‘Star Trek: Picard – The Last Best Hope’ Review

From it’s very inception, Star Trek: Picard has gone where no Star Trek has gone before. Gone are the days of a Starfleet crew on a voyage of discovery, and instead the series is more akin to any other serial drama you might see on TV, but which happens to be set within the Trek universe. As its name would suggest, Picard is centred on a singular character rather than a whole crew, and while it does focus on those around him as well, it does so to further his story as much as their own.

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And with a new breed of series comes a new breed of tie-in. Although, like those of Discovery before it, ‘The Last Best Hope’ was written specifically in collaboration with the show’s writers, this is the first to be written for a Trek series with such a singular narrative. While in some ways this focus has been a breath of fresh air for Trek on TV, in the medium of the tie-in novel this takes some getting used to.

Like Starfleet, transmedia works best when it is out there exploring the fringes of what we know. In their long and varied history Star Trek novels have adapted onscreen adventures, given us brand new ones, and continued the lives of characters we love when they no longer graced our screens (something which Picard may retcon, but can never replace); even Discovery‘s novels gave us the backstories of its characters in a variety of original novels with varying links to established canon. Not so with Picard.

Yes, we are given the story of the events which set the scene for Picard, but by accompanying a show with such a narrow scope, ‘LBH’ is less an original novel in the vein of ‘The Way To The Stars’ or even ‘Drastic Measures’ (which also tells the story of pre-established events), but more about simply getting us from A to B.

Its fair to say that the novel’s biggest drawbacks are those which link it to the series itself (or at least what we have seen of it so far). Here we also get enough of a glimpse of B-4 to illustrate Data’s loss, but which also leaves other questions unanswered. If Nemesis isn’t being ignored, then where are the Remans? Likewise why did no-one suggest the use of holograms instead of developing synths? While it’s obvious and understandable that certain elements have been ommited for the sake of the narrative, for a show so deeply invested in what has come before it seems odd that it has either forgotten, or does not care, about so much of the Lore.

But while the premise itself may be constrictive, author Una McCormack has taken the novel and undeniably added her own unique, and engaging stamp on this new corner of the Star Trek universe.

As always, her prose is fantastic and the way in which she is able to set each scene through the descriptions she uses is second to none. Having been (rightfully) entrusted with the redevelopment of Cardassia after the events of Deep Space Nine, here McCormack brings those skills to the fate of Romulus in a way that no one else could do justice. The duplicity of the Tal Shiar is at the same time both unthinkable and entirely believable, whilst McCormack herself slips in what has to be a reference to Salisbury Cathedral in a way that would surely make Garak proud.

She also goes above and beyond the general standard of the central Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations concept, and while on-screen Trek may only just be catching up to the novels’ decades worth of LGBT representation, here McCormack specifically addresses the use of “visual tagging for sign users” alongside universal translators during the symposium as well.

And this is where the novel beats the series (so far at least), in that even if the narrative is tied, it still stretches out and explores in anyway it can. Using the veil of sci-fi as “a human way of telling certain truths”, McCormack has also written a novel which expertly captures the current climate of #fakenews and deniers in a way which would be entertaining were it not so applicable: the Tal Shiar’s handling of Nokrim Vritet is essentially just as blunt, but no more more forceful or less effective than today’s media headlines. Had it not happened just two months ago, you could have sworn this book was written in direct response to the recent UK election as much as the atmosphere of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America in general.

But it is also this relatability through which McCormack tells a story about the collective culture and individuality of the race that Picard is trying to save. Despite the inclusion of Starfleet’s top brass and even the Federation Council, it is through the eyes of the more down to Earth Vritet and Amal Safadi that we discover the truths (and untruths) about the galactic politics between the Federation and Romulan Empire, and yet despite being burdened with exposition they never come across as anything less than the most fully rounded and relatable characters.

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Likewise Koli Jocan brilliantly shouldering the weight that takes its toll on the whole crew, and alongside others such as Olivia Quest, McCormack has given us brand new characters which will leave the series somewhat lacking without their presence, while the introduction of Elnor and the Qowat Milat teases even more to look forward to.

Meanwhile those we have already seen on-screen may not be instantly recognisable at first, but complete their respective journeys impeccably. Agnes Jurati is brought into the story in a way which is sweet but never too flowery, and while it would have been nice to have seen more of Raffi’s family dynamic perhaps, her story is told with an emotional core we can only hope the series lives up to.

In many ways, ‘The Last Best Hope’ is a novel which depicts the mission to evacuate Nine Hundred Million Romulans in the only way it could ever be depicted: while the commitment of so much to a single objective may not be to everyone’s liking, the way it’s handled is exemplary. Like Jean-Luc Picard, Una McCormack has given it everything she can, and filled it with heart.

Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End Review

When Doctor Who ended with nothing so much as a hastily added speech about how much of the universe was left to explore back in 1989, questions were left unanswered about the fate of the Doctor and his companion, Ace. Naturally our favourite Time Lord regenerated back onto our TV screens, once in 1996 and then again more permanently in 2005, but the continuing adventures of Ace were relegated to the realms of the transmedia tie-ins, such as comic strips, novels, and audio adventures.

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I say relegated, these are media which often fail to get the acknowledgement they deserve, not least for the fact that had they not kept the flame alive during the Wilderness Years, Doctor Who itself may never have returned to our screens, at least not in such the successful way which we have come to know and love.

And it is in these media that the fate of Ace was given its full potential, so much so that it all ended up a bit too wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey with the not officially canonical adventures going on to overlap and contradict each other. While most saw Ace continue to travel with the Doctor, some eventually saw her leave to return to what was left of her life on Earth, while others saw her attend and add her own distinctiveness to the Time Lord Academy itself, which was the planned outcome had the TV series continued. Needless to say head-canon is a big thing in determining what did and didn’t happen to Ace. Even the Big Finish audio range, which has featured Ace in continuing adventures, tales of the Time War, and even one appearance in their series based on Doctor Who spin-off Class, hasn’t been above the tried and tested Amnesia/Memory Wipe trope to try and accommodate such a changing rostra of possible, and contradicted outcomes.

