Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series: Devil's Bargain

A new world, the return of a race from the TV series and the Enterprise  placed on a frantic mission to save a world from destruction. Welcome to the latest novel from Tony Daniel and Simon and Schuster.

Having re-educated myself with David Mack's Cold Equations trilogy and the Next Generation universe, Tony Daniel would provide my first taster of The Original Series in book form for some time. Oh - and beware, there may be SPOILERS!

Set during three and a half years into the USS Enterprise's five year mission under the command of Captain Kirk, we find the crew and ship called to the world of Vesbius to evacuate the population before an immense meteor collides with their planet and lays everything waste. Trouble is that they aren't that willing to leave for reasons which become clear and it's up to Kirk, Spock and the crew to come up with a solution that will remove the necessity to relocate the Vesbians.

This is a TOS adventure by numbers and fits perfectly with the scenarios we're familiar with from the classic TV series. On more than one occasion the crew had to deal with the classic "meteor impact" drama, naming "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" and "The Paradise Syndrome" I had very mixed feelings because of what seemed to be a retread of past adventures but I pressed on. For the first 60 pages I found it quite difficult to get into. The usual suspects are all there and to give Tony Daniel his dues, his representations of the original series crew are fairly good but their relationships seem more akin to the films than the original TV series. In the early scenes on the Enterprise bridge there is an extremely relaxed atmosphere and asides made by Chekov that would not have been out of place in Star Trek VI. McCoy is extra crotchety and Mr Scott is more often than not simply referred to as "Scotty" which seems way too informal at this time. It is as though Daniel is bedding himself in before tackling the meat of the story.

That initial 60 page section feels very much like set up. We have the introduction of the guest cast and the peril their world is facing. We are presented with Trek standards here; a government figure (Chancellor Faber), Kirk-attracted woman/chancellor's daughter (Hannah) and cynical/slightly shadowy figure with no  doubt secrets to tell (Major Merling). In a sense Daniel has absolutely captured the feel of those original episodes just in that arrangement of people and I'm sure you can come up with at least three examples where this happened. The additional spin in Devil's Bargain is racism which is experienced initially by Spock from Merling and is coupled with the activities of the Exos terrorist group who are active on the planet. Their role within the larger arc has mixed literary results but we'll come to that in a bit. While Kirk in particular makes himself at home on Vesbius, we learn about their world and the troubles they are facing from both internal and external forces.

It is when we discover a potential solution that Devil's Bargain steps up a gear and, ironically, sends us away from the very world the Enterprise is attempting to save. The solution it has to be said is unique and I have to applaud Daniel as it becomes clearer here that while we get original series staples in the characters and, to a degree, the situations, he has gone that slight step further so we're not expecting more of the same. The reintroduction of a much loved being from the original series is definitely what makes Devil's Bargain different from the other "meteor-danger" stories from the TV series. No - I'm not going to say because it is a welcome arrival to the book when they do appear and that's part of the enjoyment.

The shame of the matter is that while this is a brilliant concept they are quite limited and I'm also not entirely at home with how their civilisation is described or naming process explained.  From their original appearance it seems that this creature has been softened a little too much and lost some of its appeal It's a personal feeling more than anything but one I became acutely aware of throughout the novel.

The release of Daniel's novel couldn't have come at a better time though as it deals with a Trek stalwart theme in the form of genetic engineering. Cue copious amounts of Khan Noonien Singh references and associations from beginning to end. Given the hankering for the possibility that Khan is part of Star Trek into Darkness, Daniel has timed it's release almost to month on month perfection. 

You're probably starting to get the feeling this isn't a TOS novel that pushed my buttons if you'll pardon the expression and admittedly you're right to some degree but it's not all doom and gloom! When we get further into the book the characters of Kirk and Spock are brilliantly written and at times my mind had slipped into 'Shatner' mode. Spock is dealt with very well and proves a vital conduit to allow communication with Vesbius' saviours. Spock, perhaps with his relationship to the "special guest star" achieves the most visibility within Devil's Bargain but while there are many twists and turns within his story, there can be no doubt where he will end up at the end of the story. What we can look for and I suspect Daniel realised this, is "how" Spock deals with situations and how he will end up at the inevitable point at the conclusion of the book. For future writers of The Original Series novels I would recommend that their writings should focus on that "how" element because there can be no doubt who will survive - after all, he's not wearing red. 

Sadly none of the other cast receive quite so much depth even though Mr Scott and McCoy do manage decent levels of page space.There are certainly some great incidents which mean  Sulu and Chekhov also get in on the action and the former even has to confront some of the racist jibes that Spock faces early on once again from Merling who seems to uniquely display this action thoughout.

Biggest gripe here? Kirk and Hannah Faber, the daughter of Vesbius' governor. Too much and much too soon. Within minutes of meeting they are locked into a deep and meaningful relationship which I find difficult to swallow as Kirk's one true love is, of course, the Enterprise. His previous marriage to Miramanee is mentioned but it not only reminds us that Kirk was at that time "Kirok" due to memory loss and that her world was also under threat from a meteor. The description of some of their encounters also seemed a little over-detailed as one of the strengths of TOS was the hint of what might have occurred and not showing/describing what did. This subtlety is lost within the relationship that develops and Hannah as a character holds no resonance for me as a reader.

While we regard Kirk as a bit of a ladies man this makes him out to be a bit of a pervert and bed jumper which will not appease long time Trek fans. Considering that, the way their love develops to the conclusion of the book seems a little cut and dry. We know that Kirk will always choose his career over a relationship so why even bother building it up when readers will potentially not believe his motivations from the start. Sadly for Hannah this dilutes her role as a senior figure within the Vesbian society and makes her incredibly two dimensional and not much more than Kirk's conquest. What does bug me is that while I can grumble about this book for a good while I still enjoyed it but would definitely not term it as an essential page turner. 

I did find it interesting but every time I want to offer praise I get drawn towards something that knocks it back again. The climax and revelations we would hunger for just don't deliver here even with our "special guest star" whom the Enterprise is dispatched to collect. The terrorist group who plague the opening sections on Vesbius are dealt with very easily and I'm actually surprised in some instances that it takes as long as it does to work out who they are.Indeed, one of the figures at the end is barely seen for the duration before he is revealed as key to  a larger part of Vesbius' story.

Pacing was another problem I just couldn't get to grips with here. It all seemed to be over too soon and with very little fuss, even down to the Kirk/Hannah relationship. With a few more pages we could have seen the finale evolve with a little more drama than I think is provided here. While not the greatest of Star Trek novels it was a pleasant diversion and, if nothing else, demonstrated that Daniel is very at home with the formula that made TOS work. If you're looking for something to fill a good few evenings and allow some reminiscing over Kirk and crew in their early days then I would say Devil's Bargain would prove an ideal candidate.

Star Trek: The Original Series: "Devil's Bargain" is available from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99; ISBN 9781476700472

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