Research Materials for the Advanced Trekologist

I literally have a tilting stack of comics and graphic novels to review, which means it's time to take my leave of the Star Trek universe for a bit (at least until I finish up Best Destiny). Before I go, however, I have a few suggestions for those interested in learning more about Star Trek beyond the films and series. If you are interested in the vast array of novels and comics, here are a couple essentials that you want to have in your collection.

In Voyages of Imagination, Jeff Ayers takes on the unenviable task of compiling a comprehensive directory of 40 years worth of officially licensed Star Trek fiction, from the inception of the series through early 2007. Ayers provides publishing notes, plot teasers and background interviews with authors and editors for hundreds of novels, dozens of anthologies and even the many Trek ebooks available online. Closing things out is the piece de resistance for a supernerd like me: a comprehensive chronology of Trek fiction listed along the franchise's future timeline, copiously annotated with footnotes pointing out the discrepancies. Glorious!

For a very long time, Pocket Books churned out some rather bland and by-the-numbers Star Trek books. Reading through some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on discussed here, it's really not all that surprising that some of this stuff turned out less than fantastic.

For one thing, it seems that these books have an extremely fast turnaround between commission and deadline, to the point where I'm not even sure how the writers could even produce more than one draft. Also, many early books in certain series were written before those shows even began to air, leaving the authors to page through the series' bibles and basically guess what the characters and settings would turn out to be like. No wonder blatant errors aren't caught during the editing stage, like Data using contractions throughout a novel, or people beaming back and forth between DS9 and Bajor as if they are in transport range of each other.

It also seems like Gene Roddenberry and his lapdog Richard Arnold did their damnedest to suck as much character and life out of these books as possible. Writers faced a Catch-22 in that they couldn't develop their own characters and yet they couldn't have anything significant happen to the main cast they were obliged to use. Since every Starfleet officer is a paragon of virtue and all human foibles have been overcome, the heroes can never be wrong or have personality conflicts. Lotsa luck creating interesting drama under those conditions!

For a long time, there was also no cohesion to the line, no recurring characters were allowed, or plot threads from book to book. One of the best things about the Star Wars expanded universe is that every book fits into a single continuum where storylines and characters evolve and recur under different writers. Meanwhile, all Star Trek novels had to be self-contained, one might even say designed to be insignificant. Not only were authors discouraged from referring to previous books that came before, they weren't even supposed refer to characters or plots from their own previous Star Trek books they'd written themselves!

The end result was standalone books that had to jump through hoops and stand or fall on their own merits. And while I'm not saying that there were no good Star Trek novels on the shelves, there were an awful lot of mediocre ones, and the ratio was not good. After being let down too many times, I decided trying to find diamonds in the rough was too time-consuming when there was so much other great stuff to read, and I turned my back on the Trek tie-ins altogether.

But I gather times have changed at Pocket Books since I stopping paying attention. Now, they aren't only publishing story arcs, but have been given free reign to extrapolate major events beyond the end of various series. The Enterprise books have retconned the horrible series finale "These Are the Voyages..." out of existence and are now setting up the epic Romulan Wars. The post-Voyager books are covering the various crewmembers' adjusting to being back in Federation space and there is an entire Titan series exploring Riker's post-Nemesis adventures as captain (finally!) of his own starship. By the time I had finished pouring through Voyages of Imagination, I was interested in checking out Trek fiction the way I haven't been in a very long time.

I also learned all sorts of interesting tidbits about past Trek novels as well. Did you know, for instance, that Killing Time as originally published contained such a blatant homoerotic undercurrent between Kirk and Spock that an outraged Roddenberry ordered the book recalled, pulped, and rewritten. (Wonder if there are still originals out there, and what they go for?) Or that "the Lost Years" series was planned to be much more ambitious but got cut off at the knees? That Lawrence Watt-Evans created the pseudonym "Nathan Archer" because he didn't want the sales of tie-in books to affect how his fantasy books were preordered by bookstores?That Probe was almost completely rewritten, although it still is credited to original (and thoroughly dissed) author Margaret Wander Bonanno? Ayers declines to go into this last controversy in any detail, but merely mentioning its existence brings one to some interesting reading on the Internet, not to mention Bonanno's original draft, Music of the Spheres.

I'm sure it was no easy task trying to figure out a way to organize listings of hundreds of books, but Voyages of Imagination isn't laid out in a particularly intuitive way. Bantam books merit their own chapter, but then Pocket's TOS books are separated between a chapter for the numbered books and another for the unnumbered ones. Crossover series are yet another chapter. Novels aren't even grouped all together, as the ebook section is plopped down right in the middle. The odds of finding a given book by flipping around are extremely slim, however there is a nice author and title index in the back. Each entry has a reproduction of cover art, but in some cases I was puzzled to see more recent art, presumably from a later printing. If I'd had my druthers the original cover art would've been used in all cases.

