Sunday, August 16, 2015

Myriad Universes: The Return of Okona Volume 1

It's perhaps inevitable that at some point spin-off media will begin to revisit one-shot characters and plotlines from their parent series. I don't personally consider this to be necessarily bad or fanwanky: A lot of times it makes good storytelling sense to return to those concepts, so long as it's not done simply because it can. You could argue that this is in fact the point of media like this, to go back to things the parent series abandoned and examine it in more detail, and while I think there are a lot of other reasons spin-off media is good, that's certainly one of them.

The title of this story arc is a bit misleading, as while it does indeed mark the return of Captain Thaddeus Okona it's actually about a great deal more than that. The Return of Okona immediately follows on from The Star Lost, and expands greatly on its predecessor's approach to character building: This miniseries marks the first time Michael Jan Friedman begins to seriously double down on the number and intricacy of parallel subplots for DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation-From here on out each issue or set of issues is going to explore at least one important story for every one of the main characters and several reoccurring characters to boot. It gives the comic line a very novelesque sense of pacing and scale and makes the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation feel far more vast and expansive as a result.

In fact, it's so lengthy, gets so intricate and I've got enough to say about it (and I've got a whole other summer event miniseries, plus assorted one-shots and two and three parters I want to look at for this summer hiatus) that I'm breaking protocol a bit for the comics: Instead of doing a post for each issue, I'm covering the first three stories, “Wayward Son”, “Strangers in Strange Lands!” and “City Life”, in one extended essay and calling it “The Return of Okona Volume 1”. I'll do the back three (“The Remembered One”, “The Rift!” and “Kingdom of the Damned”) a post from now, with the expected entry in-between. I'm not technically sure all six issues are considered part of the same story arc as the major plot is different between the two sets of books, but Captain Okona features prominently in both of them so I'm considering them all part of the same story for category purposes. If I didn't, I'd basically end up reviewing the entire comic line issue by issue and quite frankly nobody wants to see that.

Right now the important thing is that The Return of Okona is every bit as elegant and meticulously crafted as anything else Michael Jan Friedman has done. You wouldn't think so given how Captain Okona is a bit of a broad-strokes character, not the sort you'd expect to divine a lot of nuance out of, but Friedman manages it: His care and attention to not just narrative structures, but the symbolic context, meaning and associations of said structures, enables him to craft a compelling and provocative story about the kind of character Okona is and the role he plays in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the delightfully weird thing is the whole thing doesn't even open up appearing to be a story about Okona: By all accounts it seems at first to be a Worf story, then moves over to be an Alexander one. Which is intriguing, as this series was written well before “New Ground” and Alexander moving to the Enterprise. Predictably, this gives us a fascinating counterfactual interpretation of how Worf and Alexander's relationship could have worked. And you can probably guess I like it way better than the one we got on TV.

Worf's major crux is that with Alexander light years away, he doesn't feel like he's fulfilling his duties as a father, even though he's in the capable hands of the Rozhenkos. To make matters worse, Worf's brother (not Kurn...Jeremy Aster!) is coming to visit Worf's family and he wishes he could be there with them. This is an interesting and obvious pairing to explore: For a number of reasons, Worf was actually a better teacher and mentor to Jeremy than he was to Alexander, and one of the things his presence in this story does is remind us of that. In fact, even though the two of them are supposedly roughly comparable in age, Jeremy winds up spending this story very much playing the role of Alexander's uncle: He shows him fun stuff and acts as a confidant who's a bit cooler and more approachable then his father or the Rozhenkos. Jeremy is a definite highlight of this story-He's grown leaps and bounds from “The Bonding” and even “The Lesson”: He's completely over the trauma of his mother's death, even though that's something that will always be part of him, and acts many years older than his age.

This turns out to be precisely what Alexander needs when it's revealed that he blames his mother for abandoning him and has taken to holding it against all Klingons, far preferring to live among and emulate humans. And remember again this story is coming before “New Ground”, and even “Hero Worship”. Actually, it feels like this story could serve very well as a compliment to the latter episode, with Alexander experiencing a sort of mirrored inverse of what Timothy goes through. Jeremy takes it upon himself to subtly show Alexander that his people have a strong tradition of loyalty and pride too, by telling him a story (serialized, natch) about two Klingon warrior comrades named Marut and Radak that conveniently bears some similarities to the Terran myth of Damon and Pythias. In doing so, Jeremy ironically “humanizes” the Klingons for Alexander, and bonds with him over the shared loss of their mothers by pointing out that K'Ehleyr didn't mean to die and leave Alexander alone, just like Marla Aster didn't mean to leave Jeremy, and that Worf still loves Alexander and tries to show it in different ways.

It's an organic and naturalistic evolution of both characters that's a perfect mesh with Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopian themes. As much as I dislike “Reunion”, this is straightforwardly the correct way to move on from that story in the most constructive and helpful way possible. And it's only the B-plot. The A-plot, is, of course, about Captain Okona, whose ship the Enterprise has found mysteriously adrift above a seemingly empty planet sending out an automated distress signal. Concerned for their old friend, an away team beams down to the planet to investigate, and the first interesting thing is that it's led by...Deanna Troi. Despite Commander Riker's objections, Captain Picard rightly points out how other officers need command experience too, and Will doesn't have to lead *every* away mission. It's also an apropos extension of Deanna's major role in The Star Lost, where she was the one who singlehandedly figured out what the Lanatosians were up to.

