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Prequel Problems: Deny Thy Father (Star Trek)

By Tom Anderson



Doesn't he look strange without the beard?

Young Will Riker.

Picture courtesy Star Trek Wiki.


In my dedicated Star Trek articles, I have opined – some might say “ranted” – about the unfortunate tendency in the franchise for writers to love “100 years later”. Never let it be said we have been out of contact with an iconic alien race for 20 years if you can say 100 years and thus place unnecessary constraints on future generations of writers for no reason. (For a fuller explanation, see my article The Romulan Straitjacket.) [1]

 

This tendency manifested itself in the fact that the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) chose to set that series (almost) exactly 100 years after the original series (TOS). Up to this point, all Star Trek media had been dated (albeit erratically, retrospectively, and sometimes unofficially) to around 300 years after its production date – TOS was made in the 1960s and set in the 2260s; the spinoff movies were made in the 1980s and set in the 2280s. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was explicitly about time travelling back 300 years to the year in which it was made, 1986. Obviously TNG could not be set at the same time as this (it’s in the title!) so the writers had to come up with a new date, but they made the extreme choice of the 2360s. The only reason to do so, in my view, would be if they wanted to definitely exclude the possibility of any characters from TOS showing up. This may have been true at the time, as Roddenberry did have an inexplicable dislike of featuring anything from TOS in TNG, but if so, this was immediately contradicted by the fact that the TNG pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, features Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy from TOS in a send-off cameo. In order to make this work, he is said to be over 130 years old! While it is the future and this might not be unreasonable, it illustrates the bizarre unnecessary constraints this “100 years later” obsession self-inflicts on the writers.


You can tell it was filmed in the 1980s. That hair is a dead giveaway.

Encounter at Farpoint.

Picture courtesy Star Trek Wiki.


Other problems that this caused for TNG was when the writers wanted to feature flashbacks to character backstories, or guest ships. Again, as early as the pilot Encounter at Farpoint, the Enterprise-D – which is meant to be one of Starfleet’s newest and most advanced ships – has to encounter the USS Hood in order to collect her first officer, Commander William T Riker. Andrew Probert had thoughtfully designed a ‘guest ship’ meant to look like an older and cruder predecessor to the Enterprise-D, and which neatly fitted into a design lineage between the Excelsior of the TOS movies (which was new and advanced at the time of the 2280s) and the Enterprise-D herself. This design can be seen as a wooden relief on the wall of the conference room alongside other ships named Enterprise, intended to depict the Enterprise-C, while the Enterprise-B was an Excelsior-class ship. (As she was eventually seen as in Star Trek: Generations, albeit with some unforeseen modifications).


Unfortunately, there was no budget to complete Probert’s design. It did eventually show up as the Enterprise-C in season 3; even then, the design had to be scaled back, made cruder and less sleek, due to budgetary limitations. So back in Encounter at Farpoint, the Hood has to be an 80-year-old Excelsior class design instead. In the following few episodes, the Enterprise-D encounters an Oberth-class science vessel (the Tsiolkovsky in The Naked Now) which is also an 80-year-old design seen in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and then Captain Picard’s first command, the Constellation-class USS Stargazer (in The Battle). This was actually an original design, but put together out of parts from movie-era ships. Originally the Stargazer was meant to be a refit Constitution-class ship like the Enterprise-A (evidence of which can be seen in that Picard had a grey model of such a ship in his ready room early on, later hastily switched with a yellow Constellation one) but the writers decided not to feature this design to make Kirk’s Enterprise feel more special. Even though this does lead to the logic that it must be a flawed design, as every other ship from this era is still in use.

 

In the next season, in the episode Unnatural Selection, we see a Miranda-class ship, the USS Lantree, another 80-year-old design from the TOS movies (the USS Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the USS Saratoga in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

 

Nor does this problem only attach to starship designs. It has been said by those with military experience that the most realistic thing about Star Trek is how Starfleet seems to change its uniform designs constantly with no rhyme or reason! This reflection of real life (where, for example, one egotistical admiral spent most of WW2 trying to force the US Navy to adopt a grey uniform) neatly explains why we can have multiple Star Trek series set chronologically close together which nevertheless have distinct uniforms. In reality, of course, the reason is often to help visually distinguish the shows from each other from a viewer standpoint.

