Given Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s steadily climbing ratings and popularity, it was only natural that DC would bring the series back to the world of comics for a second volume and greenlight a monthly tie-in comic to go along with its television counterpart. In much the same way then that “Encounter at Farpoint” was the pilot for the series prior, it could be said that DC’s 1987 miniseries was a pilot for this book line. And indeed, DC’s Star Trek: The Next Generation would go on to be so successful it actually outlasted the show it was based on, running well into 1996. It probably could’ve run indefinitely had Paramount not pulled DC’s license in lieu of its ill-advised mid-90s “Paramount Comics” partnership with Marvel.
And furthermore, this series comprises an absolutely *massive* chunk of my personal history with Star Trek: The Next Generation, so there’s simply no way I couldn’t cover it, or indeed no way I could not have it be the dominant form of spin-off media this project explores.
This being comics, one thing that differentiates four-colour Star Trek: The Next Generation from fuzzy VHS Star Trek: The Next Generation, even at this stage, is an overt focus on serialization. While the stories tend to have the same scope of an average TV episode (though there are exceptions), they also tend to be spaced much further apart, sometimes running for months at a time. The two stories we’re looking at today, “Serafin’s Survivors” and its conclusion “Shadows in the Garden”, actually comprise issues 5 and 6 of the monthly series: The line proper began back in the second season and did a few stories set in that period that began to lay the groundwork for what it would become later on, but I chose to start with the third season material because, much as is the case on TV, this era sees the show in a time of transition, slowly evolving into the form it will be most remembered for.
One of the biggest transitions this series makes from the first volume is the addition of Michael Jan Friedman as head writer, who goes on to not unimpressively pen pretty much every single Star Trek: The Next Generation thing DC puts out. He comes in with volume 2 so this isn’t his debut, but it’s his positionality and approach to conceptualizing these characters and this setting that will define a lot of what we’re going to say about this book. We’ll get into that, but first I want to open by saying “Serafin’s Survivors”/“Shadows in the Garden” isn’t actually a personal favourite of mine from Friedman’s run: It’s got a few nice bits here and there, but it isn’t anything amazingly special, is more than a little rocky in some places and not batting at the level I know this series is capable of when it’s going at full tilt. The reason we’re looking at it though is because it was included in a compilation trade paperback called The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation released in May 1994 when the (TV) series was coming to a close.
This is actually a pretty decent book if you’re looking for an introduction to the DC series as the rest of their picks really are stories I would hold up as absolute classics (and we’ll get to them in due time). This though is the one inclusion I would personally quibble with as it’s not *exactly* showing the series at its very best in my opinion. But by its mere presence in the omnibus, and the fact that not only was DC editor Robert Greenberger (who put the collection together) apparently a fan of it so, it would seem, was Star Trek: The Next Generation executive producer Jeri Taylor, who wrote the introduction, so this means we have to look at it. Taylor will be joining the show in the fourth season and is one of the major, major creative figures of Star Trek going forward and since we’ll be talking about her a great deal in the near future any story she likes is one worth paying attention to.
“Serafin’s Survivors” and “Shadows in the Garden” features the Enterprise crew coming to the aid of Serafin’s Colony, a group of planetary settlers who have attained a near-mythic reputation across the Federation for their nigh-superhuman tenacity and will in the face of a disease that nearly wiped them all out. When they reach the planet, however, they discover that only a small handful of the colonists are still alive, apparently the hardiest members who managed to fight off the plague. Geordi has a friend named Dahlia among the colonists, later revealed to be a former lover and is overwhelmed at the prospect of seeing her again. Deanna, however is growing suspicious that the colonists are hiding something from the crew, and launches an investigation to find out what they might be holding back. She’s eventually proven correct when it turns out the survivors were exposed to a toxic mutagen that grants them augmented strength, stamina and vitality, yet at the expense of cursing them with a vampire-like ability and need to drain the life force of others.
There’s also a subplot each for Data and Doctor Crusher. In the former, Data befriends a young boy named Randy who is new to the Enterprise and isn’t used to seeing androids. Data bonds with Randy over their shared status as outsiders and helps him overcome his fear of others, and they soon become fast friends. Randy is an extension of a trick Friedman pulled in the previous story arc “The Derelict”/“The Hero Factor”: He’s an outsider character who for one reason or another doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Enterprise crew, but is helped and healed by them. In that story, the character was Assistant Chief Engineer McRobb, a quiet, reserved fellow who feels intimidated by the great men and women he perceives surrounding him. He doesn’t quite feel worthy to be counted among their ranks, but with some help from Riker, Worf, Geordi and Doctor Pulaski he eventually discovers that even he can be a hero. McRobb is sort of an interesting anticipation of Reginald Barclay here, although far less socially crippled.
