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Alternate History in Star Trek Part 25: Early Voyager spinoffs

By Tom Anderson

Last time on this article series, I discussed how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) spinoff novels and comics in the mid-1990s struggled to cope with the fact that (a) the series’ focus was shifting to wider ‘geopolitics’, and (b) that that geopolitics was in a constant state of flux, with yesterday’s friends becoming tomorrow’s enemies and so on. (Since writing the article I have read the Captain’s Table DS9 book “The Mist”, which is a prime offender, inserting big geopolitical confrontations that don’t make sense and had to be hastily relegated to a flashback). And now, the conclu – I mean, in this article I’ll compare this to the early Star Trek: Voyager (VGR) noncanon spinoffs in the same era, from the show’s start in 1995 to the end of season 4 in 1998.

VGR writers could have the best of both worlds; the showrunners’ timidity when it came to changing the status quo meant that they could usually rely on character relationships and so on not becoming obsolete (mostly), while the ship’s progress through space on her way home provided ample excuse for inventing planets and races of the week which we’ll never see again. (Of course, TOS and especially TNG writers had always done this, but never mind).

Generally speaking, VGR had less spinoff content produced than TNG or even DS9. Timing was doubtless part of this, with a sense of tiredness of saturation, and the state of the comics and novels markets. There are other reasons why VGR failed to have the impact it might have, some of which are gone into in David A. McIntee’s excellent ‘Unofficial Guide’ to the series, “Delta Quadrant”, in which he explains US-specific factors – such as the obscure Paramount network on which VGR showed in the US – from a British perspective. And, of course, there is the general criticism of the show not living up to its concept which we already discussed in past articles. Regardless of the reasons, there are fewer comics and novels to discuss over a comparable time period. One exception to this is in the world of videogames, which we’ll look at separately and later, in which VGR did make a substantial impact.

Let’s start with comics. Appropriately enough for the first Star Trek series with a female captain as protagonist, the very first VGR comics (debuting in 1996, a little more than a year after the show itself) were written by a female comic writer, Laurie S. Sutton, who had previously contributed DS9 comic material (and TOS under a pen name) as well as editing at both Marvel and DC (she now writes children’s books). Published by Marvel Comics, these were the first of a line which ran for just 15 issues plus a miniseries. Sutton’s first story is a three-parter, “The Storm”/”Under Ion Skies”/”Repercussions”. Voyager rescues some Talaxians from a disastrous situation, only to find that (plot twist) the Talaxians were sent by the Trabe (remember them? The showrunners didn’t) to steal Voyager’s technology. (Well, makes a change from the Kazon). Also there are several scenes set on the holodeck which feel like they’ll tie into the plot, but don’t. Props for featuring an ion storm without dragging the bloody Mirror Universe into it, though.

This is followed by a two-part story “Homeostasis” by veteran Trek comic and novel writer Howard Weinstein. Voyager’s phasers are failing and need duranium to fix them, so the crew go to a colony planet of a race called the Cambrog to find some – but have to warn off Kazon attacks without revealing that the phasers are not working properly. They also have to solve the mystery of a plague on the planet. Weinstein has a good handle on early VGR tropes and executes them better than the series often does itself, even throwing in a landing on the planet.

A three-part storyline by Ben Raab then follows, “Relicquest”. It begins with Paris and Kim starting a fight in the mess hall – while the idea of the crew going stir crazy over supplies running short feels realistic and something little done in the show itself, Paris and Kim’s characterisation feels off. Chakotay finally finds a class-M planet to resupply on, but Neelix warns that this area of space was devastated by ‘The Order’ centuries ago with a psychic superweapon. Janeway decides to investigate regardless and has an argument with Chakotay, who accuses her of trying to do too much herself to set an example. (While this also feels off from the show, in this case it’s in a good way – Neelix actually being useful and more realistic conflict between Janeway and Chakotay). On travelling to the planet, a mysterious figure named Bonai offers to help Voyager get home in return for help finding a powerful artefact (no prizes for guessing what). He has already recruited a Vidiian, Kazon and Trabe, illustrating the small pool of references the spinoff writers were working with at this time. Points for awesome LCARS console-looking recap text boxes, though. Anyway, Janeway struggles to keep this fractious alliance together and they eventually find the artefact, but despite warnings two of the other recruits leap for it and end up accidentally destroying their own ships. Bonai claims it was all a game to decide who was worthy to join ‘The Order’ and tells an appalled Janeway he’ll see them again. (Spoilers: he won’t, because the comic line was cancelled before he could).

