Prequel Problems: Star Trek Double Helix

By Thomas Anderson



Yes, it’s yet another Prequel Problems article about Star Trek; this setting, with its several well-defined eras and ability to switch between them to do character backstories, lends itself naturally to prequels and adjacent forms of literature. This means it all the more surprising, as previously discussed, that it took until the series “Enterprise” (as described in my last article) in 2001 before on-screen Star Trek properly tackled a prequel. However, the same is not true of Star Trek’s vast canon (or should I say non-canon!) of spinoff literature. With authors not needing to be in continuity with each other, there are a large number of contradictory Star Trek novels.


However, in the 1990s it became more popular to do joint series with contributions from multiple authors all on the same crossover theme. These frequently exploited Star Trek’s multiple settings and eras, such as starting a theme in the original series (TOS) era and then following up a century later in The Next Generation (TNG). One example of the book series in question is “Star Trek: Invasion!” in which the crews of TOS, TNG, Deep Space Nine (DS9) and Voyager (VGR) are all involved with the return of a legendary demonic race from Earth’s ancestral past. Another example is “Star Trek: Day of Honour”, which takes the interesting twist of doing TNG, DS9 and VGR Klingon-related stories before then going back in time to TOS to explain where the Klingon Day of Honour comes from in the first place. This one even got a tie-in to the TV series, with a (largely in-name-only related) VGR episode titled “Day of Honour”.


These two examples both use the eras and settings we would expect: the TOS Enterprise with Captain Kirk, the TNG Enterprise with Captain Picard, and so on. However, 1999 saw the launch of a new series called “Star Trek: Double Helix” which did something quite different. Of its six books, only the first one is set in such a recognisable Star Trek setting with the expected characters; the others play with different time periods, showing character backstories before we ever knew them in their series (or in one case afterwards). Technically all of them were released under the TNG banner, yet almost all of them ‘cross over’ with other Star Trek incarnations. I have wanted to write about this series since I started doing these Prequel Problems articles, but have held off till now due to concern that the subject matter might seem inappropriate. See, the overarching plot of “Double Helix” involves a series of pandemics caused by a deadly virus, which (as the different protagonists gradually uncover) was deliberately made synthetically as a bioweapon by a mysterious villain.


Welcome to the 1990s, when pandemics were frequent in fiction (often tied up with millenarian anxiety about the coming year 2000) and often hinted at in reality. The virus in “Double Helix” is described as being composed of three prions that come together to rewrite each others’ DNA and form a virus. This is both a clever get-out clause for how the Star Trek transporter is supposed to remove pathogens when beaming one from place to place (the complete virus is removed but the separate prions don’t show up on its scanner, allowing the virus to reform from its parts after transport) and also a reference to the then-contemporary outbreak of BSE ‘mad cow disease’ in the UK, a horrifying prion-based illness. This thankfully did not become a global pandemic, but helped spark a renewed interest in the pandemics of the past, and “Double Helix” draws on that interest. The concept was developed by Pocket Books editor John Ordover and veteran Star Trek author Michael Jan Friedman, who stated they had been inspired by Richard Preston’s book “The Hot Zone” (1994) and its film adaptation “Outbreak”. However, the degree to which the virus is the driving central presence of the books in this series varies hugely from book to book and author to author, as I’ll explain; really it is only central to three of the six. I’ll go through the six books in publication order (but not chronological order – the sixth is chronologically first) to explain.


The first book, “Infection” by John Gregory Betancourt, sets up the series and is the most straightforward of the settings; it is set in the first season of TNG, allowing him to use the character of Tasha Yar, who died near the end of that season. Many moons ago on the Star Trek fansite Nitcentral, I cattily reviewed this one as “Brilliantly captures the feel of first season TNG, right down to not being very good”. While the prose is functional, I will slightly revise this opinion in light of current events as Betancourt did a good job of depicting the crisis of a pandemic. Picard and the Enterprise respond to a joint human-Peladian planet afflicted by a mysterious new plague, which particularly afflicts those with both human and Peladian ancestry, referred to as ‘mixers’ by racists on the planet. (Betancourt does accurately capture the pious and utopian tone of early TNG in – justified – outrage by Picard and the crew that such attitudes still exist). The planet’s sanctimonious Governor turns out to have violated his own quarantine rules in order to get his family to safety, which feels entirely in keeping with what we’ve seen in real life recently. This book instigates the series, with Dr Crusher uncovering the virus’ secrets (and its synthetic nature indicated by lettering formed of protein reading ‘Smile, you are dead’) and us getting our first glimpse of the mysterious villain behind it, known only as ‘the General’. His contact on the planet, who initially releases the virus, gets a hologram message from the General in which his appearance constantly shifts between different Star Trek races (wouldn’t it have been cheaper for bandwidth to just leave the camera off?) In the end the crew are able to find a cure for the pandemic, but are none the wiser to who created it. My other memory of this book is that Betancourt tries to do a ‘remember the new guy’ thing where he lists an alien race called the Praxx among the other familiar Star Trek ones, which nobody ever did before or since. I can’t complain because on-screen Star Trek is itself notorious for making up significant races and then never mentioning them again, as discussed in my last article.