Unambiguously returning to the role which has been at the hearts of the biggest mystery within the Doctor Who universe however, with “At Childhood’s End” Sophie Aldred has given us perhaps the closest we’ll get to the definitive answer. The closest we had ever been given to an “official” answer to Ace’s fate came in a single fleeting reference from former companion and spin-off helmer Sarah-Jane Smith, who once mentioned a Dorothy who was heading up the philanthropic organisation A Charitable Earth. As far as references that leave some wiggle room for future extrapolation go, this one was fairly conclusive, although Aldred was quoted as only believing this would be the case if the organisation was nothing more than a front for Doctor Who’s long standing protectors of the Earth, UNIT.

The idea of this charity is something which was expanded on in the trailer for the Season 26 Blu-Ray Boxset, known as ‘Ace Returns!’, which saw her wait for the Doctor finally come to an end with a familiar looking umbrella handle knocking on the door. Although, as always, the fact it’s a trailer and not an “official” adventure once more muddies the canonical waters.

Regardless of which, this is where “At Childhood’s End” enters the pantheon of Doctor Who storytelling. Picking up where The Sarah-Jane Adventures left off, the novel sees an older and wiser, but still just as determined, Dorothy as the CEO of an organisation with one purpose which is to help those in need. Any idea of it being a front for UNIT is just as mothballed as the organisation itself within the new TV continuity, although even this is handled in a way which shows such a believably accurate portrayal of a character who we first saw over 30 years ago.

What entails is a story so much more than the sum of its parts, one which succinctly weaves together not just Ace’s departure from, but also the origins of her travels with her Professor, a belated reunion with a Doctor who’s now at twice their incarnations since Ace last saw her, all tied together in an original adventure for the incumbent Team TARDIS.

The main part of the action takes place on, or around, modern day Earth. When lost and homeless children are going missing from the streets of London, including Perivale no less, there’s obviously no coincidence when an alien ship is discovered in orbit around the moon. Naturally Dorothy is one to investigate, with help from a former astronaut boyfriend, and something of her own companion which is (almost a little too) more convenient than the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.

Though the book does start off a little rough with the prose itself a little clunky, its conviction in name dropping all the different areas of Ace’s journey through London may as well have just been transcribing a Sat Nav, but these missteps are soon left behind. The fact that the book itself seamlessly switches from referring to Dorothy as Ace along with the other characters is just one way which shows you how nothing can stop the story from letting you go once it’s Time Stormed you in on its wild ride.

The narrative itself is more than worthy of the TV episodes it is supplementing, while the written word allows for the perfect depiction of alien races that could never be sufficiently realised on screen. The characterisations of the current Doctor and companions are spot on, though it’s Yaz who shines as she ponders the effects that travelling with the Doctor has on her own life as much as Ace’s.

The main narrative is also intercut with flashbacks to what we eventually discover is Ace’s final adventure during her TARDIS heydays, and the reason for her split with the Doctor. Something the publication of the novel promised to touch on, this is just the beginning of answering the question of what happened next, and which does touch on all the various outcomes that we have seen over the past thirty years. Aldred herself stated that “I thought it’d be really good to explore how that could be, and, without giving it away, I hope we’ve done that and it’s safe to say that she, along with co-writers Stephen Cole and Mike Tucker, have succeeded spectacularly.

With the main narrative linking into the events of the final TV serial “Survival”, the flashbacks carry them on thematically with the Doctor’s manipulations of Ace and her destiny finally coming to a head. While the specific dating of these as taking place in 1990 may not leave much room for the continuing adventures as told by Big Finish, etc, the revelations we find on the Astingir planet leave no other stone unturned.

The events that lead up to Ace leaving the Doctor are a natural extension to the direction their relationship was taking before the series was cancelled, and in book designed to answer all the possibilities, the fateful line of “Professor, this is the day we say goodbye” is perhaps the only conclusion that could ever have been reached. But even when this particular question has finally been answered, everything else, all the possibilities of exactly where and when that goodbye took place are still out there somewhere.

While the events of the novel naturally contradict some previously defined specifics, this is nothing which shouldn’t be expected considering the not-officially-canon-continuity of the character stretching back three decades, but it’s the way in which it keeps the doors open to so many of the wider brush strokes of Ace’s intervening years which is where its genius lies.

At the end of her time with her Professor we see Ace herself see all the possible futures that lay ahead of her. Much like the fate of the Wraiths she saw what the outcome of all the possible futures would be, that the ultimate outcome of anything but peace was just more and more fighting, but would this apply to an individual as much as it would to an entire race?

And that’s the thing with timey-wimey science fiction like Doctor Who, the fact that there is no definitive answer is perhaps the only definitive answer there can ever be.

Which future did Ace decide? Could all of them happen anyway? Does her past even matter if she’s still got future adventures to look forward to?

The only answer that matters, is the one that we decide for ourselves.

 

Taking back Control?

The latest Star Trek novel to be released is the much antcipated Control, by David Mack. It continues Dr. Julian Bashir’s arc of taking down the United Federation of Planets’ ruthless, self appointed, and self professed “protection” service, Section 31, which began back in Deep Space Nine‘s sixth season.

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Control is Mack’s fourth novel to focus on Bashir

As with the best of Trek, Control is a story that is as much about our present as it is the future, and is highly influenced by today’s ever pervasive atmosphere of surveillance, hacking, and Snooper’s Charters. At Section 31’s centre is the titular Control; no doubt a nod to Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but the enigmatic leader of 31’s name also comes as a prophetic warning.

