Sunday, March 22, 2015
Myriad Universes: The Gift
One of the things Star Trek is often praised for going forward is how involved it would get its actors in the creative process. Now admittedly we haven't seen a ton of that so far, especially where Marina Siritis, Denise Crosby and Gates McFadden have been concerned, but this is beginning to change. Shari Goodhartz recalls specifically consulting Brent Spiner during the production of “The Most Toys” to get his input on how Data should behave, there's Patrick Stewart's somewhat infamous alleged meddling in “Captain's Holiday” and Jonathan Frakes is, of course, now one of the show's regular top tier directors. Even Denise Crosby was invited to pitch the basic concept of “Yesterday's Enterprise”, and she'll be the guiding figure spearheading all her return appearances from now on. Yet Crosby's is not the marquee name on any of her stories: One thing the cast member's *haven't* gotten to do yet is pen their own script themselves.
“The Gift” is DC's first Star Trek: The Next Generation Annual, a special extended length issue published once a year every year for the duration of the book's run. I always looked forward to these Annual issues for a number of reasons: Firstly, they were always event stories, but not in the contemporary parlance of big, overblown, often incredibly lurid and brutal bits of crossover fanwank. No, for Star Trek: The Next Generation the Annual (and, subsequently the summer event miniseries) is the comic line's chance to do its “Yesterday's Enterprise” or “Transfigurations”: That one sublime story that everything sort of builds towards, standing out as the iconic moment of the year. The other reason I tended to look forward to the Annuals is because I never subscribed to any of these books; I bought my comics and magazines at the grocery store (yes kids, once upon a time you could do that) and since the racks were re-stocked just infrequently enough these tended to be the issues you'd see on the shelves most often.
“The Gift” is also none other than John de Lancie's authorial debut on Star Trek, and naturally, it's a landmark Q story. In fact, it's the very best Q story since “Q Who”, if not “Encounter at Farpoint”. It's a story of unprecedented depth and sophistication from the hand of someone who plainly knows his character better than the staff writers on the TV show do. This is the second story to be included in The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation and it absolutely deserves it: “The Gift” is a potent mixture and anticipation of “Yesterday's Enterprise”, “Family”, “Tapestry” and “All Good Things...” and comes damn close to outdoing each and every one of them. It's a story that's actually incredibly difficult to explain, so focused is it on dream imagery, hallucinations, memory and alternate timelines. It's the story that singlehandedly catapults DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation into the big leagues, conclusively demonstrating that not only is it more then capable of playing on its parent TV show's level, it can pick up its slack and, if it's not careful, actually outclass it. It's the most daringly surreal and abstract Star Trek: The Next Generation has been yet in *any* incarnation, and also the most intensely personal. No surprises it's also the best.
The Enterprise crew are throwing a party, and Will comes into Captain Picard's room to ask if he'd like to accompany him to the celebration. But Picard seems preoccupied and deep in thought, and brushes Riker off. Not long afterward, the ship encounters an interstellar anomaly, and everyone onboard start to lose control of their mental faculties. Then, one of the most bizarre and disturbing scenes in the history of the series happens, as Picard slowly transforms into a goat (like, an actual, literal barnyard creature) on the bridge before Q appears to him, claiming to be upset with him after the way he embarrassed him in “Deja Q”. Q then spirits Goat-Picard away, telling Riker and Troi that they're going on a “homecoming trip” together. Picard (now no longer a goat) awakens in the Paris of his childhood and, upon realising his parents are still alive, goes to meet them. But his parents do not recognise him, and Picard discovers that Q has somehow adopted the role of Picard's teenage self, and Picard must now dig deep into his memories and values to out-debate Q prove he is who he says he is.
...And that's just what happens in the first 20 or so pages. It goes on, getting more and more unpredictably wonderful with each passing panel. There's even a scene where Q takes Picard to a primordial wasteland to show him his true roots (that is, his genetic history), and remember this was written in *1990*, before Ron Moore and Brannon Braga even had the *remotest* of ideas for “All Good Things...”. Trek scholars will be most interested in (and Trek purists will howl at) de Lancie's conception of the captain's relatives, which is dramatically different than what the “canon” version will give us a few months from now: They have different names, of course, but what's more important is that instead of being academics from wine country, they're a very small, quiet family living in a humble townhouse in downtown Paris. I hesitate to call them “working class” because those sorts of distinctions aren't really applicable to Earth in Star Trek's 24th century, but they're certainly not high society. Indeed, Jean-Luc's memories of them are charmingly mundane, recalling most fondly the times his father would take him fishing, or how they came up with a secret code together to make sure he got home from school safely.
Yes, I'm going to say it. There's no two ways around it, this version of Captain Picard's biography is absolutely superior to the one established in “Family”.