One can see certain themes running through these comics – they are typically quite well researched and depict Voyager itself accurately (whereas the early TNG comics, for example, sometimes struggled to do so to the Enterprise-D) while also often doing more with the characters and setting than the show itself did. However, they would not have opportunity to do so for long. The series continues with the one-shot “Dead Zone” by Dan Abnett (of Warhammer 40K fame) and Ian Edgington, which is about the ship being trapped in the titular dead zone draining power, while bandits attack in chemical-fuelled rocket ships (like the ones we have today) and B’Elanna fights them off with a bat’leth which she now has because shut up.

Laurie S. Sutton returns for the next story, “Ghosts”, whose concept deeply annoys me because I remember coming up with something similar myself around 2000 and didn’t realise it had already been done three years earlier. Voyager encounters a temporal vortex that takes it back to the Battle of Wolf 359 (the Borg had featured in the show by this point, but not sure if they had at the point it was written) and are able to rescue several escape pods containing friends and family of the crew who ‘should have’ died that day. In a heart-wrenching twist, however, they cannot return with them, being still temporally tied to ‘now’, and have to return to their destined fate. One crewman who’s a relative of a victim decides to go with them. This leads into another Sutton story, “Leviathan”, in which the crew have to rescue some aliens trapped on the surface of the titular giant ship.

Sutton also penned the next comic, which is part of the ‘Telepathy War’ crossover which will be discussed elsewhere, and co-wrote the final two-parter, “Survival of the Fittest”, with Gwen Sutton (presumably a relation, but my google-fu has failed me). This one actually comes late enough in the run (1998) to include Seven of Nine, and even rather desperately displays her on the cover, perhaps in the hope that this would forestall cancellation. If so, it was a vain hope. However, 1998 would also see a four-part miniseries as a more fitting farewell to the Marvel series, again written by Sutton and including Seven among the cast, “Splashdown”. The ship is attacked by alien drones and crashes beneath the watery surface of a planet (hence the name). There’s a hint that alien portals there could lead to a way home to Earth, but of course they’re destroyed before they can be used – though Chakotay manages to fling his commbadge through to earth with a record of Voyager’s loss. Unfortunately for him, it ends up near the Pyramids of Earth in the year 2863, where nobody notices or cares. (This feels very on brand for early VGR like “Eye of the Needle” where an interesting premise leads to a reset).

So much for the Marvel VGR comics. 2000 would see a relaunch under WildStorm, but we’ll talk about those another time. For now, let’s focus on the early novels, from the series’ launch in 1995 to the end of season 4 in May 1998. As we’ve previously discussed, under the Pocket Books regime there was usually a division between numbered novels and unnumbered ‘giant’ or ‘special’ novels. VGR decided to complicate this further by also having episode novelisations separate to either, except the first numbered book, “Caretaker” (thus following the TNG and DS9 tradition of the first numbered book novelising the pilot) is also a novelisation so appears in both lists. Confused yet? There’s also some other unnumbered ones parts of other series, and young adult books, which we’ll cover elsewhere as we haven’t looked at the latter in other series yet.

We’ll do the numbered ones first, from number 1 “Caretaker” in February 1995 (soon after the episode aired) to number 15 “Echoes” in January 1998. While there were a decent number of VGR novels early on, these fell off and often saw less attention than the established Trek series. Oddly enough, in some ways there has been more interest in writing VGR novels since the show ended.

There’s one particular oddity with VGR novels that I have to draw attention to, which we also saw to a lesser extent in the comics we’ve already discussed; the authors seemed to have a big thing for bringing scientific terminology into titles. This may reflect the fact that Janeway’s early characterisation mentioned her scientific background a lot (which intimidated her actress, Kate Mulgrew, at first due to worrying she could not convincingly portray it). However, as I’ve mentioned in my previous VGR articles, the on-screen show also represented something of a nadir in depictions of science in Star Trek, with incidents in episodes like “Parallax”, “Threshold”, “Distant Origin” and “Demon” giving the distinct impression that the showrunners had fired all the scientific script consultants. Given that the scientific titles did stick around in the novels late into the show’s run (even post-run in the case of the “String Theory” trilogy), maybe it just became wishful thinking on the part of the more science-minded spinoff writers.