Here is an artificial intelligence that is as much a calculating dictator as it is the basic operating system of the entire Federation: making decisions on behalf of the ‘inferior’ citizens it protects, it does so by crunching the astronomical numbers gleaned from starship sensors, to an individual’s replicator habits. As any half decent Vulcan would applaud, it deems that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it is doubtful there are any who would consider the few as completely expendable in a fashion as merciless as Control.

Through frequent flashbacks to the 22nd Century we are given the backstory of a relatively simple computer code designed to recognise potential threats (via the means of the unchecked surveillance which we in the 21st are becoming alarmingly aware) and inform law enforcement as appropriate. On one hand it is certainly an interesting concept, and the fact that it spans every single piece of technology of an entire interstellar superpower is fully warranted in order to fully grasp the analogy of interlinked handheld and camera/microphone equipped computers that are literally lining the pockets of our own civilisation.

As an independent piece of science fiction (it’s not like something so accurate can be described as speculative fiction) it would have been a fascinating thriller. In fact for all it’s derivation from its source material, 2004’s i, Robot was at least a blockbuster with some similarly interesting philosophy behind it.  But Control isn’t an independent piece of science fiction.

It’s an official piece of Star Trek fiction. And that’s where the problem lies…

Author David Mack has been writing Star Trek prose for well over fifteen years, having  previously co-written the screenplay and story for the DS9 episodes Starship Down and It’s Only A Paper Moon respectively. Novel-wise he is perhaps best known for Star Trek: Destiny, a centuries spanning epic in which the Borg learns that resistence is far from futile and their reign of terror is finally brought to end, albeit not without a fight.

On a more personal note, Mack has also written some of my favourite Trek novels, including the previous Bashir/Section 31 adventure Zero Sum Game, and the destruction of the USS Bombay within the pages of Star Trek: Vanguard‘s Harbinger is one of the most touching events I’ve read in any book, Star Trek or otherwise.

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Destiny featured characters from TNG, DS9, and Enterprise

Thanks to its far reaching consequences, Destiny heralded a new era for Star Trek novels and showed that the post televisual relaunch had well and truly set its own course in the stories it would tell, and praise was rightfully lauded everywhere in its general direction.

His next trilogy, the Next Generation specific Cold Equations also ended on a high after the Enterprise crew had literally saved the entire galaxy. Despite so much hanging in the balance, the tale wove together established Trek lore from both screen and page to ensure that it remained entirely believable throughout.

Other novels have increasingly extended his reach in terms of the interstellar stakes, and as impressive as his writing is however, the riskier road leads not just to greater profit, but also greater losses when things don’t pan out.

Mack’s 2011 novel Rise Like Lions follows on from his previous novella-turned-novel The Sorrows of Empire (which I will admit I haven’t read because there are SO MANY Star Trek novels it’s impossible to read them all), and sees the races of Star Trek‘s mirror universe unite into the Galactic Commonwealth. Something perhaps not so surprising, given that it effectively mirrors the way in which Destiny sees the standard alpha and beta quadrant powers suffer unheard of misfortunes. That said, it is a change which is so sweeping that the mirror universe becomes all but unrecognisable from it’s onscreen adventures; humanity has gone from a plucky rebellion to being handed technology the Federation would almost deem all but impossible to the point where it strains credibility, and breaks all suspension of disbelief, in the process.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read its predecessor which no doubt fills in many gaps, but surely any novel should be able to work solely on its own merits? It does have to be said that Mack’s Disavowed, of which Control is an immediate sequel and which also combines his mirror universe narrative with those of Bashir/Section 31, makes great use of the changes that had been introduced, but without suffering the consequences of the almost Deus ex Machina transformation itself.

Somewhere between The Body Electric and Rise Like Lions then, Mack has shown that he is more than capable of handling such extreme narratives, just not with a 100% success rate. With Control however, Mack has managed to combine making such high stakes and revelations believable and entertaining, whilst simultaneously extolling the most jarring feature of any Star Trek novel (that I have read) in that it comes completely at odds with what Star Trek is, and undermines the entire basis of arguably entertainment’s most loved, enduring, and optimistic mythology.

50-something years ago, Gene Roddenberry dreamed of a future where humankind had put its petty differences aside. Poverty, racism, and sexism, (and had paramount not intervened, homophobia) were a thing of the past, and Earth’s only adversaries came from outside it’s orbit rather than within. In fact Roddenberry’s vision was so utopian that his insistence that conflicts between crew members simply wouldn’t happen often lead to accusations that his series were too boring, and lacked significant dramatic tension.

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Section 31 was first introduced in Inquisition

Although Star Trek‘s longevity owes much to the outside influence of a host of other writers and producers, each merely put their own spin on the core optimism that is at Star Trek‘s heart. DS9 was only concieved after Roddenberry’s death, and despite making humanity a little less perfect – in part by throwing Section 31 into the mix – than he had initially intended, it showed that the light still shines the brightest in the dark.

In fact some of the best stories can be defined by Picard’s quote that “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity” by placing the emphasis on the actual work that is needed to achieve humanity’s potential, rather than merely presenting it as a done deal.

Flying right in the face of this established notion however, Control retcons the forming of the entire Federation, even that of a united Earth government, by uncovering the “truth” that humanity’s destiny was in fact shaped by Bashir’s ultimate nemesis and Section 31 founder: an all seeing and all watching computer code. In this version of the future, humanity was steered towards a better world rather than having the strength, willpower, and compassion to build it themselves.

It certainly raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy and free will, but in a way which just doesn’t fit with its surroundings. I’ll admit that it would be a stretch to say that (narratively at least) the entirety of Star Trek is therefore built on a lie, but not by much.

