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Prequel Problems: Star Trek Federation vs First Contact

By Tom Anderson

I keep coming back to the Star Trek franchise for subject matters in these Prequel Problems articles because it is so relatively well-defined in terms of in-universe time periods, something which creators of spinoff fiction have exploited. In my last Star Trek article I complained about showrunner indecisiveness on whether to depict the ‘dated’ colourful Sixties aesthetic of the 1960s original Star Trek series or not, and a reason why this is important is that being able to depict the aesthetic of a past Star Trek incarnation immediately dates a time period to fans. In a broader sense, this strong definition means internal time travel and flashback stories are much easier to do in Star Trek than in a newer science fiction setting, in which one would struggle to explain to the audience that they have now travelled from the 2360s to the 2260s and what’s different about it.

In terms of literature, the Star Trek franchise differs considerably from Star Wars, which I have also written about extensively. Whereas Star Wars had central editorial control and ‘Expanded Universe’ (now Legends) novels were originally intended to be canon and form a coherent setting, things are quite different in Star Trek, in which spinoff novels and other fiction are never meant to be canon and often contradict one another. (Periodically there were attempts to produce a coherent Expanded Universe with canon fiction like Star Wars, notably in tandem with the video game Star Trek Online, but these never lasted in a way that defined future TV or film outings). This difference reflects the fact that the idea of Star Trek was kept alive in the 1970s (and the original show even given a third season in the 60s) because of the activities of its fervent (some might say fanatical) fanbase. Fanfiction has always existed as a concept, but it was the Star Trek fanbase that really birthed it in its modern form, early Star Trek fanfiction giving us terms such as the ‘Mary Sue’ (an unrealistically perfect protagonist character).

There has always been a narrow and blurry line between Star Trek fanfiction and the ‘official’ (but non-canon) novels, not least because some of the authors involved were the same people. The first Star Trek spinoff media were comics made in 1967 while the show was still on, which were tonally quite variable, followed by literary adaptations of the original episodes by James Blish. The first original novel was Mission to Horatius by Mack Reynolds, which Gene Roddenberry disliked for its style and offensive depictions of Sulu and Uhura, which he insisted on being changed before publication. Bantam Books (who were later responsible for the golden age of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, as previously discussed) published a number of Star Trek novels in the 1970s which sum up the aforementioned blurred line and are often close to fanfiction in tone. The better-known Star Trek novels (at least to those of us of a certain age) began in 1979, published by Simon and Schuster (reprinted by Titan in the UK) with occasional series by Pocket Books. These are usually less ‘fanfiction-ish’ in style, generally self-contained and knowingly written as non-canon works, though some internal series of grouped books did eventually show up. There was some crossover between people working on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the novel writers, but often the latter were unrelated science fiction writers.

I may discuss the Star Trek novels more in future, but for now suffice to say that their fanfiction roots were visible in how the authors used this opportunity to explore matters usually not covered in the TV shows or films themselves. This theme in fanfiction in general, focusing on underdone or even taboo subjects, is largely responsible for the stereotype of fanfiction writers as sex-mad, deranged perverts who think nothing of writing USS Enterprise/Crystalline Entity slash fiction before breakfast. However, that is only one example of such topics. One which may surprise younger readers is that Star Trek used to have an aversion to depicting futuristic Earth on screen – both for the principled reason that the show is meant to be about boldly going far from it, and for the more prosaic one that the special effects to do it justice would be expensive. Contemporary (as opposed to time-travelling 1960s) Earth never appeared on screen in the original series, though Earth was frequently the starting setting of the films we only saw glimpses of life on the ground, and the line in The Next Generation “The Best of Boths Worlds” – that the Borg invaders were heading for Earth – therefore hit home doubly hard. Like many things, this changed after Gene Roddenberry’s death and Earth began to appear somewhat frequently in Deep Space Nine, but until that time novel writers used to speculate about it.

Similarly, some of the novel writers sought to further develop the background of the various alien races seen in Star Trek, especially the Vulcans (which goes back to those first 1970s novels). Diane Duane devoted a number of books to exploring the Romulans, while John M. Ford did the same for the Klingons in a more modest way. But as I said before, these novels are never canon, and Ford’s idea of the Klingons soon had little to do with what was shown on screen; some of the ideas about the Vulcans and Romulans did become well entrenched enough to migrate back into the TV shows, however.