Anyway, “Caretaker” (1995) was novelised by L. A. Graf. Considering how soon it came out after the episode, there isn’t anything too awful in terms of problems due to being based on early scripts – the most we can point at is characters being portrayed as meeting for the first time when we later learned they already knew each other, but the Graf writing team can’t be blamed for that. Oddly enough, early parts of “Caretaker” were actually novelised twice, as Susan Wright’s “The Badlands” books (which we’ll get to) also does it, but inserts a whole side sequence where Voyager encounters the damaged Cardassian ship which chased Chakotay’s Unnamed Ship at the start of the episode. It’s one of the weirdest examples of inserting an interstitial sequence into canon I’ve ever seen and I’ll discuss it further when we get to those books.

The first original novel is “The Escape” (1995) by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Running short on power, Voyager explores a deserted alien planet to find supplies, only for Neelix to accidentally activate a mechanism that sends the away team back in time to when the planet had a civilisation (so, good handle on characterisation early on then) and they have to get back to the future, er, present. “Ragnarok” (1995) by Nathan Archer – who also did “Valhalla” for DS9, I sense a theme – features the ship having a chance at a way home, but the crew having to fight their way through a battle between two races to attempt it. Archer had to write the book based on just the “Caretaker” script and the show bible, and complained afterwards that whoever wrote the VGR bible was far worse at character descriptions than the DS9 one, meaning he felt he did not characterise the crew appropriately when episodes started to come out. “Violations” (1995) by Susan Wright – not to be confused with the TNG episode of that title – has Voyager’s main computer core stolen and they have to retrieve it, a plot so stupid that the show did it itself later in “Concerning Flight”. Like Archer, Wright had to write without having seen the show, and stated afterwards that inconsistencies like the Doctor being called “Doc Zimmerman” were due to incorrect or outdated instructions from Paramount.

“Incident at Arbuk” (1995) by John Gregory Betancourt (whose name is misspelled on the cover, never a good sign) had a plot about Voyager keeping a superweapon out of the hands of aliens who desire it. Tuvok is incorrectly referred to as first officer at one point, and it’s unclear whether this was Betancourt’s mistake or some more inaccurate information from Paramount to authors. This was followed by “The Murdered Sun” (1996) – a great title – by Christie Golden, her solo debut as a Star Trek author after collaborating with Michael Jan Friedman on the last “Double Helix” book. Voyager finds a wormhole, but has to help a star system being pillaged by warlike aliens. In a classic misleading cover, Janeway and Paris appear on it even though Chakotay is the central character of the book. Many of these early novels try to reference ongoing events in the show, such as this one mentioning the crew’s on-screen encounter with a wormhole in “Eye of the Needle”.

“Ghost of a Chance” (1996) by Mark A. Garland and Charles G. McGraw features Janeway faced with a Prime Directive dilemma over whether to help some innocents, only or too-good-to-be-true aliens to show up and help both groups – but people are troubled with spectral visions… “Cybersong” (1996) – another great title – is the only Star Trek novel by Shariann “S. N.” Lewitt, who claims the N stands for “Nothing”. The plot is interesting but possibly a little too similar in description to the book immediately preceding it; while looking for evidence of the Caretaker’s race, the crew find a ‘ghost ship’ and have to solve the mystery of its song as it weaves a spell over the crew. Interestingly, this book has a mention of the Jem’Hadar and the Dominion – the VGR writers were always a bit vague early on whether the crew were aware of them or not given the slightly foggy timescale (DS9 had stopped giving out so many stardates at this point). Later, in the episodes “Message in a Bottle” and “Hunters” they would seem to decide that the Voyager crew were not aware of the Jem’Hadar and Dominion, so it was a shock to the Doctor to learn the Federation were at war with them (“the who?”) and for B’Elanna when hearing they had helped the Cardassians wipe out the Maquis.

The next numbered book is the fourth “Invasion!” book, which we have covered elsewhere, and I mentioned then that even by October 1996, Dafydd ab Hugh was still having oddities in his writing due to being based on early versions of VGR (implying Tom Paris was Nick Locarno, calling the ship the Voyager rather than just Voyager, etc.) This is followed by “Bless the Beasts” (1996) by Karen Haber, her only Star Trek novel, a classic plot where a paradisical planet holds a dark secret and Paris and Kim go missing. “The Garden” (1997) by Melissa Scott (who also did DS9’s “Proud Helios”) is another case of a plot being unfortunately a bit too superficially similar to its immediate predecessor, with Voyager trying to get supplies from an agricultural world only to find there’s a dark secret when they get attacked. If you think I’m making too much of this, the next novel is “Chrysalis” (1997) by David Niall Wilson, which is also about the crew looking for food supplies, finding gardens tended by aliens, and discovering there’s a dark secret. I think the series editor dropped the ball here. This is also Wilson’s only Star Trek book, and apparently (citation needed on Memory Alpha!) was written by him aboard the real-life guided missile cruiser USS Bainbridge, shortly before she was decommissioned.