Control isn’t the first Trek story of any medium to question the cooperative/assimilation expansive nature of the Federation, and Control’s belief that the Borg would have eventually ruled over Earth and its allies if it had introduced itself via means of seduction rather than conquering is one of the book’s most thought provoking notions. But others who take part in that debate, such as last year’s Star Trek Beyond, at least do so in terms of a humanity that overcame its own problems before finding different ones amongst the stars.

Gene Roddenberry once described Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”

We can always wonder how much better off (in the short term) we ourselves could have been with a sentient computer safeguarding our best interests during Brexit and Trump’s comparable elections, but that would have been taking the easy way out.

And that’s not how Star Trek works.

Gerry And-A-Son Have A Great Weekend

Rather appropriately for a weekend which celebrated new life and resurrection, with the release of not one but three new series, this Easter saw something of a comeback for Gerry Anderson. Unlike his resurgence in the early nineties which came courtesy of his classics being given repeat broadcasts (Space Precinct notwithstanding), this years is more impressive for the fact that the series being released are all original(ish) productions, and that this is all happening posthumously.

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Gerry Anderson, with son Jamie

Having been diagnosed with dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s disease, Anderson sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2012. Never one for retirement however, he continued to create and develop new ideas for as long as he was physically and mentally able, even dictating them to others after the ability to read and write had left him.

The last project he was working on was also the first to have been released, when last Thursday saw Black Horizon become available to the general public. With plenty of notes and outlines left behind, Gerry’s younger son Jamie Anderson recruited the services of author M.G. Harris and brought Gemini Force One to the attention of crowdfunding site Kickstarter; the result of which was raising over £33,000 to bring this this new idea to life.

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From the co-creator of Thunderbirds….

Looking at the fantastical concept of Thunderbirds, Anderson delved deeper into the idea of how such a rescue organisation could conceivably be created and operate. These range from basic ideas that include bland uniforms specifically designed to blend in to any situation, to their secret underwater base (Gemini Force One itself) being hidden from view by revolutionary lightbending technology.

The release of Black Horizon, the first in a planned trilogy of novels, is also something that I personally have a number of connections with. Firstly, as one of the 614 backers, I can say that I helped GF1 became the reality it is today; something confirmed by the fact that my name is printed in black and white in the book itself.

Having received my kickstarter copy of the book last year, I was also able to write a review for it at WhatCulture before its general release. As I guess is often the case when you write a favourable piece about something people have spent so much time and energy on, both Jamie and M.G. shared my review on social media. Gratifying enough on its own, but the fact that this review is also being quoted on the book’s page at Amazon is something that I have to admit I’m also rather chuffed with. (The review itself, along with a more in-depth description of GF1 can be found here.)

In the week since its release, extra deleted chapters have also been made available, and can be downloaded from the official website, geminiforce1.com.

The second, and much more anticipated release, was Thunderbirds Are Go, a new TV series which combines traditional model making techniques with computer generated characters. Although obviously based on the most famous series created by Anderson (alongside his then wife Sylvia), this incarnation is a joint production between ITV Studios, Pukeko Pictures, and Weta Workshops. Officially announced by Gerry Anderson himself back in 2011, just how much he was involved in the production of the series is hard to say; presumably very little but, unlike the 2004 Hollywood effort, we can be assured that Thunderbirds Are Go at least had his blessing.

Thunderbirds are still going!
Thunderbirds are still going!

Jamie has also been involved of sorts, acting again as Anderson’s successor/figurehead when doing interviews to promote the series. These have included The One Show, but perhaps the most interesting was on Sky News where the interviewer that seemed to imply the series was created solely to make use of tax loopholes.

Rather than sing its praises indiscriminately however, he has been promoting it in terms of celebrating its classic origins, allowing the new footage to speak for itself. One way in which he did make his opinions about the new series well-known however, was by writing a piece published by the Telegraph, about how CGI can never replace strings.

Although Jamie may be siding with those of earlier generations, it has to be said that Anderson Sr. himself wasn’t dismissive of the CGI revolution’s ability to update his series’ visuals, as the last to be produced before his death, 2005’s New Captain Scarlet, was produced in full CGI “Hypermarionation”.

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How I summed up my trepidation

Eagerly scouring pictures and information that was released in the run up to the show’s broadcast, it was with great curiosity that I watched Reggie Yates’ preview documentary Thunderbirds Are Go: No Strings Attached. Despite the reassurance of not just the names of those involved (from actor David Graham returning to the role of Parker, and a script by David Baddiel), but the passion of those involved, my fears about CGI and modernisation weren’t quenched.

So it was that not having been convinced by the clips of what I had seen, but still with an open mind, I sat down and watched the pilot episode, “Ring Of Fire.” CGI aside, the main changes have come from the show’s narrative, the most obvious being the fact that dad Jeff Tracy is now missing. Several allusions are made to a mysterious crash in which he disappeared, explaining his absence but also adding a sense of mystery that will presumably be a recurring arc over the run of the series. ‘Tin Tin’ has also been given a more prominent role, as well as the new name of Kayo, presumably so as not to upset anyone associated with the latest adventures of Herge’s finest, given her now more involved and adventurous role.

And in the end, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. It is hardly perfect as the CGI and practical models don’t always mesh well, particularly during the heavy action sequences, and it is not something that will ever replace (although I highly doubt this was the intention) or surpass (you’d have to ask them) the original series. That said, it was something which appealed to me as both someone who cannot help but pick apart and analyse TV, and as a fan of Anderson’s previous work. Of all the things that they did get right, luckily the iconic Thunderbird lauch sequences, complete with bending trees, was one of them, and brought the biggest smile to my face.

TERRA0102_deadlydeparted_1417Following on from these was also the release of a new Terrahawks box set from Big Finish, a series of 8 audio episodes, one of which can be downloaded for free. Admittedly a series of which I initially knew less than Big Finish itself (a company established to continue Doctor Who after the original TV was cancelled, and which has since expanded to produce material for other sci-fi series including Stargate and Blake’s 7).