Finally, novel writers might write about underdeveloped time periods rather than settings. Michael Jan Friedman, for example, has written a number of books about Captain Picard’s backstory on the USS Stargazer, and even wrote a serialised book about the founding of Starfleet – which, with terrible timing, came out immediately before the Enterprise TV series debuted and immediately contradicted it. I may look at this one in future. As we’ll see in this article, this is something of a theme for Star Trek novel writers!

Related to that last point, as I’ve previously discussed, as soon as Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared, a divide appeared between fans (who wanted crossovers with the original series) and Roddenberry (who didn’t). More references appeared over time and finally original series characters began to appear in later series, but many fans wanted time travel-driven crossovers between the two crews in their prime.

A failure to deliver on crossovers was emblematic of the first Next Generation film, Star Trek Generations, in 1994. Though it had its moments, this film failed to live up to expectations given its whole gimmick was having Captains Kirk and Picard team up. To briefly summarise, Kirk supposedly heroically dies but gets trapped in the ‘Nexus’, a phenomenon in which one lives out a fantasy life outside of normal time. Years later, Picard has to stop a madman named Soran from killing millions in an attempt to get back into the Nexus. He fails, but from within the Nexus he is able to recruit Kirk, break him out of his own fantasy and use his help to go back in time a little and stop Soran – though Kirk dies for real in the process, giving his life to save a planet. This bare description sounds decent, but the plot suffers from a number of issues (plot holes, we never actually see the planet whose people’s lives are at stake, the manner in which Kirk dies is ignominious) and perhaps first among these is that Kirk’s fantasy has nothing to do with the character we know.

He’s living on a ranch and talking about the return of a woman we’ve never heard of, and Picard persuades him to join him when he jumps a chasm on a horse and realises there’s no real stakes or danger in this fantasy. The film would have been a trillion times better if they’d gone with the same exact plot, but Kirk’s fantasy is about him being on the bridge of the original Enterprise in his prime, saving the galaxy, but realises he can’t remain stuck in his youth and there are no stakes in this dream. (Which would be drawing on the themes more successfully done in GalaxyQuest, which some have called the best Star Trek film despite not being one!) William Shatner was, understandably, not pleased about his iconic character’s fate, and (being William Shatner) produced a number of novels (actually ghostwritten by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens) in which Kirk comes back to life and has a second life of exciting adventures.

The same year as Generations debuted, those same two authors wrote a book called Federation, and we finally come to the subject matter of this article. Federation sums up the way in which Star Trek novels focus on the fanfiction-derived element of doing things the TV series won’t do; like Friedman’s example, the book also show the peril of non-canon novels, as the very next Star Trek film, First Contact, covered some similar ground and immediately contradicted it.

The title Federation is a bit of a misnomer; while the book focuses on deep Star Trek backstory, it is not especially about the founding of the Federation – however, it is about the values of the Federation. The framing device involves a depressed Kirk, near the end of his career, going once again to see the Guardian of Forever, the mysterious sentient time portal seen in the original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” and never in live action since (until it recently appeared in Discovery) but an object of fascination for spinoff media creators. The researchers studying the Guardian tell Kirk it is unresponsive to their questions, and from the Guardian’s perspective we see that it has waited untold millennia for a worthy question. Kirk finally comes up with one: “Why?” And the Guardian plunges him into the story.

The story is written in three time periods, jumping back and forth between them. One is the original series, immediately following the episode “Journey to Babel”; the second is The Next Generation, immediately following the episode “Sarek” – as Spock’s father Sarek appeared in both, he is the unseen linking thread, and it’s noted at one point that both Picard and Kirk mind-melded with Sarek at different times (in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and the aforementioned “Sarek”). The third time period is the distant past of the late twenty-first century on Earth, with Zefram Cochrane as our protagonist. A running mystery joins all three time periods and will lead them to collide.

Firstly, I should give some background on Zefram Cochrane. Up to this point, he had only appeared in the original series episode “Metamorphosis” where he is described as the inventor of warp drive, and still alive centuries later due to his lost ship being intercepted by an energy being called the Companion which effectively made him immortal. The extensive fanon built up by the Star Trek fanbase had decided he was human (despite originally being described as ‘of Alpha Centauri’) and had invented warp drive on Earth. Federation goes with this idea; the past timeline opens with Cochrane returning from his first warp flight to the colonies on the moons of Saturn, to meet with his patron, Micah Brack – who warns him to flee again, as a leader among the fascist Optimum Movement on Earth, Adrik Thorsen, is coming and wants the technology for himself. This kicks off a pattern in which Thorsen will pursue Cochrane as long as he lives, becoming obsessed with a (fictitious) claim that warp drive can be used to create an ultimate weapon.

