Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Imzadi review

One of the greatest disappointments of The Next Generation is that poor use of Troi and Riker’s romantic past. It was made quite clear in the very first episode that they had a romantic relationship in the past and while that wasn’t something that needed to be immediately defined in the show, it could have led to some very interesting stories. Instead, it’s mostly ignored for the duration of the series only to be picked up again in the movies and neatly wrapped up, without really developing the characters or their relationship. I was pleased to discover that there exists a novel that expands on this relationship, mostly but focusing on Riker and Troi’s past. I was doubly pleased that it’s written by Peter David, one of my favourite Star Trek writers.

The great thing about Star Trek and many other heavily detailed and expansive fictional universes or settings is that overtime the fictional world develops to such a degree that it can then be used to tell any kind of story at all. Similarly to how literary fiction has dabbled in other genres to tell specific stories, franchises have and continue to do the same. Two Star Wars books come to mind as good examples of what I’m trying to say: Death Troopers (horror), Kenobi (western). For most of Star Trek’s best episodes and stories (films, books, comics) the main idea is one about travel into the unknown and discovery of unusual cultures and the adventures that the characters have had are used in a way to shed light on our own behaviour. As such, Star Trek can and has been used effectively as a way to hold up a mirror on contemporary matters and provide a catalyst for reflection and thought on complicated issues. It’s often done in combination with action and adventure stories.

While the TV series have focused a lot of adventure the media tie-in novels have spends a great deal of time following up on Starfleet’s initial encounters with civilization or strange inhabitants of the universe. The novels are also particularly interesting for providing us with additional information on people and events taking place before and after a particular series or movie.

Which bring us to Imzadi. As I’ve come to expect from David, his novels effortlessly balance big ideas, strong characterization and humour. The results have always been good (at least on the novels he’s written solo). In that respect Imzadi is par for the course but it does have more problems with it than I initially expected. My expectations are the result of the commentary I’ve read online, claiming Imzadi as David’s best TNG novel. The rest of it was made up by my personal thoughts on the relationship between Riker and Troi. I simply expected something a little bit longer and more involved than what David writes.  

Imzadi begins with a rather dark introduction set in the future, about 40 years after the end of TNG. The sense of adventure and hopeful energy that is characteristic of many television episodes is gone. When Commodore Data spends as much time thinking about the past than he does thinking about the present and the future, it’s telling. He’s been characterized as incredibly curious and while he still shows some of that curiosity in the book’s first chapter, he’s also preoccupied with the past. You get to see his future self contrasting with his TNG-era self later in the novel when two time periods collide. It could be that his curiosity has shifted towards deeper understanding of existing knowledge as opposed to discovery but I think it suggests the overall feeling of the United Earth’s Federation at the time the story of Imzadi begins.

The first few chapters also introduce us to an older William Riker, now an Admiral. He no longer cares about his duty to Starfleet or his career. He feels as though he’s peaked (and he has) and as the commander of Starbase 86 he’s coasting until the end of his days. It takes an element of the past to rouse him into action and even that isn’t much of a rousing, initially. David introduces another character from TNG who eventually starts a fire in Riker who then takes it upon himself to bring his eternal love back to life by using the Guardian of Forever and changing the past.

David uses the novel to bring the reader to the very beginning of Riker and Troi’s relationship. He spends about half the novel developing their romance which has only been hinted at in the show. This is where David fails, in my opinion. There are several things about Riker and Troi’s relationship that I don’t like. For starters, they both seem to be competing with each other. I don’t get the sense that Troi likes Riker for who he is. Instead, she immediately tries to change him. As for Riker, he tries to pretend he doesn’t have the personality that Troi says he has (even though her analysis of him is spot on). They eventually come to love each other but only after Riker rescues Troi from and intergalactic art thieves who kidnapped her. The most frustrating part isn’t that Troi is the damsel in distress; it’s that everything feels forced. David’s humour also gets in the way of their romance and it doesn’t work nearly as well as I would have hoped. I can’t help feeling that Troi only likes Riker because she believes they’re imzadi which is a Betazed version of soulmates. She feels connected to Riker and he to her but because it happened during sex, it comes off as them simply having incredible sex in the middle of the jungle. It’s a type of romance, sure, but not what I was expecting.

Despite all of these problems, David continues to prove that he has a knack for writing the characters of TNG. He understands them and their mannerisms shine through on the page. Data (present and future versions), Picard, Riker (past, present and future versions) and Troi (past, present and future versions) are all spot on. I might not have liked the romance chapters but all the characters from the TV series stay true to how they’re portrayed on television. It’s likely because of his firm grasp of these characters that he created such believable versions of their younger and future selves. That leads right into the highlight of this book which is the excellent time travel adventure. David sets it up beautifully and it pays of expertly in the final few chapters.

I also really like how his use of the Guardian of Forever and the TOS episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”. I really like it when Star Trek novels elaborate on the implication of discoveries the Enterprise and her crew made in an episode. David does that here with the Guardian where we learn that a there is a crew living on the planet who job it is to observe and record the Guardian. They study it, record what it says and try to live with the negative psychological influence it has on them. While it might be fun and exciting (as well as dangerous, let’s admit) to make all these discoveries it can be significantly less exciting and equally dangerous to have to deal with those discoveries. Studying the Guardian is described as a thankless task. It’s difficult and there is seemingly little pay off. This somewhat bleak look at Starfleet is important and while not all the novels share this view of Star Trek I’m glad that there are some as it shows an important facet of the franchise and it serves to add quite a bit of depth to the series as there were a lot of TV episodes that lived in a vacuum. This sense of continuity, not in the sense of minute details studied by Trekkie trivia buffs, but in the sense that stories depicted in past episodes are either remembered or continue to progress one the Enterprise and its crew have flown away, is a highlight of the Star Trek novels.
I’d like to talk about more details but I fear that doing so would ruin the novel. I had a great time reading about the different time periods and following the narrative while it weaved between past, present and future. It’s an impressive feat that David combined so many elements that make Star Trek good, considering those elements rarely work so well together. As I said above, the weakest part of this book was the chapters focusing on Riker and Troi’s first few weeks together and it does affect the rest of the narrative. If you can’t believe in their love you can’t believe in Riker’s actions and the important of Troi to his life and (though it’s never shown from her point of view) Riker’s importance to Troi. Imzadi isn’t David’s best Star Trek novel but it is very enjoyable. The breadth and scope of the story is impressive even though he doesn’t quite pull it off as expertly as I would have hoped. There are still numerous reasons to read this book. If you’ve a fan of David’s writing, curious about Riker and Troi’s relationship, enjoy a time travel story, would like to see a TNG version (though reverse version) of “The City on the Edge of Forever”, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book. As long as you don’t expect too much from the book’s romance chapters you’re guaranteed to have a good time.

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