The last old New Frontier book, Dark Allies, ends with the words, "...five minutes before the Excalibur blew up..." which is getting to be pretty typical of the sort of cliffhanger Pocket Books has been foisting upon poor Trek readers (though at least in this case it isn't the end of the universe, as in Deep Space Nine Millennium: The War of the Prophets). Fans of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun have had months to agonize over his possible doom, and -- wouldn't you know it! -- we have to agonize awhile longer, since as far as one can tell from the first two new New Frontier books, he's still dead. Yet the title of the upcoming hardback Excalibur: Restoration offers hope...for why, one wonders, would the miniseries be called Excalibur if the ship and its captain won't be somehow resurrected?
We don't get a clue how that might happen in the first two volumes, and it's not until the end of the second that we get some idea of how it blew up in the first place. Despite an unfortunate paucity of Commander Shelby -- who's in line for promotion to captain of the Exeter, though she's still mourning Mac -- the former first officer of the Excalibur pops in long enough to agree with her crew not to belabor the details of the accident that has scattered them. Augh! In the meantime, we get to see the crew in some very atypical situations for Starfleet officers while they're on leave recovering from the loss of their ship. This is a clever excuse to send them all over the galaxy dealing with personal crises that begin to converge.
Excalibur: Requiem focuses primarily on Soleta, McHenry and Kebron, making it my favorite of the two new novels. This first book follows Lieutenant Soleta as she tracks down her vicious Romulan father, while space cadet McHenry and tough guy Kebron head undercover to deal with an alien crisis that they first suspect is an Academy prank, but there's clearly something else going on. Their investigation of a set of abductions both echoes and parodies The X-Files, with the Starfleet officers playing Deep Throat to a relatively low-tech society experiencing problems with UFOs and crop circles that most people disbelieve. Trapped under prosthetic alterations which weaken him, Kebron begins to feel some of the warm, squishy feelings he usually ridicules; meanwhile McHenry adapts cartoon philosophies to challenge illogical natural laws and discovers that maybe Wile E. Coyote's on to something, before the inevitable anvil hits him in the head.
Soleta is a fascinating character, pun intended but not limited to her atypical Vulcan makeup. A message intended for her dead mother puts her on the path of the criminal who raped her mother, thus giving her life. Shocked to discover that her father is dying and seemingly reformed, she makes a leap of faith to complete a mission tying her to her Romulan roots, only to discover that the mysterious Rajari will continue to complicate her life for as long as she lets him. Although we see her played for a fool, and Soleta knows that she is being played for a fool, she never comes across as a fool. She's a complicated, conflicted, sympathetic character whose faults are also her strengths.
Peter David seems to love Vulcans and at the same time feel a compulsive need to reform them, giving us two Vulcan women who (fortunately) bear no resemblance to Spock's T'Pring, yet also demonstrate all the hypocrisy and flaws in Vulcan culture rather than attempting to make sense of the inconsistencies. In Renaissance, Doctor Selar and hermaphrodite engineer Burgoyne struggle over custody of their child, with Burgy resorting to an ancient and ridiculous Vulcan law that's not much of an improvement over King Solomon's methods. Not even a guest appearance by T'Pau does much to redeem the storyline, which isn't illogical by Vulcan standards -- as far as I can tell, Vulcan rituals are some of the most ridiculous around -- so much as seemingly designed to point out all of Selar's character flaws, and by extension the character flaws of Vulcans as a species. We hear that Burgy's an atypical Hermat just as Selar is an extreme case on Vulcan, but since Burgy is the only Hermat most of us know, it's a lot easier to develop a sympathetic view of hir and hir species.
The other major storyline concerns Robin Lefler and her mother Morgan Primus attempting to share a bonding holiday on Risa, where of course they both encounter romantic entanglements. The storyline seems very fluffy until it unexpectedly connects with another concerning Si Cwan and Kalinda, investigating a brutal murder from their own background. Though Morgan is a delightful character, Lefler still seems awfully superficial, and not very bright for a Starfleet officer. Like Deanna Troi and her mother (a good friend of Morgan's), the daughter is too often overshadowed and made to look immature...and, since comparisons to David's Imzadi books are inevitable, these two can't quite compete.
However, since these are David novels, they are naturally hysterical in places. Requiem opens in a bar that sounds just like Page's in England in our own century, where Starfleet paraphernalia and autographed photos of the captains decorate the walls; Renaissance has a scene in a similar place on Risa with an engineering theme, complete with Scotty as host and technical expert. Burgoyne's refreshingly dirty mind and Lefler's shuttlecraft nookie are a delightful change from chaste Voyager episodes. Since this is New Frontier, there are lots of subtle digs at canonical Trek -- like the presence of gay characters, including Selar's brother, and strongly-stated disapproval of Spock's mind-rape of Valeris in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in an eerie parallel context which makes that condemnation doubly powerful.
