With Voyager off the air for the summer of 2000 and Deep Space Nine off the air forever, I decided it was time to sit down and read the Star Trek: New Frontier books. After all, these books represented my only opportunity for new Star Trek for several months. That was one of the reasons for the launch of the original four-part miniseries, back in 1997 -- as a summer fix, to give fans something to read while no televised Trek was being aired. These are the voyages of the starship Excalibur, under the command of Captain Calhoun, with a ship of colorful officers including a mugato and an intelligent walking rock.
Imagine my delight at the discovery that New Frontier is better than Star Trek Voyager or Star Trek Insurrection.
I know that there are others like me who have not read New Frontier thus far out of some vague sense of loyalty to "legit" Trek. Some Trekkers refuse to peruse Trek comics because they're too silly, while others won't read the Trek Pocket books - even novelizations of televised episodes - because the books aren't canon. My committment is to old-fashioned Trek values and Trek interests, not to the Trek marketing machine. I am the first person to be suspicious when a division of Viacom releases a new form of a franchise that has been greatly diluted by greedy executives.
None of the Trek books are considered canonical as far as the show is concerned, so it's not as if New Frontier is likely to make any impact on the Trek universe. To some extent, that bugged me - that Peter David could make money for writing something akin to fan fiction while Paramount keeps making periodic threats against all the free fan fiction on the net. How could I not resent it when Captain Mackenzie Calhoun got his own book in The Captain's Table miniseries, and in the Double Helix collection? I mean, he's not Sisko, he's not Picard, he's not Kirk...right?
Okay - wrong.
This column should probably be written as a public apology to Peter David and John J. Ordover, creators of Star Trek: New Frontier, except that they don't need an apology - the New Frontier books have been among Trek's all-time bestsellers. Several times I have received letters from people who read my reviews, encouraging me to read the series - some from comic industry professionals, some from long-time Trek fans, some from people who didn't hesitate to call me an idiot. To the latter: you were right. The person to whom I owe an apology is myself, for not having read and enjoyed these books before.
At present, there are ten New Frontier books - the original four, a pair of books about an intergalactic holy war, the Captain's Table book, the Double Helix book, and a pair of books about long-lost relatives of the Excalibur crew helping to stop two terrifying sector-wide emergencies. It's possible to read the Captain's Table and Double Helix books first without too much confusion about plot details, but it's a lot more satisfying to read them in the order in which they were intended - which is relatively easy to do, since there's now an omnibus hardcover volume of the first four novels at a lower price than the four paperbacks originally cost.
The bulk of the first novel, House of Cards, introduces boy hero M'k'n'zy of Calhoun, his future half-Vulcan science officer Soleta, his future full-Vulcan CMO Selar, and enigmatic ambassador Si Cwan. Their backstories are interesting enough, and Calhoun (the name adopted by M'k'n'zy to avoid mispronunciations) is immediately compelling as a leader and a challenger to Starfleet stodginess.
But despite guest appearances by Spock and Picard, the first book lacks my single favorite thing about the New Frontier series: the return of Elizabeth Shelby, last seen at the end of "Best of Both Worlds." She does not make a real appearance until Into the Void - though she does show up stark naked in House of Cards, you kinda have to know it's her to recognize her. I am pleased to report that Shelby has lost none of her pushy, bitchy, uncompromising edge, though she's gained more personality and some yet-to-be-fleshed-out backstory. Sometimes she's a lot like Kira, sometimes she's a lot like Necheyev. Sometimes she's a lot like what Janeway used to be like. I do like watching a woman save the ship every now and then.
In addition, David gives us not one but two female Vulcans, both of whom are rather unconventional (one's half-Romulan, though she didn't know it growing up, while the other was so traumatized by her first pon farr that she can't separate normal Vulcan lack of emotion from pathological isolation). In addition, there's bubbly young Robin Lefler and her outrageous mother, plus the hermaphrodite chief engineer who experiences pregnancy scares from both sides - since, unlike the hermaphrodites from The Next Generation episode "The Outcast," these Hermats enjoy their dual sexual natures and take advantage of their omnisexual potential at every available opportunity.
In other words, there are more interesting and complicated female characters in New Frontier than there are on Voyager, a show hailed for its woman captain. I'll take Shelby over Janeway any day, though I hope we get to see her in command in a future novel. The "Hermat" character is terrific - it's not that s/he never engages in stereotypical gender behavior so much as that s/he engages in all of it, switching off effortlessly, thus demonstrating how much of it is performance rather than anything innate.
Moreover, Soleta reminds me of everything interesting about Seven of Nine with none of the drawbacks - she's incredibly bright, a great fighter, an outcast among all Federation species, emerging from a very traumatic revelation about her childhood, yet she's working to become a team player and she has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that isn't at the expense of others. David seems to have an innate grasp of the fact that what made Spock intersting wasn't his Vulcan side, but his Vulcan side at war with his emotional side - a trait shared by Sarek, Saavik, Tuvok, and every other Vulcan with a prominent role in Trek. His exploration of Selar's feelings about compulsory mating and childbirth are a little shallow, but I've yet to read a book by a man who did a decent job with pregnancy anyway.