I personally would've been up for a more critical take on these books as well. Ayers' approach is to cover each book as if they are all of equal merit, when in reality they so aren't. I think I read in an interview somewhere (which I can't find now, dammit) that he'd originally intended to give all the books a star rating, but eventually decided against it. This guide is published by Pocket Books, who likely wouldn't've been pleased to release a book slagging some of their other products. Also, it would be a creep move to solicit authors for their reminiscences and then turn around and give their book a low rating. So while I would still someday love to see a single book that turned a critical eye on the Trek fiction, I get why this isn't that book.

The interviews range from detailed and informative to cursory comments (sounds like William Shatner blocked out 10 minutes of time to discuss his entire series), but disappointingly some books get no backstory at all, either because Ayers couldn't track down the author or he succeeded and they declined to talk to him. Meanwhile, I feel that Ayers spent an inordinate amount of space covering every single short story in every Trek anthology, particularly since, let's face it, the Brave New Worlds books are basically fanfic contest winners. Something's a little off when the 371-page Enterprise: The First Adventure only merits a quarter-page of coverage, while, say, the short story "If I Lose Thee..." is covered for two full pages.

Still, it's not entirely fair to judge a book on what I would've done, rather than what's there. And there is a ton of useful and interesting information to be found within, making Voyages of Imagination well worth the $21 cover price. Even better (well, maybe not from the author's point of view), it can be found at a marked-down remainder price, making it a ridiculously great value and that much easier for me to recommend this book.

If you're more interested in the comic book side of Trek fiction, find yourself a copy of Star Trek: the Complete Comic Book Collection. Graphic Imagining Technology (yes, their acronym is GIT. Stop snickering) has done a splendid job in bringing legal digitized comics to fans at an affordable price. For under 50 bucks, this DVD-Rom brings you hundreds of Trek comics, from all interations, on a single shiny disk.

I have hardly scratched the surface as far as reading this wealth of material, but I have taken the disc for a spin to see what's what. Upon inserting, a menu page opens up in Adobe Acrobat, offering not only a comics option, but also an introductory essay under "history" and short character intros under "Bios". These are both pretty lame and presumably anyone who is into Star Trek enough to buy this already knows everything written here. Under bonus materials you can find five comics produced by Power Records, which came with 45 records dramatizing the story. Alas, the sound file is not included, but still these comics are an interesting curiosity.

Amongst the other comics you will find here:

61 Gold Key comics, as well as supplemental material, produced between 1967 and 1979. I have only read the first few so far, but they barely seem like Star Trek to me; the costumes and the Enterprise are drawn correctly (well except for the afterburner flames shooting out of the warp nacelles), but otherwise they seem like pretty generic SF stories with little knowledge of the Trek universe. I checked issue 61 and it does seem to have a better grasp on the characters, so they must have improved somewhere along the way. Overall, though, I'm not sure how highly these stories are regarded by Trek fandom.

In the DC section, you get about 150 TOS comics that take place in the timeframe of movies III-VI, as well as the first TNG series. Because Malibu had the DS9 license, they had to crossover with another company to bring the two casts together. The gorgeous Debt of Honor graphic novel by Chris Claremont and Adam Hughes is here. An interesting curiosity to be found in this section is Who's Who in Star Trek, which offers character pages of info on TOS cast and villains, a la DC's own Who's Who handbooks for their superhero universe.

Malibu seems not to have had license to do anything other than DS9, but they explored that corner of Trek universe pretty thoroughly, not only with a DS9 monthly but various limited series, even one for the Maquis. There's also a Terek Nor special; I wonder how it jibes with Pocket's recently released Terek Nor prequel trilogy.

The Marvel section has not only the short-lived Post-TMP series from the late 70's but a ton of books that the company published in the 90's after they bought out Malibu. This not only included the main TV series, but comics devoted to Captain Pike and a Starfleet Academy book starring Nog!

The license then bounced back to DC again; specifically to their Wildstorm branch. However, they didn't seem to be overly interested in really mining the franchise, as they only released 30 comics while they had it.

Here's what you won't find on the disc:

Any IDW comics. The newest comics on this disc are from Oct. 2002; IDW gained the license after that.

Any Trek/X-Men crossovers, presumably because Marvel's permission to use the X-Men couldn't be secured.

Any Star Trek newspaper comic strips-- despite the fact that the original solicitations for this DVD advertised their inclusion. Either they are so well-hidden that I can't find them, or someone had a change of heart and decided against adding them-- maybe they ran out of space! But I do feel burned a bit by this case of false advertising.

I doubt that anything will replace the pleasure of grabbing a honest-to-god yellowing-newsprint comic book and taking it with me to whatever cozy corner I like to read. Reading comics on a computer screen is just not fun. But from a research perspective, the convenience of the Complete Comics Collection is just amazing. This amount of material would take hundreds of dollars to collect, and fill up a long box or more to boot. To have it all on one disk is, from a legitimate source rather than illegal download, a terrific convenience and a good value, to boot. Perhaps GIT can ring up Lucas about a Star Wars DVD-rom next?

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