Friday, 15 August 2014

The Original Series: Serpents in the Garden - Kirk's Clean-up Operation

The glorious benefit of hindsight still blights us in the 23rd Century it appears in Jeff Mariotte's latest novel Serpents in the Garden. Prepare your spoiler alarm - we're heading in.

Acting as a sequel to the second season episode A Private Little War; in itself a parable about the Vietnam War being fought at the time, we are returned to Neural and face the results of Jim Kirk's interference in that planet's affairs.

Of course that time there were Klingons involved which clearly gave him justification to provide arms to the Hill People and his friend, Tyree to defend themselves against the Villagers (not known as The Village People) and again that situation is presented but with a few years added on since that encounter.

I love the idea here and for a long time I've imagined that there's some poor captain and crew who spend their entire careers just following Kirk and the Enterprise and cleaning up after them. While that's not precisely the case, we do have the promoted Admiral Kirk heading back to this world to investigate the possibility that the Klingons have expanded their presence and are further interfering with the evolution of Neural.

I'd have settled this more into a "lost era" than The Original Series just due to it's timing since Serpents in the Garden is set after the five year mission and during the USS Enterprise's refit pre-The Motion Picture. It's a time from future history I find fascinating since there's a lot of scope in that frame just as we've recently seen in the Generations to Encounter at Farpoint gap with David R George III's One Constant Star.

A Private Little War wasn't an episode I would be racing to watch however it is one I seem to have quite vivid memories of which probably helped in the reading of Mariotte's novel. It's certainly a case of Kirk seeing the aftermath of his interference but it's more about what the long term results have been across the planet. Now seemingly in a state of war, Freedom (a town established by the Hill People) is defending itself against the Villagers who now reside in Victory and are backed by the might of the Klingons.

Central to the novel is, of course, Kirk and his relationship with Tyree, the chief of Freedom and also with his attache, Rowland. The former is certainly more prominent as there is an element of reconciliation since the former starship captain killed his wife on his previous visit but this gets passed over fairly quickly. The remainder of the book tends to focus on the conflict between the two civilisations of Neural and how Kirk can prove Klingon involvement which will mean they are going against the Organian Peace Treaty.

While it's a good read and enjoyable there's no big twist or reveal within Serpents in the Garden. The plot is pretty ABC but does step up to the plate a little more once we get into the settlement of Victory later in the story however it never reaches the heights of Mariotte's 2013 entry to the catalogue, The Folded World which was one of the best novels of last year. Even the arrival of the Mugatos on a couple of occasions doesn't lift the pace of the story and there was a certain eminence that everything would be nicely tied up  by the final page. 

The character of Kirk here has nothing new either; he's on a mission with a fairly inexperienced staff member and a couple of expendables redshirts, mixing it up with the locals and getting into the occasional firefight. There's some romantic titilation but that doesn't last more than a couple of pages and is scarce more than flirting. In fact, going back to my note in the last paragraph, it is only when we see Victory that there is any sense of real peril or danger and that this isn't going to be as clean cut as might have been hoped.

Kirk's aide and Tyree don't really come alive in this novel and even when the ante is raised do you feel as though they are as integral to the story as Kirk. Tyree fairs perhaps the worst as a generic local - Apella in Victory stands out a lot more as a character although he is merely a puppet of the Klingon regime. At times he does show change as his relationship with the Klingon,  Krell evolves through the story. In my opinion this is the better pairing here since there is a sense  that Apella comes to realise the error of his ways although it's taken a considerable amount of time.  

Krell, playing the archetypal Klingon doesn't really pose the main threat to Kirk here. The admiral's opponent in the mines proves a more worthy physical adversary but the mental sparing partner you might hope for never materialises. He's the manipulative baddie lauding all over his subjects who believe they are equals rather than a slave army. Both Krell and Apella are disappointingly realised. Nothing lifts them from the page and tragically I'd forgotten the latter's name almost as soon as I'd turned the last page.
Given that Kirk provided flintlock rifles to the Hill People I didn't find him especially wracked with guilt even though he should take some responsibility for the way in which this culture has evolved. Maybe the real reason we don't get that is because neither Spock (on Vulcan) and McCoy (inactive) are present here. Is it that Mariotte is giving us the chance to see Kirk without his two moral compasses to keep him in check. They are conspicuous by their absence leaving Kirk to go about his gun-toting alone while also leading his inexperienced right-hand man into a war zone with seemingly no combat experience. Sometimes you do wonder how Jim Kirk is still an officer and not behind bars for these actions.

The only other lip service we do get is from the inclusion of Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov who are busy helping to refit the Enterprise under the direction of Captain Willard Decker. Their involvement does make up the numbers and ticks the "must see the Enterprise" box but their actions within Serpents in the Garden are fairly limited with Scotty getting the most to say. While I understand why and how they get involved it really makes very little impact to the rest of the story which is set on Neural. Worse still I felt that they got in the way a bit and were a bit too interested in activities well outside their remit. While they deem to care about Kirk's well-being I'm not convinced they would make themselves a nuisance around HQ. Their appearance did feel shoehorned more for a name check than anything else and if we could get away with not mentioning the good doctor and our favourite Vulcan then was there a need?

Mariotte has provided a good entertaining read here and I did feel that while the build up at times was slow and padded, the ending was over and done quickly but with no real resolution. It was very much like a classic episode and you have to wonder what poor sod is going to have to go back and sweep up the mess that Kirk leaves behind once more.

As a time filler this was a good little read but One Constant Star which we reviewed a few weeks ago was much better in virtually all aspects as was Mariotte's last effort. Yes, he's a good writer but nothing really happens here and the plot winds around several minor incidents before we see any results. Having to keep his real origins secret does (intentionally?) hinder the pace since it's all about preserving the Prime Directive from Starfleet's perspective while the Klingons demonstrate a disregard for the natural development curve. 

There's some nice touches and references back to the classic second series episode (got to love an angry Mugato or two); the title in itself does mean you're wondering just who the serpents are by the conclusion and even now I'm not convinced that it's quite as clear-cut and I'm sure readers will have their opinions once they've experienced the two sides. However that little twist doesn't make up for the whole and unless you're hardcore Kirk without the other two parts of the Trek Triumvirate I'd hold off for Seekers....

Serpents in the Garden is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99 ISBN 9781476749655

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