Something obviously aimed at an existing audience rather than a new one, the medium of audio adventures seems something at odds with the rest of Anderson’s back catalogue, given that his name has become synonymous with brightly coloured vehicles and giant explosions. Whilst even the written word of Gemini Force One can describe the detailed visuals, audio Terrahawks doesn’t actually seem that out-of-place, and is probably the most suited to this new (for Anderson) medium. Populated by characters with caricatured accents, these new adventures make the most of what audio has to offer; the sound of spring like motions rather than footsteps is a great way to establish the robotic nature of the series, and never has the idea of a room being so silent been so cleverly (and funnily) portrayed). The fact that Jamie was involved in terms of both writing and directing episodes also adds the desired amount of authenticity.

Despite the vastly different media, and varying degrees of publicity, all three of the latest Gerry Anderson projects may not have been met with universal praise (I guess you can’t please everybody), but at least with a favourable response that bodes well for the fact this is still just the beginning.

Black Horizon is the first in a trilogy, Thunderbirds Are Go has already been confirmed for a second season, and the current Terrahawks box set is merely volume 1. Add to this that there is even more on the way (Jamie’s latest kickstarter project, Firestorm, was funded back in November), stand by for action indeed!!!

Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – A Ceremony Of Losses’

Whilst no longer in their heyday in terms of the number of books published each year, current Star Trek novels now seemingly try to outdo each other in terms of galactic importance. A Ceremony Of Losses comes as part of the The Fall miniseries, and sees a third threat to a Galactic head of state in as many novels.

A_Ceremony_of_LossesIn this volume it’s the turn of the Andorians, as Doctor Bashir turns his attention to the reproductive crisis that has plagued the former Federation members so prominently in recent years. As such, this novel relies the most on prior knowledge of ‘current’ (ie, relaunch novel) 24th Century events.

Not only does the political angle continue the ongoing story-lines of Andoria’s medical problems and succession from the Federation, but even those who have read the 23rd Century Star Trek Vanguard series will have an advantage over those who haven’t. Obviously the preceding Fall novels Revelation and Dust and The Crimson Shadow also both go without saying.

All the relevant back-stories are adequately explained however, but it is the fresh cloak and dagger – and eventual all out knives drawn – angle that make this story shine. For all the various plot threads it relies upon, it is the tradition of using Bashir’s espionage tales sparingly that Ceremony best continues. It is here that Dr. Bashir makes what is possibly the ultimate decision of his ongoing personal struggle between superior intellect and bleeding heart.

Bashir’s decision (and its consequences) are chronicled with all the talent of dramatic description readers have come to expect from Mack, the political issues are far less enduring than some others, all the while focusing squarely on those characters readers know and love.

Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – The Crimson Shadow’

For the second in a five part mini-series, it could be easy to argue exactly how much of a Deep Space Nine novel The Crimson Shadow really is. Although its Next Generation credentials are obvious, the fact it revolves around the political turmoil of a major DS9 planet does point in the direction of that series. That said however, it’s not as though The Next Generation has ever treated the Cardassians delicately, David Warner notwithstanding.

Despite the inclusion of characters from both however, The Crimson Shadow is first and foremost simply a Cardassian novel, with any other setting taking second place; as with the recent Typhon Pact books the lines between TV series are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Also like Una McCormack’s previous novels, this is a story of an entire people rather than just those few who tell it.

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And it is through this ability to tell the big picture from a small perspective that McCormack brings out the full potential of what a Star Trek novel can be. As Trek at its best not only is this tale of another world both highly enjoyable and also relevant to our own – the withdrawal of allied troops cannot be taken as mere coincidence – but her writing is second to none.

The opening narration is reminiscent of Dickens himself and the depiction of the various levels of unrest, from boots on the ground to the offices of government, are handled with a level of skill that belies the fact this is only McCormack’s fourth full length Star Trek novel. Despite this however, it is the meeting of two diplomatic heavyweights, Elim Garak and Jean-Luc Picard, where The Crimson Shadow shines.

The depiction shows not just her in-depth knowledge of these disparate figures, McCormack’s particular fondness for Garak is no secret and as such his own story is the most compelling, but the interplay between the two is as engrossing as the rest of the novel combined.

Despite such a positive rendering of those characters that are included, the heavy political themes of the novel do tend to leave some left out; Geordi La Forge in particular is once again relegated from major player to the smallest of appearances.

Overall this novel presents such a powerful account of one of Star Trek‘s most influential races that it is easy to forget The Crimson Shadow is designed to be just one part of larger whole. Regardless of the Federation’s aid, or even the Castellan’s leadership, Cardassia couldn’t be in better hands than Una McCormack’s.

Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – Revelation and Dust’

Despite the plethora of novels in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine relaunch series, their number has diminished in the all-encompassing post-Nemesis relaunch novels; which now includes Captain Riker’s Titan in addition to the regular Next Generation, DS9 and Voyager staple, not to mention the various cross-overs. Although no books have been published with a Deep Space Nine title since 2009, the series has been the focus of a number of Star Trek: Typhon Pact novels however, not least of these is Plagues of Night, in which the beloved titular station is spectacularly destroyed.

Revelation_and_Dust_solicitation_coverBetween the longer than average span between publishings, and the dramatic events of the previous novel, Revelation and Dust understandably takes longer than most to get started. Although there is little that has happened in the interim there is still a new station to introduce and previous events to recap, which includes the kidnapping of Rebecca Jae Sisko. Something that has to be recapped, as it was a presumably major event that was never actually told.

The relaying of the exposition is helped by the fact that the characters we are reacquainted with are mostly old favourites from the TV series once more, as with Vaughn and Shar no longer aboard it is only the addition of Ro Laren and Sarina Douglas who new readers may be unfamiliar with. Although old and new alike will feel those such as O’Brien and Odo could have featured more heavily, Revelation makes the best of a new start thanks to author David R. George III’s ability at picking up right where he left off, having written three of the four DS9 set Typhon Pact novels.

