Halfway through the first installment of "The Killing Shadows" comic miniseries, I mistakenly thought I was reading a tie-in for a new Trek game. Senior editor Jeff Mariotte writes at the conclusion of the issue, "There's nothing as cool as a ninja," and this storyline seems primed to launch Star Trek: Intergalactic Shadow Ninja, with lots of gratuitous violence and oversimplified Japanese martial arts history.
The villains, the Bodai Shin -- which means "the awakened of illuminated mind and spirit" -- are deadly telepathic assassins with supernatural abilities to cloak themselves. Having destroyed the crew of a science outpost, they target a scientist working on vastly improved transporter technology that could move entire cities or possibly entire worlds across vast distances. Data, not sounding much like a logical android, immediately announces that such a device "would be closely related to planet-destroying weaponry," though the scientist had never pondered such a connection.
With the exception of Deanna Troi's psychic foray into a mental struggle with the aliens, this story could have been used with any Trek crew. Red-shirted ensigns fall right and left. Riker and LaForge spout technobabble to save the ship. Picard and Data have a brief discussion of strategy that could easily have been Kirk speaking to Spock. The story seems like a thinly veiled excuse for deadly battles.
Though there's wonderful detail in the backgrounds of the illustrations of planet Nydaris, which keeps one populous side perpetually turned away from the sun, the frames on the Enterprise seem spare and dark, with Troi and Crusher barely recognizable. Picard and Data are drawn well, but with the exception of one early scene in which Data tries to understand human belief in higher powers, the characterizations receive minimal attention.
Fans of martial arts video games will probably not care and will enjoy the comic. Though Dr. Noguri describes Ninja culture as refined, the Bodai Shin appear only vicious and abusive, with no suggestion of illuminated mind or spirit. One hopes that later installments of the miniseries will offer more insights into the motivations of these killers, rather than trying to glorify assassins as such.
Now that "The Killing Shadows" miniseries has concluded, I need to take back some of the criticisms I made of the first issue, which is unfortunately the weakest of the four. There's still too much gratuitous violence and oversimplified history of Japanese martial arts, but Picard, Data, and Troi in particular all become much more interesting as the story moves forward. Originally I felt that "The Killing Shadows" could have been about any Starfleet crew confronting invisible telepathic assassins, and I'm still not impressed with the weak Ninja connections.
But the series ultimately reminds the reader of the best qualities of The Next Generation: well-developed characters and relationships, a sense of humor under duress, and an appreciation for radically different cultures without acceptance of values anathema to those of the Federation. Data, whose behavior made little sense in the first book, reveals that he's using his emotion chip -- which not only explains his irrationality but gives the writers a normally non-violent character to expose to the allure of bloodlust. The second book ends with superbly paralleled scenes, on the Enterprise with Riker and Troi and on the planet Nydaris with Picard and Data, in which the separated crewmates come to the same conclusions about their adversaries. The sense of crew unity is palpable.
The cloak-and-dagger plot from the first book of "The Killing Shadows" turns out to be mere scaffolding -- as it turns out, the Bodai Shin aren't all that concerned with stealing improved transporter technology to use as a weapon of mass destruction. They're more interested in the overall strength of humans, and in planting the seeds of belief in The Void...which contrary to Ninja belief is not a place where good and evil are absent, but where amorality leads to mass destruction in its name. The Ninja parallels become extremely weak, but since Federation values are trumpeted as superior, that's an advantage rather than a drawback.
Similarly, the presence of Sela is never explained satisfactorily. It's not clear whether she is working for the Romulans or as a rogue agent, nor how she got her intelligence on the situation since she claims to have been sent by Starfleet. Yet she provides a wonderful foil for Picard and Data, giving the command team a ruthless strategist to suggest tactics they wouldn't even consider otherwise. Picard remains one step ahead of Sela, though she effectively demonstrates why an aggressive image is necessary against this new enemy.
Initially, I thought Ninja fans would like these books but Trek fans might be disappointed. I believe the reverse is true: Ninja fans may be distressed at the superficiality of the discussion of ancient martial arts and by the characterization of the Void, but Next Gen audiences will enjoy watching these characters work together to understand the killing shadows.
Trek Book Reviews