It further turns out that the source of Jean-Luc's malaise of late has been his brother, who in this version of events is not a vineyard owner named Robert, but a moody underachiever named Claude. He's also dead, having tragically perished in an accident when he and Jean-Luc were very young, an event Jean-Luc has been riddled with guilt over ever since and hasn't been able to ever truly move beyond. This, it's soon revealed, is the true purpose of Q's visit: He manipulates Picard into admitting and confronting his feelings of loss the way he was never able to before, and gives him the chance to finally grieve and heal with his parents. Which is all the more needed, because, as we learn not long after, it's a good thing Claude died because he was a total fucking psychopath who hated his brother and his family and, had he lived, would have grown into a tyrannical despot modelling himself after Adolf Hitler and become the one catalyst Starfleet and the Federation needed to explicitly take the final step into becoming a full-on conquering military empire. With Claude the Great and Terrible (the actual title he bestows upon himself) on the throne, Starfleet launches a genocidal purge of all non-human races in the galaxy, the sole holdout being a band of worn-down rebels onboard the renegade starship Enterprise under Captain William Riker, the only people left who care about the ideals Starfleet so casually abandoned.
(As great a handle as de Lancie clearly has on Jean-Luc Picard and Q, he also shows himself to know the other members of the crew just as well. While all these temporal shenanigans are going on in Paris, the Enterprise stays where it was when it all happened, and Riker has a lot of heavy, and personal, discussions with Deanna, Geordi, Data, Worf and Doctor Crusher about what Q might be planning and what they might be forced to do if Captain Picard never comes back or the timeline changes beyond their control. Even Guinan is on hand to further complicate things. All of which becomes prescient, of course, when everything goes “Yesterday's Enterprise” and the anti-time reality kicks in. Everyone's voice is pretty damn spot on, and I daresay this is one of the best ensemble outings of the year.)
Trying to explain the plot by necessity does a disservice to this story, because it's got such an unorthodox and experimental structure: I'm making it all out to seem much, much more straightforward than it really is. We're left by the end of it all not really clear on what was “real” and what wasn't, or on precisely how much time and history has been rewritten, if indeed at all. The art compliments the dreamlike haze that surrounds the story superbly-It's an absolute high water mark of Pablo Marcos' early work on the Star Trek: The Next Generation book. Here he's even got help from Gordon Purcell, another luminary in the world of Long 1980s Star Trek comics, as well as some terrific cover art from the acclaimed Jerome K. Moore, whose style is very much the iconic one of this period for me.
This issue once again sees the art in a transitional stage from its early stylization to its later photorealism, and that turns out to be exactly what “The Gift” needs. The Enterprise and the depths of space she resides in are particularly memorable (though she does get a bit squished in a few smaller panels), but the real highlight is the depiction of Q: In some scenes he appears as normal and human as anyone else, but in others he becomes sort of an inverse Cheshire Cat with a wicked grin; a vaguely human-shaped hole in the very fabric of reality itself, beyond which is an infinite, swirling maelstrom of cosmic wonder. And always, of course, clad in his signature Post-Atomic Horror Judge's robes.
Which also ties brilliantly into his character in this story. Q is deceptively and cunningly manipulative here, playing head games not just with Picard this time, but with us now as well. We never quite know until the story's very final moments just what Q's end goal is, when he confesses to Picard by way of a title drop. This is his gift to him and to the Enterprise crew. It was they who helped him discover his humanity, and now he wishes to return the favour by cutting Picard free of his past, thus giving him back to them. For we end where we begin, with Will inviting Picard to a party. But this time, the captain accepts the invitation. Just as Q could demonstrate his own humanity, now Captain Picard is allowed to do the same for us, for his crew, and for himself. Quite simply, never before has Q been depicted this well, and he never truly will again. And furthermore, it's a decisive claim to relevance for the comic book's alternate continuity: You could read this equally well as a sequel to "Deja Q"...or to the 1987 pilot miniseries.
“The Gift” is many things. It is brave, it is heartfelt, and it is as deep and complex as the cosmos itself. It's the kind of story that absolutely could never be made on the TV show, and the show is, quite frankly, all the poorer for it. There's a classic anthropological study of gift exchange that essentially claims gift-giving is rarely altruistic, and there is oftentimes an unspoken economy of debt associated with gifts. Ever as much our guardian spirit as our trickster god, this story is John de Lancie's gift to us. He's repaid the debt accrued when Captain Picard and Star Trek: The Next Generation helped him in the past, but he's also laid out a defiant statement of purpose: A challenge, once more, to prove ourselves capable of living up to our own ideals.
I only hope that someday we may return the favour.