Interwoven with the main comings and goings of the new station’s opening ceremonies, the novel also charts the experiences of former colonel (now vedek) Kira within the celestial temple. As is often the case when dealing with the prophets, this tale is shrouded in metaphorical mystery and by the end poses more questions than it offers answers. Doubly interwoven as the introduction of Rebecca’s abilities similarly seems to have been added as the start of an ongoing narrative of which this is only the beginning.

As the first of a five part mini series however, it is clear that Revelation is a beginning of many things by design, not least considering the fact that narratively it has to be the most influential Star Trek novel of recent times, its singular pivotal event is made all the more surprising by coming much later in the novel than is normally expected of something so inciting.

And despite George’s fine writing this is perhaps the only downfall of Revelation and Dust. Despite being accessible to regardless of how well read in Star Trek fiction, and an exceptional start to what promises to be a game changing mini-series, it is not simply a tie-in novel that can read independently from any others.

Book Review: ‘Star Trek: Enterprise – The Romulan War’

For all the potential that Star Trek: Enterpise was living up to in its fourth season, it is hard to imagine how it would have portrayed the already canonical six-year Romulan war had it not been cancelled. It is arguably for this reason that telling the story through the two-volume novel mini-series is no bad thing, even if it is perhaps something of a double-edged sword.

Enterprise_The_Romulan_WarWhile the first volume, Beneath Raptor’s Wings, gives a great view of the galaxy at large, this does come at the expense of the Enterprise itself. A far cry from Broken Bow‘s initial four-day trip to Qo’Nos, it takes 27 days for the eponymous ship to get from Earth to Vulcan, and more than half the book goes by before her becomes half way anything close to adventurous. Despite this slow start for the Enterprise crew, it has to be said that author Michael A. Martin’s descriptions of the galaxy at large make it worth the wait.

Right from the start we are shown a great view of Humanity’s initial colonisation of the stars through the inquisitive eyes of the Federation’s Newstime reporters, the pioneering image of a Native American/Western style Mars not only creates an atmosphere any terraformer would be proud of, but is also highly believable. Unfortunately though, this is not the same for the XVIII Dalai Lama; as much as the current incarnation may be humility personified, Martin could not have made his successor any more of a Californian high-schooler if he tried.

Minor gripes aside however, this first volume achieves as much as you would expect from its more than average 568 pages. Apart from perhaps only Malcolm Reed, even those characters who are given little page time still manage to have significant impact. Even Phlox’s journey from explorer to battlefield medic is just the tip of the iceberg as Captain Archer is haunted by the ramifications of previous decisions, and Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker III’s continuing spy mission continues to escalate into more than he was bargaining for.

Perhaps most importantly however, this book’s strength comes in its feeling of connection to our own world (even if a certain Braveheart reference could have done without such vivid imagery) while at the same time sowing more seeds of bridging the gap between Enterprise and the 23rd and 24th century Star Treks that spawned it. More than just in the “why does something set 100 years in the past look more modern?” way, the inclusion of a particular gifted but introverted engineer is a particularly nice touch, as is reverse-naming Romulan officers after future Warbirds.

RomulanwarbravestormWhere the first volume stretches itself across space, the second does likewise across time; despite its smaller size of only 334 pages, To Brave The Storm spans an almost impressive five years. “Almost” impressive in that as much as it keeps a coherent story, it seems that very little happens in the months between chapters. Something which again evokes the vast distances of pioneering space travel, but also seems to be only something done in order to comply to a previously established timeline.

All in all The Romulan War is a fair portrayal of what many fans would like to have seen on-screen, worthy of a read but two books aren’t quite enough to fulfill the potential of a galactic event with such wide-reaching consequences.

Book Review: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation – Cold Equations’

When leaving the cinema having just watched Star Trek: Nemesis, it is likely that many disappointed fans correctly presumed it would herald the end of The Next Generation on the big screen. What they may not have predicted however, is the successful relaunch that the tie-in novels have been enjoying in their decade of free reign storytelling since.

Persistence_largeCoinciding with the final films ten year anniversary the Cold Equations trilogy, released during the final months of 2012, told what is arguably the one story which fans had been eagerly waiting for ever since, particularly after the publication of 2009’s Star Trek prequel comic, Countdown. Between his sacrifice on board the Scimitar and his captaincy of the USS Enterprise E, readers were finally treated to the tale of Data’s resurrection in the first of the three books, The Persistence Of Memory.

The bulk of the story recounts the secret history of cyberneticist Dr. Soong, retconning his death in the TNG episode Brothers to an elaborate deception in the process (something which, it has to be said, Brothers itself was guilty of first). Having designed and built himself a top-notch – even by his standards – android body to carry his own consciousness, he sets off to find and win back his beloved Juliana Tainer, with whom he plans to share his immortality. Until the pesky Breen show up, that is.

Silentweapons_largeContinuing where Persistence leaves off, Silent Weapons sees a newly resurrected Data, all too fully aware of how possible it can be, embark on a quest to do the same for his own daughter, Lal. Caught in the middle of a Breen/Gorn scheme to turn the balance of the galaxy’s power in their favour however, this second book also continues in the tradition of the more recent Typhon Pact novels as much as it does its immediate precursor. In fact Federation president Nanietta Bacco also makes a welcome return, accompanied as ever by her loyal staff, although as events unfold it is one appearance she would most likely end up regretting.

Set largely on the Orion homeworld, readers are also shown a largely unexplored side to this culture that has generally remained overshadowed by its criminal syndicated underworld, but does so in such a way that all but makes its existence almost inevitable in the first place.