The second book, “Vectors” by veteran Star Trek author partnership Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is where the setting starts to get more interesting. There’s a new outbreak of a familiar but different virus on Terok Nor – which in the future will be known as Deep Space Nine, but for now is still a Cardassian mining station orbiting Bajor, under the less-than-benevolent dictatorship of Gul Dukat. On the Enterprise, Dr Pulaski (who briefly replaced Crusher in season 2 of TNG due to Gates McFadden’s acting commitments elsewhere) is preparing to leave the ship for the last time – only to be called upon to go and assist the Cardassians fighting the virus. The virus is afflicting both Cardassians and their Bajoran subjects; the usual apartheid attitude’s limitations breaks down when either group can just as easily transmit the virus and withholding treatment from one will ultimately harm the other (again, something we have seen recently in real life). Although the virus has – tellingly – been altered, Pulaski is eventually able to cure this version too. This book does a number of fascinating things with its setting. DS9 already did a couple of flashback episodes to show Terok Nor under the Cardassians (with dim lights and warm corridors, looking unrecognisable) but the genius is contrasting this with the bright, utopian Starfleet of early TNG. Familiar characters appear in unfamiliar guises such as Odo and Kira Nerys. Like the first book, this one does a good job of showing the realities of fighting a pandemic (or rather epidemic as it’s restricted to the station) such as Gul Dukat paranoidly washing his hands constantly. At the end, Dukat reverts straight back to his usual brutal treatment of the Bajorans, much to Pulaski’s anger. This culminates in a funny moment but one which sadly stays with me because it’s a textbook writing continuity error. At the beginning, bartender Quark sees some Cardassians turn green and wonders what this means, never having seen it before (it turns out this is a sign of their infection). At the end, we learn Pulaski told Dukat to try a vodka martini, which Quark informs us causes Cardassians to turn green, i.e. it will make Dukat panic the virus has come back and serve him right for mistreating the Bajorans. So apparently he had seen it before after all. It’s unfortunate because this is otherwise a good ending, and the book does a good job of giving Pulaski – an often-disliked character – a day in the limelight.


The third book, “Red Sector”, is very different to the others, not least because it’s considerably longer and written by classic TOS author Diane Carey. The virus has almost nothing to do with the plot; ‘the General’ is apparently testing another strain, but this time has infected the Romulan royal family (the Romulans even having a royal family doesn’t really appear even in Carey’s own other books). The ancient Dr McCoy, who’s still around and working with his old ‘friend’ Spock, needs a sample of uninfected royal blood to develop a cure because reasons, so we have our McGuffin for a book that otherwise barely mentions the overarching plot. This isn’t to say it’s bad – it’s an interesting tale of Eric Stiles, an ensign from the illustrious Stiles family mentioned in the TOS episode “Balance of Terror” (see my previous article “The Romulan Straitjacket”) who is trapped on the planet Pojjana for years while trying to rescue Spock. Despite Stiles’ family background giving him a hatred for the Romulans, he ends up working with a Romulan scientist wracked with guilt that his scientific experiments unleashed recurring earthquake-like national disasters on the Pojjana people that killed a billion people – more than any brutal dictator, as he says. Stiles inspires him to work to save the next billion, and the scientist stays there when Stiles is eventually repatriated to the Federation. (Incidentally, this is done by Dr McCoy, and readers of my book “Well Met By Starlight” may be interested to know that the throwaway description of his hired alien henchmen helped inspire the look of a certain group in my book!) Stiles recovers his career commanding a combat support tender (one of Carey’s periodic flourishes to bring a real-life navy thing into Star Trek) and is later called upon to rescue the scientist – as it turns out he’s a disgraced royal and the last source of untainted royal blood needed to save the royal family. It also turns out that Stiles’ old prison warder is now the planet’s dictator (yes, Spock makes the inevitable Hitler comparison) and got there thanks to working with the General. As I said, this book has virtually nothing to do with the Double Helix plot, but is worth reading in its own right, interestingly capturing what it must be like for the Pojjana (a people who have barely made it to space) trapped between the Federation and Romulan superpowers.