In both his and Randy’s case, however, it’s worth pointing out how Friedman at once feels the need to craft a subplot about character development, and also feels unable to do this with any of the main characters, probably out of the general feeling at the time that it was completely impossible to do this with them. To his credit Friedman knocks it out of the park: He manages to make the Enterprise crew at once larger than life and also eminently likable and relatable, making sure to give each person distinct personalities and realistic sounding interactions with each other. And both Randy and McRobb’s stories are heartwarming examples of the utopian conflict resolution Star Trek: The Next Generation is so uniquely suited to displaying (especially as both go on to be reoccurring characters), and that the current TV writers on balance have no clue how to write. But it is telling that two arcs in a row he’s had trouble articulating this with any of the regulars, though he does get better at it (in fact, Friedman will soon show himself to be a masterclass at it).
The subplot with Doctor Crusher is better on this front, and it’s one of the only moments this year (in comics *or* on TV) that actually think to look at the ramifications of her having been away for a year. It starts with her sharing drinks with Data, Riker and Worf in Ten Forward before being interrupted by Wesley, who wants to talk. Beverly thinks he has a problem and is looking for her advice and is thankful he thought to come to her, but it turns out Wesley was actually concerned about her, worrying she might be feeling lonely because they’d been apart for so long and he’s moved out of her quarters on the Enterprise, and wanted to make sure she was handling it OK. It’s a lovely little scene and, in spite of it being sadly pretty out of character for Wesley Crusher, it’s something that one could imagine seeing in a universe where a more constructive and functional version of that relationship exists.
In fact, Friedman already has a great handle on the characters: While some of them, like Wesley, actually seem more rounded than they do on TV, I always hear the actors’ voices in my head when I read Friedman’s stuff, which is always a good sign when it comes to licensed media as far as I’m concerned. Deanna in particular is positively refreshing here, getting a meaty mystery plot about the colonists to unravel all by herself and even gets to show off some mad parallel bars skills while dispensing two of my favourite lines of hers ever:
“Betazoids are not given much credit for their physical abilities, but like anyone else we are creatures of mind and body.”
And in response to one of the colonists talking about how life on Serafin’s Planet taught them to keep to themselves and ignore the rest of the galaxy (while also painfully obviously hitting on her)
“That is not a very productive attitude, Mister Uribe. The galaxy is full of interesting things. Some might even say wondrous things.”
Which is just brilliant, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a ton of fun to see, more material than Deanna’s had all season and almost makes up for “The Price”.
But there is one gap in Friedman’s characterization here, and unfortunately it’s with the most important person in the story: Geordi. The story paints him so fixated on Dahlia that it blinds him to the danger the colonists pose, and he adamantly refuses to believe there’s something up with him (even angrily lashing out at Deanna when she asks him if he’s noticed anything strange!) until the literal last second when the colonists inevitably start killing people. It’s more than a little frustrating to see him so out of character here for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he was served so well not only in the last story arc but in the pilot miniseries too. As we’ll soon see in the fourth season, Geordi seems to be a character a lot of people for some reason have a huge problem getting a handle on, even though, to me at least, he should be self-evidently the easiest: Just let LeVar Burton play LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation and you’ve nailed it. How is this difficult?
I won’t spoil the story for those of you who haven’t read it, but *obviously* Geordi gets a tragic ending because this is the third season. And it does concern me that this is being pegged as one of the best stories in the comic series by people like Jeri Taylor because, frankly, I *hate* tragic endings in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s such a cliche of hack pathos to say something like “there should have been a better way”, but, well, yes: There should have been a better way. That’s the sort of thing this show (and series) is supposed to be showing us, and it jars even worse in this context as all the other stories in this omnibus provide a far more nuanced and sophisticated sense of drama that weaves Star Trek: The Next Generation’s utopianism into their plots far more effectively and movingly. This not only introduces a love interest simply to provide angst for Geordi, but does so in a way that makes him look incredibly petulant and shortsighted and that’s just awful for me to see.
So what we see here is that while Friedman is starting to get a really good feel for his cast, he’s still having a few growing pains making everything come together exactly the way he needs it to. But that’s OK, because Star Trek is about growing and learning, that’s just what happens and we’re only a few issues away from the series finally hitting its stride. Like I said, this is a time of transition across the board, evident as well in the book’s art style: The earlier story arcs, like the pilot miniseries, had that same signature stylized, hulked-out Liefeldian look, but with “Serafin’s Survivors”/“Shadows in the Garden” we see Friedman’s art partner Pablo Marcos (along with Juliana Ferriter and Bob Pinaha) starting to move towards a more photorealistic style that will become this book’s standard going forward, perhaps even influencing Malibu Comics’ later run on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. So it’s a story worth looking at from an academic perspective, and it does boast a handful of genuinely good moments, so it gets a recommendation for that if nothing else.