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Alternate History in Star Trek Part 8: Early TNG Comics and Novels

By Tom Anderson

In my last article, I noted that the period 1987-1991 saw a great deal of spinoff content produced starring the original Star Trek cast and setting (referred to as The Original Series or TOS), and that this may have been motivated by fans who preferred it to the newfangled series The Next Generation (TNG). Having said that, there were also many comics and novels produced starring the TNG cast and setting. I use the term ‘setting’ because, at this point, the connections between the two eras were tenuous. They were clearly connected - TNG featured a cameo from an aged McCoy in the pilot episode and mentioned the original Enterprise’s adventures soon afterwards, and interestingly demoted the Excelsior prototype super-ship from the TOS films to an ubiquitous older workhorse craft – but matters like timescale and how the background of the setting had changed were kept vague. Until the later advent of Deep Space Nine (DS9), Star Trek focused on following our heroes out in space, so ‘worldbuilding’ about the Federation itself was necessarily limited. Indeed, it was the earlier TOS novels and other spinoff media that first showed there was more of an appetite for developing this, which began to manifest in the ‘soap opera’ elements of mid-to-late TNG.

For now, though, let’s focus on the early TNG spinoff media. Due to the tenuous-connection factor I just described, and the earliest works often being based on vague information about the TV series, they often display a fascinatingly different take on TNG to what we think of it as today. For the same reason, there is not a great deal of time travel or alternate history related content in those early works; despite the seemingly obvious point that we now had two eras we could travel between, Roddenberry’s desire for TNG to stand on its own feet effectively embargoed such crossovers for years. As a result, writers were more keen to use the TNG setting and characters themselves, which is no bad thing.

The first TNG comics were produced by DC, which was still producing the TOS comics. Initially, a six-issue miniseries written by Michael Carlin was produced, debuting in early 1988 when the series was still new. This would later be released as a compilation entitled “Beginnings”, and it is through this means that I am personally familiar with these comics (rather than reporting at second hand as I do for some of them). Due to the lack of much information available to Carlin and the artists at the time, TNG visual effects supervisor Michael Okuda was concerned that the comics might end up looking way off, so he sent them examples of the iconic ‘Okudagram’ ship displays he had designed. To his surprise and pleasure, DC not only used them for references, but even stuck them on the front cover of the first issue, “Where No One Has Gone Before” (no connection with the episode of that title)!

Clearly enthusiastic for getting the representation right, the Carlin comics have remarkably few cases of being off-model, considering how early they debuted. There are still quite a few oddities, but more reflective of the early-installment-weirdness of Season 1 TNG itself rather than being mistakes as such. The overarching story of the miniseries is that the Enterprise has been assigned to search for the mysterious lost planet Faltos, but not without other adventures on the way there. The aforementioned first issue uses a plot which feels like it is from TOS, if not from even older science fiction like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers; crew members have to fight deadly opponents on a planet, only to discover it is a ‘game’ and their opponents are children who look like adults – when the adults show up, turns out they age backwards. (Surprisingly, this hoary old idea only appeared on-screen in Star Trek in Voyager, years later). During this story, we get an example of early TNG oddness; rather than being emotionless, Data feels uncontrollable emotions from his ‘adrenal fluids’, to the point that he actively enjoys being shot at (much to Geordi’s discomfort).

The second story, “Spirit in the Sky”, is even weirder; a Christmas story, we get a party on the holodeck in which everyone is dressed in very William Ware Theiss fetish clothes (nobody bring up the Mirror Universe) and an unknown alien race, the Creeg, are searching for a mysterious energy spirit. Turns out said spirit is Father Christmas/Santa Claus and the Creeg all look like the Grinch. Yes, really. Linkara of “Atop the Fourth Wall” reviewed this one entirely in rhyme. Me, I was just confused at the time, as I’d never heard of the Grinch or almost any of Dr Seuss’ works, but never mind.

Then begins an arc within the miniseries, as Q shows up and tries to manipulate Picard into firing on an ‘enemy’ ship which turns out to be crewed by humans. The following events are close enough to the later episode “Déjà Q” that I wonder if the latter took inspiration; the rest of the Q Continuum arrive and take away Q’s powers for his crimes against the crew. Picard decides to test this by punching him in the face, adding “I’ve been dying to do that ever since I met you.” (This amusingly contrasts with the later canon DS9 episode “Q-Less”, in which Sisko does the same and Q says in shock “You hit me! Picard never hit me!”) Q eventually gets his powers back when he does a good deed by sacrificing his mortal life to save others – which, again, is the plot of “Déjà Q”. In the course of this, Tasha Yar confronts her dark past when one of her past tormentors on her hellish home planet Turkana IV, Reglech d’Pru (who is implied to have sexually abused her, in a rather graphic flashback scene) arrives – but she is no longer that frightened youth, and beats him. It feels incongruous now to see Tasha Yar taking centre stage (whereas Worf, for instance, fades into the background) and illustrates that these comics preserve a time capsule of different directions TNG could have taken.