 

The TOS movie uniforms (mostly red with a division colour-coded turtleneck, and more than three divisions) are very different in philosophy to the uniforms of both the TOS and TNG series (there are three divisions and the colour is dominant) for the Doylian reason that they were designed by different people. However, later costume designers worked hard to reconcile these into an in-universe evolution. The problem here is really not that the uniforms keep changing, but that for an 80-year period they seem to change very little. When we flashback to Picard at the Academy or Wesley Crusher’s father’s last message, then they’re all wearing the same (or very similar) uniforms to those worn by Kirk’s crews fifty or sixty in-universe years ago.


Just to prove that some people have too much time on their hands, a fraction of a chart delineating all the uniform designs by function and chronology from TOS to much later. And you can buy the uniforms, if you're that way inclined.

Picture courtesy lpdjfe group.


You might think this is just typical anal-retentive Star Trek fan nitpicking, but it genuinely causes problems for the writing. I’ve written before of how Star Trek really benefits from the fact that, somewhat by chance, it established a different aesthetic look for different in-universe eras. Because of this, we do not need to be told that a ship is old or that we have time travelled to a particular era; we have been trained to recognise the cues already. The current Star Trek: Strange New Worlds series (SNW), even though it attempts to “update” the look of a lot of the technology from the TOS era in which it’s set, does correctly keep the aesthetics of it with the bright colours and the uniform designs (unlike Discovery, which consequently didn’t feel like it belonged in its supposed era at all).


The unnecessarily long TNG time-jump caused serious problems for this because, quite reasonably, the set, module, and costume designers (or the budget) could hardly be expected to churn out a nice new succession of designs that were 20 or 30 in-universe years old. It should have been absolutely predictable from day 1 that when they need to turn to “old Starfleet ship” or “old Starfleet uniform”, they would go for the TOS movie designs that already existed.

 

Furthermore, some episodes actually did call for a ship (or less commonly, a uniform) that was actually meant to be as much as 80 years old. For example, the mothballed USS Hathaway in Peak Performance or the time-lost USS Bozeman in Cause and Effect. We lose some of the sense of how old they’re meant to be because they’re a Constellation and a Soyuz class ship respectively – the model makers had to invent the Soyuz class as a “Miranda with bits stuck on” just because the script explicitly called for a design that the crew could say was no longer in use. But Picard was commanding a Constellation ten years ago and we still see plenty of very similar Mirandas in use. Captain Bateson (played by Kelsey Grammer) and his crew would have even more visual impact when they appear if their uniforms hadn’t been used on characters meant to be only twenty or thirty years before the present.

 

So why the inexplicable 100-year jump and why not just set TNG in the 2310s, or even the 2320s, rather than the 2360s? This would have the advantage of actually fitting the title: The Next Generation rather than: “Three or four generations later”! Gah, rant over.

 

The upshot of this lengthy digression is to explain the existence of a period in the Star Trek franchise referred to as: “The Lost Era” (not to be confused with “The Lost Years” which is in between the end of TOS and the first TOS movie). The Lost Era is basically meant to be the period in between the TOS movies and the start of TNG. In the early 2000s (mostly), a dedicated series of non-canon spinoff novels attempted to fill some of the gaps. Confusingly, these defined the Lost Era as being between “James T Kirk’s presumed death on the Enterprise-B in Star Trek: Generations” (2293 – OK, seems reasonable) and “the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor in 2369” – by which time TNG had already been going five years, so that seems a bit odd. I think it’s because some of the stories are set during TNG but feature depictions of Bajor under Cardassian occupation, ie, DS9’s setting before DS9 starts. Still weird in my opinion.

 

These Lost Era novels are a mixed bag in terms of quality, and we may return to them later in future articles. However, they are interesting from a Prequel Problems point of view. The writers are depicting a lengthy era in which we can show the tail-end of TOS-era characters and the early years of TNG-era characters, in addition to a few characters who belong properly to this era and whom we saw in the on-screen show via time-travel shenanigans – for example, Captain Rachel Garrett of the Enterprise-C.

 

The writers can also use the children of TOS-era characters and the parents of TNG-era characters, and show them interacting, and so on. There is a lot of potential here to have fun, with some authors perhaps taking it a tad too far for the sake of cuteness. In addition, the series offers the opportunity for writers to flesh out some of the vaguely-hinted-at past events that TNG-era characters talk about in the series, such as The Tomed Incident, which was the trigger for the Romulans withdrawing from all contact for (sighs) fifty years. Well, at least it wasn’t 100 this time!