The fourth book, “Quarantine” by John Vornholt, carries on as if the third hadn’t existed, following the plot very closely from the first two and especially the first one. I think there was a bit of a miscommunication, as Vornholt assumes that the creator of the virus has a particular hatred for mixed-race (race in the Star Trek sense) people just because the first virus attacked them specifically. However, the other books seem to imply this was just a target to exploit local racism as a way to undermine society (or maybe even just random), and the second book’s virus wasn’t specifically targeted at mixed-race people. Vornholt also uses the term ‘mixers’ as though it’s an established universal word, whereas the first book said it was only a local term to that planet and it had to be explained to Picard what it meant. This inconsistency is a pity, because the book is otherwise really well conceived to both continue the plot while serving as both an interquel and prequel. Another new virus is afflicting a planet in the Demilitarised Zone between the Federation and Cardassians, where both sides had to evacuate colonies for peace and this prompted colonial fighters who reject the treaty, the Maquis (many ex-Starfleet), to start executing terrorist (or freedom fighter) attacks. The Maquis feature briefly in TNG, more extensively in DS9, and form a major part of the background to VGR; the first episode of the latter sees the Starfleet ship Voyager follow a Maquis ship into a phenomenon that transports both to the Delta Quadrant, and then the two crews have to work together to get home.


The planet in question was set up as a homeland for ‘mixers’ (see above) where the most obscure and diverse combinations of races are celebrated, and conversely ‘unibloods’ of only one racial heritage are discriminated against. The only people able to help the planet are a Maquis ship commanded by the ex-Starfleet officer Chakotay, and a Starfleet medical courier. The Maquis ship in question is indeed the one that features in the first episode of VGR (and is destroyed then) though its name is never given consistently in any of its appearances in novels! (It was never mentioned on-screen) Chakotay’s crew includes future VGR characters B’Elanna Torres, Tuvok (secretly a Starfleet spy) and Seska (secretly a Cardassian spy – leading to Chakotay’s later rueful comment that did anyone on his ship work for him?) Torres’ own Klingon/Human parentage, a rare and ‘difficult’ combination, gives Chakotay an ‘in’ with the locals and lets them help. Meanwhile, the Starfleet medical courier in question is Tom Riker, a long-lost transporter duplicate of TNG’s William Riker found in the TNG episode “Second Chances” who is struggling to find a place in life. By helping the Maquis, he decides he can find that place by helping them with their cause – thus neatly setting up the DS9 episode “Defiant”, which pulls off a brilliant plot twist by bringing back this character posing as Will Riker to steal the USS Defiant for the Maquis. This is genuinely clever interquel connections which spinoff novels were made for. My only criticism is that Tuvok would also be used in book six (see later) set chronologically earlier, so it would have been nice to have a more direct connection to the events of that book. Again, I suspect this was a case of lack of communication between authors.