I am a great fan of this series, but I do have one gripe: these paperback books are $6.99 apiece, with the expectation that everyone will want the hardcover to follow. I guess people must be buying them if Pocket keeps raising the prices of Trek novels, but the big fat Millennium volumes seem a bargain by comparison. I like New Frontier better than Voyager, but hey -- at least Voyager is free. Restoration, the first New Frontier hardcover, brings this trilogy to a close at a final price tag of $36 before tax. Since the Trek franchise's greed has eroded the quality of its television and films, focusing more on advertiser demographics than audience appreciation, boycotting Trek products is a clear avenue of protest. If we don't buy, someone in the production offices may realize fans have stopped flocking to any junk they offer with a Trek label on it.
With New Frontier, we're being asked to pay by the installment for the sort of decent stories we used to get regularly on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. And the hell of it is, New Frontier is worth it. It feels like a more direct heir to the original series and The Next Generation than either of the subsequent series; don't get me wrong, I think DS9 was fantastic, but thematically it moved far from the optimism and joie de vivre of its predecessors. At its darkest moments, New Frontier still exudes the uncompromising, exuberant spirit of Roddenberry's initial vision. Even if you find Captain MacKenzie Calhoun hopelessly arrogant, even if you dislike the Excalibur crew's disregard for the laws of Starfleet (and sometimes the laws of physics), it's impossible not to compare them favorably with the crews of the Enterprises, and end up rooting for them.
Restoration at long last brings back Calhoun from the dead, except of course he never was. We finally get an explanation of how and why the ship blew up, though author Peter David suggests that we may never know how everyone survived -- the mysterious presence of McHenry, who has successfully traded his reality for science fiction, allows all sorts of inexplicable interventions. Not that David has resorted overmuch to deus ex machina cliches: in the beginning of Restoration, the chief of security on a starship is killed by a holographic recreation of Thor from some nouveau-Norse comic book. Perversely, this plays as comedy rather than tragedy.
We catch up with Calhoun in Narrin, a frontier town in the parched world of Yakaba, where people don't bother to dream of space flight or even air conditioning because it would require more social development than they can handle. The most ambitious guy around is also such a greedy entrepreneur with such selfish vision that it's not worth trying to work with him. Calhoun hooks up with Rheela, a woman who has the ability to make it rain in the desert. The townspeople are suspicious of both her altruism and her young son, whose paternity she refuses to discuss. To save Rheela from potential exile, Calhoun pretends to be Moke's father, thus entangling himself in the town's cultural chaos even as he dreams of getting back to Shelby and space.
Shelby, meanwhile, has accepted command of the Exeter, and appointed a first officer who's just like she was when she first met Riker during the Borg incident. It's a classic "be careful what you wish for" scenario, as she takes her hand-picked crew into a textbook Prime Directive dilemma, only to realize all the reasons captains like Kirk, Picard, and Calhoun consider Starfleet regulations to be guidelines rather than rules. The story unfolds with humor and great sympathy for Shelby, who can be one step away from thoroughly annoying at times.
Though it's structured like an adventure novel, as were the previous volumes in the Excalibur miniseries, Restoration is primarily a love story. I thought after Voyager's "Drive" that I would never again want to see two major characters pair up on Trek, but Mac and Shelby's romance plays out wonderfully, with very few clichés despite their fairly traditional values. It makes them both stronger people -- Mac because he can admit he needs her more than he needs unswerving faith in his own instincts, Shelby because it puts her in touch with the emotions that allow her to see beyond cold-blooded regulations. The numerous female characters (including a raftload of new ones chosen by Shelby to staff the Exeter) are all smart, complex, and fallible, and if the guys fall victim to occasional chauvinism, they also respond well to being put in their places. (Someone's got to do something about Cwan, though -- his condescension to his sister and Robin Lefler really gets on my nerves.)
The conclusion to this novel isn't a surprise to the reader but it's a lot of fun to read because none of the characters see it coming. Yet it shifts the basic structure of New Frontier -- now that Shelby's a captain, she's not going back to being Calhoun's first officer -- and through a complicated series of events, Calhoun has adopted a child. Two captains, two ships, one family. Finally we have a married couple on Star Trek who are truly equals, who can work apart as well as they can work together, yet who believe that the bond between them transcends whatever the universe may concoct to drive them apart. That's worth more than the cost of these books; it's priceless.
Click here to buy the New Frontier: Excalibur trilogy, Requiem, Renaissance and Restoration, from amazon.com.
Trek Book Reviews