One of the big appeals of the comic line back in the day was that because it was a monthly series that ran year ’round, this meant you could get a regular stream of new Star Trek stories even when the show was on summer hiatus. And I’d be willing to be that in Summer, 1990, in the gap between “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II”, the comic line filled a very desperate demand indeed.
Perhaps that’s the reason why the Summer Event miniseries came about. It’s odd to talk about such a thing at first, considering pretty much every story in this line belongs to some kind of multipart serial: That’s the entire nature of the medium we’re dealing with, after all. During the summer months, however, DC would go all-out with a particularly extensive serial that sometimes lasted well into the fall, oftentimes far more heavily hyped than any of their usual fare. These miniseries tended to have big, imposing-sounding titles and could even be collected in trade paperbacks after the fact, while few of the books that came out during the other seasons were. Even though Star Trek: The Next Generation was a licensed book, whenever summer rolled around it felt as if DC was treating it like a top tier title that not only deserved to stand alongside its TV namesake, but the rest of DC’s stable as well. So while there’s good stuff in the other months to be sure, including some excellent standalone tales, given the gravity they exert over the line we’re going to be talking primarily about the Annuals and the Summer Event miniseries here.
Given that, the serial that ran during the crucial summer of 1990 is a peculiar one. It didn’t have the hype of some of the later miniseries, and doesn’t even have its own unique title (I’ve chosen to call it Whoever Fights Monsters after the final issue in the story because it quite frankly sounds cooler than the titles of any of the other issues). Even so, it’s definitely a milestone for the book because even though it doesn’t upsell itself to the extent some of its successors will, it marks the moment where Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos’ take on Star Trek: The Next Generation finally and definitively arrives in full. They weren’t around for the first volume, of course (well, at least Friedman wasn’t) and while the second volume has had some nice bits here and there, it hasn’t yet quite had its first real knockout story that can be called a bona fide classic from its actual creative team: The big highlight so far in my view, if you’ll recall, is John de Lancie’s “The Gift” that ran in the 1990 Annual.
But even now, this arc is shaping up to be the one that does it for Friedman and Marcos. “The Pay Off!” pulls no punches out of the gate delivering blow after blow: Captain Picard receives an eyes-only from a furious Admiral Rosenstrum (who amusingly looks a bit like a raging Gene Roddenberry), demanding to know if he’s planning on starting a war with the Ferengi. It turns out the Enterprise has been spotted patrolling Ferengi space, in clear violation of treaty. Obviously the Enterprise wasn’t there, but Rosenstrum wants to see Picard at Starbase 104 to sort the matter out. While Picard tries to figure out what’s going on, Doctor Crusher is suddenly struck down by a rare but life-threatening illness called called Rihehnnia. It turns out she’s been a carrier for the disease, which she helped treat on the planet Onnohr on her first Starfleet mission. Unfortunately, being native to that planet, this means the vaccine is only available on Onnorh, so in order to save Beverly’s life Picard openly violates Admiral Rosenstrum’s summons to divert the Enterprise there, knowing his crew is more important than regulations. The situation is further complicated when the Onnohrans reveal they are now under Ferengi jurisdiction and will not part with the vaccine unless they receive compensation deemed fitting by their Ferengi occupiers. It just so happens, of course, what they want is the plans to the Enterprise‘s warp engines.
It’s an engaging plot to be sure, but what really elevates this one to the major leagues is the characterization. Friedman finally has a good handle on his whole cast, and the increased freedom and space of the tie-in comic gives him room to breath and explore them in ways the show’s been skittish about doing lately. Through his internal monologues, Picard is revealed as a very passionate, principled and caring man who would rather sacrifice himself then allow his crew to be cast in a poor light, a theme that will be further developed as the miniseries goes on. This isn’t just generic burden-of-command stuff, though: We really get the sense that these are beliefs and concerns that come out of the captain’s own personal convictions, and the warmth he exhibits towards his crew, especially the Crushers, goes a long way towards showing that humanity that Star Trek fans seemed to think he lacked.
And the rest of the crew is every bit as strong as he is: Even incapacitated, Beverly is as quick-witted and sardonic as ever, and her delivery as she recounts her history with Onnorh and Rihehnnia belies the touch of a master scientist. Wesley is unlikable, but believably so: He snaps at Captain Picard for not understanding what he’s going through because he’s not related to Beverly, even though he cares about her too, and he loses his composure on the bridge and lashes out at the Onnorhan representatives. But this is all the sort of feelings we would expect someone in his position to be going through (Captain Picard even says as much, both to him and to us) and it feels like a realistic extension of the character Wil Wheaton has been increasingly been playing, if not of the one that’s being written for him.
Friedman doesn’t ignore the other cast, either: There’s a great series of exchanges between Picard, Riker and Deanna Troi in the observation lounge and the bridge where they discuss their predicament, and their voices sound both spot-on and far richer, fuller and more lyrical than they do on TV. I especially love how Deanna gets to throw cold water on the two men pompously discussing things like “acceptable losses” and “the needs of the many” by politely reminding them that they’re using “the arithmetic of war” and that there has to be a way to save Doctor Crusher without compromising the security of the Enterprise. She’s right, of course. Even though it’s Wesley (natch) who comes up with the actual plan, it’s Deanna who reminds everyone that there is, as always, another way. Once again, Friedman demonstrates himself as very probably the best writer of Deanna Troi we’ve seen to date.
So of course Beverly gets saved and the Ferengi’s plot is foiled, but we still have the small matter of a very pissed off Admiral Rosenstrum wanting to know why the Enterprise wasn’t where everyone said it was. He can’t be too happy that Picard violated his direct orders to make a detour to Onnorh, either. And no sooner do we get out of that than the Enterprise is ambushed by two Federation starships under the command of one Captain Lavelle…Who’s just accused her and her crew of destroying the USS Nairobi, murdering everyone aboard.