Similar to AC Crispin’s Han Solo books or Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Federation tries to tie together just about every casual reference in Star Trek to the 21st century time period and get it into the narrative. The Saturn colonies are named for Captain Christopher’s son who is said to lead the first mission there in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”; Brack is intended to be the immortal Flint from “Requiem for Methuselah”, who used that name and here is funding Cochrane to try to get humans off Earth before war comes; the Optimum Movement, though original to the book, is intended to tie together the war criminal Colonel Green from “The Savage Curtain” and the Fourth World Militia seen in the Next Generation pilot “Encounter at Farpoint”, which flashes back to the Post-atomic Horror of the 2070s.

Some of these references can be strained at times; for example, after a time skip Thorsen pursues Cochrane to the dystopian ‘Optimum Republic of Great Britain’ in which Cochrane is aided by the now-elderly Sir John Burke, an astronomer mentioned in “The Trouble With Tribbles” in Battersea Stadium, home to the London Kings baseball team from years earlier. The Cochrane sequences also show the usual paleofuture problems of trying to write about the future from 1995. There is a reference to having discovered about 100 exoplanets by the 2060s (in reality we have detected over four thousand as of the end of 2020), and the Tube escalators in London are shown with physical theatre posters on the walls, which even now have mostly become video screens. On the other hand, Federation does a good job of showing technologies we take for granted in Star Trek when they were first new and groundbreaking to Cochrane; at the beginning, he’s shocked Thorsen can catch up with him so quickly because of new inertial damper technology meaning his sublight ship can accelerate faster than the limits of the human body.

When Thorsen does catch up to Cochrane, Cochrane tries to explain the bomb is impossible by talking about warp physics. Specifically, on a board he writes a star symbol to indicate the speed of light c, then an energy curve over the top that goes to infinity under normal relativistic physics, then a curve below showing how the energy is lowered by warp drive. In other words, he has drawn the Starfleet delta symbol, showing where (according to this book) it comes from in a poignant scene. Of course, Thorsen is intransigent. In the end, Cochrane is able to escape – for now.

Big time skips in the past timeline see Earth recover from its world war and establish contact with the ‘Vulcanians’ (tying in which Cochrane using that name as an archaicism in “Metamorphosis”). But, though the Optimum are long gone, Thorsen – wounded by a dying Burke with a laser – still pursues his obsessions with chasing Cochrane and finding the non-existent secret of the bomb. Cochrane’s wife is killed in an alleged ‘accident’ which Thorsen is behind, and Cochrane flees Alpha Centauri so Thorsen’s vendetta will not harm others. As we already knew, his ship disappears and Thorsen is left without a target. (Incidentally, Cochrane’s first warp ship is named the Bonaventure due to a reference in the animated series that that was the name of the first ship with warp drive, although the latter is clearly the result of the writers having a different understanding of what warp drive was).

In the 2260s time period, which is probably the least developed in the book, Captain Kirk has the headache of dealing with an intransigent admiral (nothing new there) and attacks by Orions and Klingons. But it gradually becomes apparent that this is all a conspiracy enacted by Thorsen, who has lived on thanks to deal-with-the-devil cybernetics created by a race called the Grigari (who appear in other books by the Reeves-Stevens) which are gradually eating his remaining organic parts. Cochrane is kidnapped from the world where he lives with the Companion (who took on human form at the end of “Metamorphosis”) and has to be rescued by Kirk’s crew, leading Thorsen’s minions to pursue them. This leads to a memorable sequence where Cochrane is beamed up, finding the Enterprise to be bafflingly advanced and confusing, and thinks he has been ‘teleported’ (just transferring the information to make a copy and then destroy the original) and an officer has to explain to him that’s not how transporters work, they transfer the original matter, he is still himself. While the Reeves-Stevens may not have foreseen the number of exoplanets we’d discover, they therefore pull off the arguably more impressive prediction that we’d need a sequence to direct bloody idiots on the internet to when they think travelling by Star Trek transporter ‘kills’ you.