After the restored Q leaves, the final issue “Here Today” sees the crew finally find Faltos, only to be trapped there and be forced to figure out how to escape, using knowledge from Dr Soong trapped in Data’s positronic brain. The plot is similar to the TAS episode “The Time Trap”, right down to Faltos being populated by former enemies who have been forced to put their differences aside, including Bele from the TOS episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. (Hilariously, the artists accidentally flipped his black/white skin the ‘wrong’ way around – one can only imagine what he would have thought to that!)

The comics miniseries was successful enough that it returned for a regular run from 1989 to 1996, outlasting TNG itself. The primary writer for this run was Michael Jan Friedman who, as I mentioned in the last article, also became a writer of both TOS and especially TNG novels. I am less familiar with (most of) his TNG comics, so will just briefly mention a few examples. “The Impostor” / “Whoever Fights Monsters” (issues 11-12) feature the Enterprise having to clear their name when a duplicate ship attacks others in their name – a plot that would, much later, be used in Voyager.

Issues 20-24 are a five-part series called “The Star Lost”, which I have read, as the compilation was in my school library. Half the command crew are lost in a seeming shuttle accident, but have actually been transported across the galaxy. At their destination, others who have fallen into the same trap have cobbled together their ships into a space station; once again, similarly to “The Time Trap”, they have forged unusual alliances to survive. However, unlike that story, they are split into two warring factions. Notably, as the Klingons there arrived before they made peace with the Federation, they are still seen as hostile by the Federation people in the other faction – much to Worf’s discomfiture, especially when the local Klingons react to his Starfleet uniform. With the shuttlecraft, the lost Enterprise crewers can help board an alien ship whose advanced warp drive has survived the transition, even though their crew did not. Fortunately, as otherwise this would go on as long as Voyager, the advanced drive gets them home pretty fast – except ‘home’ is right next to the Klingon homeworld and the communications have burned out as the power core starts to overload – oh dear. By coincidence, the Enterprise (which has been busy having its own plots involving evacuating a water world) is sent to help the Klingons fight off this ‘new alien threat’, and disaster is averted.

I like this story because it lets you play with AH tropes without actually doing AH – the idea of an isolated area where the usual rules of alliances among familiar races are different, which is arguably more interesting than Voyager’s use of new races altogether. I was heavily influenced by this idea in a plot point in my novel Well Met By Starlight. Also, the fact it goes on for a few issues helps the idea that the crewers are dead really sink in, and shows how Picard and the others react, more so than a single TV episode could. And Wesley Crusher gets an unexpected kiss scene which genuinely shocked me when I first read this as a kid. Actually, the most unexpected characters getting romances is a bit of a running theme with the comics – besides Sulu being in a love triangle in the TOS comics, Geordi also gets a plot involving a past lover in some of the Michael Jan Friedman comics.

“The Star Lost” storyline was followed by probably the most dubious revival of any concept or character from TNG, “The Return of Okona” – Okona being an exercise in ‘what if we tried to do Han Solo in Star Trek, but he never actually does any Han Solo stuff, we just talk about him doing it?’ Something bizarre, but at least more interesting, is a series beginning with “The Way of the Warrior”, where Q randomly decides to transform the entire crew into Klingons. As well as developing original characters (as the TOS comics had) the series continues to revive the most unexpected one-off characters from the show, such as Ardra from “Devil’s Due”.

I will leave the Michael Jan Friedman comics here, as we have already overshot our cutoff point of 1991, and instead turn to the TNG Pocket Books novels. There are a confusing array of these, including unnumbered ‘Giant’ novels and a Young Adult series, but as these mostly didn’t start till after 1991, I’ll focus only on the standard, numbered paperbacks for now.

The first ever TNG novel was “Ghost Ship” (1988) penned by one of my favourite TOS authors, Diane Carey. Carey really managed to shoot herself in the foot with her choice of plot: it involves the crew being terrorised by an energy being that previously absorbed the souls of the crew of an aircraft carrier back on Earth. A Soviet aircraft carrier…an event that’s said to have happened in the year 1995. I blame Khan Noonien Singh. Anyway, she wrote it before the pilot even premiered, so there’s all sorts of early oddities, such as Riker being called ‘Bill’ rather than ‘Will’ and Data using contractions.