Body_ElectricIn contrast to the first two however, the third and final novel, The Body Electric, seems almost a stand alone story were it not for the continuation of Data’s personal quest. Leaving the Typhon Pact far behind, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves against an antagonist so incredible that believability is almost defied to the point of becoming non-existent. Especially when a billions of years ticking clock is reduced to a matter of minutes.

A Next Generation tale of reunion wouldn’t be complete without fully grown Traveller Wesley Crusher however, even if the comparisons to character and TV actor Wil Wheaton aren’t all that subtle either.

Although Cold Equations may not have the same page turning suspense as author David Mack’s Star Trek: Destiny, this is something that can be put down to the previous trilogy’s sheer scope, and shouldn’t be held against this offering personally. That said however, the more personal events of the novels are treated with the drama and weight they deserve, the cold climax of Persistence in particular is felt throughout Worf’s continuing narrative, no doubt well beyond Weapons and Electric, almost as much as the events of DS9‘s Change Of Heart.

This itself is one of the trilogy’s strengths, containing as it does nods to both canonical events and previous novels in all the right places, that can only come from such a knowledgeable Star Trek author. 

All in all, a trilogy of stories that recounts one defining moment but doesn’t for a second rest on its laurels, adding its own to the mix that stand their own ground, on their own terms.

Transmedia storytelling: Where do we tie-in from here?

Having been around almost as long as cult film and television itself, tie-in media is now serious business. Star Wars alone includes over 20,000 years of “Expanded Universe” history to support only six (so far) canonical feature films. But how do you go about creating such a detailed background, and what exactly is this background in the first place?

Firstly, you don’t have to. Tie-in media is generally anything that takes an already established story, usually a TV show, and tells another story using those characters, settings, etc, and it doesn’t have to be part of an epic sci-fi saga. Something as simple as the novelisation of Snakes on a Plane, or even the Dad’s Army stage adaptations could also fall under this category.

Starting at the beginning, perhaps one of the earliest pieces of original tie-in fiction was 1968’s Mission to Horatius, a young adult Star Trek novel by Mack Reynolds. Like the episodes of the series itself, the novel told the story of the Enterprise crew on an outer space adventure, thrills and danger were experienced, before everything is heroically, and not to forget neatly, concluded. Returning everything to the status quo meant that viewers and readers could dip in and out of adventures and not get lost. Everyone knew the central relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, knew that Uhura would be there to take the messages, and the Klingons were the badguys. As time went on however, things changed.

The 34th Rule, by Armin Shimerman and David R George, filled in many gaps the on-screen 'Star Trek' to regarding humanities future 'Utopia'.
‘The 34th Rule’, by Armin Shimerman and David R George, filled many of  ‘Star Trek’s Utopia’s gaps.

Klingon peace treaties and the civil rights movement aside, Star Trek evolved, and its tie-in fiction along with it. The episodic TV series’ led to feature films with an ongoing story arc. The Voyage Home remains one of the most popular Trek films to date, but without a recap of The Search For Spock, those who haven’t seen it may be a little confused as to why there’s no Enterprise. Likewise novels were joined by comics that contained stories that could often have cliffhanger endings, leaving readers waiting with baited breath for next month’s issue.

Ten years after it’s initial cancellation, the other long running science-fiction series Doctor Who regenerated into audio adventures, reuniting cast members to portray their charcters, even if by only voicing them. With the series once again gracing TV screens, these classic Doctor tales are still going strong.

Following this, the new millennium began with The Matrix gifting the world with a new breed of tie-in, containing almost as much new storytelling as slow motion CGI. More than just new adventures however, The “Wachowski Warship” as the Wachowski ‘Brothers’ are now known, utilised comics, short animation films, and even a computer game, in order to tell the same narrative story, only from different perspectives; While the audience watching The Matrix Reloaded would witness Niobe imparting news of how a ship called The Osiris discovered a Sentinel threat, those who have seen the aptly named Final Flight of the Osiris would witness that discovery first hand, but only Enter The Matrix players would know how the story, and indeed the intel would be picked up and delivered by Niobe after Osiris’ drop off.

While The Matrix fleshed out a story that fans already knew, the TV series Lost would take this one step forwards (or possibly backwards?) throughout the show’s six season run. Although maybe not producing as many tie-ins as other series, what was produced put a twist on traditional elements, such the ‘in-universe’ tie-in novel Bad Twin (whose ‘author’ was also on flight 815, and the manuscript to which was read on-screen by Sawyer), and merged storytelling with mere merchandising, thanks to a collection of four “Mystery of the Island” Jigsaw Puzzles that advertised “exclusive new insight into TV’s most puzzling drama series.”

Jigsaw Puzzles were an original but laboured piece of 'Lost' transmedia story-telling.
Jigsaw Puzzles were a unique, but laboured piece of ‘Lost’ transmedia story-telling.

But despite such originality in their storytelling, they gave at best only the merest hints towards any further information regarding the show’s many unanswered questions. Meta-fiction aside, the puzzles themselves were just collages of screenshots and images from the show itself, each one only showing a quarter of the completed “insights” which were not only hidden on the back of the completed puzzles, but were written in both code, and glow in the dark ink (the cypher for which was only found on the fourth puzzle). As if this weren’t confusing enough, those that solved everything would only be asked further questions by script co-ordinator Gregg Nations; “I’d have to say yes, they can be considered canon. But keep in mind who wrote those coded messages to begin with — Radzinsky and then Kelvin. What were their states of mind when creating it? And can they really be trusted?

Even worse than Bad Twin‘s duplicity however, semi-canonical storylines set on the island itself, Lost: The Video Game for example, only served to complicate ideas even further by leaving players wondering what should be separated as Lost ‘fact’ from Lost ‘fiction’. Frustrations aside however, you can’t help but admire the planning that went into such a tie-in effort, orchestrated by writers and producers of the show itself.

