never been topped by any of the canonical on-screen Borg stories we have seen in the twenty years since “The Best of Both Worlds.”

After writing so many great Next Gen books, in the early nineties Mr. David created his own spin-off series of novels, entitled Star Trek: New Frontier.  This new series followed the adventures of a new starship, the Excalibur, and its crew, lead by the unorthodox Mackenzie Calhoun.  New Frontier would allow Mr. David to do two key things.  First, in creating a new ship and crew, he could develop, explore and change the characters in a way he never could with the Next Gen gang, who always had to return to the status quo at the end of each novel.  Second, he could play around with the idea of integrating a James T. Kirk-like character into the more sedate, stiffer, governed-by-rules Next Generation universe.

Because as complex and interesting a character as Mackenzie Calhoun is — a warlord from a fierce frontier planet who united his people and lead them to victory over alien aggressors before being recruited by a young Jean-Luc Picard, who saw potential in him and encouraged him to think beyond his one world and enroll in Starfleet Academy — at the core of the character Calhoun is, in my mind, James T. Kirk.  He’s a fighter, unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat; women swoon over him; he disdains the authority of Starfleet command and the strictures of rules and regulations in favor of his own fiercely-held beliefs of right-and-wrong; in short, he’s a fiercely charismatic leader of men who, basically, is never wrong and always finds a way to come out on top of any given situation.  Sounds like Kirk to me!  (I am oversimplifying things a bit, I know, but only to hammer home the point that, to me, one of the main joys of New Frontier is seeing the many clever ways in which Mr. David explores how a James T Kirk type starship captain would fit or not fit into the Next Generation universe.)

The other characters making up Calhoun’s crew on the U.S.S. Excalibur are a terrifically eclectic mix of minor characters who appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation, along with a host of new-for-the-novels characters.  Those we’ve seen before include Elizabeth Shelby, so memorable as a potential replacement for Riker as first officer of the Enterprise in “The Best of Both Worlds”; Robin Lefler, who was a love-interest for Wesley Crusher in a not-that-great episode called “The Game”; Dr. Selar, the Enterprise’s Vulcan doctor who was mentioned frequently but only actually appeared in one second-season episode, “The Schizoid Man”; and, later in the series, the character of Morgan Primus, who is Robin Lefler’s mother but who also just might have a connection to the “Number One” character on Chris Pike’s Enterprise seen in the original pilot for Star Trek, “The Cage.”  I love seeing the way Mr. David was able to take those memorable though not-that-fleshed-out characters and, as the New Frontier novels continued, really build them up into fascinating (you’ll excuse me), interesting, three-dimensional people.

The story of Star Trek: New Frontier has continued over what is now almost twenty novels.  It’s a richly developed sub-universe of the over-all Star Trek continuity that, for a while, was one of my very favorite Star Trek-related things published.  But, it’s funny, as the years and the books went by, I started to lose a little bit of interest in New Frontier.  The books were still great when they came out, but they didn’t quite stand as head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Star Trek novel line anymore.

I don’t think Mr. David’s writing dipped in quality, though I guess one could argue that after so many books the New Frontier series had lost some of the excitement of when it was new.  The series’ publishing schedule hasn’t helped matters.  I assume due to Pocket Books’ scheduling choices rather than any decision on Mr. David’s part (though I suppose I could be wrong), new New Frontier novels have been far fewer and farther between over the last five to ten years, with our often having to wait two if not three years between new installments.  Because the stories often continue from one book to another, without full resolutions at the end of each novel, the sporadic publishing schedule has impacted the series’ momentum.

But most importantly is that, as I have written about often here on the site, the “regular” Star Trek novels have gotten so much more interesting in the last decade.  With the failure of Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise, suddenly there was no new Star Trek on TV or in theatres.  Freed from the constrictions of having to stay consistent with ongoing TV shows, the novels have flourished.  Under the hands of some spectacular editors and writers, the novels have been, for almost a decade now, weaving a very tight continuity of adventures, picking up characters and story-lines from all the TV shows and pushing and developing the characters in bold and tremendously exciting ways.  This tight post-Nemesis continuity in the novels has turned the Star Trek books into one of the longest, and in my opinion most enjoyable, literary sci-fi series that I have ever read.  In short, most of the new Star Trek books are now doing exactly what Mr. David started doing with New Frontier twenty years ago.

And so, for the first time ever, when a new Star Trek: New Frontier novel, Treason, was released in 2009, I didn’t read it immediately.  I didn’t plan on letting that book — or the 2011 follow-up, Blind Man’s Bluff — sit unread on my bookshelf for so long.  But since I don’t have a huge amount of free time for reading Trek novels, I kept found myself deciding to read new books that fit into the tight continuity of the continuing twenty-fourth-century-set novel adventures, rather than New Frontier.  Suddenly I found myself with two unread Peter David novels on my bookshelf, a crazy situation, and so last month I finally decided to remedy that and read them.  But a few pages into Treason I realized that I had no idea what the heck was going on!  The previous New Frontier novel, Missing in Action, had been released back in 2006, and I found that I had totally forgotten where the series had left off and what was going on with all the characters.

So before reading the two newest, unread New Frontier novels, I decided to dip back a little further and re-read the last few books.  I decided to start three books back, with 2003’s Stone and Anvil.  That book not only served as the culmination of numerous long-running story-lines, it also served as something of an “origin story” for the series, by going back to tell the story of Mackenzie Calhoun’s start at Starfleet Academy.  I remembered loving the book, so I figured that would be a great point for me to re-enter the New Frontier.

And boy was it!  Not only did I tear through Stone and Anvil, but less than a week later I had read all four novels that came after it: After the Fall, Missing in Action, and the two books that had been sitting unread on my shelf for so long: Treason and Blind Man’s Bluff.  I’ll be back here soon with more thoughts on all five of those great books!

Note: Writer Peter David recently suffered a stroke.  Here’s how you can help.

Previous Star Trek novel reviews:

Star Trek – Unspoken Truth , Troublesome MindsCast No ShadowExcelsior: Forged in FireAllegiance in Exile

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s The LimitResistance and Q & A, Before Dishonor and Greater than the SumDestiny trilogyA Singular Destiny, Losing the Peace,Immortal CoilCold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of MemoryCold Equations Book 2: Silent WeaponsCold Equations Book 3: The Body Electric

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – DS9 relaunch overviewThe Soul KeyThe Never-Ending SacrificePlagues of Night and Raise the Dawn

Star Trek: Voyager – Full Circle

Star Trek: Enterprise — Kobayashi MaruThe Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor’s WingThe Romulan War: To Brave the Storm

Star Trek: Titan – Book 1: Taking WingBook 2: The Red KingBook 3: Orion’s HoundsBook 4: Sword of DamoclesBook 5: Under a Torrent SeaBook 6: Synthesis

Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Book 1: Zero-Sum GameBook 2: Seize the FireBook 3: Rough Beasts of EmpireBook 4: Paths of DisharmonyPlagues of Night and Raise the DawnBrinkmanship

Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations – Watching the ClockForgotten History

Star Trek: The Lost Era – Book 1: The Sundered (2298)Book 2: Serpents Among the Ruins (2311)Book 3: The Art of the Impossible (2328-2346)

Star Trek: Mirror Universe (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Shards & Shadows – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: The Sorrows of Empire — Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions –  Star Trek: Myriad Universes (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Myriad Universes: Shattered Light

Beyond the Final Frontier — Josh’s favorite Star Trek novels

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