Other existing TOS authors contributed the following books, such as “The Peacekeepers” (1988) by Gene DeWeese and “The Children of Hamlin” (1988) by Carmen Carter. “Survivors” (1989) by Jean Lorrah is another early-series peculiarity, with Tasha Yar as the main protagonist. “Strike Zone” (1989) by Peter David represents the latter, initially a comics writer, venturing into the TNG era; he would become known for bringing some of the wackier TOS concepts into TNG in a way that other writers would rather ignore. As is common with other Trek writers, David would typically introduce new races in one book and then continue to reference them in later ones, which (if popular enough) would then also be used by other authors. For some popular spinoff races, it can actively be disorienting when one remembers that they’re not canon and never actually appear on screen. For example, in the aforementioned “Strike Zone”, David introduces the Selelvians, nicknamed ‘Elves’ and with a similar glamour-like ability to influence others, ‘the Knack’.

These books are followed by “Power Hungry” (1989) by Howard Weinstein, “Masks” (1989) – no connection with the later episode of that title – by John Vornholt, and “The Captains’ Honour” (1989) by David and Daniel Dvorkin, the former NASA worker and author now having been joined by his son as co-author. The plot of the latter book shows that Peter David was not the only one who liked reviving TOS concepts; it involves Picard having a fractious relationship with a fellow Starfleet captain and ship as they face a common threat, but the twist is that the ship, the USS Centurion, recruits entirely from that planet with a surviving Roman Empire that Kirk discovered in the TOS episode “Bread and Circuses”. That’s wonderfully mad, in contrast to the usual TNG-writer attitude of trying to quietly brush over the wilder TOS ideas. The same general notion would crop up again and again in the novels, with varying levels of success.

Michael Jan Friedman, too, made the jump from comics to TNG novels with “A Call to Darkness” (1989), another one using the concept of a world where war is a game, like the Carlin comic mentioned above. Peter David returned with “A Rock and a Hard Place” (1990), one of his most memorable early novels. Riker has to go and help some terraformers (leading to an intrigue-laden side plot) while he is temporarily replaced by an officer named Quintin Stone – whose irritable, almost inhuman manner, and flagrant disregard for regulations is repeatedly forgiven due to the results he achieves. He is rumoured to be a ‘space case’, which was the working title for the book. The character of Stone was effectively David’s prototype for his later protagonist character, Mackenzie Calhoun, a similar maverick (whose response to the Kobayashi Maru scenario was to blow up the ship he was supposed to rescue).

“Gulliver’s Fugitives” (1990) by Keith Sharee does not involve TOS concepts, but nonetheless feels like it could have been a TOS (or Doctor Who, or Twilight Zone) episode – it is set around a planet where any kind of fiction is banned and treated as contraband. This was followed by “Doomsday World” (1990), an unusual collaboration between many established Trek authors – Carmen Carter, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman and newcomer Robert Greenberger. (The later TOS novel “The Disinherited” would do something similar). This was made to work by having each author cover a different character viewpoint. It’s also worth mentioning that “Doomsday World” is an example of the classic Trek trope (both on and off screen) of bringing up an alien race who are clearly important enough that it’s a big deal if the Federation goes to war with them etc. yet are never mentioned before or since – in this case, the K’Vin Hegemony.

“The Eyes of the Beholders” (1990) saw existing TOS author A. C. Crispin join the TNG stable; it is noteworthy because it develops the backstory of minor Vulcan character Dr Selar – albeit in a way that was then contradicted by later books by Peter David, an occupational hazard in the Trek spinoff ‘continuity’ (or lack thereof). The following books are “Exiles” (1990) by Howard Weinstein and “Fortune’s Light” (1991) by Michael Jan Friedman. “Contamination” (1991) by John Vornholt is a murder mystery with Worf as the detective. “Boogeymen” (1991) – sorry, I cannot take the American spelling of ‘bogeymen’ seriously and genuinely chuckle every time I read the title – is by newcomer Mel Gilden, so at least the stable of authors was finally starting to expand. Peter David shows off his capacity for humour with “Q-in-Law” (1991) in which Q finally meets his match – Deanna’s mother, Lwaxana Troi (a crossover they should totally have done on the actual show).

We will leave our view at licensed TNG spinoff material there, for it is time to return to the small screen and look back at TNG itself from season 4 onwards. As I said above, there is surprisingly little to discuss in terms of time travel or AH in early TNG – but, as the setting became more developed, that started to change…



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