With the advent of serial-arc based TV drama however, a concept that even Star Trek adopted, tie-in media encountered new problems, but which were relatively easy to overcome. With such a vast universe to explore, Star Trek: New Frontier was created to boldly go where no tie-in had gone before, featuring a completely new ship and crew. A short lived series of novels also looked at how the exploration that epitomised Star Trek was conducted by Starfleet’s Klingon counterparts. Needless to say, conquering was involved.

But the main problem came when the series ended. Often tie-in media was the place to go for fans who were hungry for more, but with the number of television programs adopting story arc’s now being the vast majority, there are more than one in which the final episode concludes its story through what would be a major game change in the characters lives. With tie-in authors unable to make any significant contributions to the development of character’s audiences loved, this was often the last they ever heard from them.

Whether boosted by the example set by Lost, or by their own enthusiasm as fans, producers of cult shows have begun to take transmedia storytelling more and more seriously, and continue to tell their stories themselves, after the shows have been cancelled. Something which comic publishers have been keen to capitalise on, releasing stories that not just continue a TV show’s narrative, but do so to the point where they are considered canonical, and even released in mini-series corresponding to the original show’s seasons. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight is an early example of this, and it has just been announced that The X Files will be the latest, with “Season 10” due to be published over a decade since “Season 9” was broadcast. Obviously great news for fans of cult franchises whose cast and crew could not be reunited, but more importantly, those that studio executives are no longer willing to risk money on.

But in the current climate of “Brand Recognition” (the idea that particularly in a recession, audiences are less likely to take risks with unknowns, and spend their money more on franchises they already know), this also comes at a price. As Buffy was a popular money maker throughout it’s seven season run, I’m sure Fox have no problem in allowing Dark Horse to license it’s intellectual property for as long as the royalties will keep on coming in.

Firefly on the other hand, also written and produced by Whedon, is a series that Fox doesn’t generally like or understand, and so was cancelled during it’s first and only season. Unable to establish the widespread fanbase it deserves, what the show lacks in quantity of fans it more than makes up for in quality, and with only fourteen episodes and one feature film produced, they are always eager for more. Joss Whedon’s time management aside, surely I’m not the only one who considers Fox’s dismissal and consequentially the the series’ lack of money making ability to be an important factor in it’s lack of comic production, a mere fraction of the titles set in the already heavily established ‘Buffyverse’.

The slayers' Scythe appeared in 'Fray' before 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'
The slayers’ Scythe appeared in the comic ‘Fray’ before ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’.

Although transmedia has gained popularity and acclaim throughout it’s lifetime, I can think of only one instance in which a piece of tie-in fiction has influenced the TV show which had born it. When writing a comicbook mini-series, Whedon (I know I keep mentioning him, but do so not through choice, but simply due to the prolific and various natures of his work) assumed people would only want more slayers from him, and so obliged accordingly.

Even when considering this is just a very brief overview of its history, it is no wonder that tie-in media is increasingly now referred to as ‘transmedia’ storytelling. These new stories are no longer being written to tie-in with bigger storylines, they now often are the bigger storylines.

Before commenting on the current emerging trends of where it is taking us next, it is important to remember that new developments of transmedia do not always mean the end of the traditional, which are still important in their own right. Whilst Star Trek‘s on-screen adventures may have returned to an alternative view of Kirk & co, with the films writers and producers involved with the parallel and prequel comic series, brand new adventures of Picard, Sisko, and Archer (not so much Janeway) are still recalled through a plethora of novels. Novels which do not just keep characters alive, but which allow newer and previously unpublished writers to be read.

Una McCormack for example, has gone from writing internet fan-fiction, to pretty much holding the fate of Cardassia itself in her hands. More than just Hollow Men and The Never-Ending Sacrifice being two of the best Star Trek novels I have read (and I’ve read more than a few) writing tie-in fiction has given a writer the opportunity to not only contribute to series she loves (she has also written books for Doctor Who), but this has also lead to her own original fiction being publisd as well.

But just as with all evolutions, it seems the tree of transmedia is again spliting into two separate branches. Whereas previous divergences occured from prose to comic to audio however, this one is at the heart of on-screen media itself.

One thing it seems, is that with a rise of adaptations and series such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, transmedia has come full circle. Whereas tie-in material published through books were previously used to supplement on-screen adventures, now it seems that what we see on screens, is more and more filing in the gaps and producing it’s own additional narratives to supplement books and comics. Somehow creating three longer than average movies from a single children’s paperback, The Hobbit immediately springs to mind.

The Avengers Assembled. Six movies that form only "Phase One" of the 'Marvel Cinematic Universe'.
The Avengers Assembled. Six movies that form only “Phase One” of the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’.

More than this however, is the new tradition that has developed in which feature films now seem to be produced at a rate to rival TV episodes, something seen particularly with the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is well worth noting here, as what is being described as “Phase Two”, the continuation of films that culminated in Joss Whedon’s (told you, prolific) recent blockbuster The Avengers (Assemble), will constitute not just Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World et al, but also a S.H.I.E.L.D. Television series.

While it remains to be seen exactly how much this new series will link in with the films, with the inclusion of Agent Coulson who was seen dying in The Avengers (Assemble), filling in the backstory of how the S.H.I.E.L.D. organistation was created cannot be ruled out.

But regardless of the stories the TV series will tell, it seems that where TV has traditionally been the primary narrative with tie-in stories from ‘lesser’ media supplementing them, the twentyteens have not just followed Star Wars’ lead and promoted the primary narrative to cinematic heights, but with S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside The Clone Wars, promoted the supplementary stories to the ‘lesser’ medium of Television.

Although these phases of transmedia are still emerging, it is interesting to speculate who will take them up, and where they might go with them. Not forgetting of course, in the years to come, what other changes might come next…