 

Not all the Lost Era books take this kind of ‘canon welding’ philosophy where almost their main goal is to flesh out a background reference or to tie together characters from different eras. The first book, The Sundered (2003) for instance, is mainly just an interesting adventure with Captain Sulu of the USS Excelsior and his crew, one with quite a pure sci-fi background to it. Mostly they are not about the backstories of TNG characters. The one I’ll be discussing today, however, is – Deny Thy Father, which depicts some of the earlier years of the aforementioned Commander William T Riker.

 

In on-screen TNG, we get some information about Riker’s backstory, but not so much as (for example) we do about Captain Kirk in TOS – the latter gave Michael Jan Friedman much more to write about in his My Brother’s Keeper prequel trilogy for Kirk (see previous article Here). In The Arsenal of Freedom, we learn he was at the Academy with Paul Rice, a colleague who was brilliant to the point of arrogance, and who once beat a simulation with three possible options by inventing a fourth one. In that episode, Rice dies before the episode starts due to tangling with an alien weapons system that outlasted its creators, but said weapon creates a (not very convincing) duplicate of Rice in an attempt to get information out of Riker.

 

In The Icarus Factor, the most important episode for this story, we meet Riker’s estranged father Kyle, who is said to have abandoned him by the age of fifteen after his wife, Riker’s mother, died when Riker was two. We also get some information about Kyle, who worked for Starfleet as a strategist, was on Starbase 311 when the Tholians attacked it and slaughtered everyone else, and who used to play against Riker in a futuristic martial art called ‘anbo-jytsu’ in which both players are blindfolded. In the episode, Riker learns that the reason his father was able to keep winning was because he used illegal moves. We also learn that Kyle Riker knows the Enterprise’s then Chief Medical Officer, Dr Pulaski, and that they were romantically involved in the past after his wife’s death.

 

There is surprisingly little information given on Riker’s backstory in the episode Second Chances, and what there is mostly concerns his romance with Deanna Troi. I won’t say any more than that because even mentioning the episode is almost an inherent case of spoilers.

 

The final episode which gives a significant amount of backstory information about Riker is The Pegasus, in which we learn that Riker’s first assignment post-Academy was serving under Captain Pressman on the USS Pegasus, a science vessel (another 80-year-old Oberth-class one, in fact!). Ensign Riker remained loyal to Pressman when the rest of the bridge crew mutinied. It turns out that the mutiny was caused by the crew objecting to Pressman illegally testing a Federation cloaking device, whose development was banned by the Treaty of Algeron with the Romulans. Riker now regrets his actions and says that if he knew then what he knows now, he would have been standing alongside the mutineers. In fact, Riker agonising over this point in this episode was (rather questionably) used years later to form the finale of the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise, in which the events of the old ship’s last mission form the basis of a holodeck programme Riker is living out as he struggles with his choices.

 

Deny Thy Father is not the first or only attempt to provide a (non-canon) fleshing out of Riker’s backstory. Fortuitously, they mostly do not overlap with each other. Peter David’s seminal work Imzadi covers Riker’s romance with Troi, albeit not drawing on Second Chances because it predates it (and indeed the two give contradictory middle names for Riker!) This took place after Riker had graduated the Academy and served with Pressman (though again, it was written before The Pegasus aired).

 

Another attempt to provide some backstory was Crossfire, one book in the Starfleet Academy series. This was a series of spinoffs aimed more at young adults and covered the adventures of the members of (mostly) the TNG bridge crew at Starfleet Academy. I only ever read one of these because my school library happened to have it (Atlantis Station by VE Mitchell) and they always struck me as a daunting challenge for a writer, for all the reasons I’ve previously written about in Prequel Problems articles – especially because TNG was still airing at the time! While there were bits and pieces of character backstory given out in the show, there wasn’t a whole lot to base past stories on, there was always the possibility of contradiction by a line of dialogue someone had missed, and – crucially – TNG’s pilot mostly shows characters meeting for the first time. Thus, a prequel cannot show interactions between, say, Riker and Picard, or Riker and Data, losing a lot of the interplay that makes these characters beloved.

 

The Starfleet Academy books focused on backstory adventures for Worf, Geordi LaForge, and to a lesser extent Data, with one-offs about Beverly Crusher (then Beverly Howard), Deanna Troi and Jean-Luc Picard. Riker only appears in one of the books, the aforementioned Crossfire, though there had been plans for another before the series’ poor performance (attributed by some of its authors to mis-marketing) led to them being discontinued.