The next book, “The Black Shore” (1997) is by veteran Trek author Greg Cox and features the crew seeking shore leave on a friendly planet which, you guessed it, has a dark secret. They discover this because of Kes’ psychic powers and Chakotay’s spirit guide. You can tell that even by this point the authors were more being influenced by earlier events in the show, with elements quietly minimised in the show itself still around in the novels. Christie Golden returns for “Marooned” (1997) where Kes is kidnapped and then a shuttle crashes on the way to rescue her.

“Echoes” (1997) – which I’m very surprised has not been the title of an on-screen episode of any Star Trek incarnation yet – is penned by the usual writing team of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, but for the first and only time they are joined by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. We finally reach an AH-relevant VGR story, so this one is worth more attention. Voyager finds a solar system with a space where a planet should be but no planet, but millions of people appearing out of nowhere there and dying in the vacuum of space. (Feels quite Doctor Who Revival). It transpires that this is the result of inadvisable transporter technology experiments made by the inhabitants of the vanished planet, tying in with the Delta Quadrant’s lack of transporters.

In order to solve the mystery and prevent further deaths, Janeway finds she has to work with alternate-timeline versions of herself and her crew – not just one alternate, but many. There are some comparisons to the TNG episode “Parallels” here. The writers also find a cute way to reference the plot from “Non Sequitur”, the most AH-relevant on-screen VGR episode so far, when Kim accidentally visited a TL where he stayed on Earth and his friend Danny Byrd join the Voyager crew instead. Rather than doing your standard outright-evil alternate crew or similar, Janeway just finds that every other Janeway has her own agenda and is loyal to her own crew, leading to some clashes. (The episode “Deadlock”, which had two Janeways and two Voyagers on a smaller scale, is repeatedly referenced). Critics generally regarded this as one of the better and stronger VGR novels, after so many earlier ones had been limited in scope. There’s nothing wrong with self-contained, planet-of-the-week stories (and indeed VGR’s setting is arguably ideally suited to them) but there still generally had been a lack of grandeur to those earlier books.

That takes us up to 1998 so we’ll end there, with Seven of Nine not yet having appeared in the novels but soon to get one titled after her. Aside from the numbered novels, we should also consider the unnumbered ‘Giant’ ones and (now separate) novelisations. We have already discussed the “Day of Honour” novelisation elsewhere, so the only other novelisation in this period was that of “Flashback” by Diane Carey (1996). Not a lot to say here, other than the cover artist managed to use a picture of the Enterprise-B instead of the Excelsior.

Other than those part of other series which we have already discussed, the unnumbered VGR novels published in the early period were “Mosaic” (1996) and “Pathways” (1998), both by showrunner Jeri Taylor. These are extremely unusual in the world of Star Trek novels because they were originally considered canon to the on-screen show, and at one point I even saw “Mosaic” cited in The Official Star Trek Fact Files, which was about as jarring as hearing a pastor quote from the Apocrypha mid-sermon. “Mosaic” is mostly about Janeway’s own backstory, told in flashbacks as she leads the crew through a confrontation with the Kazon in the present day. “Pathways” does the same for the other regular crew members (except the Doctor and the recently-joined Seven, as they effectively have no backstory in the same sense). These books represent a unique and unparalleled crossover in Star Trek between those conceiving the on-screen show and the written word, offering an insight that no other Star Trek novel can have. On the other hand, they were also criticised for allegedly presenting Janeway as a kind of strawman Feminist Heroine Who Is Always Right And Everyone Loves (not having read them myself, I can’t comment) which, at least in the eyes of some critics, damaged their enjoyment of the show itself with what it said about the editorial mandate.

So much for VGR spinoff material in the first half or so of the show. Despite the revival in interest in the show following the addition of Seven of Nine and some well-regarded stories, production of spinoff material began to fall off after season 4. As I said before, in some ways there has actually been more interest in VGR spinoffs since the show ended.

But if the DS9 and VGR spinoffs were beginning to lose momentum for different reasons, fan interest in TOS and TNG remained strong. More TNG novels were published in the first four years of VGR’s TV run, when new TNG was off the air (other than films) than VGR novels were! Next time we’ll look at what new TOS comic and novel material was produced in the latter half of the 1990s.



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