This section of The Star Lost really does feel like it’s from another story. In fact, when I first rediscovered this miniseries, it thought it was another story: Stumbling upon the cover for this issue while browsing through the archives of DC’s Star Trek: The Next Generation immediately caught my interest and I picked it up out of curiosity, only to find it was actually Part 4 of The Star Lost.
In any other context, “Deanna Troi uncovers the mystery of a culture of mer-people and its thinly veiled institutionalized power structures of oppression and discrimination” would be grounds enough for a science fiction story unto itself-Indeed, even the Animated Series did an episode that was broad-strokes similar. But while that episode took its central sci-fi conceit (ocean planet inhabited by civilization of mer-people) and went no further than that, here it’s a subset of the far larger and grander tale we’ve been seeing unfold for the past few months. What this does is touch on a central divide in attitudes about how science fiction ought to be approached and once again shows how Star Trek: The Next Generation, particularly this Star Trek: The Next Generation, is transmuting the genre into something more holistic and universal.
The mere fact that one of this very series’ own predecessors took a similar conceit and expected it to carry an entire story is a revealing demonstration of just how much science fiction has changed in only the past 10-15 years or so. “The Ambergris Element” figured all it had to do was present a neat sci-fi concept (“Hey look! Ocean planet with mer-people!”) and its job was basically done. Now, the fact “The Ambergris Element” was also a spectacularly incoherent piece of shit penned by the single worst writer ever to job for Star Trek is actually beside the point here: What I want to focus in on here is the assumption that the most important thing was the central speculative idea and that everything else was just window dressing and irrelevant details. This is a very traditional (read Hard SF) way of going about doing science fiction, and that simply isn’t going to fly anymore for a lot of very good reasons. You can’t get away with this these days, and quite frankly, you shouldn’t be able to.
That’s not to say we have to abandon the speculative and the fantastic; this is still science fiction after all and there’s no point in doing science fiction if you’re not going to engage with that on some level. But what we’re learning now is that the speculative has to be treated as a manifestation of the themes, energies and emotions of the larger work, not the be-all and end-all unto itself. We’re getting right back to what was so terrific about “The Lesson” (or indeed Dirty Pair, or any other hallmark of Long 1980s storytelling), where abstract images and concepts are used to highlight new dimensions of stories instead of obfuscating them. But the fact these two issues seem to stand on their own a bit is also indicative of the care and time Micheal Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos have taken to meticulously build up The Star Lost to a slow burn: The business with the Lanatosians and the Skriiti (the name the friendly sea serpent people refer to themselves as) isn’t so much a typical Long 1980s Star Trek B-plot as much as it is a secondary thread to the miniseries’ overarching plot.
In some ways, this feels traditional, almost Original Series-esque, actually: Deanna knows Data is working on the Lanatosian relocation project with her, so she and her fwllow captives to cause a series of vibrations Data’s keen hearing will be sure to pick up. Sure enough, Data finds them and, once beamed back aboard the Enterprise, Deanna fills Captain Picard in on what went down beneath the Lanatosian waves. It turns out the Lanatosians see the Skrriti as primitive life forms beneath them, despite the fact they they are in fact sentient and quite intelligent (merely possessing a different sort of intelligence). The Skriiti were hunted for sport such that they’re nearly extinct and, when they predictably fought back violently, the Lanatosians used this as an excuse to label them vicious thugs and to further justify their segregation of them. The Lanatosians than tried to conceal the knowledge of the Skriiti’s existence from the Enterprise crew knowing that their aquarium tanks could not hold all of them plus their momnuments as well.
This gives us two more killer quotes: After Data and Deanna subdue their Lanatosian captors, Deanna informs them
“You may leave if you like – Which is more of a choice than you gave us.”
While, when met by predictable outrage over the negotiation table, Captain Picard informs the Lanatosian government that clearly sentient life forms take priority over religious artefacts, no matter how sacred, he indignantly declares
“It would be the gravest of injustices to sacrifice intelligent beings for the sake of a pile of stones. And frankly, given your appalling disregard for the value of life – You should consider yourselves fortunate that I am not leaving you behind.”
You could almost imagine a scene like this playing out in one of the better above-average Original Series episodes, but you could also see it happening in one of the mediocre episodes of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV show. And what’s immediately astonishing here is how well the crew has adjusted to a new set of roles: In this issue, as in the last one, Deanna is basically playing the Commander Riker role, leading the away team, getting action scenes and getting into heated, impassioned arguments with the antagonists. Data is playing an amalgam of his traditional role, as well as Deanna’s old one and bits of Wesley’s (and his own) Deus Ex Machina problem solving.
It’s narrative tricks like this, as well as gentle reminders like Jean-Luc’s “I’ve already lost the crew of the Einstein. I’m not about to lose Deanna as well” in the book’s opening act that keep us aware things aren’t quite entirely in balance right now. And yet paradoxically, it also shows us how capable and mature the whole Enterprise crew is such that they can double up on each other’s roles like that: It’s competency porn, yes, and the best kind. It’s just like those old moments on Raumpatrouille Orion where everyone on the ship had to be intimately acquainted with every single station and everyone looked after everyone else to the death because the only people they could rely on were each other. I wish we could’ve seen a few more moments like this on TV as it would have gone a long way towards giving these characters the humanization they deserved.
(Hell, there’s even an episode coming up that basically portrays the crew, especially Deanna, as buffoonishly incompetent when forced to work outside their specialty.)
This book is for the survivors. Over in the starship construct we’re basically just killing time recapping what we learned last month, so there’s not a lot new to talk about. That is, until the end, when the anti-Federation side of the colony launches an invasion on the pro-Federation side. First of all, it’s a Trekkie’s dream as we get to see cultures we haven’t seen in a long time, like Andorians and Tellarites. But more importantly, it’s another manifestation of the masterful touch this creative team has on science fiction narrative. As the battle for the station rages, Wesley and Ensign Nigata huddle in a corner waiting it out. Nigata is frightened that they’ll die here alone and unremembered and asks if that scares Wesley. Though he hides behind the demeanor of a model Starfleet officer, he confesses that it does. Nigata leans in and kisses him, phasers aflame behind them as they embrace.
Worf meets a fellow Klingon from the other side in combat. “How strange – A Klingon fighting with the enemy!” he says. To which Worf replies “I was just thinking the same thing of you!”