Alongside Deanna are Doctor Cruser, Data and Worf, and what's immediately interesting here (again, much like the latter half of The Star Lost) is how this changes the by-now somewhat hackneyed dynamic the crew has with one another. Delightfully, Deanna seems to consider her position as team leader a purely nominal one, and Beverly ends up doing a heavy chunk of the commanding too. Where Will would tend to just issue orders, Deanna and Bev brainstorm with their teammates, (and Okona, who happily, though inevitably, turns out to be alive), delegate tasks according to each person's individual strengths and come to decisions generatively and from the bottom-up. Meanwhile on the bridge, an anxious Will doesn't seem to know what to do with himself, constantly disagreeing (albeit respectfully and amiably) with Captain Picard and chomping at the bit to be down in the thick of the action, especially when contact is temporarily lost with the away team.

(Speaking of bringing back minor characters, it's also neat to see Tess Allenby and even Jenna D'Sora back here and getting substantive roles. Tess fills Data's narrative role effortlessly, while Jenna D'Sora pitches in on the bridge for Worf when he's not there.)

But it turns out not to be Will who Deana and Beverly are contrasted with, but Captain Okona (in fact, the difference between Will and Okona is going to become the major theme in the second half of this story). Here, Okona is portrayed, fittingly, as a very old-fashioned kind of roguish masculine hero. This story really emphasizes his lone gun personality and rakish tendencies, and shows them to be little more than an act that's a little past its time. Okona naturally tries to woo Beverly, whom he's never met before, but she just rolls her eyes and plays along. More gravely, his gut instinct is to mistrust the life-forms on the planet they've found themselves on (turns out it wasn't so empty and uninhabited after all), and this serves as the crux for what Friedman is trying to tell us about the kind of character archetype Okona represents.

Okona and the away team have landed on a planet that seems built around a sort of futuristic European Renaissance aesthetic populated by artificial beings, many of whom seem to be going out of their way to kill them, even though, paradoxically, their every need has been catered to. They're immediately provided with food, shelter and clothing (rather lavish, luxurious ones in fact) which seems to mysteriously appear around them at the spot they beamed down, but as soon as they move down to the village they get immediately attacked. Okona's first instinct is to distrust everything and react defensively, but Deanna and Beverly advocate a more diplomatic and cautious approach. They, along with Data, reason that the beings might have motives they just don't understand yet. This is bolstered when an elephant-like steed seemingly comes out of nowhere to save the team from a group of assailants, and a mysterious woman appears to help guide them out of the city (which has been blocking their communications). Okona doesn't trust either one of them at first, but Deanna and Beverly convince him to give them a chance.

This turns out to be a wise move, as Tess eventually discovers that the planet they've found is actually what amounts to a historical theme park designed to retell the story of a beloved and heroic king by placing visitors in the role of the king himself for some of his greatest exploits. Okona, it turns out, has been unwittingly playing that role, and the away team that of his generals and allies. The elephant was the king's mount, and the woman, of course, the queen. So interestingly, what we have here is not really so much a planet based around a futuristic Renaissance aesthetic as much as one that's built around populist, aggrandizing history in the form of what really amounts to dimestore sword-and-sorcery and pulp sci-fi. Naturally, Pablo Marcos does a wonderful job realising this through the lens of charmingly schlocky 1980s pulp art, and of course Thaddeus Okona would be the kind of person the pseudo-sentient artificial intelligence that runs the ride would be drawn to.

The purpose of having Okona here, in this setting, is thus revealed to be a metatextual commentary and the kind of stock archetype he initially came out of. Because “The Outrageous Okona” was conceived as little more than a vehicle for bringing Billy Campbell back and maybe giving us a taste how he might have played Commander Riker, his actual character was fairly programmatic. This story is saying that kind of rakish, rogue lead is the hallmark of a particular sort of dated artifice, and not the kind of artifice that conveys meaning through metaphor and allegory, but more the kind that rings a bit hollow, insecure and insincere. Trying to model your life after that kind of character also sets you on a path for a kind of willfully lonely existence, as demonstrated through the fact that while he has some good instincts, they're ultimately more or less 50/50 and his unwillingness to trust others in lieu of doing everything independently and on his own isn't going to get the team out of their predicament. It's a callback and development of the one bit of commentary in “The Outrageous Okona” proper, where Will tells Wesley that you can live life on your own terms without sacrificing family, community and companionship.

This will of course come back and ring even louder in the second half of this story, where Captain Okona and Commander Riker are explicitly compared and contrasted. Because for the immediate future, Captain Okona is a fellow traveller aboard the Enterprise, and through him we'll get a clear look once and for all the true nature of the lineage Star Trek: The Next Generation shares with the kind of adventure romance Captain Okona hails from.

No comments:

Post a Comment