Meanwhile in the 2360s period, Captain Picard’s crew are approached by allegedly renegade Romulans led by Commander Tarl – and DaiMon Pol, a Ferengi piloting a Romulan ship – who talk of an encounter between the Romulans and the Borg, and a fragment of a Borg ship retrieved in the process. The Romulans want asylum in exchange for giving this valuable artefact to the Federation. Picard’s crew take possession of it, but then a third Romulan ship appears under Commander Traklamek, blows up the Ferengi and demands Tarl’s crew surrenders. Tarl seems strangely willing to go along with this, but Picard promises “The Federation does not abandon its friends” and takes the Enterprise-D close to beam the crew off the Warbird. However, Tarl’s Warbird then cloaks, cloaking the Enterprise as well and causing its warp core to go offline as a side effect – which means the ship will soon be helpless. In one of the most memorable sequences in any Star Trek novel, Picard faces despair but then realises there is a way out: without the warp core online to go critical, the Enterprise-D can take a physical impact by transferring all power to its structural integrity field. He uses the last moments of the cloaking effect to cover them and orders “Ramming speed!” smashing the ship through Traklamek’s Warbird and destroying it. This sequence will feel less special to a modern reader as ramming has since been done in on-screen Star Trek, but at the time it was a groundbreaking idea and driven by Picard’s knowledge of naval history.

Tarl vanishes afterwards (briefly reappearing at the end before her ship is destroyed in turn), and it slowly becomes clear the whole thing was a setup: the Borg artefact is a fake except for one part, and it was all a way for the Romulans to get that part on the ship. Tarl was Traklamek’s wife and never intended to defect. The whole sequence is therefore a neat thematic illustration of a recurring principle in Star Trek – that it is holding true to the values of the Federation that one defeats petty and warlike foes, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it’. The Romulans’ plan failed because they could not understand that Picard does not only pay lip service to the values of the Federation but risked his ship and crew to try to save the ‘defectors’, behaving contrary to how they had predicted.

It turns out the real part of the artefact appears to have been built by the Preservers, the ancient uber-race first mentioned in “The Paradise Syndrome” but speculated by fans to be responsible for all the planets with Earth-like civilisations seen in the original series – they removed peoples from Earth and resettled them on other planets to ensure humans would not go extinct. (Other novel writers had, and have, also written about them). Far more advanced than any race here or now, a Preserver artefact is of unimaginable value, as the amateur archaeologist Picard rapidly realises. On the side of the artefact are mysterious symbols, the simplest of which is their version of the Starfleet delta for the principle of warp drive, and the others implying many future developments of faster-than-light physics of which the Federation can only dream. This lures the crew to have the android Data examine the information stored in the artefact, but – though they do take precautions – this is a trap. The last remnant of Thorsen, long robbed of his organic elements by the Grigari cybernetics and reduced to a mere computer program of pure hatred, is stored within and manages to take over Data. With Data’s great strength, Thorsen takes the bridge crew hostage and commandeers the Enterprise-D to go to a black hole listed on the charts as the ‘Kabreigny Object’.

This is a suggestive tie-in with the 2260s/Kirk sequence, in which Kabreigny is the name of the intransigent admiral he’s dealing with, a woman who sees Starfleet’s mission as purely peaceful and objects to the more militaristic side. She changes her mind somewhat as Kirk realises the only way to escape Thorsen’s forces in the 2260s is to risk the Enterprise hiding within the event horizon of an unusual black hole – that same Kabriegny Object.

In the 2360s, Picard does his ‘Patrick Stewart speech’ on Thorsen-controlling-Data, to no avail. The sequence sums up how Thorsen represents the antithesis of the same Federation values Picard used when dealing with the Romulans. The remnant of Thorsen is pure odium without vitality, chasing a man across centuries to obtain a completely non-existent weapon, to serve a movement which no longer exists, whose cause has long since become obsolete. When Picard asks why, he simply says “To prove that I am right.” He is a pathetic and pitiable figure, yet still dangerous. In many ways, this is a much more effective way of portraying an antithesis to Federation values than later series tried with the Mirror Universe. Thorsen-as-Data orders the Enterprise-D into the black hole as well, but before he can act further, Data is knocked out – by, of course, Wesley Crusher hitting his ‘off switch’ while the rest of the crew distract Thorsen.

