Sunday, August 30, 2015

Myriad Universes: Separation Anxiety Part 4: Second Chances!

“Second Chances” is perfect Star Trek: The Next Generation.

...Oh no, not the goofy episode from next season where the transporter retroactively cloned Commander Riker on his previous post that fucks up Will's relationship with Deanna Troi and Mae Jemison is the best part of it. That's ridiculous. I'm talking about this comic book that's the fourth part of Separation Anxiety.

You know it's going to be a good story, or at least noteworthy, when it opens with a “chief medical officer's log”. And this one doesn't disappoint, with a lengthy portion of its runtime dedicated to just letting us watch Beverly Crusher be awesome leading an away team mission. Any Beverly Crusher, Science Officer fan will be spoiled by scene after scene in this book of her being unflappably competent, whip-smart and quippy. And continuing a thread introduced in The Return of Okona, Bev is also portrayed as having a manifestly different style of leadership than Commander Riker, though still compelling in its own right: She's far more involved in the nitty-gritty of the technical research, not issuing orders to her team but managing, delegating and actively working with them to help gather as much information as they can. Seeing how effortlessly and perfectly she slides into this role here only makes you wish all the harder that this had been her role on the TV show much, much more often than it really was.

But we barely have time to appreciate that before we're treated to a scene so defining it could have come from “The Wounded”. Which, incidentally, is what it's positioned as a sequel to. Miles O'Brien and Terry Oliver are investigating a computer room the away team discovered on the planet they beamed down to last issue. Doctor Crusher has learned there aren't any sentient life-forms still around who could help, but figures the computer banks are probably still intact and could yield some clues. Terry expresses concern that time is of the essence as the Sztazzan no doubt know of their whereabouts and will probably send a team of their own down. What follows is an exchange between her and Chief O'Brien so priceless and air-pumping I had to repeat it in its entirety here.
“After all, it won't take long for those Sztazzan filth to find our coordinates and beam down after us!” 
“'Filth', eh?” 
“You'd call them that too, if they'd murdered your friends the way they murdered mine!” 
“I see. Funny...You sound the way I did not so long ago. Except it wasn't the Sztazzan I had a hate for – It was the Cardassians! I'd witnessed the kind of slaughter they're inclined towards – First hand!” 
“Then you know how I feel!” 
“Sure – But that doesn't mean I approve of it! Not so long ago, we had some Cardassians on the Enterprise – Making some wild charges about my old captain. It was all I could do to keep from slugging one o'them! Unfortunately, the wild charges turned out to be true. And I learned a valuable lesson: There are usually two sides to a story.” 
“Not when it comes to the Sztazzan!” 
“Are you sure? What do you know about them except that they fired on your ship? Maybe they had some provocation – At least from their point of view!” 
“Forget it chief...Nothing you say is going to make me love those bloody butchers!” 
“You don't have to love 'em. You just have to co-exist with them.”
There are only so many ways I can say a thing is perfect without sounding like a broken record. But that's what this scene is. The attitude on display here, from beginning to end, is absolutely, spot-on to-the-note perfect for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This encapsulates better than anything I could hope to put to prose myself the utopian conflict resolution and commitment to personal growth I love this series so much for. It solidifies what the purpose of “The Wounded” was and what it meant for Miles O'Brien as a character for anyone left who might be unsure. There's the significance of this coming in the wake of “I, Borg”, because this is a treatment of the “know your enemy” pitch I personally far prefer to what we got in that episode. But there's also the more implicit significance of this coming less then a year out from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Terry hasn't been with this Enterprise very long, so she's still prone to the kind of militaristic categorical dismissal of “the enemy” that defines the rest of Starfleet (tellingly, Miles is cut off before he can finish his speech by asking “Isn't that what the Federation's all about?”).

But she is now, and this means she has the opportunity to look within herself to become a better person. And though its Miles who is ultimately saved in this moment, this exchange also sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to Terry's salvation too. For she's right, the Sztazzan do beam down and assault the away team in the book's climax, and while they do all get out in time comparatively unscathed, it's not before Terry catches sight of an injured crewmember...Who turns out to be Sztazzan. She hesitates for a moment, but ultimately decides to call Doctor Crusher over. Thanks to her split-second intervention, the crewmember's life is saved. Clearly the ramifications of this will need to be explored more later on, but for now this restores Commander Riker's (and our) faith in Terry, just as Beverly had hoped.