 

Even in Crossfire, Riker has to share the spotlight with Geordi – a character he can be shown interacting with, as the two of them already know each other at the start of Encounter at Farpoint. The plot of that book involves Riker early in his Academy career as part of the Academy band (drawing on his love of the saxophone as seen in the on-screen show) and a visit to Pacifica, a planet Riker reminisces about returning to at the start of the early TNG episode Conspiracy. All fine and good as far as it goes, though I haven’t read it myself.

 

I’m not sure if Jeff Mariotte, the author of Deny Thy Father, had read Crossfire or made any attempt to incorporate it, but his book is set more in the middle and end of Riker’s Academy career and continues into his first voyage with Captain Pressman and the Pegasus. Actually, the book is probably only about 40 per cent about Riker’s backstory. Like the other Lost Era books, it also spends a lot of time on developing characters who more naturally belong to that era in their prime. In this case, Riker’s father Kyle. We only know a little about him from The Icarus Factor and this book draws considerably on that as the basis for its story.

 

The reason why I wanted to discuss this book in a Prequel Problems article is that I found Mariotte made some interesting writing decisions with the book, some of them arguably admirable or at least substantially different to what one might expect, although one runs into the usual Star Trek spinoff novel problem that the book’s scope never feels great enough because of the cage that canon puts it in.

 

Here's probably the most surprising decision: Kyle Riker never meets Will Riker in the narrative. It starts several years after Kyle abandons Will, and Mariotte resists the urge to imply any progress towards their rapprochement (except perhaps in Kyle’s heart), which would contradict The Icarus Factor. Of course, it leaves the plot arc feeling incomplete if this book is judged in isolation, but I would rather a prequel actually feel believable and not go against its own reason for existing.

 

Instead, Deny Thy Father basically alternates between Kyle and Will as viewpoint characters, spending a little more time with the former. Kyle is embroiled in a Starfleet conspiracy in which he’s attacked by what appear to be mind-controlled security and intelligence officers. This is interesting, although you could argue it’s a bit too similar to the plot in Conspiracy which is meant to be more shocking and unprecedented – but you could say this about the plot of a fair few Star Trek novels.

 

Meanwhile, we first meet Will going on a challenging group activity with a group of other cadets, in which they are beamed to a random part of San Francisco without equipment and have to figure out a treasure hunt in competition with other groups. Another surprising choice is that most of Riker’s fellow cadets are, realistically, people we’ve never heard of (Rice shows up later, but not in the context of that simulation we heard about in The Arsenal of Freedom). Prequel writers usually can’t resist the urge to pack people’s backstories with recognisable characters until it feels like there’s only 20 people in Starfleet (or in whichever setting for other fiction franchises).

 

There’s tension in Riker’s group with a capable but arrogant cadet who assumes he’ll be put in charge, but Riker and the others appoint a nervous colleague to the leadership role because they believe he can do better. They are right, but in a surprising twist later, the latter colleague falls behind in studying for his finals and tries to convince Riker to throw his own revision to tutor him. Unsurprisingly, Riker refuses and their friendship ends. I was absolutely convinced that at least one, if not both, of these cadets must be people who had appeared – or at least been mentioned – in Star Trek before, but no. It may sound strange, but I actually found that quite an impressive decision. Characters are allowed to have backstory encounters that aren’t obviously tied to later on-screen events or people. We also see Riker’s first (possibly) relationship falling through, and again this isn’t reflective of anything that’s ever been mentioned on-screen.

 

As I said, more of the book is devoted to Kyle Riker. In another storytelling choice I found a little surprising, after Kyle escapes the initial conspirators and finds his system is hacked and he’s been framed for murder, he chooses to go into hiding on a random planet – and does – and succeeds. In the process of escaping the frame-up, incidentally, he gets help from Ensign Benjamin Sisko, whom he already knows – which I found a bit questionable given the timeline, but it isn’t as blatant as it is in some cameos. Anyway, getting back to Kyle going into hiding, I was convinced that, while this is obviously a plot device to allow time to pass back on Earth and Will to complete his Academy career, it would be brought to an end when the baddies track him down. But no, they never do. Again, this feels like a slightly surprising twist when one is used to unrealistically omniscient baddies who are always one step ahead.