This puts both the original Enterprise and the Enterprise-D inside the black hole, whose unusual nature means they now occupy the same part of spacetime. Kirk quickly realises they are seeing a future glimpse of Starfleet and, in accordance with regulations, orders the viewscreen pixellated to avoid contaminating the timeline. Cochrane and the Companion, wounded in the recent fight, are sent over to the Enterprise-D in a shuttlecraft, softly singing “Amazing Grace” as they go. When the original Enterprise emerges, Cochrane will be gone and there will be nothing for Thorsen’s forces in the 2260s to hunt – hence why what was left of Thorsen came here in the 2360s to try to catch him again, but has failed at the last hurdle. Just before the two ships part ways, Picard ‘creatively’ interprets regulations by sending a single plaintext transmission – to inform Kirk’s crew, via Uhura, of the fact that the ship they just saw was a future Enterprise.

On the Enterprise-D, Picard meets the dying Cochrane and Companion, who finally reach the end of their lives without Thorsen ever catching them. The program that is Thorsen is purged from Data, and Picard regretfully orders the Preserver artefact destroyed to ensure his hatred can never hurt anyone else, despite the archaeological prize.

Finally we come back to Kirk with the Guardian of Forever, who experienced all of this in an instant. The experience, its answer to ‘Why?’ revives his will as he departs. We then have an obviously-shoehorned-in sequence where Picard, at the end of Star Trek: Generations, receives a time-sealed letter from Kirk in which he describes everything that happened. At last, we have an epilogue glimpse of the far future (done all in italics) in which the Federation has finally united the entire galaxy, and a far-future Enterprise leaves it under ‘sidewarp’ travel to find another Preserver artefact that is a gateway to new possibilities in turn.

Federation is one of the best-selling Star Trek novels of all time, and for good reason; it is not only an exploration of two authors’ imagined past of the setting, but of the values that underwrite it. Unfortunately for the Reeves-Stevens, only two years later the film Star Trek: First Contact came out, which also explored a backstory for Zefram Cochrane and completely contradicted their vision – the perils of being a Star Trek author. I will not discuss First Contact in detail here, though I may come back to in a future article, but I will mention one important difference between the two visions of Cochrane’s life. That is the order of events; the Reeves-Stevens, working from the fact that the Post-atomic Horror seen in “Encounter at Farpoint” was dated to the 2070s but Cochrane’s first warp flight was thought to be in the 2060s, assumed warp drive came before World War III – Mr Brack’s motivation is to find a way for enough humans to escape before the inevitable war potentially destroys the Earth. Conversely, First Contact shows the world of 2063 already having been devastated by World War III, and it is from these ashes that Cochrane’s first warp flight changes the world – by drawing the attention of a passing alien ship which leads to the titular first contact with humans. At the end, we discover that first alien race was the Vulcans. The First Contact conception waves away the 2070s Post-atomic Horror by implying it, realistically, took a long time for this world-changing day to have an impact on the whole of humanity and it took decades to recover.

While there are things to critique in First Contact, I personally prefer this order of events – it shows humanity on the brink and Federation values emerging from that moment of awe at an encounter with aliens. First contact is rather brushed over in Federation. Nonetheless, Federation is still certainly worth reading, and its attempt to portray the late 21st century helped inspire my book The Surly Bonds of Earth, which similarly follows the invention of faster-than-light drive in that era. Just as Federation’s portrayal of the near future was influenced by 1990s assumptions, I have incorporated elements of that paleofuture conception into how I portray it, going for a different flavour than trying to predict the future based on 2020s assumptions.

Ultimately, when it comes to Star Trek novels, it is a fool’s errand to treat them as part of a cohesive whole; instead treat them as ‘imaginary stories’ (to use the 1960s comics terminology) and interesting thought-experiment exercises. The Reeves-Stevens have been responsible for a number of other Star Trek novels, and almost all of them are similarly epic in scope; they were also a big part of the reason why the novel writers’ ideas about the Vulcans made it into the TV show, writing the Enterprise episode “The Forge” about Vulcan backstory. Slightly worryingly at the time, co-showrunner Rick Berman praised them by saying “They are just dynamite. We are kicking ourselves at not having found them years ago…” which, given they had been writing Star Trek novels for over a decade at that point, illustrates the level of disconnect between the TV shows and novel writers. Therefore, do not necessarily expect something in a Star Trek novel you enjoy to ever appear in the TV series or films, but enjoy them as exercises in fiction in themselves.

More Prequel Problems articles to come!



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