So all the stuff going on with the saucer section is so fascinating we haven't even talked about what's happening with the stardrive section crew yet! Thankfully Data and Geordi have found a way to keep the relay station from exploding, but the Stazzan fleet is growing progressively more irritated and starts to take action. So to buy the team time to get on that, Captain Picard and Ro Laren decide to play along. What follows is a rollicking space battle action sequence the likes of which would make the TV show's VFX department blush and budgeting department quake in their boots. The stardrive section spins around, takes off vertically and flips around behind its pursuers (bringing a whole new meaning to “thinking three dimensionally” in space).

It reminds me a lot of the Dirty Pair TV episode “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys”, and a lot of space-based action sci-fi anime of that type in general. I'm unashamed to admit it's an absolute blast to see something like that in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it's also noteworthy because of how genuinely rare it is, even in the comic line: You would expect this kind of scene would be right up this series' alley, but Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos are surprisingly reserved about giving it to us, preferring to shift the visual spectacle elsewhere. This works to great effect, of course, but it also means the action scenes are all the more breathtaking and memorable when they do happen.

The story on the stardrive section is mostly about Laren and Jean-Luc this month: We get the obligatory progression of Worf, Geordi and Data's subplots on the relay station, but it's those two who get the overwhelming majority of the dialog here. Deanna Troi is surprisingly underserved by this book's standards, though she isn't in the miniseries on the whole and I'm actually OK with that as it gives Friedman a chance to play with a character and character dynamic he really hasn't been able to before. And Laren and Jean-Luc are wonderful under his pen, becoming nothing short of a veritable tag-team partnership during the Sztazzan firefight. There is the obvious healthy, functional portrayal of a relationship that didn't typically get that treatment on TV, but I want to lay off the contrast here as I feel like now I'm just punching down. What struck me more about the way Laren and Jean-Luc behave here is that they seem to embody the best of anyone in this story so far the creation of a unique micro-team dynamic.

Maybe it's the more stripped-down and utilitarian feel of the battle bridge, but Captain Picard's team seems much smaller and much more finely honed then Commander Riker's. They also have a really distinct and attractive dynamic that is utterly their own. I don't mean that as a criticism of Will's people or his leadership style, but it does seem like Will has a bigger ship and more resources to work with. He's got Doctor Crusher (and with her all of sickbay and all her science labs), Chief O'Brien, Terry Oliver and an extra who's familiar and recognisable to us in Jenna D'Sora at tactical (who, and let's be perfectly fair and honest here, Captain Picard's tactical officer Burke kind of isn't). Including the civilians, he's also got Alexander (whose story gets developed a bit further when Mott takes it upon himself to ask Ms. Kyle if the young lad might like a “distraction” to take his mind off his father) and Keiko O'Brien as well, not to mention the fact Will has the normal, full-size saucer section bridge at his disposal.

Captain Picard, by contrast, really just has Laren and Deanna. Sure, he's also got the away team on the relay station, but they're cut off from both ships and have their own set of challenges to work through. But the interesting and curious side-effect of this is that it makes Captain Picard's team seem a bit more tightly-knit and tenacious, and the captain himself is more engaged and more of an active participant in the action than I think he's ever been in recent memory. It reminds me of maybe an older way of doing Star Trek, or at least a different one...More akin, perhaps, to how I imagine life aboard the Stargazer might have been like for Captain Picard. Much as I love the sprawling starship Enterprise in its own way, I've long held a fascination with space-based science fiction aboard comparatively small and cramped starships with a crew manifest not exceeding the single digits-It feels cozy and homey to me for some reason, and I guess marks a nice contrast with the vastness of space. That's part of the reason I like Dirty Pair and Raumpatrouille Orion as much as I do, and that's the vibe I get from the battle bridge action this month.

(Interestingly, as I write this I'm also reminded of how the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation described their friendship with each other on set. They say that while they were all part of the same circle of friends, there were also different subdivisions and subsets, and each pair or subgroup of people had a unique dynamic with each other they didn't have with anyone else. So each time you came on set and each time somebody had a scene with somebody else, the energy was always just a little bit different, and equally compelling, from the last time. It's funny how Friedman seems to have captured that so well here.)

Meanwhile back on the saucer section (and I like how the cliffhanger ends with them this month, as it ended with the battle bridge crew last month), Doctor Crusher and Chief O'Brien have learned the history of the people who built the relay station. Apparently their homeworld was facing natural disaster, and having only found one other planet in the galaxy that could support their kind of life, they pooled all their resources into building a machine that could transport vast quantities of people and material over great distances in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, the planet they settled on wound up being struck by a comet a few centuries after they arrived, so they tragically all went extinct anyway. It seems there is another station on this side of the galaxy that could conceivably be rewired to send the saucer back, but there's a problem: It's a year away at impulse (which is all the saucer can do), and their deuterium tanks would dry up long before that anyway. Whoops.

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