Tuesday, February 18, 2014

“Persistence of Memory”: The Enterprise Experiment # 1

It's such a perfect idea one wonders why it wasn't done sooner. D.C. Fontana was the script editor for the lion's share of the Original Series and had worked on the show since the beginning. She penned a number of the most popular and best-received episodes of the show and played a large part in shaping Star Trek into the form we now recognise. Even without taking into account reprising her role for the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, contributing to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with Peter Allan Fields and writing three video games, Fontana is simply a no-brainier to handle Star Trek: Year Four: It's obvious, really-excepting the deceased Gene Coon, she's without question the heir apparent to carry on the mantle of the Original Series.

</Although not D.C. Fontana's first Star Trek work since The Animated Series, “The Enterprise Experiment”, a five-issue miniseries from 2008 that was a part of IDW's Star Trek: Year Four line of titles, is at least the first to explicitly interact with this era of Star Trek's history. For this project, Fontana reunites with her longtime collaborator Derek Chester, a comic book and video game writer otherwise known for his work on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and with whom she also worked on Star Trek Bridge Commander, Star Trek: Legacy, and Star Trek: Tactical Assault. />

“The Enterprise Experiment”, as you can probably guess, picks up in the aftermath of the third season episode “The Enterprise Incident”, where Kirk engages in diplomatic subterfuge to steal the Romulans' prototypical cloaking device. Kirk and Spock are adrift in a shuttlecraft, trying to locate the Enterprise, which has cloaked itself using said device as part of an experiment to test its functionality as a potential asset on Federation starships. The cloaking device the Enterprise is using is a variation of the original Romulan design cooked up by Starfleet Intelligence and has, hypothetically, alleviated all the problems the Romulans had with its predecessor. However, it soon becomes apparent that not quite all of the bugs have been worked out, as the Enterprise fails to respond to Kirk and Spock's hails. Presuming something has gone wrong, Spock opens the shuttlebay hangar doors with what basically amounts to a garage door opener (which is pretty funny) and the shuttle returns to the ship on its own. Climbing aboard, however, Kirk and Spock find it seemingly abandoned, with not a single crewmember in sight.

</The upshot to this is, of course, that it is deeply and bitterly ironic that D.C. Fontana ends up writing for a series set during the same time period as her *own* Star Trek series that everyone seems ready to forget actually happened. IDW editorial in particular twists the knife rather egregiously, whether intentionally or not, in their interview with Fontana that preceded this series: Every other question they ask for her thoughts on the “canonicity” of the Animated Series, leading to an especially revealing exchange where she lays into the character of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, saying that it annoyed her because it flatly contradicted the backstory she personally established for Spock in “Yesteryear” (namely that he was an only child) capping it off with the equal parts wry and loaded statement “Apparently it's not canon if I write it”./>

It turns out, however, that the crew isn't gone but “out of phase”: After getting hit with a bolt of energy while trying to disconnect the cloaking device from the ship's engines, Spock is able to make contact with the partially-phased Lieutenant Arex, who tells of Scotty's own attempt to shut the device down, leading to the crew's discovery that the cloak has actually permeated the hull of the Enterprise itself, along with all the other matter on the ship. Although Scotty and Arex were able to reconfigure the transporter (much as Scotty had done to retrieve Kirk when he was phased in “The Tholian Web”,) they both phased out before the final adjustments could be made. While Spock and Arex try to finish the job, Kirk notices the ship has automatically gone to proximity alert and goes to the bridge in case he has to move the Enterprise out of harm's way. After struggling to regain control of the viewscreen, helm and engines, Kirk discovers that the approaching object is a Romulan Bird-of-Prey, commanded by *that* Romulan Commander (no, not that one-he's dead. The other one. From the episode this story is a sequel to).

</Perhaps as a consequence, this story is the single fanwankiest Star Trek story I have ever read: Aside from “The Enterprise Incident”, this book manages to name-check “The City on the Edge of Forever” (via a photo of the Guardian of Forever, though, knowing Fontana and her agenda this is more likely a reference to “Yesteryear”), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (gratuitous references to Carol and David Marcus), “The Tholian Web”, “Spectre of the Gun”, and arguably even Michael Jan Friedman's Star Trek: The Next Generation story “Whoever Fights Monsters”, although that may just be due to Nietzsche being an overwhelmingly over- and misquoted person in general, or perhaps me kinda wishing I was reading that instead of this. The biggest reference is, of course, to another Star Trek: The Next Generation episode: “The Next Phase”, for which this story is largely a whole plot lift, except inverted. This yields something of a problem, however: If the original Enterprise crew had experience with the phasing caused by Romulan cloaking devices, why was the latter Enterprise crew so surprised to encounter it again? Furthermore, why didn't the Romulans work that little kink out in the intervening *78 years*?/>

This issue does a lot of what's probably expected of it to do. It sets up the general premise of the miniseries, which, given this is a serial as opposed to the standalone episodes of the main Year Four line, this is probably a good thing. It also makes a lot of references to a bunch of other Star Trek stories: The plot, aside from being a sequel to Fontana's earlier work, is largely an inversion of “The Next Phase” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. This makes sense though, as it still follows on from “The Enterprise Incident” and is a logical end result of Starfleet mucking about with cloaking devices. It all fits very neatly within established Star Trek “canon” and “continuity” which is, lets face it, what anyone picking up a book like this is going to be looking for in the first place. And furthermore, this is very much in keeping with what we know of Fontana's approach to writing: While it lacks the sweeping, galactic scale of Star Trek: Legacy and Star Trek: Tactical Assault, it's a return to the cumulative style of character development that we saw in stories like “Journey to Babel”. Furthermore, this series sees the welcome return of the storied Star Trek comic artistic team Terry Pallot and Gordon Purcell, which means this series is lovely to look at as well.

</I would say this seems puzzlingly out-of-character for D.C. Fontana, except I don't actually think it is. There's of course her propensity for cumulative, referential character development that we talked about in regards to “Journey to Babel” and “Yesteryear” we could point to, but I think what's actually going on here is Fontana very clearly writing for her audience, and knowing precisely what that audience is and what it wants. Unlike her television work or even her video game work, something like Star Trek: Year Four for IDW is aimed at a *painfully* niche readership made up pretty much exclusively of male Nerd Culture fans. And pure, unbridled fanwank is exactly the sort of thing Nerds want to see in a Star Trek story. IDW's own editorial department gave the game away in their interview, acting breathlessly entranced by the concept of canon and canonicity. Had Fontana made her comic debut in the 1990s, we might have gotten a very different story, but instead she made it in 2008 and she wrote what a 2008 fanbase wants to read. And, while nobody does fanwank better than D.C. Fontana, it's profoundly disheartening to see that's all she thinks Star Trek is good for now./>

To Be Continued...

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting approach to your article - I really like the combination of analysis of the book and the interview spliced together. I have never read any of these books, and it is really a shame to hear about Fontana being distilled down to fanwank - sounds like a very cynical cashing in of originally good credentials.