What he does do a decent job with, for the first time in Trek history, is intimacy. The characters actually have sex, in rather more detail than Trek usually offers - for instance, we find out how both Calhoun and Shelby lost their virginity (not together) in the first hundred pages of a single novel. One of the Vulcans even points out the outrageous illogic of suggesting that a starship captain should strive to remain celibate - are you listening, Captain Janeway? By Calhoun's own admission, he's still in love with Shelby, his ex-fiancee, but that doesn't stop him from having a hot physical affair with a woman who becomes the Excalibur's executive officer. Nor from indulging an alien who makes his hormones go berserk. And when the Vulcan doctor asks him to relieve her pon farr, he tells her he's willing! I'd love to hear what Kirk would have said if Spock came to him with that sort of dilemma.
The doctor is conflicted, though, because she's already developed feelings for the hermaphrodite Burgoyne, who's got a just-for-kicks thing going with navigator McHenry, and they're both being driven nuts by Ensigns Beth and Christiano who take their personal problems to work with them. Meanwhile, both the younger and elder Lefler women are attracted to brooding Thallonian ambassador Si Cwan, who wants nothing more than to find his sister, but when he manages to track her down, she starts making eyes at Calhoun's long-lost...well, you get the idea. There is lots of sex on this ship, which not only makes it seem fun - it makes it seem real. (All the cussing adds to that effect, even if it is mostly in Xenexian.)
But I wanted to talk about intimacy, not sex. These characters actually act like intimates beyond the bedroom. Selar asks Soleta - a stranger at the time - to grant her the Vulcan rite of succor and help her solve a great personal problem, which Soleta does, thus creating an obligation that will have dramatic effects on both women. Nobleman Si Cwan lets security officer Zak Kebron get close enough to him that it becomes pointless to keep putting on airs, even if he doesn't want to admit he actually likes the man. Calhoun struggles with the need to remain apart and objective, something which is on one hand easy for him because he's a loner and on the other hand impossibly difficult because he has a broad compassionate streak with no tolerance for rigid Starfleet regulations. Ironically, he distances himself best from Shelby, the one for whom he professes love - and to whom he professes it, though of course a crisis arises before they have time to do anything about that.
Lest I should be leading anyone to think New Frontier is a soap opera, let's talk about those crises. There are multitudes, and many of them are compelling, reasonably novel science fiction devices. The rest are beyond outrageous, but as the novels keep reminding us, Captain Kirk's own exploits were beyond outrageous - in Martyr, David even suggests that many at Starfleet assumed reports of meeting Abraham Lincoln and a giant spacefaring amoeba were fabricated to see what the Enterprise could put over on the admirals. So if the Excalibur watches a giant flaming bird hatch out of a planet, who is Calhoun to question its absurdity?
In other words, there's a lot of lunacy, but it's inspired lunacy. Much like Xena this season, the Excalibur crew goes up against religious fanatics with strong parallels to certain types here on Earth - they even spout rhetoric like, "Xant helps those who help themselves." After a brief crisis during which Calhoun is believed to be a messiah, the ship saves the galaxy by polluting a sacred alien shrine with flatulent aliens that expel interstellar gas as a means of propulsion. There's quite a bit of violence, some grotesque - more than one description of someone trying to shove his entrails back into his body after being sliced open, and lots of brutal beatings. The main characters get banged up quite a bit, and their physical relisience is nothing short of amazing. Their emotional resilience is more problematic, however, which is where most of the character drama arises.
I should mention that Peter David is sadistic - he is prone to ending books with major disasters occurring, and with characters leaving emotional reunions followed by comments about how they would never meet again. But he is also screamingly funny, incorporating pop culture references and human cliches all over the place. And even the minor characters are a lot of fun. Xyon and Riella trade witty insults much like Leia and Han in the early Star Wars movies. Deadpan McHenry, who often seems to be asleep, never fails to say the wrong thing at the worst possible moment. Burgoyne will say absolutely anything to anyone. Shelby edits Calhoun's personal log in her own log, and he talks back, and she...you get the idea.
Of course I'm oversimplifying these ten books. Once Burned, the Captain's Table book, is the most complex Calhoun story and probably the most emotional of the tales since it's told in the first person. Double or Nothing is the longest and most detailed but the least engaging - maybe because Calhoun and his crew are so distant. I'd recommend starting at the beginning and reading in order, though maybe not reading nine in three days, as I did. It's worth spreading them out to last over the summer.
For information about the upcoming New Frontier trilogy coming out in September, check out PsiPhi's Trek books database at http://www.psiphi.org/NF/.
Click to buy New Frontier Books 1-4, Martyr, Fire on High, The Quiet Place, and Dark Allies, or the Captain's Table and Double Helix novels from amazon.com.
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