 

Kyle quite happily makes a life for himself on a neutral, somewhat less technologically advanced planet named Hazimot, and even has a relationship with a fellow human exile. What brings this to an end is not due to enemy action, but because Kyle got involved with a revolutionary movement that is trying to overthrow the corrupt government in that part of Hazimot. Despite initially wanting to be apathetic about such things – he had worked as a strategist for Starfleet for years, been injured in the Tholian attack on Starbase 311, and now is in hiding for his trouble – he is eventually persuaded to join in. In the process, his lover is killed and he decides that he has to face up to his attackers and return to Earth. The whole sequence feels like a Robert Ludlum Jason Bourne extract (with a soupçon of Le Carré) incongruously inserted into a Star Trek spinoff novel. It also features significant narrative discussions about Kyle’s PTSD about the Tholian attack which, realistically, continues to haunt him.

 

You’d think that the baddies might go after Will to find his father, but amusingly they actually believe him when he (truthfully) says they’ve had no contact for years and he doesn’t know or care where Kyle is. The only person who knows the feeling isn’t mutual is Kyle, who is genuinely distraught when he thinks Will might be killed in the climax. Said climax involves a confrontation to find the source of the villains who tried to kill Kyle (now over a year before) and then had him framed. One of the players in this is Admiral Owen Paris, along with his young sidekick Ensign Kathryn Janeway (both from Voyager). I also wasn’t sure about this cameo, but it feels less gratuitous than the Sisko one, as Paris and Janeway had already featured in similar roles in other spinoff books.

 

Part of the climax revolves around the USS Pegasus being trapped with an extradited war criminal on board and about to be destroyed by aliens, while Kyle watches helplessly as the whole thing unfolds on a big board at Starfleet Command. One of Mariotte’s best writing decisions comes here, as we see Captain Pressman adeptly handle the situation and appear to stick true to Federation values, when faced with a threat he could dismiss by dishonourably giving up the war criminal to vigilante death.

 

One of the Pegasus’ officers has a nervous breakdown when Pressman orders what is essentially a game of chicken to bluff the aliens into an opportunity to break free. Young Ensign Riker has to take over the controls and do it, and is praised by Pressman (as well as by Kyle in his heart when he hears of it). This is a very good bit of prequel writing, because a reader who’s paying attention will find good reasons why young Ensign Riker’s experiences here led him to side with Pressman in the later events mentioned in The Pegasus, but Mariotte never hits one over the head with the point of it. Of course, Pressman is also here explicitly not part of the conspiracy against Kyle but a potential victim of it, thus young Riker would never dream he might be involved in a different conspiracy himself. A-plus.

 

Kyle’s story is not quite resolved so cleverly, but still comes with a fairly standard plot twist. The reader, and Kyle, was initially inclined to presume that the mind-controlled security guys and frame-up artists must be some Tholian plot, as the Tholians went room-to-room in Starbase 311 killing everyone, just missing Kyle. Clearly, for some reason they feel the need to take him out as well, perhaps because he witnessed something. It turns out that he did witness something, but it’s not the Tholians who are going after him – it’s a bunch of Starfleet guys who were doing illegal weapons experiments on the station who were the ones who actually provoked the Tholians in the first place. (Again, note the fact that they’re not connected with Pressman’s illegal cloaking experiments which are never brought up here!) Paris and Janeway are able to identify where the rot goes up to and take down the corrupt admiral in question, whom we’d previously been led to believe was on Kyle’s side. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but is pretty well executed.

 

As I said before, Mariotte resists the urge to end Deny Thy Father on some kind of resolution between Will and Kyle, and thus contradict or invalidate The Icarus Factor which this book primarily acts as a prequel to. He also has events like the Starbase 311 attack, and Kyle’s romance with Pulaski while recovering from it, take place before this narrative and never actually appear in it. Pulaski herself only appears fairly briefly. While Riker does do a history project at the Academy about his US Civil War ancestor Thaddius Riker (including extracts from the elder Riker’s war diaries) which ties in the Voyager episode Death Wish, he also talks about a World War III-era ancestor who is original to this book. Mariotte does a pretty good job of keeping most of his references non-gratuitous-feeling to the reader, mixing them with original events.

 

Overall, then, while Deny Thy Father is only a middling Star Trek novel in terms of quality as a book, it contains a lot of good prequel-writing decisions which other writers could learn from. Rather than feeling like an excuse narrative sloppily draped over a few established plot points from previously mentioned backstory – as many prequels devolve into – it feels like a story that both deserves to exist in its own right, and (in the case of The Pegasus) actively enhances one of the sources it draws upon.

 

 

Discuss this article Here.

 



Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series


among others.

 


 

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