Unfortunately for the series, this is basically the last time the virus or dealing with a pandemic is important for anything other than plot McGuffin reasons. Book 5, “Double or Nothing”, is written by Peter David and set in his own distinct spinoff “New Frontier” series, which involves the alien Starfleet Captain Mackenzie Calhoun (an anglicisation of his real name) and his crew, including Commander Shelby from TNG as his first officer. Space does not permit me to discuss the “New Frontier” series in detail here, but suffice to say that Calhoun had worked as a Starfleet Intelligence operative in between falling out with his past captain and being given his new command. This book both sees flashbacks to that time, and him being called back to that service in order to take on a new foe. There is no bones about it – this book is “James Bond, but it’s Star Trek” (in some ways even more so than the DS9 episode “Our Man Bashir”) and unashamedly revels in it. For example, at one point Calhoun is sent to get some new spy gadgets, and the officer giving them to him (i.e. the equivalent of Q from James Bond) is heavily implied, but never actually said, to be the Q from Star Trek (i.e. the hugely powerful being played by John de Lancie), a brilliant unspoken pun. Said gadgets include a personal transporter that somehow transports itself with you at the same time, an obviously ridiculously silly piece of technology appropriate for a Bond pastiche, which somehow managed to appear a few years later in all seriousness in the film “Star Trek: Nemesis”. Anyway, Calhoun manages to track down the secret mastermind in his Death Star – er, I mean, ‘small Dyson sphere’ – where he is plotting to unleash his virus, The Double Helix (what?) on the galaxy. Because, erm, reasons. (There is a vague sense of revenge for past wrongs involved, but it seems exceptionally unrelated). We learn the true identity of ‘the General’ – he is General Gerrid Thul of the Thallonian Empire, a recurring minor power in the New Frontier setting, a connection which was never even slightly implied in any of the other books. Thul isn’t a call-back to anything from the Thallonians previously mentioned in New Frontier books, either. Look, this whole setup is actually fine within the confines of one fun adventure book which is a slightly non-serious Star Trek Bond pastiche (the largely motive-less omnicidal villain, etc.) but is certainly a nauseatingly dizzy shift in tone from the slowly-plotting, virus-perfecting buildup of the previous books.


“Double or Nothing” is chronologically the last Double Helix book, and its events actually have more impact on the following New Frontier books than anything. However, there is one more Double Helix book, “The First Virtue” by Michael Jan Friedman and Christie Golden, and this is the straightest example of a prequel among the lot. Friedman had already written a few books with the shared setting of Captain Picard on his first command, the USS Stargazer (as seen in the TNG episode “The Battle”) and developing recurring characters among his crew. Set about fifteen years before the start of TNG, Picard and the Stargazer have to deal with a crisis instigated by a younger Gerrid Thul in response to the Thallonian royal family refusing to let him marry into it. Thul tries to engineer a war between two other races, which Starfleet must stop. Picard is aided by his friend Lieutenant Jack Crusher (Beverly’s husband, who will go on to die between now and the start of TNG) and Crusher teams up with none other than Tuvok. The long-lived Vulcan had served in Starfleet years earlier (as seen in the VGR episode “Flashback”, he was in Captain Sulu’s crew on the Excelsior) but had left and has now returned, still an ensign despite his age and experience. This is a pretty clever crossover between the backstories of these characters; as already seen in “Vectors”, the genius of this series is basically the Star Trek equivalent of observations like “the Pyramids were around at the same time as woolly mammoths”, reminding you that seemingly disparate and unconnected characters were chronologically around at the same time. It’s also an amusing example of miscommunication with the cover artist, who depicted Tuvok alongside Beverly Crusher.


Unfortunately, though “The First Virtue” is a reasonable piece of workmanlike prose as a self-contained story, it also has little to do with the overarching plot, despite being co-written by the man who half came up with the Double Helix concept in the first place. Viruses don’t come into the story at all, Thul is already a conniving manipulator seeking to engineer crises, his later motives aren’t established (his bastard son dies, but the relation of this to what he does later is unclear). The book ends with Thul being locked up by the Thallonians, but already plotting to escape. Exactly why his actions on doing so later involve planning to destroy civilisation with bioweapons, a field which he has no previous connection with, is not made clear. This is greatly unfortunate, because – as I mentioned – the crossover is otherwise pretty clever, and if one’s read Peter David’s New Frontier books set in a dying Thallonian Empire, it’s fun to see it near the height of its powers here. A lack of connection with the overall plot is more forgivable from other authors like Carey, but I am still confused why Friedman didn’t do a better job of tying in with his own idea. This book works well to help launch the recurring book series that became “Star Trek: Stargazer”, and I really like the daring idea of finishing a series with a ‘how we got here’ prequel rather than the climax, but it doesn’t succeed in tying itself in well as a prequel. Maybe as a prequel just to “Double or Nothing”, but not the series as a whole.


So much for the Double Helix series – certainly one worth a second look here and now, as a real pandemic has led us to re-examine past fictional depictions of pandemics. The later Double Helix books also included serialised preview chapters of another of Michael Jan Friedman’s works, “Star Trek: Year One”, which depicted the founding of Starfleet in the 2160s. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, possibly the worst-timed prequel attempt in history; by the time the composite book was released, it needed a disclaimer on the first page: “This has no connection with the television show “Enterprise”…”


More Prequel Problems articles on the way.

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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.